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Writing Rules Do Not Exist

Yes, you read that right. Writing rules do not exist.

You might be wondering how I can say that as an editor, especially when my website is full of writing tips and advice, but it’s true. Writing rules are not real.

That is not to say that you can write your novel any way you like and are guaranteed publication. Of course that isn’t true. Continue reading

Top Ten Reasons Why Your Novel is Getting Rejected

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Why is your novel getting rejected? You’ve sent it off to dozens of agents and publishers and none of them have bit. What’s the deal?

I’m going to ignore some of the obvious problems (a terrible query letter, targeting the wrong agents, etc.) and focus solely on the manuscript itself and the problems that can cause it to go sailing into a publisher’s garbage bin or an agent’s trash folder.

The Top Ten Reasons Your Novel is Getting Rejected

(in no particular order)

1. Your Point of View is a Mess

Point of view is a big deal – if you do it wrong, it’s a pain to fix and can be extremely time consuming in the editing process, which makes errors in point of view a surefire way to land your novel in the rejection pile.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re probably doing things right, but if you’re writing in third person, take some time to make sure you’re not blending omniscient and third limited and that you know the difference between omniscient POV and head hopping.

2. Your Voice is Unoriginal

When reading your novel, people should feel like you are the only person who could have delivered this story in exactly this way. You do not want a voice that sounds like it came from a box. You also don’t want a voice that sounds like you stole it from a famous author.

The only way to develop an original voice is to write, write, write, and write some more. Play around, experiment, don’t be afraid to try new things. Everything you write doesn’t have to be publishable, so take some time to learn your craft.

3. Your Novel is Style over Substance

This is sort of the opposite of the above issue. Some amateur writers are full of voice. Their writing screams, “Look at me, look at how cool I am, how hip I am, how awesome my word choices are!” This could be poetic and downright beautiful or edgy and in your face. But while the voice might be down pat, there’s no story going on around it. It’s like listening to the ramblings of an eccentric – it’s entertaining for a few minutes, but without a strong plot and conflict, it gets real old real quick.

If this sounds like you, check out my video on how to plot a novel for tips on keeping the plot moving.

4. Your Characters are Too Perfect

Nobody likes a character who always does everything right. Characters are interesting when they have flaws and feel like real people. A self-sacrificing character who just wants the best for everyone is boring, boring, boring! Give your characters some nasty traits, annoying mannerisms, controversial opinions, then make us love them anyway!

To learn more, check out my videos on writing great characters: Eight Steps for Creating Interesting and Complex Characters & How to Write Believable Characters.

5. Your Novel Doesn’t Have Enough Conflict

Conflict is created by a simple equation: a character who wants something + something that stands in their way = conflict. This means that a novel is much more than a series of events. Everything that happens in the novel must have conflict (internal or external) that the character has to overcome.

Conflict is what makes a novel interesting and it takes both pieces of the equation to make it work. If something stands in the way of something a character doesn’t want, who cares? If the character wants something but nothing stands in their way, so what? Make sure that every chapter in your novel contains both pieces of the conflict equation.

6. Your Opening Chapter is Boring, Confusing, or Annoyingly Vague

Opening with back story, telling, and info dumps is a huge no-no! The opening chapter should suck the reader in and get them excited about the story to come, but a confusing first chapter is just as bad as a boring one. If agents or publishers are scratching their heads wondering what’s going on, they’re going to throw the book into the rejection pile. Ditto for a book that is annoyingly vague. Mystery is a good thing, but false mystery by concealing elements of the plot or information about the characters for no reason other than to create mystery is annoyingly coy.

Read through some of my first page edits and critiques to see these problems (and their solutions) in action. You might also want to check out my videos: First Chapter Mistakes & Cliches, How to Write the Set Up of Your Novel, & How to Write a Great First Chapter.

7. You Tell Too Much and Show Too Little

A novel that relies on telling is boring to read and fails to suck the reader into the story. If you’ve got a lot of complexity to your story (common in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction), it can be tough to get across all the information needed while keeping things active, so some telling is required. But telling everything from emotions to special abilities to the relationships between characters is boring and off putting.

