Skip to the good stuff (aka, How to write a query letter)

Okay, really, I should have titled this post, “How I wrote a query letter.” Because I’m not an expert on writing queries. You can find fantastic advice at Query Shark or Evil Editor, or even on some writer sites like Absolute Write. Many, many agents have done posts on writing the perfect query letter (like Nathan Bransford). Start there, then come back here.

But I also know that it’s tremendously helpful to read queries that worked (i.e., got requests), and I’ll try to break down what I think worked and where I could have improved.

I’m going to lead off with my first novel, Wicked Sensibility. The novel never made it to representation, but I got a lot of requests based on my query letter. Here it is, in its unedited glory. (Oh, all right, I did change the characters’ names.)

Dear Ms. Agent:
I am currently seeking representation for my novel, WICKED SENSIBILITY, an urban fantasy with romantic elements, complete at 125,000 words. I found you via AgentQuery, and after reading a few of your guest blog appearances, I think you sound like a lot of fun! After seeing the types of novels you like to read, I think this may be a good fit for your list. I hope you feel the same. 
Still single at twenty-seven, Allison is starting to think strong and independent are code words for lonely. That is, until she meets Sam and his brothers. Finding romance with Sam means learning his family’s secrets–and learning that she is one of the few humans with whom they can share their hidden powers: the ability to manipulate emotion through touch. 

Not everyone is happy with their relationship. As the youngest, Sam is struggling for independence while wanting to remain loyal to his family. After living undetected among humans for centuries, his brothers are wary of an outsider knowing the truth, and they sure aren’t subtle about it.  But when a powerful adversary starts attacking them in a bid for their territory, the brothers must put their differences aside just to stay alive.

When their attacker turns his sights on her, Allison finds herself fighting for her life with powers she doesn’t yet understand. But emotions are tricky things, especially when others can alter them. When the real reason behind the attacks is revealed, Allison discovers that maybe she doesn’t know the truth about Sam at all. With her life at stake, she’ll be forced to make some hard decisions about who can be trusted, who’s really in danger, and who the true villain is.

WICKED SENSIBILITY is my first novel. (Well, the first one fit for public viewing.) The full manuscript is available upon request. I have attached the first few pages for your review, as per your requirements on AgentQuery. 

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Okay, so the word count was a killer. This was three years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. But the core elements in the query still work.

Here are some of my recommendations for query-writing. (And remember, I’m just a writer. I’m not an agent, and I’m not an editor. Individual results may vary. Do not use this product while driving. May cause drowsiness. Consult a physician if you have an erection lasting more than four…oh, wait.)

1) Be yourself.

I’m a laid-back person. I also work in a professional, corporate atmosphere. I know how to be professional, yet also let a few shreds of personality shine through. While my first paragraph may be a bit chatty, I wasn’t afraid to be a bit friendly. Keep in mind, however, friendly does not equal stalker. I remember reading one agent’s blog on her birthday, and I almost said something about that in my query letter to her. (Like, “I hope you had a happy birthday!”) Then I realized that might make me sound like a freak hiding in the bushes with a bottle of chloroform and a wad of gauze. Err on the side of professional.

2) Don’t worry about getting every detail of your story into your query. 

The only goal of your query letter is to get the agent or editor to be interested in your story enough to read your pages. That’s IT. The query won’t sell your whole book for you. Pick the key points of your novel and go with those. Look at the query above: I clearly have a big cast of characters, but there are three main people in the query. Allison, Sam, and the mysterious villain.

3) Make sure you show the CONFLICT. (More about this in my post on plotting.)
That’s the core of your story. It’s a decision, a choice, a turning point. If there’s not a choice in your query, you’re probably missing the plot of your book. Look for words like “must” and “or.” If you’re missing those two words, chances are your query isn’t complete.

Ready for more? Here’s the next query, and this one garnered far more requests, and this book actually landed me an agent.

