Congratulations! You’ve done something many people have talked about but never done.
But what comes next?
First, do you know where your book would fit on the shelf?
Is it a mystery, a thriller, women’s fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, or ? Editors and agents don’t want to hear, “It’s like nothing out there.” A book must fit a genre or category.
How do you find where your book belongs?
By reading, reading, reading. Hopefully, you already read books like what you’ve written. You know the patterns of a romance or a horror book, etc. and therefore your book would be recognizable to readers of such. I think you’ll find this article helpful: “How to Figure Out The Genre of Your Book.”
Is your book close to the expected word count range for its type?
Yes, there are standout titles that are outside the general parameters, but don’t handicap yourself by being way off. Here are some guidelines: “Word Count by Genre: How Long Should a Book Be?”
Have you edited your story?
No one writes a perfect first draft. It’s important to make sure the parts of your story are working, that it is clear and as free of errors as you can make it. Check out these resources: “The top 10 golden rules of self-editing,” “Self-Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Book,” and “The Ultimate Guide to Self-Editing your Manuscript.”
Have you gotten any feedback on your story?
Some people use beta readers—nonwriters who like to read and are willing to comment. It helps to have questions to ask them to aid in getting feedback. Here are two resources: “6 Key Questions to Ask Your Beta Readers” and “50 Questions to Ask Your Alpha and Beta Readers.”
I prefer using critique partners—other writers who exchange critiques. Read these: “Guide to Critique Group Etiquette: 9 Embarrassing Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur” and “How To Set Up A Critique Group | 5 Cardinal Rules.”
How do you find beta readers or critique groups?
Through writing groups or organizations. Some are found in person, others online. For example, on Facebook Sub It Club has a Critique Partner Matchup. Groups that may have critique opportunities with editors/agents/published writers and/or offer critique groups include: American Christian Fiction Writers, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Here’s a list of some organizations: “10 Best Organizations for Writers.”
Once you get feedback, you revise again. But do you do everything suggested? Not necessarily. Some suggestions will strike a chord in you and you’ll see immediately that it makes your story better/stronger. Others may take some time to sink in. Yet others your gut may respond with a loud no. This article might be helpful in determining what to do: “Nine strategies for handling criticism as a writer.”Repeat as necessary.
When your book is as good as you can make it, now look at it with a microscope. Is the grammar correct? Are there overused words you can cut? How’s your punctuation? Some other ideas of what to look for can be found here: “10 Tips for a Polished Manuscript” and here: “Wax On, Wax Off: 5 Areas To Polish Before Submitting A Manuscript.”
A lot of work? Yes. But you can confidently move on to submitting once you’re done.
Note: the image is the cover of a picture book I’m Done! by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan. Little Beaver thinks he’s done, but has to learn the satisfaction of perseverance. Although aimed at children, this book is a good analogy of the writing process too.
As a writing instructor and critiquer, I see overused words repeatedly. Let me share three.
Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.
Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.
Here are a few examples:
I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.
Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.
Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.
Here are a few examples:
The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.
I change them one of two ways:
Write seemlessly (sic). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.
Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?
Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.
The walls seemed to lean toward me.
The fix. Remove any form of “seem” in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:
She remembers many of our numerous cousins.
The walls leaned toward me.
A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.
Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.
I’m not talking about the character looking in the mirror describing herself idea. Character description is more than hair and skin color, eye color, body shape, etc. It’s also about attitude and personality. It’s sharing something important and internal about the person. And about sharing details appropriate to the setting that are character related.
Let’s examine this description in the first chapter of Katherine Reay’s book THE PRINTED LETTER BOOKSHOP: “He and his sister share the same deep-set eyes, eyebrows, and nose. Her ‘Irish twins,’ Granny Caoime called them. They looked alike, walked alike, laughed alike. Both bit the side of their cheek when deep in thought, narrowed their eyes when something didn’t sound right, and laughed loudest at their own jokes.” So first the main character narrator is telling us how her father and aunt were similar. We don’t get eye or hair color, but don’t you feel like you could see them a bit? Now look what the author does: “Though, if I remembered it correctly, Aunt Maddie’s laugh was more of a contagious giggle that held strong until you caught on and joined her. Dad’s, I knew from experience, held a slight condescension—you simply hadn’t caught the brilliance of his humor.” Wow! Which one would you prefer to be friends with? It also gives me insight into the main character and her relationships.
Here’s another approach. A story written all in letters, but note how you get ideas about the main character Juliet from her own words: “We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my viewpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.” THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. If you continuing reading, you’ll get even more about her personality. I love how Juliet describes a woman as “dismal” and hopes “Jane spat on her.” This young woman makes me smile.
In THE GIRL WHO LIVED by Christopher Greyson, the main character is described: “A couple months ago she’d dyed her long, caramel-brown hair too dark, and hated it. Her radical response was to shave her head. After the novelty wore off, she knew it wouldn’t make any difference. Jet-black, platinum-blond, she was the same damaged goods, no matter what the package looked like on the outside.” This instantly made me feel sympathy and wanting to know more.
Another appealing character is Captain Kidd in NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles. Here’s the second sentence of the book: “He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself.” A bit later on the page Captain is speaking: “That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” Later the author describes him physically, but I’m already hooked by then.
What do these descriptions have in common? Character! Personality. Attitude. And in several we’ve gotten details of setting to help us place the person. I love what R.A. Nelson said, “I don't worry so much about readers being able to identify with my characters on a surface level, you know, the latest slang, TV shows, etc. I feel like when you completely inhabit the character and pour it out straight from your heart then the identification with the reader comes at a much deeper level, an identification that doesn't really have anything to do with gender, age, etc., but universal human truths.”
It was a critique partner who showed me where I was distancing the reader in my writing. It took me a while to get the concept firmly in my head, but once I did, I even caught my critique partner out.
So, what is distancing the reader? Adding filter words. We do it because are trying to show what our character is experiencing and add unnecessary verbiage. Here are some examples:
If we are with a character, whatever they see or hear can just be stated. The reader will assume the character witnessed it or experience it as well. The above could become:
Here are some other filter words:
Editor Louise Harnby says, “Filter words are verbs that increase the narrative distance, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of the character.” She also says, “To keep your prose tight, look out for filter words that tell of doing being done.”
Let’s look at Justin and Manuel expanded. First, with filtering in bold:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. He heard, shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room felt comforting. He knew Manuel was polishing his shoes. He realized that meant Manuel’d be leaving for work soon. Good, Justin thought. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Without filtering or distancing:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. Shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room was comforting—Manuel was polishing his shoes. Which meant he’d be leaving for work soon. Good. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Do you hear the difference?
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Does that mean you can never use filtering? Of course not. But if you do it should be done deliberately to change the meaning of the sentence, the pacing of the story, or for clarity.
I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
Now for this very reason
…in your writing…
…apply all diligence
…supply moral excellence
Diligence – steady application to one’s occupation or studies, persistent effort
Excellence – state of going beyond a standard, performing at a higher level
Knowledge – familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study
Self-control – control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will
Perseverance – the holding to a course of action, belief, or purpose without giving way; steadfastness
Godliness – resembling or of the nature of God
Brotherly kindness – being generous, warmhearted, charitable, helpful, showing sympathy or understanding, considerate
Christian love – intense concern for another person
“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful …”
…in using your writing for our Lord Jesus Christ.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.