Trick or Treat Contest Winners!

Thanks so much to everyone who submitted to the trick or treat contest. It was fun getting a glimpse of your projects!

Please keep in mind that query letters are very subjective. I left a critique of each query letter in the comments section. If you want to get a better idea of how I came to my conclusions, you can read those comments here.

And now, without further ado…the winners!

Grand Prize Winner – Free 25k Word Edit

Tobie Easton!

What I like about Tobie’s query is that it has a strong voice, is easy to follow, and clearly indicates the central conflict. Nice job, Tobie!

Second Place – Free 10k Word Edit

R. A. Whan!

This was decided via a random number generator. R. A. Whan will also be featured in First Page Friday next Friday, November 8th.

Third Place – Free 5k Word Edit

Kai Strand!

This was also decided via a random number generator.

Participants – Free 1k Word Edit

As a thank you for competing, all participants will get a free edit of their first 1k words.

How to Redeem Your Prize

Prizes must be redeemed within one year. You may schedule your edit in advance or simply send it to me to edit it as soon as possible. I will try my best to get to 1k and 5k word edits before the end of the year, but the 10k and 25k will take at least until January.  Send your work as a .doc attachment to my email: ellenbrock@keytopservices.com

Thanks again for participating!

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The Goal of Editing

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What is the goal of editing?  Why do writers spend months or even years rewriting, revising, and editing their books?  Why are you editing your book?

The first answer that comes to your mind is probably something like:

“I’m hoping to make my novel better and more entertaining.”

“I’m hoping to get rid of errors, plot holes, and inconsistencies.”

Or maybe even something like: “I keep getting rejected and I don’t know why.”

While all of these reasons are legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of what editing is actually all about.

The real goal of editing is to eliminate anything that might jar the reader out of the story.

That’s it.

Simple, huh?

When I tell writers (especially my clients) that this is what editing is really all about, it’s like a light bulb goes off in their head. Instead of getting hurt or depressed about hacking and slashing their novel, they get excited. They can see the true goal, the light at the end of the tunnel.

Editing isn’t about conforming to genre stereotypes or imitating famous authors. Most importantly, editing is not about following laundry lists of writing rules. The rules are just there to help steer you towards the bottom line, the end goal of keeping your readers fully engaged in your story.

Books are about the reader. A novel is nothing without the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  If head hopping, tense changes, or telling instead of showing pulls the reader out of the story, your novel fails to do its job. It fails to transport the reader into a world they can fully believe and become absorbed in.

For a novel to work, the reader must believe that what they’re reading is authentic. That can’t happen when they get hung up on unusual word choices, plot inconsistencies, or characters behaving out of character. When that happens, they see your hand in the work. They see right through your characters and straight to you, the author, and just like that they’re no longer absorbed in the story.

What separates a novel from being laughably bad and amazingly engaging is nothing more than the reader’s ability to believe in it. Nothing gets a book chucked back on the shelves (or into the rejection pile) faster than a reader thinking, This would never happen in real life!

“But,” some writers might say, “my book is a Fantasy. It can’t have happened in real life!” But that’s why readers pick up a Fantasy (or SciFi or Horror). They want you to make them believe that crazy things could really happen, that there is really magic, mystery, and wonder in the world, at least for a little while, at least while they’re reading your book.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is thinking that someday (maybe!) you might get your acceptance letter to Hogwarts. And what fun would Doctor Who be if we didn’t all secretly believe that someday he might show up in in his TARDIS and whisk us away on an adventure.

When you’re editing, no matter what you’re editing, the bottom line is that you must eliminate anything that prevents your reader from fully engaging in the story.

So there’s no need to cry for the loss of a chapter you loved or despair at the major restructuring required to make your plot believable. It’s all for the good of the story. It’s all for the reader, and that’s who editing is really all about.

 

Need help figuring out why readers are getting jarred from your story? Check out my editing services.

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Tips & Pitfalls When Including the Villain’s Point of View

I’ve edited a lot of novels lately that rely heavily on the villain’s point of view. Occasionally this can be an interesting way to add tension and suspense. It can also assist in conveying a complicated plot that would be confusing from only the good guy’s perspective. But often the villain’s point of view detracts from the story.

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Outshining the Hero

We all love villains. We’re fascinated by monsters, serial killers, and double agents. But we’re not quite as inherently fascinated with the good guy. That’s because we all know what makes good guys tick.

