Eight Keys to Conducting Good Interviews

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Among the many skills writers and creatives must master, interviewing might be one of the toughest, especially if you’re an introvert. Most of us aren’t born interviewers; we have to develop those skills over time.

Most of us can learn a thing or two by watching the late Barbara Walters’ interviews, how she maintains focus on her subject at all times as if that person is the only one in the room. She speaks to them as if holding a simple conversation. Really when you think about it, that’s what an interview is – a simple conversation between people. What’s so scary about that?

Of course, the interviewer – you – holds the key to making the interview productive and successful. Success, however, is only as you define it. A successful interview might be snagging that elusive source you’ve been chasing for several weeks. It could be gleaning an important detail you didn’t expect to get, or it could be getting a normally reticent person to open up about themselves.

Interviewing is just one aspect of writing that most novice writers don’t think about. Interviews are often needed for getting background information on a topic for a work of fiction, non-fiction, magazine feature or other written work. For example, if your story takes place in a bank but you’ve never worked in a bank yourself, you might interview one or two people who do to get a sense of what their day is like, their process for handling money or for dealing with customers, or worse, how they would deal with a bank robbery.

Interviews can cover a variety of topics such workplace issues, health and wellness, auto mechanics and baking. In my magazine writing, I’ve interviewed experts about the housing market, how to create webinars, blockchain technology ADA compliance.

Don’t overlook interviews for memoir either. Sometimes you need to find historical information to build context into your memoir or a biography set in another time and place.

From my experience writing for trade association publications, I’ve learned how to be more comfortable about asking people for their perspective on certain topics. People LOVE to talk about themselves, especially the work they do or a hobby or side interest they enjoy. Tap into those topics, and you’re usually home free. Even the most reticent person will open up about what interest them.

To maximize your success, here are my keys to conducting good interviews:

  1. Be prepared. Research the topic to develop a cursory knowledge and can ask semi-intelligent questions. Read published articles about the topic or contact subject matter experts. If possible, research the individual you’re interviewing too. Use LinkedIn to get their background and education. You may even find that you have something in common with them, such as graduating from the same university.

  2. Set a goal for the interview. Think of one or two pieces of information that you need to know that only that person can provide.

  3. Focus on the person you’re interviewing. Don’t use the time to talk about yourself. Be personable without getting too personal. Allow the person to speak without interrupting them with your own story.

  4. Get the basics first, such as the spelling of their name, their company and occupation. Brief them on the interviewing process and what will happen once the interview is complete. Notify them when the article will be published. You might make comments about the weather or their local sports team to help them relax and build rapport.  

  5. Go slow. Start with easier questions. Softer, open-ended questions are more likely to put them at ease. Avoid closed questions with simple yes or no responses which might make them feel like they’re being interrogated.

  6. Be polite and considerate, but don’t fawn over them. Remember they have other obligations and their time might be limited, so don’t waste time. Be sure to thank them at the end for their time.

  7. Conclude the session by asking if they have any final thoughts. I like to ask the question, “Is there anything else readers should know about this topic that I have not asked about?” Most of the time, they may not have anything else to add. More often, they reiterate a point they made earlier. Occasionally, you will get a true nugget of information that adds depth to their commentary.

  8. Follow up. Send a thank you for their time and perspective. Ask for additional questions if needed. Also ask for additional resources they might know of about the topic or other people you can interview. Explain the process moving forward and whether they’ll have a chance to review their sections of it before it gets published. That’s a detail you’ll have to work out with your editor. Depending on the publication and deadline, some editors require source reviews while others may not. 

    Interviews can be fun to do – if you’re prepared and you know what you want to accomplish. Once you’ve done a few, you’ll have one more skill in the writers’ arsenal.

Tips for Finding an Editor for Your Manuscript

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Whether you’re just starting to write a novel or you’re on your fifth revision, at some point you’ll wonder if you need another pair of eyes to review your work. Perhaps you are stuck with a dead-end plot or you’ve been rejected by numerous editors or agents who weren’t impressed with your manuscript.