Dear Ms. Agent:
Twenty-five year old Sarah Parrish doesn’t know what’s more frightening: that there’s a swordsman killing people in downtown Baltimore—or that she’s the only one who sees him and his victims.
Talented musician Jack Smithson is the last person she should confide in: he has a frightening past, a razor sharp tongue, and enough anger to make Sarah wonder if she can trust him at all. He’s also the only person who believes her—and he should: his wife was killed by a vanishing swordsman five years ago.
Sarah falls hard for Jack, drawn by his fantastic talent and the wicked mystery surrounding his life. But then the swordsman comes for her—and instead of taking her life, he leaves her with a clear warning that the man she loves has been lying from the start. When Sarah’s mother and her best friend disappear—with clear signs that Jack was involved—Sarah has to decide who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, and who the real villain is.
ALWAYS MUSIC is an urban fantasy complete at 120,000 words. I have lived in Baltimore for my entire adult life, and the city’s vast history and rich culture have always made it seem like the type of place where gods would play.
Thank you for your time and consideration. The first pages have been pasted below for your review. I’d be delighted to send you sample chapters or the full manuscript at your request.
Sincerely,

All right, so clearly I liked the “decision” line from my first query, because I used a variation here. I also tightened up the query and led off with the story, saving things like the title and word count for the end. (Don’t get excited when you see that I had this word count and still landed an agent. Tamar had me cut it down to 100,000 words before we started submitting to editors, and thank god she did. If you need some help cutting words, please see my posts on revisions. All three are in the sidebar to your right.)

Both novels are romances at their core, so the final decision is going to be whether the girl can trust the guy she’s come to love. But that same simple conflict can come to play in any genre. Paranormal Thriller: Ben must locate his last living descendant in one of the thousands of Catholic high schools across the country before she’s killed by his enemy — but he’s a vampire and he can’t step on holy ground. Mystery: Joe Schmoe was the only witness to the mayor’s murder — but he has a criminal past, and everyone thinks he’s to blame. Now he must solve the mystery himself, or spend the rest of his life in prison — while the true murderer is free to kill again. Middle Grade: Plain Jane has a chance for the lead at the school’s dance recital, but her mom lost her job, and they can’t afford dance lessons anymore. Jane must find a way to save up for the lessons she wants, before nasty Griselda Murray takes the lead — and Jane’s dreams — away.

Okay, I made all of those up on the spur of the moment, and I’m not gonna lie, there’s a half empty glass of wine right here. So they’re crap. But the point is, you need to show your core conflict. That needs to be the base of your story. That’s the canvas — everything else is the paint.

Most people start with something like a synopsis and try to pare it down. That’s the wrong way to go. Take out the names and start as generically as possible. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy is about to be shipped away on assignment. Boy must decide whether to give up his life dream of traveling with the Navy, or lose the girl forever.

Once you have that, you can turn it into a query:

Devlin was only looking for a quick drink at the bar — not a quick fling. He definitely wasn’t looking for love, but when free-spirited Cameron takes his picture as part of a promo deal for her company, she captures his heart with it.

But Devlin has a ticket in his pocket, one that’s about to send him halfway across the globe on a mission to save humanity from a flesh eating virus released by pirates in the Indian Ocean. He has three days before he’s due to leave. Three days of bliss with Cameron. Three days to decide whether this is just a fling after all.

When the virus hits the States, Devlin knows he’s three days too late. Now me must race the clock to deliver the cure where it can be replicated to save humanity. But that leaves Cameron at risk. Now he must decide whether to save thousands — or risk them all to save one: the woman he loves.

Again, that’s crap (did I mention the wine?), but it’s got the core elements, and I wrote it off the cuff. It was easy because I started with the skeleton and built from there. Don’t start from the outside in.

Does anyone have any query success/failures they want to share?

A tragic tale of shattered dreams (Oh, and how to plot a novel.)

Let me tell you a sad story.

So two years ago, I went to RWA. I ended up having lunch with a girl I’d never met, a friend of an acquaintance. She was very nice, and she was coming to lunch fresh off a pitch session with an editor.

She claimed the pitch had gone horribly. She had spent two years writing this romance novel, all about a girl moving to Paris to escape a bad relationship. She’d been querying somewhat successfully, but no real interest. The pitch session started well. She’d felt encouraged when the editor showed interest in the premise.

Then the editor said, “That’s great. What’s the external conflict?”

The friend-of-a-friend went on to talk about the girl finding herself, and becoming independent, and all those great things you want to see a female protagonist do in a novel.

The editor said, “Yeah, okay, that’s great. What’s the external conflict?”

Aha. The problem.

There was no external conflict. She had a 100,000 word novel about a girl moving to Paris to escape a bad relationship. That was it. There was no plot.

The lunch was a real downer after that.

But you know what? The whole scenario was a real eye opener for me.

There’s a lot of advice out there about writing the perfect query letter. Here’s the thing: if writing the query letter feels impossible, the problem might be your story.

