Three Stages of Writing

Nancy J. Cohen

In my view, story writing has three essential stages: Discovery, Writing, and Revision.

idea

Discovery is the process by which you discover your story. Bits and pieces of character and plot swirl around in your subconscious before you put words to paper. Consider it creative energy at play rather than feeling guilty that you’re not being productive. This can be the break you need before starting the next novel. It’s time well spent to refill your creative pool and to gather ideas.

Doing a collage, watching movies, listening to music, working on a hobby, walking outdoors, or reading for pleasure are some of the ways you can stimulate your creativity. Cut out photos from magazines of celebrities who look like your characters and fill out your character development charts. Search for relevant articles to your storyline and sift through them. Thus begins your research. Often this prep time can take weeks or even a month or two. If you’re a seasoned writer, you’ll know how long you need. Be sure to factor this in when you determine your target goal of completion for your project.

When these ideas coalesce in your head and your characters begin to talk to you, you’re ready to start writing. This is when I sit down and write an entire synopsis. The synopsis acts as my writing guideline, so I always know where I’m going even if I don’t quite know how to get there. This still allows for the element of surprise. The plot may change as the story develops.

editing

At this stage, set yourself a minimum daily quota. I have to write at least 5 pages a day or 25 pages a week. Beginning a book is the hardest task. It might take until the first third of the book for you to get to know your characters. Give yourself permission to write crap during this heated storytelling phase. Once the book is written, you can fix it. Just get those words down on paper and move forward until the draft is done.

When you finish the first round of storytelling, it’s a good idea to put your book aside so as to gain some distance from it. You’ll be better prepared for revisions with a fresh viewpoint. Use the time to plan your promo campaign, to jot down blog topic ideas, or to write reader discussion questions. When you find yourself eager to tackle the story again, move on to the next phase.

editing

Now come the heavy revisions. This can get intense, because you need to keep a sense of the whole story in your head. You can’t stop, or you’ll lose your train of thought.  But you also shouldn’t rush this process if you want to produce what editors call a “clean” copy.

When you set deadlines, be sure to allow a month or so for revisions, because you’ll need to do several read-throughs. My first round of revisions focuses on line editing. Then I’ll read through for smoothness and consistency. The final reading is to catch any remaining errors, typos, or repetitions. You can run your material through one of the online editors like Smart-Edit software or Pro Writing Aid.

I guarantee you’ll always find things to correct, but at some point you’ll be too close to the material to see straight or too sick of the project to work on it any more. Then the book is ready to submit. But don’t worry, likely you’ll have a chance to fix things again when you hear from your editor.

Send it off, clean up your desk, file away your mounds of papers. By now you’re thinking about the next book and are getting ready to start the process anew. Force yourself away from the office and take some time off. You’ll return with fresh ideas and renewed energy.

Now I have to quit procrastinating and get back to the writing stage. After being away for a week, it’s hard to get back in the groove.

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Writing with Two Heads

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Mark Alpert posted a blog about The Writing Buddy and how writing can be a lonely occupation. There are few methods of getting around that situation. If you want to write fiction, it’s usually a one-man show. Fortunately for me, I have a solution—a cowriter.

One of the most frequently asked questions  Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it 2heads8wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel together?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there (including TKZ’s own PJ Parrish), but Lynn and I have managed to complete 6 thrillers together because of a number of reasons.

First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write.

Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve.

Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something.

Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group.

Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them.

Sixth, we agree on the same message/theme in each book.

Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise.

And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorm, tell and retell each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in-sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, enough of which to create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our spouses, family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our seventh thriller together (THE SHIELD, the follow-up to THE BLADE). I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

One last note: I haven’t seen Lynn in person in over 5 years since we live hundreds of miles apart. That seems to be something that mystifies everyone.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

————–
THE BLADE is full-throttle thriller writing.” David Morrell

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Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker

A novel won’t draw me in unless I start caring jodie-renner1-Small5about the protagonist and worrying about what’s going to happen to her – in other words, until I get emotionally engaged in the story. And it’s the same for most readers, I think. For me to warm up to the protagonist, he has to have some warmth and vulnerability and determination, some hopes and insecurities and fears.

As readers, to identify with and bond with the protagonist – and other characters – we need to see and feel their emotions and reactions to people and events around them. When the character feels and reacts, then they come alive for us and we get emotionally invested and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.”

