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a: Friends, Countrymen, Take Up Your Words!

Today, 11:00 AM

Flickr Creative Commons: Wonder woman0731

It’s been a strange August full of strange happenings.

It started when I packed up my gypsy wagon once more and moved from Chicago to North Carolina with an unintended pit stop (i.e. dead car battery) beside a nuclear power plant. Did I mention it was the dead of night in West Virginia with everything closed the following day? Soon after, Charlottesville, Virginia, was set upon by white supremacists. My husband is a UVA alumnus and we dated through our undergrad years, so I have a romantic devotion the town, its students, and community. It broke our hearts to see it tainted with hate and violence. Immediately following, the sun and moon aligned in the first solar eclipse in 99 years. All in a month.

Prophetic much? I came close to telling my builder to scrap the house plans and dig a bunker. Then I remembered that living in fear is exactly what our enemies want—whether they come from within (supremacists) or without (terrorists). We can let the internal and external devils govern our actions, or we can seek some semblance of understanding so as to respond discerningly. Words are our power, friends.

As men and women whose lives are dedicated to the craft, the responsibility falls on us to be facilitators of a positive language exchange. Antagonistic rhetoric is too readily accepted today, indirectly and directly. It’s become the only way many know how to communicate. But anger and fear only fuel the beast.

Make no mistake: we are angry; we are fearful. But as guardians and proprietors of words, we understand that there is grace, knowledge, and a defined intent to every written and spoken element. This is the credence we give to spending hours deliberating over each a and the that make up the sentences and paragraphs and pages of our chapters. Words matter.

Once expressed, words resonate through the chambers of the world we inhabit and through the chambers of ourselves. We believe them— believe in them. So we must choose wisely, now more than ever. This is not the time for ignorance or flagrant tweets. 140 characters have the power to unite or destroy a nation.

Let’s be clear about the truth of language: words see no color of skin, religious affiliation, age, or sex. They supersede time, wealth, and political powers. They are steadfast as the mountains yet fluid as water. Our sacred texts even refer to them with veneration: In the beginning was the Word… They are to be honored and applied with due diligence. Anything less twists their nature and makes them void.

Silence is not an option either. I’m ashamed to confess that I tried that in the past. During the volatile election year, I had a well-meaning family member counsel me not to publicly express my personal beliefs. She warned me that it would never reflect my true heart. I’m guilty of caving to the pressure. I didn’t want to offend family and friends on either side of the political divide.

Charlottesville changed me. It was indisputable proof that polite passivity is its own kind of culpability. It allows malevolence to seed around us. We must write courageously. The conversation has been started whether we want to be part or not. It’s the writers’ duty to share perspectives.

I write fiction. On a daily basis, I put my Sarah-ness in a box and step into the shoes of other people, invented characters, historical figures, neighbors, friends, etc. My aim? To gain wisdom. I may not agree with the other individuals’ reasons and actions. I may never find clarity on the situations they faced, but it is my job to decipher intent—to root out the humanity. What I find may be ugly and horrific. Writers must be prepared for that. It’s part of the trade. We must be prudent in how we handle our subject matter.

We’re taught in craft classes to be an objective eye to the subjective universe. Not to cross author-narrator-character lines. Show, don’t tell. Use exclamations sparingly. Avoid red herrings. Trust your readers’ insights to prevent overwriting and didactic prose. Trust your readers, we tell ourselves when we want to write our own opinions into the story. Because we have a yearning to ensure that the world hears our message. But like all things, there is a time and place. Now is that time.

The moon has eclipsed the sun. The signs are clear. We must unite as writers to take back our noble, our good, our mighty ordinance. Love, truth, respect, understanding: these are the words that need declaration. Those who raise discriminate fists need reminding of the words on which this country was founded:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is an unalienable right, endowed by divinity. So it is written. So I believe. So I write.





About Sarah McCoy

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page, Goodreads, or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com.

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The Best Agent Advice from the 2017 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Yesterday, 06:27 PM

Couldn’t make it to the 2017 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City this past weekend? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered, with some of the best tips on queries, pitching, and general agent advice below.