I do a lot of writing from the seat of my pants. Sometimes I’ll start a thread and see where it goes. Sometimes those threads get deleted, sometimes they make a perfect connection later in the story. (In my current novel, I gave one character a retired police dog for a pet. No real reason; just because I thought it would be cool. But later in the story, I needed the dog’s owner to locate another character who’d gone missing. My amazing critique partner Sarah Maas said something like, “Well…Isn’t the dog a police dog?”)

The problem with seat-of-your-pants writing is that it’s very easy to lose track of a plot. Seat-of-your-pants writing typically just starts with a scenario (OMG, I would love to write about fairies on the moon!!), and you have to either come up with a plot right away (The fairies need to find magic moon dust or their race will die!!) or you’re going to be stuck writing nothing but a series of events.

First the fairies begin building houses on the moon. Then the boy fairy and the girl fairy kiss. Oh, but there’s another fairy who’s interested in the girl fairy. And now they want to go on a journey for no apparent reason but it’s fun to write!

Sound familiar?

First, let’s get the guilt out of the way: there’s nothing wrong with writing a series of events. It’s great practice for putting scenes on paper, developing character, finding out the theme of your story.

You know how sometimes you’ll say, “My story really gets going in chapter five”? That’s because you spent four chapters screwing around, trying to figure out what your plot was going to be.

That’s not an insult. I have two of those sitting in a drawer myself.

It wasn’t until I started getting a lot of rejections that said things like, “The writing is great, and I love the characters, but the plot really isn’t linear,” that I realized I needed to have my core plot in mind before I started writing.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. My novel that’s currently on submission started out pretty simply:

When Becca saves a classmate named Chris from what she thinks is a cruel act of bullying, she learns he and his brothers are part of a secret race with special powers, and they’re at war with others of their kind. 

That’s the scenario. That’s usually all I’d have in mind to want to start the book. That’s NOT the plot. There’s no conflict. There’s the promise of conflict (bullies, war, high school), but it’s all hypothetical. That core conflict is what needs to be nailed down.

A lot of queries stop there, too. They shouldn’t. That’s just a scenario. It’s like saying, “I stopped off at the store this evening, but men with machine guns were hiding behind the display case of the bakery.”

Imagine your spouse walked in the house, dropped that line, and then went about making dinner. Wouldn’t you be like, “OMG!?!?!? THEN WHAT?!?!?!?”

So, yeah. Scenario is great to get you started, but not enough to carry you through. I know, I know, you really want to get those first pages on paper. Go ahead, do it. But don’t get more than a chapter down before you stop yourself. Because you really need to think of a plot. I learned this the hard way. Learn from my pain. Please. I get excited too.

So before I let myself get too excited and start writing, I force myself to think of the core conflict — the plot.

By saving Chris and befriending his brothers, Becca unknowingly throws herself into the middle of their war. When her life is threatened, she must decide whether to stand with Chris and his brothers — a decision made more difficult when their actions show they might not be the good guys after all. 

There’s a key word in there: decision. There’s your core conflict. She has to decide whether to help them or stand against them.

These examples are deliberately vague for a reason. THAT’S OKAY. We’re not talking about a pitch, we’re not talking about a query. We’re talking about finding a core conflict to start a novel, especially if, like me, you want to write from the seat of your pants. (This can be built into a query/pitch later.)

Right now, details aren’t important. You don’t need to know whether Chris and his brothers will actually be heroin addicts or murderers or kitten rescuers or boy scouts. All you need to know is that at some point, your protagonist is going to face a decision, and you should have some idea what that decision is. If she goes one way, the bad guys win. If she goes the other, the good guys win. At this point, you don’t even need to know who the bad guys will really turn out to be. Just what the options are.

Starting with your core conflict is like building a house and starting with the frame. You can hang everything (drywall, bricks, whatever) from it, and it will stand up pretty well. But if you start slapping up drywall before the frame is in place, it’s going to be a mess to fix.

Trust me, I learned that the hard way, too.

~

Stop! Thief! You ran off with my time!

A friend emailed me the other day and asked where I find time to write.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. I have a full time job — a real full time job, made up of a forty hour work week, combined with an hour long commute each way. I have a three year old who is in day care and preschool, and I have an awesome thirteen year old stepson who’s with us half the time. I also coached fall soccer for the preschooler’s team, and I’ve participated in just about every school event so far this year.

I’m also a writer. I get words on paper.

