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What Makes a Great Villain – Build Your Own Bad Guy

Ever wondered what makes a great villain? Well, guest author C M Taylor has given you all you need to build your own bad guy in this blog post. By C M Taylor In this blog, C M Taylor takes inspiration from some of the great fictional villains of all time to help you create your own dazzling and multi-dimensional bad guy.  What Is A Villain? The term ‘villain’ defines a character who personifies the forces which thwart the progress of the main character. Now, while it is feasible that the villain is the main character – and we will come on to that less usual and more nuanced situation later on – in the vast majority of cases, the villain is villainous in relation to opposing the needs and desires of the main character. This structural role of antagonising the main character is the reason the villain is often described as the antagonist. They are a character who stands in negative relation to the spiritual, emotional, moral or financial progress of the main character, a character who is often described as the protagonist. How To Write A Memorable Villain: Let your theme influence their traitsUse their backstory to show why they’re like thisHumanise your villain. Show why they became corruptedMemorable injuries are clichés. AvoidTo compete with the protagonist, your villain also needs to be specialYour villain should feel unbeatable, at least for a while Why Do Villains Matter To Fiction? Answering this involves taking this question right back to ask ourselves: what is a story? The crux of a story is concerned with how the main character changes, or fails to change, over time, in contact with internal, external and relationship pressures. A story is a map of this change over time, or this failure to change over time. The change is both an internal, emotional journey and an external, physical journey. Now if the journey comes easily, then there will be no drama, because drama requires struggle. The journey which the protagonist goes on needs to be ripe with struggle – with obstacles, tests, high stakes. The most common and identifiable way to manifest struggle is to have it between people. Between the antagonist (or villain) and the protagonist (or heroic character). It is the antagonist who provides the obstacles standing in the way of the protagonist’s need to consummate their change. It is the test of wills between the antagonist and the protagonist that generates the struggle. On a very simple level, in terms of the mechanics of plot, it is the villain who sets the test and the heroic character who sits the test. It is the villain whose actions provoke the need for the hero to act. Batman without The Joker would have no need to act. The villain is a dark twin to the hero. The villain embodies the shadow qualities of the hero. The villain is what the hero might have been, what the hero might be, should they make the wrong choices, which is what gives rise to the clichéd piece of film dialogue, ‘We are not so different you and I, Mr Bond.’ If the heroic character struggles to embody the positive possibilities in a work of fiction, the villain convincingly embodies the negative aspects. The villain personifies the specific forces of antagonism which aim to prevent the protagonist from completing their internal and external journey. Does Every Story Need A Villain? The short answer to this question is no – in terms of the villain being a physical personification of antagonism, not every story has or needs this. A story needs antagonism, yes, and most usually this antagonism takes the form of a human being standing in opposition to the progress of the heroic character, but it is not necessary to do this. Antagonism can be generated in other variations than the single, embodied villain. The antagonism might be within the heroic character themselves. It might be a mistaken belief about life which leads them astray or into repeated unhealthy actions; or it might be an addiction. Note that choosing to centre the antagonistic force internal to the main character influences what type of story you are telling. It would be hard to make this choice and write an action story, for example. The choice to situate the main antagonistic force internally, as an aspect of the heroic character, is more associated with character-led stories – literary or dramatic works, or sometimes the psychological thriller. Whereas the more traditional human villain personification of antagonistic force is more usual within crime or fantasy or action stories. There are other forms of antagonism too. It might be centred around a group of people. It might be the family that a young person needs to escape to ‘become’ whole. Or it might be the pain still felt when a parent abandoned a child. Or it might be a best friend who continually leads the main character into activities which are against their best interests. Basically, antagonistic forces can be anything as long as they are the main obstacle in the way of the protagonist achieving what they most need. Traditionally this force has been embodied via the personification of a villain, but the villainous function can be performed within a story by other forces. How To Create A Memorable Villain: A Checklist Thematically A writer can usefully begin their creation of a villain via an understanding of theme. Are you writing about loyalty, for example? In which case, your protagonist has issues with loyalty which they must overcome, via the obstacles of the plot, to achieve a healthy, positive attitude to loyalty. Hence the role of the villain is to embody and prosecute a version of loyalty which is negative but tempting, which is corrupt but seductive, which might derail the heroic character’s attempt to achieve a healthy version of the theme. It is the villain’s job to oppose the progress of the hero, and so, knowing the specific thematic nature of the progress which the hero must make, that necessarily takes you some way to defining the nature of your villain. Your villain must be suitable and specifically adept at preventing the thematic success of your hero, hence must embody a negative version of that theme. Via Backstory So, once you have understood your theme and decided which negative version of the theme is embodied by your villain, you next ask yourself why they are like this. For an example, let’s stick with the theme of loyalty. Your villain might espouse a version of loyalty which states you must have only loyalty to yourself, or loyalty to chaos, or loyalty to crime, or loyalty to the dead. Any unhealthy version of the theme will do. Let’s pick they have loyalty to chaos and want to bring disorder and anarchy to the whole world. Why are they like this? Their parents were unbelievably controlling and up-tight and rational and crushed the villain with their excessive punctiliousness maybe. Or the villain and their brother were in some youth cadet force which was all about order and discipline and the brother died in an accident born of excessive following of the rules. You see, once you have your thematic relation, you move to explain it via the backstory. (Want to explore this more? Then check out this article on character motivation.) Good-turned-bad Our thematically-driven excavation and development of the villain’s backstory allows us to take an emotionally logical approach and explain why the villain is like they are. Continuing with our theme of loyalty, our rule-following cadet was eager and good to start with, tragic events having turned them on to a negative chaotic version of loyalty. Or our young child started off good but was hounded by neurotically rule-bound parents to crave the release of chaos. If you show the reader that it is emotionally logical for the villain to have passed from a state of health to their current corrupted self as a consequence of events, you humanise the villain. You make the reader think that they themselves might plausibly have reacted the same way in the same circumstances. You give the villain an emotional plausibility and a gravitas. And a decent villain needs gravitas, needs the emotional plausibility and heft to pull the villain into their version of the theme, into their version of reality. A good villain is like a moral centrifuge. What they pull towards them and put in peril is the hero’s self, their morality, the hero’s version of the theme. Showing it was entirely reasonable for the villain to arrive at the moral place they are in shows that the hero might arrive their too, and so puts a huge amount of jeopardy in play for the hero. Memorable Injury The clichéd villain is often physically disfigured, right? There being a suggestion of a relationship between moral and physical disfigurement. I would however caution against this simple equation, quite apart from it perpetuating discrimination against people who are unfortunate enough to be physically disfigured, it has been done to death. Why not mix it up? The hero is trying to overcome prejudice against their physical disfigurement while the gorgeous villain is prone to the ravages of narcissism. Alarming Gifts Your protagonist has to be special. In some genres like fantasy or science fiction they can be ‘the one’ level of special. In genres such as crime or thriller they can ‘exceptional human being’ levels of special. In genres such as romance or realism, they can ‘normal person pushed to the edge behaves heroically’ levels of special. And if your protagonist is special well, given that it is the job of the villain to oppose the protagonist, then in order to seem anything like able to compete with the hero, the villain needs to be special too. The Unbeatable Villain Every villain needs to seem unbeatable to start with. The obstacles they place in the way of the protagonist must seem insurmountable. If the hero can beat the villain at the beginning, then there are no struggles needed. It is the insurmountable villain that causes the hero to develop and grow. It may be that your story is a tragic and the hero fails to beat the villain in the end. However it ends, in the beginning there must be no way that the hero – in their current state – can compete. How To Create A Likeable Villain As I write above, the villain stands or falls on the plausibility of their world view – the villain is the hero in their own eyes. If you can show why the villain has ventured from the path of moral health to become the creature they are today then you have created the route by which the reader can empathise with the villain. And if they can empathise then – in the current parlance – they can possess relatability. All the best characters are layered, multidimensional and above all, unique. So, if your bad guy can have some redeeming qualities, or a journey that the reader can connect with, then that could definitely make for an interesting read. What If Your Protagonist Is A Villain? Your protagonist can be both hero and villain – look at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Or your protagonist can be a criminal – look at The Godfather, at Breaking Bad, at The Sopranos, at Crime and Punishment. Or your protagonist can be an anti-hero – look at Mr Robot.  They can be any of those things. As long as they are subject to thematically congruent antagonistic forces, the rules are the same. As long as we know why they are like they are – In The Godfather, Michael Corleone gets pulled back into the family business of murder and extortion through love of his threatened father. Walter White sells meth – initially at least – to protect his ill family in Breaking Bad. Elliot from Mr Robot illegally hacks computers to out greater criminals. This is a common strategy – outflanking your villains with even greater villains to make your villain comparatively empathetic. Look at Dexter. Yes, he is a serial killer, but he only kills people who are themselves worse than him. He performs bad acts for a comprehensible and relatable reason. Inspirational Bad Guys: 12 Great Examples Tricking Othello into murdering his own wife makes Iago a pretty good start to our collection. Another trickster, in Treasure Island, Long John Silver tricks Jim Hawkins, disguising his own role as leader of the mutiny. Why do we care for and want the sociopathic murder Tom Ripley to escape throughout Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley novels? Because he feels love and we feel his vulnerability and inadequacy. And why do we admire Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ novels? Because he is brilliant and stylish and logical. Only somebody as prodigiously gifted as Moriarty could aspire to being a villain worthy of Sherlock Holmes special powers. Anne Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery turns out to the fan no writer wants. Xan may seem like the villain in P D James’ The Children of Men but isn’t the broader antagonistic force that of infertility itself. No mistaking that it’s a shark who is the villain of Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws. Isn’t narcissism the antagonistic force in play in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey? Are dinosaurs the antagonistic force of Jurassic Park? Rather I would say it was the human vanity and over-reaching that lead to the recreation of dinosaurs in the first place. Same with Dr Frankenstein – it’s the Dr not the monster who sets the test. Isn’t the entire Republic of Gilead the antagonist force in The Handmaid’s Tale? So, there we have it, a foolproof method to build your very own bad guy. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think.  About the author C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). Craig has also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which was filmed in 2014 and premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival, and he continues to be commissioned to write scripts for TV and film. C M Taylor is also a sought-after editor, working with a well-known publisher as well as working with Jericho Writers as a book editor.
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How To Write A Children’s Book: All You Need To Know

One author’s guide to writing a children’s book that will actually get published There are some people who will tell you that writing a children’s book is really easy. I mean – they’re shorter than books for adults, right? Reader – if you meet one of these people, you should give them a stern talking to and a whole lot of finger-wagging. How To Write A Children’s Book In 10 Steps: Know the children’s book marketRead contemporary children’s booksHave a unique ideaCreate relatable charactersPlot using character arcsFind a captivating voiceUse settings and experiences kids recogniseWritre and re-write!Avoid classic mistakes all new writers makeGet an agent Writing books for children isn’t an easy way out. In fact, there are a whole host of new things you have to consider when writing for children that wouldn’t cross the mind of an adult novelist. How do I know? Well, I’ve been writing books for children and young adults since I was just a kid myself. When I began, I thought it was going to be easy, too. Three dead books, over fifty rejections and fourteen years later – I realised that it was a whole lot harder than it looks. Then, I sat down and I followed a set of rules to write a book for Young Adults called ‘Outside’. I sent it to an agent, who offered me representation within forty-four minutes of receiving it. And in January 2019, it was published in the UK by Penguin. It is hard. But you’ve got this. And this blog is going to tell you exactly what you need to write a book that children (and publishers) will love. And even though it’s going to be a difficult ride, I think you’re secretly going to love every minute of it – just like I did. So – where do you start? Know The Children’s Book Market ‘Children’ isn’t a very defined audience. Within that category, you have babies and toddlers, all the way through to teenagers thinking about university. Children’s books are as rich and diverse as children are themselves, so it’s absolutely essential that you know exactly what kind of children you are writing for. The market tends to shift every few years, but in general, the categories within children’s books look a bit like this: Picture Books (0 – 5 years) Between 300 – 1000 words, depending on who the book is aimed at (babies 300, toddlers 500, pre-schoolers 1000).Early Readers (5 – 7 years) Less than 10,000 words. These books can be illustrated and are divided up into chapters.Lower Middle Grade (7 – 9) Between 10,000 – 30,000, depending on the reading age they are best suited for. The lower the reading age, the lower the word count.Middle Grade (9 – 11) Between 30,000 and 60,000. There is a bit more room in Middle Grade to push the boundaries of wordcount and theme, within reason.Teen (12+) Usually around 60,000, but there are books in this category as low as 40,000 and as high as 90,000!YA / Crossover (14+) Over 60,000 words. Fantasy books in this category can push the wordcount to more like 90,000, but usually around 60,000 – 70,000 is the magic number. As you can see, books for younger children are much shorter. To write picture books, you don’t have to rhyme, or even know an illustrator (in fact, some agents prefer writers to submit text minus any artwork, as they find it easier to match these later). You do need to be able to tell a story that will make adults and babies feel all the feels though, within a very short word count. If you ask me, writing picture books might well be the hardest of all of these to perfect – and is one of the most competitive, too. Between ages 7 and 11, the reading ages start to shift. You might have an 8-year-old reading a book written for an 11-year-old, and that is okay! At this point, it’s worth thinking about things in terms of ‘Reading Age’ rather than actual age. Early Readers are for children who are just learning to read, and Lower Middle-Grade tends to be lighter, funny reads. Middle-Grade books are booming at the moment and are often read for pleasure by adults, too (myself included). They can be darker and you can push the wordcount a bit further. You can perhaps take a few more risks, providing the heart of the book is with the characters (more on that later). Then we have Young Adult (YA) fiction. I like to think of this as two categories: Teen and Young Adult / Crossover. Teen fiction tends to focus on topics affecting teenagers around 12-13 years old. They are lighter, sometimes funny books. Young Adult or Crossover fiction can be anything where the protagonist is under 18. They can be romances set in a school, or dark, chilling tales. You can find out more about average novel word counts in this article and how long chapters should be, these aren’t specific to children’s books, but make for an interesting read! Whatever age you choose to write for, ensure you know that market back-to-front. Which leads me to tip number two: Read Contemporary Children’s Books The best way to know your market is to read everything you can that fits into it. Yes, adults can read children’s books for pleasure. Some of the most delicious and astounding books I have read have been for children. Don’t fall into the trap of re-reading the books you enjoyed as a child. The market is constantly evolving and what was publishable ‘way back then’ may not be marketable now. Keep your eye on books that are coming out this year, particularly debuts (as you’ll hopefully be one of those yourself soon!) When you are reading, make notes on things like sentence structure, characters and plot arcs. Is the language simple or sophisticated? What age are the characters? And what twists and turns appear in the story? This will help you no end when it comes to write your own. Have A Unique Idea So, now we come to your own book (woohoo!). And I have some bad news, I’m afraid (boooo). The world of children’s books is incredibly competitive and only the absolute best books stand a chance of getting published. But that’s okay. Because you can make your story into one of those books using this blog post. And it starts with an astounding idea that will make an agent stop scrolling and forget to breathe. Think of your favourite stories. You can usually sum them up in one, hooky line, can’t you? Something like: “Death narrates as a girl steals books in WW2 Munich, as her foster parents conceal a Jewish fist-fighter in their home.” – The Book Thief “A girl has been trapped Inside her whole life, until one day she finds a hole in the wall.” – Okay, so that’s my book, but you get the idea. Your concept needs stakes. It needs to be different. It needs to pique interest. Nothing else will work for this market. Need some help developing an idea like this? Try this free Idea Generator – it comes via an email. You can also learn a lot from this post on How to Get Book Ideas. Create Relatable Characters Okay, so you have your amazing concept that will hook an agent, then a publisher, then eventually a reader. Want to keep them? Then you’ll need to create characters that children can relate to. The first rule for this is to think about their ages in relation to the categories we outlined above. Usually, children like to read about characters a couple of years older than them. In Young Adult fiction, I usually make my characters between 15 and 17. 90% of books for children have children as their central protagonists. The other 10% is usually made up of animals and magical beings, but they will nearly always speak and act like children in that age group. They are hardly ever adults. The next thing is to think about the qualities that children of that age look for in a protagonist. Usually, this is bravery (although this doesn’t mean all characters need to be sword-fighters – there are many different kinds of bravery). Usually they are kind (although not always to everyone all the time). And usually they are quirky in some way – they have some interest or ideals that colour their world and make them interesting. Let’s take an example protagonist. ‘Charlie’ from ‘Charlie Changes into a Chicken’. This is a funny Lower Middle-Grade book, and the main character is a boy who suffers with anxiety. Whenever he gets anxious, he turns into an animal. And with his brother in hospital and the school play coming up, there is a lot to worry about. Although Charlie has something going on that I would hope most children can’t relate to (eg: turning into a pigeon), there’s an awful lot about him that readers want to root for. His anxiety is one – and the book does a lot to normalise this and teach the reader how to deal with it. He’s also a classic ‘good guy’ – always one to attempt to smooth things over with his bully, and worry about his brother. He is brave, kind and quirky. In terms of secondary characters, this book is great at busting stereotypes, and that’s really something to keep in mind when writing (more on this later). You’ve got a smart, scientific friend, as well as those who provide some comic relief. You’ve got an antagonist bully, who we understand. And other grown-up antagonists such as grumpy teachers, and parents who have the ability to be ‘disappointed’. In short, these are all characters that children around 8 years old will relate to and enjoy reading about (As well as grown-up writers who have the mind of an 8-year-old, too!). It’s worth spending time getting to know your characters using something like this Ultimate Character Builder (downloadable via email). This worksheet asks hundreds of questions about your character that forces you to think of answers. Something else I quite like to do (mainly because it is wonderfully fun procrastination) is to use personality tests. Try getting into the mindset of your characters – including secondary characters – and taking the House and Patronus quizzes on Pottermore, for example. You might find out that your protagonist is a Slytherin with a rare winged Patronus, which might affect the way they behave in your plot. Another great tool can be found at 16 Personalities. This asks you a lot of questions and gives you a Myers-Briggs personality type at the end, with pages and pages of information about how that person would react to things like relationships, family and difficult situations. It’s worth spending some time doing some further reading on characterisation. Good places to start include learning about the theory of character development and spending some time making realistic antagonists, alongside your protagonist. Plot Using Character Arcs When it comes to plotting a children’s book, it is useful to keep one bit of advice in mind at all times: Plot is driven by character. Never the other way around. If your characters are at the centre of your story, then you need to ensure that they are the ones driving it forwards. If you shoehorn them into a twist that goes against everything that your character stands for, then readers will be left cold. This is why the primary step to writing a children’s book is to get to know your characters back to front and inside out as we discussed earlier. Once you have a good idea about who they are, you can start using this information to plot your story. There are a number of ways you can plot a book, including methods like the Snowflake Method or using this guide on writing a plot outline. For me, I like to start with something my character wants. This can be simple, like perhaps they are looking forward to an upcoming school trip. Or it can be much bigger than that – like perhaps they want to keep their family safe from being picked for The Hunger Games. Next, you throw something in their path that means they can’t have what they want. They get framed for something they didn’t do at school and are banned from the school trip. Their sister is picked for The Hunger Games and they must volunteer as tribute to protect her from almost certain death. What comes next is a series of incidents that raises action and keeps your character on their journey. They try to sneak onto the school bus, but end up on the wrong one, going instead to France. They get off the bus for a wee and it drives off without them. They try to buy a baguette with their lunch money, but it gets eaten by a dog (which they are afraid of) etc etc. Within this middle point are highs and lows. They meet friends and helpers along the way – usually children their own age, or animals. There might even be other grown-up helpers or antagonists (think about Haymitch and Crane in The Hunger Games). Usually around the mid-point of the story, what your character wants has now changed. The boy on the school trip now wants to find a way to go home. Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to stay alive. This all leads up to the climax of the story – where all the issues you have dropped in before come to a head. There is usually a small battle to be won first – perhaps that is getting over the fear of dogs to save a friend in France, or it is beating the other Careers in order to stay alive in The Hunger Games. Then there is a small dip in action before the big beast is slayed – maybe that is as simple as finally asking for help to go home in France, or it is tricking the makers of The Hunger Games so that they can live. To finish off, we have the resolution. This is where you tie up the questions you set up earlier in the story and resolve differences between characters. Maybe we see the boy return from France and ask his parents for a pet dog. Or Katniss returning home to her family as victor (whilst also leaving something unresolved here with a larger antagonist for book two in the series). Even if you’re not traditionally a plotter, it is worth spending time thinking about the main beats in your story and how this relates to your character’s central journey. Thankfully, there’s loads of help for useless plotters (like me!). Some useful blog plots for further reading are this one on building a plot mountain (which sounds cool, so must be good) and this one on the seven basic plots. There are also some brilliant masterclasses on the subject by the brilliant Jeremy Sheldon and this one from C M Taylor, all free as part of the Jericho Writers membership. Find A Captivating Voice Okay, so you now have the bones of an exciting story down. Excellent. Now – we need to talk about the way you are going to tell this story. The first thing to do is consider what point of view you are going to choose, and then stick to it entirely. The most popular ones in children’s books are either third person (He/She/They), or first person (I/We). You do tend to find books for younger readers tend to be third person, and teen and YA are usually first person – but this isn’t a rule. Try writing a scene using both and see which one feels more natural for you and this story. It’s worth noting that children’s books in second person (You) are few and far between. This is because it’s a difficult thing to do well, and to relate to as a reader. But nothing is ever out of bounds in the world of children’s books, so if you are confident about using this POV, then go for it. Whatever POV you choose, you must, must, MUST have a captivating voice. By ‘Voice’, we mean the way the story is being told – the language and sentence structure used to tell it. In first person, we need to believe that the person telling the story IS a child. In third person, we need that to a lesser degree, but we still need that sense that we are close to a character and understand who they are through their language. Let’s take first person as an example to start with, because it’s a bit easier. A first-person voice can contain any one of the following things to make it a bit different: An accent or dialect (eg: Southern American).Short, matter-of-fact sentences, or long lines with little or no punctuation.Complex language, or simple words.A ‘Frame of Reference’ for understanding the world. For example, if your character loves painting, then you would expect their language to be a fountain of colour, using terms that painters would love. My favourite article on voice is this one from Annabel Pitcher. Do give it a read – she is the master. When creating your voice, it is worth making a note of all the things that might influence the way your character speaks. So, think about where in the world they come from, and the different words they will use. Think about their age. Think about their personalities. Think about their passions and interests. And use all of this to create a voice that is unique to them. This becomes a bit harder when writing in third person. You can use some of this to colour the voice of the narrator, which can be particularly important when writing for younger children, who need to be reading ‘simple’ words along with the protagonists. You can also give the narrator their own voice altogether, as done in The Book Thief and Charlie Changes into a Chicken. Whatever you choose to do, ensure that it is striking and work on it until it feels like ‘you’. It took me around four books to realise what is ‘me’ about my writing – I think sometimes it is one of those things that you need to write to realise! You can find out more about finding your voice here. Use Settings And Experiences Kids Will Recognise So, now we come on to the setting of your book. There are no real rules here when it comes to setting. Books like ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is set all over the world, within a rickety old house with the legs of a chicken. But even in this book, there are still things included that children will recognise as similar to their own experiences. A feeling of loneliness from travelling all the time. A parental figure. A feeling of being bored when trapped inside the house. With contemporary children’s books, the settings tend to be focused on home, school and other familiar places, such as parks and after-school clubs. If you are writing a book set in the real modern world, then you will probably need to include a school in there somewhere. Some authors do this really well, but I personally hate writing schools. If you’re like me, then setting a book in the summer holidays, or having protagonists who are over sixteen can sometimes be a way around this. For fantasy writers, it’s worth thinking about things like education and home-life when you are world-building, too. Your character may well be going on a huge quest that will take them to the ends of the earth, with no time for school. But even The Hunger Games had lessons in flashback. As I’ve said before, there are no rules here as such. Children’s books can take you to all corners of experiences. But ensure you think about your settings and how a child reader will recognise them. And if you choose to include things like school, then ensure you get that experience right! Write And Rewrite Okay, so now we’re getting to the part where you have to put pen to paper. You’ll read a lot of articles all over the internet that will tell you rules here like “write every day” and “don’t look back on your first draft”. But I don’t want to tell you any of those. Because honestly – writing a book is something every writer does differently, and that’s rather wonderful. Try writing every day, but if you can’t because you have your own kids to worry about, then that is perfectly fine. And maybe try not to spend years perfecting scenes before you get on to the next one (only because you will probably have to delete it later), but if you do need to make something perfect before you can move on, then that’s fine too. Do whatever you need to do to keep writing. I will however say this. First drafts suck. They do. And that is okay. Books aren’t made on the first draft. This is where you let your characters drive that plot, and sometimes they don’t really know what they are doing. Books are made in the next stage – the re-writing. The editing. By getting feedback and working to make something shine. In fact, I personally don’t even do first drafts any more. I call all my first attempts the ‘ditch draft’, because I know that chances are, I’m going to have to bin most of it and start again. I know that sounds a bit long – but again – do whatever you need to do to keep writing. When it comes to re-writing, I personally like to open up a new document for my second draft and copy-paste the bits I like over and write the rest from scratch. There’s something freeing about not having words already there in front of you. For editing, you can try these tips on self-editing your work, and an editor called Debi Alper runs a life-changing tutored course on Self-Editing here. You can also try getting feedback from other readers – either friends and family, or a writing group. Or perhaps through something like a Manuscript Assessment, which are particularly useful if you know something isn’t quite working, but you can’t quite pinpoint what. If you’re confused about the different types of editing, this post is quite useful for navigating. Books are made in the self-edit stage, so keep going until you have something that is really quite something. Because nothing much less will be good enough when it comes to the next stage… Avoid Classic Mistakes All New Writers Make But first – I want to pause and look at some common mistakes. Because these are the things you need to watch out for before you even think about sending out to agents. Avoid stereotypes. The cry-baby little sister. The dysfunctional dad. There are certain stereotypes we take for granted. So think when you make decisions about every character in your novel – can they be subverted? Can you show that boys can cry too, and that dad’s can do all the housework? This goes for race, gender, sexuality, disability and pretty much everything else. Write characters, not clichés. If you’re writing what you don’t know, get to know it. This is becoming increasingly important in children’s fiction – and so it should. If you are writing about a character with an experience different to your own, then you need to ensure you do copious amount of research – including speaking to people who live this experience. This especially goes for anything to do with race, gender, sexuality and disability. There are things you can do to help ensure you are not portraying these lives in a way that is stereotypical or harmful. Sensitivity readers are now becoming a mainstay in children’s publishing and authors can even hire their own if they feel the need to check their facts. You should know however that no amount of research ever makes up for the real experience and you should learn from any feedback you have from readers, rather than challenge it. Don’t let this put you off writing diversely as this is incredibly important for all children’s writers to do, whatever background they are from. But ensure you do it sensitively. Don’t start a story where the character is waking up. If I had a dollar for every story I have read that starts with this, I would be a very rich author. Don’t do it. Your opening scene should grab a reader by the hand and pull them immediately into the action. Don’t start a story with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Alternatively, don’t go the other way and start your story somewhere that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, just because it is more exciting than waking up. Your opening scene should excite, but it should also introduce the reader to the world that will appear in the rest of the story. So, if you’re story is about a girl’s relationship with her mother, then don’t start your story in the middle of a fist-fight unless that very quickly turns into something to do with the mother. Of course, this changes if you are writing fantasy where the beginning of the novel is set in the everyday world before the magic is let loose. Still here though, ensure you are spending time introducing us to the characters and situations that will be important throughout the rest of the story. Don’t mix tenses, or POVs. Pick one, and stick to it (flashbacks permitting!). There’s nothing worse than reading a story that switches heads or propels us back and forth in time. Try reading this article on Psychic Distance if you need more clarification. Don’t tell us – show us (for the most part) This is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make – including myself. When you are trying to explain a world or situation, it can sometimes be easier to just dump that information on the page. And some of that is fine, but too much can slow action and feel amateur. Try showing certain things within your writing whenever you can. For example, if your character is angry, have them shout, rather than putting ‘he was angry’. Don’t rhyme for the sake of making it rhyme. This one is particularly for the picture book writers amongst you. Rhymes are wonderful when they work, but I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of sacrificing sentence meaning to shoehorn in a rhyme. If you are struggling to make a sentence flow because of your rhyming structure, then try something else. Or try no rhyme at all! Some of my favourite picture books don’t rhyme – it’s all about the characters and the story you are telling. Don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives. All new writers seem to fall into this trap. Perhaps we want to show off how beautifully we can write, so we pen long, languid sentences that dazzle and glitter with sparkly splendour. Unfortunately, they also weigh down your words. Keep your sentences to the point and I promise that those metaphors and similes that you do scatter in, will be all the more breath-taking because of it. Avoid clunky-sounding dialogue. Usually this happens when we want to try and ‘show’ something and not ‘tell’ it. And we might end up with a scene a bit like this: “Why are you so upset Billy?” Mum said. “Because my game was cancelled again, like it was last week.” “Do you mean when you kicked the ball over the fence and it had to be called off?” “It wasn’t my fault. A dog came onto the pitch.” “And we all know you’re afraid of dogs.” This doesn’t feel very realistic, does it? That’s because people don’t tend to spend their time reiterating things they all already know. Avoid doing this in your own book – especially with parents and their children, which tends to be where the clunkiest dialogue comes into its own! Try these tips on writing realistic dialogue. Don’t have an adult save the day. Finally, we have the ending. There is nothing worse than rooting for a child protagonist all the way through a book, only to have a grown-up step in and save the day at the end. Children want to see themselves as having the power to change the world. Sometimes, that might mean asking for help from a grown-up, but the decision to conquer should always come from the child. Get An Agent And Get Published So that leads us to the last point – how to get this wonderful children’s book you have written, published and on the shelves. This could be a whole other blog article in itself, and indeed there are plenty around. The more comprehensive overviews are things like this article on how to get a book published, or this one on how to find an agent. However, the most important things to know are that you will nearly always need an agent to get a publisher. And getting an agent is very, very difficult. Agents will receive around two-thousand submissions every year and will only have space to take on one or two. Out of these one or two, a third then never find a publisher. So the odds are perhaps not in your favour. But that’s okay. Because the fact that you have read all the way to the bottom of this blog post tells me that you are serious about writing a brilliant children’s book. And brilliant children’s books are the only ones that get published. The other alternative to getting your book published is self-publishing. This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘last resort’ option. In fact, plenty of authors create lucrative careers from publishing independently and it is fast becoming the number one option for a lot of writers. It can be a little harder to self-publish in the world of children’s books. Illustrated books don’t always transfer to eBook easily and the market tends to favour print in general. However, there are authors who are doing really well in the YA genre fiction market, particularly for things like paranormal romance. If you are interested in this option, then you can find plenty of free information here. Writing For Children: Conclusion Being a children’s author takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, but it is the most fulfilling thing you can do (in my biased opinion!) Children don’t like books, they LOVE them. And once your book is published, hearing from those readers makes every step of this whole process completely worthwhile. I’ve mentioned the Jericho Writers membership a few times in this article, and it is something to think about if you are serious about carving a career for yourself as a children’s author. Reading and writing will take us so far, but sometimes we need a helping hand from the experts to create something at the level it needs to be to get published. You can find out more about that membership here. I do hope you have found this article useful and wish you every luck (and enjoyment!) in writing your own children’s book. You’ve got this.
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How to plan a novel

