Bestselling and award-winning author Beth Wiseman taught a workshop on fiction writing. With her permission, I am posting (and embellishing) my notes from the class which were the most helpful to me, and hopefully, to you.
Table of Contents
Click a topic in the list below to go directly there.
- What to Write
- Books Worth Reading
- What It’s Like
- The Craft
- Character Development
- Writing Good Dialogue
- Point of View
- Things to Avoid
- Ways to Turn an Editor Off
- Finished Manuscript
- Choosing an Agent or Publishing House
- The Query Letter
- The Process
You have answered your calling to write. You are staring at your computer screen, your notebook (if you’re old school), your typewriter (if you’re old, old school). Where do you start? What should you write? The following guidelines are helpful.
- Set goals for yourself. Will you write 1,000 words every morning at breakfast, or 10,000 words a day at 10:37 p.m.? Whatever you’re writing, set clearly defined goals and stick to them.
- Pick a genre. What do you like to read? What is your area of expertise? Don’t pick a genre you hate. Once you get your foot in the door, your agent and/or publisher will try to brand you. Your best bet is to write about things you enjoy or things you know like the back of your hand, because chances are, you will be writing in this genre for a while.
- Know your market. If you don’t know your market, you are lost before you begin. Buy a current copy of Writer’s Market and study it. Read books in your genre. Google your genre. Google books in your genre. Besides, you will need to know your market when you approach an agent or a publisher.
Beth suggested the following books for writer’s of all ages and stages:
- Writer’s Market by Robert Lee Brewer (editor)
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
- Write Away by Elizabeth George
- Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Brown and Dave King
Writers still wet behind the ears will soon realize this is a lot of work! Things to note are:
- Writing for publication is a business, and as such, you will need to find your own balance between work and family life. True, there’s not a set schedule per say, but you will have pressure and deadlines and people pulling you in all directions. Set boundaries. Stick to your guns.
- Be self-disciplined. Set goals (see #1 above).
- Network, network, network. Put yourself out there. Go to writer’s conferences. Enter writing contests. Join your genre’s writer’s association. Blog. Facebook. Twitter. Etcetera, etcetera. The more you get out and meet people, the bigger your platform. The bigger your platform, the better you look to an agent or publisher in the query letter. (More on the query letter follows.)
- Character development and dialogue are extremely important. (More on these topics follow.)
It takes a lot more than heart and a good story to get to publication. It takes hard work, determination, and “several layers of thick skin.” It takes blood, sweat, and tears. Don’t ever give up. “Dreams do come true!”
That said, there are some things to keep in mind when crafting your manuscript. You don’t have to lose your voice while following “the rules” of writing, but there are a few guidelines to consider when fleshing out your story.
Read on for sections on character development, writing good dialogue, beats, point of view, voice, drafting, things to avoid, ways to turn an editor off.
Let’s be real. There are books out there with characters that lack originality. The way to get ahead of the pack is to develop your characters. How do you do that? Keep reading.
- Steer clear of stereotypical characters. Be original. Be creative. Think outside the box.
- Be sure your characters make sense. If your characters are unbelievable, your manuscript will be too (and not in a good way).
- Characters need conflict to keep the story moving forward. Humanize them. Make them real. Have them bicker, fight, interrupt each other, and so on.
- Characters should have both internal and external goals, just like you and I do. (More on internal and external goals can be found here soon.)
- Quirks and nicknames are an excellent way to add originality. Just be sure you are not over-using them, and use them for one character only! If five different characters nicknamed Bubba all run there fingers through their hair when they are nervous, you got some work to do.
- Character profile. A great way to get to know your characters is through a character profile. There are a number of ways to do this, but you could start by brainstorming and creating a list of physical traits and characteristics, names/nicknames, habits, and internal and external goals.
More of a learned skill, good dialogue is something you have to work at. Practice makes perfect. A few tips are:
- Avoid extravagant use of exclamation points! Only use them if your character is shouting! If your character is excited, show that in your dialogue! Insert a beat (more on beats follow)! If you really feel the need to stress something, italicize instead! You wouldn’t want to feel hollered at and neither do your readers!