Readers love puzzling out what makes some people do really bad things. So if you’re including the villain’s point of view, you’re working with readers’ natural fascination with the bad guy. If you don’t successfully present an even more fascinating good guy, the book won’t sit with readers the way you want it to. The villain could push the hero into the sidelines.

Zapping Suspense

If you clue the reader in on the villain’s plans, it’s possible to zap the suspense out of the novel. Rather than wondering what’s going on along with the good guy, the reader is simply waiting for the good guy to catch up with what they already know. This not only cuts suspense, but it can also make the good guy look unintelligent. Since the reader knows the answer, they think the hero should too.

If the novel is a mystery, including the villain’s point of view can cut out all of the mystery elements. If we already know who the double agent is, why care about the good guy’s investigation?

Tips for Including the Villain’s Point of View

If the villain’s point of view is required to tell the story, here are some tips on how to do it right.

  • Don’t linger on the villain. Give the hero substantially more “screen time.” Only use the villain’s point of view where it increases suspense.
  • Let the hero reveal important information. If the hero is the one who keys the reader in on the big revelations, they’ll find the hero far more fascinating and important than the villain.
  • Keep it vague. You can show the bad guy torturing the hero’s partner, but don’t tell us that it’s revenge for his mother’s death or that it’s in the abandoned childhood home of our hero. Snippets of intense situations increases our suspense, but answers zap it.
  • Introduce other mysteries. If keeping it vague doesn’t work with the story, let the bad guy reveal what he’s doing and why, but introduce a different sort of mystery for the good guy to reveal. This could be a dark personal secret or another layer to the villain’s scheme.
  • Fully characterize the hero. Don’t give us a good guy that’s just a hollow shell. He needs to have a personality with both good and bad qualities.
  • Give the hero personal stakes. If the hero has nothing at stake other than solving the case/crime or stopping the bad guy, readers won’t care all that much if he succeeds. The key is to give the hero something personal at stake, something readers don’t want him to lose.

 

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How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping

As much as we all know to never ever use info dumps, it doesn’t always make sense to convey something through dialogue or a flashback, and sometimes you need the reader to know the information right away – you don’t have time to trickle it through several chapters.

So for those times when you truly need to do some telling instead of showing, here are some tricks to slip it in unnoticed.

Landscape

Establish a Scene

Before moving into an info dump, always establish a scene. This means that the very first information conveyed needs to establish the basics: who, what, when, and where. Let the reader know what your character is up to and they will have something to visualize. Visualizing something (anything!), helps the reader stay engrossed in the scene.

The Scene has to Matter

The scene you establish must be in some way integral to telling the story. The scene’s purpose cannot be simply to dump information on the reader. Something interesting must happen in the moment of the scene, not only in the info dump. For more about this, check out: How to Spot a Bad Scene or Chapter.

Stick to the Facts

Does the reader really need to know that Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, the Halloween party, and Christmas Eve? Or do they just need to know that Hank is always late? If it’s the fact that the reader needs (Hank is always late), and not the story (Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, etc.), then stick to the one sentence fact, don’t tell a two paragraph story.

Keep it Short

Think critically about what the reader really needs to know to understand the story. Every time you want to tell something, ask yourself: If I didn’t tell this, would it reduce the reader’s comprehension of the story? If the answer is no, leave it out. Don’t slip into the trap of believing that more information always enhances the story. If the characters, plot, and world make sense without the information, the readers don’t need it.

Couch it in Action

Couching an info dump in action allows the scene to maintain momentum rather than grinding to a screeching halt. A lack of momentum is what makes info dumps so glaringly annoying in the first place. So instead of Jane sitting at the window contemplating how Hank is always late, she can think about it while pacing around her apartment. The key word is “while.” She needs to think about it while pacing, not before or after.

Let’s look at a scene that does not follow these rules:

Hank was never there when Jane needed him. She would sit and wait for hours and he’d never show up. He was late to her wedding even though she sent a cab to his door at the right time to pick him up. He was late to the Halloween party when they were dressing up together as M&Ms. They worked for hours on those costumes and almost missed the party. And then there was Christmas Eve. Hank was Jane’s secret Santa and he was so late that she had to open her gift after the party had already ended. And he never even cared. He just shrugged it off like it was no big deal. But Jane cared. She cared a lot.

Jane laid down and went to bed. Maybe someday Hank would change and be the man that she needed.

Why it Doesn’t Work

Let’s break down why the above scene doesn’t work by examining each of the rules.