A step-by-step guide You have an idea. You want to write a novel. You know that’s a big undertaking – a huge one, in fact. But what next? Do you just pull your boots on and start marching? (A terrible idea in almost every case.) Or do you start to plan your journey? And if so, how? This can seem like a journey without maps, where most routes can easily lead to disaster. Well, worry ye not, these questions have solutions. Understanding how to plan a novel is both the most important question you face right now … and a completely achievable goal. In this post, we’re going to give you, not a template exactly, but a set of tools and a clear understanding of the way forward. It’ll probably take you several weeks to plan your novel out (and – a warning – those weeks feel like damn hard work, even though you’re not racking up the word count and throwing chapter after chapter down onto the page.) Planning A Novel: The Need-to-knows The single most important job you have now is to understand what you need to know about your novel. Sure, then you have to start filling in the blanks, but the first task is simply to generate your headings. And here’s what you need to know about the book you’re going to write: What Genre Is It? Who Are Your Readers? What Kind Of Books / Authors Are You Most Like? You don’t have to answer those questions in complete detail. You won’t in fact know the answers until you’ve written your book. But you need some rough idea. If your book doesn’t sit at some natural point where readers gather, then either you are a genre-busting genius (unlikely), or you have a commercial disaster on your hands. What Are The Genre Expectations Of Your Novel? What Kind Of Length Does It Need To Be? If you know your genre well, you probably have the genre-expectations wired into your bones – which is good. But it’s still worth being a bit explicit about it. There’s no point writing a light chick-lit type novel of 180,000 words – those things are normally half that length, if that. Likewise, if you are writing a tense techno-thriller with a ton of slapstick moments, you may just have an unsaleable mess on your hands. Read up on average chapter lengths and overall wordcounts so you know what you’re aiming for. How Do You Plan To Publish The Book: As An Indie Author Or Via A Traditional Publishing Route? Maybe that question is a tiny bit premature, but the rules for self-publishing and trad publishing are a bit different. It probably helps to have a rough sense of your likely endpoint. And yes, you can change your mind during the writing process – but remember planning a book is different from writing a book. You can make a plan, then change your mind halfway through – but you’ll still be a mile better off for having made the plan in the first place. What Is Your Story? You need a rough sense of the overall shape of your story. We’ll talk about this more in a bit, but you need a sense of the status quo at the start of your book.what happens to disrupt that status quo. This is the initiating incident.some very very rough ideas of what happens next. This is the hard-to-define Middle Act of your book, or just a general section of Developments. (You’ll hear both terms used by people talking about this stuff.)You may also have a clear sense of some big middle-of-book crisis or action sequence or other tipping point. If so, great, this is your midpoint. If you don’t have this clearly visualised yet, don’t worry about it: that can come later.Then you want a reasonable idea of your end-of-book crisis andan idea of your resolution – how everything ties up at the end. That right there, that fivefold structure, is how you are going to develop your story. Remember that at this stage, you don’t need complete answers to these questions. All we’re doing for now is laying out what you need to know (roughly) before you start writing. We’ll talk more about how to develop that knowledge in a minute. Who Are Your Characters? Again, you need a rough sense of your characters. That means your protagonist, for sure. (Protagonist = hero or heroine of your book. You’ll also see the term MC, which stands for Main Character.) But you also need to identify and have a sense of who your other major characters are. What Are Your Settings? Settings are left out of a lot of novel-planning lists, because often enough those settings seem kind of obvious. So let’s say that your novel is set in New York, a part of you thinks that New York is New York is New York. What more is to be said? Except that’s not true! There are a million New Yorks. Let’s say your story was a coming-of-age tale in 1960s Italian-American, Mafia-world. That New York is radically different from a contemporary tale about (say) tech-startup world. By understanding your particular settings in detail, you’ll find yourself illuminating the whole story you’re about to tell. Again, we’ll talk more about this shortly. What Are Your Themes? Finally, what themes are you going to be tackling? Perhaps that’s the least important question on this list, and some writers will want to ignore it completely … but, well, I think that question will nag at a lot of you anyway. And while you don’t want to overdo it, I think it helps to have some early sense of what the Big Questions underlying your novel are. That’s just as true of genre writers (crime, SF, romance, whatever) as of proper literary writers. I write crime fiction, but there are still big issues underlying my work and my writing would be poorer if they weren’t there at all. Filling In The Blanks How to sit down and plan your novel without going crazy. OK, so we have our headings: Genre & genre expectationsProbable publishing routeStoryCharactersSettingsThemes Your job now is to start putting some flesh on those bones. Planners Vs Pantsers There’s a dreary old distinction between writers who prefer to plan things out upfront and people who prefer to fly ‘by the seat of their pants’ and just wing it as they write. The fact that you’re reading this post in the first place indicates that you’re intending to plan things. And so, frankly, you should. At Jericho Writers we run a lot of courses for new writers, and we do a lot of editorial work on finished manuscripts. And here’s the simple truth: People who plan their novels, at least a bit, before they start are miles more likely to finish them. What’s more, the basic quality of those manuscripts is much higher too. Planning works. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. (And yes, talented and experienced authors who work with quite ‘freeform’ stories are an exception to that rule. But you’re not in that category. So keep reading!) How The Planning Process Works The way you are going to plan your novel is like this: You are going to give yourself the headings above.You are actually going to do that In Real Life. It’s probably better if you do it with pen and paper, but I’m OK with you doing it on screen, so long as you actually do it. This is a process where thinking-about-the-process is totally different from actually doing it. You need to actually do it.You are going to write notes under each heading.Yes, those notes will be scanty to start with. That’s OK! You don’t need to know everything yet. But write what you know under each heading.Then start to elaborate.Perhaps your early story idea is pretty damn basic … but then you write a little bit more about your characters and your settings … and you get an idea for an incident in your story, so then you pop down your idea for that incident, and your story-understanding has just grown.Keep going, take time.It’s important to realise that this process is a process. You can’t just allocate Monday and Tuesday to the job, then start writing on Wednesday. You are seeking to create a complex, elaborate and imaginative structure. Finding the right answers – and the right questions – will take time. I’d say that, for most writers, you are looking at several weeks, not several days.Try ideas out, delete the ones you hate.Let’s say you are making notes on character, you get an idea for a story incident, and you write it down. That’s what I just told you to do, right? Well, good. Yes, I did say that. But maybe the idea sucks. On reflection, it just doesn’t fit into the story you want to write. So delete it. You don’t know if an idea works until you try it out – noting it down in written form alongside everything else. But deletion is as much part of the process as creating. You might need to try four different routes, before you find the one that works for you. So those failed avenues aren’t failures at all. They’re what led you to the solution that finally worked.Work in a circular, iterative fashion.If it’s not already clear by now, this process is a circular one. You don’t write a complete set of notes on story, then move onto character, then move onto settings and you’re done. On the contrary, you do a bit here, then a bit there, and gradually, little by little, the whole picture fills out. Iteration, and building from sketchy to more detailed is the way this game is going to work for you. So those are your headings and that’s the basic process. Just a few more comments before I leave you to it. The Snowflake Method Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method is just one, rather rigidly structured, approach to planning your novel. And it’s limited – it works more for genre novels, and even then only some genre novels, than for Fiction In General. The heart of it, however, is simply the realisation that you can’t just sit down and write a four-page plot synopsis of your book upfront. That exercise would either fuse all your brain cells into a single steaming lump … or it would produce a really dire synopsis. So you start with a simple one-sentence story outline, then write a bit about characters, and then circle back to the story and so on. The basic process is precisely the one we’re talking about in this post. But I don’t like the precise format involved because it doesn’t really drive you to think more broadly about the book (settings, themes, market), it’s over-prescriptive about what you have to write when, and the “three disasters plus an ending” seems like a pretty damn crude summary of a book. So yes, by all means, go take a look at the Snowflake Method approach to planning … but I think you’ll prefer a more relaxed approach, such as the one we set out here. Understanding The Market The first two headings – the ones that relate more to the market than to your story in particular – you can just fill in and tidy away in an hour. You need to make notes on length, genre expectations, comparable authors and the rest. Those notes are really just to remind you of your basic compass bearing. If you actually write them down, you are much less likely to go wrong than if you don’t. And, truthfully, this part of the exercise shouldn’t be hard to do. Give yourself an hour or two, and you’re probably done. That said, you might well find that writing some notes on these topics suddenly makes you aware of some gaps in your knowledge. Yikes! What is the right length for a steampunk Victorian fantasy? Gosh! I want to publish traditionally, but do I actually have a sense of what debut novels are making a splash in my genre right now? Those questions may drive you to do some research – they might drive you to an actual bookshop. If so, no question, you’ll be a better author after doing that research than you were before. The market you want to write for matters. You have to know it inside and out. We at Jericho Writers have seen some horrible car-crash type manuscripts written by perfectly good writers. How come? Because those writers didn’t understand the market for their work before they put pen to paper. And if there’s no market for your basic idea, then no amount of editing work is going to save it. Sorry. When Do You Start Writing? So. You’ve written your headings. You’ve researched your market. You’ve started to make notes on plot, on character, on setting, and on everything else. But when do you actually start to write the actual book? When do you shift from planning to doing? And the truthful answer is: It depends. It depends on you, your story, your character, your life cuircumstances. I’d suggest that you need at least: A good idea of the shape of your story. (That means status quo, initiating incident, crisis and resolution, plus at least some vague idea of the direction of travel in the middle half of your book.)A good idea about your characters.A decent feel for settings and all those other things.A strong sense of the market for your book. If you end up accumulating more planning info than that, but don’t go crazy. Yes, JK Rowling famously plotted out her Harry Potter books, but she’s rare. Stephen King and Lee Child do 50% of Naff All. If you have a few pages on story, character, settings & market, and if you feel happy with those things, you may well be good to go. In particular, I think the right time to start a book is about 3-7 days after you’re desperate to start your book. Let that head of steam build up. You’ll know when you’re ready to write. Then start writing. Start enjoying yourself. And happy writing! Need more? We have an incredibly useful Idea Generator tool. Just grab it from the pop-up or the blue banner below this post. It doesn’t just help you structure your ideas … it gives you an incredible insight into how to plan a novel that has the potential to be a genuine bestseller … About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How long should a chapter be?

How to figure out the right length for your book. You’ve started your book. You’re brimming with ideas. You start hammering away at your text. And then – you hit a pause.  So now what?  Do you create a page break and start a new chapter? Or do you just do the three little asterisk thing? Or just crash straight on?  And what if your chapters are too short? Or too long? Will your readers laugh at you? Will you cause literary agents to spill their lattes with laughter?  Well, no.  Honest truth? Chapter lengths don’t really matter too much. No manuscript has ever been rejected by an agent or neglected by a reader just because a chapter was too short or too long.  That said, chapter breaks are one of the key rhythmical features of a novel. Your story’s most obvious beats. So, it makes sense to use those beats to enhance everything else you’re doing. Getting that right is what this post is all about.  Chapter Length, In A Nutshell Too short: 1000 words or underVery short: 1000-1500 wordsShort: 1500-2000 wordsStandard: 2000 to 4000 wordsLong: 4000 to 5000 wordsVery long: over 5000 Those are the rules for adult novels. Kids’ books will have chapter lengths that vary by age range. And there’s no wrong here. Ducks, Newburyport has no chapters and it’s 400,000 words long. It’s still amazing. What Is A Chapter? And Why Is A Chapter? OK. You know what a chapter is. A chapter is generally the major (and often the only) sub-division to be found in a book or novel. It’s marked, almost always, by a page break. The new chapter may be numbered or titled or even both. In terms of scale, some books will also be divided into parts. (Part 1 might include 10 chapters, and so on.) Individual chapters may have minor separation breaks indicated by an asterisk, or similar.  But you knew all that. More important is why is a chapter? Why have them? Why do books need or want them, even after the concept of an actual printed book has become a bit blurred out by e-books and audio books?  And the answer is that any story has beats in it. Punctuation marks, in effect. Moments when the story – and the reader – want a moment’s pause. So the question of how many words there ought to be in a chapter is really a question of: how much text should a reader be asked to read before you give them a break?  To answer that question, we need to figure out when a reader is likely to demand a pause.  What Is The Purpose Of A Chapter? The purpose of a chapter is to allow the reader to pause, and those pauses are most essential when:  There is a change of point-of-view characterThere is a major change of scene There is a major jump in time A major sequence of action has just been completed  Put like that, it’s kind of obvious why you need a pause. You need a pause to avoid confusion. If you simply continued from one paragraph to the next while implementing a major switch of character / time / place / action, the reader would be perplexed. They’d need to read the section two or three times to figure it out, and that would (paradoxically) cause a weird slowdown in momentum.  The chapter break, in effect, tells the reader, “OK, you need to hit the reset button and prepare for something a bit different. The story is continuing, but that last scene has now ended.”  That convention means that as soon as the reader has flipped the page, they know to wipe the slate clean and prepare for some new scene to get going.  And that’s also why you need to be a little bit careful here. You can’t just say, “Oh, that scene was in a café, this one is in a street, that one is in a park, so we need a total of three chapters to handle all that.” You need to use your judgement too. If the same pair of individuals simply wandered through a city, having a conversation about the same thing, it doesn’t matter at all that the locations they pass through vary. The reader, correctly, regards that as a single unit of action.  If on the other hand, it’s not just the scenery that changes, it’s also the participants, their concerns and the type of action, you need to chop that sequence up into chapters accordingly.  What Is The Right Word Count For A Chapter? With all that in mind, we can start to figure out how long our chapters ought to be. (Clue: it’s your story that is going to govern this in the end. Your story, and your readers.)  But here, for example, are some famous novels, along with word counts and chapter lengths:  A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, 592,000 words, 19 chapter, average chapter length a totally insane 31,000 words. A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin, 298,000 words, 60 chapters, average chapter length 4,970 words Twlight, by Stephenie Meyer, 118,000 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 4,720 1984, by George Orwell, 89,000 words, 24 chapters, average chapter length 3,700 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, 216,000 words. 75 chapters, average chapter length 2,880 words. (Book is also divided into 7 parts.) The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, 65,750 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 2,630 Talking to the Dead, by me – Harry Bingham – 113,000 words, 49 chapters, average chapter length 2,300 words The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, 96,400 words, 46 chapters, average chapter length 2,100 Along Came A Spider, by James Patterson, 106,000 words, 97 chapters, average chapter length 1,100  You can pretty much forget the first of those examples – the Vikram Seth one. His book was almost boastfully extravagant in terms of length. That was its selling point, in a way, and it is such an outlier, you can discard it.  Martin’s Game of Thrones is epic fantasy fiction and its 5,000 word chapter length pretty much benchmarks the very top end of normal.  Likewise, Patterson, with his famously rapid-fire fiction, pretty much benchmarks the bottom end of normal. Most books (including, I discover, my own) lie in the 2,000 to 4,000 word range.  How To Figure Out What Chapter Length Is Right For You In truth, you won’t really choose your chapter lengths. You’ll write your story, and your story will insert its own natural breaks, as you change scene, viewpoint or whatever. But as you can begin to guess from the data in the previous section, the story you tell is likely to impose a varying set of chapter lengths on you. So, from smallest to biggest, here’s what different stories are likely to need.  Very Short Chapters, Under 2,000 Words Fiction with very short chapters has a kind of jump-cut, fast-edited quality to it. It will work for action fiction, but even then, it’ll work for the very fastest – and least reflective – action writing.  James Patterson is the huge benchmark of this type of fiction. You can’t really get shorter, faster, snappier writing than his … and notice that his chapter length doesn’t dip below 1,000 words (or not really. I expect that somewhere in his massive canon you’ll find an exception.)  That means if your average chapter length falls below 1,000 words, you are probably trying to cut too often – or that you haven’t yet given enough weight and depth to the scenes you are telling. Remember that even action fiction needs space to make an impression.  Normal Chapters, 2,000 To 4,000 Words Just take a look at the list above. You’ll notice an impressive range of fiction in this ‘normal’ range.  There’s young adult fiction (Fault in Our Stars). There’s my own crime fiction. There are a couple of absolute literary classics (1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale).  In other words, whether you’re writing genre fiction, or literary, whether you’re writing for adults or teenagers, chapter lengths in this broad range will strike the reader as normal, expected, nothing to be alarmed about.  Very Long Chapters, 4,000 To 5,000 Words If you’re writing chapters that regularly exceed the 4,000 word mark, you are, in effect, announcing to your reader that your story has a more than normal amount of heft and swagger. So George Martin’s Game of Thrones announces its genuinely epic aspirations in part by those epically sized chapters.  For authors of epic fantasy, long chapters will certainly work. The same probably goes for authors of some kings-n-queens type historical fiction. But this will be the exception. To most readers, most of the time, very long chapters will just feel … very long.  Chapter Rhythms: Mixing It Up So far we’ve spoken of average chapter lengths, which is all well and good. But you can have long ones and short ones, as well as plenty of middling ones.  The shorter ones, especially, will mix up the rhythms of the rest and jolt the reader, in a useful way.  At the longer end, I still wouldn’t generally advise going over 5,000 words all that often. It’s just a plot of text, and readers need to be able to put the book down now and again.  At the shorter end, short can be very short. I’ve quite often written chapters that are 500 words or so. (That’s a page and a half or so of an ordinary paperback.) If you want to go to 300 words or even less, you can. All I’d say is that the hyper-short chapter is a little bit of an attention-seeking device. You risk having the reader think about you the author, rather than the story you have placed in front of them.  And the story, of course, should always come first.  You can find out more about standard word counts, here.  How To End A Chapter Chapters end at natural breaks in your story. OK. We know that much. But you don’t just want to stop abruptly. You want to give your reader a satisfying ending for the chunk they’ve just read. Here are four great ways to end a chapter. They’re not mutually exclusive, so you might use more than one technique in a single place. Symbolic Reversal A scene or chapter is there to tell its own mini-story, with its own beginning, middle and end. And because stories are about change, scenes are about change too. So, a scene is typically based around some kind of story question, which is then resolved or changed by the end of the scene. One good way to end a chapter is to find a way to highlight or encapsulate the change that has just happened. So let’s just say we have a proposal scene. Mark Manly has just gone down on one knee to propose marriage to Winona Winsome. He offers her a single red rose.  She says no. She rejects him.  There’s an argument. In the course of the argument, the rose is damaged. Winona marches out of the room.  The scene ends with Mark clutching a bare-rose, no petals. A sign of his failure.  I’m not sure that’s a super-brilliant way to handle a non-proposal scene, but you see the point I’m making. The rose comes to symbolise the hope at the start of the scene and the failure at the end. That’s one nice way to handle things. Looking Back Alternatively, however, let’s say that Winona says yes.  And let’s say that Mark has secretly loved Winona since he was an 11-year-old boy, seeing her arrive in (um, I don’t know) a skiff, a carriage, a hot air balloon outside his castle.  The triumph with which our current scene ends – she said yes! she said yes! – could be a reason to look back to the past, to that 11-year-old boy, and the long trials and tribulations of his love.  Again, a closing paragraph that looks back to the past could be a nice way to end the chapter.  Looking Forward Let’s twist the lens again.  Winona wants to marry Mark, yes, but the Dark Lord of Boundercad Hall has sworn to enslave her. He is coming for Winona that evening accompanied by (oh, I don’t know) twenty mounted troops and a very scary parrot.  So now, terrific, the intrepid couple see the prospect of infinite wedded bliss – but only if they can figure out a way to escape the clutches of the Dark Lord. So this chapter would naturally end with a look to the future. A glance up to the brooding presence of Boundercad Hall. Or a mention of the sound of horses being saddled, or a scary parrot squawking.  That hint of the future isn’t a cliffhanger, exactly, but it reminds the reader that big things are on the point of being decided.  Looking Sideways If you have a dual-protagonist drama, then scenes (and chapters) will naturally switch from Person A to Person B and back again.  So let’s say, instead of a proposal scene, Mark and Winona are planning to elope. We’ve just had a chapter with Winona buckling on a sword, preparing her horse, saying farewell to her beloved three-legged cat. And now – the chapter ends. She’s ready for her night of adventure, but what about Mark?  You don’t have to make that question over–explicit in a chapter ending. (In fact, too explicit, and it’ll sound weak.) All you need to do is prompt the idea in the reader, as subtly as you like. So your chapter might end. “She was ready. All that mattered now was that Mark would be on that ferry.”  Again, that’s not really a cliffhanger, but it switches the story question from Winona to Mark. The reader will now think, “Jeepers. Yes! What about Mark?” and they’ll be all prepped for a scene where we see Mark facing some obstacle to getting on the ferry in time.  The Classic Cliffhanger You might think it’s odd that I’ve left the classic cliffhanger scene to last … and that’s because such things are quite rare and usually quite crass.  The very first example – where the term came from, in fact – was Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and it’s terrible. (See here for more.) It’s terrible, because the chapter ends with a man hanging (thoughtfully, calmly) by his fingertips from a cliff … and the next chapter starts with the exact same person hanging (still calmly) by his fingertips in the exact same spot and the exact same situation.  In fact, the badness of the Hardy scene reminds us that chapter breaks belong where stories have their natural breaks. There probably are good examples of the classic cliffhanger, but really, not many. For the most part, techniques 1-4 or some variant thereon will do you better.  That’s it from me. Have fun with your chapters – and, as ever, happy writing.  About the author  Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)  (You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here). 
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How to Write a Great Scene (and Nail It Every Time)

Enrich your novel, by writing great, vivid and memorable scenesBy C M Taylor Writing a great scene – or just as importantly, knowing if a scene you have already written stands up – can be approached as a process of inquisition. In effect, you ask yourself a number of questions to find out if the scene holds up. One successful writer of my acquaintance has a list of sixty questions which he asks himself about every scene he writes, and while we’re not going to reach that number, below I have gathered 10 key areas to ask questions about when assessing or planning a scene. If you score ten our of ten, your scene should be good to go. If your score is a lot lower than that, you’ve still got some editing work to do … What Is The Unique Purpose Of The Scene? This is worth asking first of all, because if you get the wrong answer here, you save yourself the bother of asking all the other questions as you can just use our friend the delete key to solve the problem. Does this scene earn its keep? Is it doing something that is simply not being done anywhere else in the work? And if the unique thing that it does was omitted from the story, would the story have a hole? Does the scene belong in the story being told? Should you kill it? What happens? How does it uniquely advance the plot? Or uniquely establish mood? Or uniquely deliver character comprehension, or feeling? Does it advance the work in a way that might be done more effectively in any other scene? If you pass that test, move on to the next question. How To Write A Scene In 8 Steps: Identify its unique purposeEnsure the scene fits with your theme and genreCreate a scene-turning-eventIdentify which point of view you’re usingMake good use of your locationUse dialogue to build the sceneBe clear on whether your scene is static or mobileDon’t forget where the scene stands chronologically Is The Scene Thematically Congruent? If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love? Is your scene about what your book is about? And if it not but you still need it in because – as above – it’s the vehicle for a unique and irremovable aspect of your story, then how are you going to rewrite the scene so that it amplifies, however distantly, the theme of your story? How Does The Scene Turn? What do I mean by ‘turn’? Well, first let’s back up… People say that without conflict there is no drama. Now, I’m not so sure about that, I think a broader and more accurate assessment would be not without conflict but without change. Without change there is no drama, and what people mean by conflict is resistance to change. You could write a scene about a woman digging a tree stump out of the ground that was full of drama, as she struggled and the tree stump resisted, and she changed from being in an optimistic state to an exhausted, pessimistic state. But would that scene be full of conflict? You might say she was in conflict with the tree stump, but that to me would be stretching it. Instead it is a scene where a character tries to change the world and that change is resisted. Or, you could write a scene where somebody realised they had totally misremembered a very important incident from their past and that life in facts was different to how they imagined it. The drama would be in the correction of the memory. It would not be a conflict, instead it would be a swift and significant change. So, when I ask, ‘How does the scene turn?’, what I mean is, ‘What change does it effect?’ If all of the characters in the scene are in the same state at the end of the scene as they were at the beginning of the scene, then no change has been affected and so no drama has occurred. What is the central change of the scene? What is it that turns from one state to another state? Is it one character who turns? Many characters? A situation? Is the turn for the negative or the positive? Is the character further way from what they want, or closer? What are the obstacles facing the character from turning the scene the way they want to turn the scene? If the character does not get what they want, change and drama are still demonstrated as they have failed and so their emotional state and desperation have increased.  No change externally does not mean no change internally. Change is of course linked to motivation and goals and desire. Make sure that the change which the scene turns on directly affects what your character is trying to achieve. Make sure their goal and motivation are clear. Are they closer to their clear goal, or are they further away? How your scene turns will be bound up with your cast list. Does the scene change when a new character enters? Who is present at the beginning of the scene and who is present at the end? If a new character enters, is their entrance memorable and is it their arrival that turns the scene? If not, why not? In that case you have introduced a new character without that introduction having a big impact. Is that what you want? Does it suit your plot and their character for them to sidle in? Maybe it does. If you want more information on how to create that scene turning event, then check out our inciting incidents blog post too. Are You Clear On Your Point Of View? The person to whom the largest change is happening is often, but not always, the person from whose point of view we will be seeing the scene. ‘Often, but not always’, because in fiction, unlike in film, point of view is not an utterly promiscuous tool, it needs to settle on, usually, one or just a handful of characters. So, whose point of view are you telling the scene from? If it is possible, best do it, but it may not always be possible to tell it from the point of view of the person to whom the greatest change is happening. If you think about how to write a death scene as an example. The largest change is happening to the person who is dying, but it is often not right to write the scene form their perspective as once they’re gone, they’re gone. In fact, some of the most famous deaths happen off screen. Take Cordelia in King Lear, or Ophelia in Hamlet as examples. Both of these deaths are moving, but both happen off stage – out of point of view. But take Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich which as the title suggests is clearly focussed on the biggest change of all for Ivan and whose death is described as ‘that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him’. So, don’t go chasing the point of view of the person to whom the biggest change is happening if it mutilates your novel’s point of view schema. But if you can describe death from the point of view, then make it as appropriate to the unique sensibility of the character as possible. Similarly, when thinking how to write a sex scene, or if you are thinking about describing a kiss, point of view is everything. The unique attributes of the person to whom the sensation is happening govern how the sensation is described. How does it map on to their personal history? What are they not saying? How would their particular imagination describe what was happening? Basically, are you in the point of view of the person having the strongest sensation of change? If you can’t be in that point of view, make sure the change being experienced elsewhere emotionally impinges on the sensations of your point of view character and effects their motivations and desires. Does Your Scene Make Good Use Of Location? Where does the scene take place? At what time of day or night? Could another time or location serve to heighten the impact? Where were the characters before the scene started? Where are they going after it ends? How do they move physically across the space? Are you creating a sense of place? Some scenes require the claustrophobia of a locked room. Other require a huge canvas. Location is particularly important when thinking how to write a battle scene. For example, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is nothing without the water and the sand, while the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back would lose so much without the ice world. In those instances, the type of battle you can have is heavily defined by the location. The combatants’ experience of the battle will be similarly defined. And of course if you filter the character’s experience of battle through that physical reality (sand in the eyes, struggling to keep the rifle’s magazine out of the salt water …), you will end up with a much more vivid and intense scene than you’d have without that level of detail. Is Your Scene Commensurate With Your Genre? Let’s say for example that you are thinking about how to write a fight scene. If you are writing a work of historical fiction, say set amongst the samurai of feudal Japan, then you will make the fight scene a different scale and tone and pace to if you were writing a work of science fiction. And again, for example, the tone of a sword fight set in feudal Japan, which might be bound up with honour and stoic, wordless masculinity, would be very different to say the sword fight scene we get in the fantasy comedy The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya is given humorous dialogue as sharp as his rapier to utter as he fights. Any scene must be attuned to the feeling tone of the genre in which it is placed. How Do You Make Use Of Dialogue? Does the dialogue reflect character? Is it natural? Forced? Can you cover up the name of the person who is speaking and know who they are just from the sound and pattern of their words? Do they have unique speech patterns? Or if they all have the same accent, is it your conscious and correct decision to make them all sound the same? How is your dialect rendered? And then feed those thoughts back into the ones about location, and genre, and theme. These things all feed off themselves, of course. So your dialogue may naturally include observations about the location. (“Damn sand!” or “Hell, my rifle’s soaked.”) Those genre / thematic issues will smuggle their way into the dialogue too. And that infiltration is an entirely good thing, of course. It’s part of making your work feel integrated and alive. Is Your Scene Static Or Mobile? Do your characters have something to do? Is there something going on? An activity they are engaged in? If two characters are talking about their love lives what would they be doing as they spoke? In screenwriting they call this ‘interference’ – an action that characters take part in which can mirror how the scene is developing emotionally. Are they playing tennis? Putting up an Ikea shelf? Let’s say it’s tennis, their game can improve as they talk confidently about their love life, or degenerate as they talk neurotically about their love life. If they are putting up a shelf, they can drill through a pipe just as they are told bad news. Give your characters props to enact their feelings. Of course, some scenes are physically static and internal. No problem. Make the energy internal. Don’t let their emotions be static. Let the reactions rather than the actions carry the kinetic power of the scene. How Does Your Scene Deal With Time? Narrative art is intrinsically about the passage of time. Change can’t happen without it. Be absolutely sure where the scene stands in the work’s overall chronology. How much time has elapsed since the last scene? Is it clear to the reader how much time has elapsed? If we are moving into the future or the past, had you better make that very clear to the reader or are they okay to surf the time waves? Think about continuity. Is your characters hair long one week after it has been short? If your scene takes place in a very different time are their physical characteristics about the character you can employ to imply this passage of time and give a sense of time passing? And Finally – Is Your Scene Any Damn Good? Be honest. You can probably find a way to start your scene later, to get out of it earlier, to push up more on the felt drama of your point of view character, and to clarify and affect your turn more dramatically. Don’t just go through all these points once, go through them again. Scenes are not brought to their sharpest point in one pass. If you found this helpful, then you’ll definitely find this article on spicing up your writing and this one on chapter lengths useful – especially when you come to writing that great scene. Don’t forget to let us know how you’re getting on at the Jericho Townhouse, we’d love to hear from you! About the author C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). He’s also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival. C M Taylor also works with Jericho Writers as a book editor.
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How to write seven basic plots

Knowing the key plot archetypes can help you get going, so we’re looking at the prospective seven basic plots that underpin all fiction. Whilst your story mightn’t conform consciously to a plot structure, such structures do exist, and knowing them could help keep you inspired and on track. Pick A Plot From The Seven Basic Plots According to Christopher Booker, there are seven main plotlines, as written in The Seven Basic Plots. If you’re still planning things, why not choose one to place your ideas in so far? (If you’re at a very early stage in planning, read up on how to have story ideas. Remember, you can mess around a little, too. No story will ever fit only one plotline, there may just be one obvious one. Take subplots, plots within plots, to layer your story and give it complexity and meaning.) Here are the seven basic plots and how to make each one work for you. Overcoming the monster Your protagonist must battle a monster (or a monstrous force) that threatens, probably, more than just your protagonist’s survival in scope and scale. Christopher Booker offers the classic examples of The Epic of Gilgamesh or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stephen King’s It falls under this plotline, too, but of course monsters needn’t always be literal. They can be human. They can be ideological. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is (foremost) about the Pevensie children needing to overthrow the White Witch and bring peace to Narnia with Aslan’s help. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is about Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny battling racial prejudice (embodied in housewife Hilly Holbrook) in Mississippi during the 1960s. To make your ‘monster’ work, you’ll need this threat to chill us. You need a genuinely existential battle of survival to make things work. You’ll also want the monster to represent something beyond just claws and fangs. It needs to be vengeance, or racial intolerance, or something else that really matters. Voyage and return Born with Odysseus and The Odyssey (battling monstrosities like Circe, Scylla and Charybdis to journey safe home to wife Penelope) in Greek myth, your protagonist here must journey from home, returning with new strength and experience from challenges faced. Think of Bilbo Baggins’ journey out of the Shire in The Hobbit. First come trolls, and after (not before) comes the dragon. The key is in your rising action, the threats getting worse as Bilbo carries on, growing in courage. Your voyage should be getting more dangerous all the time, before your protagonist can safely make a ‘turnabout’ and return (not without transfiguration, since Bilbo comes home braver, stronger). The fact that Bilbo never turns back before the essential point and challenge of the quest is faced is also important. Giving your protagonist chances to turn back reflects growth and heroism when they soldier on, anyway. To make this plot work, your protagonist is going to be leaving one world, encountering another, ending up transfigured – so raise the stakes. Give plenty of options to turn back (which they won’t take, because something other than themselves is at risk, too). Rags to riches The word ‘Cinderella’ sums up this plotline, but the ‘riches’ in this phrasing is relative, and needn’t be literal. The point is that your protagonist should grow in character, strength and understanding, helping them achieve their desire, or better, and be empowered. Your protagonist should ascend, with newfound strength, from a low point to new heights, sometimes involving romance, and sometimes not. A good example of ‘not’ would be Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, where a happy ending simply means being able to attend college. Other examples include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, or Aladdin and His Enchanted Lamp from The Thousand and One Nights. You’ll make this plot work by empowering your protagonist in various ways. Cinderella, in her fairy tale, makes it out of rags to riches but we can assume she won’t still be scrubbing floors at the palace. She’s valued for herself in her new home and free to live on her own terms, so she’s become empowered (inside and out). This is your key to unlocking plot material. The quest In this narrative, your protagonist sets out to find someone, or to find an object, a proverbial ‘buried treasure’. Famous examples include the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or (broadly) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. Philip Pullman’s protagonist Lyra in Northern Lights (or, in the US, The Golden Compass) for instance, faces bears, witches and kidnappers to reach her father, before she carries on into another world. Lyra faces worse as the challenges mount up, so she matures and changes with learning and strength. Ultimately, Lyra makes her costliest sacrifice at the close of her (multiple) quests in His Dark Materials, and so she becomes heroic. We are given final proof of her courage and selflessness as her adventuring concludes in The Amber Spyglass. You’ll also need to raise stakes, making things harder and harder, before a final ‘good’ deed from your protagonist grants them victory. Comedy In comic narrative, the gist is to create a whirl of misunderstandings for your protagonist that becomes more fraught with time. All will ‘miraculously transformed’ near the end, as your action moves happily from dark to light. Classic examples include any of Jane Austen’s novels, The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, or Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Make your comic plot work by continuing to muddle events, feelings and perceptions as we go, right up to the finish line. Bridget Jones remains confused about Mark Darcy in most of the novel (firstly misjudging Mark, then Daniel, then misjudging how both feel about her) before all is happily resolved. Tragedy This is the inverse of ‘Comedy’, moving from light to dark. Your protagonist here has an irredeemable flaw or makes an irredeemable mistake, causing their undoing and ‘fall’. Your protagonist could be reprehensible, like Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, or like the example Christopher Booker gives us, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespearean tragedies give a rich choice of protagonists whose flaws lead them to doom, such as Othello and his jealousy, or Lear and his arrogance. Other tragic protagonists may be more questionable, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. An example of an innocent protagonist falling to tragedy would be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s ‘mistake’ being to fall in love and leave her husband for a man who’ll betray her. You’ll make a tragic plot work by thinking deeply about all the ‘if onlys’ of your protagonist’s situation. Think how we mull over our own mistakes, wishing we’d seen things coming. If only Othello had trusted Desdemona, or if only Gatsby hadn’t fallen for Daisy. How could all have been avoided? How differently could things have worked out? Give your poor protagonist routes out (which they’ll not take, e.g. Jay Gatsby fails to accept Nick’s warning that the past can’t be repeated, since Gatsby can’t let Daisy go), then seal off exit options to amplify emotion in your tragic plot. Rebirth ‘Rebirth’ is poised to be like ‘Tragedy’ but with a hopeful outcome. Your protagonist needs a redemptive arc to their journey. This is sometimes combined with a hero romantically redeemed by a heroine, or vice versa. Classics examples of this trope are fairy tales like Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast or Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and retellings based on these tales, such as Beauty by Robin McKinley or Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Other examples are The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emma by Jane Austen (also a ‘Comedy’ tale), or The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Make a plot like this work by making a happy outcome dependent on nothing but the ‘Rebirth’ component alone. Identify what this is, because your protagonist’s success and happy ending will hinge on it. In a tale like Beauty and the Beast, for instance, love can’t be mutual until Bête lets Belle go free. Emma Woodhouse needs to reflect and change before she can marry someone as good as Mr Knightley. Amir risks his life returning to Kabul, but can’t be free of his past guilt in The Kite Runner until he tries to help his best friend’s son. The question, after all this, is which general plotline feels authentic for where you’d most like to take your story? Choose More Than One Plot And Add Subplots Sometimes, more than one plot outline will fit your story material. In A Game of Thrones, there is a tragic narrative for one protagonist, Eddard or Ned Stark, and the ‘fault’ that kills Ned is his integrity in a dark world. However, A Game of Thrones uses various plot archetypes to tell multiple protagonists’ stories over a sprawling scale. It isn’t only a tragic plot. J.K. Rowling’s stories don’t fit neatly into a single plot idea, either, since Harry Potter’s overarching tale checks several of these boxes. Harry’s story could be defined as a ‘Rags to riches’ tale, because he goes from an abusive boyhood living under his aunt’s staircase to freedom, to a successful career and happiness with his wife and children at the series’ close. There’s also a ‘Voyage and return’ element to each book, as Harry attends Hogwarts every year, only to return to his aunt and uncle every summer (though in the seventh, Harry leaves Privet Drive for the last time). It’s also an ‘Overcoming the monster’ story, because the spectre of Voldemort haunts Harry throughout the series, as do other monstrous beings like the Basilisk or Dementors, or monstrous characters like Voldemort’s supporters (led by Bellatrix Lestrange), Professor Umbridge, and others. It’s also a ‘Quest’ because Harry’s ‘hunts’ through the series culminate, in the seventh book, with his seeking Horcruxes and Hallows. The existential question of which is right to seek becomes a determinant of Harry’s success, and overall character development. There are strong comic elements, strong tragic elements, and there are strong elements of ‘Rebirth’, too. In sum, stories often can’t be boxed and they shouldn’t be. These plotlines are threadbare for a reason, since they’re foremost guides, and exist to help you build upon them. 3 Next Steps To Penning Your Plot Too little plot can be as tedious as no structure at all, so plan with care and remember plotting can be your aide. Plot should serve as a creative constraint, existing to help you produce your best work. A few steps on what you can do from here with the seven basic plots: Gather your story material. Review characters, the things you want to happen, and pick a plot for your novel.Map your key plot events. Adapt them to whichever plot you chose. If it’s a quest, map out testing moments where your protagonist can or should turn back – or, if it’s tragic, map out moments your tragic protagonist could have avoided what they’re heading for, and so on.Link these moments together and create your resolution to the action. All this will create a core meaning in your narrative (before you add subplots for complexity). After this, you’ll be needing a plot mountain, too, for adding the fun bits. Story structures are always there to help, not hinder you. Happy writing!
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Write Amazon Book Descriptions That Sell (Examples & Template)