- Don’t be passive. Use beats and R.U.E.–Resist the Urge to Explain.
- Read out loud. Hearing your dialogue will help to form natural conversations. Close the door if you’re scared of sounding like an idiot. Keep in mind a conversation never goes like this:
“Hello. How are you?”
“I am doing well. Thank you. How are you?”
“I am well. Thank you.”
“Have you eaten?”
“No. Have you?”
“No. Would you like to?”
Nor is it necessary to write every single speech characteristic. For instance, Southern dialect:
“Hey, how yew?”
“A’ight, thank ya. ‘N yew?”
“Naw, d’y’aunt to?”
Wasn’t that hard as hell to follow?
What the heck is a beat?
It’s that little bit of action nestled in the dialogue. For example:
Sally curled up in a ball and pulled the covers over her head. “Mommy!”
Mommy came running. “What’s the matter honey?”
See? Beats are fantastic. Those little bits of action show Sally is scared and Mommy is concerned. It eliminates the need for he said/she said and keeps the story truckin’ along. There’s no need to tell us. It’s all there in the beat.
Choosing the right P.O.V. can make or break your story. There’s no “right” one exactly, only the right one for your story. Avoid head-hopping (switching P.O.V.’s often or too soon). Only change the P.O.V. every four or so paragraphs, or every page, or every chapter if you can help it. If you do change the P.O.V. within the chapter, use line breaks to add clarity.
Finding your voice–your own style of writing–takes time and practice. The more you write, the more your voice will develop. Beginners naturally try to mimic their idols, and so it goes with writers. That’s all fine and dandy, but in order to stand apart you will need to develop your own voice.
It helps to be consistent in your style of writing. Don’t write in one style one day and change it the next. For goodness sake, don’t change styles between paragraphs or chapters. You will do well not to change your style ever, once developed, since your readers will expect you write a certain way.
How many drafts should you write? While there is no concrete answer to this, most agree at least two are necessary. Write however many you want so long as you don’t over-craft your story. You don’t want to lose your voice or sound clinical.
When writing the first draft, some find it easier to just write as fast as they can, so as not to lose the story. Others like to do minor (or major) edits along the way. Find the way that works for you.
After you write your first draft, put it away and don’t look at it for a while. This could be a few weeks, or a month, or a year, however long it takes for you to read your story with a fresh set of eyes. Then you are ready for your second draft.
In the second draft, read for things like grammar, punctuation, point of view, repetition, etc. and make notes about what needs changing. You should even look for plot and character problems. In other words, look for anything that gets in the way of your story or makes you look like an idiot.
- Bad opening. You want a catchy opening line and first paragraph, something that will grab the reader’s attention and make him or her want to keep on reading. Hook, line, and sinker.
- Starting out with too much back-story. If you cram everything about a character in the first chapter, there is nothing left to say.
- Telling instead of showing. Watch for words like asked, felt, looked, as, like, and seemed. If you use MS Word, use the Find feature to locate and replace them with beats. R.U.E.
- Repetition. If you repeat the same word in the same paragraph, or in the same sentence, it’s time to buy a thesaurus. (You should always have at least one thesaurus and one dictionary for referencing. Having two thesauruses is better, since they often have different words in each.) Too much “he said, she said” is kinda boring. Insert a beat instead. Some repetition is good. Too much is just distracting.
- Redundant phrases. For instance: “Sally was shaking as she lay curled up in a ball with the covers pulled over her head. She was scared.” How else would Sally be? (Yes, obviously, there are other things wrong with this example, as many things go hand in hand. But go with me on this.)
- Too much internal thought. Internal thought is ok to some degree, but if your character is hem-hawing all the time about their emotions, moods, or back-story, you are telling instead of showing again. Work it into your story with some action or dialogue. Keep the story moving forward.
- The prologue and epilogue. Prologues and epilogues are fine in some instances, but if you can, work them into the story.