Also, be sure to check out #WDC17 on Twitter for more great writing tips and advice from the conference. From all of us at Writer’s Digest, we hope to see you there next year!

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If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.


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a: The Trouble With Action

Yesterday, 11:00 AM

I don’t like action scenes. There, I said it. Feels good to get that off of my chest.

I’m referring to the ones in books. I mean, I just caught the last episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, and WHOA! Now that was some awesome action. So I suppose action scenes in movies and TV are often exceptions to my rule. And even in books it can depend on how you define “action.” I’m not talking about commonplace actions, like driving to the store or folding laundry—though those can be dreary, too. I’m talking about fight scenes, battle scenes, chase scenes, etcetera. I feel like I should like ‘em, but I usually don’t. Heck, even an Indiana Jones-like tunnel-to-cliff-to-river-rapids “who’s-got-the-stolen-sacred-relic?” type scene can tempt me to start skimming. And the older I get, the more I skim ‘em.

Of course it’s an exaggeration to say that I dislike all action scenes. I occasionally find my pulse rate rising and my page button clicking faster while reading an action scene. But it’s rare. And it seems to be getting rarer. I hear readers praising authors’ action scenes and action-writing capabilities often, so I just might be in a minority. Perhaps it says more about me than the current state of literature.

And of course I write action sequences myself, and hope that readers enjoy them. (Does that make me a writerly hypocrite?)

But I’ve come to feel that my taste as a reader in this matter provides writer-me with some guidance, so I thought I’d share. Perhaps you’ll find it useful.

On the Edge of Our Seats

Does this sound crazy to you? A fantasy writer who doesn’t like action scenes? I mean, we writers are supposed to make things happen on the page, right?

I remember when I first started writing, I LOVED writing action sequences. I would put on dramatic music and oh, how things played out so cinematically in my head as I poured my swashbuckling action out onto the page. I would get so pumped up—physically and mentally—as I opened the spigot on a fount of minutia that I presumed would make my scenes cinematic for others, often adding ever more detail with each editing pass.

I think it was from my longtime mentor, WU’s own Cathy Yardley, that I first heard the phrase “It had me falling asleep at the edge of my seat.” I still love that phrase (it was you, wasn’t it, Coach?). And yep, you guessed it—she was talking about those meticulously-crafted action sequences of mine. I can see it in hindsight. Readers read to find out what happens (as in results), not to research specifically how an elaborate event unfolds.

No one cares if my hero grips his saddle pommel with his left hand, with the wind whistling through his helm, so that he can lean to his right and, starting from over his shoulder, bring his broadsword down in a roundhouse swing, utilizing his mount’s momentum. They just want to know if he hits anything, and if so, how it affects the fight. More to the point, they want to get to the outcome.

Turns out all of my attention to detail wasn’t so cinematic after all. Even if writing my action scenes puts me at the edge of my seat, it doesn’t mean I’m not putting my poor readers to sleep on the edge of theirs.

But, but… Stuff’s gotta happen, right?

By now I’m guessing many of you are thinking, “Sure, but we can’t just skip the action and leap to the outcome.” Those of you who are, of course you’re right.

As our craft-gurus so often remind us, stories aren’t about what happens, they’re about how what happens affects our characters. On the flip side, if nothing happens, there is no effect. So yes—stuff’s gotta happen. And some of the best story-stuff is rooted in dramatic action. Plus, certain types of action are vital to certain genres. A thriller’s gotta thrill, right? What’s a murder mystery without a murder? And then there’s my genre, epic fantasy. Many, if not most, epic fantasy readers consider some sort of battle action to be essential to a truly epic tale. I mean, can you imagine The Lord of the Rings without The Battle of Pelennor Fields? Or A Song of Ice and Fire without The Battle of the Blackwater? I sure can’t.

I’m not advocating doing away with action scenes. Rather, writer-me is seeking a way to make them skim-proof, even for the likes of reader-me.

Striving for Skim-Proof Action

I confess, I’m not certain I’ve slayed this particular page-dragon. It’s an effort in progress. I still write my action sequences from the edge of my seat (with movie soundtracks blaring, mock blade near to hand, et al). I still tend to overwrite them. But that’s first draft stuff. There’s nothing to clean up till we pour out the ink, right?