An easy template | Loads of examples | A flood of sales … You’ve lured readers to your book page. Congratulations. Maybe, your stunning cover art has done it. Or a great title. Or a really well-constructed email campaign. Either way, you’ve got readers where you want them. They’re curious. They’re interested. But . . . they’re also suspicious. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying those potential readers are unusual in any way. Quite the reverse. They’re like you or me. Sure a $2.99 ebook isn’t a huge purchase decision – but a dollar is a dollar, and we value our time, and no one wants to buy a book that doesn’t grab them. And that’s why your book description is so intensely important: a vital member of the Fab Four of sales conversion. A strong description may make a reader buy the book or, perhaps more likely, go to the “Look Inside” feature which gives them more data, on which to base their decision. And that really is the task of your book description: make readers click “Look Inside”. If you do that, you’ve won. (Oh, and before we go further, I should say that the basic template we’re about to lay out works for both novels and non-fiction – but if produces very different results in both cases. Bear with me, because we’ll look at both.) The Sales Pathway In fact, if you like to visualise the complete sales journey on Amazon (and excluding a ton of complicating factors), then it looks like this. Amazon Search Page ⇒ Your Book PageKey conversion factors: Cover, Price, Reviews (total number)Supporting cast: Title, Reviews (average rating) Your Book Page ⇒ Look InsideKey conversion factors: Book descriptionSupporting cast: Cover, reviews Look Inside ⇒ Buy NowKey conversion factors: The book itself!Supporting cast: Cover, book description, Reviews, Price Every step of that pathway is critical, except of course that in some cases the book page will push users straight to the Buy Now button. (Although, who actually makes purchase decisions that fast? You do if you’re buying Lee Child #97, because you’re already a keen fan of Lee Child #1-96. You do if you’re buying a “How To” style non-fiction book and you know that this author and this topic will meet your needs. But mostly? Mostly, I think, users want to try before they buy with authors who are new to them, and that means it helps you to visualise your sales journey in three steps, not two.) What Your Amazon Book Description Has To Do So, OK, your book description has to push people into hitting that “Look Inside” feature. That’s the step which defines success. But how do you actually accomplish that goal? How do you write Amazon book descriptions that really sell the book and compel the reader? To answer that question, you have to get a clear read on your who reader is – what their state of mind is. So let’s say, like me, you are a crime novelist. I’m going to assume that you’ve set your keywords and categories correctly. (Not sure about them? Check here for guest blogger, Dave Gaughran’s super-expert guide.) So, if you’ve done things right to this point, your book should start popping up in front of readers who: (a) have come to Amazon looking for a book,ie: they have real purchase intent – they want a crime novel (b) are interested in your genre,that’s how come your work is showing up in their searches, but (c) don’t know anything specific about you or what you’ve written Your great cover and great reviews persuade those people to click through to your book page. And these people are your perfect customers, in the sense that they have an immediate purchase-intent and they want a crime book. But They’re impatientBecause this is the internet, and everyone is impatient.They need information about what you’re offeringBecause you as an author are new to them, and they need help in understanding your product.They need to understand why they should buy your productBecause they need you to answer the question, “What will this book do for me? What will I get from it?” And finally of course: They want to be blown away They want to find themselves trapped in a place, where the only way out is to read your book. (And they probably need to be nudged towards that course of action.) So how exactly do you do it? How do you nudge the reader to set out on a book-length journey with you . . . when you only have maybe 150 words to convince them to take the trip? How To Take The Reader With You . . . In 150 Words Or Less We’ve said that readers are impatient (it’s them that set that 150 word limit, not Amazon.) So you have to achieve a lot in a very short space of time . . . and here’s the basic template you need to follow. First, you need (1) to hook your readers in your first or second sentence. Then you need to (2) provide more data about what kind of book you’re offering. (Yes, a crime book, in our example, but police procedural? Or violent gangland thriller? And set in a quiet English village? Or south central LA?) And beyond that, you need to (3) give the reader a sense of what emotional payoff they’re going to get from your book. And that means that your reader actually needs to feel that payoff. Sure, there’s only so much emotion you can generate in a short space, but your readers understand the difference between the trailer and the movie. They understand the difference between the book description and the book. Then finally, (4), you need to nudge your reader towards the next action (either “Buy Now” or “Look Inside”). I’m not a huge fan of really direct calls to action in a book description, but you can still tip the reader in the direction you want to take. So that’s what our description has to accomplish. I’m about to tell you how to do it. Do just note that this is not a complete guide to the art of self-publishing. Luckily, though, we already have one for you, if you want it. It’s right here. Your Amazon Book Description Template The basic template for a book description is: Hook. This is one sentence, maybe two. Ideally, no more than that. If you go for three or more sentences, that can be fine . . . as long as they’re very short ones!Content. In the case of fiction, this will be a mini-story in its own right. In the case, of non-fiction, you will be laying out the substance of the book. In both cases, though, you’ll be answering the “what is this?” question and the “what will it do for me?” one. For fiction, your mini-story should run to about 75-100 words. Non-fictioneers can (and probably should) go long.Climax / call to action. If your main content is a mini-story, you want to end it on a cliffhanger, or a question, or some other place that is unsatisfying to the reader. In that sense, the cliffhanger IS your call to action. You’re effectively saying, “Hey, you don’t like being left in that place of suspense? Well, there’s only one way you can fix that problem, buddy . . . and the ‘Buy Now’ button is right up there.” You don’t even need to say that explicitly to say it. Oh, and the same basic approach works with non-fiction too. We’ll look at both. In terms of length, your climax is probably just one sentence. It could be two, but if so, they’re probably short ones . . . To be clear, that template works for every book. It’s the heart of every successful book description ever. We’re going to go on to look at some specific examples of how that template works out in practice, but before we get there, we have to face one more question. Do you want a very clean, pared-down book description, of the sort that Amazon Publishing generally favours? (One example here.) Or do you want to follow the kitchen-sink model favoured by Bookouture, an outstandingly successful British e-publisher? (One example of their monster book descriptions here – note the huge number of reviews etc included as part of that book description. Personally, I prefer the latter model. I like the ability to hold the reader on “my” part of my book’s web real estate. So I want readers to look at the reviews that I choose to shove under their nose. I don’t want my reader wandering down to look at the “also boughts”. I want them to feel complete before they even reach the end of the book description. But to be clear: that’s not the only method. Amazon, in case you hadn’t noticed, is rather good at data, and if their publishing arm favours a very trimmed-down version of the book description, it clearly works for them. So you can go light, or you can go heavy . . . the one thing you can’t do is mess with that template. The next thing for us to do? See how it works in practice. This stuff is helpful, right?But, you know, there’s a lot more where this came from. We’ve got an entire self-publishing video course, that’s expensive to buy (see details) . . . but which we’d like to give you totally free.And not just that course, but an awesome on on How To Write. And live webinars with literary agents and top book doctors. And an incredible cinema, full of films by writers for writers.In fact, our Jericho Writers club is made for writers like you – and was created by writers like you. We think you’ll be blown away by what we have on offer. To find out more, just Explore Our Club. We’ look forward to welcoming you soon. Your Book Description: Some Examples OK, you want an example of a top quality book description? Well, here’s one from Amazon imprint author, Mark Edwards. Mark writes his own descriptions and Amazon loves them so much, they don’t change a word. Mark opts for a super-pared down description and it works unbelievably well, as you can see. Here’s an example from his BECAUSE YOU LOVE ME. (Here on Amazon.com, or here on Amazon UK.) You can see that the hook / content / climax template is alive and well in that short piece of text. (Which totals just 100 words, by the way. I’d say that 100 words sits at the very short end of what you can get away with. Anything between 100 and, say, 180 words feels about right.) In this case, the hook is simply: “this author is a #1 worldwide bestseller, and if you like stories about jealousy / obsession / murder, you’re probably in the right place.” Works for you? Yep, it works for me too. Notice that that one short sentence has ticked two boxes. It’s said, “here are the themes of the book [so you already know what kind of emotional journey it’s going to offer.” But it’s also said, “And you don’t need to be worried about wasting your $3.99, because I’m a top author and you’re in good hands.” The story here is delivered with extreme economy, but just look what it accomplishes. That first sentence (Andrew meets Charlie) gives us the premise. In effect, that’s the initiating incident right there. In one sentence. Not just that, but you’re given the first uh-oh moment. (“He is certain his run of bad luck has finally come to an end.” You and I known damn well that it’s only just starting.) With the starting position swiftly drawn, the story instantly escalates . . . things missing, a stalker, misfortune, tragedy. The issues start small and build fast. In effect, in the tiny world of this book description, Mark Edwards has succeeded in building a perfectly formed story. What’s more, that little story answers the “what kind of book is this?” question. You just know exactly from the information you’ve been given. But it answers the “what feelings will you have when reading it?” question too. You know exactly what your emotional payoff is going to be. And then the climax / CTA: in this case, a question. Is this woman an angel – or a demon? Notice that you don’t actually need to do anything as crude as say, “Hey, go and buy my book!” That would actually spoil the emotional place you’ve got the reader into. What you’ve done is smarter than just some crude “buy me” message. You’ve engineered a little emotional conflict in the reader. They want to know the answer to your angel / demon question . . . but the only way they can resolve that is to buy the book. Don’t know about you, but that works for me. Different Ways To Deliver Hook Marks’s hook was a neat and uncomplicated one. Basically, “This book is a story about X, and you can trust that it’ll be a good one because I’m a #1 bestseller.” That’s OK if you are a #1 bestseller. If you’re not? Well, there are a million other ways to do it: Social proof. (“Readers are raving about this book. ‘Awesome, gob-smacking.’ Annie J. ‘Breathtaking. I never wanted it to end.’ Jaco R.”)Formal proof. (“The New York Times called this book ‘dazzling’.  The Washington Post said, ‘It’s so good, you’ll want to read it twice.\'”)Question. (“Was she an angel? Or a demon?”)Provocation. (“Finally – a heroine to kick Lisbeth Salander’s ass.”)Comparison. (“If you loved Donna Tartt’s Secret History, you’ll love this tale of darkness, betrayal – and Homer.”)Premise / set-up. (“She was his ex-wife. He still loved her. But why was she driving the getaway car in Chicago’s biggest-ever heist?”)Sales. (“100,000 copies sold in the series. And fans rate this as the best one yet.”) Or whatever! Be imaginative. Use whatever you’ve got. It doesn’t matter what type of hook you use. It does matter that you have one! Different Ways To Deliver Your Climax / CTA Likewise, your climax can operate in different ways. Choice / question. (“Was she an angel? Or a demon? Or – worse still – was she both?”)Suspense / cliffhanger. (“There was only one way to find out. And that was to open the tomb.”)Reminder of social proof / sales / formal proof. (“This is the novel that has sold a bazillion copies / that the New York Times raved about / that readers have awarded 100s of 5-star reviews.”)Comparisons nudge. (“Perfect for fans of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.”) Again, it doesn’t really matter what you do; it does matter that you choose to do it. Personally, when it comes to fiction, I think you want to leave your readers in the story. That means the choice / question / cliffhanger ending works better for me than the jump back into “hey, the New York Times loved this”. But that could be a personal thing. Certainly you see plenty of competent indie authors / trad publishers using a whole variety of methods here. One More Example Just to show you how universal this model is, I’m going to give you an illustration from my own work – this one comes from the UK edition of my police procedural, THE DEAD HOUSE. I wasn’t in fact the primary author of this description – I just tweaked a description written by my publisher – but it’s probably the best of the descriptions of my work out there. You’ll see how precisely that description follows our template. The hook delivers a sense of emotion (“Chilling, atmospheric and gripping”), and a proof of quality – here’s top author Mark Edwards bigging the book up. (I’d forgotten, actually, that Mark had plugged The Dead House when I extracted his description above – but he’s a damn nice guy, with excellent taste . . . and he can write quite nicely too!) The story / content builds from the premise (victim’s body found), adds some mystery (who is she? why is she here? what’s with the thin white dress?), then escalates is one more time (another woman went missing). All that in a space hardly longer than Mark Edwards’s super-economical 100 words. And then the climax / CTA follows the template too: a question of the type that crime readers love. In fact – big claim here – if you find ANY good book description on Amazon, you’ll find it follows the same basic template. You don’t believe me? What about non-fiction, you cry? Pshaw, says I, and fiddle-de-dee. It’s true of non-fiction too. I’m going to show you an example of that in just one moment – but first some very important remarks about formatting, and how to make the most of the 4000 character allowance that Amazon grants us for book descriptions. Book Descriptions: Formatting, Length And Additional Content If you’ve been thinking about book descriptions at all, you’ll have noticed that some descriptions make good use of formatting (bold, italics, subheadings, etc), some make wildly excessive use of them, and some make no use at all. About Formatting Although Amazon’s own imprints make almost no use of formatting (and those guys test extensively, so they’re not just being stupid or lazy), my own view is that some good, calm, tasteful formatting adds structure and intelligibility to the blurb. I’m not going to talk in detail about how to insert bold and italics, etc. The short answer is that you use html tags like or to make text bold or italics respectively, and then lose the tags with, for example or , once you want the bold / italics to stop. But that’s not really a complete answer, so: You can read Amazon’s own guidelines here, but better stillThere’s a really easy tool here, which allows you to format your text on screen in a way that you’re happy with. Once you’re happy with the way your book description looks, you just hit “Get code” and the tool will deliver you with the text you can just cut and paste into your Amazon book description box. Simple! I’m happy enough using html tags, but I still use that tool, just because it’s easier to design nice-looking text if you can see what you get, real-time. In short, my advice is DO use formatting, but carefully. I think both my DEAD HOUSE description and the Italian guidebook description we’re about to look at use those formatting tools in a nice, clear, helpful way. But then another question looms. It’s this: do you want your book description to look very short and sweet – like the Mark Edwards description we looked at first – or do you want it to segue from book blurb into a whole pile of reviews and the like? Book Descriptions: Short Versus Long? Compare the Mark Edwards book description here, with this one from Angela Marsons, who is published by hyper-successful British e-publisher, Bookouture. The Angela Marsons one follows our template at the start – so it has a blurb-like blurb with intro / story / climax like all the others. But then it tells us “Readers are loving Dying Truth” and lays out a whole set of reader / blogger / formal reviews. Now there’s something interesting here. If you look at their records over the last several years, there’s a strong case to be made that Bookouture and Amazon are the world’s two best publishers when it comes to publishing and selling on Amazon’s KDP platform. They text extensively and monitor outcomes. But one firm – Amazon – goes for extremely short, unformatted book descriptions. The other, Bookouture, goes for very long, highly formatted ones. Which to prefer? Well, if you have two great firms making quite opposite choices, that says to me that both options work. Personally, I prefer – and use myself – the Bookouture model, of conventional blurb followed by a ton of reviews, but it’s your call. There’s no absolute right and wrong here. Using Formatting To Brand Your Book Finally, do take a look back at that book description for Angela Marsons. Notice the way that the publishers use formatting not just to say “this book is great”, but to ram home their key marketing messages for the book. So take this bit from the book description: ‘Just wow. This is police procedural at its best…It is complex, intriguing, and the writing hooked me in completely. I read the majority of this book in a few short hours not pausing for breath’ (5 stars) Rachel’s Random Reads That quote (and use of bold) is reminding the reader that this book is a police procedural. In other words, it’s sending out the not-so-subtle message to readers who like police procedurals that this book could well be for them. So the perfect reviews to select for your book description will be ones that (a) say “this book is great”, but also (b) reinforce your basic message of what this book is and what the emotional payoff will be. In effect, any reviews you include at the bottom of your book description should say, “You know that implicit promise from the blurb? About what you can expect to get from the book if you buy it? Well, trust me, buddy, this book will more than deliver for you.” So the blurb part of the book description delivers a promise, and the review part of it affirms that other readers / reviewers consider that promise to have been met. That’s a template that I personally like very much and use for all my self-published work. Has This Been Helpful? Before you leave this page – and just before we get to that long-promised non-fiction book description – may I ask you a question? It’s this: Has this page been helpful? And, because you’re an indie author, what that really means is: Will you make more sales by using insights from this page?Will you develop your career?Will you look like – and be – a more professional author? I’m really hoping that the answers to those questions are yes, yep, and you betcha. In which case – why stop at one blog post? Why not go the whole hog? Because – did you know this? – we have an entire course on self-publishing that tells you everything you need to know in incredibly clear detail. It’s fun. It’s engaging. It’s comprehensive. And it will get you from zero to sixty in no time at all. Basically, it’ll cut out all the mistakes and get you on the road to indie-dom fast and properly. And yes, there’s a catch. But, panic ye not, there’s a way to sniggle your way past that catch without being snared. So the catch is quite simply price. The course is a super-premium course and it costs hundreds of dollars to buy. (You can view the course outline in full here.) The price makes sense. You get 13 full length videos, plus a ton of bonus material too. Those videos come with full, extensive PDF-downloads, so you have notes on every topic at the click of a button.  Unless you are a super-sophisticated indie author already, this course WILL make you a better, richer, happi er author. It’ll basically cut out all the mistakes and trial-and-error decisions, and put you on the road to success. But it’s expensive. So what to do? The answer is: don’t buy it. Rent it. If you become a member of Jericho Writers, you get all the learning material on this site FOR FREE. All of it. There’s no limit to your access. So you can gobble up that video course, and all our self-published filmed masterclasses, and all our material on how to write, and everything else besides, and not pay one dime over your monthly membership fee. You can learn more about Jericho Writers here or just sign up here. What’s more, our membership is cancel-any-time, so you can just sign up, help yourself to whatever you want from our learning tools, then quit. We’d love it if you stayed, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine too. We’re writers ourselves and we’re here to help. Non-fiction Book Descriptions – Also Formatting, Length & Reviews The thing about non-fiction, is that you still need the hook, to draw readers into your page. You still need the springboard-style lift So here, for example, is the book description from Rick Steve’s Italy – a guidebook that I’ve chosen to complement the beautiful images of the Italian landscape that adorn this post. Notice the enticing intro, the meaty content, and what is effectively a call-to-action right at the end. Notice too the clever way this blurb moves from standard guidebook stuff (“top sights and hidden gems”) to things that make you start visualising yourself in Italy with this book in your pack (“Over 1000 Bible-thin pages”). That’s the whole book description template in (beautifully formatted) action, right? In fact, I hope that you can see our book description rules are basically universal. If they can cover dark crime fiction like mine / Mark Edwards’s / Angela Marsons’s AND a standard-issue Italian guidebook, then they just have to work everywhere, right? So go write your book description, entice those readers and grab those sales! And don’t forget to join the Jericho Writers crew, and blast your self-publishing and writing knowledge into a whole new  dimension. About the authorHarry Bingham has been a pro author for twenty years and more. He’s been trad published and self-published, and hit bestseller lists via both routes. He’s also had his work adapted for the screen, has had a ton of critical acclaim, and been published all over the world. (More about Harry, more about his books.)
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Literary Agent Fees (What You Need to Know)

How much do literary agents cost? And are they worth it? One thing that puzzles a lot of writers about literary agents is their fee structure. Can you afford an agent? What do they charge? How much do literary agents actually cost? The answer is mostly good news . . . with a little bit of bad news thrown in. The good news is that literary agents charge absolutely nothing upfront. Not a penny. They don’t charge fees down the line either. I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve been a professional author for twenty years. I’ve sold a lot of books and been paid a lot of money for them. And I have never once been given an invoice by my agent. Too good to be true? Well, there’s a catch of course, and it’s this: Literary agents charge commission. That is, for every $1000 they get you in advances or royalties or overseas sales or film rights, they will take their cut. If they earn nothing for you, they will charge nothing. If they sell your book for a lot of money – well, they’ll be doing well for themselves as well as you! The brilliant thing about this arrangement is that your agent’s financial incentives are almost perfectly aligned with your own. That means, when the agent is querying different publishers, or reviewing contracts, or hassling over hiccups in the publication process, their financial goals are exactly the same as yours. For that reason, authors tend to be very close to their literary agents . . . and are often rather less close with their editors! 1) Literary Agent Fees Typical commission rates for literary agents Typically commissions work as follows. Your literary agent will take: 15% of all sales made in home markets (ie: the US if you are working with a US agent; the UK if you are working with a British one.)20% on overseas sales, and20% for sales of film and TV rights. Some agents may vary from this, but these rates are increasingly standard. They are not compulsory however, and if you are bold enough to negotiate, there’s nothing wrong with that. (And indeed, top authors often don’t pay full whack. They don’t have to.) Literary Agent Commissions: An Example Let’s say you’re a Brit and you sell your book to: a UK publisher for £10,000, anda US publisher for $25,000 then your agent will take 15% of £10,000 (so £1,500), and20% of that $25,000 (so $5,000). There would also be fees for any foreign language sales and for film or TV sales. In practice, film & TV deals are relatively rare and generally a lot less lucrative than the newspapers would have you think! 2) Royalties When you sell a book to a publisher, you sell it for an advance against royalties. So let’s say you sell your manuscript to a publisher for $10,000, but that book goes on to be a bestseller. You will be entitled to a per book fee on every copy sold (that’s called a royalty, and the actual calculation of those things is a bit complex.) But, to simplify, let’s say that over the first two years of sales, you earn $110,000 in royalties. The first $10K of that is set aside – your $10,000 upfront advance was an advance against royalties, so you can’t claim it twice. But the other $100,000? Yep, that’s yours, and you will start to be paid that money via six-monthly instalments, depending on sales. Be aware, though, that your literary agent is also entitled to their fees on those earnings (because they brought you the deal that turned your book into a bestseller). So what you would actually get in this example is: 85% of your $10K advance (your agent gets the other 15%)85% of your $100K royalty earnings (again, your agent gets the remaining 15%) Again, be aware that good agents will press for the highest advance they can get away with, so you can easiliy, easily earning a living as a professional author and not see a royalty check from one year’s end to the next. 3) If You Move On From Your Literary Agent If you decide to fire your agent, or otherwise move on, then your agent is still entitled to any commission due following deals that they signed. And that makes sense. If you get rich because of a deal done by your agent, then your agent should be entitled to his or her share of the fruits of that deal, no matter how far down the road. In practice, most author-agent relationships are quite long term, and if you have signed a book deal successful enough that it’s still pumping out money, then you’re not likely to split with your agent. But still: the possibility is there, and it’ll be carefully covered in any contract or letter of engagement you have with your agent. So read that letter or contract – and if in doubt: ask! 4) Are Literary Agents Worth Their Fees? Yes. Was that emphatic enough? I don’t think it was. So one more time, with feeling: Yes, yes, yes!Get an agent!They will make you much more money than they will cost you!It is the best career move you will ever make! A good agent will do the following for you: They’ll make sure that your manuscript is right for the market. That may mean that you need to tweak the book, but those tweaks are intended to get it just right for publishers in today’s market.They’ll approach the right editors at the right publishing houses. That means having impeccable contacts and staying current. (That’s also why, by the way, nearly all agents are based in New York or London. They need to be close to the publishers, and those fine cities are where the publishers hang out.)They’ll run a proper auction. That’s the salesy bit of their job, and most agents are very good at it.They’ll negotiate a proper contract for you. Publishing contracts today are typically up to twenty pages long (in the UK and US, though European ones are shorter). Contracts are full of abstruse terms and royalty rates, and you need to be an industry insider to navigate them properly. It’s not a task you can do yourself. I am a very experienced author myself and (because of my role in Jericho Writers) I am exceptionally well plugged into the wider publishing industry. But you know what? I still use an agent, because I make loads more money that way. And save myself a ton of hassle. And can draw on a ton of expertise that I couldn’t easily access any other way. So get an agent. Pay their fees. Write well. Be happy. Do you find this helpful? We have an entire video course on how to get published – it’s probably the most comprehensive such course anywhere in the world. Better than that: you can get the whole thing for free.Yep: free as in no money. As in: gratis. As in: fill your bootsBut the course is free only to members of Jericho Writers – who don’t just get that course, but they get access to AgentMatch (our super-premium literary agent search tool), a host of other courses and training materials, and exclusive live webinars with agents and authors.Does that sound like it might be of interest to you? We really hope it does. Learn more about membership or simply join us. We’d love it if you did! More On Finding An Agent Link to: 
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What are the odds of getting a book deal?

And how to get a book deal yourself … You’re at that scary submissions stage. Your manuscript is edited right down to the very last comma. It’s time to go out into the big wide world and GET THAT BOOK DEAL. But – uh – what exactly do you have to do … and what are the odds of success? OK, well, first things first – so here’s a brief, brief reminder of how to go about getting a book deal. If you need more info on any of the steps, then just dive into the links included – we’ve got you covered. (And for a jumbo guide on getting published, go here. That’ll be most useful for newbies, but will have something useful to say to pretty much anyone.) How To Get A Book Deal You want a book deal? So here’s the formula. This formula works for anyone wanting to be traditionally published (with a publisher, that is, rather than self-publishing via Amazon.) It also assumes that you are writing fiction or mainstream non-fiction – the sort of stuff you might find on the front tables of a larger bookstore. If that applies to you, then the formula for getting a book deal is: Write a dazzling bookMake a shortlist of literary agents (using this tool and this free signup option)Write a great query letter (using this guide)Write an awesome synopsis (here’s how to do it)Send your material out to 10-12 agentsLight candles, say prayers, drop scented flowers down a wishing well (lucky charms)Get an offer of representation from an agentDo any editorial work the agent suggests and which sounds sensible to youLet the agent auction your workAccept the best offer, which isn’t necessarily the highest one That looks like a lot of steps, but the only actually difficult step in that sequence is the very first one. And creating a blindingly good agent submission pack is pretty simple if you use our free worksheets, available here. What Are The Odds Of Getting A Literary Agent? Those odds are somewhat scary. A typical agent in NY or London receives approximately 2,000 submissions a year. They are likely to accept 2-3 writers from that deluge. Some agents will accept fewer. So, as a rough rule of thumb, and allowing for plenty of variation, the chance of getting an agent are about 1 in 1000. That sounds frightening, but you can and should apply to more than one agent, so the 1 in 1000 is perhaps more like 1 in 100. And, in any case, it’s not about the odds. If your book is blindingly good – if you’ve written a Hunger Games, or a Gone Girl, or an All the Light We Cannot See – your odds of getting an agent are essentially 100%. So don’t focus on the odds. Focus on your book. That’s the only part that really matters. What Are The Odds Of Getting A Book Deal? Well, you can look at this in two ways. From the agent’s end, it’s probably true that a good agent at a top class agency will sell approximately 2 books for every 3 he or she auctions. That is, the odds of a sale are about 67% – which is why most writers, correctly, think that getting an agent is the most significant hurdle between them and publication. But that’s to look at it from one end only. I spoke recently with one editor, who has a key job at one of London’s best publishers (a major part of a Big 5 house). In effect, that editor is as selective as it gets. These days, he receives, via literary agents, about 12 submissions a week. Those 12 submissions equate to about 600 manuscripts crossing his desk each year. And of those 600 manuscripts, he takes on maybe 3-4 new writers a year. (As well as, of course, continuing to publish the work of his existing stable of authors.) In other words, he buys less than 1% of the work being offered to him. Yikes! These stats are frankly terrifying, but they need to be taken in context. In particular: A smaller or less prestigious publisher will be less selective. Robert Hale (for example) or Choc Lit are decent publishers, but are smaller and less selective than the big guys. They’ll offer much smaller advances to authors and they won’t have the marketing heft of their larger rivals – but if you get an offer from them, it’s still a massive compliment to your work. It’s a real publishing deal and you should be elated.It’s also wrong to conclude that if you have an agent, you have only a 1% chance of getting a top-ranked publisher. It isn’t so. If agents are looking to auction a manuscript, they’ll typically send it out to 8-12 publishers – that is, to all the bigger publishers in town. So while an individual publisher might take just 1% of work submitted, that means an overall success rate of more like 10%. Something similar, of course, applies with submissions to agents.The better the agent, the higher that success rate will be. A top agent will reject any work that doesn’t come up to the right standard, will seize hold of any work that does come to the right standard, and will do so with a strong expectation of selling it. Even then, no agent I know has a 100% record, but the best agents will have a strike rate of well over 10%. So why does my Big 5 editor reject so much of what comes his way? In his opinion – and also mine – agents (mostly less well established ones) are sending work out before it’s properly ready. You don’t want your work set out early, which means it’s time to consider … How To Think About Getting A Book Deal In the end, though, the conclusion has little to do with odds or stats. The 2012 British Olympic team contained 541 athletes. The US Olympic team is that little bit larger. Either way, those numbers are larger than the number of debut novels being listed by elite UK or US publishers today. So you need to be (at least!) an Olympian-of-writing to make the grade. That’s the bad news. The good news is simply this: If you are in the world’s top 20-30 sprinters, you will get selected for the Olympics. If you’ve written one of the best espionage novels of the year, you will get published. In brutal market conditions, the standard required by top publishers is rising all the time, but the best work still gets selected, still attracts advances and investment, still gets published. What you need to worry about more than anything else is the quality of your work. Promising will not do, but dazzling is essential. One further conclusion. We’ve always been against writers sending their work to dozens & dozens of agents. Our own rule of thumb is that if you can’t attract a Yes from an agent in 8-12 (intelligently chosen and properly presented) submissions, then your manuscript is not yet good enough. There will always be exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the rule is a very good one. If you find send submissions to 200 agents, your chances of hooking an agent improve, but I’d say that your chance of getting a publisher remains the same as before. About 0%, if the first 8-12 agents turned you down. A Little Bit Of Boasting Here at Jericho Writers, we know a bit about getting agents. Writers who have come to us for editorial help or for one of our courses have a success rate that is at least 10 times better than the above numbers would suggest, and probably more. That’s not because we’re miracle workers, but because we focus relentlessly on the quality of your work. Which is what you need to do. Do that, add talent and a good idea, and you’ll make the grade. Just keep at it. More On Getting Published Link to: How to Get Your Book Published GETTING PUBLISHED All you need to know
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How To Write a Great Opening Sentence for your Novel