Show those feelings.

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry, or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

And engage the readers’ senses, too, so they feel like they’re right there, by showing us not only what the character is seeing, but what they’re hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and even tasting.

Show their physical reactions, too.

Besides showing us your character’s emotional reactions, show their physical reactions as well to what’s happening to them.

Show the stimulus before the response, and show the reactions in their natural order.

To avoid reader confusion and annoyance, be sure to state the cause before the effect, the stimulus before the response, the action before the reaction.

And to mirror reality, it’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction to a situation first, before an overt action or words. And show involuntary thought-reactions or word-reactions, like a quick “ouch” or swear word, before more reasoned thought processes and decision-making.

As Ingermanson & Economy put it, “Here’s a simple rule to use: Show first whatever happens fastest. Most often, this means you show interior emotion first, followed by various instinctive actions or dialogue, followed by the more rational kinds of action, dialogue, and interior monologue.”
 
And don’t skip those first steps! Remember, we’re inside that character’s head and body, so you deepen their character and draw us closer to them by showing us what they’re feeling immediately inside – those involuntary physical and thought reactions that come before controlled, civilized outward reactions.

As Bickham points out, it’s important to imitate reality by showing the reactions in the order they occur. You may not show all of these reactions, but whichever ones you choose, show them in this order.

First, show the stimulus that has caused them to react.

Then show some or all of these responses, in this order:

1. The character’s visceral response
– adrenaline surging, pulse racing, stomach clenching, heart pounding, mouth drying, flushing, shivering, cold skin, tense muscles, sweating, blushing, shakiness, etc.

2. Their unconscious knee-jerk physical action – yelling, gasping, crying out, snatching hand or foot away from source of heat or pain, striking out, etc.

3. Their thought processes and decision to act

4. Their conscious action or verbal response

Showing your characters’ feelings and responses will bring them to life on the page for the readers and suck readers deeper into your story world, your fictive dream.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.

So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens or raging bulls that make us cringe?

Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then overwrite first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.”

Do you have any techniques that work for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?[Writing-a-Killer-Thriller_May-13_120%255B2%255D.jpg]

Jodie 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, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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There’s no place like home

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A beginning writer once asked me, “How do you find out what motivates your characters?” I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to consider interviewing your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.

As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them forward in the story. But it’s more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don’t know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won’t care about the outcome.

So what is the difference between want and a need?

The want is what our character consciously pursues in the story (Dorothy wants to get home after being transported to the Land of Oz by wooa tornado). The need can be a quality she must gain in order to get what she wants (courage, selflessness, maturity, etc.) or the need can be in direct conflict with what she wants. In Dorothy’s case, she needs to find the Wizard of Oz who supposedly can help her return home. Of course, we find that her real need is a lesson learned while interacting with all the good and evil characters along the Yellow Brick Road—a need to appreciate what she already has.

So the quality she needs to obtain is an appreciation of the love her family and friends have for her. If we work backwards, we already know that at the beginning of the story, she should show a lack of appreciation (or apparent lack) of those around her. Around the farm she lives on, they give her little attention and constantly tell her to stay out of the way. Knowing this need, we have now given Dorothy room to grow.

Now we can start forming Dorothy’s character in our head. We know that the story should force Dorothy into progressively greater conflicts so she sees how much her friends care for her, how much they stand by her and come to her aid. These conflicts should build until the final crisis (the Wizard leaves without her and she is trapped in Oz) where she is made aware of the deep love her family and friends feel toward her.

Every character must have a want and a need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every character, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.

In planning our stories, it’s important that we determine our main character’s wants and needs first. In doing so, we’ll always have a goal to focus on as we write. Ask ourselves, what are our main character’s wants and needs? Can we express them in one sentence? Dorothy wants to return home and needs to find the Wizard of Oz to help her. Give it a try. If you get lost, just click your heels together and repeat, “There’s no place like home.”

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Self-Discipline for the Writer

Nancy J. Cohen

Writers sit in a chair for hours, peering at their work, blocking out the rest of the world in their intense concentration. It’s not an easy job. Some days, I marvel that readers have no idea how many endless days we toil away at our craft. It takes immense self-discipline to keep the butt in the chair when nature tempts us to enjoy the sunshine and balmy weather outside.

