The Three Categories I See Often

It’s been a busy week here for me – I’ve got a Kickstarter up and running in order to produce a role-playing game that I’m ridiculously proud of (also, writers, it’s got a whole lot of writing and development advice in there, because I wrote it that way); I’ve had some “interesting” (not my word for it) spikes and drops in blood pressure; I’ve been doing a lot of reading of submissions and queries over at Parvus. This has been one of the busier stretches I’ve had in a while, and though I’m grateful for it, it means I also have to prioritize the energy I have to manage the tasks on the list.

In reading all those submissions, I split them into 3 categories.

a. Those I reject immediately because they aren’t what we produce at Parvus, or what’s submitted is inappropriately submitted (follow the submission guidelines, and don’t assume the sole exception will be made for you).

b. Those I reject due to having a query that does not encourage me to open the MS

c. Those I reject after being intrigued by the query letter, but there are enough issues with the MS (the manuscript) to make me dismiss it after reading between 1-3 pages.

Today, I thought I’d show you some of the checklist I use for each category.

The Immediately Rejected

It is always surprising to me when the submissions are missing these fundamental elements that anyone in any publisher would ask for, yet there remains that expectation those red flags are going to be overlooked, or there’s some lack of awareness that so many other submitting authors are counting on the same possibility.

No, it’s not getting overlooked. This is my job. And no, I’m not the guy to make exceptions. I’m the opposite of that guy.

The Ones Where the Query Doesn’t Help Me Get to “Yes”

I want to stress that I not only make some of my living producing books and helping authors get published, but I also genuinely enjoy seeing people succeed. I always worry this marks me as weird, but I spend a lot of time committing a lot of time and energy to helping people get better, ahead of an easier route where I could sit back and gatekeep and throw my publishing dick around. That’s not who I am and not what I do this for. I want people to be their best creative selves, I want them to reach for dreams, and I want to see them realize those dreams because they worked hard to get there.

  • Is the query too long, as in longer than 1 page?
  • Is this query when a synopsis was asked for, or vice versa? (At Parvus, we like queries. We get a lot of submissions and I think the query is a more interesting lure to the MS than a synopsis)
  • Does the query evoke any sort of interesting emotions? Do those emotions partner with plot elements to create a context?
  • Does this query use hyperbole and desperation like a barfly at last call trying to either get one more drink or a last minute hookup?
  • Does this query just sort of ramble for a few paragraphs and fail to tell me anything interesting / in an interesting way or anything that I haven’t seen in dozens of query letters today, let alone this week or month?
  • Does this query do enough provoking to make me want to find out more, and the best/only place to find out more is to get into the MS?
The MSses with Issues (“The Icebergs”)

The MSses with problems not immediately known are often called icebergs, because their greatest problems are under the surface and aren’t seen until you’re trying to bang Leo DiCaprio and the King of Rohan doesn’t move the ship … or something.

And it’s not like every MS is going to have its problems disclaimed in some italicized paragraph on the top of page 1, but the elements of development become pretty visible over the course of a manuscript’s early pages – character; world-building; little bit of plot; how the author wants the reader to visualize things; pacing; word choice. And when they’re lacking, it’s often just as visible.

  • Has there been a definitive introduction to a character I can presume to be a or the protagonist?
  • Has the author demonstrated an ability to shape language and images as their own, meaning that over the course of the MS there will be a voice and tone?
  • After a few pages, do I get a sense of the atmosphere, character starting point, and maybe plot? Does the story feel motile, or does this read like someone is pushing pudding up a hill in a rainstorm?
  • Has the author demonstrated that they can subvert or challenge cliche, rather than embrace it and re-tread the same ground as so many other MSses that will be read and rejected today or this week?
  • Does this read like the author is trying too hard, either to sound smart or hide the nervousness because sentence structure is long, word choice is stiff and things feel stuttering?
  • How’s the dialogue, does it sound like people talking? Like actual people? Even if they’re using phrasing and idioms specific to their time period or story, does it still sound like two beings communicating and not just a stack of syllables laid out in an allegedly interesting fashion?
  • Is there flagrant POV shifting for little to no substantial reason? Or is the POV change necessary to define the author’s efforts?
  • Is it boring? Do I wish I was reading or doing anything else than trying to keep my attention here?
  • Is the formatting conducive to being read? Is the font consistent? Is the spacing and capitalization appropriate and functional?