Maybe you’re on your tenth attempt at rewriting your current work-in-progress, and the story still isn’t quite coming together the way you imagined. Then it may be time call in an editorial expert to review your work. Having someone else review it and give you feedback might give you insights about where the story has gone astray.

According to writer and editor Susan De Freitas during an online workshop “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot,” there are eight telltale signs that it may be time to consult with a professional editor.

  1. Your novel is overwritten. You’ve written way more words that are required for your genre. For example, you’ve written 140,000 words for a story that should only be 80,000. As much as you love your own story, it’s filled with too many unnecessary scenes that don’t push the plot forward.
  2. Too many drafts or versions of the same story. Most novels typically go through an average of five to seven drafts, but you’re working on the tenth and the story still does not seem finished.
  3. You got lost in the world building. You’ve immersed yourself in a whole new world you created for your characters that you forgot about the plot and the characters.
  4. There’s no clear ending to the story. Every time you think of an appropriate ending, you draw a blank.
  5. The first draft is complete, but you’re not sure how to begin revising it.
  6. You didn’t plot out your story in advance so you “pantsed” your way through the first draft.  Now you have to figure out how to structure what you’ve written into a cohesive plot, but you don’t know how or where to start.
  7. You received a lukewarm response from your beta readers or critique partners, but you’re still not sure what’s wrong with the story.
  8. You’ve submitted it to agents and editors who have expressed little interest in publishing your story.

Once you realize that you need an editor, you’re not sure where to find a good editor. It helps to understand the four different types of editing that you might need.

  • Developmental editing (sometimes called story editing) which looks at the overall structure of your story.
  • Line editing looks at how the story is presented, such as language, pacing and how chapters end or begin.
  • Copy editing looks at spelling and grammar as well as the story’s timeline.
  • Critique/assessment reviews the manuscript and provides feedback about the story arc. It’s not as intensive as a full developmental edit, which can cost more money.

To find an editor for your work-in-progress, begin by asking for referrals. If you belong to a writer’s group or take writing classes, ask fellow writers, classmates and teachers for referrals. You can also search member organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association to find someone who specializes in your genre. You can try searching the acknowledgment page in your favorite novels where authors usually thank their editorial team, then do a search for that editor’s background and previous work. Most editors have their own website and will describe at length the services they offer and pricing. If none of these ideas work, there’s always Google.

Before hiring an editor

There are several factors to consider when hiring an editor, said romance editor Jessica Snyder during her online workshop “How to Find Your Perfect Editor.” First, consider how much experience they have in your genre. If you’re writing a science fiction novel, your best bet is to hire someone who has edited other sci-fi novels. Someone who typically edits literary novels probably won’t be the best fit.

Ask for a sample edit. Provide the editor with a chapter and see how they review your work. What kind of suggestions do they offer? Are they positive and provide encouragement? Or are they too negative? Consider their communication style to see if it meshes well with your own.

Also ask about the editor’s process. How do they communicate criticism? What kind of timeline do they work with? Most editors require several weeks to review your novel or they may be backlogged with other projects and may not get to your manuscript right away. Pack your patience.

Cost is also a big consideration for many writers, especially those who want to self-publish. Know your budget ahead of time. Does the editor offer payment plans? How do they handle things like refunds and disputes?

If you’re on a tight budget, Snyder said it might be best to opt for a simple story assessment and copy editing pass by two different editors to keep costs down.

After reviewing the editor’s comments

Take a deep breath before reading through your edited manuscript. Feedback can often bring about strong emotional responses. You don’t want to respond to the editor with snarky comments or knee-jerk reactions. Remember, this is only one person’s assessment of your work.

Editors are guides in your writing process. Their suggestions are meant to help you create a better, stronger story structure and improve your ability to meet readers’ expectations in your chosen genre.

Also remember that editors aren’t perfect. Their edits are only suggestions. You don’t have to accept all of them if you feel strongly about something. But do keep an open mind or be willing to change your mind. Most suggestions editors make do make sense in the overall scheme of the story. If an editing comment is unclear, ask for clarification.