Take some time to learn the difference between showing and telling as well as how to dump info without info dumping. It will make an amazing difference in the quality of your writing.

8. Your Protagonist Has Nothing at Stake

Just because your protagonist is the only one who can save the world, that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t need something personal at stake. The protagonist must have something invested in the success or failure of whatever the novel’s main endeavor is (saving the world, defeating enemies, exercising a haunted house). If the protagonist can walk away from the conflict without losing anything, readers will spend the whole novel wondering why they don’t do it.

Have you ever watched a haunted house movie and screamed at the TV, “Why don’t you just move out of the house!”? That’s the experience you avoid by giving your protagonist something personal at stake (a kidnapped loved one, the risk of financial ruin, etc.).

9. Your Characters’ Motivations are Unclear, Don’t Make Sense, or Don’t Exist

Character motivation is vital to a captivating story. Readers can’t root for a character who has no motivation for what they’re doing or whose motivation changes throughout the novel just because it makes for a more interesting plot. A big part of what keeps people reading is the payoff when the character finally reaches their goal, but no motivation equals no payoff.

Ask yourself what your character’s motivation is. If you answer “doing the right thing,” that’s not good enough. Characters must be motivated by something personally relevant (selfish even!) in order to connect with readers.

10. Your Story is Unoriginal

No plot is entirely original, that’s true. Trying to be entirely original isn’t even necessary, but what is necessary is the ability to answer the question: What’s unique about your novel? If you’re writing a YA romance, what makes it different from every other YA romance on the market? Why should this one matter to readers? Why should publishers want to pay to publish it?

If you can’t answer this question, then start thinking about ways to increase the uniqueness of your book. Ask yourself: What would be a unique element I could add to this story? There’s no need to go overboard and create something outrageous. Just one or two elements that make your book stand out from the pack are enough.

 

Still not sure why you’re getting rejected or want help solving some of these problems? Check out my editing and mentoring services. I’d be happy to work with you.

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The Top 5 Mistakes Amateur Writers Make

What are the biggest mistakes amateur writers make? Here’s a summary of the video as well as some additional resources:

1. Not Understanding Point of View

Point of view issues can take a long time to fix, which means that agents and editors will likely be scared off by issues in the POV. Here are some articles that can help:

Developing a Solid Third Person Point of View (Omniscient & Third Limited)

What is the Difference Between Omniscient Point of View & Head Hopping?

2. Too Much Voice

Are you trying to imitate a famous writer’s style? Are you trying too hard to sound writerly or poetic? Are you using too many analogies? You could have too much voice in your writing. Sometimes less is more. It shouldn’t be laborious to read your work, and your writing shouldn’t be difficult to understand.

3. Not Enough Voice

This is when the writing seems bland and unoriginal. Make sure that you’re writing in your own voice, not trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what a writer is supposed to sound like. Also, keep your character’s voice in mind as you write (if writing third limited or omniscient). Sticking close to your character can help your voice sound interesting and unique.

4. Too much Telling (Not Enough Showing)

Everybody knows you’re supposed to show instead of tell. Telling can really hold your novel back from shining. Here are some articles that will help:

How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing

How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping

5. Not Enough Conflict

Sometimes writers forget that conflict is what makes a story interesting. Without conflict, the reader has nothing to latch onto or find interesting. Though this video focuses on plotting, it’s with an eye towards conflict and connecting scenes so that the story has a continuous (and captivating) flow:

How to Plot a Novel

Need more help with your novel? Check out my editing and mentoring services.

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How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing

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Most writers know that they’re supposed to show instead of tell, but what exactly does that mean? In a nutshell, it means that rather than directly “telling” something to a reader, you provide a context for the reader to infer the information. The same thing gets conveyed except it’s through some sort of action, making it more interesting and engaging for the reader.

Showing vs. Telling Emotions

Here’s an example of a short scene that relies heavily on telling to convey emotions:

What’s that?” Jake asked curiously.

Nothing,” Kate said, acting suspicious.

It has to be something!” Jake was getting frustrated.