These are some, not all, of the questions I run through in my head for every query and every manuscript. I think the benefit of seeing them spelled out rather than just hearing me say, “I get an impression…” or “I poke around the manuscript’s pages” is far more helpful to the person reading this who is about to submit somewhere.

Writers, don’t let this discourage you. Let this give you a chance to use more tools. Let this be a chance to improve. Let this be one more thing you read that’s practical and applicable to your work today.

Keep your head up.

Happy creating, we’ll talk soon.

More Character Thinking

It’s Friday, and like the kings and queens that we are, let us celebrate by having meat cakes, or however that saying goes. Anyone got any good weekend plans? Anyone playing skee-ball?

We’ve been talking thinking and how to express what a character thinks. We closed Wednesday with a brief mention about psychic distance, and the idea that the more obvious you make the act of character thinking, the farther away you set your reader against that.

Put another way, when you put a big neon sign on ‘My character is thinking!’, you make the reader aware of the fact that they’re reading, which pulls them out of the imaginative world you’re both cooperating in. And you want to limit how often and how intensely you yank them from the act of picturing and sharing your world.

A little of this is inescapable. There’s no way to completely eliminate the awareness that a book is being read or an audiobook is being heard, nor can you limit the infringement from the outside world, that phone is going to ring, or they’re going to yawn or something. But small intrusions aside, people will stay in the world as often and as long as you encourage them to do so, like when we have a warm bath or we get into the ocean when we’re five and the water seems to go on forever.

But there’s a great number of manuscripts I’ve read where the jump-cut from thought to action, regardless of first- or third-person, is so jarring that I lose track of what’s going on, even if the idea being thought is critical to whatever moment it’s happening in.

Like I mentioned on Wednesday, there are three ways to demonstrate thinking: With thought tags and italics; with italics but no thought tags; with no tags or italics. Let’s look at each.

With tags and italics
Here is the broadest and most obvious method for indicating thought. You’ve got a thought tag, which is a verb that informs the reader that the idea around/near it is a thought, and you’ve got the visual cue of italics to indicate that you have to make a distinction between this idea and the same idea being spoken, as well as the different consequences thereof. (If you don’t know what I mean, it’s the difference between walking up to someone and calling them a jerk versus just thinking they’re a jerk)

There’s a place for this in a manuscript. Depending on how you want to spike the separation between thought and speech, depending on how you want to express a character’s line of thinking, tags and italics can serve you well.

When taken too far though, you shift into a hard “tell” where the character’s thought(s) shortcut the plot development and eliminate the reader’s opportunity to figure out what’s going on and then enjoy it. This happens, for instance, when the cop trying to solve the murder thinks about all the clues in order, all as thoughts, and then concludes the thought train with Doug being the killer because he was the only one who mentioned liking yams during sex.

Because this expression of thought is so obvious, it can very easily wind up as a whole mess of tell in the show-vs-tell scale. Does that mean never do this? Does that mean tags and italics makes you a poor writer? No. It just means you need to deploy this skillfully.

Italics but no tags
Now we get a bit more nuanced. Without the tags to cement that the action being taken is a thought, you’re relying on the visual difference between italics and non-italics to prompt the reader to make the internal/external switch.

Sounds easy, right? That’s what makes this ripe for abuse. Authors often think they’re being “better” (better than other authors) because they’re not using tags. And that’s horsefeathers. First, there’s no ranking based on using thought tags. Second, there’s a time and place to use tags, just like there’s a time and place to not use them.

Don’t use the tag when you need the thought itself needs to be clearly seen on its own (I don’t mean on its own like its own line in the MS, I mean making it distinct from the rest of the text) as part of context in the scene. When there’s a line of text called out by typographic difference (italics), you’re suggesting it to be special from the other lines nearby.