Most of all, remember that not all feedback is correct or appropriate. You know your story best, so use your best judgment about what edits will work with your story. I’ve had instructors and fellow writers offer feedback to my work which didn’t fit the story that I imagined. In those situations, I didn’t follow their suggestions because I didn’t feel they understood my story. But I always politely thanked them for their comments. Always respond to critiques from editors with compassion and kindness. The next time you find yourself stuck with an overwritten novel or one that garnered a lukewarm response from readers, a professional editor can steer you on the right track toward publication.

Get Inspired to Write with These 12 Christmas-Themed Writing Prompts

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I struggled to come up with a suitable post for this week. Everything I came up with either seemed unexciting or not helpful for writers. Worse, I felt distracted by writing assignments, holiday preparations and a pending snowstorm.

Christmas time can inspire all sorts of stories. So it seemed fitting that I share with you one final gift for this holiday season – holiday-themed writing prompts. If you’re stuck writing and need some inspiration, maybe one of these ideas can drag you out of your writing slump.

Without further ado, here are my 12 Christmas-themed writing prompts. Enjoy!

  1. Write a story about a young woman who invites a friend for Christmas dinner at her parents’ house. But there is something distinctly different about her friend (like exceptionally pointy ears, for example).

  2. Write a story about something that happens during a performance of The Nutcracker, whether it happens backstage, onstage with the performers or in the audience. It could be two people having an argument, a mishap on stage, or a costume malfunction.

  3. Write a story about a dysfunctional family traveling together out of town for the holidays.

  4. Write a story about a couple enjoying the sights and sounds of Christmas or out shopping when they unwittingly witness a crime.

  5. Write a story about someone receiving a gift from a loved one that that they either don’t like or don’t want or need. How do they respond to the gift giver?

  6. Write a story about a group of people who participate in some sort of Christmas-themed contest – ugly sweater, scavenger hunt, window decorating, etc.

  7. Write about a character who, amidst running Christmas errands, runs into an old friend, former classmate, or former flame that they have not seen in nearly a decade.

  8. Write a story about a harried store clerk working during the Christmas rush.

  9. Write a story about a good, old-fashioned office Christmas party in which the CEO or a colleague makes an unusual announcement.

  10. Write about a New Years’ Eve celebration when festivities don’t go as planned.

  11. Write a story about a group of strangers that get stranded together somewhere on Christmas Eve due to a snowstorm, a power outage, closed roads, etc.

  12. Write a story about the filming of a Christmas movie – in the middle of the summer.

Merry Christmas and happy writing!

 Is Your Story Idea Worth Publishing?

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Ever have an idea for a story that you thought for sure would become the next Great American Novel only to flame out when you couldn’t write past the third chapter? The truth is, not every story idea that crosses your mind is worth writing about. So how do you know which ones are viable as a novel or short story while others are better left as a stand-alone scene, or worse, dumped in the trash?

In a recent Reedsy webinar, author S. J. Watson spoke about the idea generation process and how writers can determine which ideas are worth developing. .

Watson said the idea generation process can be divided into four segments:
* Finding story ideas and recognizing them when they show up organically
* How to retain those story ideas
* How to determine if an idea has the potential to become a novel
* How to keep the original idea from going off the rails, and what to do if it does.

An idea is “a sense that something is possible,” he said, and they can come from anywhere around you. But he cautions writers to keep them close to the vest.

“Ideas are like hose pipes,” Watson said. “If you overshare an idea too soon with your family and friends, it might poke holes in it.” Once the holes are poked through, the story tends to lose its novelty and impact.

To generate meaningful and relevant story ideas, there are several things writers can do to prime the pump.

  1. Show up at your desk every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Ideas don’t show up automatically. You still have to put in the time and effort before ideas begin to flow.
  2. Observe your surroundings. Look out the window or take a walk. Notice something on the street that you don’t normally see, such as a mobility scooter or a three-legged dog. Then brainstorm different scenarios about what you see. You may surprise yourself by coming up with a viable story idea.
     