I’m not supermom. (OMG, the stories I could tell you. Don’t get me started on the time Nick walked around the cooking island, clutching a butcher knife in his hand…) I’m out of shape and my body is crying out for me to make use of my gym membership. And writing time does not come without sacrifice.

Here’s what I don’t do:

1) Socialize

Seriously, I rarely go out. I try to write almost every night. This has to wait until after Nick goes to bed, which means I don’t break out the laptop until 8pm. I’m not a fast writer, so if I want to put 1,000 words on paper, I know I’m going to need to devote a good two hours to get a quality scene in place. When someone asks me to go out, I always hesitate because it’s going to make me sacrifice three things: time with my family, money, and a night’s worth of writing. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.

2) Watch television

I rarely watch TV. My husband was out of town recently for three days. My television only played Nick Jr. for my son. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of these anti-TV die-hards. I don’t think my son would eat breakfast if I turned the TV off. But I do pick my shows judiciously. Again, TV steals my writing time. Here’s what I watch, and please feel free to judge. (You know you want to.)

  • Medium
  • The Office
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • Glee

Sometimes I will catch an odd episode of something my husband watches (like The Biggest Loser or Fringe or something), but those five shows are pretty much it.

3) Shop

I’m not a shopper. I might be more of one if I had a body I wanted to show off in nice clothes, but I’m still living under the illusion that I will one day fit back into my pre-baby clothes. At least I’ve stopped telling myself, “It’s okay! You just had a baby!” But seriously, I don’t go out shopping.

4) Ride horses

Here’s where the true sacrifice comes in, and it was never more acutely painful than this morning, watching kids at a horse show. I used to be an avid equestrian, but I don’t do it anymore. I just don’t have the time. My son sat on a horse this morning, and I just about burst into tears. He clearly inherited the genes. I spent years teaching horseback riding lessons, and he’s one of the first kids I’ve ever sat on top of a horse who just sat upright with his legs hanging down, ready to go. This, this is a sacrifice. I miss the horses. A lot. But riding takes a lot of time and money, and right now I’m not willing to give up either of those. Every minute is too precious.

5) Clean the house

Okay, sometimes I do. But usually it’s a 3 hour process, after I’ve spent a month letting the house fall into a state vaguely resembling an episode of Hoarders.

Here’s what I do do:

1) Write

Sometimes writing is like going to the gym. You don’t do it for a few weeks, other things creep into those time slots, and suddenly you don’t know where you’re going to find the time for it. The time is always there, people. The only way you’re going to get a novel written is to do it. Sit down, open your laptop, and do it. Don’t let other people steal your time either. Tell your husband (or wife) you need some alone time, tell your kids to do something else (or wait until they’re asleep), plant your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard.

Yes, this is harder than it looks. That’s why my husband got me a reloading Starbucks card, and I’d camp out there for two nights a week. The card automatically reloaded once a month so I stuck to a budget, the place had awesome comfy chairs, and I got a ton of writing done. That’s what it took. We now have a remodeled basement where I can hole up while my family forgets I exist, but you might have to go off-site to get some writing done. At least until you get into a routine.

It’s also hard to know someone needs you at home. When I’m at Starbucks, I don’t know that the dog has peed on the floor, the three-year-old has turned his juice box into a water gun, and the pasta sauce has somehow fallen on the base of the cupboard. I can just tune out the people around me (hello, headphones!) and write.

2) Seek feedback.

I have awesome critique partners. Amazing people. Sometimes I hear writers say they don’t want feedback. But let me tell you: beta readers with teeth make a huge difference. It’s great to have one cheerleader who always tells you you’re great. But running ideas past people who give you an honest opinion is a great way to find out if you’re writing something over your head. Seriously, do you want to be great or do you want to be placated? My mom’s a total cheerleader. If my son coughs, she’s practically telling him he invented the reflex. She’s not so great at genuine feedback. That’s fine, because I know it about her. Look at your beta readers and make sure you’re getting more than, “OMG this is amazing!!”

The other benefit to regular critique partners is that you’re suddenly accountable to someone other than yourself. If you’re swapping stories back and forth, you’ll get into a nice rhythm, and you’ll want to keep it going.

3) Say no.

This is a really hard one for me. I’m a people-pleaser. I want to say yes to everyone. But I realized that I was being a total crap-head when I would say yes, then back out at the last minute because I was too busy. I’ve finally started saying no (nicely!!) to people. (See above where I say I don’t socialize.) If you put your writing at the forefront of your mind, you’ll quickly learn to look at every situation as, “Do I want to sacrifice my writing time to go out for drinks with Jerry?”