We don’t only spend the time writing the manuscript. After submitting our work and having it accepted, we get revisions back from our editor. This requires another round of poring over our work. And another opportunity comes with the page proofs where we scrutinize each word for errors. How many times do we review the same pages, the same words? How many tweaks do we make, continuously correcting and making each sentence better?

These hours and hours of sitting are worth the effort when we hold the published book in our hands, when readers write to us how much they enjoyed the story, or when we win accolades in a contest. As I get older, I wonder if these hours are well spent. My time is getting shorter. Shouldn’t I be outside, enjoying what the community has to offer, admiring the trees and flowers, visiting with friends? Each moment I sit in front of the computer is a moment gone.

But I can no more give up my craft than I can stop breathing. It’s who I am. And the hours I sit here pounding at the keyboard are my legacy.

BICHOK is our motto: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. This policy can take its toll on writers’ health with repetitive strain injury, adverse effects of prolonged sitting, neck and shoulder problems. We have to discipline ourselves not only to sit and work for hours on end, but to get up and exercise so as to avoid injury. This career requires extreme discipline, and those wannabes who can’t concentrate for long periods of time or who give up easily will never reach the summit. They can enjoy the journey and believe that’s where it ends, but they’re playing at being a writer and not acting as a professional.

We’re slaves to our muse, immersed in our imaginary worlds, losing ourselves to the story. And then we have to revise, correct, edit, read through the manuscript numerous times until we turn it in or our vision goes bleary. We are driven. And so we sit, toiling in our chairs (or on the couch if you use a laptop). Hours of life pass us by, irretrievable hours that we’ll never get back.

So please, readers, understand how many hours we put into this craft to entertain you, to educate you, and to illuminate human nature in our stories.

And this doesn’t even count the time required for social media.

I put myself in the chair until I achieve a daily quota. In a writing phase, this is five pages a day or twenty-five pages per week. For self-edits, I aim for a chapter a day but that’s not always possible. I do this is the morning when I’m most creative. Afternoons are for writing blogs, social media, promotion, etc.

How do you get yourself to sit in the chair day after day? Do you set daily goals? Do you offer yourself rewards along the way? Do you ever doubt the time you sacrifice to your muse? Or do you love the process so much that you’d not trade those hours for anything else?

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Impart Info with Attitude

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share tips on imparting factual information without it coming off like the dreaded “info dump”. Enjoy!Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred
——————-

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

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!

Say you want to write a fast-paced novel and your background is in a specialized field, so you decide to set your story in that milieu you know so well. Maybe you want to write a legal thriller or a medical suspense, or a mystery involving scientific research or stolen artifacts. Or maybe you’d like to use your military, police, or forensics experience, but your writing experience to date has mainly been confined to producing terse, objective, factual reports.

As you’re writing your story, you decide at various points that you need to interrupt the story to explain something the readers may not understand. And you want to get it right, both to lend credibility to your story and because you’re concerned about criticism from other professionals in your field. Your first impulse might be to copy and paste sections on that topic from a journal or online search, then tweak them a bit. Or just stop to explain the technical points in your own words, factually, as you would in a report or research paper, then go back to your storyline. Big mistake.

You’ve just interrupted an exciting (we hope!) story to give a mini-lecture. Remember that the main purpose of fiction is to entertain your readers with an engaging tale. To do that, it’s critical to stay in the story and in the viewpoint and voice of your compelling, charismatic (we hope!) characters.

How to keep your credibility but write with passion and tension

Want to keep your readers turning the pages? Try to turn off possible reactions of colleagues in your field and remind yourself that your goal here is to entertain a broad spectrum of the population with a riveting story. So limit your factual, informative details to only what is necessary for the plot, and present them through the character’s point of view, with lots of tension and attitude.

Go through the section several times and keep loosening up the words and sentence structure to take out the stuffiness and achieve a more casual tone, in the voice of the point of view character for that scene – it needs to be their thoughts, not the author stepping in. And introduce emotions and reactions – make the character frustrated, angry, or anxious.

And if it still sounds like a university lecture or a journal entry, make your character less reserved, less nerdy, less buried in his work. Give him more charisma and universal appeal, even a bad-boy rebellious side, and add quirks and more attitude.

Better yet, insert another, contrasting character to the mix to add in some tension, conflict and contrast.

Present the facts in a heated dialogue.