  3. Write when you’re half-asleep. The brain isn’t quite awake then and it can amplify the connection between seemingly different ideas. In this half-sleep mode, you’re less likely to censor yourself.

To retain your ideas, keep a notebook. Either carry one in your pocket or purse or use the Notes app on your phone. Any time you notice something in your environment, overhear a conversation, or get sudden inspiration, jot them down. Watson admits he rarely looks at his notes, but the act of writing ideas down helps him to retain those ideas for easy reference later.

Connecting the Dots

Which ideas are worth turning into a full-fledged novel? Watson said ideas begin with the sense that something big could happen, such as winning the lottery or getting into a car accident. They open doors to broader concepts, and they invite random scenes and characters to show up. You may have two seemingly unrelated scene concepts, yet there may be a thread that connects them within a single story.

Also ask yourself several questions about the story’s viability:

  1. Does the story idea stay with you, and do you feel a desperation to work on it? Some ideas come and grab you by the throat, demanding your attention.
  2. Can you visualize the protagonist or antagonist?
  3. Do you see the conflict? Do you know the characters’ goals?
  4. Most important, can the problem in the story be made to feel relatable, such as learning that a family member is terminally ill?

Another possible approach is to take other people’s ideas and remix the elements to make them your own, Watson says. Whatever approach you take, make sure you don’t second guess yourself.

Drifting Story Lines
If the story drifts from the original concept that you envisioned, you may need to make adjustments. If, at the 20,000 word mark, the story seems to be heading in a different direction than what you intended, take a step back and review the work you’ve done so far. If the changes in the story scare you or excite you, then keep going. You may be on the right track even if you don’t have a clear idea where the story is headed.

However, if the new direction of the story isn’t exciting, it may be a sign that the story is too safe. Watson suggests backtracking to the original spine of the story and starting over from there to regain the excitement. “Occasional drifting is okay, especially if it takes you to scary or exciting places,” Watson says. “If you drift too far away from the original intent of the story, it may need to be scrapped. Occasionally returning to the story spine can help you make sure you’re in the right place.”

Story ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Knowing which ones are viable as potential novels, and which ones aren’t can save you a lot of time and needless effort.

You can view the Reedsy webinar here.

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Hello readers: This is a repost from two years ago. In advance of NaNoWriMo, I wanted to share tips for getting through this challenge. The tips are just as helpful today as they were then. Enjoy, and good luck.

Have you always wanted to write a novel but weren’t sure how to get started? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

Fiction writing–one episode at a time


I had never heard of episodic novels until I read a post by Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed recently. Funny thing is, after reading Maass’s article, I realized I had read a few episodic novels. I just didn’t realize they fell under that category. But I did notice how different they were in the way the stories were told.

While traditional novels take a linear approach to storytelling with each scene leading into the next, episodic novels are told as a series of self-contained stories around a central theme, place or character. Think of a TV series in which there is the same cast of characters each week, but each episode centers around a different problem, like Friends, Cheers or Mash. Episodic novels are told in much the same way. Each episode can stand on its own as its own story, but it still propels the overarching plot forward.

Here are a few examples:

* The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien to entertain his children. Each chapter (or episode) could be read to them before bedtime.

* The story of Olive Kittredge is a character study. Each episode of Olive’s life is told from different perspectives, sometimes from a different character who interacts with her. Each story reveals a different side to Kittredge’s character.

* In The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman, the focus is not on a character, but on a thing – a garden that appears to grow from reddish earth beneath it. The story spans several generations featuring the various owners of the garden and their relationship to it.

* Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is another character study of one girl’s unfortunate childhood. The story is never told from her perspective but as accounts from people in her life who interact with her.

Episodic novels can be children’s stories like The Hobbit or Huckleberry Finn. They can be coming-of-age like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or To Kill a Mockingbird. They can be adventure stories, stories of journeys to distant lands, like the Arabian Nights. Or they can be character studies like Olive Kittredge, or an exploration of a time or place, like The Red Garden. Here’s one list of episodic novels but I’m sure you can find other examples.

