I’ve given up fighting. I’m doing it, I’m doing it!
I wonder how many creative writing classes and MFA programs include a course in query-writing. I guess if you’re a superbly outgoing person capable of making such a stunning impression in an elevator that you get an automatic request for your fulls, you don’t have to.
Where can I find a class in how to be that person?
The very first line of your query has to tell the agent or editor how long your book is.
The execrable fact is that they expect certain genres to fall within certain limits.
When you’re an overwriter, like me, always able to stroke out one more metaphor, one more lilting phrase, one more neat character detail, hitting those word limits can be a challenge.
The problem intensifies when your writing groups and betas want “More! More!” Or when they push you to look at issues in your story that you glossed over before but now can’t leave unresolved.
So I faced querying a psychological-suspense manuscript at 107,000+ words and an accidental-detective mystery at 106,000+. I’m here to report that both books are now under 100,000 words.
I’ve read enough submissions in writing groups to know that I’m not the only one in need of a repertoire of tricks (okay, strategies) for corralling a manuscript that has bolted for the hills. I needed “Power Cutting” skills.
I know what a lot of us would say: Cut 7,000 words?!? That will destroy my book! My brilliant writing will win over readers no matter how long it is.
Maybe, but you have to get an agent or editor to read your brilliant writing instead of thinking, “That sounds way too long.”
In fact, my efforts taught me strategies, many of them simple fixes, that actually improved my books rather than devastating them.
Not only will these strategies help you catch bad habits, they’ll force you to think hard about your story: What is it about, what belongs and what doesn’t? At least, that’s what Power Cutting did for me.
Here are some of the big-ticket things I learned.
Have a word-count goal. Until you make up your mind that you MUST cut, you won’t. Watching that number at the bottom of the screen sink and sink inspires!
Cut hard now, reconsider later. You might cut too hard and scrape off too much voice, but storing your cuts in a separate, renamed file saves your original language, ready to reinstate after you’ve exceeded your goal.
Remember that no one but you knows what you took out. No one else will miss your golden imagery or your delicate dialogue exchange.
Cut via a complete read-through. You’ll spot problems like repetition that would not show up if you dove in at random, and you’ll maintain the continuity of your story.
Throughout, remember that clarity comes first. Always make sure, for example, that it’s clear who’s speaking before you cut a dialogue tag.
Ask first and last, what does this scene/paragraph/line add?Three cuts to look for:
Work you’ve already done. Yes, certain themes and events should be kept before your readers, but when you find yourself thinking, “Didn’t he already say this?”, he probably did. If there’s no new twist to a scene or interior monologue, it can go.
Dialogue exchanges that don’t further the plot. Banter for banter’s sake, no matter how scintillating, takes up real estate. Dialogue cuts better when it’s sharp.
Piled up details/metaphors/images. In literary fiction, you can interweave whole pages of lyrical description with luscious introspection. In commercial fiction, most paragraphs drag after more than one detail or image, no matter how powerful. Pick the one that does the most work in the fewest and/or most evocative words.
I found some more specific strategies as I progressed with my cutting. I’ll share some of those in an upcoming post.
Prologues can be a contentious issue. Everybody has a different opinion on them. I’ve known of readers who love them, agents who hate them, and everything in between! The last novel I wrote started with a prologue, even though as a reader I’m not a huge fan of them. Sometimes you just have to do what works for your novel. But for anyone who’s not sure, I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of prologues below.
You can hook the reader Prologues tend to be short and sweet, and so it gives you the opportunity to really hook the reader with a gritty opening. You don’t need to introduce the characters involved in any depth, which gives you the chance to create a real air of mystery.
Chance to use a different POV The prologue doesn’t have to follow the pattern of the rest of your story…
Everyone should read this! I’ve learned from attending conferences that agents and editors read differently from writing-group colleagues. Until you’re critiqued by an actual agent, you can’t know what works for them in your opening pages. You won’t get that feedback from cold querying, but conferences provide opportunities to learn firsthand how what you’ve written is received.
The pros and cons of an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing are widely debated: on one hand, such programs offer students the opportunity to work with accomplished authors, whose expertise (and endorsements) could make all the difference in publishing their first book. On the other hand, such programs often come with a hefty price tag, with fully funded options few and far between.
But regardless of whether you go for an MFA, some things are critical to establishing a career as an author that you probably don’t know, unless you’ve learned them the hard way (or you’ve worked in publishing).
I say this as someone who went for an MFA and then went on to establish a career as both an author and an editor. And this is information I want to circulate widely—first, because I know how hard it is to have…
This debate featured back in 2016 by Nate Hoffelder on The Digital Reader about the vice and virtue entailed in buying used books—knowing full well that the author receives no compensation—resonated for me because I’ve been feeling guilty about my own Half-Priced Book purchases. I’m not sure I’m feeling less guilty, but at least I know that some defend the practice. The short argument is that used bookstores are where readers are created when they “discover” authors they come to love.
A couple of personal observations:
I’ve long been a fan of Dick Francis (and every horse person and most mystery readers should be as well, IMHO). I reached a plateau where I had overdosed on his formula and quit reading his new ones, and at some point I lost/gave away/never owned copies of his early books, among them some of his best. Off I went one day to my local B&N to pick up new copies and rekindle the relationship. NOT. B&N had none. Not even a recent title, for example those co-authored or authored by Francis’s son Felix in the writer’s final years and after his death.
So off I went to HPB. I was able to find copies of Dead Cert, Nerve, For Kicks, Flying Finish, and many others. Now I often find more recent titles for my bedtime reading and find that Francis is as entertaining as I remember him.
I guess I could buy these on Amazon. Not from Kindle—I hate reading online at bedtime. But am I cheating Francis’s estate, or his son? In my defense, often the earlier titles are available only from third-party sellers, usually used booksellers themselves. What’s more, checking on Amazon for this post, I found that some of the older titles are being released only on Kindle, with all print editions relegated to third-party sources.
I do use HPB and other used bookstores to “discover” authors I might like. I often feel that my reading is too limited and that I ought to be more up to date with what EVERYONE is reading. Every time I venture into the store, I pick up a book by an author I’ve not yet sampled, sometimes by authors I’ve never heard of, or by authors who have been declared the Next Great Thing. Just to see. If I’m going to toss a book to the floor after forty pages, I’d rather it be a book I paid $3.99 for rather than $29.95.
Will I then pay full price for the next title of an author I like? Hmmm. I did pay full price for a new title by Sarah Waters and might again. But I must confess, I tend to search at HPB first.
I missed this debate when it was supposedly “raging,” but it seems to me worth continuing.
I like this discussion from Roz Morris (via Chris the Story Reading Ape) at Nail Your Novel. I’m struggling with revisions to endings and this post gives me some useful questions to ask.
Exposition! Eeek! In my case, not so much a sign that I didn’t “explain” earlier as that I worry that I didn’t explain clearly or explicitly enough. I’m converting an expository section to a scene between two of the characters left standing. Not sure yet if it’s working, but it’s better than what I had.
So make use of Roz’s advice if it pertains to you!
It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem. We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?
Here’s a handy test.
You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.
This is like story endings.
A good ending
First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.
When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.
It fails the arrest test.
Which is this:
It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events…