The So-What

by John Gilstrap

If you’re around this writing biz long enough, and attend enough seminars or classes, sooner or later you’re going to hear about the three-act structure.  I’m of the belief that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction-writing—that if it works, it works—but it’s pretty hard to tell any story without a beginning, a middle and an end.

Now, the Syd Fieldses of the world embrace a form of the three-act structure that is far more draconian and, frankly, intimidating than mine.  Truth be told, looking back on 17 published novels, I would be hard pressed to identify precise act-to-act transitions in any of them.  I think more in terms of setup, development and climax.  Or, as I wrote above, a beginning, a middle and an end.

A few weeks ago, as I was teaching a two-hour writing seminar in Alexandria, Virginia, I was smitten with the notion that, structurally, there’s another critical element of successful storytelling: the so-what.  It’s a little hard to define, but it goes to the heart of what makes an otherwise well-told story fall flat, and what makes some mundane storytelling very successful.  In my view, it’s the missing element that renders a lot of so-called literary fiction to be under-performers at the cash register.

A successful so-what leaves readers satisfied that the time they invested in the reading was well-spent.  After investing a few hours (or a lot of hours) into reading a story, I need to feel that the characters I’ve bonded with have changed somehow, and that their journey has left their slice of the world somehow changed.  Brilliantly-painted word pictures and navel-gazing angst all have their places, but the absence of a good so-what leaves me, as a reader, a little angry at the author.  Would it have killed the writer to include an identifiable story along with the beautiful words?

Every year at ThrillerFest in New York City, International Thriller Writers Association sponsors an event called Pitch Fest, where attendees can carve out face time with NY literary agents to pitch their book ideas.  Last year, I agreed to participate in Practice Pitch Fest, in which I would sit where an agent would later sit and help writers hone their pitches.  It was a real eye-opener for me, not least because, never having had to pitch, I don’t know that I could do it.

After sitting across from fifteen, maybe eighteen authors, the most common weakness among the pitches I heard was the lack of a solid so-what.  Consider:

My book is based on my mother’s brave effort to conquer cancer. The so-what questions here are, how was your mother’s fight more brave or essentially different than every other mother’s fight to conquer cancer?  Why are you and you alone the right person to write this book?  What will the reader take away that is different from other books about parents’ brave struggles with illness?  Actually, this is the problem with most memoirs.

An emotionally scarred New Orleans detective stalks a serial killer who preys on tourists in the Big Easy.  Emotionally scarred detectives have been done to death.  The New Orleans beat is covered by countless gumshoes already, and serial killers are ubiquitous in crime fiction.  The so-what in a story like this could be the evolution of the detective over the course of the book from good to bad, or bad to good.  Or that the serial killer is of a nature that we’ve never seen before.  But without the so-what, the idea is just another serial killer book.  Been there.  Ho-hum.

Sometimes, the so-what has little to do with plot and everything to do with character.  For some mysteries—but no thrillers I can think of—the so-what is as simple as letting readers spend a fun few hours with characters they have come to love over the years.  But that’s a tough hill to climb for Book One.

So, does this make sense or am I all wet here?  Can you think of a book you disliked yet you thought you were going to love?  No need to name names, but when a book leaves you flat, what is the most likely missing element?

Fair warning: When this post appears, I will be in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, researching what new toys Jonathan Grave needs to add to his arsenal.  I will accordingly be slow to respond to comments.

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A Fond Farewell from Jodie Renner – and links to Jodie’s Top TKZ Posts

Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEdJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

It’s with mixed feelings that I bid a fond farewell to The Kill Zone. I started guest blogging here in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. It’s been a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of this talented team for the past few years, and I hope I’ve made some meaningful contributions, including setting up the TKZ library. (Click on the TKZ Library link above to check out many TKZ posts, categorized by topic.)

I’m also pleased to have brought in as guest bloggers several friends who are also bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.

Scroll down to see links to my most popular TKZ posts.

I’m now looking forward to a new phase in my life. I’m in my 60s now and recently moved closer to my family and roots, in the gorgeous Okanagan Valley, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, with its mild climate, long lakes surrounded by low mountains and hills, and verdant fields covered with fruit orchards and vineyards – not to mention world-class wineries.