Note that episodic novels are not the same as a series novel. A series novel consists of several complete books that follow in sequence, such as Harry Potter. Episodes are self-contained scenes within one book,  but they are still integral to the plot. Each episode connects to the episode before and after it.

TCK Publishing describes four key elements of episodic plot:

  • Episodes are distinct but are logically connected.
  • Each episode contains elements of plot (conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, etc.)
  • Episodes contribute to the overall plot of the story without impacting any other episodes
  • The common theme binds the episodes together.

Another common characteristic is that episodic novels tend to be presented in chronological order. So though the episodes might be told by different characters describing the same incident, the story is never out of sequence.

I admit this might seem a bit confusing. After all, episodic novels seem to break all the basic rules of storytelling, and it does not follow a linear structure. Try reading a few of these stories to see how they are different from traditional novels. Think of it as one more way to tell your story.

Then if you feel brave enough, pick up your pen and try writing one. Remember to focus on one specific character, place, or moment in time. Then like a TV screen writer, create individual episodes that can stand on their own while moving the overall story forward to a satisfying conclusion. Writing an episodic novel (or making a valid attempt to do so) may be the most challenging thing you ever do.

Why Writers Need an Editor

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Many writers say getting a novel’s first draft down on the page is the easy part. It’s the rewriting and editing afterward that presents the biggest challenge, especially for beginning writers. Even after rewriting and editing it several, you may feel there’s something lacking in your manuscript. Most editors agree it’s at this point that writers may need to hire a professional editor.

Recently I attended a webinar called “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot” presented by author and book coach Susan DeFreitas. She says the problem with most manuscripts isn’t about what happens (the plot) but about WHY it happens, which is tied to character arc. She explains the role of character arc best on her blog.

DeFreitas outlines the six steps of a character arc, which I have shared below:

  • The protagonist has an internal issue to overcome, a mistaken belief about their world that will be challenged as the story unfolds.
  • Connected to this internal issue is the protagonist’s backstory, which explains how the misbelief originated.
  • There are conflicts and challenges that push the protagonist to view their misbelief in a different light.
  • The protagonist resists making necessary behavioral changes that fit the new belief. They want to go back to the way things were when the story began.
  • Change occurs incrementally to show how the protagonist fights against themselves.
  • The moment of truth occurs around the climax. The protagonist must face a hard truth, discover what’s been missing or didn’t understand.

Character arc is what drives the story and provides the emotional quotient that readers want to experience. But it’s also where most writers struggle with their story. This is when they tend to reach out to professional editors for advice on how to move forward.

According to DeFreitas, writers might need to hire an editor because:

  • The story is overwritten. There are too many words. A well-crafted novel should contain roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Romance novels require less than that while some science fiction or fantasy novels can run more than 100,000. Generally speaking, if your novel is too long, you’ll need to cut word count and scenes. Since you might be reluctant to do the cutting yourself, an editor can help you sort through the extra copy to determine what to keep and what to discard.

  • You have a million drafts. Perhaps after working a story multiple times, it still has not jelled the way you imagined. Or you have so many drafts that the story no longer resembles the one you started out writing.

  • You’ve gotten lost in world building. This is especially true for speculative fiction and sci-fi novels where alternate world is key to the story. You can get so caught up in the details of this other world that you lose sight of the plot and character development.

  • You have no clear idea how to end the story. You may have started off strong with your writing but by the middle of the story, you have no idea how to get to the end. I’ve found it helpful to write the ending before I begin writing the beginning so I know how the story will proceed. An editor can provide tips on how to visualize the ending of your story.

  • You can’t figure out how to revise your manuscript. This is especially true for pantsers who write their story organically with no initial planning. Once the scenes from inside your head are written, you may realize that the story heads off in different directions. You feel stuck on how to fix things. An editor can help you scale back your ideas and formulate a revision plan moving forward.