And hey, I have a life too. Sometimes you do have to sacrifice writing time. That’s FINE. Don’t beat yourself up about it. 

4) Drink lots of coffee.

Lots and lots and lots. This is what keeps me awake to write in the evening.

There’s one other thing I don’t do, but I probably should: set writing goals. I would read about people saying, “I have to write 1,000 words a day or my life is crap,” (or something), and it would make me want to cry. Some days I can’t write 1,000 words a day. I tried setting those goals, and I always felt like such a failure, so I stopped.

But the other day, I read a great entry at the Story Flip blog (www.storyflip.blogspot.com), where she said she didn’t do daily goals, she set weekly goals. She, too, didn’t like the pressure of having to write every day, and didn’t like falling behind so quickly. I love the idea of weekly goals. So when I start the next MS, I’m going to try to push myself into that.

Writing isn’t a sacrifice for me. I love it. But there are definitely things I’ve had to shove out of my life for it. Do I miss them? Sure. A lot. Sometimes, painfully so.

Do I regret it?

Not one bit.

Revisions Made Easy (Part Three): Action Scenes

I love a good action scene. I write urban fantasy, and I love nothing more than to throw some punches, swing some swords, and draw back a bowstring.

Good action scenes can propel a story forward. It’s a good opportunity to reveal a new side to a character. (People react very differently under pressure, and a fight scene brings out all kinds of emotion.) Fights can let you show empathy, cruelty, courage, fear, anger, fury, humiliation…I could go on all night.

Bad action scenes suck.

Do you ever find yourself reading a fight scene in a book, and you start to skim? The biggest problem I see with action scenes is too much detail. Detail slows pacing. You want the reader’s eyes to fly down the page–and that’s not going to happen if you’re writing about the feel of the grip of the gun in your heroine’s hands, the sounds of the bullet leaving the chamber, the echo of the gunshot in the room…again, you’re bored already, aren’t you?

I think movies kill our writing. In a movie, you can zero in on the barrel of a gun, crank up the tense music, and have a heavy pause before the bullet explodes from the weapon. It’s instinctive to try to make your writing emulate a movie experience. But the problem is that slowing down a moment in a movie builds tension. Slowing down a moment in a novel breeds boredom. They’re two different mediums. In a book, if you want to ramp up the pacing, use shorter sentences. Fragments, if you have to. Make it fly.

It’s not just details. Remember on Sunday when we talked about the reader making leaps with you? It’s never truer than in an action scene. You don’t need to write every swing of the sword, every footstep, every motion. Leave some of that to the imagination.

Here, I found an old scene that’s almost embarrassing to post. Here’s the unedited version.

The vampire went very still. “You do not want to challenge me.”

“Wrong.”

Gabriel felt a flicker of inquiry brush his mind. An evaluation. The vampire laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Gabriel shifted sideways, edging around the bench, dropping his center of gravity. Preparing to fight.

Any trace of humor disappeared from the vampire’s face. “You’ll get yourself hurt.”

Gabriel took another step, closer, yet still sideways, beginning to circle. “I’ll take my chances.”

The vampire lunged forward and spun, aiming a kick high. Gabriel dodged, pivoting to block with his arms, and found himself taking the brunt of a sudden volley of rapid-fire punches. He had no opportunity to strike back. He could barely defend himself.

He leapt backwards to earn himself a moment to retaliate. When the vampire pursued, Gabriel swung his arm wide and low, aiming below the ribcage.

The punch met air, and his wrist was seized out of the darkness in a grip of iron. The vampire held fast and swung his other arm around in an arc, driving a fist into Gabriel’s elbow.

The pain was blinding. Gabriel hardly felt his knees hit the pavement.

Relentless, the vampire threw a punch that connected with Gabriel’s jaw, threw his head back, and stole his balance. The next strike connected with his sternum and laid him on the ground.

The back of his head struck the pavement, hard, followed by his arm. Gabriel cried out and tried to roll to his feet.

The vampire caught him by the throat and shoved him back down. He gripped tight and knelt on Gabriel’s unbroken wrist to pin him there.

Then the vampire simply looked down at him. “I told you.”

Lots of action. Too much detail, too much telling. Part of the fun of reading is imagining some of it. Hearing every detail starts to feel like reading a textbook.

Details kill pacing.

Let’s try the same scene again, and I’ll take a heavy hand to the delete key.