This is doubly so in the context of the moment within the fiction. Doug and his sex-yams might be so intriguing to Kim that she has a thought about it while she’s grooving to some polka in the conservatory after dinner. That thought, because it’s part of what helps build the Doug/Kim arc, needs more weight for the benefit of the reader and story than just exposition (since that’s not giving Kim a chance to have her own thought).

Abuse creeps in when so much of the text ends up italicized. The words of the thought get italicized. If the character isn’t thinking about another character or action, and is instead thinking of a whole scene or fantasy (like Kim about Doug), that IS NOT italicized, because it would lead to multiple paragraphs. Yes I know, those are what Kim is thinking, but imagination isn’t thinking. Break out of the fantasy back to exposition.

No tags or italics
Let’s swing the pendulum a little bit and go back to that author who thinks they’re being smart(er) by not having any italics or tags. Maybe they think that’s edgier than my neighbor’s manicured lawn.

Except it’s not edgy. In first-person this isn’t so bad, because the line between narration and thought is already translucent. But in third-person, it’s a demand posed as a request for the reader to follow along closely, and that’s something earned by having the text not … well, not suck.

The problem with trying this in third-person is that if your thought uses “I” or “we” or “my” (or a variation thereof), you’re suddenly jumping from the top-down view of third-person and individuating into the head of a character. Even if you double super pinky-swear promise that you’ll jump right back out when you’re done, it’s still a POV-shift, which gets the editorial red flags flying.

Working in the past tense makes this easier, but still, it’s a careful deployment designed to collapse psychic distance and drive us to the present minute (like when Kim picks up yams and walks to Doug’s hotel room)

To sum up, there’s a time and place for all three of these techniques. Use them throughout an MS to distinguish and develop the story you want to express.

See you guys next week. Have an awesome weekend. Happy writing.

 

InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

Facebook
For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter
Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

Snapchat
This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

Instagram
There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Periscope
Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Anchor
Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest
Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

Blogging
I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.

*

So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

86 Things I’ve Said On Twitter, Part 1

If you’ve been following me on Twitter over the last two days, I’ve just been bombarding social media with punchy little lists of writing tips and advice. I hope I didn’t upset or offend anyone in blasting a stream of thoughts, it wasn’t my intention.

In part this is because I have a Workshop (I’ve recently found the phrase “creativity workshop” which is pretty great) coming up Tuesday night (details here) and in part because these thoughts constantly rocket through my brain and I usually just bite my tongue because some other editor or a respected writer says these things at a much slower pace. And frankly, it’s felt pretty good to just throw all these things out there, and see how they help people.

So, rather than just drop all 86 without explanation, I’m breaking them into chunks. Here are the first six.


1. Don’t think about writing in terms of “getting published”, think about it in terms of “I want readers to read stuff”. Aim for audience. 

It’s really tempting, and a lot of books reinforce this idea that publishing is some be-all, end-all that once you get published, it’s all sunshine and roses and puppies. But, talk to published authors, and a lot of them are working harder now than before they were first published — almost as if publishing isn’t the end of the marathon, but the start of a new one. To that end, I caution you not to go so far down the “must get published to be legit” road, and think instead of what publishing translates to, which means readers get their hands on your creations. The goal is to get readers (as that assumes they’ve spent money to purchase your things, right?). Think of all the books that sit unread on a shelf. Sure, they’re published, but are they being read?

2. How long should a book be? Long enough to show me a plot arc, some interesting character growth and some insight about you as a writer.

One of my favorite amusing things to Google, aside from “the A-Team theme song”, is “how long should a book be” because the answers are so varied, yet so certain of themselves. Novels have this many words. Novellas have that many words. Oh you have some other number that’s just a hair over? Well then you fall into this third category.

See, these categories are imposed on authors by publishers for a lot reasons (read: costs to print, edit and produce) and aren’t really indicators of quality or requirement. A novella is a short novel, but a short novel is also a short novel. A book of poems might just be ten words, but a children’s book might also be ten words. The labels and connotations of those labels don’t always translate well to the people writing whatever they’re writing – because if you get it into your head that you have only a certain number of words to say what you have to say, then you’re going to panic as that number approaches.