What’s great & effective? What’s downright bad?Real Examples From Real Writers Recently, we ran a competition solicited opening lines or sentences from real writers, with a small prize available for the winner. We’re going to look at some examples drawn from that competition . . . along with my own (hyper-picky) comments about what’s really good, and really effective. And what’s just a bit . . . not so good. Before we plunge into our sentence surgery, three quick comments. First, the examples that follow are drawn from writers writing real novels (or short stories). They are, like you, serious aspiring writers, but not yet published. For the most part, we were looking at works-in-progress, so these examples were all subject to change anyway. Second, opening sentences don’t matter all that much. The opening paragraph of the novel I’ve just handed to my publisher ran, in its entirety, as follows: Rain. Was that a good opening line for a novel? Well, no one asked me to change it, but does that sentence hook a reader in? And hook them into a story set in Wales, where the presence of rain hardly merits much discussion? I don’t think so. The fact is that the process of hooking a reader usually takes longer than a sentence and writers shouldn’t obsess unduly about the stuff above and to the left of the manuscript’s first full stop. There’ll be plenty more full stops to come. And last: I’m horrible. I mean, yes, I’m nice to widows, orphans and stray dogs, but I’m horrible to slightly iffy sentences. I’m very picky and my standards are high. So if some of my could-do-better commentary below depresses you – well, forget it. It’s not you. It’s me. But if you want to learn how to write opening sentences, then you probably want to look at what follows … How To Write A Good Opening Line: Full stops are your friends. Short, clear sentences will grab your readers’ attention.Use language that will add weight to your sentences.Use your verbs correctly, and your adjectives sparingly.Opening lines don’t have to be loud, subtlety is just as effective. Opening Lines To Novels / Short Stories: Examples So much for the preamble. Now for the sentences. (No authors are named because very few of the sentences I had had named authors on the page.) Example #1There were just three things that Samine was certain of in her life; first she was dangerous; second, she was never allowed to leave her room and, third, the spirit of a dragon lived inside her. Not bad, though it’s a little too close to Stephenie Meyer’s now famed three-part quote from Bella Swan in Twilight. Still, you can see what the author is wanting to do and the idea itself is fine. Here’s one way of tweaking things without altering anything too much (though it brings it still closer to Stephenie Meyer’s phrasing): There were just three things that Samine knew for certain. First she was dangerous. Second, she was never allowed to leave her room. Third, a dragon lived inside her. That’s shorter, clearer. It’s also better weighted. The key word in the first part of the writer’s sentence is “certain”. The addition of “in her life” doesn’t add much meaning but it does de-emphasise “certain”. My formulation is that bit clearer about where the interest of the sentence lies. One other thing, I’m not sure if this is the place to reveal that Samine can’t leave her room. The middle of one of the three certainties doesn’t tie obviously to the other two and feels a bit different. (#1 and #3 feel like existential statements; #2 feels like a simple, known fact.) But if the middle of those three statements goes, then the whole opening needs reconsideration. Example #2The most ironic thing about your first impression of me – I looked like butter wouldn’t melt. Interesting. I almost like this. My only real worry is that “the most ironic thing” bit. It feels a bit like a teenage use of ironic, which is perhaps not correct given the context, but in any case, I do wonder if there aren’t simpler, less laboured ways of doing the same thing. Suppose, for example, we just said this: Your first impression of me: I looked like butter wouldn’t melt. That is surely strongly suggesting that that first impression might be way off base, yet it conveys that impression by making the reader do most of the work. As a rough guide, the more the reader feels they’ve made a deduction, the more powerful that conclusion will feel. Example #3He’s stalking behind the disused factory, waiting for the flapping of wings to alert him to where you are. You remember when I said I’m pedantic? To stalk is a transitive verb, that is, it requires an object. I stalk you, etc., I don’t just stalk in the abstract. So that first clause feels a bit uncomfortable. And “alert him to where you are” also feels a little bit strained. Wouldn’t “alert him to your position” read better? And the double participle (waiting for the flapping) seems a bit needless here. But you only need a little tweaking and this is a strong, engaging opening: He’s searching you out behind the disused factory, waiting for a sudden flap of wings to reveal your position. That’s better. (Oh, you want to delete the word “sudden” from that? Yes, that’s probably better.”) Example #4The house had something American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share. Excellent! Nothing to pick at, except that me personally I’d probably sooner say “had something of the American Gothic …”. But it’s a great, subtle opening. I like it a lot. Example #5What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband? Again, that’s great opening line. Oh, and you want to know why that sentence works as well as it does? It’s because it makes you do a double-take. The first part of the sentence makes you think, “oh, this is a question about packing . . .” The second part makes you go, “whaaaaaat?!” It’s that mid-sentence pivot that gives it wellie. It’s also nice, because it instantly launches the reader into two important story-questions. Not just “why is this woman leaving her husband?”, but “why does she only have four minutes?” Of those two questions, it’s the second one that has the greater bite. Marriages collapsing are (unfortunately) a rather everyday occurrence. Marriages that collapse and give the wife just one minute to get away – well! We want to know more. Example #6My mother’s shroud was a grubby net curtain and her coffin was a gun case. You like that, don’t you? Yes, and it’s almost terrific. But I don’t like that word “grubby”, at all. It pulls attention away from “net curtain” and the use of a net curtain for a shroud is quite striking enough irrespective of whether it’s grubby. Just delete the adjective. The sentence gets instantly stronger Also, I hope this writers is about to tell us how come the gun case was big enough to fit a mother. I mean, that’s a very large case, or a remarkably small mother. So long as the author explains that niggle sometime soon, that’s fine, and (once you’ve deleted that “grubby”) it’s a good opening line. Example #7It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’, and the more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed, ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’ Hmm. I’m afraid I don’t rate this as an opening line. It’s almost good, but gets itself into a tangle, then trips over itself. And the thing is, the best bit of this sentence is the very opening and the longer it goes on the more the writer overwrites that clean and striking opening. Some full stops would help: It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’. The more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed. ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’ That’s already a lot better. Even so, I’m not completely happy. That opening line now has real merit and launches plenty of story questions (why is this a bad day? Why is a child being buried? Why is this child The Chosen One?) So if it were me, I’d leave the reader dangling a bit more, before starting to answer the questions they really cared about. So I’d run with the first question (why is this a bad day?), and just answer it with a description of winds and rain. Mourners getting soaked. Rain on the preacher’s Bible. That kind of thing. And this approach would work because I’m pretending to answer the questions I opened up with my first sentence . . . but not the ones the reader really cares about. It’s like the reader is yelling at me, WHY ARE YOU BURYING THIS CHILD? and all I’m doing is explaining why the day is a bad one. I’ve basically created suspense already, and my description of the weather is just keeeping that suspense going for longer. Example #8Deano’s hair was still wet from the pool and he swept his palm over his scalp trying to chase off the cold. ‘Come on, cock-snot. Pick up. Please.’ Okay, I very much like the dialogue. I like the contrast with the more formal opening line. The writing itself is fine. Just … I don’t quite believe the gesture you’re telling us about. When people get out of the pool their hair is normally already very flat and smoothed from the water. You definitely can’t chase cold away by palming your already flat hair and it’s not even a gesture most of us feel tempted to make. If he’s cold, he grabs a towel, or moves into the sun, or does something other than what you tell us he’s done. Picky? Yes. But getting those kinds of details utterly convincing from the off is part of what gets a reader into the story. Here, you do get the reader in, but you’ve done so with a tiny – and needless – stutter upfront. Example #9The hands on the clock didn’t seem to move, unlike mine as I drummed and fidgeted on the table. Hmm, this is okay, but it’s not quite good. The hands-not-moving-on-the-clock isn’t a cliche exactly, but it is a very familiar idea. Likewise fidgeting hands: also a very standard way of conveying impatience. Further into a novel, those kind of issues dissolve a little bit. Sometimes it’s just quicker and cleaner to reach for the familiar, so the novel can hurry onto wherever it’s heading. But in an opening sentence, I think any whiff of cliche threatens a reader’s trust, and you need to extirpate it completely. As I say, there isn’t an out-and-out cliche here, but I do think you’re cycling a little too close to the edge. My verdict? Rethink this sentence from scratch. Example #10The cat barked. Everyone will want to read on to see what follows. Purrfect. That’s a terrific opening line. Example #11The fucking train is cancelled. Again. Yep, good – cancelled trains as a sign of commuter distress is well-used, however, so I hope the writer has an interesting way to develop the incident. I would be disappointed in an opening page that just rehearsed the various woes of the commuter – but we’re on sentences here, not pages, and the sentence itself is fine. And finally: Example #12I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door, I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch, he stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic he weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair. Here’s one of those ‘sentences’ which is begging to be carved up. A few full stops instantly make this a mile better: I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door. I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch. He stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic. He weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair. That’s a relief already, only a few remaining niggles really. Using Munroe’s full name doesn’t seem right, since the narrator clearly knows the guy, and we don’t think of people as know as Title Firstname Lastname. Yes, you may want to give us Munroe’s full name in due course, but you don’t have to do it here. Secondly, that last sentence has four ands in it. That feels awkward, especially so early in the book. Third, how does the narrator know what Munroe weighs? I mean, the sheriff is clearly a fellow who likes his meat and potatoes, but that’s different from knowing someone’s measured weight. I’m not convinced. And finally, a minor thing, I have a hesitation about ‘I opened it’: it’s just that you’re narrating every tiny incident, even those we take for granted. Better to take a slightly less blow-by-blow approach. Something like this, maybe: It was early, when Sheriff Munroe came calling. He stood at my door, five feet six and almost cubic. He must weigh close to two hundred and fifty pounds, and he has the arms of a bear: thick, powerful and profusely hairy. I know that last sentence still has three ands, but the restructuring helps the rhythm, at least to my ear. And it’s so much shorter! It has the exact same content as the first sentence, but compresses it into a much shorter space. Result: much more energy per pound – and a much more compelling story. Do you want more help with your sentences?Did you know that Jericho Writers is a club. We’re here to help writers just like you. Membership of the club is low cost and can be cancelled any time (there are no lock-ins.) And what you get is extraordinary. A huge, premium video course on how to write. Loads on how to get published. Opportunities to put your work in front of literary agents and get their feedback direct. And so much more. We created our club for writers like you and we’d love it if you joined! Find out more. Best Opening Lines: The Winner There, we’re all done. If I must pick a winner, I’ll go for: What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband? Or: The house had something [of the] American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share. I like both of those. The second is a bit more literary; the first is a terrific opening line for a psychological thriller, or something of that sort. They’re both excellent. And One Last Comment On Story Openings The thing to remember? That your opening line it doesn’t really matter. The opening sentences for my five Fiona Griffiths novels are: #1: Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park. #2: It’s a Friday afternoon. #3: I like the police force. #4: Rain. #5: ‘Well?’ None of those are good opening sentences (though none of them are terrible). And, in most cases, it doesn’t take long to get something that puts a scrap of meat on the reader’s dish. The opening paragraph to my second Fi Griffiths novel, for example, goes like this: Example: Love Story, with MurdersIt’s a Friday afternoon. October, but you wouldn’t think so. High clouds scudding in from the west and plenty of sunshine. The last shreds of summer and never mind the falling leaves. That last sentence already advertises a certain strength and confidence. The reader feels immediately placed in the mood of the story. Because the writing has that confident tone, the reader trusts me. It’s as though they’re thinking, “OK, this is supposed to be a crime story. Nothing much seems to be happening yet, but I can tell this author knows what he’s doing, so I’ll stick with him and see what develops.” An opening paragraph can do more if it wants to, but it really doesn’t have to. Notice that this opening para sets up nothing interesting about the character, the situation, or, indeed, even the weather. It just sets a scene and does so with confidence. If your manuscript does that then, no matter how unshowy that opening sentence, you’re doing just fine. Oh, and if you need a little more inspiration for your opening lines, check these out. Happy writing – and happy editing! About the author: Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 
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Ideas for Writing a Book (and How to Develop Them)

We once got a strange email. It was three lines long, from someone telling us he wanted to write a book. OK. That’s great. The email wasn’t written very well. The spelling wasn’t great. The punctuation – uh – had all fallen off. But none of that was the issue on his mind. His email was simply entitled “Book Ideas“, and he was writing to ask for help. In a word, he wanted us to develop his ideas for writing a book. And here was the thing. He was sure he was a good writer, which is great, but he hadn’t actually written anything. Worse still, he said he didn’t have a single idea for a story, so could we maybe give him one? Right. Yes. I’m sure that’s how Herman Melville got started too. But the fact is, all of us know what it feels like to feel uninspired and stuck in a rut when ideas just won’t come. And this post is all about solving that problem. Where do ideas for a book come from? How do you know if they’re any good? And how can you take your existing ideas and make them better? Big questions, but let’s see what we can do to help. What follows is a simple way to generate good quality ideas that work for you. We know they’re going to work for you, because the ideas come from you. In fact, you already have them in your head right now. All we’re going to do is help you find them. Let’s start. Book Ideas: How To Get Them And What To Do Next Note down your ideas – your daydreams, interests, favourite booksLearn the market by reading your genreStart developing your ideas, jotting down what you know about your future bookGive your ideas time to develop – don’t rush it!Work on your writing skills and technique How To Have Ideas: The Good News Consider this. It’s not a question of forming the idea, but of recognising one (or ones) you already have, so let’s do that. Make lists of: Things you daydream about;Your special interests (medieval churches, IT security, tattoos);Your areas of expertise;Your current passions (things that get you off on a rant or long-winded explanations);Things you loved as a child (amazing how often the child seems to predict the adult, so look back, see what you loved in the past);Books you loved as a child;Books you love now. Write actual lists of these things. Not in one single half hour session, but bit by bit, over time. Let things stew, bubble up. Almost certainly, you’ll find something nagging at you. Something that stays with you after you leave your lists. That there is your idea. Good, huh? But stick with us. We’ve only just got started. How To Handle Ideas For Books (What To Expect) The trouble with inspiration is it never arrives fully formed. Writing is messy. Few novels arrive complete. Most have had to be hacked out of rock. It’s okay, though, if you decide development is easy and fun, and remember ideas take time. You don’t get from nowhere to perfect in one leap. It’s not a generator. It’s an incubator. You don’t find your idea. You grow it. We’ll talk a little more about that shortly but first, ask yourself. Is your book idea any good? Be sure your idea is strong enough to carry you to publication before you start writing. There are techniques for (a) figuring out if your idea is strong enough and (b) adding sparkle to it if it isn’t, fortunately. Learn The Market Read the area, niche, genre in which you are going to write. Read widely. Stay current. Know new names, not just old ones. It’s a massive mistake not to do this, and many new writers don’t. You should, because these are the books your ideal readership is reading. Start Developing Get a sheet of paper and write down what you know about your future book, or interests you’d like your story to make room for, to explore. That might be very little at first. It might be no more than: Antarctic settingSeismologySecret weapons testing That has no characters, no plot arc, no meaningful line of development, but it’s a start. Not just that, but it’s an exciting one. There’s a frisson of interest there already. A stew that might bubble up into something wonderful. So keep going. Whatever comes to mind. Jot down words and sentences. Note down anything that comes to mind around plot events, themes, settings, ideas for your protagonist. Keep listing, see what comes to you. An Example: First Attempt Try out things. So you might find yourself writing things like this: Ex-SAS man turned seismologist is there.Baggage from the past (a mission gone wrong?).Meets Olga, glamorous Russian geologist. How do you feel about those? Take a moment to see what your actual reactions are. Me personally, I think the ex-Special Forces seismologist could be a decent character, but the glamorous Russian Olga feels like a bit of a cliche. I feel I’ve seen her too often before. And the ‘baggage from the past / mission gone wrong’ element feels dangerously on the edge of cliche. That’s fine. Remember that this whole process is a development exercise. So you can try things out, see how they feel, and discard them as much as you like. Discarding stuff is good – that shows that you’re pruning the bad stuff and keeping only the good stuff. Just add explosions … An Example: Second Attempt So maybe we try again. We might start sketching something like this. Leila – who is ex-Special Forces – is a British seismologist.She loves extreme adventure, including climbing, sky-diving.She’s sampling ice cores to track past earth disturbances.She finds weird, inexplicable traces – too recent.A multinational team – many scientists there.Russian scientist, aloof, unnerving (will turn out a ‘good guy’). … … And so on. Maybe we haven’t yet nailed much with this list, but it’s the forward-back process of development that brings rewards, helping you make subsequent connections (e.g. perhaps you decide Leila’s the only woman on that team, perhaps she needs to prove she’s as strong as any of them, etc., etc.). The only test of whether a list like this works is whether you have a deep-ending tickle of excitement about your jottings. If that fades, you’ve gone wrong somewhere, so find out which element isn’t working, delete, and try again, following your intuition. Remember that the process of story development is one of constant experiment. You sketch something out. You see how it feels. It feels good? OK, great. You continue to add depth to your sketch. (Add a character, a possible plot point, some more about settings, some more about the challenge to be faced, etc.) It feels wrong? OK. So scratch out the thing that felt wrong. Try something else in its place. Or if you can’t find (say) the right antagonist for the moment, then leave that issue for the moment and turn to an area where you do have some good ideas. You’ll find that as you build up one area of the story (say, settings), you’ll find that other parts (say, your antagonist) suddenly flash into view. Each part of the story illuminates and supports the others. How To Give Your Story The “X-Factor” And as you’re doing this, remember that readers always want something new, something unexpected. So give it to them! The way to do this is to make sure that your list of story ingredients always includes a rogue element – something that you don’t expect to be there. That rogue element will always have the effect of lifting the story and giving the reader a little thrill of excitement. What’s more the rule basically applies to ALL huge-selling novels of recent years. For example: BORING STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a normal American boy.GREAT STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a vampire. Two versions of the same thing. One is too dull to cross a room for. The other one (Twilight) was one of the biggest YA sensations of all time. Or how about this: BORING STORY: a journalist investigates a murder in Sweden.GREAT STORY: a journalist plus a bisexual, Aspergers, rape-surviving, computer genius combine forces to investigate a murder in Sweden. The “rogue element” of Lisbeth Salander’s kick-ass character basically gave the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy the fire it needed to conquer the world. And so on. You can look at any huge selling hit of recent years and find that unexpected ingredient that blasted the book to international success. And you can repeat that trick for yourself. If you find your story is just too expected, then throw in something to freshen it up. So, let’s go with this Arctic idea, and let’s say that your draft story looks something a bit like this. FIRST DRAFT STORY:Leila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic.She finds evidence of recent blast activity – human-made.She suspects of team of Russian scientists are really testing a new type of nuclear device.She investigates.The situation escalates.It resolves itself in a dramatic shoot-out. And what are your feelings there? I’m going to guess that you thought, roughly, “Yeah, that’s OK, but it doesn’t really set my pulse racing.” And the issue is that everything is exactly what you’d expect. It’s as though we read this story plan, and already feel like we’ve read that book or something very similar. So now let’s apply our rogue element strategy and see how the story might run. STORY WITH ROGUE ELEMENTLeila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic.She finds evidence of recent disturbances that make no sense.And there are thefts from the camp – unexplained>At first the Russian team is suspected, but – caught out with a Russian captain, Arkady, in a snowstorm – it looks like Leila and Arkady will both perish. But they’re saved – mysteriously – as fresh kerosene is added to their supplies.Leila and Arkady come to believe they are dealing with the ghosts of Scott’s tragic expedition to the Antarctic.They realise the souls of Scott and his men are trapped in the ice and are only seeking escape. Leila & Arkady use their knowhow and technical resources to liberate the ghosts. How’s that? Personally, I’m not yet sure about it – I literally just this minute came up with the idea – but I will say this: You were not expecting that story to emerge. You’ve never read anything like it before. Already, it has a grip over your imagination that the first version never did. In fact, if we took the bones of that story and really did some work with it, I’d say we’d have the chance to create something really extraordinary. A story that no one had ever read before, or would ever forget. The short moral of this example is obvious: Yes, the process of story development is intuitive, trial-and-error, and has plenty of dead ends. But it’s not random. Good stories follow a formula, which can be put roughly as follows: Your passions + a rogue element = a great story If you want to structure that process some more – and you should – then do use our idea generator, available on this page. It’s great, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to work. Remember To Give Yourself Time Give yourself time to muse over your book. If all this takes a week, it’s taken you too little time. Three months would be good, but if it takes six months, that’s fine, too. Jack Kerouac, famed for writing his draft for On the Road in twenty-one days, pondered his ideas for years. My most successful novel (Harry Bingham writing) was two years in development, then written within two months – so development matters. Real inspiration takes time, care, effort, and thought. Technique Matters, Too Often, new writers can give up on a project by starting in a rush, noticing things aren’t quite working. They don’t quite know how to analyse what isn’t working, though, so give up – probably convinced that they don’t have the talent. And that’s not just untrue, but a shame. Writing books takes time and needs patience. It is also tough, and some new writers spend no time learning how to do it. The best solution? Simple: Get expert helpHang out with supportive writer-friendsImprove your technique And you know what? Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you and was set up to help writers like you. Here are a few blog posts that’ll help you on your way: how to write seven basic plots, and top tips for debut writers. While you’re there you should also check out our range of creative writing courses and the editorial services we offer – both of which are designed to support you and the writing process. We’ve helped loads of people write books, get agents, and get published (or, very successfully, self-published), and that includes loads of people who started out without having tons of education / knowing people in the industry / being a super-genius / spending 20 years on retreat in the Canadian wilderness, or anything else. You can find out what Jericho Writers can offer its members right here. We’d absolutely love it if you joined us, and look forward to welcoming you. About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!)

If you’re a beginner writer, then you have to read this. We tell you what the most common mistakes are – how bad they are – and how to fix ’em! We see a lot of novels here, many hundreds each year. And our writers are an admirable, successful bunch. We’ve had years of experiences, lots of time spent understanding what agents wants and what they really, really don’t. It all adds up to a pretty good idea of the most common novel writing mistakes made by newer writers as they set out to write their first novel. Oh, and we’re going to talk a lot about mistakes in this post – but please don’t think we have anything other than total respect for new writers. I’m Harry Bingham, and I am now a successful author with a ton of novels and other books behind me. I’ve been commercially successful and the mistakes that we’re going to talk about here? Well, luckily for me, I don’t make them any more. But I did. My first novel? Not too bad, actually, by first novel standards. But I still deleted the first 60,000 words of the first draft, because those words just weren’t good enough. My second novel? A total, utter, ocean-going, gold-plated, forty-eight carat disaster of a book. That one made most of the mistakes we’re going to talk about here . . . and was so bad, I deleted it. So my second published novel is really the third novel that I actually sat down and wrote. No exaggeration. It was that bad. Anyhow. That’s my confession out of the way. And, like I say, we take our hats off and say, ‘Nice writing, ma’am. Good on you, sir.’ to anyone at all who has the guts to write and complete a novel. But you want to know which mistakes our editorial team sees most frequently? They’re the ones we gonna talk about right now. What follows is a checklist of which mistakes are most often made and, more importantly, what to do about them. To make it more interesting, we’ve taken a stab at guesstimating how many manuscripts commit these errors, giving them a howler rating according to how hard they are to fix. So draw a deep breath, and take courage.As Neil Gaiman said, ‘if you’re making mistakes,it means you’re out there doing something’. We like that. 1. A Terrible Concept Some concepts just don’t work. An ‘educational’ novel for Young Adults with reams of explanation about climate science stuffed into a creaky plot. A book for adults that features the life history of the author’s parrot. A sad story about a woman’s not-very-terrible mid-life crisis that ends with her deciding to work part-time and take up baking. None of these books stand a chance of interesting an agent. (Well, okay, if they were handled by an out-and-out genius, perhaps, but almost no one is.) The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***** Comment:You can’t fix this error. You must start again. Get help on your elevator pitch, or just firkle out some new and better ideas. 2. A Book That Doesn’t Ramp It Up Enough Surprisingly, this is something we see a lot. Thrillers that don’t quite thrill. Comedies that don’t really make you laugh. Romances that aren’t all that poignant or stimulating. Literary fiction which doesn’t really dazzle. And you can’t be so-so about these things. If agents and editors are faced with a choice, and yours isn’t the more thrilling thriller, which do you think they’ll pick? Short message: Ramp it up. THE STATS OF DOOM How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **** Comment:You can fix it in theory, and with a lot of work, but sometimes it’s better just to pick a better idea – say if your story isn’t exciting you enough to make it exciting for others. 3. A Manuscript That’s Written For A Different Era Agatha Christie, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, so if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right? Well, no. Those guys wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market – both subject-wise and era-wise. Unless you know your era very well, as well as do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book. It’s the same with books trying to reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or YA authors rewriting Stephenie Meyer, not noticing there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since Twilight. Just don’t do it. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, it’s as well to write for the world as it is now. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **** Comment:This error is all but unfixable in truth, unless you’ve written exceptionally well. Sorry! 4. A Manuscript With No Discernible Usp Your USP. Your ‘Unique Selling Point’. Sometimes, a manuscript only ticks the boxes. It’s a love story with genuine warmth. It feels contemporary. The writing is fine, and perhaps it’ll be top of an agent’s slushpile – but you need to be in the top nought-point-something-percent of that pile to get taken on, and what that’ll tip the balance in your favour is usually an angle, a concept, a pitch that’s immediately captivating. A tale, for instance, about a time-traveller’s wife? I want to read more. I’d pick up The Time-Traveller’s Wife. Or a fostered child in Nazi Germany, stealing censored books and visited by death? The Book Thief is an original take in children’s fiction, on a troubling, much-visited subject. If your book doesn’t an original concept, it’ll hamper the search for an agent – but we’ve clues on building a strong elevator pitch you can read for that. The Stats of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **** Comment:It’s a lot of work, but you can fix this. Usually, you need to take some already-extant aspect of the novel, and simply push it further than you’ve so far dared to go. Or you can take some totally new element and ram it in. (So Stephenie Meyer took ordinary teenage angsty-romance lit and rammed into it with a vampire story. Wow! Brilliant collision. The results were . . . well, you know damn well what they were. A global multimedia phenomenon.) In short: you have to think big and bold to solve this issue. It will be a lot of work though. Tinkering-type solutions will not be the fix. Get better ideas. 5. Lousy Presentation Manuscripts written in purple ink? With awful spelling or weird fonts? And punctuation that forgot to turn up for work? This is less common than folklore would have you believe, partly because computers and spellcheckers eliminate egregious faults. Nevertheless, tell-tale clues can often be enough. Let’s suppose I were an agent, and I received a manuscript, and that manuscript had loads of run-on sentences, which is where you have independent sentences separated by commas rather than full stops, and if I was quite busy, maybe I would think I had better things to do than read any further. If you were the author, you might be quite upset that I never got past the first page – so give yourself the best chance of ensuring this doesn’t happen. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *** Comment:On the one hand, punctuation is simple to fix. A problem is that poor punctuation is often allied to sloppy prose, which takes a lot more work. Both things matter. If you are sure that your prose and story are fine, but know you need input on presentational matters, you could think about copy-editing, but be careful. Most manuscripts don’t need copy-editing, just better writing. Manuscript presentation help here. 6. Lack Of Clarity In Prose The first job of your prose is easy. It needs to convey meaning, clearly and succinctly. Your meaning must always be clear. When you use pronouns (‘it’, ‘she’, ‘he’, etc), it must be clear who or what is being referred to. Don’t use ‘dangling modifiers’. Your reader needs to know where they are and when, and what’s happening (unless, of course, you are being deliberately mysterious). This is simple and so basic, but not all manuscripts achieve success. Simple message here: you are seeking to make a living as a professional writer, so the basic quality of your writing has to be good enough. There are no shortcuts here. The Stats of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ** to **** Comment:Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but sometimes sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking, harder to address. In truth, I think it’s very rare that a novel with genuinely poor writing will ever be lifted to a place where it can be effectively published. (And that’s true even if you’re aiming at self-publishing. The standards of both routes are much the same these days, as in the end the readers call the shots.) Learn how to write better prose. 7. Writing Is Not Economical Most writers don’t think enough about making every sentence as economical as it can reasonably be. Very few books can bear too much verbiage, so prune, then prune again. Be ruthless. If you haven’t cut at least 10,000 words from your manuscript by the time it comes to editing, you haven’t really tried. We’ve had many beginner novelists offer us manuscripts that needed to lose 30,000 words or more. What we always try to communicate is that they can probably lose that level of word count without actually losing any content. Like if you have a 12 word sentence that could be written just as well as in only 9 words, you’re not losing content, you’re just removing surplus. Likewise, we’ve seen descriptions of (say) a North African street market which were kinda great, but involved 6 descriptive sentences. Those 6 would probably work more powerfully, if you just picked the 3 best images/sentences and went with those. The reader would actually end up with more sense of the place, not less. And so on. The short message: be more brutal with your work than you currently think possible. Your work will love you back and give you a great big kiss once you’re done. Learn how to edit a book. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 30-50% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): * to **** Comment:Again, sometimes a good edit is all that’s needed, as long as sloppy prose doesn’t equal sloppy thinking. 8. Writing Is Over-the-top Before I started editing manuscripts, I just didn’t know this was an issue, but it really is. We get so many manuscripts that are just loaded with extremities – scream, agony, torture, yelling, misery, overwhelm, fury, all on the first page – sometimes even all in the first paragraph. Of course, strong language is vital, as is emotion resonance, but you need to be careful, to moderate its use. A surprising number of first-time novels just cram too much all in on page one, then carry on cramming. Nuance is key. Short message: gently does it. Lead with the character and the story situation. Oblique is better than direct. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *** Comment:It’s easy to fix in theory, so long as these issues aren’t deeper than just poor word choice. Again, the root cause is quite often that a first-time writer isn’t properly in contact with his characters and that can be a harder issue to fix. (Oh, and did you pick up on my non-gender neutral ‘he’ just then? Yep, well, most of our editorial clients are women, but the people who most often make this mistake are men. And by “most often” I mean “90% or more”. Sorry, lads, but it’s true!) Strangely, a good way to write a book with good emotional texture is to really work at your dialogue – the two things often go together. You just can’t write strong dialogue, unless you have a tight handle on what your characters are feeling moment to moment. Our dialogue tips here. 9. Clichés Abound Full-on clichés are (thank goodness) relatively rare in manuscripts we read. We don’t read many ‘wet blankets’, or ‘sick as a dog’ instances, but cliché is so often more insidious than just those howlers. You can have passionate, flame-haired girl. Or scenes of domestic bliss that involve log fires. Or villains who are steely-eyed. A cliché is anything which makes us feel we’ve read this before … and, sorry to say, in that broader sense, we see a lot of these in manuscripts. Short message: any kind of cliche starts to kill the reader’s absorption in your story. Very soon you will lose that reader completely. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50% Howler rating (5 stars is worst):** to **** Comment:Once you’ve identified a phrase, character or plot device, it’s simple (if time-consuming) to fix. It’s finding the things that’s pesky. 10. Points Of View Are Mishandled We read a lot of work where one character is thinking and feeling something … then, suddenly, we’re in the head of some completely different character, sharing their thoughts and emotions. And obviously, it is okay to move about between characters, but this transition must be properly handled (normally by moving properly out of one head, before moving into the next). Our colleague, Emma Darwin, has some good advice to follow, but when those transitions aren’t correctly handled, you cause giddiness, confusion in the reader, and are at risk of causing rejection letters to come a-fluttering to your doormat. Short message: keep control over your points of view. One simple rule to follow is: one point of view per chapter. More sophisticated writers can mess about with that rule but if you’re unsure – just follow it! If you want the real ins-and-outs of point of view, you can get a very detailed guide here. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *** Comment:Very fixable, but normally a slew of changes will flow from any initial set of corrections. 11. Descriptions Absent Or Bland We’ve read novels where all action seems to take place in a white and featureless void, where any description is bland or muted. Readers want to be transported to a different world. So transport them. Descriptive writing is actually essential to this goal. We’ve got some great advice on how write descriptively right here. The techniques involved are suprisingly easy . . . and they can deliver an amazing lift to the novel. More than you think. Sometimes, however, if a novel lacks emotional punch, it’s not to do with the descriptions – but an absence of drama on the page. In such cases, the issue is nearly always to do with the author telling the reader about the action, rather than just showing us the action as it happens. Too much telling will kill a novel stone dead, and you can’t let that happen to yours. Here’s all you need on show vs tell, in case you need a refresher. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ** Comment:Easily fixed, just make sure weak descriptions aren’t masking a broader problem with prose style. Intermission: Do You Need Help? New writers make these mistakes because writing novels is HARD. But we can help – and save you huge amounts of wasted time. Writing a novel is hard. Writing a novel for the first time is harder. Writing a novel for the first time and making sure that your novel is strong enough to be published – well, that’s one heck of a goal to set yourself. It’s OK to find this tough.It’s OK – actually sensible – to get help So, take that sense of place issue, for example. Are you sure you’ve got that right? We’ve got a brilliant video on that exact topic (that also gives you a genius technique for adding a whole layer of richness to your novel.) Or ask yourself: are you really sure that the basic idea for your novel is strong enough? We’ve got a video on that too. Or prose writing and cliche? How confident are you there? Well, we don’t have one video on those topics – we’ve got three and they’re crazy good. You can see some of our sample testimonials here (scroll about 2/3 of the way down), but they say things like: “Hugely inspiring” “A breath of fresh air” “Extremely useful” “Almost entirely focused on practical application . . .it encourages and inspires the user to make extremely constructive improvements to their work.” But there’s going to be a catch, right? Well, sort of. There is and there isn’t. This (super-premium, 17 video) course is pretty expensive to buy outright. So don’t buy it. Simple. Save your money. Because as a member of Jericho Writers, you get full, free, unrestricted access to that course. Oh, yes, and all our other video courses. And our filmed masterclasses. And our Cinema. And our Townhouse community. And so much else as well. And membership of Jericho Writers: Is low costIs cancel-any-time.You can literally sign up, and cancel in the same day, and still enjoy the single month’s membership you paid for. We hope you don’t do that, but if you just want to spend one intensive month using our materials, that’s fine with us. Whatever works for you.Is absolutely stuffed with benefits, and we’re adding more all the timeWas developed for writers exactly like you.We’ve had over ten years serving writers like you and we’ve got hundreds of them published. We’d love to help you too. We’re sure we can do it. That’s a crazy-good deal, right? I certainly hope so, at least, because when we developed the whole membership concept, the basic brief to ourselves was, “Let’s just build the writing club of our dreams. Let’s make that thing happen, then charge as little as we possibly can.” So that’s what we did. Id love it if you chose to learn more about membership, or just say what the heck, I wanna sign up. But if that’s not right for you now, sit tight, and we’ll review the last common mistakes that writers make when they write their #1 novel. 12. Unliterary Literary Writing We get plenty of ‘literary’ novels. Literary fiction still relies on a wonderful plot or a stunning premise to hook its audience, and if you want your novel to sell as a ‘literary’ one, it has to be flawlessly written. Basic competence is not enough: you must demonstrate something more. If you don’t read a lot of literary fiction (Pulitzer / Booker Prize type work), then you are probably not writing it either. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-30% (of literary novels) Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *** Comment:You need to pay careful attention to prose style, but this exercise is usually manageable. You just need to care, a lot, and make sure that you take care with every sentence you write. 13. What Happened To The Plot? Strange, but true. Some writers complete an entire novel without really knowing what their story is. And stories don’t create themselves. We’ve got some great (free) advice on plotting here – with further help on plotting and making use of the snowflake method to plan things out – but needless to say our video writing course has got three beefy and important videos on that exact topic. This is an issue you just have to get write, irrespective of what genre you choose to write in. If you do have a plot, but the book still seems saggy, then revisit the above on economy in writing. Cutting is the answer to many a writing ill. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **** Comment:A strong story matters in all genres, and for debut novelist especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare et al. aren’t above plots, so you’re not either. 14. Unbelievable Or Bland Characters Sometimes, ever ything seems to be moving along all right in technical terms. Story, check; descriptions, check; prose style, check. Still, somehow, a manuscript is failing to connect with its readers. It’s often because the central character(s) aren’t really showing up for work, and that in turn is usually because you, the author, don’t yet know them sufficiently – almost as though you don’t trust your imagination to feel out the limits of the people you’re writing about. We’ve got some simple free advice right here, but our best stuff is in our writing course. Three fat videos on this one crucial topic. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10% Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *** Comment:Poor characterisation is easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved. Often the issue is just that a writer was so busy constructing the novel’s plot / settings / research underpinnings etc that they couldn’t handle the additional act of characterisation too. If that’s the issue, then the advice is just, “Time for Draft #2” 15. You Haven’t Really Finished Your Novel Yes, we know – you’ve reached the final full stop – but when you reach that milestone, you are perhaps, if you’re lucky, halfway done. Many novels – even ones accepted by an agent – need to be reworked, re-edited and reworked again. That’s how they get better and why all professional authors work closely with a professional editor, supplied via their publisher. You mightn’t yet have that vital support and advice from publishers, but you can get editorial feedback from consultancies like ours. We’ll check your manuscript for any structural weaknesses. We also run a unbelievably good self-editing course so that you can develop your own editorial skills. Astonishingly, about 1 in 6 of our graduates from that course have gone on to be published. And there are more popping through the pipeline every month. It’s an extraordinary course. It always sells out. And you should grab it when you can. The Stats Of Doom How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say! Comment:Agents reject 999 in 1,000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending work out too soon. Explore what editorial feedback may offer or – an easy, low cost, do-it-now option – just sign up for membership of Jericho Writers. We’ll genuinely be delighted to welcome you on board. In the meantime – everyone – happy writing, and good luck!
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Character Development – And The Ultimate Character Bio