- Using “as” or “like” too much. These are typically used to tell instead of show, and that’s no bueno. Similes and metaphors are fun, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
- Modifying adverbs. Here is another great time to use the Find feature in MS Word. Search for any “-ly” words and eradicate them! Modifying adverbs are telling instead of showing, and as we’ve covered time and time again, we don’t want that.
- Common phrases and clichés. Boooooo. I know. But they are so much fun! Yeah, well, they are over-used. If you must use a phrase or cliché, be creative and original, but don’t use too many.
- Not properly formatted. Follow the guidelines posted on the editor’s (or publisher’s, or agent’s) website. A LOT of manuscripts and/or query letters get rejected because they are not formatted correctly.
- Bad dialogue.
- Bad query letter. (More follows on the query letter.)
- Too many ellipses. ONLY use ellipses (…) when a character’s dialogue is trailing off, and not for any other reason.
- Bad opening.
- Too much back story.
You’ve put in the time, polished it till it shines, and are beaming like a proud parent. Your manuscript is complete. Now what?
Get someone else, anyone else, to critique and/or edit it. Even if you have done 10 drafts of the thing, it still needs a new set of eyes and an audience other than yourself. Consider having more than just one person look at it.
There is no need to pay for a critique. Anyone can read and critique your manuscript. True, it helps to have someone more advanced in the craft do the editing, but anyone whose opinion you trust or whom you feel comfortable reviewing it will do. You don’t have to make every single suggested change, but you should at least consider them with an open mind.
Also, consider the following options once your manuscript is completed:
- Enter contests to gain recognition for use on your resumé.
- Attend conferences and workshops in order to network and pitch to editors and/or agents.
- Research the market. You should have already been doing this, but keep an eye out for potential markets, agents, and editors. Sometimes it turns out to be who you know that makes your big break.
When you are ready for an agent or a publisher, do your homework. Know your genre, market, audience, what’s trending, etc. The better prepared you are, the more effective your query will be.
Research the agent or publisher of your choice. Find out which genre that agent represents and/or what that publisher publishes. It makes no sense to query with a romance manuscript if the agent or publisher only accepts mysteries.
–A Word on Agents–
They really do want to represent a great manuscript, just as a publisher really does want to publish a great novel. Food for thought:
- Your agent works for you. He or she should look out for you and your interests, first and foremost. Your agent should be willing to “go to bat” for you.
- You and your agent will be married. That is, you and your agent will spend a lot of time working together, so you must cooperate, collaborate, and corroborate. Find one that is simpatico.
- Commission rates are sometimes negotiable.
Ah, the query letter. Why does such a simple letter give us writers such grief?
The following should shed some light on the subject and, hopefully, make it a not-so-daunting task to accomplish.
I’m essentially going to re-type the handouts given to us at the workshop word-for-word, plus adding a few extras that were discussed.
A good query letter must be 90% better than all of the other letters received by agents or editors. (Beth Wiseman’s) agent receives 1,000 queries per month, and she is looking for any opportunity to stamp ‘pass’ on them. Here are some things she suggests:
- Point out the main idea of your story with as few words as possible. Think of the great teasers you read on the back of books.
- Mention anything that might make you stand out. Have you been published before in any format (magazines, short stories, newspaper, etc.)? Have you won any writing awards? Is your hero a cop and so are you? If you are offering a medical mystery, are you a doctor? Mention classes you’ve taken and writing conferences you have attended. Mention anything that shows dedication to the craft (An agent wants to represent a writer who will put forth as much effort as they will. Same goes for publishers.).
- Check current writing guidelines online before sending query.
- No spelling or grammar errors.
- Include the date on your letter.
- Address it to a person (not Dear Editor or Dear Agent).
- Use a formal salutation (and spell their name right!).
- Single space paragraphs, double space between them.
- Include your name, postal address, email address, and phone number.
- Keep the letter to ONE SINGLE PAGE.
- If snail mail–SEND A SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope).