Establish a Scene: Where is Jane? What is she doing? Why is she thinking about Hank always being late? We don’t know any of that until after the huge paragraph of info dump.

The Scene has to Matter: Is this scene really necessary to the book? Nothing happens except Jane pouting about Hank’s lateness and then she goes to bed. With no conflict or relevance to the rest of the novel, this scene is clearly not needed.

Stick to the Facts: Do we really need to know that they were going to dress up as M&Ms? Or that she sent a cab to his house on her wedding day? My guess is no. What we really need to know is that Hank is always late.

Keep it Short: Is everything in this paragraph necessary to grasp the concept that Hank is often late? Clearly not. And remember, we don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that all details “enhance” the story. They very often do not.

Couch it in Action: There’s no action in this scene until the last sentence, so obviously no couching is happening here.

So how can we rewrite this scene?

Jane paced back and forth in front of her apartment door. Hank was late. She wrung the end of her shirt in her hands. He was always late. She took a deep breath and paced harder. Maybe he didn’t want their relationship to work out as much as she did.

There was a knock at the door. She yanked it open and Hank stood there, a bright smile on his face. Two hours late. She sighed.

Why is this better?

Let’s break it down:

Establish a Scene: This is done right away. We know where Jane is and what she’s doing.

The Scene has to Matter: Hank is on his way over so presumably something is going to develop with the plot.

Stick to the Facts: Rather than long stories, there were brief sentences about Hank’s lateness.

Keep it Simple: The facts weren’t embellished with a bunch of extras. It was simple and quick.

Couch it in Action: Jane is active, before, during, and after the information is conveyed, so the reader is never yanked from the scene.

And here’s the kicker: Writing a scene like this is usually easier, faster, and actually conveys more emotional information than an ordinary info dump. If you use these techniques, your writing will improve, guaranteed!

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Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 1: Genres & Topics

This is part one in my middle grade fiction series. Future installments will include information and statistics on word count, point of view, tense, and debut vs. established authors.

To receive notifications when the rest of the series is posted (as well as my other blog posts), submit your email address in the side bar to the left.

Methodology

I compiled the statistics below based on the New York Times Bestsellers List for middle grade novels. I included all novels that made the top ten list between April and September 2013 (a six month period).

I did not include media tie-ins (Lego, Disney, Star Wars, etc.) as these books have their own momentum that may have nothing to do with the subject matter, the quality of the book, etc.

I did not include nonfiction.

I did not include books that were sequels because they are not standing alone on their own merit.

I did include books that are the first in a series even if a subsequent book had already been published before the first book made it on the bestsellers list.

Purpose of Research

While there are a lot of factors that go into a book’s success, I wanted to break down the elements of the most popular middle grade books in the current market.

My primary motivation in doing this is to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring middle grade authors, such as appropriate topics, genres, word counts, point of view, tense, etc.

Bestselling Middle Grade Genres & Topics

Realistic vs. Fantastical

Rather than split hairs about individual genres, I decided to breakdown the bestselling books based on whether or not they are realistic or fantastical.

I am defining realistic as anything that could possibly happen in real life and fantastical as anything that cannot happen in real life. Talking animals are included under fantastical.

Of the 22 books on the list, 10 were realistic and 12 were fantastical.

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Realistic Fiction Topics

In realistic fiction, the most popular topic/genre was Historical. Keep in mind that teachers are one of the biggest purchases of middle grade books and are more likely to buy the educational historical novels over a humor or mystery novel.

Humor and Mystery were the primary topics/themes of two books each. There were also two books with a disabled main character. I included “disabled main character” as a topic when it was the driving force behind the novel rather than incidental.

Only one sports book made the list. It may be important to note that this book was written by a professional soccer player, which may or may not have driven sales.

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Fantastical Fiction Topics

In fantastical fiction, the most popular genre/topic was books set in a fantasy world. I defined “Fantasy World” as a book that takes place entirely in a fantasy world and in which the real world does not exist at all. There were five of these on the bestsellers list, making it by far the most popular form of fantastical fiction.

“Portal Fantasy” is a novel that starts in the real world and features a child who is transported into a fantasy world. There were two of these.

I defined “personified animals” as animals that are the main character or who narrate the story. Aside from the personified animals, there were no fantastical elements in these story. The setting and plot would have been realistic had the main character been a human. There were two of these.

There was only one Dystopian novel and it featured dogs as the main characters (this was not included under “personified animals” due to other fantasy elements). Since the only bestselling Dystopian featured dogs, it is not clear whether Dystopian with humans would be successful in middle grade.