In this article you will learn: How to write great characters in your novelHow to make them lifelikeHow to make them dazzle Why Are Characters So Important? What makes a reader glued to a book? What makes that person come back to it again and again? As a rough guide, people turn the pages because of plot, but they remember a book because of character. Don’t believe us? Then answer this. Can you recall, in detail, the plots of: To Kill a Mockingbird?The Hound of the Baskervilles?The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? We’re going to bet not. But do you remember Scout and Atticus? Holmes and Watson? And the badass Lisbeth Salander? Of course you do. And that’s the aim of this post: helping you achieve the same level of vibrating life that these characters achieved. In effect, we’re going to tell you how to develop a character that can be used for both the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (bad guy). How to write the kind of characters that will elevate your novel to a whole different plane. And it’s not magic. It’s just the logical application of tried-and-trusted writing techniques. But let’s start by figuring out what character development is, and how it works for you. What Is Character Development? Character development is two things: Character development is the the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process, before the writer actually starts to write.Character development also refers to the way a character changes through the course of the novel, generally in response to the experiences and events gathered through the course of the story itself. This is known as the Character Arc. (Need more? Get plot structure advice here.) Those twin definitions are immediately helpful. Yes: you have to develop a character profile before starting to write, but you also have to knit your character so closely to the story you’re going to tell that the two things seemed joined at the hip. Ideally, the reader won’t be able to imagine any other character occupying your story – just like you couldn’t imagine Girl with a Dragon Tattoo without the inflammatory, exciting presence of Lisbeth Salander. So: the first question is, how do we choose the right character for the story we’re about to tell? That’s up next. Plan Your Character Arcs The two basic character types in fiction – and how to choose the one who’s right for your novel. There are two basic types of main character (or protagonist) in fiction: The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves.The second character type start out extraordinary – they could make things happen in an empty room. You need to be careful about identifying which character is which. You might think that Harry Potter can’t be ordinary, because he’s a wizard. But think about it. He seemed like quite an ordinary boy. And when he gets to wizard school he seems quite ordinary there too (daunted by the school, a bit scared of Hermione, and so on.) He’s an ordinary wizard who finds his inner extraordinary self over the course of seven books. Lisbeth Salander, however, never strikes the reader as ordinary. She’s a rule-breaking, computer genius with anti-social traits and a scary capacity for violence. You just know she’s going to cause waves, no matter where she goes. Here’s a quick way to figure out what kind of character yours is: Ordinary Characters Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantlyWill typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.“Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents. Extraordinary Characters Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next doorWill have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story! What A Character Arc Looks Like You can already see how these three things need to intertwine: Your character’s profile at the start of the bookThe story your character plunges intoThe way your character develops through the course of that story So for one hyper-simple example, you might have: Harry Potter starts out as an ordinary boy, albeit one with natural wizarding abilityHe is plunged into a life or death battle against VoldemortHe discovers previously unseen reserves of courage and resourcefulness – he finds his inner extraordinary. Here’s another example of the same thing, this time from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Lizzy Bennet is an ordinary young woman, but somewhat prone to impulsive and immature judgementsShe is plunged into a tumultuous love story, and …Discovers new wisdom and maturity. These things are beautifully simple when you see them – but needless to say, designing something beautifully simple ain’t so easy. (Just ask Steve Jobs!) Build Your Character Development Arc Your first task? Simple. Just do the same thing as we’ve just done for Harry Potter and Lizzy Bennet. Take a sheet of paper and write out – in a few words only – the following: Your character’s broad start positionThe nature of the storyThe way your character develops as a result of the story you are telling. Do that exercise. Make sure you’re happy with it. And when you are – congratulations. You’ve just taken your first big step in developing your character. Try Our Ultimate Character Profile Template Also called a “Character Bio Template” Figuring out who you want to lead your story is the first essential of success. But the next part – the fun one – is every bit as important. And the rule here is simple: You have to know your main character better than you know your best friend. That’s it. The simple fact is that strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The only way to write a really convincing, lifelike, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t. So the problem of writing character comes down to this: you have to know protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that. If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start. If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and then read back through your work, looking for places where your characters seem a little blank. So. Let’s start. Use A Character Profile / Bio To Develop Stunning Characters Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later. You should cover all kinds of topics, including: Backstory Where did your protagonist come from?What was their childhood like? Happy or sad?What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters?If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?And what about now, where relations with others are concerned?Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?What about more recent backstory? Their move to Arkansas, joining the army, their first girl/boyfriend? Sketch those things out too. Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations. (And yes: showing matters. If you need a show vs tell refresher, we’ve got it for you.) Looks And Physical Attributes Get to know how your character looks, how they inhabit their body and how they interact with the world: Is your character tall or short? What hair colour, face & body shape, what eye colour?Are they physically graceful? Or clumsy? Or what?What animal do they most remind you of?If you had to choose one image to represent this person, what would it be? [Hint: the best answers to that question often float between the physical and something a bit more spiritual. There’s often something mobile in the image, not just static. examples: “She was like a deer grazing in snow.” or “He was like an iron sword of the old type. Unbending. Strong. Prone to a sudden, flashing anger.”]How does your character sleep?How do they fiddle?Are they impatient?How do they eat? What foods do they love and hate?What do they look like from a distance? Or close up, when seen by a stranger?What is their voice like? Or their laugh? Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc Your Character’s Personality Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice?Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?What impression would they make on a casual observer?Are they screwed up in any way?Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers?Are they sensitive or selfish lovers?How emotionally involved would they get?How does all of this feed into their character arc (ie: the way they develop through the story)?If you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be? Relationships Why has your character chosen this partner?Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness?What are their pet names for each other?Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows?What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike?What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel? Goals, Fears, Ambitions Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations. What’s their deepest wish?What are they most afraid of?What would failure mean for them? What voices would they have in their head commenting on that failure? (eg: a critical parent, or a disappointed friend.)What’s the goal, the thing they most desire?Does it change? And why?What’s their motivation for wanting it. What does it say about their nature? The Ultimate Character Profile Template The very best way to get to know your characters is to do this: Write a list of 200+ questions about your characterThen answer them Do that, and before too long, you’ll know your character with utter intimacy. You’ll move beyond some mechanical character development exercise into deep, fluent, easy knowledge. Do note that you have to write the questions before you start answering them, otherwise you end up just asking questions that you already know answers to. Oh, and it’s incredibly hard to come up with a really long list of questions that really probe everything about your character – so we’ve done it for you. We’ve created the Ultimate Character Builder, and it’s yours for free. Give yourself an hour or two on that exercise and, quite honestly, your character development journey is mostly complete. Nice to know, right? Build Empathy With Your Characters Why your character’s motivation matters so much You know that thing that literary agents do? “While we liked your book a lot, we didn’t quite love it. We didn’t quite feel empathy with your main character, but wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.” Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it? And the issue is NOT that your character isn’t nice enough. It’s not that she needs to do more home-baking, or go to more church meetings, or smile more sweetly. The equation is simply this: Empathy = Character’s motivations + reader understanding. That’s it. The whole deal. If a character really wants something, and the reader really gets why that thing matters so much to that character, then the reader is committed. They’ll feel intensely involved. They will, if they’re a literary agent, want to represent your novel. In terms of your character development challenge, that means you need to: Understand your character’s motivations deeplyMake sure your character really cares (because if they don’t, the reader won’t.)Make sure your character’s motivations come through in your writing. And that’s it. Simple, right? Dialogue: Characters In Relationship While we’re on the topic of building empathy, it’s also worth remembering that your character doesn’t exist in isolation – they’re at the centre of a particular web of relationships that will be tugging at them with complex and often contradictory forces. That’s quite likely tough for the character – but great for the reader. And dialogue is where you’ll feel those emotional pulls and pushes most forcefully and in their most alive possible way. Making sure that your dialogue is sinuous and mobile will give a real kick to your character – and add whole new layers to the process of acquiring and retaining the reader’s empathy. More dialogue help right here. That’s It: Character Development – Done! If you’ve done the work on developing your character arc, and you’ve explored your character in detail via our Ultimate Character Development Sheet, then you know what? You’ve completed your character development work. Yay! Truthfully, you’ll be ahead of at least 95% of the other writers out there. Well done you. If your plot is roughly in shape, then you’re good to start writing, and your first draft (though it won’t be perfect) should be a pretty damn good platform for your final, finished book. That said, once you have written (say) 10,000 words of your first draft – STOP. Just stop writing and review what you’ve written so far. Does your character feel like a fully rounded human? Or a cliche? Do you make plenty of reference (where appropriate) to your character’s thoughts, memories, feelings and physical sensations? Does the character feel fresh or stale? Individual, or just a standard character type? If your answers are yes, this character feels fresh and individual, then your work has paid off. You’ve created a great character – and your novel is well on its way to being a damn good one. About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) More About Character Development Writing Your Draft Sympathetic Characters
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30 screenplays for every screenwriter to read

Here’s a list of essential screenplays for every serious screenwriter to read – screenplays, not films. If you are a budding screenwriter, you can’t just watch the film and learn screenwriting from it. You must read the screenplay itself. Watch the film, but the screenplay is the thing. Read the rhythms. See scripts unfolding. I’ve noted a few places where you can get scripts online, but the web is a rich resource. You can find most things if you poke around. Here’s the list. 1. Some Like It Hot A deft blend of comedy and drama. Given there are two romances which matter, plus whether our two ‘ladies’ are going to get executed by the Mob, there’s a lot of plot to deal with and it’s done with wonderful grace and wit. A great film. 2. Casablanca Is this as good as everyone says it is? Casablanca is here because it tops most lists, though for me, the film is in the acting. The script itself plays a supporting role. (Read the script.) 3. Psycho A landmark in film-making and scriptwriting. To kill the heroine midway is a terrifically bold and (still) shocking decision, yet one that does not derail the film. If you tried the same in a novel, you’d kill the novel. Here it works. (Read the script.) 4. Chinatown Chinatown is magnificent, packing a ceaselessly interesting plot whilst combining two stories of real human weight (a corruption tale, an incest one.) Decades after its making, the film packs emotional clout. Though Chinatown is often held up as a perfect example of the three-act drama, I do question that. Isn’t it, in fact, a film that brings plot twists steadily and unexpectedly throughout the film? Read the script and see what you think. (Read the script.) 5. The Godfather A film whose power comes from the emotional force of seeing a decent man corrupted by his family and his circumstances. The gangstery stuff is all great, but the central story is one of emotional destruction, handled so unflinchingly. Its script details the Italian-American mafia life in such rich texture, taking the film beyond its (stunning) visuals. (Read the script.) 6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I love the sunshine in this film, the wit, the friendship, the lightness of touch. It’s a film willing to linger in places where plot isn’t being driven forward – a risky ploy in movie-making, but one that, in this instance, goes to create a film that is greater than a mere bank-heist Western. (Read the script.) 7. Bringing Up Baby Mismatched lovers falling in love despite apparent unsuitability has never been better handled. Yes, the acting is spot on, but forget about that. The script has a wonderfully light touch, one that’s happy to get ever crazier as the long night draws on. And that final dinosaur scene? Lovely. (Read the script.) 8. American Beauty A poignant film that starts with an astonishing script. Each character is beautifully formed, all with a convincing personality – before the actor comes to fill it – and each must deal with an aspect of appearances complimenting Lester’s own journey. That’s far too rare in movie scripts, but American Beauty shows how it can be done. Plus, on top of that, the drama is wonderful, its twists unexpected. (Read the script.) 9. Memento Memento is told in reverse chronological order, but this wasn’t just Christopher Nolan trying to be smart. Its structure is vital not just to audiences stepping into the shoes of Leonard (an amnesiac), but to unveiling the crux of the tale, revealing the story just wasn’t what we thought it was. (Read the script.) 10. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind Finally, for my top ten, is this philosophical exploration of identity and love. It’s moving, thought-provoking cinema, delivering fully on entertainment, as well. (Read the script.) And to complete the top thirty, hats off to these, the next 20. Annie HallThe StingWhen Harry Met SallyTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Shawshank RedemptionApocalypse NowPulp FictionThe Usual SuspectsShakespeare in LoveThe Best Years of Our LivesLA ConfidentialRaging BullThe Life of BrianRear Window12 Angry MenThe French ConnectionThe Manchurian CandidateBlade RunnerHigh NoonLa La Land
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How to Write an Elevator Pitch for Your Novel

Writing is scary – but of all the scary things about it, perhaps the scariest is getting the concept right. The hard fact is: a lousy concept will kill your novel, no matter how good your actual writing is. And how can you isolate the concept? The thing which makes the difference between success or failure? The answer is via your elevator pitch – a very short summary of what makes your book so special. We’ll get to some examples in just a second, but let’s start by defining terms . . . and understanding just why your elevator pitch is such a massive deal. How To Write A Great Book Pitch: Keep it to 20 words or lessBe originalMake it memorable – An astronaut seeking to survive. A woman who fakes her own murder. An ordinary boy – an orphan! – going to an extraordinary school.The result should make the listener say, “tell me more!” What Is An Elevator Pitch For A Novel? And why does it matter so damn much? An elevator pitch is the term given to any sales pitch that could, in theory, be delivered in the space of a short elevator ride. The idea is that you might find yourself in the elevator with Someone Important who can’t, for those twenty or thirty seconds, escape or deflect your attentions – so you can use that time to deliver a sales pitch so utterly compelling that that Person of Importance is drawn in and wants to hear more. To be clear: this is a fantasy scenario. You are never likely to be called upon to pitch your book in this way. It’s just not how any normal submission process happens. (Or, for that matter, how any normal elevator ride happens. I’ve twice been in an elevator with the CEO of a major publisher. On both occasions, we chatted about the weather, or the shiny new canteen, or whatever people normally talk about in elevators.) But that notional elevator pitch still matters, because it’s a neat conceptual way to understand: the very heart of your book’s Unique Selling Point – which in turn determines,how literary agents could pitch your book to a publisherhow an acquiring editor could pitch that book internallyhow a sales team could pitch that book to retail buyershow a publicist could pitch that book to reviewershow you could describe the book – pithily but attractively – on social mediahow the book blurb could pitch that book to readers (online or physically) And no book succeeds unless it’s pitchable in that way. In fact, you can define an elevator pitch like this: An elevator pitch for a novel is a very short summary of what makes the book UniqueStriking,Fresh, andCompelling If your book pitch doesn’t tick those boxes, your book is unlikely to sell. An agent will think “can I pitch this to editors?” and think, No, probably not. An acquiring editor will think, “can I pitch this book in house?” and think, No, probably not. And so on down the chain. The book pitch is, in a way, the very heart of book marketing. It’s the heart of your product. The heart of your brand. How short is very short? Well, there are no set rules, but I’d suggest that fewer than 20 words is ideal. Fewer than 50 words is essential. If you like, you can think of the pitch as being something that would work and stand out amongst the hurly-burly of social media. If you had just 280 characters to talk about your book, what would you say? That’s not a bad discipline to apply. Brevity is key, not because that theoretical elevator ride is short, but because you need to isolate what is special about your book. That means discarding nearly everything about the book – for example, the settings, the plot twists, the great characters, the genius denouement, and so on. Sure, you need to get to those things in time. If the Very Important Person in the elevator gets out on the same floor as you and says, “Sounds great, tell me more”, then all those other things are going to matter too. A great elevator pitch is essential, yes, but it’s never enough on its own. But still. The elevator pitch is very short. And it matters. Example Elevator Pitches How successful novels get that way . . . Here are some examples of elevator pitches. These are our versions of the pitch in each case – our attempt to isolate what makes these books special. So here goes: TwilightA teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.[15 words] The Da Vinci CodeA professor of symbology unlocks codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail.[19 words] Gone GirlA wife (Amy) goes missing, and her husband is suspected of murder. But the sweet diary-writing Amy of the first half of the book is revealed to be a very different woman in the second half . . .[36 words] The MartianAstronaut, stranded on Mars, has to figure out how to survive.[11 words] Brokeback MountainA love story between two male cowboys[7 words] Harry Potter seriesOrphan boy goes to school for wizards[7 words] Alex Rider seriesYoung James Bond[3 words] I hope it’s obvious that these books all have great premises. We’ll look at exactly what makes these ideas so great in a second . . . but first let’s have some (made up) examples of elevator pitches for books that could never sell. So here are some really bad elevator pitches: Eco-fantasy for 6-7sThree children go to a fantasy world where they must save the planet and learn about the importance of recycling and the dangers posed by electro-magnetic radiation. Non-literary literary fictionA slightly mediocre book about two somewhat boring people in whose lives nothing seems to happen. Paranormal romance (2018)A teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire. We get books like these, as do literary agents. Anything lacking a grabbing, easily communicated pitch is already at a disadvantage . . . or to put that more bluntly: will simply never sell. And notice that the paranormal romance pitch in the list just above is exactly the same as the pitch we put together for Stephenie Meyer’s hyper-successful Twilight. What makes this second pitch so terrible, and the first one so great? It’s timing of course. Agents need something that will make editors sit up and say, “Hey, tell me more.” When Twilight first came out, that pitch was electric. Now? It’s so tired, it needs to sleep. Need more help? If you want more help on anything in this post, then do check out our How To Write course that has a crazy-good 1 hour video on these exact topics. The course itself is quite pricey, so we generally recommend taking out a cheap monthly membership which gives you access to EVERYTHING we offer in terms of video courses, masterclasses, etc – and at an easily affordable, cancel-any-time price. Find out loads more here How To Write Your Elevator Pitch OK. So you know why an elevator pitch matters so much – because it’s THE key sales element in the chains that runs from: You ⇒ Agent ⇒ Acquiring editor ⇒ Publisher Publisher’s sales team ⇒ Retail buyer ⇒ ReaderPublisher’s publicity & marketing team ⇒ Reviewers ⇒ Reader You know what you want to achieve: a pitch that is Short, Unique, Striking, Fresh, and Compelling. So how do you actually achieve that? The most important thing to understand is that you throw out almost everything in your novel. Take that Harry Potter elevator pitch: “Orphan boy goes to school for wizards.” That doesn’t say: Anything about VoldemortAnything about Harry’s parentsAnything about his muggle uncle & auntAnything about Hermione & RonAnything about his summons to the schoolAnything about the specific storylines once Harry is at Hogwarts And that’s not just OK. It’s  good. That’s the whole point of the exercise. You are not seeking to explain your book in the elevator pitch. The only answer you are seeking to elicit is, “Hey, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.” When you get the “tell me more” type response from anyone (the agent, the acquiring editor, etc), you know you’re golden. That’s the point at which you can start to explain the broader context and story of your book, confident in the knowledge that you already have a good hold on your listener’s attention and interest. Great pitches combine a tiny bit of WHAT the book is (eg: in Twilight‘s case, that’s a teen romance), with a sense of WHY the book will be great to read (eg: “ooh, a girl and a werewolf: that sounds dark and sexy . . . and scary . . . and sexy . . .”) So the way to write your elevator pitch is to ignore everything about your book . . . except the aspect that will most make your reader say, “tell me more.” There’s no one approach you have to take. So the Harry Potter elevator pitch worked with a setting (that school for wizards. The Gone Girl one relied on its twist. (Real Amy is different from diary-Amy!) The Martian one relied on a setup / premise. (Astronaut stranded on Mars: how does he survive?) And so on. Remove everything from your book description except the part that most interests the reader. And keep your pitch intensely short. Under 20 words is good. Under 10 words is excellent. Anything over 50 words? That’s not an elevator pitch; that’s a snoozefest. Is Your Elevator Pitch Any Damn Good? And what you should do if it’s not. So write your elevator pitch. And that means: Actually do it! Or, in fact, it means: Actually do it right now this minute,or I’m going to get a mite tetchy. Reading a blog post about elevator pitches is a genius idea if it impels action: if you actually start to write and examine your own elevator pitch. Reading the same blog post if you don’t actually DO anything as a result doesn’t count as research. It’s procrastination. OK, so you have written / are currently sketching your elevator pitch. So is it any good? Do you have a saleable novel in front of you? Or an unsaleable clunker? Well, once you have a draft of your elevator pitch, you simply need to ask yourself, is it: Very short (<20 words, for preference)?Unique – does it feel original? Does it feel distinct from all the other books out there at the moment?Striking – is there an edge? Do you feel a glimmer of steel somewhere? (An astonaut seeking to survive. A wife who fakes her own murder. An ordinary boy – an orphan! – going to an extraordinary school.)Fresh – does your idea feel timely? Does it feel like part of the next iteration of what’s happening in your genre / fiction in general?Compelling – does it make any listener say, “Hey, that’s great, tell me more.”? If your pitch checks those boxes then, my friend, you have a winner. Sure, you still have a lot of work to do in actually writing the novel that lives up to the pitch – but yo’re on the right track. Congratulations. And if not – if you have an uneasy sense that you haven’t yet nailed this issue – then you have to nail it. Don’t con yourself into doing more work on that awkward Chapter 27. Or finessing the character of Bazhran the Bad any further. You have to write a novel whose pitch gets a reader to that crucial, “Tell me more” point. Oh, and if you aren’t sure whether your pitch has nailed it or not, then – trust me – your pitch hasn’t nailed it. We’ve got some great suggestions for how to develop and improve your core ideas right here. And of course members of our club get absolutely tons of help, all wrapped up free within your (cancel-any-time) membership. We’ve got an awesome How To Write course, plus masses of material on getting published, plus filmed interviews with agents and publishers, plus so much more as well. Do pop over to the Club welcome page and learn more. We’re here for writers – and we’d love you to join us! About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How Many Words Are There In A Novel?

Learn the average wordcount for every type of novel, novella, genre, etc When I (Harry Bingham) wrote my first novel, I started to worry that I was off the mark. I was scared that agents would reject my book simply because I had got the length wrong. How many words are there in an average novel? I didn’t know. I went to a bookstore, gathered some (big, hefty) novels in a genre like mine, and sat there on the shop floor and counted words. It turned out that, yes, I was at the very long end of things, but not impossibly long. I sold that book for a good six-figure sum, and have never looked back since. At least you don’t need to run down to your nearest big store, since this guide will tell you quickly the ideal word counts for every category of novel. How Many Words Are In A Novel? The average wordcount for adult fiction is between 70,000 to 120,000 words. For children’s fiction, the general rule is the younger the audience the shorter the book, and for YA novels the average is 50,000-70,000 words. Nonfiction wordcounts sit between 70,000-120,000 words. Wordcounts also vary by genre, as detailed. How Long Is A Book Of Adult Fiction? Novel word counts, by type of book So: how many words in a novel? Broad Guidelines We’re going to talk some specific genres in just a moment, but it’s worth setting the landscape a little first, just because you may as well know the territory here, and because a lot of fiction simply doesn’t fit in tidy boxes. So, the average wordcount for a typical novel is anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 words. I’d guess that the actual average number of words in a novel was somewhere close to 90,000 words. (How come? Because novels mostly cluster at the shorter end of that 70-120K spectrum. There are plenty of prolific authors who might never break the 100,000 word barrier.) These guidelines assume that your book is broadly commercial (rather than highly literary, let’s say) and that you are writing for adults. If you are within that broad zone, then as far as length goes, you’re doing fine. But then again, sometimes fiction is long. If your story justifies the length, you needn’t worry if you get up to 150,000 words, or even 180,000. But that is on the very long side. 180,000 words print about 650 paperback pages. You only get away with novels of that scale if the story has an epic quality and storytelling is remorselessly excellent. (Also, don’t trust any source on the internet which tells you that such stories are unsaleable. They’re just not. My own first novel was 190,000 words long and was sold to HarperCollins for a lot of money.) Genre Romance If you are writing true genre romance – the kind of thing Harlequin Mills & Boon is known for – then books are typically short. Your target is probably 50-60,000 words. That said, longer books that still tell a proper romantic story, can do well. These books generally run from 75,000 to 100,000 words, or in rare cases a little more. Examples When we Believed in Mermaids – Barbara O’Neal – 100,000 wordsAnd Then You Loved Me – Inglath Cooper – 90,000 wordsThat Boy – Jillian Dodd – 80,000 wordsRescuing Lord Inglewood – Sally Britton – 55-60,000 words Women’s Fiction A lot of fiction written for women will have an element of romance, but is far more complicated and interesting than classic Mills & Boon fare. Such books will have a minimum length of 75,000 words but seldom exceed 110,000. See our comments about saga though! Examples Me Before You – Jojo Moyes – 140,000 words — very unusual length for women’s fiction this one, but it was a very unusual book!The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Bedani – 110,000 wordsWhere the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens – 105,000 wordsThe World That We Knew – Alice Hoffman – 95,000 wordsThe Dressmaker’s Gift – Fiona Valpy – 80,000 wordsBridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding – 75,000 words Family Saga Saga, by definition, has an epic feel, and you’re not really in saga territory at less than 150,000 words. But some of those books are very long. I have a friend who writes saga and her publisher actually wants books of 250,000 words. That’s about three ordinary novels squashed into one. Wow! (And, uh, you don’t get paid three times as much, so unless you really want to write saga, I’m going to suggest you review your choices!) Examples The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough – 195,000 words Crime And Thriller Genres Crime novels often run a little longer than women’s fiction. So 75,000 words is fine as a lower limit, but anything up to 120,000 words is unproblematic. Truth is, as long as you make sure every single word counts, you can go up to 135,000 words without troubling anyone. Examples I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes – 195,000 words (epic feel to this book, hence the length)Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham (that’s me by the way!) – 115,000 wordsI let you go – Clare Mackintosh – 95,000 wordsThe Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins – 95,000 wordsThe Crossing (Harry Bosch) – Michael Connelly – 80,000 words Historical Fiction Historical fiction is a slippery category, because it’s not really a category. A literary-type love story set in Renaissance Venice is very different from massive war story about the Mongol hordes. Reader expectations are utterly different in both cases. So for “normal” historical fiction – typically, a somewhat literary category – I’d suggest that 75,000 to 100,000 words is about right. But as soon as you introduce the sense of something epic – in time, space, and magnitude of events – you can get up to word counts of 150,000 to 180,000 words, or even more. Examples What the Wind Knows – Amy Harmon – 100,000 wordsBeneath a Scarlet Sky – Mark Sullivan – 150,000 wordsWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel – 200,000 words Fantasy And Sci-fi Genres Fantasy novels can be long. They can be up to 180,000 words, or even over 200,000, but the novel must be wonderful and must fully justify its word count. In other words, you must be scrupulous about editing every sentence for length. With SF, you really just need to explore your niche, as it can be quite variable. Epic space opera can easily run to over 150,000 words, whereas a short, hard space disaster book might run to just 60,000 words. If you’re not sure of your genre, just find the most appropriate bestseller list on Amazon and take a look. You’ll soon get a sense for where your book needs to fit. Examples Lord of the Rings / The Fellowship of the Ring – JRR Tolkein – 190,000 wordsThe Atlantis Gene – AG Riddle – 135,000 words1984 – George Orwell – 120,000 wordsHarley Merlin and the Secret Coven – Bella Forrest – 110,000 words Literary Genre If you’re writing for a more literary audience, then the rules above apply on upper limits. In other words, anything up to 120,000 words, no problem. And lower limits are quite a lot lower. A good, short literary novel might be 60,000 words. A very good, very short one might be as little as 45 or 50,000. The shorter it gets, the better it needs to be. Examples Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel) is over 200,000 words On Chesil Beach (by Ian McEwan) is just 40,000 words long A Note About Our Word Count Estimations In some cases, word counts are published and in those cases, we’ve used those published sources. In other cases, we’ve used online tools such as Reading Length to estimate the length of a work. We would expect the actual length to be within +/- 10% of our stated length and usually closer. We have rounded to the nearest 5,000 words in all cases. How Long Is A Non-fiction Book? Memoir And Biography Most memoirs need to be in the 70,000 to 100,000-word range. Only if you’re a major celebrity can you blow right through that word count and just keep going. Examples Becoming – Michelle Obama – 165,000 words. I’d say she’s a major celebrity, though, so …Educated – Tara Westover – 100,000 wordsThe Salt Path – Raynor Winn – 90,000 words Popular Non-fiction For the kind of book that normally sits on the front tables at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find that 70,000 to 120,000 words is about typical. If the topic really justifies length (and especially if your credentials are highly impressive) you can go longer, but check that you remain interesting, even at length. Examples Really hard to give examples, because this is a very broad category indeed. But for what it’s worth … Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann – 150,000 wordsFear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward – 135,000 wordsHillbilly Elegy – JD Vance – 75,000 wordsA Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking – 50,000 words Niche Non-fiction For anything really niche – e.g. How to Get Started in Internet Fraud – there are no real limits. Just write a good book on the topic and let length look after itself. How Long Is A Children’s Novel? Young Adult Fiction YA fiction usually needs to be 50,000 to 70,000 words. You can go up to 100,000 if your material is phenomenal and justifiable, but no longer than that … Or at least that’s what I used to say, except that Stephenie Meyer really rewrote the rules. So yeah, you can go over 100,000 words if you are about to reinvent an entire category of fiction. Examples Twilight – Stephenie Meyer – 120,000 wordsHunger Games – Susan Collins – 100,000 wordsThe Fault in Our Stars – John Green – 90,000 wordsOutside – Sarah Ann Juckes (our head of membership content) – 70,000 words Middle Grade Fiction Children’s fiction is so varied in terms of length, type, illustration. Your best bet is to go to a good children’s bookstore and look at books like your own in terms of target audience. Multiply up by the number of pages and get to a rough word count. The younger the child, the shorter the word count. Examples It’s not really safe to offer examples. Your best bet is to figure out what books yours is comparable to, then sit down and count the words on 2-3 typical pages. Get a rough average. Multiply by the number of pages in the book. And that gives you your rough word count. Self-published Work And Ebooks: Word Count Guidelines In the world of print and physical bookstores, length kind of mattered. There’s just a minimum cost of printing a book, trucking it to a store, marketing it, and everything else. Since a 50 page book for $7.99 just feels like bad value most of the time, books like that were never commissioned by publishers. They just didn’t happen. Because traditional publishers still tend to think of print first and digital formats second, the same thing still mostly holds true. For them. But if you’re self-publishing, it just doesn’t need to hold true for you. What if you wanted to write: Beach read romances – 30,000 words each – in a series of 8 or so books. Well, heck, you can do it. Readers love that kind of thing. Short, subject-led books on Internet marketing, or cat nutrition, or meditation technique. Well, heck you can do it. Readers can get real value from that kind of thing. There’s no right or wrong here. The only golden rule is: You communicate the type of book accurately to the reader, andYour pricing reflects the length / value you are offering. I know that’s technically two golden rules, but the second one is kind of a repeat of the first. As a rough guide, I’d say that a 30,000 word book shouldn’t sell for much more than $2.99 / $3.99. If your book is very short – 15-20,000 words – it probably wants to be $0.99 or free. Do You Need To Edit Your Novel? Take a good look at the average word counts you need for a novel or non-fiction. If your book is too long and you need to cut it, don’t fret. It’s often possible to take a good 30,000 words out of a book without really affecting the content, just by being rigorous about what works – what words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters truly earn their place. The secret to effective self-editing is always just a relentless search for material that isn’t really contributing to the story . . . and searching at every scale. So you need to ask, “Is this chapter or scene really needed? Could I cut it or simply delete it?” But you also need to ask, “Does this sentence contain more words than it needs? Could I do the same job more effectively with less?” Bear in mind that cutting a 12-word sentence down to 9 words might feel like nothing to you . . . but that’s the same proportionate reduction as cutting a 120,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. And you only achieve that kind of reduction by being picky about every single word. Why not try checking out our self-editing course to build on those editing skills. Or, peruse the range of editing services we offer. Need more help?Did you that we have masses of resources available completely free to members of the Jericho Writers community? If you become a member, you get access to: An incredible course on How To Write that has a bazillion glowing testimonials from writers just like you.A video course of the exact same depth and quality on Getting Published.And loads of filmed masterclassesAnd filmed interviews with authors, agents, publishers and others.The chance to pitch your work to literary agents, live online.And much more as well. You’d think that you’d have to pay thousands of dollars for all that, right? But we’ve made it available at a ridiculously low price. Pop over here to find out more. We built our club for writers like you, and we’d be absolutely thrilled if you chose to join us. About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How to Find a Literary Agent (the Simple 8 Step Guide)