- DO NOT mention who has rejected your book before.
- DO NOT include endorsements for your project.
- DO NOT send gifts.
- DO NOT tell the editor/agent how long you’ve been working on your book.
- DO NOT mention the assistance of others.
- DO NOT tell the editor/agent it still needs work.
- DO NOT request advice, analysis, or a critique.
- DO NOT talk about how thrilling it would be to be published.
- DO NOT talk about how you’ve been writing since you were a child.
- DO NOT include inappropriate or off-subject information about yourself.
- DO NOT discuss the rights you wish to sell.
- DO NOT discuss price, payments, commission rates.
- DO NOT give your social security number.
- DO NOT wear out your welcome by writing too much or failing to get to the point.
- DO NOT query without doing your research to see if your project is a good fit.
- DO NOT present more than one book in the same query letter. (If it is a series, you can mention that.)
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The Parts of a Query Letter:
- The Hook
- The Pitch
- The Body
- The Credentials
- The Close
Four Types of Hooks:
- The information hook–interesting information about the story.
- The question–poses a question right away.
- Personal experience.
- Attention grabber.
Hooks to Avoid:
- “Hi, I’m Amy and I’d like to send you a book about…”
- The “suck up” hook. “I’ve scanned your website, and you are the perfect agent for me…”
- The “bid for sympathy” hook. “I’ve never published before, but I’m recovering from surgery and could really use the money to pay my medical bills.”
- The over-sell. “This story will be appealing to fans of Hunger Games, and as such, should rise quickly to the top of the bestseller list.”
- The “I’m an amateur” hook– Never announce that you have never been published before.
Once you have the editor/agent’s attention, move on to the pitch. This is your second paragraph and should explain what you’re offering. For example, “Enclosed please find an 85,000 word romance targeted for (name of publisher)…” or “Enclosed please find a synopsis…” or “Enclosed please find the first three chapters…” (This is where your research on the agent or editor comes in handy. Know what their criteria are beforehand.)
This is where you begin to sell. Think back cover copy, and tell the synopsis of your book, but don’t omit the ending.
Mention any classes you have taken, degrees/job experience pertinent to the story, publications, conferences you have attended, etc.
Example–“If you would like to see a partial or completed manuscript with synopsis, I can have it to you immediately. Thank you for your time and consideration of The Wonder of Your Love. I have enclosed a SASE (if snail mail).”
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–Final Thoughts on Querying–
There is no need to copyright your work, and surely don’t mention it in your query letter. An editor/agent knows this already; stating this information is redundant and is the mark of an amateur. Definitely back up your work, though. Just in case something were to happen, you will not only retain your hard work, you will have proof the work is yours and when it was first completed.
Once you’ve sent your query, it may take a day or as long as six months to get a reply. Keep your expectations low, but don’t give up hope!
Assuming you are going the traditional route (and not self-publishing), you have queried your agent and/or publisher and gotten a bite. What comes next?
Although it may vary slightly between publishing houses and some steps occur simultaneously, listed below are the general steps in the publishing process.
- Book Proposal. If the publisher likes it, the publishing contract comes next. (More on book proposals can be found here soon.)
- Publishing Contract. The terms of the agreement are agreed upon and signed by both you and the publisher. (More on publishing contracts can be found here soon.)
- Editing. You and the editor should decide what works best and develop a strong working relationship. You will be spending a lot of time together. There will be edits and re-edits, then edits of the re-edits. Behold the dreaded blue pencil (if your editor still works this way). There will likely be multiple editors, such as the acquisitions editor, the line editor, and fact checker (for non-fiction). Be careful not to lose your voice during this process. But don’t fret; you will get the chance to review the edits.
- Review. After the editor has made suggestions and changes, you have the opportunity to agree or disagree and make the necessary corrections. Then, it’s off to the editor again for a final review.
- Advance Payment. Once your manuscript has been accepted by the publisher, an advance payment is usually made.
- Production. Any artwork, permissions, and legal matters are settled and the book goes into production.