Category Archives: Top Tips for Writers

Editor’s Tips: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Character Development

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pitfallIt’s no secret that strong characters are a key to bestselling fiction. Trouble is, there’s so much that can go wrong on the way to crafting that unforgettable protagonist. Over the years, as an editor and a slush pile reader I’ve seen the same pitfalls crop up again and again. Here are three of the most common ones to watch for in your writing.

1) The “floating character.” This is what I call a character who does plenty of things, but lacks personality or depth to give context to those actions; he or she floats through the story but are not grounded or connected in the way real people are. Even the most dynamic plot can fall flat without a clear sense of the protagonist’s back story, motives and emotional landscape; readers will spend time trying to piece together who the character is, instead of paying attention to the plot flow. In your opening chapters and as you move the story forward, be aware of questions your readers will be asking: What is the character’s family background (parents, siblings, children; does s/he come from a rowdy clan or is s/he alone in the world)? Any romantic history or current interests? Things that happened in childhood that affected who the character became as an adult? Greatest fears/hopes/challenges/triumphs? Likes and dislikes (interesting hobbies, unusual pet peeves)?

This applies not only to the protagonist, but also to the villain/antagonist, side kick, and other relevant characters. Once you have fleshed out your main character, be sure to spend time on your supporting cast to avoid a feeling of lopsidedness.

 

2) The question of likability. One of the top reasons agents or other readers stop reading a novel is that they “just couldn’t connect with the main character.” Does that mean a protagonist must always be charming and likeable? Not necessarily. In fact, characters that seems too perfect will come off flat and unrealistic. At the very least, they need a few flaws to make them come alive. Think of your closest friends in real life: would they be the same people without those (sometimes annoying) little quirks that make you love them all the more?

Even unlikable characters can work, as long as they’re compelling. These are the ones we love to hate; we’d stop reading right now, if only they weren’t so darn fascinating! An example is Benedict Cumberbach’s portrayal of scientist/mathematician Alan Turing in the recent box office hit The Imitation Game. Despite his arrogant and often unapproachable demeanor, Turing is a compelling character because we know something his peers do not—that he really is the genius he claims to be, and that he will succeed in spite of the challenges and detractors he faces. The other thing that saves this character is that we see glimpses of his difficult childhood and the social challenges he has faced throughout his life; it’s enough to make him sympathetic in spite of his glaring flaws. I won’t add any spoilers, but ultimately Cumberbatch builds this character into a figure that haunts you long after the film ends.

 

3) Voices that trigger reader pet peeves. Finally, there are a couple of voice issues that I saw frequently in the slush pile and that almost always led to a rejection letter. One is the excessively whiny or angsty first-person voice. It’s okay for your protagonist to complain now and then about the lousy hand fate has dealt him, or for your teen character to be a little antisocial thanks to pressure at home and school. Just be careful not to take it too far; readers don’t enjoy being hit with a wall of negativity in fiction, any more than in real life, and they also don’t want to feel like a stand-in for the character’s therapist. As mentioned in #2, if you are deliberately creating a protagonist that is difficult or prickly, make sure you show a glimpse of how she came to be this way, so that readers can sympathize. Then still go ahead and turn down the angst a notch. : )

Another major turn-off is “the rambler.” It’s a voice that constantly veers into musing, ruminating or philosophizing, at the expense of plot movement. If a story spends most of its time trapped in the protagonist’s head, you’ll lose readers fast. Keep characters’ thoughts and observations relevant and balance them with plenty of outside action.

 

By avoiding these three potential problems, you’ll be on your way to creating the kinds of characters readers want to spend an entire novel or series with—and that’s a giant leap forward for your novel.

 

Four Red Flags to Avoid in the Opening Pages of Your Novel

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Warning light. copyIf you’re like me, this busy time of year can cause a dip in your creative energy. So, how best to use your time as a writer? ‘Tis the season for revisions! Whether you are just wrapping up NaNoWriMo or heading into your thirteenth draft, December is a great time to put on your editor’s hat. Most agents take a break from reading submissions over the holidays, so this will help ensure you have your novel polished and ready to go when they reopen in January.

Since your opening chapters are often what make or break your submission (or hook a reader if you indie publish), it’s worth focusing some extra attention on them. Based on my six years in the writing industry, I’ve compiled a bank of potential pitfalls for the beginning of a novel. Here, I’ll boil it down to four of the most common.