Do you need an agent? Are they worth it?And how do you actually maximise your chances of getting one?A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE Getting an agent may feel impossible, but it really isn’t. There’s only one difficult step in the whole process (that’s step 1, below). The rest of it, honestly, is fairly easy. Just be disciplined, persistent, and follow this guide to finding agents. Find A Literary Agent In 8 Simple Steps: Write a wonderful bookHave realistic expectationsPrepare your manuscript properlySelect agents with careSend out simultaneous submissionsPrepare for agent rejections – it happens, a lotReview your progressGet out there: go to events and meet agents We’re going to tell you everything you need to know to get the literary agent of your dreams . . . but before we even get there, have you wondered: Do I Actually Need A Literary Agent? The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you are writing. You definitely DO NOT need a literary agent if: You are self-publishing your work on Amazon. You can just upload your material for free without anyone’s permission or approval. The only time you would need a literary agent as a self-published author is if you sold a lot of copies in the English language, and you needed an agent’s help with foreign language sales, audio sales, film/TV rights, and the rest.You are writing poetry or flash fiction or other non-commercial art forms. Basically: agents are there to make money. If your work is basically art-for-art’s-sake then (a) great for you, but (b) forget about an agent – they’re in it for the $$$.You are writing niche titles that won’t attract significant advances. Let’s say, for example, you are writing a book on “How to Care For Your New Alpaca”. I guess there IS a market out there for alpaca owners who need that kind of book. But any advance from a traditional publisher will be probably zero, or maybe $1000 at the very, very outside. Take 15% of that number, and it’s just not enough to get any agent excited. So titles like that are great. They totally deserve to exist. But forget about agents. They’re not interested. Flipping to the other side of things – the zone where big advances are (often) sought and (sometimes) paid . . . You DO need an agent if: You are writing a novel. Basically: all the big publishers (the ones who dominate book stores; the ones who dominate the reviews pages in newspapers, etc) only take seriously submissions that come to them via literary agents. So if you don’t have an agent, you are seriously harming your chances of being taken seriously by the exact group of firms you most want to have bidding for your work. So get an agent.You are writing a children’s novel. Read the paragraph above. Every word of that applies to you.You are writing broad, general interest non-fiction. Walk into a large Barnes & Noble or a large Waterstones, if you live in the UK. Look around at the front tables and seek out any of them that are selling non-fiction. Ask yourself, “could my book live here?” If the answer to that question is YES, then you need a literary agent, essentially for the exact same reason as applies to novelists. If the answer to the question is NO (probably because the book you’ve written is too niche to appeal to the general reader), then it’s doubtful whether you need an agent . . . or an agent needs your business. There are of course plenty of shades of grey in between these two basic blocks. So common “well, it all depends” type authors might be: Authors of picture books or other very short books for children. Some of these authors choose to have agents. Some don’t. I think the best advice for newbies (given without me knowing your specific situation, obviously) is: Use a literary agent when you first enter the industry, then take stock after a year or two, once you’ve got a sense for how things work.Authors of narrowly subject-led non-fiction, where the potential market is large. So books on health, diet and cooking can be niche and subject-led in some sense, but since books of that sort often pop-up on bestseller lists, agents are interested. You just have to be sensible in judging the sales potential of your work – agents will be ruthless in doing the same! Clear? Great. There’s just a couple more questions we get asked A LOT, so we may as well clear those up too. They are: How Much Do Literary Agents Cost? And this question has a really nice, clean, clear answer. First: agents cost nothing. Not one dime upfront – or, in a way, ever. They charge only on commission – so, typically, they ask for 15% of any income earned on home sales and 20% of anything earned on overseas or film/TV sales. So if they don’t make money for you, they don’t make money for themselves. But the upfront cost to you is $0.00 . . . or, if you prefer to think in the British pound sterling then, at current exchange rates, that comes to exactly £0.00. (I’m writing as an author of 20 years experience and, aside from commission, I have paid my agent exactly nothing in those years. My agent has done very well out of my business, all the same!) Are Literary Agents Worth It? And are agents worth it? Well, let me see: You get access to publishers who would otherwise not take you seriously – and those are the publishers with the huge sacks of money availableYou get access to the exact right person at those publishers (because it is an agent’s job to know who’s who there.)You get someone with intense experience of conducting auctions for properties like yoursYou get someone who can organise the exact same thing globally – and where your agent doesn’t know the territory themselves (Bulgaria say, or South Korea), they’ll work with a trusted counterparty who doesYou can get someone who has trodden the book to film route before and can guide you through that (most treacherous) maze.You get someone of real editorial acuity who, most importantly, knows the market for your book and how to optimise your writing for that marketYou get someone whose financial interests are slam-bam exactly the same as yours. So, uh, is an agent worth it . . .? It’s a daft question. Personally, I’ve made a lot of money from writing over the years, and have shared a chunk of that with my agent. And also: I’m almost certainly more plugged into the market than you are; probably know more about selling books; have better contacts; and much else. But my agent hasn’t just earned back his 15% over the years; he has increased my income severalfold over what it would have been if I’d had sole charge. I’m a very experienced author with superb industry contacts and I wouldn’t even dream of being without my agent. So if you are in the “gotta have an agent” category above, then get a damn agent. You need one. You’ll make more money that way. You’ll also have a stronger and more personally/artistically rewarding career. So just do it, OK? Right. Preamble over. Now let’s jump into how to actually find that literary agent – assuming you are a good writer, but with zero track record. Write A Wonderful Book Bear in mind you’re competing against the very best in the business. If you are writing spy thrillers, your books will be competing against John Le Carre’s and at the same price, with less publicity, less uptake from the bookstores. The moral there is simple: Hold your work to the highest of high standards. A competent book will never be taken on by an agent. A good book is unlikely to be taken on. A dazzling book WILL be taken on . . . and could well go on to sell for a lot of money. Most writers don’t want to hear that advice, but truthfully? It’s the only advice that really, really matters. You can’t ignore it. And though this blog post is not just going to pressure you into buying our services, it’s probably helpful to remind you that the gold-standard way of improving your manuscript is to get editorial advice from professional readers such as those we can supply. The details of what we offer can be found right here. If you’ve tried your luck with agents and got nowhere, then the chances are that one of the following apply to you: You haven’t tried enough agents, or you’ve tried the wrong ones.Your approach to agents has been howlingly bad.Your book just isn’t yet good enoughYour novel has just totally misjudged the market – for example by having a word count that is either way over or way under what agents and publishers are seeking. (Word count guidelines here.) Of these, the third issue is by far the most common one, so if you’ve sought admittance to Planet Agent and got nowhere fast, then your probable next step should be to get editorial help. Need more help? Members of Jericho Writers can get free access to a ton of materials, including our 17-video course on How To Write – a course that has had a zillion rave reviews from writers like you already. The course itself is quite costly to buy outright, but Jericho members get free access to it, and everything else. Learn more about our cancel-any-time membership, or just treat yourself and sign up. Have Realistic Expectations Literary agents spend most of their time handling existing clients. A typical agent might take on just two new authors a year, and most agents receive around 2,000 manuscripts a year. That means that, inevitably, they reject most submissions. What’s more, very few publishers have interest in unsolicited contributions. This is disheartening, of course – but it’s not about odds, it’s about: Quality. If your book is strong enough, it will sell. We have virtually never seen an exception to that rule, and we have handled thousands of client manuscripts over the years.Professionalism. We’ve had clients who have sent their (very good) manuscripts out to 2-3 agents. They didn’t get a positive response. So they gave up. I once encountered such a client at a crime writing festival. I knew our editor had rated her manuscript, so I asked how she’d got on. She told me that she’d been to three agents, hadn’t got anywhere, and just shelved the manuscript. I pretty much yelled at her. You can’t do that. I told her she needed to reach out to at least a dozen agents in total before drawing any final conclusions. So she did. And she got an agent. And then a book deal.Persistence. And let’s say you take your first book out to 12 agents. No one offers you a deal, but you get back some encouraging comments. What then? What choices are you going to make. if you quit, you are not a writer and never really were one. That’s when the real writer keeps going. You might write another book. You might take your existing book and get editorial help on it. You might rework your idea, and just take your original idea down a different and more exciting road. Shortly before writing these words, I watched a TV show here in the UK, in which a writer – Mandy Berriman – talked to a major TV host on primetime TV about her debut book deal. I was so proud, I actually had tears in my eye. You want to know why? Because Mandy had been one of our first ever clients. More than ten years previously, I’d read the first words of creative writing she’d ever written as an adult. The work was raw, but still shone with a warmth and authenticity that I always believed would and should result in a book deal. It took a long time – and there were agents and rejections aplenty along the way – but she got there. Like you, she started out with no track record at all – and she ended up on TV, with a great publisher and brilliant sales. Persistence or talent, which would you rather? After a long time in this game, I can tell you that persistence wins every single time. Prepare Your Manuscript Properly Agents see hundreds of manuscripts. Don’t rule yours out on silly things. Eliminate spelling errors and don’t rely on a computer spell check (too to his four ewe). If your spelling is poor, ask a friend to help. If your punctuation is bad, do the same. And get the layout right. That means Times New Roman font or Garamond or something similar, with a font size of 12. Normal margins. Double-spaced, or 1.5 line spacing. If you really want to go sans serif in your choice of font (what’s sans serif?) – and we’d advise against – go with something normal and widely seen, like Arial or Calibri. Lay your manuscript out like a book, not a business document, which means no space between paragraphs, and with the first line slightly indented. Every page should be numbered, your title and your name in the header. Your title page should contain your title, your name and your contact details. Nothing else. You do not need to worry about copyright, either – you already own the copyright. Making a fuss about it marks you as an amateur. Really though, there are no absolute rules when it comes to manuscript presentation – unlike in screenwriting, for example, where incorrect formatting means you’ve failed before you’ve started. That means that as long as you produce a clean, professional-looking document nothing else really matters. Pro tip. Don’t name your documents for your convenience; think about your agent instead. So whereas you are unlikely to be confused by a document called novel.doc on your computer, that’s of no help to an agent sifting 30 unread manuscripts on her e-reader. So call your manuscript, for example, A Farewell to Legs, Ernetta Hummingbird, First 10K words. doc. That’s cumbersome from your point of view – but amazingly helpful to the agent. And it’s the agent you’re trying to impress! Select Agents With Care Agents may take up to two months to read your book (or pretend to read it, anyway). You may need to apply a fair few times before you strike lucky, so we strongly recommend you make multiple simultaneous submissions. The old “one agent at a time” rule was only ever for the benefit of agents, not authors, and you should ignore it completely. How To Find An Agent The Hard And Painful Way It’s easy to find an agent the painful way. You just Google “literary agents” and spend the next three days solid researching. Bear in mind that Google has no idea which agents are good or bad, so the search rankings on Google have virtually no relation at all to agent quality. Not happy with that? OK, here’s another painful approach you could take. You could buy a book. (Remember those? Things made out of pulped up wood. You used to see them around a lot.) In the US, you’d probably buy Writer’s Market. In the UK, you’d get the quaintly named Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. Then you’d sit there turning pages, and hitting the internet hard, when the text was insufficient. How To Find An Agent In A Clunky But Acceptable Way Better than either of those approaches would be to sign up to AgentQuery.com – a free agent-search tool that is remarkably good given the price point. The tool is OK-ish for the US, and a bit crummy elsewhere, but I’d still prefer to start a search there with Google or with a book. One step up again, and you have the agent database tools of Writer’s Market. Those are paid-for and better than AgentQuery, but frankly they still look like something developed ten years ago and not improved since. The world of today can surely do better than that, right? How To Find An Agent With Ease And Happiness Or of course you could become a member of Jericho Writers. Our AgentMatch tool is quite simply the best in the world. If you want to find, let’s say “A relatively new literary agent, who is actively seeking new clients, and is open to SF/fantasy submissions” then you can perform that search in approximately 15 seconds. Or maybe just 7 seconds if your fingers move fast. Then when you want to learn more about any given agent, you just dive into their individual profile, where one of our native English-speaking graduate researchers (most of whom have BAs / MAs in English or Creative Writing) has put together a detailed profile, along with a ton of specific data about that agent. In the meantime, you can view our comprehensive lists of: All the literary agents in the USAll the literary agents in the UK You should probably also take a look at our jumbo literary agent “your questions answered” page. Sounds interesting? Course it does. Learn more about becoming a member of Jericho Writers or just sign up now. Send Out Simultaneous Submissions Most agents have submission guidelines that require the following: Your first 3 chapters, 10,000 words, or 50 pages of your manuscript (check individual requirements);A short query letter (or covering letter; they mean the same.) Get help on your query letter here.A 500-700-word synopsis, unless agency guidelines explicitly ask for something else. Synopsis help here. Most agencies take submissions by email, but again, check guidelines and follow agency submission guidelines scrupulously. (They will vary.) How Many Literary Agents Should You Approach? You are aiming to generate a shortlist of about a dozen names. What you’re looking for is: Agents who are open to your genreAgents who are genuinely open to new clients (which will often mean younger, newer agents)Agents with a good attitude to authors generally – something you can often tell from how open and transparent they are on their website or in interviews.Agents with whom you can find some point of contact. So it might be that a given agent has one of your favourite authors on their client list (in your genre or out of it), or said something in a blog post somewhere that really resonated with you, or shares a passion (for sailing say, or synchronised swimming.) Why a dozen agents? Answer, because if you approach fewer than that, you risk being rejected just because the handful of agents you approached had their hands full of existing work at the time you approached them. So why not more than that? Well, OK, you could go to more. 15 would be fine, and maybe even 18 wouldn’t be crazy. But really, as soon as you are querying 10 or more agents, one of those guys WILL pick your book up, if your book is good enough. If you send your book out to 12 agents, and get either rejection slips or silence then you are normally better off getting top quality editorial advice on your manuscript (we recommend our services!), than just badgering more agents. In at least 99% of cases, the issue is to do with the manuscript, not with the initial selection of agents. Where Should I Look For Agents? The two centres of publishing are New York and London. Most literary agents are based in one of those two cities, because most international trade publishing is based there too. (In the English-language, I mean.) If you are American or Canadian (or resident there), you should almost certainly be looking for a US agent, or at least one who is very intimately involved in the New York publishing world. Likewise, if you are British or Irish (or resident there), you should be looking at a UK-based agent (most likely London), or at least one who is highly acquainted with that world – as for example some agents in Dublin or Edinburgh. If you’re not lucky enough to be a citizen of one of those fine countries, then you can pretty much take your pick of London and New York. Because you don’t quite belong in either territory, you can perfectly well take your pick of either. Australians can certainly consider local representation, but equally well look further afield. Lucky you. How To Write A Query Letter (Or, Covering Letter) It’s not hard to write a good query letter (still often called a covering letter in the UK.) In fact, if you can write a half-decent book, you can unquestionably write a perfectly good query letter. Here for example, is a fine example of the genre: Dear Mr Redintooth,I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, A Farewell To Legs. The novel (of about 70,000 words) tells a love story, set against the background of a busy amputation clinic in Bangalore. I have enclosed the first three chapters plus a brief synopsis with this submission. I am a thirty-year-old accountant.[Then one short paragraph of no more than 100 words describing the setting / hero / premise of the book]The story arose from my own experiences during a recent trip to Bangalore. The book attempts to deal with themes of loss and suffering in an accessible, moving, and uplifting way. I was particularly keen to write to you, after your success with Goodbye, Little Ear, the autobiographical work by Mr Van Gogh.I very much look forward to hearing from you.I look forward to hearing from you.Yours,Ms Mildasmilk If you have completed a well-recognised MFA or creative writing course, then say so. If you are a professional writer in any other capacity (in journalism, TV, radio, etc), then say so. Ditto, if you’ve won any prize that has real merit. If you have a recommendation from ourselves or any other person or organisation likely to command respect, then you can say so too – but expect to be checked up on. But it’s really OK if you are Mr or Ms Unknown of Nowheresville. My own literary agent once had a totally unsolicited submission from an unknown Englishwoman living out in the Middle East. He liked her writing and took her on . . . and that author has gone on to write (and sell) a book or two – and win a small mountain of literary prizes to boot. ALL agents have stories like that, so you need have no anxieties about being unknown. It’s the manuscript that matters, not the person behind it. Need more help with your query letter? Probably – it’s really important to get things like that right. Well, funnily enough we have an entire video course on Getting Published, with a full length video on writing the perfect query letter . . . and writing the perfect synopsis . . . and absolute everything else mentioned in this blog post. If you wanna get your hands on the course, you can buy it (but it’s pricey), or become a member of Jericho Writers and get unrestricted access to it – and everything else – at no additional cost. Interested? Learn more, or sign up here. How Not To Write A Covering Letter Never write a covering letter which looks anything like the following. Dear Ms Redinclaw, Allow me to present my first novel, an epic tale of love and cannibalism set against the sweeping backdrop of the Hackney Road Cleansing Services department. My style combines the sassy, street-smart writing of Martin Amis with the philosophical scope and ambition of George Orwell. I’ve attached a five-page synopsis, blurb for the rear cover, a short three-page bio and photograph, and a sketch marketing plan for the North American areas. I have sent the book to several agents and expect to be ready to interview my shortlist in the last week of December. Yours in expectation, Mr Littlelamb When you’re ready, send out your letters (which don’t look like the above). How To Write A Synopsis For Literary Agents Most literary agents will ask you for a synopsis of your work. (More synopsis help.) Your synopsis: Should relate the story of your novel, from start to finish.Should be about 500 words long, and no longer than 800 words. (It’s true that some agents ask for bizarrely long synopses, but those guys are definitely in a dwindling minority.)Is not a book blurb. It’s not selling text, and it doesn’t cut off at a “would she solve the crime? or lose her life?” type of cliffhanger. It just relates the whole story, soup to nuts.Should be written in clear, good EnglishShould sketch in character’s emotions and emotional journeyBut here’s a time where you should definitely tell not show. (So you’d say, “Feeling hurt by the rejection, Briony  . . .” This is not a time when you’d say, “Tears of hurt and fury trembling on her lashes, Briony . . .”)Does NOT have to detail every plot twist of the story. You can’t do that. You don’t have room – and the agent doesn’t want all that here anyway. How do you do all that without going insane? You do it by building up, not paring down. Starting with the structure and building upwards from there. One really good tip to make sure you do this right is to make sure you don’t have your manuscript at your side or open on your laptop when you put together your synopsis. If you do that, you’ll start to worry how to incorporate that stunning plot twist in chapter 27, and how to convey Dorothy’s perplexity in Chapter 41. You’re going to tell me you’ve got really great training material on all this, aren’t you?Uh-huh. Like really great. material that will help you write a great synopsis in one hour flat.And that it’s free to members of Jericho Writers.Uh-huh.Ah, dammit. ** Goes to check out the sign up page ** Prepare For Agent Rejections – It Happens, A Lot It doesn’t matter how good your book is, it’ll be rejected. J.K. Rowling was rejected, too – it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad – so don’t take this too personally. Reasons Why Literary Agents May Reject Your Work They’re busy with clientsThey’re on maternity leave and haven’t updated their websiteThey’re not very efficient and have 2,000 unopened submissions. (Not a fictional idea that – we’ve come across worse in our time.)They’re just not that into your book, but thought it was basically fineThey have an author who is writing closely competing workThey have gone mad / fallen drunk / decided to follow the Buddhist pathThey really, really liked it. They just didn’t like it quite enough We recommend approaching about a dozen agents and splitting that into two waves of submissions. If you want to approach as many as fifteen, that too is fine. If you can’t impress about one in ten agents, your chances of impressing a publisher (harder to sway than agents) are proportionally small. If you have sent the book to Mr Jones at XYZ agency, then it is okay to send the book to Ms Smith at the same agency, and unless you’re very purist, don’t feel the need to mention your earlier rejection. (By the way, this tip was given to us by an agent. You don’t need to feel especially naughty doing it). In truth, there are plenty of agents out there, so you shouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding possible targets. Again, using AgentMatch, our proprietary search tool, should make all that a lot, lot easier. Review Your Progress If you’ve received fewer than ten rejections, keep going. If you’ve had twelve or more, review your book – where is it flagging? Remember that there are only two reasons why manuscripts fail: Your book isn’t there yet. This is overwhelmingly the most common reason.You’ve made a mess of approaching agents. If you handle your submissions process with proper professionalism – and the fact that you’ve read a monster post this far already is a very good sign! – then #2 above won’t apply to you. So then the question is, how near or far are you from success. The submissions process itself should give you some clue: You have had warm, personal and encouraging rejections. That’s great. That means you are in the zone. You just need to identify any remaining issues in your text, then nail them. If you are in this category, you would be nuts not to seek professional editorial feedback. We recommend our services, cos they’re the best!You have had at least one request for your full manuscript. Sort of like the above, except the slightly dilute version. Again, if I were in that camp, I’d certainly be seeking editorial help.You have had no full manuscript requests / no warm feedback / silence / standard issue rejection slips. All that means – nothing much. Your manuscript could be in the top 10-15% of all manuscripts submitted and come to that same end. You really could be a future bestseller, and have that outcome with your first round of submissions. (We’ve actually had numerous clients of whom something like that is basically true.) Remember I told you earlier that I rated persistence above talent? Yep. Well, this is the stage where you find out quite why that matters so much. You just keep on keeping on. You’re a writer. You’re made of steel. Get Out There: Go To Events And Meet Agents Finally, if you want to meet agents in person and get feedback from them directly, you can. Our Festival of Writing brings committed writers face-to-face with agents every year. You’ll get direct feedback on work and, just as useful, hear agents talk about the realities of their industry, what they’re looking for, any tips and advice they can give. (Joanna Cannon is one author who signed with her agent just after the Festival.) Keep up-to-speed with our events, hosted (chiefly) in London and Oxford. You’ll meet agents, editors, publishers – and it’s uplifting to realise the industry is warm, welcoming, open to new writers. Oh, and lengthy as this guide is, we know that some of you will still have questions. For that reason, we’ve put together our jumbo literary agent explainer – a kind of FAQ for all things agent. You’ll probably want to take a peep at our Getting Published guide as well. You can get that here. Hope that helps. Happy writing – we’re rooting for you.
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Show, Don’t Tell

What it Means, Why it Matters – and How to Add Drama to Your Novel “Show Don’t Tell” is one of the oldest pieces of advice to new writers, but it can be kinda confusing. What exactly is the difference between Showing and Telling? And is “Showing” always right? And is Telling always wrong? As we’ll see, “Show, Don’t Tell” is good advice in certain circumstances. Not just good advice, in fact, but absolutely essential to any half-decent novel. At the same time, virtually every novel ever written contains passages that are told, not shown . . . and that’s fine. You just have to understand which mode of writing to use where. These things get confusing when spoken about in the abstract, so we’ll use plenty of examples to show you exactly what’s what. Sounds good? Then let’s motor. What Is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’? ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique authors use to add drama to a novel. Rather than telling readers what’s happening, authors use this technique to show drama unfold on the page. ‘Telling’ is factual and avoids detail; while ‘showing,’ is detailed and places the human subject at the centre of the drama. Show, Don’t Tell: What This Actually Means ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov once advised. Here’s an example of what he means: Telling:The night was cold and moonlit. The sleigh moved fast through the forest.Showing:Ekaterina was shocked by the cold. She’d known winters before, but never this far north and never this deep. Burrowed under furs as she was, she still felt her eyelashes freeze. There were crystals of ice on her face where her own breath had frozen solid. It was a clear night, and they raced through the whispering pines, like a feather drawn over a sheet of silver. It seemed magical. Impossible. Temporary. Forbidden. What do you notice? You’ll instantly notice a number of things here. How To Recognise The “telling” Mode Any piece of prose written in the “telling” mode: Is factual.Is brief.Is an efficient way to communicate data.Prefers to avoid detail, and is happy to convey broad overarching messages. (“It was cold.”)Is not necessarily human-centred, and as a result . . .Does not, in general, stir the heart. How To Recognise The “showing” Mode Any piece of prose written in the “showing” mode: Is human-centred (usually, though sometimes only by implication).Is a slower, richer, more expansive way to communicate.Is not efficient – quite the reverse!Loves detailTends to place the human subject right at the centre of things, and as a consequence . .Can often stir the heart. An Example Of Showing Vs Telling From Literature You want an example of showing from literature? OK, try this: TellingThe parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the  garden and even the beach. [That’s my version of how a “telling” version might go.”ShowingIn his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. You want to guess which method Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby? I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t the first of those ways. An Extended Example Of Telling Vs Showing One more example – this one a little bit more extended. The example here comes from my own book, The Deepest Grave, which I’ve chosen just to make the point that these rules and disciplines apply to all of us. To Scott Fitzgerald. To me. To you. So, here’s one more example, as before given in in two possible versions. TellingBowen, Katie and FIona find a sheet of vellum in an old Welsh church.ShowingBowen lifts the 1953 fish-restaurant newspaper out of the wooden wall box.‘I suppose that can go.’He looks glumly at the mess behind the cupboard, knowing that it’ll be his job to clean it. Katie looks into the box, now missing its newspaper floor.Glances once, then looks more sharply.‘No, that’s not right,’ she says, and starts picking at the bottom with a fingernail.I already looked under the newspaper and saw just the pale, bleached colour of old pine – pine that has never seen the sun – but that was me being dumb. Me not knowing how to see.Katie picks at the bottom and it comes away.A sheet of paper, blank on the upper side, but with writing in clear purplish-black ink on the lower. Latin text. A hard-to-read medieval hand. I’ve given you quite an extended chunk of ‘showing’ here because quoting at length makes a few further points very clear. As well as everything we’ve said so far, Showing: Is dramatic – it’s story told as drama. You could actually imagine the long-form version of the scene above as something played out on a stage or in a movie. Literally every time that you could imagine a piece of writing as a stage or movie play, you are reading something that is shown not told.Often involves dialogue. It’s no coincidence. Movies involve actors saying their lines – and again, literally every time you encounter proper dialogue in a book, you are reading a scene that is shown, not told. In the example above, the characters immediately started talking about what they had found, thus emphasising the dramatic quality of the moment.Plays out in real time. Take a look one more time at those two passages just above. The first – basically “three people find vellum” – isn’t real time at all. There’s no sense of elapsed time there at all. It’s told like a news report on CNN or the BBC. In the extended passage – the one from my actual book – you could imagine a clock on the wall, counting out the seconds as the scene  elapsed. If you had to make a guess at how long it took from Bowen fishing out the newspaper to Katie finding the vellum, you could actually make a reasonable guess. These thoughts lead us to the next massive point you have to know about the whole showing / telling thing: Namely, why people get so obsessed by it. Show, Don’t Tell: Why It Matters People get obsessed with showing vs telling. Here’s the reason why. OK. Here’s a question for you: Why do readers read books? That’s a real question, and you should think about your answer. If you think about it, you’ll probably give me some answer like: Readers want to get involved in a story. They want to experience emotion through the lives and adventures of fictional characters. They want to get swept up in other people’s dramas. And yes. Exactly. And to immerse ourselves in the experiences of those characters, we need to feel them as the characters themselves feel them – which is real time, minute by minute. That’s the whole deal right there. If you want to get your readers emotionally engaged, you have to plunge them into the drama of the moment. It would be no good Jane Austen telling us that “D’Arcy proposed to Lizzy Bennet and Lizzy said no.” The whole reason we read Pride & Prejudice is to be with Lizzy as she experiences that first (awful) proposal. To feel her emotions and reactions almost second by second as she goes through that scene. Readers always experience the closest emotional contact with their character during scenes that are shown, rather than via facts that are simply reported. As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly like the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra for two reasons, the first of which is that Henry James phrased the whole thing better: “Dramatise! Dramatise! Dramatise!” That’s so easy and so clear. If you have a patch of writing that seems a little low energy – a little blank, a little dull – then just let those commandments echo in your head. Those dramatic scenes are all, always, shown not told. Those scenes are what keep your readers reading your novel. Your novel should be formed almost completely of such scenes. By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Ah, OK, I’ve got this. I see why this is so important. I gotta remember never to tell stuff, and always to show stuff.” And that’s what some people think. And what some writing tutors teach. And they’re all wrong. Stick with me, and I’ll tell you why. “Show, Don’t Tell”: Why This Rule Is Sometimes Just Plain Wrong So far in this post, we’ve looked at – and preferred – examples of writing that were shown rather than told. We’ve said that showing is more dramatic and more engaging. It’s the way we plunge our readers into the drama of our story. It’s our basic method for getting them to experience the emotions of our characters. And that’s all true. But right at the start of this post, I also said: Telling Is factual.Is brief.Is an efficient way to communicate data. And hold on – those things can be good as well as bad, right? So, sure, if we have some crucial scene – D’Arcy proposing to Lizzy Bennet, or my gang of Bowen, Katie and Fiona finding some vellum in a church – then you have to show that scene, not merely report the action. But let’s say, you have a line in your book that says: “Years passed and during that time Yulia hardly ever thought of the incident again. It was gone. It belonged in some past life,to some past self. She was busy now with other things. Only then, one bright, clear day in March . . .” That’s telling, right? It’s the narrator just reporting stuff, not showing it. And according to the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra, telling is bad. But It Isn’t! Telling is the wrong way to deliver dramatic scenes (which should, of course, compose the vast bulk of your novel), but it can be great way to deliver information that is essential to your story, but of no great dramatic consequence. So take that “years passed” passage above. How would you even go about showing all that? Would you really have Yulia waking up day after day, month after month, and year after year, NOT thinking about whatever that past incident was? Sure, that would be showing not telling . . . but you’d be crazy to do it that way. The truth here is pretty simple: If you have essential factual information to deliver, and that information has no dramatic interest in its own right, then just tell it. Don’t try to show it, because you’ll slow your book right down – and probably kill it. Showing is for drama (and your book should be mostly drama.) Telling is for the efficient delivery of all the non-dramatic information your book requires. The way I usually think about it is that my dramatic scenes are the stones in my wall, but for the wall to hold together, to be intact, it needs a little bit of mortar too. The mortar is the glue that holds all the good stuff together. Yes, there’s a lot more stone than mortar in the wall. Showing and telling: you always need both. How To Use “Show Don’t Tell” in Your Writing Seven steps to totally awesome greatness We’ve talked a lot about general principles, but it would be kinda nice to implement them, right? So here goes with the 7 Ninja Tips of Showing vs Telling Greatness. You are now officially just one short rocket-ride from success … 1. Use Dialogue Dialogue always delivers a scene that shimmers with life and emotional movement. (Especially when you write dialogue right, of course!) What’s especially great about dialogue is that it makes the reader decode the speaker’s true meaning in exactly the same way that we have to decode it in real life. So if a character says, “Yes, I’d absolutely love that,” they probably mean that they’d love it … but if it’s a macho guy being invited to get work experience in a make-up boutique, you would probably guess that he’s being sarcastic. That’s a pretty clumsy example, of course, but the gaps between what a character says and what they really mean can feel really alive to the reader. (And a lot of fun for the writer too.) 2. Punctuate Your Scene With Actions Some scenes will punctuate themselves with action very naturally. If you are writing a high intensity scene, such as a battle scene for example, your scene will be naturally studded with big, dramatic activity. But almost all books will have plenty of less action-intense scenes. So, for example, you might have a big corporate meeting in some glossy boardroom. The events being discussed might have huge consequences for your characters and your story … but there’s no onrush of dramatic activity. No cities being set on fire. No Vikings with swords. No car chases. No nothing. But you still have to include actions. If you don’t the scene will start to float away from the characters and seem unreal, without anchor. So what you need to do is insert actions anyway. You actually need to engineer something tp punctuate the scene. So yes, getting up, turning pages, pouring coffee, looking out at the view – all those things count and help — somewhat. But maybe the corporate mogul at the heart of the action could at some point get angry. Hurl a coffee cup at a wall. Start shredding a binder full of company documents. Those things wouldn’t count for much if you were writing an action-adventure book, but for the kind of scenes you’re talking about, they deliver exactly what you need. Short message: all scenes need actions, and those actions need to be suited to your place, your characters, and the kind of story you’re writing. Vikings with swords for one kind of book, thrown coffee cups for another. 3. Exploit Your Physical Setting Actions and dialogue help, because they help keep your characters alive on the page – and alive in the mind of the reader. For much the same reason, great descriptions of place help as well. They anchor everything that’s happening in the scene. That anchoring means that the stuff you’re describing feels like real things happening to real place in a real location. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that you need to write whole pages of purple prose talking about the wind in the palm trees, or whatever else. What I am saying is that you need a paragraph or so to locate the action relatively early in the scene … and then you need to keep nudging the reader to remind her where you are. So let’s say your scene is taking place in a rainy New York garden. You’d have two or three sentences setting the scene. (Let’s say: iron railings, rain, noise of police sirens, a sad-looking willow tree, smells and steam coming from the back of a Chinese laundry opposite.) Then you start to let your scene unfurl and, as the characters move and talk and act, you drop in little sentences like, “rain dripped from the willow.” or “She paused to let the howl of a nearby siren pass down the street.” You’re not interrupting the action. You’re just helping the reader actually visualise it. 4. Make Use Of Your Character’s Physicality In the example just given, I suggested that you might write “rain dripped from the willow.” And, good, that’s perfectly fine. But let’s bring your character right into that rainy garden, shall we? So you might have something like this: “Rain dripped from the willow. Her hair was getting soaked but he couldn’t help noticing that she seemed barely aware of it. And this was Esmee. Esmee who was normally so conscious of the tiniest bit of discomfort or, as she put it, ‘outdoor horribleness.’ That’s effective writing, because you have the physical location and the character interacting – and interacting to a specific emotional / story purpose. In this case, that purpose is to emphasise that Esmee is so taken aback by the events of the scene (whatever those are), she’s stopped noticing stuff that would normally really bother her. The short moral: use your characters’ body and physical sensations to make them physically present and alive in your scene. 5. Use Specific Words, Not Generic Ones Another easy win here. If you are trying to locate a scene in a place that feels real, you want to get specific rather than generic. So “rain dripped from the tree” feels blandly universal. “Rain dripped from the willow” feels already more specific and immediate. Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to get really specific. Something like this maybe: “rain dripped from the willow’s long, drooping tendrils. She noticed that the tree was balding, losing leaves, as though unhappy to be here. As though longing for escape.” I don’t want to suggest you always need to be that specific – sometimes it’s fine for a willow to just be a willow – but in this case, some specific comments about a tree rebound back to hint something about what the character’s might be feeling. Short moral: always prefer the specific to the generic. And sometimes, if it makes sense, you can get very specific. 6. Always Make Space For The Reaction Shot You know how in the movies, you’ll always get the reaction shot? LIke this, I mean: Beat 1: “I don’t want to marry you,” she said. “I never did.” Beat 2: Close up of the guy’s face And it’s kind of obvious why you have those rhythms. If you don’t have the reaction shot, you’ve lost a lot of the drama from the action of beat 1. You need both. And it’s the same with novels. Sometimes, you’ll need a whole paragraph describing a reaction. Sometimes you’ll leave it to dialogue. Sometimes you’ll make do with hints, but leave plenty of scope for creative ambiguity. And any of those routes (depending on the situation, depending on your story) are fine. What’s not fine is to leave the action without a reaction. Short moral: always include the reaction shot! Easy. 7. Don’t Be Rushed: Let Readers Feel The Beats FInal ninja tip of all-out showing & telling awesomeness: Don’t rush. Yes, you want to write a compelling and dramatic scene. Yes, you may have your heart set on a whole long action sequence with plenty of gunplay and chase scenes and whatever else. But let the reader enjoy it! Let them savour the moment! Don’t say, “the car was out of control. The car careened downhill and struck Damon on the hip, smashing him to the floor.” That’s OK, but where’s the time to savour anything? The lovely thing about this moment is that Damon notices the car is out of control and he’s right in the firing line. What does he think? What does he do? What does he feel? I don’t know, because this author hasn’t told us. It’s slower, yes, but it’s actually more exciting to tease out that moment in more detail: The car was clearly out of control. Damon could just about see a driver but there was something about the curve of his shoulders, the loll of his head, which suggested the driver had lost consciousness, or worse. The fall of the hill put Damon right in the firing line. He remembered thinking, “I’m going to be hit. I need to move aside.” He probably took the very first part of that action too. Some sideways move. Some break for shelter. But …” And so on. You can see that by slowing the action down you’ve actually ramped the excitement up. Pretty good, huh? And fun to write, every single damn time. That’s it from me. Have fun with the showing & telling. Do it right, and your scenes will come alive, and you’ll enjoy writing them too. Happy writing! About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here)  As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 
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How to write a plot outline for a novel (with examples)