Here is the same scene with showing:

What’s that?” Jake asked, leaning sideways to peek behind her back.

Kate twisted her body, hiding the package behind it, and took a step back. “Nothing,” she said.

It has to be something!” He stomped his foot and crossed his arms across his chest.

Notice how the second scene uses descriptions to bring across the characters’ emotions. The blatant emotion words (curiously, suspicious, frustrated) are not needed, because the action “shows” the audience how the characters are feeling without having to “tell” them.

Showing vs. Telling Concepts

This is an issue that’s common in fantasy and science fiction novels. Writers can have a tendency to “tell” how magical abilities work, what the dystopian government is like, how classes are divided, etc. It’s not always bad to tell these things if there’s no way to show them (Read How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping for more on how to do this effectively), but often telling these things comes across as lazy. For example:

Peter could create balls of energies in his hands. All he had to do was think about what he wanted to attack while moving his hands in a circle and the energy would appear as a glowing and pulsing orb. When it hit his victims, they would fall to their knees in agony.

The above paragraph is all telling. That same concept could be explained to the reader while Peter is putting his ability into use. This allows the reader to ascertain the information while being “shown” an interesting scene. For example:

Peter steadied himself, staring at his enemy. He moved his hands in a circular motion, faster and faster, and an orb of light grew brighter between his palms. It pulsed, like a heartbeat, and shone as bright as the sun. He shoved the ball forward and it rocketed towards his enemy and smashed into his chest. The man collapsed, his knees buckling, and he crumpled into a ball on the ground.

This second example conveys the same information by showing instead of telling. This makes it much more interesting and engaging for the reader.

Still have questions about showing vs. telling? Please put them in the comments or shoot me an email (ellenbrock@keytopservices.com).

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Pros and Cons of Writing Your Novel in Past Vs. Present Tense

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Should you write your novel in past or present tense? If you don’t have a default, “go to” tense that you write in, this is one of the first decisions a writer has to make when starting a new novel. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both tenses, but how do you choose? In this post, I explain the pros and cons of the two tenses and why you might choose one over the other.

Quick shout out to Writeditor reader Aimee for this awesome blog post idea!

Past Tense Pro: Tradition/Consider Your Reader

While MG and YA readers may embrace the present tense without distress, adult readers may not do the same. Though I don’t have any official statistics to share, my experience in person and across the web has been that most adults prefer the past tense and many are reluctant to (or flat out won’t) read present tense. So if there’s no good reason to use present tense, sticking to the past may be best.

Caveat: Many adult readers admit that well written present tense is not only enjoyable, but that they don’t even notice the fact that the novel is in the present tense. So if you’re a masterful present tense writer, go for it!

Present Tense Pro: Immediacy

Immediacy and a sense of closeness to the character are usually the two biggest advantages of using the present tense for a novel. When things are happening in the moment, it’s a lot easier to get the reader on the edge of their seat.

Caveat: If your novel does not contain much action, the immediacy of present tense is likely to become tiresome to the reader. The more action, plot twists and turns, and inherently exciting scenes, the more likely present tense will be an advantage.

Past Tense Pro: Moving Around in Time

In the past tense, you can tell your story in any order you want to. You can jump back and forth in time without using flashbacks. You can even start at the end and work backwards if you want to. This can lend a very strategic and artistic form to your story. Skipping time in past tense within a scene or chapter also tends to feel more natural and fluid than in present tense.

Present Tense Pro: A Focus on Voice

If you have a fantastic narrative voice, present tense can really give you the chance to show it off! Combining present tense with a first person point of view can give readers an exciting peek into your character’s psyche through their word choices, emotions, and thought process.

Caveat: This could just as easily be listed as a con. If you do not have an absolutely stellar narrative voice, the present tense can be very dry and tedious. In present tense, voice is more important in keeping the story interesting than it is in past tense.

Past Tense Pro: Less Mistakes

I wrote about this a long time ago, but it’s a vitally important factor to me (as an editor): past tense novels have less mistakes. Whenever a present tense novel lands on my desk, I settle in with my (virtual) red pen, knowing that I’ll be hacking and slashing away at tense errors on nearly every page. Present tense does not seem to come naturally to most writers, which leads them to flip-flop between past and present tense. Other errors are common too, such as flashbacks in present tense (They should be in the past tense since they’re in the past.).