The vampire went very still. “You do not want to challenge me.”

“Wrong.”

Gabriel felt a flicker of inquiry brush his mind. An evaluation. The vampire laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Gabriel edged around the bench, dropping his center of gravity. Preparing to fight.

Any trace of humor disappeared from the vampire’s face. “You’ll get yourself hurt.”

Gabriel took another step. “I’ll take my chances.”

The vampire lunged forward, aiming a kick high. Gabriel dodged, pivoting to block with his arms, and found himself taking the brunt of a sudden volley of rapid-fire punches.

Gabriel swung his arm wide and low, aiming below the ribcage. The punch met air, and his wrist was seized in a grip of iron. The vampire swung his other arm in an arc, driving a fist into Gabriel’s elbow.

The pain stole his vision. Gabriel hardly felt his knees hit the pavement.

The next strike connected with his sternum and laid him on the ground.

The back of his head struck the pavement, hard, followed by his arm. Gabriel cried out and tried to roll to his feet.

The vampire caught him by the throat and shoved him back down. He knelt on Gabriel’s unbroken wrist to pin him there. “I told you.”

Far fewer words, much less unnecessary detail.

I recognize that the delete key has been a recurring theme over the last few days. I cannot emphasize how much pruning will improve your manuscript. Don’t think of it as cutting words. Think of it as cutting fat. You’re turning that side of beef into a filet mignon.

Revisions made easy (Part two)

All right, no one came out pointing fingers and calling me a no-talent hack, so we’ll keep this going.

Enough rules. Let’s just talk.

Passive voice

In my experience (and let’s be honest, it’s not all that vast), passive voice is one of the most misunderstood aspects of writing. Raise your hand if you’ve gotten slammed for passive voice on a message board for writing a sentence like, “The girl was running through the park.”

Imagine me raising my hand.

First, let’s talk about message boards for a moment. They’re a great place to put your writing out there for a quick critique. Most people who comment on critique boards are generous of spirit and talent, and they deserve your thanks, even if you don’t agree with them. They’re also usually amateurs (that’s not an insult — I’m an amateur), and that means you should take their advice with a grain of salt. (Take mine that way, too.)

It’s like using Wikipedia for research. It’s great for the quick-and-dirty, but it’s not all you should use, and it’s not always die hard accurate.

Okay, enough digressing.

Here’s a rule for you: the word was does not necessarily indicate passive voice.

If you slap the word “was” in front of another verb, it makes the past progressive tense. Like my example above, “The girl was running through the park.” You’ll find this most often when you have an action that’s interrupted. “The girl was running through the park when the masked man assaulted her.” There’s nothing passive about that sentence.

A better word to look for is “by.”

“I was hit by the car.” There’s a passive sentence for you.

“The car hit me.” There’s an active one.

Simplify. Personally, I find passive voice harder to write than active voice. Sometimes your brain gets so trained to put your protagonist as the subject of a sentence, you can’t seem to break out of that mold. Like we talked about yesterday, once you’re in your character’s head, it’s easy to start every sentence with “she” (or whatever), and it’s easy to start telling (instead of showing).

Take a look at this:
Sarah saw the car swerve in her direction. She was hit by the car before it skidded into the building.

At first glance, those sentences don’t seem too bad. Something is happening! There’s a car accident!

But it’s telling (in the first sentence) and passive (in the second).

Let’s try revising it this way:
The car swerved in Sarah’s direction, hitting her before skidding into the building.

There’s nothing really wrong with the first example. But we’ve got that new subject (yay!), and we’ve got an active sentence. Try to get in the habit of making whatever’s doing the acting the subject of your sentences, and you’ll avoid a ton of telling, and a ton of passive voice.

Dialogue Tags

I love dialogue. I’m guilty of skimming passages of narrative just to find the dialogue. Done right, it should move a story forward and give your characters some personality.

First off, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue tags. Some people try never to use them. That’s silly. Sometimes you need them, and nothing is more frustrating than trying to find out who said what in a scene. Don’t use them if you don’t need them.

Here’s a whole passage without a single dialogue tag. Do you have any trouble figuring out who’s speaking?


His hand fell away as he backed up to fold his arms across his chest. Tattoos snaked across his biceps and down his forearms, shifting as his muscles moved under the skin. “For Christ’s sake, lady, you’re downtown. Nothing’s that—”


“Shut up.” Kate got in front of him. “You can’t treat her that way.”