Four Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Opening Pages:

(1) Backstory overload. Also known as the “data dump,” this is one of the most common problems seen in first drafts by both new and seasoned writers. It consists of several paragraphs or pages at the beginning of a story with no purpose except to “clue the reader in” about the main character’s history or past events. It often happens when a writer confuses what she needs to know (in order to write the character and story), versus what the reader needs to know at this moment (which is usually much less). Fixing it means trimming material, or finding ways to weave in the essentials gradually, as the plot moves forward.

(2) Lack of physical grounding in the setting and the main character. Have you ever read a fellow writer’s first draft where your prevailing emotion was confusion? It was probably due to this problem. It occurs when there is not enough “grounding” information to help the reader picture the characters clearly and situate them in time and place. (How does the character see herself? How old is she? Is the scene happening in the kitchen or on the balcony?) The result is that the story feels disembodied, causing the reader’s attention to stray from the action as he tries to tackle those unanswered questions. [Notice I didn’t ask What does the character look like? Some authors give detailed physical descriptions, while others prefer to let readers fill in the blanks. The important thing is to give readers something–is she a teenager or a twenty-something; does she have physical attributes she is self-conscious of, etc.).

(3) Too much musing, ruminating, or psychoanalyzing by the main character/narrator. This is also known as introspection or inner monologue. A healthy dose is necessary for character development, but too much can spell doom for your opening pages. If nothing happens because your protagonist is too busy thinking and philosophizing, the tension fizzles and you quickly lose readers.

(4) No sign of the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the spark that sets in motion your plot arc. Without it, you end up with a story that never gets off the ground. It also plays a key role in your pacing and tension; a good inciting incident sets the tempo that those two elements must maintain. A common problem in early drafts is that the inciting incident shows up much too late. If it is not present within the first 25-30 pages (ideally, even sooner), you’ll have a very hard time getting your audience to read further. Often, this happens because a story starts in the wrong place due to backstory overload or improper sequencing.

As you get ready for your next revision, keep an eye out for these potential culprits. Better yet, have your writing partner or critique group do a diagnostic for you. Happy revising!

Pitch Perfect: How to Make the Most of Face Time with an Agent

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Pitch Session

One of my favorite things about fall is that I always have several writers conferences to attend. (Next up: Castle Rock Writers in Parker, CO, November 6-7.) In that spirit, I’m due for a post about the most fear-inducing activity writers face…worse even than writing a query letter…you know what I’m talking about: PITCHING.

In my literary agency days, I was often asked to take pitches, and for me, that face-to-face interaction was so refreshing after the relative anonymity of the slush pile. But I also knew how hard it was for the person on the other side of the table: ten minutes to make someone else believe in your dream is a lot of pressure. So, is it easier to get a manuscript request in person? Absolutely. Agents are more likely to take a chance on a project after direct contact with the writer. So take a deep breath and go for it—every time you get a chance.

Now, as an indie editor, my role has shifted to one I enjoy just as much: coaching writers on how to make the most of their time in front of an agent. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced pitcher, here are some tips to help you avoid the jitters at your next appointment:

Relax and be comfortable. Agents hate making people nervous (really!). Remind yourself that they are regular people, and they’re just as eager to find their next client as you are to be that client! They might be nervous, too.

Do your homework. Research the agents you are pitching so you can show you know something about them. Agents like to know you are interested in their agency in particular (not just any agency).

Along those same lines, be prepared for the agent to close the pitch session with this: “What questions do you have for me?” It’s a great chance to show your professionalism and satisfy your curiosity about the agent or the publishing business.

• Get ready to elaborate. Agents will usually ask for more information once you have delivered your initial spiel, so try to anticipate some of them in order to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights look. Here are some that I often asked writers during a pitch session:

Is this your first book? Are you working on anything else?

Where do you see your novel fitting in the market? Who is your target audience?

Does your book have series/sequel potential?

Where did the idea for this book come from/what made you just have to write this book?

What do you love most about your story? About your main character(s)?

What does your writing process look like? What do you enjoy most about writing?

• If you have extra time after your pitch, use it! For example, mention you have another novel completed and you’d love the agent’s take on which might be more marketable. Just give a very quick nutshell version—some agents might get annoyed if you’re clearly trying to pitch two novels at once.

What if the agent turns you down? This is the worse-case scenario, but it can happen. If an agent knows your book isn’t her cup of tea, she’s actually doing you a favor by being up front. Don’t be discouraged. Use any remaining time to ask for advice about improving your pitch—so that when you do get in front of the right agent, it will be right on target.

BEST OF LUCK!