Okanagan valley

Canada’s Okanagan Valley

After many years of feeling exiled in Eastern Canada, it’s great to be back “home.” I’m already getting involved in a lot of local activities, including recently presenting at an excellent writers’ festival in the north Okanagan (Word on the Lake), setting up a series of workshops on various topics for local writers and aspiring authors, and helping organize a regional writers’ festival for next spring.

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Word on the Lake, May 2015

After being practically chained to my computer for the past eight years, editing novels and writing my craft-of-writing guides, it’s time for me to to get away from spending so much time at my computer — I want to get out and enjoy life more, stay active, get fit, and slim down. I’m cutting way back on my editing and have already started walking, hiking, and dancing a few times a week. Basically, I’m transitioning from “living large” to “living local,” and my new focus is toward looking after my fitness level and social life too, not just my mind. Of course, I’ll always love reading good books and will continue to support authors!

I’ll continue to follow this excellent, award-winning blog, and have been told I’m welcome as a guest blogger any time, so you may see future posts by me here occasionally. And I’m thrilled with the choice of my replacement – the dynamic, knowledgeable Larry Brooks, the Storyfixer! I know he’ll add a lot of value to this already popular, highly rated blog.

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My 26-year-old son, who is visiting for a week from Europe where he’s doing a master’s degree, had a great suggestion for my last post on TKZ – to include some links from my previous craft-of-writing posts here. So below are links to many of my posts from this blog, listed from oldest to most recent. And at the bottom you’ll find links to my books, my websites, and my own little blog, where I will continue to post occasionally.

LINKS TO MANY OF JODIE RENNER’S CRAFT-OF-WRITING POSTS HERE ON TKZ:

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes

When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s. …

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude! …

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction. …

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed. …

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

… In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him. …

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point? …

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story. …

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly. …

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. …

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. …

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents. …

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Captivate Your Readers_med~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.  …

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago. …

~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions

…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions. …

~ Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: …

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

… The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut. …

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. …

Three articles on point of view in fiction, with an emphasis on close third-person viewpoint (deep POV). Includes examples.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of the novel)

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

 

~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

Quick Clicks_Word Usage_Precise Choices~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message

… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book. …

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing …

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic? …

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. …

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. …

And one more: Writers’ Conferences & Book Festivals in North America in 2015. Over 125 conferences & festivals across North America, listed by date, with links to their websites.

I look forward to connecting with you all again here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter — and maybe at some writers’ conferences! Keep on writing!

Jodie Renner, a former English teacher and school librarian with a master’s degree, is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Click HERE to sign up for Jodie’s occasional newsletter, and be among the first to know about any new releases.

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Think your book is ready to publish? Maybe not.

Note from Jodie: I’m busy packing to move to another city next week, so bestselling – and prolific! – author Allison Brennan has kindly consented to share some valuable advice for aspiring authors today. Welcome, Allison!

Allison Brennan

In 2002, I finished my first full-length novel, a masterful romantic suspense. It had everything … and I mean everything … that a romantic suspense novel could have.

A Heroine … beautiful, smart, sweet. And a virgin. She was a computer expert who worked from home.

A Hero … tough, dedicated, handsome. And a cop.

A Chance Encounter … the heroine thought the hero was an intruder in her apartment building. An old house converted into three flats. How was she to know the landlord had rented the vacant unit?

A Villain … he worked at the coffee shop where the heroine bought her morning coffee after her daily run. He loved her. He was certain she felt the same way, but he couldn’t talk to her, so he stalked her.

A Victim (or five) … the villain, unable to share his feelings for the heroine, rapes women who look like her. Of course my hero catches the serial rape case.

The Ex-Girlfriend … the hero has a psycho ex-girlfriend who is none too happy when she sees the hero kissing the heroine. At some point, she trashes the Heroine’s apartment.

The Ex-Fiancé … yes, the heroine had been engaged. She broke it off for some reason I don’t remember (but I’m sure it was a very good reason), and then she learned that her ex was selling company secrets to a rival. So of course she turned him in.

The Heroine’s Brother. A priest. Well, a former Marine turned priest. (Why? I don’t know. It sounded good at the time.)