Present Tense Con: Everyday Details

I tried to stay positive by focusing on the pros, but this one makes more sense as a con.

A common disadvantage of using the present tense is getting caught up in the everyday details of the character’s lives. Much more so than past tense, present tense novels tend to waste time explaining what characters are eating, how they made their food, the order of operations of their shower, how they choose their clothes, the process of commuting from one place to another, etc.  If you write in present tense, make sure you stick to relevant, interesting information only!

So Which Should You Choose?

Despite the many possible pitfalls and shortcomings of the present tense, when done well, I really enjoy it!  But in my opinion and experience, past tense is generally a better choice.  That said, if you have a fantastic and unique voice that you really want to show off, some interesting action that is better told with an “in the moment” feel, and a plot that does not need to move around in time, present tense can be interesting and exciting.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t write in present tense just for the heck of it. It’s a narrative device, not an arbitrary decision. If you’re on the fence (especially if you’re writing for adults), I would go with past tense.

Also, please note that it is a myth that present tense makes your novel stand out. Check out these stats from the recent Pitch Wars contest. It gives you a pretty good indication of the kind of novels that are being shopped around right now. Take note of how many are in the present tense – it’s a lot!

What do you think about past vs. present tense?

If you have any more questions about tense or any ideas for blog topics, just leave a comment!

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Need a freelance novel editor or mentor? Please get in touch!

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Setting Writing Goals for the New Year

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It’s almost 2014! It’s time to ring in the new year with some writing resolutions! If you have a hard time setting or keeping resolutions, I want to share with you some tips for success in 2014.

Resolutions are Goals, Not Dreams

First things first, when setting your writing resolutions for 2014, remember that resolutions are goals, not dreams. Goals are things that you can achieve through your own willpower and dedication. Dreams are things that require (at least in part) luck, finances, or the participation of another person. (Yes, these are my own definitions, but trust me, they help a lot!)

So, for example, getting published is a dream, not a goal, because it requires a good deal of luck and relies on other people (agents, publishers, consumers, etc.). So getting published does not make for a good new year’s resolution since there is no way you alone can achieve it.

So what does make for good writing resolutions? Things you actively have control over. Here are some examples:

  • Finish my novel.
  • Read 3 books about writing.
  • Build my author’s website.
  • Submit 12 short stories.
  • Query the agents on my list.

Consider Your Time and be Realistic

There’s nothing worse than setting a resolution that you can’t even keep in January. So make sure to consider the amount of hours it will take to achieve your goals and whether you actually have that amount of time to spend on your writing. It’s great to challenge yourself, but it’s not great to set goals that can’t be achieved.

If you have only a few hours a week to spend on your writing, then choose a simple goal like “Finish editing my novel.” If you have a few hours per day, then you can start to look at bigger goals like “Edit novel one, write novel two, and plot novel three.” But a goal that big is only going to work for a close to full-time writer, so be realistic!

Set Long Term Rather than Daily or Weekly Goals

Daily or weekly goals can seem like a great idea. For example, “Write one hour everyday,” or “Write a short story every week.” But the problem with daily or weekly goals is that there’s no room for error. When you don’t have time to write for one hour on January 8th (probably because of #PitchMad), you already feel like a failure, making it difficult to jump back into your goal.

So what’s the solution? Set long term goals. Rather than writing an hour everyday, set your goal at writing 365 hours in 2014. That way you get closer to your goal by spending more time on your writing, and if you miss a day, you can easily catch up. Even if you can’t write for six months, you can double up your hours and still meet your goal.

Track Your Progress

Part of what I love about NaNoWriMo is that little chart that shows my progress. It feels great to be getting closer and closer to my goal. But you don’t have to participate in NaNoWriMo to track your progress. There are loads of online progress trackers (just google it) or you can make your own old-fashioned progress trackers by making a chart for your goals and filling it in (like those old fund drive thermometer charts you used to use in grade school).