  • You received lukewarm response from beta readers. The good news is you’ve completed your manuscript. The not-so-good news is that your beta readers gave it a lukewarm reception. They politely offered feedback, which you gladly accepted. But you want more than that from them. You want them to feel enthusiastic for your work. A lukewarm response is a warning sign that something is off about your manuscript.

  • You’re not getting responses from publishers or agents. If you’ve reached this step, congratulations. You’re much further along than most aspiring novelists. Only problem is editors and agents aren’t responding to your novel at all. That should tell you that they either have not gotten around to reading it yet, or that it wasn’t worth their time to respond to you. You want to create excitement for your manuscript, and when a book editor or agent is excited about your novel, they’re more likely to get behind it.

 Editing your own manuscript is never easy. But working with a professional book editor can give you a better understanding of the revision process.

Tips for Pre-Planning Your Novel

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Writing the first draft of a novel is the easy part. Revising it is the hard part. The next hardest, I believe, is pre-planning your story.

Sure, you can begin drafting the story as you see it in your head (as I usually like to do). But most authors have to do some pre-planning to know what they will write about in the first place. Otherwise, you can get through six or seven scenes then draw a blank about where the story will go next.  

Pre-planning is important for several reasons.

  • It helps you know how your story will begin – and end – and the major plot points in between.
  • It helps you understand who you protagonist is, what they most desire and what is getting in the way of getting what they want.
  • It helps you figure out who the other characters are and what their motivations are.
  • It helps you get a clear idea of the back story and setting.
  • It helps you understand how the story will progress, and how the tension will develop.
  • It helps you organize your notes so that you’re not stopping and starting your writing.

There are different approaches to pre-planning depending on the type of writer you are. If you’re a planner, then pre-planning will come naturally to you. The downside is you may get so caught up in the pre-planning, that you delay starting your novel.

If you’re a pantser like me, you prefer to write intuitively, letting the scenes and characters show up organically. However, even among pantsers, pre-planning can help you organize your ideas and give some structure to the story before you begin writing. The good news is the pre-planning process provides a skeleton layout of your story while giving it enough flexibility to allow new characters and scenes to develop.

There is no right or wrong way to plan your novel. It all depends on how much planning you like to do ahead of time. Some plans are more detailed than others. But there are a few common steps.

  1. Know what kind of story you want to write, and who your audience will likely be. Do you want to write a mystery? Women’s fiction? Literary? Or historical fiction?
  2. Write the story’s premise in 1-2 sentences. You might consider playing the game “what if” to come up with different scenarios for your story. For example, what if a rising figure skating star is kidnapped as a revenge against her father and the skater’s coach must work against the clock to find her? Be sure the premise hints at the conflict.
  3. Write a bio of your protagonist. It might help to write it in their voice so you can easily get inside their head. What is their greatest desire? What or who is getting in their way of getting it? Who are their friends and family? Know your protagonist inside and out.
  4. Brainstorm different scenes. Just jot down the ideas for each scene in 2-4 sentences. You’ll flesh them out more fully later.
  5. Create a timeline for your story. Does it take place over several days in a thriller? Or several years as they might in historical fiction. Understanding the timeline ahead of time helps you figure out when each scene will occur in relation to one another. Otherwise you’ll have to address the timing of events in the revision phase. (I highly recommend this step. I wish I had done this with my current work in progress.)
  6. Know your audience. This can be several sentences. Who are your potential readers? What else do they like to read?
  7. Do your research. If you’re writing historical fiction, this is especially important to understand the setting and customs of that time. But even if you’re not writing this genre, some research is needed. Do any of your characters suffer from a rare medical condition? You’ll need to know the symptoms and treatment. What types of poison are least likely to be detected? You’ll need to know the answers before you begin writing.
  8. Begin writing. You can start anywhere in the story. I find it helpful sometimes to write individual scenes that you can see in your imagination. You can always figure out where it will appear in the story later. Another option is to begin at the end. Writing your ending first can help you figure out how to start your novel. If you know your protagonist has to end up at Z, then you know you have to have her begin the story at V, and get through W, X and Y.  