One book featured fantasy elements in the real world, meaning that the characters were not transported to another world but simply found magic here on earth.

One book was Paranormal, but the author was extremely well established before its publication, making it difficult to say whether paranormal would be a successful genre for a debut author.

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Animals

Animals made quite a few appearances in middle grade books. Three books featured animals as a significant element of the plot, and two featured animals as the main characters, for a total of five books featuring animals in a significant role.

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Absent Genres

In addition to exploring the popular genres, it’s important to note the genres that made no appearance at all. There was not a single Science Fiction novel on the list. There also wasn’t any Horror, though some of the fantasy books had some minor horror elements.

In realistic fiction, there weren’t any stories about normal kids facing major life issues (bullying, divorce, etc.). There were two humor books that dealt with popularity, but the only realistic fiction with a serious tone were the two books about disabled main characters.

There are two ways to look at these absent genres/topics. They could either be areas of opportunity or areas with poor sales. It’s difficult to determine without further research, but I tend to believe that there is always a place for a well-written novel of any genre.

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Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace

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Once you’ve perfected your plot and polished up your prose, there’s a quick way to add an extra layer of shine to your novel: Find and Replace.

The “Find and Replace” feature (sometimes called “Search and Replace”) is an easy way to get rid of bad writing habits that you might not notice when reading straight through your novel.

Here are some things to search for and eliminate from your book:

Began & Started

Find: Begin, begins, began, beginning, start, starts, started, starting

Replace these words with active verbs. We don’t need to know that the character started doing something, we just need to know that they’re doing it. “Start” and “began” make the action feel less active so consequently, the reader is less engaged.

Example: He started to run.

Change to: He ran.

Adverbs

Find: ly (this can be a bit tedious, but if you have a love affair with adverbs it will be well worth the time.)

Replace words ending in “ly” (AKA adverbs) with stronger verbs or cut them out entirely. Adverbs weaken the action rather than strengthen it, and they are often a sign of lazy writing.

Example: He quickly ran across the park.

Change to: He darted across the park.

Verbs Ending in “ing”

Find: ing (again, this can be pretty tedious, but it’s worth it.)

Replace verbs ending in “ing” with verbs ending in “ed” whenever it is proceeded by “was,” “were,” or “is.” This sort of “ing” verb makes the action less active and if you use it a lot, it can also raise your word count.

Sometimes, however, this sentence structure makes sense if an ongoing action is being described, but think critically about whether it makes a difference if the action was ongoing or immediate. If it doesn’t matter, go with “ed,” as in the example below.

Example: I turned and Mary was glaring at me.

Change to: I turned and Mary glared.

Time-Based Adverbs

Find: when, then, suddenly, immediately, always, often, already, finally

Replace these time-based adverbs with stronger descriptions that show the suddenness, frequency, etc., or eliminate them entirely. I wrote a post about time-based adverbs here. But here’s the gist: more words take longer to read and make the action feel less immediate, not more immediate.

Example: I immediately ran through the door.

Change to: I ran through the door.

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Three Words to Banish From Your Novel (or else)

2163816826_f6f7e8da16Showing instead of telling is a big obstacle for many writers.  Sometimes writers tell instead of show without even realizing it!  Here are three words that insidiously introduce telling into your writing.  Get rid of them (or else)!

Obviously

Examples:

He was obviously in a bad mood.

She obviously had a headache.

It was obvious that she didn’t want to be there.

Clearly

Examples:

He clearly thought she was full of crap.

She was clearly happy about the news.

It was clear she had better things to do.

Indicating

Examples:

He stepped back, indicating that he didn’t want to be that close to her.

She frowned, clearly indicating that she was still upset about their fight.

The man indicated that she should sit down.

Why They Suck

Anytime a writer uses a sentence like the ones above, I want to jump up and down screaming, “Cheater, cheater, cheater!”  All of these sentences are telling rather than showing.  They’re cheap, easy, zero-effort ways of making a point.

Sometimes these words are also used to stretch the point of view (POV).  If your POV character doesn’t have any way of knowing something, you can simply say that it’s clear, obvious, or indicated.  Cheaters!

Stretch yourself as a writer, find ways to show how characters think and feel.  Use expressions, body language, tone of voice.  And sometimes just let your readers breathe!  Give them a chance to draw their own conclusions.  They’re smarter than you think!

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