To impart some specific information while keeping your readers turning the pages, try these steps:

1. First, in a separate file, copy or write the bare facts in a paragraph or two – up to a page.

2. Go in and loosen up the language a bit – rewrite it in layman’s language.

3. Choose two interesting characters who each have some kind of stake in this info and are passionate about the topic, but in different ways.

4. Give them both charisma and quirks – and opposite personalities. Maybe make them competitive or distrustful.

5. Give them each their unique voice, based on their personality differences.

6. Give them opposing views on the topic or conflicting goals.

7. Using those facts, create a question-and-answer or argumentative dialogue between the two characters.

8. Add in some character actions, reactions and sensory details.

Now it’s starting to read like fiction!

Remember, most of your readers will be outside your field of specialty, and won’t find those dry factual details as fascinating as you do!

A before-and-after example, disguised from my editing:

Setup: A rebellious, trigger-happy cop has been ordered to be examined by a psychiatrist.
The brief “info dump” part starts with “Dr. Brown flipped…”

Before:
Dr. Brown opened up Jake’s file. “What happened after you were discharged from the Army?”
“I decided to become a cop. After police academy, I was assigned a beat in the Washington Park area in the South Side of Chicago.”
“The Washington Park area?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough part of town.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
Dr. Brown flipped a few pages in the file where there was some background on Washington Park. The summary stated the area was only 1.48 square miles but was usually considered either the most dangerous or second most dangerous neighborhood in the United States. In fact, in some years it had seen more than three hundred violent crimes committed on its turf. Crimes such as murder, robbery, drug-dealing, assaults, prostitution, and rape were committed regularly in Washington Park.

After:

Here, the author has replaced the above factual paragraph with a dialogue.
“Washington Park?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough area, I hear.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
“How so?”
“The area is tiny, barely one and a half square miles, but it’s infested with crime. Some years you get more than three hundred violent crimes there.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, murder, drug-dealing, robbery, assaults, prostitution, rape—you name it, they’re all run-of-the-mill activities in that area. Stress city, man—I made my bones there.”

How the experts do it – with attitude!

Here’s an excerpt from a scene in a crime lab, as an example of how bestselling thriller author Robert Crais reveals the details of the fingerprinting process without interrupting the story to fill in the reader as an author aside:

[…] The white smear was aluminum powder. The brown stains were a chemical called ninhydrin, which reacts with the amino acids left whenever you touch something.
Starkey bent for a closer inspection, then frowned at Chen as if he was stupid.
“This thing’s been in the sun for days. It’s too old to pick up latents with powder.”
“It’s also the fastest way to get an image into the system. I figured it was worth the shot.”
Starkey grunted. She was okay with whatever might be faster.
“The nin doesn’t look much better.”
“Too much dust, and the sunlight probably broke down the aminos. I was hoping we’d get lucky with that, but I’m gonna have to glue it.”
“Shit. How long?”
I said, “What does that mean, you have to glue it?”
Now Chen looked at me as if I was the one who was stupid. We had a food chain for stupidity going, and I was at the bottom.
“Don’t you know what a fingerprint is?”
Starkey said, “He doesn’t need a lecture. Just glue the damned thing.”

And it goes on like this. Entertaining reading, and we’re learning some interesting stuff at the same time.

~ from The Last Detective, by Robert Crais

Another good example of how to impart info without boring your readers:

Here’s how Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore provide some information on a well-known structure in Las Vegas, without sounding like a travelogue or encyclopedia. This is from The Blade, an excellent thriller I edited in late 2012:

Setting: The Strip, Las Vegas

“So the Reverend Hershel Applewhite is a liar,” I said when Kenny returned from accompanying Carl down to the hotel lobby.
blade-cover4-internetI stood at the window staring at the imposing pyramid-shaped Alexandria Hotel in the distance. I’d read somewhere that the forty-two-billion candlepower spotlight at the top of the hotel could be seen from space. The same guy who designed it—I couldn’t remember his name—built similar pyramid hotels with beacons in South Africa and China. Claimed he wanted his lights to be seen from every corner of the world.

Writers and readers – do you have a short example to share of imparting info with attitude?
————

 Jodie 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, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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Tricks to Creating a Page-Turner

By Joe Moore

If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.

But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.

Trick #1. Write short chapters.

Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.

This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.

There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.

Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.

From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.

Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.

This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.

As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and  causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.

Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.

Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.

If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.

Trick #4. Title your chapters.

Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.

Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.

Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?

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Not For Us!

By Joe Moore

We’ve all gotten them. Some are personalized and contain constructive criticism. Others are form letters addressed to “author”. Some have been photocopied so many times that the cryptologists at the NSA couldn’t even decipher rejecttheir original message. Or they might arrive as a brief thanks-but-no-thanks email. They all say the same thing: your manuscript is not for us.

Rejected.

There are numerous ways to deal with literary rejection. We can all imagine the negative methods. But today, I want to discuss the positive ways to deal with the not-for-us letter.

After you’ve amassed an impressive stack of rejection letters, start by asking yourself if your query letter or synopsis might be the issue. You might have written the next Great American Novel, but if your sales pitch—your query letter—doesn’t do the job, the editor won’t want to move to the next step of requesting a sample. One method of improving your query and synopsis is to get help from an impartial third party such as a published author, writer’s forum or critique group. If you know someone who’s already published, ask if they can read your letter and give you advice on where you might be going wrong. Many online forums such as AbsoluteWrite, Writing Forums, and others have specific sections on query evaluation and feedback. Use them.

Next, you want to determine if you’re really targeting the appropriate publishers or agents. This is where you need to study the market. Go to the local bookstore and find novels that are similar to your manuscript. Make a note of the publishers. Many novelists include the name of their editor or agent on the acknowledgements page. Note those names. Then go online and visit the publisher’s websites. Read the descriptions of the plot on Amazon and B&N, and compare to yours. Google the agents names. Look at their list of clients. Are those writers some of your favorites? Do they write books similar to yours? Do your homework and focus on specific publishers and agents that deal with your kind of book.

Another question you need to ask yourself is if your book is as good as it can be. Of course, you’ll probably answer yes. Then take a moment to really consider the question. Are you being rejected repeatedly because the manuscript is just not ready for publication? Chances are, it probably isn’t.

So what should you do? Again, get outside help. One of the best ways to improve a manuscript is to join a local critique group. Most towns and communities have a library. Ask the local librarian if there are any groups that meet in the area. Check with the local bookstore. They usually know of critique groups or have bulletin boards that might list them. Critique groups that are made up of serious writers can be a huge benefit to helping you improve your work. Just remember that critiquing is a two-ways street. You want honest and sincere feedback, and you need to be prepared to give it back to your fellow members. There’s a very good chance that a group of fellow writers can help you get your story in shape so you can start submitting again.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. Agents and editors are in business to make money. If they don’t sell books, they go broke. If they don’t discover new books from new authors, they eventually go out of business. Their rejection of your work is nothing personal. Chances are, they don’t even know you. All they know is what they read in your query or sample. And the reasons for rejecting a manuscript can be as numerous as the number of submissions they received that day. Don’t blame them.

Forget about the lame excuses like: publishers only publish big established names and famous people. Or your book was rejected because it’s “different”, experimental, too unique for mainstream. Or you can’t believe they rejected your book when there’s so many bad books published. Go to The New York Times bestseller list. Look at all the writer’s names. Each and every author on that list was once an amateur struggling to get someone to read their manuscript and dreaming of making money as a published author. Every one of them fantasized about seeing their name on that list. What did they do? They realized that rejection really doesn’t mean “not for us”. It means “not ready for us yet”. Now go fix your book.

Any rejection stories to share? How many rejection letters did you get before that first book was published? If you’re published, do you still use a critique group or beta readers?

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Not For Us!

By Joe Moore

We’ve all gotten them. Some are personalized and contain constructive criticism. Others are form letters addressed to “author”. Some have been photocopied so many times that the cryptologists at the NSA couldn’t even decipher rejecttheir original message. Or they might arrive as a brief thanks-but-no-thanks email. They all say the same thing: your manuscript is not for us.

Rejected.

There are numerous ways to deal with literary rejection. We can all imagine the negative methods. But today, I want to discuss the positive ways to deal with the not-for-us letter.

After you’ve amassed an impressive stack of rejection letters, start by asking yourself if your query letter or synopsis might be the issue. You might have written the next Great American Novel, but if your sales pitch—your query letter—doesn’t do the job, the editor won’t want to move to the next step of requesting a sample. One method of improving your query and synopsis is to get help from an impartial third party such as a published author, writer’s forum or critique group. If you know someone who’s already published, ask if they can read your letter and give you advice on where you might be going wrong. Many online forums such as AbsoluteWrite, Writing Forums, and others have specific sections on query evaluation and feedback. Use them.