Sarah stooped to shove her belongings back in her bag. “It’s fine, Kate. We’ll just—”


“It’s not fine!” Her friend was still facing down the man. “You’re lucky she’s not pressing charges.”


His face hardened, turning his eyes flinty. “All right. Get out of here, both of you.”


“Gladly.” Kate turned and put a hand on Sarah’s arm and started dragging her out of the shop. “Come on, Sar. Let’s get back to work.”

Action will only get you halfway. You can’t slap meaningless actions next to your dialogue, or that just gets exhausting. Do you ever find yourself reading a whole passage where characters are constantly running a hand through their hair, quirking an eyebrow, or other actions that go nowhere? Sometimes you need a tag. Be careful, though: using words other than “said” can also turn into a crutch.

Compare:

“Just go to bed,” he snapped angrily.

vs.

“Just go to bed,” he said, turning away and raising a hand as if warding himself from her presence.

or

“Just go to bed!” he said. “I’m sick of listening to your mouth.”

All three get the same point across. The latter two give you a much better feel for the character. Would you have guessed that the speaker was impatient and rude from the first example?

When you’re revising and you find things like, “grumbled,” or, “hissed,” or “hollered,” take a look at the dialogue itself and see if it works on its own. Or see if there’s some way you can punch up the dialogue to eliminate the need for that tag.

I know I promised to talk about action scenes tonight, but I think I see some eyes misting over, so I’m going to save it for tomorrow night. Does anyone have an action scene they want picked apart for the blog? I’m sure you guys are sick of seeing my examples. Who wants to see some revisions in action?

Thanks for reading!

Revisions made easy (Part one)

Haha, that title’s kind of a joke right there.

I’m not one for the writing posts. I’m not a teacher, I don’t have an MFA, and there are a billion-and-one posts all over the web about how to strengthen your writing.

But there’s not a lot out there about revising, especially for beginner writers. There’s a lot of reference to it. Everyone always talks about doing it. Second drafts, fifteenth drafts, whatever. Some people edit as they go, some people do it at the end, some people don’t edit at all, there’s no right answer.

Editing is not revising. Let’s get that out of the way right there. I think of editing as fixing typos, correcting grammar, things like that. I think of editing as copy-editing.

Revising is taking the structure of your story and making it better.

Rule 1) Stop counting your drafts

Seriously. Who cares? Who cares if you’re on your first draft or your tenth? Do you? Really? If you feel like you made it perfect on your third draft, maybe you’re feeling pretty awesome about it when you hear about someone on their sixth draft. Well, maybe that person on their sixth draft is rolling their eyes and calling you a n00b. Seriously, stop counting. Or if you want to count, stop taking that number seriously. It means nothing.

And if you’re not counting now, and you think you should be? You shouldn’t.

Rule 2) The delete key is your friend.

The first manuscript I queried was 125,000 words long.

I hope you choked on a cup of coffee or something when you read that sentence, because I’m sure agents were laughing hysterically when my query came through. And here’s the kicker: I remember vehemently telling my husband that I really needed all those words to tell the story! I needed them! It was just a long story with a lot of characters! Agents would see my genius!

Yeah, right.

If you ever find yourself saying something like this, “Chapter five is when it really gets good…” then you need to acquaint yourself with your delete key.

The mistake I made in my first manuscript is that I was in love with my characters. I’m not embarrassed to say that. I loved them. I kept thinking up new fun scenes to have them interact, and I kept writing them. I left all those scenes in the story. First they battle the bad vampire! Then they have a knife fight! Oh, and this guy can save his girlfriend from a holdup at the restaurant where they’re having coffee! Oh, and now they can have a sword fight!

Yes, I had a plot, but you couldn’t find it behind all those scenes.

Right now I’m on my fourth manuscript. It’s done, off to my agent, ready to go on submission. Two weeks ago, I’d sent it off to her after revising the hell out of it. I cut like ten pages, and I think I even said in my email, “I’ve cut as much as I can.”

She sent it back to me, fourteen pages shorter. FOURTEEN PAGES. That’s not one page, folks. That’s not four. FOURTEEN. And it’s not like she chopped a whole chapter. That’s fourteen pages worth of sentences pulled from the entire manuscript. I opened the file, saw all the deletion balloons on the column, and I thought I was going to cry.

Really, I thought I was going to cry. These were my words. My babies. I couldn’t cut fourteen pages.

But then I realized something: the other FOUR HUNDRED pages were just fine. They were my babies, too.