You’ll find numerous resources and articles about planning your novel on the internet. There are numerous approaches, and you may have to experiment with several of them before you find one that works for you.

Good luck and happy writing!

Rewriting a Novel Isn’t Easy. Here’s Why.

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I began writing a novel in earnest last February and finished it by Memorial Day (end of May in the U.S.). It was satisfying to finally type the words “the end.”

But writing the first draft was the easy part. It’s the rewriting that was harder than I expected.

I let the manuscript cool off for several weeks before I decided to tackle the revision. That first week, I stared at the manuscript, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I had no idea how to go about editing and rewriting a project that size. I quickly got bogged down by the process, but I never got discouraged. I was determined to finish this manuscript, if only to prove that I could finish it.  

I reworked some chapters that seemed salvageable and chopped away at a few others. I set it aside again. Now I am making my way through a second revision. But as I gradually proceed, I feel I’m taking one step forward and two steps back again.

That brings me to the main point of my post today. Writing the first draft was easy. Rewriting it was where the hard work began.

Since starting the rewriting process – twice now – I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer. I’m happy to share those lessons with you.

Lesson 1: Rewriting a novel is much harder than writing the first draft.

When writing the first draft, I can let my imagination fly. I may sketch out the first few chapters ahead of time, but I allow the ideas for characters, scenes and dialogue to take over. So what if I write 120,000 words for an 85,000-word story? That’s where the editing and rewriting can make a difference.

But rewriting is hard work. You can become emotionally connected to your work, and to cut so much of it can be excruciating. But it’s also necessary. As I reread the material, some scenes didn’t make sense, others were out of sequence. You may find that some characters lack depth and others aren’t needed at all. It takes time to rethink the plot and make sure it follows proper novel structure. It can take up to five rewrites – sometimes more – before the novel is truly complete.

Lesson 2: Instead of “killing your darlings,” save them for another story.

One of the toughest things to do when editing your own work is cutting material that you’ve created. It’s a painful experience. You can be so proud of the work you’ve done, only to be forced to “kill your darlings,” because they know no longer fit the story. It takes great courage to recognize that a scene or character isn’t working.

But here’s a thought. Rather than “kill off” those offending pieces of prose, send them away for adoption. Keep a file of unused material that you’ve killed off. Those sections may not work for your current novel-in-progress, but perhaps they can be adapted to fit another manuscript later.

Lesson 3: Have a clear vision of the novel’s ending.

When I began my current work, I wasn’t sure how the story would end with my protagonists besides a happily ever after. The conclusion should tie up all the loose ends. I found once I drafted my story’s ending, it was easier to handle the rewriting because I knew where the story was headed. For some writers, it might be helpful to draft the final chapters first before starting the novel’s beginning. You can also revise the ending if needed, but at least you have a direction for your story.

Lesson 4: Find the best place to jump into the story.

While it helps to have a clear vision of the novel’s ending before you begin writing (and rewriting), you might experience the beginning differently. It may come across as vague, unfocused and meandering. Perhaps there’s no conflict facing the protagonist. Or the main character has no personality.

I usually have to write and rewrite multiple versions of the first few chapters to find the right scene to jump into the story. Sometimes you start the story in the wrong place. But it’s important to determine that inciting incident that moves the story forward, or you won’t be able to engage readers’ interest.

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Lesson 5: When the going gets tough, take a break.

There will be times during the revision process when you might feel stuck, unsure what to do with the rewrite. Should that character get cut? How do I go about changing this scene? When stuck like that, I’d often step away for a few days to tackle household chores or do some other writing. When I came back to it, I could usually figure out what to do next. Rewriting can be overwhelming, and sometimes you need to give yourself a break to see the way forward.

Lesson 6: Keep your material organized.

When I began writing my novel, I didn’t realize how much organization was required. Keep copious notes, and don’t lose them. When I started writing, I had notes in different places. I’m still trying to figure out a system that works for me.