Starting out simple and layering up Good novels start with decent plots. So start with a simple sketch outline, then make it progressively more detailed. We show you exactly how to do it.  The simplest way to write a terrible book is to start out having no idea what your story is, or where it’s going to lead. The easiest way to avoid that outcome is to prepare a simple outline of your plot before you even write the first sentence.  The downside of this approach: you actually have to do some thinking before you can start writing.  The upside: you won’t end up writing a terrible book. Which is a plus point, no?  7 Steps To Writing A Plot Outline For Your Novel: Understand the purpose of your outlineStart with a barebones outlineAdd a midpointHave a firm sense of purposeIntegrate your charactersComplete your outlineWork in circles Understand The Purpose Of Your Outline At its simplest, a plot outline can be defined as a very simple, barebones summary of your story. It could be as short as a single page outline. Or it might run to as many as ten or twenty pages.  Either way, it’s important to realise that you’re not telling the story, you’re summarising it. So if your outline feels flat and unengaging, that’s fine. Your story itself can’t be either of those things, but your outline just needs to be functional, clear – and brief. The outline is for you, and for you only. It’s not for a reader either now or in the future.  The approach we’re going to recommend in this post is to start really simple, then start to build as you get more insight into detail. Here goes.  Start With A Barebones Outline It’s commonly said that there are only seven plots in the world. We’re not totally sure about that, in fact, but it’s certainly true that pretty much every novel will adopt the same rough shape. That shape, at its simplest, is as follows: Status quo: This is the situation at the start of the book. So, for example, if we were dealing with a Lee Child / Jack Reacher novel, the status quo might be “Jack Reacher is travelling through rural Montana, wanting to heal after a particularly bruising recent adventure.” At this point, nothing has happened. The situation is stable.Inciting incident: The inciting incident is whatever happens to disturb that status quo. It could be an apparently small thing, or an obviously big one. So in Twilight, for example, the inciting incident is simply that Bella Swan’s attention is caught by an attractive – but odd – boy at school. In our Reacher story, it could be that an unseen sniper kills the bus driver dead and seems intent on killing everyone else on the bus too. Either way, the important issue is that the status quo has been disrupted. The reader already feels that a story has been set in motion.Developments: This is the big middle chunk of your book. This is the part that probably occupies you from (say) 15,000 words into your book right up to 10 or 15,000 words before the end. It’s the scariest part of your outline, whether you’re a new novelist, or a seasoned scriptwriter, or anything in between. We’ll talk more about this element of your plot later in the post, but for now just bear in mind that your character will encounter obstacles, victories and reversals – but the victories won’t be permanent and the reversals won’t be lethal. Everything is still in play … but the stakes will gradually rise.Climax: We said that the stakes gradually rise and, by the end of the book, the stakes feel like life and death. In a romance story, your protagonist will feel that she has to get this guy, because he is going to be her forever one. In a thriller, it’s not just that your protagonist’s life is in danger, it’s that some vast other risks are in play as well (a bomb in New York, a high school massacre, or whatever.) It’s not too much to say that the success of your book really stands and falls by how profound and engaging this climax moment feels.Resolution: Then your story needs to resolve. It could be a triumphant resolution: Jack Reacher wrestles the bad guy on the lip of a gigantic dam and ends up hurling him over the edge to his destruction. Or it could be a bitter failure: The guy your romantic protagonist really, really wanted rejects her, or dies, or otherwise becomes unavailable. Or you could have some bittersweet ending. So in The Fault In Our Stars, the two romantic protagonists are truly in love (yay!), but their sickness takes its inevitable and tragic course.  I strongly recommend that, for the first draft of your plot outline, you simply use those five headings. Quite likely, you have a pretty clear idea in your head of the first two of those stages, and a fairly clear idea of the last two as well. So just write down whatever you know under those headings. If you don’t have a clear idea, just leave a blank or a write question to yourself. (For example: “Jack Reacher has to find a way to escape the prison. But how?”)  Most likely, the area where you’ll struggle most is the Developments section – but don’t worry. Just write what you know. We’re about to move to the next stage. Before that though, let me offer one more heading, which is kind of optional … and kind of doesn’t fit into a post on plot outline … except that it really, really does as well. So especially if you are writing a book with an interesting or complicated character, I suggest you make notes on: Main character(s). A paragraph or two of notes on each of the main characters in your novel will help inform the work you do on plot – and vice versa. Your plotting insights will also enrich your main character. And because you want to think of character as fluid rather than static, you should also consider making some short notes on …Character arc or character development. You want to sketch – in broad, simple terms only – how your main character changes or develops through the course of the book. More help on that here. Got that? Good. OK: Onwards. Add A Midpoint We just said that the developments section is the one you’re going to struggle with the most – and that’s fine. That’s just part of the joy of writing. But we can make your job a bit easier.  The single hardest thing about that developments part of your book is that it feels very long and unstructured. So the simplest way to navigate it is to give yourself a solid anchor in the middle.  That anchor is typically a piece of major drama in a particular scene (read more about how to perfect that dramatic scene, here). Sometimes it’ll look as though the protagonist has ‘won’. Sometimes it’ll look like he/she has ‘lost’. But either way, because we’re not yet at the true climax of the book the defeat or victory will be a false or temporary one.  The actual type of drama involved will depend on your book. In a crime thriller (like the ones I write, for example) there will typically be an episode of action/adventure that also does something to change the complexion of the case being investigated. So I’ve had my protagonist get involved in hostage situations. I’ve had her be abducted. I’ve had her investigate a major unexplored cave system. And so on. They’re the sort of extended, memorable sequences that should echo long after the reader has finished the book.  A romantic story needs the same kind of major twists. So it could be that your happy couple go away on what should be the holiday of their dreams, only for things to go terribly wrong. Or an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend comes along to mess things up. Or something else.  If you can determine what your midpoint is, you’ll find your whole plot feels more manageable. Imagine your plot as a bridge. In the first ‘barebones’ version of your plot outline, we just had a major support at the Initiating Incident point and then again at the Climax/Resolution one. The rest of your plot was just a long stretch over the void.  By introducing a midpoint, you give yourself another major support element. So it’s like you only have to manage the span from the Initiating Incident to the Midpoint , then from the Midpoint to the Climax. By breaking that developments section into two, you’ll find it much, much easier to navigate.  Have A Firm Sense Of Purpose It probably goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway …  No plot will cohere or feel compelling unless your protagonist has a really clear sense of purpose. That purpose can morph a little through the book, but it can’t change its essential nature.  So a Jack Reacher novel, for example, might start with Reacher trying to protect the bus passengers from the sniper … but as the narrative evolves, he might end battling a plot to – I don’t know – swamp Great Falls in drugs, or plant a bomb under the state Capitol, or whatever it is. But there has to be a solid continuity in what drives him throughout the book. He can’t start off chasing bad guys in Montana, then zoom off somewhere else and start some totally different story.  The way to be sure that your outline is staying on track is to define, upfront, what your character’s motivation is. You may also want to state explicitly what his/her antagonist is and what the obstacles in the way of success are. (That approach works better for some books than others, so if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, you can just ignore it. What’s the antagonist in Twilight, for example? There isn’t really a great answer to that question.)  Integrate Your Characters So far, we’ve spoken of a plot outline as something almost mechanical – like a piece of clockwork you just have to wind up and set in motion.  But of course your plot is propelled by its characters and the best stories aren’t character-led or plot-led, but led equally and powerfully by both. You can read more about plotting here. To take an example, think of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The twisty, double-crossing plot needed a suspicious and experienced spy at its heart. And if that sounds cold, then the spy, Alec Leamas, also had a desperate desire to find love, to be able to trust again after his years of secret service. That character – cynical, but with that hopeless dab of longing – turned an efficient spy story into a twentieth century masterpiece.  The best way to bring your characters and plot into perfect synchrony is to develop them both together. So you probably want to work on your character worksheets (more here) at the same time as you’re developing your story outline.  So you might fill out your developments section with a new idea you had for a scene there. That might trigger an insight into your character, so you’d go and add something to your character worksheet. Then back again.  You’ll find you don’t even need to work too hard on the integration. If you develop your story and your characters alongside each other, each element will bleed into and influence the next. The process will happen automatically and in a beautifully seamless way.  Complete Your Outline How far you take your outline is very much up to you. Some writers like to plan very intensively. Some like to use the Snowflake method. I know writers who will write a detailed 30 page synopsis of their novel before they proceed. I know others (like me!) who do the absolute bare minimum. Who just trust their instincts to be able to create on the run, if you like.  So I’m not going to tell you how far you need to take your outline. What I will say is that if you want a detailed plot outline template to follow, then you may well want to use Blake Snyder’s famous beat sheet from his ‘Save the Cat’ book. That book was written for screenwriters and doesn’t have universal applicability to novelists, but a lot of people find it helpful all the same. So if you are Mr or Ms Detailed and you want a roadmap, then here it is:  Opening image. This is like a touchstone for where your protagonist is at the very opening of the book. Theme stated. All decent books (or films) should have some underlying theme or debate. You want some statement of that theme – possibly playful; you don’t have to be too heavy – in the opening couple of chapters of the book. Set-up. This corresponds roughly to our Status Quo section Catalyst. This corresponds roughly to our Initiating Incident section. Debate. Is the hero going to rise to the challenge posed by the Initiating Incident? Quite often there’s a refusal or reluctance, before something tips the hero into changing their mind. Break into two. That’s the moment that launches the story from the opening set-up into the excitement of the Developments section. It’s where your character decides to accept the adventure being offered and launches off into the guts of your story itself. B story. A really good tip this. Very often, there’ll be some secondary story to accompany your main one. So if you are writing a broadly action-themed novel, the secondary story might be a romantic one. Introducing that that secondary tale right after the opening section is done and dusted feels just about right in terms of timing. Fun and Games. This is Snyder-speak for the opening round of action, where your premise really starts to make itself felt. So if you were writing (let’s say) an ‘action’ film set in an old folks home, this is where you’d really start to have fun with the premise. Yes, things are at stake here, but this is still the lower stakes portion of the book. Things seem to matter, but they’re not that consequential compared with what follows. Midpoint. As discussed above. The quivering dagger at the dead centre of your book. Bad guys close in. After the midpoint, things feel more consequential. Yes, your character may notch up some ‘wins’, but the mood, broadly, will be one of increasing seriousness as you move towards the climax of your story. All is Lost. It looks like everything is lost. Bond is captured and the villain is going to detonate his bomb. Or Lizzy’s Bennett’s silly sister has gone and destroyed her hopes of happiness with Darcy. Dark Night of the Soul. This is the interior / emotional counterpart of the ‘all is lost’ moment. It’s how the character reflects to themselves after the disaster that’s just happened. Break into three. This is the moment where the character bursts out of their despair. Where they come up with one last desperate stratagem, or some last effort of will. Finale. This is the climax and resolution elements we’ve already spoken of. Closing image. This is the image that shows where we are now – and is often a mirror image, in some way, of where we were.  As I say, there’ll be elements of that template that may seem very helpful, and others that may not especially speak to you. So grab what you want. Discard what you don’t.  And when you come to thinking about adding in more details, read this article on chapter lengths – it’s really helpful! Work In Circles In most things we do, we want to work in a logical, disciplined way. Start at the beginning. Follow a plan. Complete the task. Done.  Outlining a novel is not like that. It’s the opposite.  I’ve already mentioned that you’ll probably be developing plot as you develop character. So you’ll dive from one thing to another and back again.  Good. That’s not indiscipline at work. That’s creativity.  But also –   You’ll make mistakes. You’ll screw up. You’ll have ideas, you’ll write them down – then you’ll figure out they’re bad and you’ll delete them again.  Good. That’s not incompetence at work, it’s creativity.  A cyclical, repetitive, trial-and-error type process is exactly what you’re after. That also means you’re not going to be able to sit down and develop a decent plot in a weekend. That’s not how it works (or almost never anyway.)  So give yourself time. Forgive yourself errors. And have fun.  Happy plotting. Happy outlining. And happy writing …  About the author: Harry Bingham has been a pro author for twenty years and more. He’s been trad published and self-published, and hit bestseller lists via both routes. He’s also had his work adapted for the screen, has had a ton of critical acclaim, and been published all over the world. (You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here.) Most Popular In Writing How to write a bookHow to get ideas for a bookHow many words in a bookHow to plot a novelOutlining a novel, Snowflake MethodHow to write great proseHow to write great charactersTypes of editingFirst draft revision checklistSense of placeWriting dialogueShow don’t tell Most Popular In Agents / Publishing How to get publishedHow to get a literary agentHow to write a query letterHow to write a synopsisHow to write a book proposalAuthor platformManuscript presentationYour elevator pitchUK literary agents listUS literary agents list
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The Art of Prose Style: 9 Tips for Writing Perfect Prose

9 Prose Writing Tips For Perfect Prose Style How to write prose – the best way When you send your work off to an agent, the agent’s first look will be fast, smart and brutal. They’ll ask, “Do I even like the concept for this book?” And they’ll ask, “Can this person write? Does this feel like the prose style of a serious, professional author?” If the answer to either of those questions is in the negative, you’re on the path to rejection, no matter how hard you’ve worked on all the rest of your manuscript. Well, we’re not going to address the issue of ideas in this post (though you could check out our comments on elevator pitch, if you’re worried, or see what we have to say about checking and developing your ideas.) We’re going to deal with the second of the things that an agent (or their assistant) has uppermost in their mind when they consider the first page or two of your submission. Quite simply, they’re thinking: Can this person write? Agents see hundreds of manuscripts and you’ll need yours to say, from that very first page and paragraph, “Yes. You are in the hands of a confident, capable writer. You will not be wasting your time in getting to grips with what follows.” What are you aiming for? You are aiming for prose that is: cleareconomicalprecise If you can check those three boxes, you’re doing fine. John Grisham isn’t some kind of prose writing superstar. Nor is Suzanne Collins. Nor is JK Rowling. Nor is Stephen King. Their genius all lies elsewhere. 9 Ways To Perfect Your Prose Style: Avoid clichésBe accurateKeep it shortTrust your readerCull your adjectivesMix your rhythmsDitch the modifiers, let the verbs do the workUse unexpected words to shock readers into understandingAsk for help. So if you can write clear, economical and precise prose – and it isn’t hard to do – you’re basically forcing the agent to read on. To judge your novel on its merits. To give your story a chance. Here’s what you need to do. Not sure what prose writing is? It’s basically the opposite of poetry. Any novel is written in prose. So is the text in any newspaper. So is the letter you write to your bank or your doctor or your secret lover. When novelists talk about prose style, they really just mean the way you write. Does your writing sound good or bad? Does it do the job you want it to do? Or does the way you express things always let you down? Wikipedia has more on what prose is, if you want to know that. Kill Clichés Cliché is the enemy of every author. And you recognise it when you see it, right? We’re talking about things like this: His eyes were blue enough to swim in.She felt a sharp pain, as though cut by a knife.The breeze whispered softly through gently waving trees. It’s like watching a movie we’ve all seen before. It’s language that’s stale, old, past its sell-by date. But cliche creeps in all over the place. The flame-haired passionate redhead? She’s an old, overused stereotype. The midnight hostage exchange in a deserted warehouse? Seen it, read it. The rose-covered cottage with a smiling old lady and lots of home-made cakes. Yep, nothing new there. The simple fact is that wherever you grab for pre-made stereotypes – scenes, people and settings that we’ve seen a million times before – you bore your reader that tiny bit. You distance them from the text, when what you want is to hug them close. So, look for cliches everywhere. Then kill them. Need more help? We have a brilliant video tutorial on Cliches – it’s part of our How To Write course and is available free to members of Jericho Writers. If you’re serious about writing, you probably want to consider joining us. You get tons of free learning materials, live online classes, an active and supportive community, and so much more besides. Learn more or join us. Be Accurate Let’s start with an example. Consider this sentence: She lay in the early morning light listening to the roar of traffic softly rising like mist in the streets. What do you think of that? Good? Bad? Half and half? I hope you said that it’s an awful sentence, because it is. If I were an agent and I encountered this sentence on page 1 of a submission, I would read no further. Why? Because the writer isn’t in control of their language and that proves to me that they aren’t yet ready to go pro. So let’s see what’s wrong. “She lay in the early morning light” – that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. “listening to the roar of traffic” – yep, OK. (Although why is there a roar of traffic in the early morning? Unless there’s a very specific setting which answers that question, I worry that we’re not really dealing with early morning here, in which case why say so?) “softly rising like mist in the streets” – OK, that’s where this sentence collapses completely. If traffic roars, it can’t softly rise. You could have a murmur of traffic doing something softly. Or a roar of traffic doing something loudly or violently. But roar + soft just doesn’t work. The two ideas are fighting each other. And that’s not all of it. Mist doesn’t rise, it just hangs. It’s a stationary image, not a moving one. So that’s another fail. And why say ‘In the streets‘? Obviously cars are in streets (so why bother to remind us?) And if you want to talk about a slow-rising mist, then isn’t that more naturally a rural metaphor? In which case the word streets again introduces an awkwardness. In short, the writer of that sentence failed the Accuracy test, because they weren’t sure enough what they wanted to say and ended up just serving up a mess. Oh, and if you think I’m being picky here, then I admit it: YES! I’m picky. So should you be. Prose style matters – and it’s good that it matters! Books are made out of sentences and sentences are made out of words. If you re not very picky indeed about your word choices and sentence constructions, you will never be (or deserve to be) a real professional author. So be picky. It’s the first ingredient of success. Keep It Short When you write, treat your manuscript as though you had to pay 10p a word for the privilege of writing. Look at this paragraph, for example: He walked slowly away, trying not to make any kind of sound. His feelings were in a turmoil, roiling and boiling, a tumult of emotion. He couldn’t help reiterating to himself again and again that he had done the right thing; that he had done everything he could. He insisted to himself that she, too, would surely see this one day. Ugh. Let’s try that again. Here’s the same example, tightened up. He crept away, his feelings in turmoil. He had done the right thing, he told himself. One day, she would see this, too. Almost a third of the length. And everything about it is better. It doesn’t just say it faster, it says it better. In the first version, all that verbiage just got in the way. And again: you just can’t be too picky here. Let’s say you had a sentence in your book that was 12 words long, when it could say the same thing in just 9-10 words. Would you make the change? Or would you just think, nah, who cares? I certainly hope that you said you’d make the change, because look at it like this. What if you write a 120,000 word book that could be reduced to 90 or 100,000 words without losing any material content? That book would be 20-30,000 words overweight . . . and would be way too baggy for any top-end literary agent to get involved with. But you will only cut that 20-30,000 word surplus by finding the 2-3 unnecessary words in that 12 word sentence and cutting them out. That’s what that part of the editing process is all about. There are no shortcuts. In short: good writers work at their writing. Getting your prose style right is all about acute attention to detail. If a bad sentence bothers you, you just need to keep going until you get it right. You have to care about your sentences –because your entire novel is made of them! If you’re not open to cutting your work in service of your novel, making it the best you can, we’re in trouble. Trust Your Reader Another amateurish trait is that of not trusting the reader. We get many clients who write something rather like the following: He rolled in agony. Fire shot through every limb. He felt like screaming out in pain. His entire face was distorted with the grotesque effort of not shouting out. That uses many very forceful words (agony, fire, screaming, distorted, grotesque). You don’t need that many words to do the job. It’s as though the writer of this snippet doesn’t trust the reader to get the point, so he/she keeps making the same point again and again like some classic pub bore. Readers will ‘get it’, as long as you write in clear, forceful, non-repetitive language. Here’s another example. What do you think of the following little dialogue / micro-scene? “Yes?” I nudged.“Yes, only . . .” she hesitated, then stopped completely. Waved her hands at me to signal she was done, or that I should look away. Some gesture like that.“So, yes, we should invite him?”“Of course. Fine. Whatever you want. It’s not like I care.” We don’t know what’s going on here of course – presumably, if we read this in a book, we’d have more background to make sense of it all. But it’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that the woman here has some set of quite strong, deep emotions about the guy they might or might not invite to something – and she’s not that keen to talk about what she feels.# And you got all that, without the writer having to spell anything out at all. The writer just dropped stuff on the page and let you figure it out. So now take a look at this way of doing things: “Yes?” I nudged her, anxious to know what she would think.“Yes, only . . .” she hesitated, then stopped completely. She waved her hands at me to signal something. I guess she was quite conflicted about me inviting him. Maybe she was a little bit angry, plus a little embarrassed. Her body language was more than consistent with these two emotions, so I decided that I should try to clarify the situation in order to identify her opinions more precisely.“So, yes, we should invite him?” I said, hoping that this time I would get a more detailed answer.“Of course. Fine. Whatever you want. It’s not like I care.”But although she said she didn’t care, it was evident to me that she did. As a matter of fact, when she spoke the words “whatever you want”, it struck me that maybe she was being passive-aggressive, that although she said “whatever you want”, maybe what she actually means was, “No, I’d prefer not to see him.” That’s terrible, right? And it’s terrible, partly, because this version of the dialogue massively breaks the “keep it tight” rule. But it’s also terrible because it just lectures the reader in this horrible heavy-handed way on stuff that the reader can perfectly well figure out for themselves. It’s even worse than that, actually, because in the first example, all the nuances of the situation were left open to the reader to figure out. In the second example, all that clunky explanation just crushes the nuances underfoot. The moral of this story? Trust your reader. They’re smart like that. (And get more dialogue help, if you want it.) Cull Those Adjectives To stick with this theme, and especially when it comes to descriptive writing, double adjectives are almost always a no-no. The second adjective almost always weakens the first. You want an example? OK, so take a look at this: He leaned over the black iron railings, the coarse grey cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp, treacherous spike. Deleting any superfluous adjective improves this description straightaway: He leaned over the iron railings, the coarse cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp spike. That’s better, right? But I hope you notice that we can go one step better again. Every sentence needs nouns and verbs, while adjectives are definitely optional. And in many cases, a sentence just doesn’t need any adjectives at all. So in fact, the best way to write that sentence would be simply: As he leaned over the railings, his sleeve caught on the spike. Good writers use adjectives sparingly. And if you;re in doubt, just write the sentence without the adjectives and see if it works better. If it’s actually missing something then reinsert the adjective. Your prose will instantly tighten and feel more alive, more taut. Want more help on descriptive writing? Then get it here and here. Mix Your Rhythms Short sentences are strong. So use them. But too many? All short sentences? They’ll irritate the reader. You’ll annoy them. A lot. Aren’t you annoyed already? I bet you are. Equally, if you work with only longer sentences, you risk losing the reader, who’ll miss that bit of grit, of sharpness, that shorter sentences bring. The same thing applies across the board. Description is great, but too much of it? Every small thing described? You’ll lose the reader.Abstract nouns are great – but big blocks of them? You’ll lose the reader.Emotional language is great. It’s a big part of why we read. But constant examination of every small emotion? Yep, you know what I’m going to say: you’ll lose the reader. The secret, always, is variety – and flexing your language according to the mood and moment of your story. So if your hero gets brutally dumped by his long time partner? Then look in detail at his emotions! But if you’re in the middle of a tense action scene? Now’s probably not the time for all that. Of course, it sounds obvious if you put it like that, but it’s not always so obvious as you write your text. One great trick, used by plenty of pro authors,is to read your work aloud. If it starts to grate with you, or if the rhythms seem awkward to say, then stop and rewrite! It’ll be worth your time, guaranteed! Work Those Nouns, Work Those Verbs! Look at these examples, and figure out what’s wrong with them: he said loudly, raising his voice so she could hear it across the field.she jumped high in the airhe said as quietly as he could In most cases, of course, you’ll do better to simply cut out the adverbs (the things that describe the action – like loudly, high, and quietly). English is rich in vocabulary so in most cases, there are neater ways to say what you’re after. For example: He called to her (adding, across the field if you want)She leapedHe whispered I’m not saying those replacements are always better – you have to use your judgement given the particular place you are in your story. But as a rule of thumb? Ditch the modifiers and let the verbs do the work. There’s a similar trick to see whether your nouns (words for objects) are working hard enough for you. Compare these two examples: He passed her some food, on an old white plateHe gave her lamb tagine. Big scoops of it, mounded on a plate of old porcelain, with a faded floral rim. The first sentence is very bland, partly because all of the components words are very bland. If you listed all the commonest words in the English language, them pass, food, old, white, and plate would surely be amongst their number. The second sentence has some much less common words, lamb, tagine, scoops, mounded, porcelain, faded, floral, rim. Because those words are less common, they feel tangier to the reader. They burn brighter in the reader’s imagination. Again, I’m not saying you can use this trick all the time – your judgement has to come first; sometimes simple is good – but it’s worth bearing in mind. If you read over your prose and find it a little bland or lacking in energy, then giving (especially) your nouns and verbs a big more zing will make a huge difference. Do you find this helpful? We have some brilliant video tutorials on prose writing – they’re part of our How To Write course and the whole thing available free to members of Jericho Writers. If you’re serious about writing, you probably want to consider joining us. You get tons of free learning materials, live online classes, an active and supportive community, and so much more besides. Learn more or join us. We’d love it if you did! Add Some Little Flashes Of Genius You’ll occasionally find a phrase that perfectly captures something: an unexpected word use that shocks a reader into understanding. Here are some dazzling examples of what we mean: “A quick succession of busy nothings.”“One moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”“I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.” These are snippets from writers of genius – Jane Austen, Graham Greene, and Vladimir Nabokov. Never try forcing this on your every paragraph or page (they didn’t). Only a scatter of diamonds here and there has effect, so go for it, if you can. And if that seems a bit daunting to begin with, then start small. The main trick in writing well is simple:You just have to care enough. We mean that pretty literally. Let’s say, there’s something you want to convey. Something, let’s say, about those moments of transition in childhood, when new possibilities suddenly open up. You’re talking about a semi-magical moment, so it would be great if you could find a description that had a little magic to it. But how to do it? The answer is, you write something and see how you feel about it. Maybe this, for example: It was one of those moments in childhood, that suddenly seemed rich in possibility. That’s OK, right, but not exactly magical. So just let your imagination find what you are trying to say? What is it that for you conveys that idea of ‘rich in possibility’? As soon as you ask that question, you might start finding some answers. For example: It was one of those moments in childhood, where the future suddenly bloomed, like a field full of poppies.A moment in childhood, where a window swung open, letting in the sunshine, letting in the future. Or of course, you might end up with something like Greene’s own version: “One moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Bear in mind, he probably didn’t write that sentence cleanly at the first time of asking. He probably wrote something, felt it wasn’t quite right, then fiddled with the sentence until he was happy. That’s how writers write. Dissatisfaction + more work = the route to better writing! Get Help I hope you know by now that Jericho Writers is a club for writers just like you. We have a ton of helpful advice to offer. There are free courses. Free films. Free webinars where you can ask agents and authors real questions about your work. There’s a community full of writers like you exchanging questions and comments on each other’s work. And once you take out your (low cost, cancel-any-time) membership, everything within the club is absolutely free to members. It’s like you get access to the world’s best resource bank for writers, and pay just a fraction of what it would cost to buy those things outright. Does that sound good? We really hope so. We built the club for writers like you, and we’ve already helped 100s of writers to achieve their dreams of publication. You can find out more about us here – and we really look forward to welcoming you on board! About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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Manuscript Presentation, Novel Manuscript Format (with Examples)

The art and craft of beautiful manuscript presentation Manuscript presentation makes a big difference to the way literary agents receive your work. Yes, sure, agents are looking for wonderful writing above all, so in that sense the way you format your manuscript is secondary . . . but getting an agent is hard, so you may as well make sure that first impression is a good one. And of course remember this: literary agents aren’t mostly looking to accept a manuscript. They’re looking for early warning signs that say this author hasn’t taken enough care to be worth reading further. So lousy presentation can screw up your chances of success before your book has really given itself a chance. Sounds scary? It doesn’t need to be. Follow the tips below and you’ll be fine. Format Your Manuscript Professionally: Use double or 1.5 line spacingUse a standard fontUse font size 12Use standard marginsChapter breaks should be marked by page breaksInsert page numbersIndent paragraphsDon’t overuse the ellipsis… Or, exclamation marks!Title pages should also include your name, contact info, and wordcount What Is A Manuscript? Definition of manuscript There’s a difference between a manuscript and a book, and it’s much the same as the difference between a writer and an author. A writer is anyone at all who writes. An author is a writer whose work has been published The same thing is basically true of manuscripts / books, so a reasonable definition of the word ‘manuscript’ would be: A manuscript is the text of your novel (or work of nonfiction),before that text has been turned into the finished book. In the old days, when the industry still worked with paper, the manuscript was literally the stuff you printed off on your home printer. When I sent my first manuscript out to literary agents, the damn thing ran to more than 180,000 words and it was enormous. Over 600 pages of printed paper, as I recall. These days, your manuscript may well never be printed off at all, anywhere Quite likely, you will work away at your manuscript on a laptop. You’ll send it to an agent by email. Any editorial work will be conducted by email and an e-copy of your manuscript. When the thing is ready to go out to publishers, it’ll go as a computer file, only. It’s referred to as a manuscript though: it’ll only become an actual book once it’s been typeset and bound (and becomes an actual hard copy, dead-tree book), or once it’s been formatted and packaged up as an ebook. (As a matter of fact, I think some of the kudos that still attaches to trad publishing as opposed to self-publishing has to do with the way it marks out that transition.) Manuscript Basics So your manuscript is basically just a computer file that lives (for now) on your home computer only, but may in time come to sit on the e-reader of your literary agent and (you hope) a whole bunch of editors too. While the manuscript remains on your laptop and nowhere else, then you can format it just as you please. There are no rules at all. No one will see. No one will care. I know one (really good) literary author who has poor eyesight and weirdly bad spelling. So he types in a huge font size – Arial, size 16, often all bold – and just ignores the spelling errors. If he sent out his work out like that, it would make a terrible first impression on anyone reading it. But he doesn’t. That’s just the way he works.. So manuscript formatting rules only apply when you’re ready to go out to agents . . . and even then, you need to realise that there are no rules, exactly. There’s no standard manuscript format. No required novel template that you have to follow, or else . . . So the only real rule of manuscript presentation is a simple, ordinary one: Your manuscript should look like a clean, professional document. If you obey that one single rule, you’ll be just fine. That said, there’s a follow-up quasi-rule, which can be expressed as: You probably want to set out your manuscript in a way that is most helpful to a literary agent. Those guys read a lot of new manuscript submissions, so if you make their life harder, you are – even if just in a small way – acting against your own best interests. Ways you can make an agent’s life easier include: Helpful choice of filenamesMaybe the file on your computer is called novel.doc, because you hadn’t settled on a title when you started to write. That’s fine – plenty of my novels have started out that way too. But remember that an agent may be looking at your submission alongside 50 others. So don’t call your documents novel.doc / synopsis.doc / query.doc – you’ll confuse the agent almost instantly. Best practice would be to name your file something like The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald, first three chapters.doc. [Except I think that title might already have been taken . . .]Clean, clear title pageI’l give more detail on that in a secondNo unnecessary additional textYour manuscript is just a working document, that has – prior to publication or the offer of a book deal – no special status in life. So don’t write dedications in here. Or Author’s Notes. Or long acknowledgements. If there”s a really compelling reason why you need to do these things, then OK. But in most cases, all that stuff can wait.Easy readability for the main text itselfMore on that shortly as well! Oh yes, and I should probably also say that in the screenwriting trade, there are fierce and important rules about formatting. They matter because of an equation like this: length of screenplay = run time = production costs. That equation does not apply to you novelists or non-fictioneers, and the result is that publishing industry requirements about format are much looser. And quite right too! Manuscript Title Page Format Applies both to novels and non-fiction books. Your title page should contain: The book’s title in a large fontA subtitle, if the book has one. Most novels won’t.A quick genre specifier, if you want it. “A crime thriller”, for example. I’ve added “A novel” to the page below, only because this page was prepared for the American market where “a novel” is quite often used as a kind of subtitle.Your nameThe book’s rough word count, rounded to the nearest 1,000 or 5,000 wordsYour contact info (Email, phone, address) in the bottom right hand corner, or otherwise somewhat secondary It doesn’t need anything else. It doesn’t need and shouldn’t have a copyright notice. (See an example of the title page for one of my novels.) Oh, and NO ARTWORK. Unless you are a professional illustrator, say, you just want to keep the front cover bare of anything except text. Remember that the publisher, not you, will decide what the final book looks like, so sticking your own imagery on the book will, in most cases, look a awkwardly amateurish. Epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgements and all that kind of stuff can be left for when your book makes it into print. At this stage, you really don’t need that kind of thing. If you really must put in an epigraph, you can certainly do so on the second page or (probably italicised) on the cover itself. Your cover page would ideally not have any page number on it but, as you can see from the image, I didn’t bother eliminating the number from my title page. It’s no big deal. Manuscript Text Formatting Guidelines Follow this broad template, and you’ll have a happy literary agent . . . The following guidelines will mean that you deliver the kind of manuscript that any literary agent will instantly consider professional and easy to navigate. If you want to deviate from any of these exact strictures, you probably can. The golden rule is to deliver something that looks like any normal, professional document AND one that is laid out like a book, not a business letter. (ie: indented paragraphs not line breaks in between.) And even that rule about indenting the paragraphs is often not followed by first time writers. But are literary agents going to turn down great work just because they don’t love the paragraph formatting? Of course not. So don’t worry too much. OK, enough preamble. For a nice looking manuscript, you want to present it in something like the following way: Use double or 1.5 line spacing.Use a nice ordinary font. (Times New Roman, Garamond, or Georgia are all good choices. Arial is quite common, but maybe better avoided as sans serif text is just harder to read at length.)Use a font size no smaller than 12, and no larger than 14.Use standard margins. Your existing defaults are probably fine, but check.Chapter breaks should be marked by page breaks, so each new chapter starts on a clean sheet.You can mark each new chapter with a number, if you care to. Or anything at all, really, just so long as it’s clear what’s going on. (If you’re worried about how long your chapters are, then read this and put your mind at ease).Don’t forget to insert page numbers (though, truth be told, all that matters less now that everything happens in e-form. It’s still a nice touch.)Indent paragraphs (using the tab key or the paragraph formatting menu – don’t rely on the space bar). Do not leave a double space between paragraphs except as a section break.Oh, and don’t overuse the ellipsis (“…”) or the exclamation mark. Professional authors use those things very sparingly. This page shows my own choices: a nice looking chapter header (but mine is a lot fancier than you need.) Modest paragraph indentation, I like 0.3″. A personal, but not wacky font. (I usually use Garamond, though I’m not quite sure what I used in this example!) Line spacing that’s clear, but not too spacy. (I use generally use 1.5 line spacing, though you can go as low as 1.25 if you really want.) Plus a nice neat page number, of course. It would be good practice to include your name and the title of the book in a header or footer, though I haven’t done so in this image. Oh, and did you notice that the very first paragraph in that page was not indented? That’s technically correct and looks quite classy . . . but don’t worry if you haven’t done it. At that level, no one will care. (And that’s one big thing to remember about manuscript presentation. You need your work to look clean, professional and literate. If you check those boxes, then you’re fine. Really, truly, nothing else matters – except the quality of your actual book, which needs to be amazing.) Manuscript Format: Dialogue Presentation This isn’t a full guide to dialogue format, so do check more complete sources if you need, but for a quick refresher: Dialogue counts as new paragraphs, so it should be indented.When speech by one character is interrupted by a descriptive line, and then the speech continues, this all counts as one paragraph. Begin the next paragraph with the next speaker.Use single quotation marks for dialogue. When dialogue is followed by ‘said X’ or ‘chortled Y’ you should not capitalise either the s of said or the c of chortled. This is true even if the dialogue ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark.If the speaker quotes someone else within dialogue, you show that inner quotation with double inverted commas. Like this, for example: ‘No,’ said Hugh patiently. ‘What Sophie actually said was, “Go to hell, you bloody idiot!” Words to that effect anyway.’For more help on writing dialogue in the first place, then nip over here. Again, though, that rule about quotations within dialogue is hardly ever going to matter . . . and no one at all will care if you get it wrong. It’s your novel or non-fiction which matters! Dialogue Format: An Example    ‘This manuscript is nicely presented,’ said the agent.   ‘Indeed it is,’ said the publisher. She paused briefly, to strike off a few zeros from an author’s royalty statement. ‘It is well presented. And intelligent. And beautifully written.’   ‘But Oprah won’t like it.’   ‘No, indeed. Nor the Chief Buyer at Walmart.’   ‘So we’ll reject it!’ they chorused, laughing wildly.   Their limousine swept on through the rainy streets, leaving a faint aroma of cigar smoke and Chanel no. 5 lingering on the mild springtime air. Use the example above for guidance – or, if in doubt, open any paperback book. The way it’s laid out is the way yours should be. Manuscript Presentation: Punctuation Basics Your presented manuscript needs flawless punctuation. A few last tips. There is one general rule for punctuation. It is there to help avoid ambiguity.Commas are tricky, but often missed out before names. Get into the habit of putting them in and you will avoid absurdities like ones noted by Lynn Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.Hyphens are an endangered species, and only the writer can save it. Again, it is vital to avoid ambiguities and absurdities – for instance, the white toothed whale. Is it the whale or the teeth that are white?It is a good rule to avoid lists of adjectives but, when you have them, check to see if any should be hyphenated. You can have a dining room, but a table there becomes a dining-room table.Semi-colons are also endangered, yet can bring a deal of subtlety to a writer’s style. A semi-colon links two related sentences; the second often elaborates or adds context to the first. A semi-colon is stronger than a comma, not as strong as a full-stop.Colons are used where one sentence introduces another. The rule is simple: use the colon when one sentence introduces the next. The three mistakes that our editorial team sees most commonly are these: Not enough use of commas.Commas are like a tiny pause within a sentence and they can divide sentences into little blocks of meaning. They can make (especially) long sentences much easier to parse and comprehend. And commas are free. Use them!Use of commas instead of fullstops / periods.Yes, we like commas, but commas aren’t there to divide one sentence from another, if you use commas where you mean to use fullstops (periods), you will end up with sentences that never seem to end, writing of this sort will drive your editor mad, punctuation-related homicides are rising sharply as a result. (*)Misuse of apostrophesThe mistake which will have most agents screaming has to do with apostrophes. These are simple, so get them right. (‘It’s’ means ‘it is’, It’s raining, for example. ‘Its’ means the thing belonging to it, The mouse gnawed its cheese, for example – and ‘its’ is correct. No apostrophes are added to other possessive pronouns like his or hers, either.) If you’re unsure, look these things up. * – Oh and if you wanted to know how that sentence ought to look, it’s like this: Yes, we like commas, but commas aren’t there to divide one sentence from another. If you use commas where you mean to use fullstops (periods), you will end up with sentences that never seem to end. Writing of this sort will drive your editor mad. Punctuation-related homicides are rising sharply as a result. If you wanted a semi-colon instead of a period after “mad”, that would be very elegant and your editor would probably want to give you a kiss. Instead of shooting you. Which has gotta be a win, right? Get Help Writing a book is hard. Getting an agent is hard. Getting published – well, that’s still harder. And getting well published? Actually making a career out of this thing? That’s never been even remotely easy, and (if you’re talking about traditional publication) may be harder than it’s been for decades. So get help. Don’t start spending crazy money, but get help. Did you know, for example, that we at Jericho Writers have an entire video course on Getting Published that covers everything you need to know, soup to nuts, nothing left out? That’s ten hours of tuition from a presenter whose books have sold worldwide, hit bestseller lists and been adapted for the screen . . . and issued by Jericho Writers, a company that has helped hundreds of authors like you right through to publication. Now, OK, that course isn’t cheap (take a look – yikes!), but we make that course available to members of our club completely free. And they get full access to our How To Write course. And our filmed masterclasses. And our amazing Jericho Cinema. And AgentMatch, the world’s premier literary agent search tool. And so much more besides. So check us out. Learn more about who we are and what you can gain – or just say, the heck with it, I want to join. We look forward to welcoming you! About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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Vanity Publishing & Austin Macauley