Take a different tack. Let the story be however long it’s going to be, so that over the course of the story, the reader can see the plot get introduced, developed and solved as well as the character(s) involved get some expansion and maturation as well. How you do this, however you choose to accomplish those goals will share some insights about who and what you are as a writer. (Because you’ll favor certain terms, build sentences in a certain way, shy away from some details while promoting others, etc)

3. If you’re writing for young adults, the keyword is “adults” – treat them smartly, accept them. Don’t lecture or talk down to them.

I have a lot of cousins. And while they’re older now, for many years family gatherings were packed with children, running around, making noise and generally being children. Universally though, across age ranges and gender, every single one of them would roll their eyes, sigh and take a tone with an adult who got it in their head that as an adult there was a great deal more superiority than there actually was.

As an author, you’re the adult. But, don’t be THAT adult. You’re not doing these kids a favor by coming down from on high to grant them a little morsel of word-ambrosia. You’re SHARING a story with them, you’re SHARING this experience of “I made a thing, I hope you enjoy it”.

Children aren’t miniature adults, you can’t expect them to express the full depth of maturity and understanding that adult readers do – but not because they lack the understanding, merely because they lack the experience. Let your book be something that gives them an experience they can take forward.

4. Not every kiss is fiery. Not every embrace is passionate. Not everything a character does is at 100% efficiency. Let them be wrong

I’ve talked about this here and elsewhere – that a character who never fails and always super-succeeds is kind of a let-down. It’s the risk in a character’s actions, the chance that they’ll fail, that makes us care about the character.

And while that talks about big potentially bad things that the character faces, we can also apply it to the not-dangerous behaviors as well. What’s interesting about a character who always kisses the best kisses on the planet? Or who always makes the best omelets? Hyperbole aside, if everything is special, nothing is special. Also, the more perfect the character becomes, the less connection to them we (the imperfect audience) feel. Because our kisses aren’t always earth-shattering. Because we burn breakfast. Because we get really nervous talking to one another. It’s our mistakes AND our successes that define us, so why isn’t that true for characters?

5. If you’re setting the story in a kingdom and we’re not learning about politics or social class, why do we need to know it’s a kingdom?

This is about focusing and distributing details. As readers we assume that what you’re giving us is important, because you’re, well, giving it to us. Telling us about something, tossing some adjectives about down on paper draws our focus to it. And if you spend even more than an adjective on it, we conclude that it has to be even more important than that, so when you talk about it and then move on without ever coming back, we feel deprived and a little misled. (I’m looking at you numerous unfinished plots in TV dramas)

If the scale (how big the set pieces within the story are) doesn’t include or involve the big landscape details you’re giving them, why are you giving them? (Hang on a second, we’ll talk more about this)

6. When figuring out which details to keep and which to cut, ask “Does this detail show me a new thing or explain an old thing?” Stay new.

Just like we talked about above, it’s important to know WHY you’re giving detail X at the moment you are. If I’m describing…the room I’m writing this in, I may talk about the way to the desk is worn and aged. I may talk about the view out the window to my left. I may talk about the mess of papers to my right. Those details help you paint the mental picture about what the desk looks like and tells you a little about how I keep my office space. But…do you need to know the color of my shirt? Sure, you can find out about it later (purple t-shirt), but how does knowing the shirt’s color tell you more about the desk or the office? It’s a stretch to say “oh he’s wearing a t-shirt, that explains a lot about how organized he is” — that’s you imposing your conception of how an office should run onto my story. And that’s not fair to you or to the story.

When it comes time to edit and trim, one of the things I look for is why details are in the places they’re in. That question above asks “what’s the purpose of this detail?” which is key for knowing what has to stay in a draft and what has to come out. Likewise it helps pare down the number of different ways I express the same detail. How many various ways can I call my desk “full” or “active”? Breaking out the thesaurus doesn’t further the story, it just moves things laterally, heaping similar repeated statements atop one another in a slowly stalling strata of story.

Part 2 (the next ten) will be out on Monday. Have a great weekend. Hope to see you on Tuesday night.