How you track your progress doesn’t matter, but tracking it will make you far more likely to stay on track and reach your goals.

So what are your 2014 writing resolutions?

If they include working with an editor or mentor, please check me out. I’d love to work with you. If you have any writing questions you need answered, I take blog post requests in the comments or to my email: ellenbrock@keytopservices.com

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Happy New Year!

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Why is it so Hard to Get Published?

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This is a question that a lot of writers ask. Maybe they’ve been submitting their book for a long time and haven’t gotten any interest, or maybe they got some interest but their book still wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. Most of us know that getting published is extraordinarily difficult, but why is it so hard? Let’s look at some of the reasons and what you can do about it.

Your Book is a Little Fish (and the pond is really big!)

Publishing is like a national (and sometimes international) competition. Agents and editors are looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Not only are they looking to weed out the writers who are terrible, but they’re also weeding out those who are just okay, those who are pretty good, and even those who are great. They are looking only for the writers who are fantastic.

Publishing is like the writing Olympics. You have to train to get there, and even once you make it, you still have to beat out tons of extraordinarily talented people to get to the top. So your book is a little fish in a great big pond. Sometimes even exceptional work doesn’t stand out.

Solution: Figure out what makes your writing extraordinary and put that in the first few pages of your novel. Maybe it’s your character’s unique voice. Maybe it’s an usually short, choppy style. Or maybe it’s a really cool idea that hasn’t been explored before. Whatever it is that makes your writing stand out, make sure the agent or editor will see it (or at least an intriguing hint of it) in the sample pages, and make sure it’s in your query letter too.

Publishing is Subjective (it’s all about opinions!)

While there are obviously standards that most readers expect a book to adhere to, writing as a whole is not very objective. Chances are, if you read through some of my First Page Friday posts, you won’t agree with all of my critiques, because we all have our own opinion about what makes a book great.

When you send your book to that agent or editor you love, they have to form a decision as quickly as they can so that they can move on to the next query letter (or partial or full manuscript). So not only are you at the mercy of their opinion, but you’re at the mercy of decisions that are often made in seconds.

You also don’t know everything that the agent or editor hates (even if you do your research). Maybe they know and hate a man named Carl and that’s the name of your protagonist, so they immediately bristle when reading your query letter. Remember that editors and agents are only humans and their opinions are not infallible and without bias (they’re just a lot more educated than the average person’s).

Solution: Know that you can’t please everyone. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on one or two agents who you know are perfect for you. Query widely to everyone who might have an interest in your book and don’t let rejections get you down. Shake them off and move on, even if they come from someone whose opinion you really respect. They may have just rejected you because your book is too similar to something they already represent or because they were having a bad day when they read your query. Don’t try to analyze a rejection unless there’s feedback attached.

Publishing is About Marketability (sales, sales, sales!)

This is the part of the picture that a lot of writers don’t understand. Agents and editors want books that will sell, even if they aren’t as well written as another book in the slush pile. Publishers have to be able to place your book on the shelves, meaning that it has to fit in an established genre. It also has to have an audience that the publisher has the ability to reach, which can be different for different publishers.

This is why a crappy movie or TV tie-in book or one that focuses on a current area of public interest can rocket to the top of the best seller list even if the writing is kind of lame. It’s easy to place those books in displays with our favorite characters and make sales. Meanwhile, your beautiful steampunk-space opera-horror story sits on your computer hard drive because publishers couldn’t figure out where to place it in the book stores.

Solution: Know your genre and demographic. Figure out who you’re writing for so you can convey that to agents and editors if asked, and make sure that your writing meets the expectations of readers in your genre. This does not mean you can’t be innovative and blend genres, but you should be able to identify the books that would compete against yours. Some agents and editors like this to be typed right into the query letter (for example: My book will appeal to fans of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.), but even if it doesn’t make it into your query letter, it’s still something to think about as you write your book and query, especially if you are writing YA or MG (which both have much stricter “rules” and expectations than books for adults).

If you liked this post, please share it!

If you need more help with your writing, check out my editing and mentoring services as well as my Ultimate Guide to Writing and Editing a Novel.

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