Next, you want to determine if you’re really targeting the appropriate publishers or agents. This is where you need to study the market. Go to the local bookstore and find novels that are similar to your manuscript. Make a note of the publishers. Many novelists include the name of their editor or agent on the acknowledgements page. Note those names. Then go online and visit the publisher’s websites. Read the descriptions of the plot on Amazon and B&N, and compare to yours. Google the agents names. Look at their list of clients. Are those writers some of your favorites? Do they write books similar to yours? Do your homework and focus on specific publishers and agents that deal with your kind of book.

Another question you need to ask yourself is if your book is as good as it can be. Of course, you’ll probably answer yes. Then take a moment to really consider the question. Are you being rejected repeatedly because the manuscript is just not ready for publication? Chances are, it probably isn’t.

So what should you do? Again, get outside help. One of the best ways to improve a manuscript is to join a local critique group. Most towns and communities have a library. Ask the local librarian if there are any groups that meet in the area. Check with the local bookstore. They usually know of critique groups or have bulletin boards that might list them. Critique groups that are made up of serious writers can be a huge benefit to helping you improve your work. Just remember that critiquing is a two-ways street. You want honest and sincere feedback, and you need to be prepared to give it back to your fellow members. There’s a very good chance that a group of fellow writers can help you get your story in shape so you can start submitting again.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. Agents and editors are in business to make money. If they don’t sell books, they go broke. If they don’t discover new books from new authors, they eventually go out of business. Their rejection of your work is nothing personal. Chances are, they don’t even know you. All they know is what they read in your query or sample. And the reasons for rejecting a manuscript can be as numerous as the number of submissions they received that day. Don’t blame them.

Forget about the lame excuses like: publishers only publish big established names and famous people. Or your book was rejected because it’s “different”, experimental, too unique for mainstream. Or you can’t believe they rejected your book when there’s so many bad books published. Go to The New York Times bestseller list. Look at all the writer’s names. Each and every author on that list was once an amateur struggling to get someone to read their manuscript and dreaming of making money as a published author. Every one of them fantasized about seeing their name on that list. What did they do? They realized that rejection really doesn’t mean “not for us”. It means “not ready for us yet”. Now go fix your book.

Any rejection stories to share? How many rejection letters did you get before that first book was published? If you’re published, do you still use a critique group or beta readers?

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The Golden Ticket

We attended the American Idol Experience at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first time last weekend. I’d only tuned in once or twice to the show so I wasn’t overly familiar with the format. However, I do appreciate talent shows for finding the stars of tomorrow, and I understand how wildly popular this program is to its fans. Contestants at Disney have auditions during the morning, and then there are five shows during the rest of the day, with three competitors each. The audience votes on the winners, so in the Final Show, all those with top scores from earlier performances compete against each other.

Whoever wins this final daily competition gets a “golden ticket”, a chance to audition at the front of the line, so to speak, for the real American Idol. At least this is how I understood the process; I won’t vouch for it 100%. Anyway, three judges participate in the show, and each contestant sings a song of their choice from a given list. You can see their hopes and dreams in their faces. The experience was fun, and I’d go again.

Then I came home and checked my email and found a message from my agent. We’d gotten a rejection for one of my submissions. My hopes for that project plummeted. I felt like the losers in American Idol, with disappointment washing away my dreams. It was a close call, too, because the editor liked my work very much but they were publishing something similar.

We go through this all the time as writers, and yet those who stick to their guns are the ones who succeed in this biz. Look, it took me six practice books before I sold my first novel. Now fifteen published books later, I am still getting rejections. The publishing market has always been tough, and these days it’s even tighter. But we have to go on stage just like the singers in American Idol, throw ourselves into the performance body and soul, and wait with bated breath for the audience results. Do we move on to the next stage, i.e. a contract and copy edits, or do we step back and regroup before trying a different tack?

Truly I sympathized with those contestants during their vocal performances and the subsequent judging. Maybe editors can’t see our faces or hear us sing when they read our work, but our words sing for us. And if we don’t make the cut, well, there’s always the next show.

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