Danger. The Heroine’s ex-fiancé, furious that he was fired, plots to embezzle money from the company. But he needs the Very Smart Heroine to hack into the system and steal the payroll before it’s direct-deposited into employee accounts. To force her to help him, he and his gang hold her brother (the former Marine turned priest) hostage, shooting him in the leg when she refuses to help.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day!

But lest you forget Stalker Boy, he was just as upset as Ex-Girlfriend that Heroine and Hero were kissing. Around this point, Hero realizes that the rape victims (and he’s escalating, because one died) all look like our Heroine. He gets all Alpha Hero wanting to protect her. But because Villain is a psycho, he kills Ex-Girlfriend and frames our Hero. While our Hero is in jail, our Stalker kidnaps the Heroine and takes her to the Cascade Mountains where he forces her to wear his mother’s wedding dress in a mock ceremony so that they can “legally” consummate their marriage.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day … again.

Did I mention that Villain also killed his mother and kept her decomposing body in her house?

Yes, Hot Latte had it all. Literally.

(Stop laughing. Yes, I called it Hot Latte. Because that was the heroine’s preferred beverage at the coffeehouse.)

Alas, Hot Latte has never been—and never will be—published. Truly, I had at least six good books crammed into that one novel! I’ve used some of the plot twists in future books, and I still have more to spare.

My first book taught me a lot about writing. In fact, writing Hot Latte was essentially a crash course in fiction writing. What to do … and, mostly, what not to do.

I sold my fifth completed manuscript, The Prey, to Ballantine in 2004. My first four books aren’t publishable, but I truly believe my career depended on me writing them. Through the process of writing those books, I learned how to structure, pace and plot a story. (I use the word “plot” loosely because I don’t plot, per se.) I learned about character, backstory, conflict, and self-editing.

My first book isn’t salvageable. I would also argue that ten years ago, I didn’t have the skill to completely rewrite anything into something that was the same core story … but different. Better.

I owe more than I can say to my former editor at Ballantine for helping me learn how to see the big picture. In fact, I still hire her to edit my indie books because, even after twenty-five traditionally published novels, I crave editing. I also insist on revisions for every traditional book I write. I don’t consider it a failure to get a long revision letter—to me, that external guidance makes a good book great. While I’m a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean my books don’t benefit from a thoughtful developmental editor. (I’m not talking about copyediting and proofreading – those are a given. I’m talking about someone who looks at the big picture and helps make it clearer.)

I thank God that self-publishing was not a viable option in 2002 when I wrote Hot Latte. Because I honestly thought that it was a good book. My best friend read it and she liked it, too. (Ahem. See tongue in cheek?) It was clean – meaning there were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors. Who wouldn’t love it? I mean it had everything in it! Literally!

But all the agents and editors who rejected it were right. When I found an old copy of the manuscript a few years ago, I cringed. It was that bad. Every cliché in romantic suspense found a home in my book.

I recognize that the publishing world is different today than ten years ago. Yet … there are some truths that remain the same. The primary truth is that you should only put your best work forward.

Just because the new climate has allowed everyone to publish doesn’t mean that everyone should publish their first … or second … or fifth book.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were rejected by “New York” and obviously “New York” doesn’t know what’s good, so they’re going to self-publish.

Or how many people have said they can’t afford an editor, but their daughter/mother/best friend is a good proofreader. (Proofreading is NOT editing.) One person actually told me that once they start making money selling their books on Amazon, then they can afford to hire an editor.

Or how many people feel they have written the perfect book and any editorial input would make it less perfect. That they don’t want to change anything in the story because it’s exactly the way they want it.

Or how many people tell me they don’t really care whether they make money or not, they want to “get their story out there” and since it’s free to do so, they don’t want to spend any money on editing or cover design. These people actually make me angry – because I take my career seriously, I take books seriously, and I don’t think that “just getting something out there because you can” respects authors or readers.

New York rejects books for two primary reasons: either the book is total crap or they have no idea how to market the book (meaning, it doesn’t fit into one of their pre-defined genres.) It’s much easier to sell a thriller to New York because they know how to market a thriller, they can look at the book and see exactly who the audience might be. It’s much harder (not impossible) to sell a book that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the pre-established genre shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I’m certainly not opposed to self-publishing. There are many authors who have chosen self-publishing to great personal and professional success. Sometimes it’s because they’ve tried New York and couldn’t break out, but had built a solid readership who then moved with them into the digital world where they were able to grow and thrive. Some were successful in New York, but for one reason or another felt they would be more successful in the indie world. Others don’t fit neatly into the mold, but readers simply like good stories and therefore they found a readership because they told good stories.