Even a few of my favorite fantasy authors write action scenes that practically beg reader-me to skim. But some still manage to keep the ever crankier reader-me riveted throughout. I’ve been studying those that work, and I’ve made some observations.

*Detail: It’s About Quality, not Quantity—We’ve all heard about the importance of utilizing details in capturing authenticity. It’s true, but here’s where we can so easily make readers’ eyes glaze over. If you’ve ever read, or written (as I admittedly have), a fight scene where the writer takes note of which hand, or foot, is doing what, you know what I’m talking about. Or how about the mention of wounds that don’t hurt yet? (If it doesn’t hurt yet, why mention it?) One tip that helps me with this: keep it tight to your POV character. You can convey that lots of other stuff is happening with just a few words or phrases.

*Make those fewer details count—Well-placed details can really make an action scene come to life. But it’s not just having too many details that slows a scene. It can also be the inclusion of clichéd details (my “wind whistling through the helm” example above springs to mind). I’ve noticed some of my favorite authors add unique details that pertain not just to the setting, but to the characters. This is especially effective if those pertinent details are triggers to your POV character’s goals, motives, inner conflicts, or fears (Indiana Jones’s line, “Why does it always have to be snakes?” springs to mind).

*It’s okay to summarize—As I said, I tend to overwrite my action scenes. I feel like I have to justify how every little thing happens. How did my character end up over on that side of the battlefield? Where’d his opponent’s horse go when he fell off? In most instances, no one cares! So unless such details are vital to the reader’s suspension of disbelief, or somehow weigh on the outcome, I remind myself not to bother justifying them. Instead I tell myself that it’s okay to summarize a series of actions.

*Don’t disregard feelings… with a caveat—I think knowing how POV characters feel during an action sequence can help to keep the scene riveting. But dwelling on their feelings throughout an action scene can really bog it down. After all, most everyone in a fight for their life is angry, exhilarated, terrified, and so on. Also, I’ve noticed that descriptions of a character’s physical state (as in, gasping for breath, heart hammering, mouth dry, etcetera) can knock me out of the fictive trance. Once again, make your sparing inclusions as unique to your character as possible. As with most elements in fiction writing, when it comes to feelings in action scenes I try for a mixture of showing and telling.

[An Added Note: Since writing this essay, I’m fresh from the Donald Maass workshop, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. I can see that many of my ideas here sprouted in the fertile soils of his teachings. Don’s workshop particularly reminded me that there are many effective ways to evoke your characters’ feelings without naming them. If you’re like me, and looking to enhance this aspect of your craft, I highly recommend getting yourself to Don’s workshop, or getting the book. Or better yet, both!]

Getting to the Effects

As I study my own skimming tendencies, I can see that the temptation grows when the sequence of events becomes mundane or predictable in any way. If it’s true that stories are not about what happens but about how what happens affects characters, then as a reader I’m trying to get to the effects. In other words, I’m always seeking the core of the story.

Have you heard the theory that there are only seven stories? Well, if that’s true, it’s the way our characters are affected that’s central to what makes our stories uniquely ours. If we don’t make the action itself unique to our characters, and keep it free of cliché and predictability, there’s a danger the well-versed readers of our genres will find it skim-inducing.

So take action. Make the effort to ensure your next action sequence is riveting even to a reader like me–one who doesn’t (often) like action scenes.

How about you? Are you ever tempted to skim action scenes? Do you write them on the edge of your seat? Do you seek to make yours skim-proof? Please share your tips and your favorite action-scene authors.

Image: A Boring Read, by Laszlo Bartha at Flickr

About Vaughn Roycroft

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

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a: How a Professional Editor Can Improve Your Writing

20 August 2017 - 11:00 AM

Please welcome Jim Dempsey to Writer Unboxed today! Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and works as a book editor at a site called Novel Gazing. In his own words:

“I began my professional career as a journalist, working mostly in radio, and then, in the late 1990s, I adapted radio stories for the web. This meant editing my colleagues’ work to be read rather than heard. That took a lot of on-the-job training, courses, and a close attention to detail since radio journalists don’t need to have great grammar or spelling skills. Stories – pretty much all stories, fiction or non-fiction – have always been my passion. I studied them to get a Master’s degree in creative writing, and have always helped friends with their stories as they wrote novels. That gradually expanded to friends of friends and kept going until I was editing novels full time. I started Novel Gazing with two fellow editors in 2012, but that journalist in me still likes to get out now and then to write articles about editing, writing and, of course, stories.”