(In case you’re wondering, I agreed with almost every deletion, and didn’t put them back in. My agent is brilliant. The only thing I kept was a short scene between two characters that I felt was necessary to the story.)

Here’s my analogy to deleting: imagine you’re a size ten woman. It’s a perfectly respectable size. You look nice, no one calls you fat. You can wear dresses out, you get compliments. No one is hounding you to lose weight. There’s nothing wrong with being a size ten.

But say you hit the gym for three months. You start eating lean. Suddenly you’re a size four, and you look SMOKING HOT.

There was nothing wrong with the ten. But we’d all agree we’d love to be that four.

Let’s play with some examples. Here’s an unrevised paragraph from A Wicked Little Rhythm, the manuscript that landed me an agent:

Their first destination was a dance club, and Sarah had already forgotten the name. The door was painted a glossy black, and situated in the middle of a bare brick wall. There was no sign, but there was a pulsing beat that moved the sidewalk where they stood in line to show their IDs.

Now, reading that over, it’s not bad, but it’s nothing special, either. Here’s how I’d revise it:

Their first destination was a dance club, and Sarah had already forgotten the name. A glossy black door sat in the middle of a bare brick wall. No sign, just a pulsing beat moving the sidewalk where they stood in line to show ID.

Same concept, tighter writing. And fewer words!

Another prime spot for the delete key is bantering dialogue. If you have characters go back and forth for six lines, you can probably make your point in four. I love dialogue, and it drives my entire story. But dialogue that goes on too long is tiring to read, and it loses its smartness. Keep it sharp, snappy, active.

Also watch your dialogue tags. If you have an action following your dialogue, you can lose all the tags. I catch these in my own writing all the time.

Finally, lose actions we (the reader) expect. I read a great piece of advice the other day: only write what the reader won’t assume. If you have someone walking down the street talking about going to meet her husband for lunch at his law firm on the 20th floor, you don’t have to show her walking into the lobby, pressing the button for the elevator, riding in the quiet car for two minutes…see, you’re already bored, aren’t you? You can skip right from the dialogue on the street to the scene at the law firm. Readers will make the jump.

Some examples of the above:

Okay: “Thanks for the lift,” he said, as he unbuckled his seatbelt, slid out of the car, and stepped onto the curb.

Better: “Thanks for the lift.” He slid out of the car and stepped onto the curb.

Best: “Thanks for the lift.” He slid out of the car.

Rule 3) There’s nothing wrong with your adverbs.

The problem is your verbs.

Ha! Thought I was going to give you an easy one, didn’t I? Here’s the thing people miss when they whine about adverbs: there’s nothing wrong with them. Sometimes they are necessary. But the problem is never the adverb. It’s the verb it’s modifying.

If you say someone “sat gingerly,” instead, say, “she perched.”

If you say someone “spoke loudly,” instead, say, “she yelled.”

If you say someone “walked quietly,” instead, say, “she tiptoed.”

Any time you find yourself slapping down an adverb, look at the verb you’re modifying. Chances are, there’s a better one.

Rule 4) I don’t care what you see, hear, or feel.

This is one of my biggest faults, and I’m forever pulling these out of my manuscript. I found one in my ready-for-submission MS today. It’s like finding another gray hair. Pull it out! This is also a big sign of telling vs. showing.

Here’s what I mean:

Sarah felt the edge of the swordsman’s blade nip at her neck.

AUGH. It’s killing me to type that.

Here’s how it should be:

The edge of the swordsman’s blade nipped at her neck.

Here, we’re solving two problems. First, we’re getting a new subject (always desirable — if you take a step back from your manuscript, you’d be surprised how many sentences start with HE or SHE), and second, we’re getting a more active sentence. Any time you say, “She heard,” or “He felt,” or “She saw,” you’re distancing the reader from the character.

It doesn’t feel like it should be that way. You think you’re writing about feelings and you’re giving your reader keen insight into your character. But saying, “He saw the sun rise over the bay,” is TELLING, and saying, “The sun rose over the bay,” is SHOWING.

There’s your difference.

I hope this is helpful! This is my first ever “writing” post, and I’m all kinds of nervous about putting it out there, but one of my critique partners keeps encouraging me to do it. (Hey, Alison! *fist bump*) Please feel free to ask questions (if you have any) in comments. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it.

Tomorrow: Passive voice, Dialogue tags revisited, Action scenes that move

(Unless you guys kill me in comments. :-P)

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