But with the glut of books available digitally, and so many of them really not publishable, readers are having a harder time picking the wheat from the chaff.

I am disheartened that so many aspiring writers have completely forsaken the process in the rush to be published. It’s your name on the book. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing a book—usually while working at another job or raising a family. You wrote that book in your free time, meaning it had value to you—you sacrificed doing other things in order to write. Respect yourself! Respect your time! You deserve to invest in that book, to make it as strong as it can be.

If you want a career as an author, if you want to build a readership and grow your audience, the process is important—whether you walk down the traditional path or the indie path or, like many, a combination of both.

If I was starting today, I would have self-published Hot Latte and, in effect, lowered the bar for myself. It was a complete story, it had great characters, and it was cleanly written. Yet … it wasn’t a good book. I didn’t see the flaws because I didn’t know what to look for. It took me many books before I could see the flaws in my own work. Even now, I don’t always see the problems and am grateful to my editor because there is always something I can do better.

And that’s my goal: to make every book better than the last.

I’ll pop in and out today to talk about anything you want or answer questions! I’m easy that way 🙂

Oh, and for my BSP … COMPULSION, book two in the Max Revere iAllison Brennan_Compulsionnvestigative reporter series, is on sale now in hardcover, digital, and audio. RT Book Reviews gave COMPULSION a Top Pick: “Brennan really pulls out all the stops in this intense, terrifying thriller!” and Catherine Coulter says, “Don’t miss Max Revere’s roller-coaster new thriller. Talk about grit and courage—Max never gives up.”

You can check it out on my website, allisonbrennan.com.

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Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and mysteries. She’s currently writing the Max Revere investigative reporter series (COMPULSION, April 2015) and the Lucy Kincaid romantic suspense series (upcoming: BEST LAID PLANS, August 2015.) She lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.

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How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 Tips for Clear, Concise, Powerful Writing

by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Today’s tips, a last-minute fill-in here, come from the handout for a talk I gave to a local writing group whose members were very divergent in their writing projects. These succinct pointers apply to blog posts, magazine articles, and nonfiction writing, as well as fiction writing.

When revising your work, keep these 15 tips handy to help you clarify and strengthen your message and keep your readers engaged.

1. Write in a clear, casual, friendly accessible style. Avoid formal or stiff writing. Pretend you are talking to people you know and like. Let your personality and warmth show through.

2. Grab the reader’s attention at the beginning with a compelling statement, question, scene, or example.

3. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. Don’t send your readers away from your story to look up a word. Fancy, erudite, or pompous words are show-offy and frustrating. Besides, immediately recognizable words make for instant comprehension and keep the pace going and the reader turning the pages. But look for the strongest, most evocative word for the situation.

4. Don’t confuse, annoy, or bore your readers with unclear or vague writing. Avoid generalities and vague terms like “things,” “food,” “people” and “animals.” Use specific examples and sensory imagery to paint a clear picture and bring your ideas to life.

5. Vary your sentence structure and the lengths of your sentences. Avoid starting several sentences in a row with He or She or the person’s name. Break up long, convoluted sentences.

6. Write lean. Make every word count. Take out all unnecessary and repetitive words and sentences and go for an easy flow of ideas. Avoid repeating ideas and watch for those little words that just clutter up your sentences. Take out “It was,” “There was,” and “that” wherever they’re not needed.

7. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

8. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

9. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.

10. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power. But keep -ing verbs for ongoing action that was going on while something else occurred: The phone rang while he was washing his car.

11. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

12. Avoid the passive voice. For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” and “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

13. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

14. Read your pages out loud to make sure the ideas flow naturally. Wherever you stumble or have to reread, your readers will, too.

15. Pay attention to white space. A solid wall of words for a whole page can make readers anxious, especially reluctant readers. Use frequent paragraphing. For nonfiction and blog posts, use bolded subheadings and lists wherever appropriate.

Do you have any other good tips to keep in mind for the revision stage, especially for blog posts and magazine articles? If so, please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.
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