You can learn more about Jim and his services on his website, and by following him on Twitter (@jimdempsey and @novel_gazing).

How a Professional Editor Can Improve Your Writing

Editors do more than correct errors and rearrange sentences, they also develop a deep understanding of your book so that your readers will understand it too. Take a look at the two samples below. Which one is easier to read?

Most people would say that 2 is an easier read (note that I asked ‘easier,’ not ‘better’ – I’ll come to that in a moment).

And all it took to make the text clearer was some straightforward copy-editing. That means more than simply adding some commas and periods – the editor also has to understand what the author is trying to say.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always clear from just reading the text. Where there are doubts about the author’s intention, the editor has to ask for clarification.

This time I wasn’t able to ask the author. Samuel Beckett, most famous for writing Waiting for Godot, died in 1989.

This extract is from Molloy, and Beckett knew what he was doing when he wrote it. In the context of the novel, his style works perfectly. It emphasizes the sense of confusion. The wandering sentence is as lost as the character expressing it.

So, my revision of Molloy would be to miss the point of what Beckett was trying to say.

The understanding editor

And that’s why it’s important for an editor to understand not only what you, the author, is trying to say with each and every sentence but also understands what you want to say with your entire manuscript and how you want to say it.

To get that understanding, the editor has to read your work closely and appreciate why you have chosen those particular words and expressed them in that particular way. The editor has to know what you are trying to tell the reader.

To do that, the editor also has to see your book as the readers would see it – ideally as your target audience would see it. The editor has to spot any ambiguities, anywhere the readers could misinterpret the text or where their understanding might not match your intention.

That could mean revising something as simple as a mention of floppy disks in a YA novel set in contemporary times. Or it could be a European author writing, ‘It was 38 degrees outside,’ in a book intended for a U.S. audience – the author is imagining sunstroke conditions while the readers see the characters shivering.

Those are details, easily solved, but bigger-picture issues can be more difficult to overcome.

A clear message

This point became clear to me in a novel I edited recently (which inspired me to write this article). It was about a woman who enjoyed her life; she made the best of every day, but felt she had done everything she had ever wanted to do. She had, at 50, finished her bucket list and felt that her life was finished.

This character, to put it very simply, enjoyed the act of living but not her life.

That can be a difficult concept to grasp. In fact, it’s the kind of concept that needs a whole book to explain adequately (rather than my oversimplification above).

And, as you might imagine, there are moments in the novel when other characters don’t understand the protagonist’s point. In a way, the story is a reflection of how readers can misunderstand an author’s intention.

For that to work, the main character (and therefore also the author) has to be clear when she explains what she wants. Some characters might still misunderstand the words (as some readers will), but the author has to make sure that character expresses her intentions well.

In this case, as I read through the manuscript, I highlighted any lines that could confuse the reader, anywhere the reader could misinterpret what the character (and the author) was trying to say. I pointed out the different ways readers could interpret these lines and then suggested how the author could revise them to make the point clear.

And that’s how it works for any book, not just this one. The novel’s message doesn’t have to be precisely defined or expressed ‘out loud,’ and it might not even be immediately clear to many readers, but they at least shouldn’t be led to believe it’s something other than what the author intended.

Converging ideas

The editor acts as an intermediary between the you and your readers. The distance between your intention and the readers’ interpretation shouldn’t be too great. Where there is a gap, the editor will try to close that space by explaining to the author where any ambiguity arises and offer some revision suggestions.

A professional editor, therefore, can add the commas and periods, and even tidy Samuel Beckett’ sentences to make the text easier to read, but the real craft of an editor lies in being able to understand your novel. That’s why it’s so important to find an editor that you are personally comfortable with, someone you can be honest and open with.

But how do you find that person?