Organization is necessary to keep track of multiple versions of a scene or chapter. It’s also helpful when figuring out the proper sequence of events within the story. To make sure each scene is set up in proper sequence, I list each chapter along with a brief summary. Then I review the chapters to make sure they made sense in the order I had them. I can usually tell at a glance if I need to add another scene or rearrange the ones I’ve already written.  

Lesson 7: Be patient with your progress.

I’m not the most patient person in the world. Writing (or more accurately, rewriting) is hard work and it usually takes longer than you think it will. Rewriting is a painstakingly slow process. It comes in fits and starts, and you may never be satisfied with your progress or with the words on the page. Be patient with yourself during the rewrite. A little bit of work every day can help you move closer to your finished manuscript.  

What about you? Are you rewriting a novel? What lessons have you learned from the rewriting process?

Storytelling Lessons from Hallmark Movies

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Say what you will about Hallmark movies. You either love them or hate them. Or somewhere in between.

When I discovered Hallmark movies in 2015, I was going through a difficult period of my life. These movies helped me see that there are happy endings to stories. Certainly I could find a happy ending to my own, right?

Still if you’re aspiring writer of fiction, especially romantic fiction, you might want to watch a few of them. You might learn a few tips and tricks about storytelling.

There is nothing scientific about my observations below. They are strictly subjective based on my life perspective. Be free to agree or disagree with these lessons.

  • Create compelling characters. While Hallmark characters might lead idyllic lives compared to our own, they are flawed and often misguided. While their own troubles aren’t nearly as traumatic as some of the ones you or I might face, they are very real to them. For your own fiction stories, create characters with depth – depth of emotions and motivations.  What is their greatest desire? What obstacles stand in their way of getting it? What false belief or assumption have they been living with that prevents them from finding happiness? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself about your lead characters so you can make them more believable on the page.
  • Create closure for characters. In Hallmark movies, there’s always a happy ending. I like happy endings, especially ones that are wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and bows. I want to see the characters solve their problems in a way that makes sense for them. You may not have a story that ends with a passionate kiss, but it should end with all loose ends tied up.  
  • Find humor in everyday situations. While some of the Hallmark movies border on silliness, the lighthearted spirit of these films appeals to audiences. The best humor comes from everyday —  and sometimes embarrassing – events. Like someone walking out of the bathroom not realizing with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe. That kind of stuff happens in real life, and readers can relate to them.  Even if you’re writing a film noir or a horror story, a little humor can lighten the mood. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer utters a sharp wisecrack just when she’s about to put a stake in a vampire’s heart, it makes for satisfying entertainment. Think about how you use humor in your own stories, but don’t add it just for humor’s sake.
  • Story lines don’t have to be overly complex to be effective. Surely, the plots for Hallmark movies are rather simplistic and not necessarily innovative. But they still work. There’s still an inciting incident (when the two romantic leads meet), a build-up of suspense and a climax when the two romantic leads finally come together.  
  • Avoid predictability. The knock on Hallmark movies has been that they are predictable, often rehashing the same story lines over and over. If you have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, make sure they’re not the same plot rehashed with different characters and settings. Readers expect more than that. Be surprising. Show them a twist that they may not have seen before. Introduce a character with an unusual background or trait. Write something unexpected to keep readers wanting more.
  • The best stories tug at the heart strings. If there’s anything that Hallmark does excel at, it’s creating heart-warming stories. You don’t have to write a romance novel to bring heart into your own story. Any work of fiction should touch the heart of your readers. Start by crating characters that you care about. If you care about them, readers will too. Then add a plot that is real and honest. You’ll have readers following your every word.
  • Create a compelling title. I find most of the Hallmark movie titles either aren’t memorable or they lack connection to the plot. They’re more cute than accurate. When you come up with a  title for your own manuscripts, think of something that adds a meaningful connection to the story and at least hints at what the story is about.

Whether you write romance, mystery, or something else, put a little heart into your stories by including these key elements. Your readers will appreciate you for it.