  • Look in the directories of the major professional editing societies, such as the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (U.K.) or the Editorial Freelancers Association (U.S.). Editors have to achieve certain standards to become members, and the society can often provide objective mediation in any disputes you might have with the editor.
  • Once you have a shortlist, have a look at the editors’ websites and their portfolios so you can see some of their previous work. Search for them on the web and social media, especially LinkedIn. Many employers make these kinds of checks these days, and you are looking to employ someone after all.
  • Ask the editor to work on a sample of your work. This is the best way to see if you have that ‘click,’ if the editor understands and appreciates your work, and does a good job. And it works both ways – a sample lets the editor see if they want to work with you. Note that not all editors will provide a sample edit, and some who do may ask for payment.

The editor you eventually choose should be someone who can see your novel from both sides: yours and the readers’. That person should understand what you want to say and will work to make sure your readers understand the story in the way you want them to understand it.

Maybe you want the readers to feel certain emotions at certain times, to give them something to think about, make a moral point, put across your side of an argument. Whatever it is, a professional editor, one who understands what you want to achieve, can help you succeed.

Has a professional editor helped you to overcome issues in your manuscript? What, if anything, did the experience teach you? 

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a: The Hack’s Guide to Dealing with Book Reviews

19 August 2017 - 11:00 AM

Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

The whole point of publishing a book is so that others will read it. The problem with people reading your books is that they insist on having opinions about them, rather than simply stating the objective fact that your book is better than the complete works of Hemingway and Rowling combined. Whether positive or negative, whether penned by a professional critic in a literary journal or hastily typed by some rando on Amazon, you’ve got to prepare your ego for how to handle book reviews. Here’s how to cope:

What to Do When You Get Good Reviews

  • Celebrate with pizza and beer, or your preferred pie and carbonated beverage.
  • Leave a comment thanking the reviewer for their time, attention, and good taste.
  • Do a brag post on Twitter about how many great reviews your book has. Some people find this annoying. You can safely ignore those Philistines so long a your book averages 3.5 stars or above.
  • Follow up with folks who left positive reviews when you release your next book. You know, just to let them know it’s out there.
  • Ping those good reviewers to ask if they’ve read your next book, and if so, if they’d mind leaving a nice review for that one as well? And, by the by, is there anything you can get for them while you’re up?
  • Follow up, and helpfully send them a list of superlatives that are easy to spell and very evocative of your book.
  • Follow up again, including a sample review you wrote for them that they can just sign their name to. (It’s not plagiarizing, it’s ghostwriting.)
  • Facebook-friend them, and nonchalantly ask them what they’re reading, *winky emoji*.
  • Call them on the phone. I’d offer tips on how to track down their phone number, but if you’ve made it to this stage, I trust you’ve figured it out on your own already.

Hmm, something tells me this is a good time to segue into dealing with bad reviews.

What to Do When You Get Bad Reviews

  • photo by Alan Levine

    Okay, stay cool. This isn’t the end of the world. Believe it or not, you want to have a few bad reviews for your book. Seeing a book with nothing but five-star reviews is like the person in a job interview who says their greatest weakness is that they work too hard; it just seems fake. A few blemishes here and there, however, will make you look authentic. That naturally means that if dozens of strangers are yelling at you that your book is garbage, you’re just to EDGY for them.

  • Remember, it’s natural if your feelings get hurt. You’re not weak, you’re just human. Take it as a lesson in humility and an excuse to crack open another bottle of Jim Beam. If you’re worried that drinking is just a way to hide from your problems, that is exactly the sort of problem that drinking will cure.
  • Write your critics into your next novel, then destroy them. You can kill every last one of them in as bloody a manner as you like on the page, with no fear of repercussions other than looking like a passive-aggressive jerk. But beware making your books too gory, or you’ll wind up with even more bad reviews for your next book. (This is what’s known in the industry as a death spiral.)
  • If you’re feeling especially petty—haha, I said “if,” lol—you can share someone’s negative review on Twitter and let your followers pick them apart like birds eating Prometheus’ liver. Of course I would never really advise you to do this. Not because it’s mean, but because you’ve already frightened away all your followers by bugging them to review your book.

How do you celebrate good reviews? How do you cope with bad ones? Share your experiences in the comments!

About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.

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