A short journey to the sewer We’re always on the side of the book. We’re always on the side of the writer. With books, we want them to be as good as they can be – written well, edited well, pressing clients to be as wonderful as they can – and if you have the guts and determination to pick up a pen and write a book, we’re on your side. And that’s why we are firmly, emphatically, viscerally opposed to vanity publishing in all its forms. This is a story, yes, about Austin Macauley, but it is also a story about a whole raft of other vanity presses too. Snakes, worms and weasels, every one. Why such strong language? Because vanity publishers take vast sums of money from authors to publish their books. This is in contrast to how to best practice in both traditional publishing (where publishers pay you), and modern ebook-led self-publishing where it costs nothing to upload your book to retailers like Amazon, and where per book royalties are excellent. So if you want to know more about what to avoid – and about Austin Macauley Publishers specifically – then read on. A more complete guide to (proper, legitimate, profitable) publishing can be found here. What Is Vanity Publishing? Vanity publishing is where authors pay for their book to be ‘published’ and where ownership of the book passes to the publisher as part of the contract. Vanity publishers never call themselves by that name. They’ll say they offer ‘partnership publishing’ or ‘hybrid publishing’ or say they offer a ‘contributory contract’ or anything else of that sort. But if any publisher: Asks you for moneyEnds up owning the rights to your book you should regard them as a vanity publisher. That’s if you’re polite, and inclined to be generous. Quite frankly, we prefer to think of them as thieves and fraudsters. To be clear: they are not breaking the law. But whether some narrow legal test of fraud is or is not met misses the ethical heart of the issue.The fact is that these publishers are offering writers a contract which they basically know will not meet the legitimate dreams and aspirations of those writers. What Vanity Publishing Looks Like We’ve spoken to one writer who was offered a ‘contributory contract’ from one vanity publisher (not Austin Macauley), requesting from her a staggering £7,000 to publish her poems. This lady was dying of cancer, and she wanted to earn a little something for the son she’d leave behind. Thankfully, she called us first, and asked for our advice. What we told her was this: There is not meaningfully any market for poetry, and certainly not of the (sincere, but quite home-spun) verses she’d written.She would never see that £7,000 againSales would be modest in the extreme. Aside from any sales she made to friends and family, her sales would quite likely be zero, nothing, nix, nada.She almost certainly would get a nicely produced book to hold in her handsShe would not find that book being sold in bookshopsYes, the book would be available on Amazon, but so are 5,000,000 other titles. Uploading a book to Amazon is easy. Selling it once it’s there – that’s hard.She would not, meaningfully, get any marketing support from the publisher once the book had actually been produced.In effect, she’d be paying £7,000 to have her book printed & the rights owned by somebody else. You could easily spend no more than £1,000 for a book of that length, print as many copies as you wanted, work with lovely, truthful, well-intentioned people, and still retain all the rights to the book. Naturally, she did not use that publisher to ‘publish’ her work. Instead, she went to a reputable local printer and, for a modest sum, got the thing printed up for local distribution. She told me that she wanted everyone who came to her funeral to get a copy. And look, there’s something good here and something awful. The good thing is that a dying woman made a book that she wanted to create. That spoke her thoughts to those she cared about. There is nothing at all of vanity in that impulse. In that sense, the term ‘vanity publishing’ is a total misnomer. I’ve seen a lot of people snared by vanity publishers, and in not one single case was vanity the issue. On the contrary, it’s naivete, hope, and nothing else. So that’s the good thing. A dying woman wrote and distributed some verses. And here’s the bad thing: someone wanted to steal £7,000 from her. Sick, dying, and not at all wealthy. Did I say bad? I meant awful. The thing about vanity publishers is they don’t really publish at all. They get books designed & printed. You can do that too, just google “typesetting”, “cover design” and “book printers” and you’ll have everything you need. Or use an ethical outfit like Matador, or Lulu, or CreateSpace, or IngramSpark, or Completely Novel, and you’ll get a fair service at a fair price. (What each of those outfits offers is different, so you can’t just compare prices – it’s more complex than that.) So if you just want to pay something to produce 10 books (or 100, or 1,000), you need to work with a company like one of those guys. Or source your own design / copyediting / cover design, etc. It’s not hard, and it can be very rewarding. What Are The Alternatives To Vanity Publishing? A word about traditional publishing and modern self-publishing [This section talks about the alternatives very swiftly. If you need more help, go to our main publishing advice page that gives you a load more detail in a very helpful format.] Traditional Publishing Or you can publish in the traditional way with a regular publisher. The advantages of that route: you get paid, upfront plus (potentially) royalties as wellyou get a real publisher working hard to market your bookyou will be sold in bookstores and have the pride of having done a hard thing well. There’s also one obvious disadvantage: It’s very hard to get accepted by a traditional publisher – the rate of success is probably 1 in 1000 submissions (or even worse) If your work IS of that quality, you probably need a literary agent. Details on how to do that can be found here. We answer further common questions about literary agents here. We also offer free lists of agents in the US and the UK. Self-publishing If you don’t want to go that route – too hard? too slow? you don’t want to lose control of your book? – then modern self-publishing is also an excellent answer. Modern self-publishing involves selling your book via Amazon and/or the other e-tailers such as Apple. You will make a majority of your sales – perhaps over 90% of them – via ebooks, but it’s perfectly possible to create and sell print-books as well. They’ll be of good quality and will be available to readers all over the world. The advantages of self-publishing include: Royalties are superb: Amazon pays 70% royalties on ebook sales, whereas traditional publishers will pay just 17.5% (or less, if you inlcude the amount you’ll owe your agent.)It’s easyIt’s fastYou reach readers right across the globe The disadvantages include: you have to handle the various bits and pieces yourself: cover design, ebook formatting. Most people will just outsource those tasks, but you still need to find the right people for the job.Because of those tasks, you are likely to pay something to get our book published – but $1500 / £1000 would be a perfectly reasonable  budget for most.You have to market your book. Amazon is a platform; it’s not going to market on your behalf unless you have some prove sales potential already.There is still a difference in kudos between self-publishing and the traditional sort. That doesn’t really make sense to us. (Who do you admire more: someone who sold $100,000 worth of self-published books on Amazon? Or someone who got a £1000 book deal from some remote bit of Penguin Random House?) But still: it matters to some people. If you want to find out more about how to self-publish your work, you can find out with our (characteristically comprehensive) guide here. Info on book descriptions here. Info on categories and keywords here. Advice on getting your book covers here. It’s also true that writing really well is a skill that can be learned – and then learned some more. If you’ve struggled with literary agents in the past, it may well be that your actual book isn’t as strong as it could be. For that reason, we’ve got useful advice on how to write a book right here, and we’ve also put together some hints on getting started with writing your novel right here. Learning About Writing And Publishing Also – this does’t quite fit on this page in a way – but: it’s possible you don’t yet know enough about the whole writing/publishing industry to yet make a decision on how to proceed. And if you think, yes, maybe that applies to me, what then? Well, there’s a LOT you can do. If you feeling like flashing the cash (a very little bit), I’d urge you to become a member of Jericho Writers. You’ll get access to the world’s best resources on writing, publishing and self-publishing. Info here. You should also, certainly, join our Jericho Townhouse writing community, that just gives you an exceptional way to meet other writers, and exchange questions help and community. View our forums, our blogs, our groups. Austin Macauley – A Close-up Look At One Vanity Publisher Hold your nose, folks. We’re heading down . . . This post grew (as you may have guessed) out of an encounter with Austin Macauley, a vanity publisher. Or rather: multiple encounters, all of them negative. We heard about authors feeling cheated. We heard about authors being threatened with legal action if they spoke out about their experience. We heard about authors going to court against the firm. We heard about a prominent blogger – a person of integrity and intelligence – being threatened with legal action for speaking out about these things. So we thought we’d look into it . . . and we did not love what we saw. In this updated post, we take another look at Austin Macuauley – but please remember that ALL vanity publishers operate in much the same way. What we say about this firm could, mutatis mutandis, be said about all its snakelike brethren. Indeed, we DO say it about all those firms. Oh, and to be crystal clear: we do not believe that Austin Macauley is engaged in illegal activity. In our opinion, what they do is totally unethical and close to cheating, but some bad things are within the law; vanity publishing very much included. (Alas.) Okie-doke. So- If you Google “Austin Macauley”, as I just did, you may find this: Screengrab taken 23.4.2018 And – huh? A publisher who advertises? Go and Google Penguin Random House. Or HarperCollins. Or Simon & Schuster. Those guys don’t advertise. Why not? Because their business model works like this: Find great books. Publish them well. Make money. No part of that relies on advertising to authors and luring them in. (So how do they get those great books? They pay for them. And authors and literary agents bring them all their best stuff.) But the Austin Macauley model works like this: Find authors willing to part with cash. Part them from their cash. Deliver some kind of book. That’s it. The book doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to actually sell. AM doesn’t even actually have to try to do all the things that real publishers do to make sales. Of course not! They’ve already made money. From you! Bu I get ahead of myself. Here’s what they say on their website home page (text copied 24 April 2018) We pride ourselves on our hybrid publishing model, a progressively more popular means by which both new and previously published authors can establish themselves in the increasingly competitive world of books. This is horseshit. Here’s that same bit of text with my explanations in brackets: We pride ourselves on our hybrid publishing model [we take money from authors which no reputable publisher does. Deep in our snakelike hearts, we know that this is a horrible way to make a living, but we may as well make a virtue of it and pretend it’s normal.]a progressively more popular means [Rubbish. Traditional publishing is great. Self-publishing is great and has zoomed up in the world. Vanity publishing is used only by those who don’t know any better. It’s “popular” largely with those people who don’t know better and who are taken in by flashily effective advertising.]by which both new and previously published authors can establish themselves in the increasingly competitive world of books [Double-rubbish. You want to know if Austin Macauley establishes writers in the the world of books? OK. So do this. Go to the biggest bookstore near you. See if you can find a book by an Austin Macauley author. Browse the shelves. Ask a checkout clerk. Seek specific titles by name. You will find almost none, and most likely none at all. And if I’m wrong, I’ll give you a dollar and a kiss for every one you find.] Indeed, let’s take the partnership / hyrbid / vanity agreements that Austin Macauley and its peers offers. We’d want to ask: What is the median cost to the author of these partnership agreements?Partnership implies some joint sharing of risks and rewards, so do these firms contribute a sum broadly equivalent to that contributed by your authors?What are the median sales of partnership titles? Note that ordinary averages (means) can be distorted by one or two high-selling titles, so a median figure would be helpful. This is a crucial question, and you should not part with a single penny before getting an answer.What, loosely, is the median financial outcome for partnership authors? Do they recover their contributions via royalties? Do they generally make a profit, and how much? And if they make a loss, what is the average magnitude of that loss? I hope it’s obvious why these questions are important. Austin Macauley Publishers operates within the law insofar as it prints books, makes those books available on Amazon, available for order by bookshops (not the same as saying that these books are likely to be stocked in bookshops). It makes modest efforts to secure publicity for its books and authors. All that does not amount to a good deal. It amounts to a right royal stinker of a deal. Avoid Austin Macauley. Avoid its peers. And may they, one day, all bite the dust!
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How to get a book published in 2020

The all you need to know guide Getting a book published, even your first book – that sounds like it should be pretty do-able, right? And so it is, but the publishing industry is (inevitably) pretty complex, and can generate massively different outcomes depending on the choices you are about to make. In the same way, you might want to be a professional musician … but does that mean you do a paid gig in a local bar? Or get signed by a massive record label? In this blog post, we will weigh up the options and show you how you could get your book published. It’s possible to get published for free, and it’s also perfectly achievable even if you are a first time author. It’s also true that the publishing industry has got way more complex since the rise of Amazon and all that went along with that. That complexity is confusing, for sure, but it’s also good. The fact is there are more routes to publication than ever before in history. You just need to pick the route that works for you. And that’s what this post is all about. We’ll tell you: What your options areWhich option is right for youWhat the pros and cons are, andHow to access the particular publishing route of your choice If you need extra info on any topic, we’ll direct you to a resource that gives you everything you need. Oh – and you probably want to know about me. Well, I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve been traditionally published all over the world, with in the company of the world’s top #3 trade publishers. Furthermore, I’m the founder of Jericho Writers, so I’ve helped literally hundreds of writers just like you through to publication, so I know exactly what’s involved for a writer like you. But I’m not just about traditional publishing. I’ve also self-published (and love it.) I’ve sold fiction and non-fiction. I’ve sold full-length manuscripts and skinny-as-you-like book proposals. I’ve also had experience of plenty of other publishing routes. And this post is going to tell you EVERYTHING. So: How to get your book published in 2020: Traditional publication, via a literary agentTrad publication, but without an agentTrad publication, via a book proposalTrad publication, via a micro-publisherSelf-publishing on AmazonPublishing via a digital-first publisherPublishing via APub, Amazon’s publishing armPublication via a vanity publisherPublication via a print/design companySelf-publishing leading to a trad dealCrowd-fundingPublishing via a social platform That’s a lot to get through, so buckle up and read on … The Secret To Getting An Agent Option 1: How To Publish A Book Via A Literary Agent And A Large Traditional Publisher What’s Involved? The “Big 5” traditional publishers (outfits like Penguin RandomHouse or HarperCollins) dominate the world of trade publishing. They have huge financial resources. They have huge marketing and sales reach. They already publish a stellar list of names. And they reach right across the English-speaking world – so in that sense getting published in the US is much the same kind of process as getting published in the UK or Australia … and quite likely with the same group of firms involved as well. Obviously, those big publishers need to acquire material to publish, so they go out and buy it. They buy manuscripts (ie: novels or non-fiction which haven’t yet been turned into actual books). They buy those manuscripts off authors in return for an upfront cash advance. That advance is highly variable – think anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000+ for a book – and will be supplemented by royalties if sales are sufficient to ‘earn out’ the advance. And the publisher isn’t just there to write the checks. They are also there to sell your book, which they do by: Working on the manuscript editorially. That’ll normally involve a structural edit, a copy edit, and a proof read – layers of editing that in turn fix story, then typos/clarity, then a final check before printing. (More on types of editing.)Designing cover art and preparing the book for production. Books are normally produced in four formats (hard cover, paperback, e-book, audio)Selling the book to bricks & mortar retailers. Retailers – such as Barnes & Noble in the US or Waterstones in the UK don’t automatically stock all books that are printed. Far from it. So arguably the key part of a publisher’s job is to convince specialist retailers (basically bookstores) and generalist ones (notably supermarkets) to order and stock the book. Ideally, your book will be entered into promotions, that place your book in the most visible store locations and with an attractive price reduction.Selling the book via online retailers. Although Amazon pretty much does stock every book out there, publishers still have to persuade Amazon (and Apple, and Kobo, and so on) to promote your book as much as possible. That means your book will start popping up in “deal of the day” or “recommended for you” type promotions.Marketing the book. That will probably involve a mixture of traditional publicity (such as newspaper interviews and book signings) and digitally driven campaigns, probably involving social media, email marketing and perhaps some use of pay-per-click advertising. To most writers, all that sounds pretty good, but – no surprise – there’s a catch. The catch, quite simply, is that your book has to be pretty damn good, because there’s a hell of a lot of competition out there and publishers are only interested in buying the very best crime books / romances / diet books and whatever else. So how to publishers find those amazing books in the first place? Well, the shortest answer is that they focus nearly all the efforts on the manuscripts that come to them via a literary agent. Literary agents are basically salespeople who sell manuscripts from writers like you to the big publishers. They don’t charge any kind of upfront fee for that service; they take a commission on sales made, typically 15%. Just to emphasise that point: agents cost nothing until they make you money. So (setting aside all your trouble and effort in writing the damn thing), with the agent/publisher route to publication you will get your book published for free. Not even free actually: you’ll be paid. You won’t be expected to buy your agent coffees or fund the cover illustration or anything like that. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t spend a single penny (other than for paper and ink and stamps – we used all those things in those days.) Next thing I knew: people were offering me six-figure sums for my work. OK. So agents are good; they make sales; they work on commission. But it gets better. In addition to that basic sales activity, literary agents also: Offer you editorial advice to help you get your manuscript in shape for saleRun the auction processNegotiate the resulting contractSupervise the publishing  process, advise you on it, and act as your bull terrier if any conflicts ariseSell other rights, such as foreign language rights, audio (if not part of the original deal), and film and TV rights. In short, a good literary agent will end up making you far, far more than the cost of that 15% commission, so you should have no hesitation in working with an agent, if you get the chance. Because the Big 5 publishers publish all types of work – adult novels, children’s novels and plenty of non-fiction too – literary agents work with all these things too. Most agents aren’t that specialist either. Yes, a children’s literary agent may exclusively work with children’s books, but most literary agents for adult work will work with novels and non-fiction. In that sense, how your publish a novel (for example) works exactly the same as publishing any other type of book. How Do You Get An Agent? If you’re getting a book published for the first time, you need an agent. And the only really difficult step in getting an agent is the very first one: you have to write an absolutely superb book. Remember that, as a rough guide, a literary agent is likely to take about 1 manuscript in every 1000 that they come across. If you’re writing a spy story, your work will be competing head-to-head against John Le Carre, Tom Clancy and every other great spy novelist out there. So your manuscript has to excel. It has to dazzle. It has to be wonderful. But let’s assume you’ve already got a great manuscript, what then? The steps you need to follow are these: Generate a longlist of literary agents. You’re looking for agents who are taking on new clients and who are interested in work in your genre. You can find a full list of literary agents here for the US and here for the UK. If you sign up for AgentMatch (free trial here), you can use simple tools to filter by genre, client, and more.Whittle that down to a shortlist of 10-15 names. To generate your shortlist, just go through your longlist and look for possible points of contact. An agent represents one of your favourite authors? They’re a keen rider and your book is set in a racing stable? The agent has Irish ancestry and your book is about Irish emigrants in the 1920s? Any of those gives you a good reason to pop the agent onto your shortlist. (Oh, and why only 10-15 names? If you send your material out to about a dozen agents and don’t get a positive response, that’s a pretty damn good signal that your manuscript is not yet strong enough to get a book deal – in which case, getting third party editorial feedback probably needs to be your next step.)Write a query letter. That tells that agent why you’re writing (you’re seeking representation), what your book is and who you are. It’s easy to write a great query letter. Just follow the advice and look at a sample query letter here.Write a synopsis. A synopsis basically summarises your story, and it’s a quick way for an agent to get a handle over whether the basic structure of your story feels OK. A synopsis can be a nightmare to put together, but it doesn’t have to be that way. All the advice you need, plus a good example of a synopsis, can be found right here.Double-check your opening chapters. Most agents want you to send them some sample chapters along with the query letter and synopsis. Typically, those sample chapters will need to be the first 3 chapters of your book, or about 10,000 words. So make sure that opening chunk is looking great. Tips on presenting your manuscript right here. Tips on the commonest errors in first time novels can be found here.Send your submission pack out to your shortlisted agents. You need to allow about 8 weeks for agents to read and decide on your submission. And, sorry to say, but loads of agents don’t even have the courtesy to send out a “sorry, but no” email if they are rejecting a manuscript, which means that you have to work on the assumption that, after 8 weeks, no news is tantamount to rejection. At this point, you have other won – you’ve been offered representation, in which case, congratulations. Your path to publication is now in the hands of a very experienced professional, and you should be fine from here. If there are problems en route to getting published (and, believe me, there will be), your agent should be able to guide you. (For what it’s worth, I’d guess that agency representation leads to a publishing deal in about two thirds of cases. Your mileage may very though – this number varies widely.) Or you’ve lost – that is, you have no offers of representation, and not even any close misses. In that case, you really need to go back to your manuscript, figure out why agents aren’t getting excited by it, and then fix whatever needs fixing. The best way to do that is by getting pro editorial help, of the sort that we at Jericho Writers can offer. But there’s a middle ground too, where you haven’t quite won but you haven’t quite lost either. That’s the ‘nice rejection’, often where an agent asks for your full manuscript but ends up, reluctantly declining. If you’re in that category, then it’s GOOD NEWS. The fact is, you’re in a zone where some editorial work really should ping you over the line. Again, we can help. Extra Resources We have a whole bunch of resources available if you want to pursue these topics further. (Clue: yes, you definitely do.) Free resources: How to get a literary agent Do literary agents charge fees? How to write a query letter How to write a synopsis All your literary agent questions answered Additional resourcesThese resources are for Jericho members only. Not a member? Then join us. Behind the scenes at a Big 5 publisher (feature length film) Interviews with literary agents Diana Beaumont, Kate Burke, Piers Blofeld Finally, we have a complete course on how to get your book published – and not just published, period, but published well, published successfully. That course (here) is costly to buy but it’s free to members. Do consider joining us if you need that further help. What Kind Of Writer/book Is Right For This Publication Option? The first question is whether or not you want to pursue traditional publication. Trad publication will suit you, if: You are writing literary fiction or one-off non-fiction (eg: memoir)You are writing genre fiction but aren’t super-prolific (eg: you don’t want to write more than a book or two a year)You want the kudos of traditional publicationYou want to be sold via physical bookstores, as well as via AmazonYou want a shot at newspaper book reviews, book signings, radio and newspaper interviews etcYou don’t want the hassle of self-publishing If that sounds like you, then traditional publishing should certainly be your goal. The next question is whether you need an agent. You basically have to have an agent, if: You are writing fiction, for adults, young adults, or childrenYou are writing mainstream non-fiction (of the sort that might sit on those front-of-store tables in a large bookstore)You are writing specialist non-fiction in a big, rich category (such as diet or cookery, for example) If your book is very niche, your likely advice is small, which means an agent’s 15% won’t be especially tempting. In all those cases, you can forget about getting a literary agent and just proceed to option 2, which is traditional publication, but without a literary agent. Pros And Cons The advantages of trad publication are: You get an advanceYou get some experienced professionals handling the production, sale and marketing of your workYou have a literary agent to guide your journeyYou have all the kudos and other pleasures of traditional publication: you will have become a published author and will have earned all the respect of your new role. I bow to thee. The disadvantages are: You lose control over your intellectual property – you’ve sold it, remember? The book now belongs to the publisher, not to you.It’s harder to make a living as a trad author than it is as an indie one. Watch our YouTube video on author incomes here.Traditional publishing is a bit of a crap-shoot. Most bestsellers are made via huge supermarket sales, but there are many fewer supermarket slots than there are books, and the process by which supermarkets choose which books to stock is scarily random (for newbie authors, at least.)Traditional publishing isn’t so great at publishing on Amazon. You can see my thoughts on that (via Publishers Weekly) here. Option 2: Get Published Via A Traditional Publisher, But Without A Literary Agent What’s Involved? The actual publication process is exactly the same as for Option 1 – so everything I’ve said above applies here too. The big difference with this route is that you’re not going to send your work out to literary agents; you’re going to send it direct to publishers. Obviously, the publishers you choose will need to be carefully chosen. So if you are looking to sell a volume of military history or something on Early Colonial interiors, you’ll need to approach the publishers who work in that field. Otherwise, the basic approach is the same. You locate your targets. You send a query letter. You include enough sample material that the publisher can make up their mind. And that’s that – you see what responses come back to you. (The big difference: agents are slow, with response times often around 6-8 weeks. But publishers are way slower: you need to allow 4-6 months to get a proper response. That’s crazy, I know, but …) How Do You Find A Publisher? Not easy. Services like Jericho AgentMatch don’t really exist in the same way for publishers. Yes, you can trawl through the membership pages of the American Association of Publishers or (in the UK) the Publishers Association … but those guys have a lot of members, the vast majority of whom will be irrelevant to your needs. So really the best way to find a publisher for your book is to find other titles in your niche. That should be easy for you, because it’s your niche. So if your book is about motor maintenance, look at the other engine-related books on your shelves. If you’re writing about bonsai growing, look at who publishes books about bonsais. How to find who publishes a book is simple – just look inside the front cover. That page with all the tiny, boring print about copyright and that kind of thing will also tell you who the publisher is. Note that publishers (eg: “PenguinRandomHouse”) generally operate through a multitude of imprints, eg, Bantam, Ballantine, Doubleday…). You need to identify both the publisher you want and, where relevant, the imprint in order to wriggle through to the right desk in the right office. Make a list of those publishers – then approach them direct. They’ll welcome your submission and they won’t expect you to have a literary agent. (In fact, they’d be mildly frightened if you did have one.) What Kind Of Writer/book Is Right For This Publication Option? Assuming you definitely want traditional publication (and again, see Option 1 for more on this), you should only really avoid using a literary agent, if: Your work is in a small subject-led, but consumer-oriented niche (eg: “How to Maintain Your Motorbike” or “The Complete A-Z of Roses”)Your work is academic and destined for an academic publisherYour work is business or professional, and destined for the kind of publishers that handle that kind of thing Agents don’t want those kind of books and they don’t add much value to the publication process either. For those reasons, direct submissions to publishers make the most sense. Pros And Cons The advantages of this route are that: You get the pluses of trad publicationYou get to publish work that’s too niche or specialist to warrant an agent’s involvement The downsides are simply that: Bookstores don’t shift very many copies of niche books – they’re mostly sold via Amazon. But in that case, self-publishing looks like a particularly attractive option, because you can retain all the proceeds from sale for yourself. If you have a mailing list or other platform – for example, you have a popular blog on rose growing, and your book is all about growing roses – then self-publishing should be very simple and immediately lucrative. Option 3: How To Get Published Via A Book Proposal What’s Involved? When we talked above about trad publication and literary agents, it was kind of assumed that you’d already written your book. If you are looking to sell a novel, then you basically have to have written the book and edited it until it sparkles. But that sounds like a hell of a lot of work for a project that might never sell, right? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just outline a project, see if anyone wants it, then complete it only if a sufficiently attractive deal is laid under your nose? Well, luckily for you, that option certainly exists. It exists only for non-fiction, and not even for all types of non-fiction, but yes: you can offer literary agents a book proposal in place of an entire book. That book proposal might in total amount to only 10,000 words, and should include: A query letterA personal bio, including any platform or authority you bringAn analysis of the market and audienceAn introduction to the bookApproximately three sample chapters. Unlike with fiction, it isn’t always necessary that these chapters form the first three chapters of your work, You can read much more about what’s needed right here. What Kind Of Writer/book Is Right For This Publication Option? The book proposal approach will work, if: You are writing non-fictionThat non-fiction is not narrative-led (in which case, an agent or publisher might need to read the whole book before making a decision)It’ll work especially well if you bring significant authority (“I’m a top physics professor”) or terrific platform (“I’m a teenager with 2,000,000 Youtube followers.”) Read more about author platforms here. If your work is mainstream and could provide a ton of sales, then you will want to navigate via a literary agent. If not, you can go direct to publishers. Pros And Cons Pros? Simple: You can secure a contract and get paid before you’ve done a ton of work. I once secured a $250,000 / 2-book deal on the back of a book proposal that ran to about 10,000 words. Nice, right? Downsides? I can’t think of any. You’ll have to invent your own.
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How To Write Erotica – And A Damn Fine Sex Scene

Guest author and blogger Anastasia Parkes has an MA in English Literature from Oxford and has lived in London and Cairo. She writes erotica under the pseudonym Primula Bond with books published by HarperCollins, and works as a book editor for erotic and romantic novelists. In this guest post, Anastasia shares tips on writing great erotica – and how to put together those steamy sex scenes. (And uh, yes: strong language lies ahead.) Writing Erotica – What You Need To Know The formula for writing great erotic fiction is a pretty simple one. Here it is, in full: Write a great book Include plenty of steamy, arousing sex And that’s it. You’re done. Structure Your Story Now I’m not going to go into a ton of detail about how to write a great book. All I will say is that you do need to respect your basic story structure. The teasing quality of a suspense-driven story (Will the heroine succeed or not?) matches up perfectly with the will-they/won’t-they quality of the romantic/erotic dance. That said, your story can be relatively simple – and relatively short. A 50,000 word story wouldn’t work so well as a crime-thriller, but it’s plenty long enough for erotica. Think Character But if your story is simple, your characters shouldn’t be. The power of sexual tension (and release) is multiplied tenfold on the page if there is some conflict and resolution between the characters. That doesn’t have to mean the two people are always shouting at each other (though that could work.) It does mean that you have some kind of push-pull dynamic that will have to be resolved somehow … and often via them taking all their clothes off. It also means that characters have to develop through the course of your story. The sex they have on first meeting won’t feel the same as the sex they have at the end of your book. Show Don’t Tell The last big tip I’d give in relation to writing erotica is that here, more than in any other literary art form, showing beats telling hands down, and a million times over. We read erotica to be part of the sex. That means you can’t merely report that character X had great sex with character Y. You have to let the action unfold, action-by-action, on the page. Keep plenty of dialogue there too. Remember that interesting character interplay = interesting sex. How To Write A Great Sex Scene Here’s how you write a great sex scene. Create A Picture Of The Characters. Imagine The Flow So, how to write a sex scene assuming it to be the first time for the characters. (This advice refers specifically to erotica, the genre my Unbreakable trilogy, starting with The Silver Chain,is written for.) Details, location, dynamic etc. can evolve as the novel progresses. Put yourself in there if you like, if it doesn’t inhibit you. Otherwise superimpose famous heart-throbs, or a secret crush, on to the characters. Even imagine it flowing visually in front of you on a screen. The best comment I had from a favourable reviewer was when she put up a photograph of a sensationally beautiful redhead who she imagined my character Serena to look like. Make Us Care Make us care for your characters. They may come from different worlds, or there may be a difference in age or in the balance of power between them, but they are drawn to each other like a couple of magnets and once we know how this dynamic works, we will know how and why they fancy each other, and your readers will fancy them, too. And remember these characters have one aim, now that they’ve gotten to know each other. To have sex. And our aim is to see them at it. Voyeuristic (see also my character Serena Folkes), but true! Choose Your Location So next, place them in a sexy environment for this first time. Depending on their age, situation, energy, athleticism and/or pure machismo, the back of a clapped out Ford Cortina or the bins behind the Plaza cinema might be just the place for a quick, rough first time, and that will certainly do it for some readers. Any good erotic writer is more than capable, like the old Martini adverts, of creating a sex scene any time, any place, anywhere! But others usually pick up an erotic novel to get away from the dirty old mean streets of real life. We’re after escapism! So hie your characters off to a place you’d like to be. A moonlit beach, or a sumptuous penthouse hotel room, or a soft rug in front of a roaring fire. Make sure there is low lighting and great music or some other subtle sound track. Garish lighting and deadly silence are not always the sexist ambience, at least for the first time. You can really have fun with your characters as the novel progresses, having them so hot for each other that after the first seduction they’ll do it anywhere. A lift, a restaurant. A riding stable. An art gallery. And to keep us on our toes, you can also later on play with the dynamic, too. Have the meek heroine take the lead, for once. See how the hero responds to that. Don’t Forget The Build-up / Foreplay Build up sensuously to the physical act with suggestive conversation which will either be blatant and in your face, or playful, teasing, even holding back. Remember that characters don’t stand woodenly about like actors in a bad am-dram before they get down to it. Have them eating, drinking, dancing, singing, involve us in that experience, then show us their clothes, how well they fit, are they too formal or tight, how good does it feel as they come off? Unbuttoning cut-off jeans can be just as sexy as unzipping a ball gown. Make it tense, passionate, breathless, but … Take It Slow In real life the first time you have sex with someone new is often urgently desired but ends up fast and disastrous, but this is fantasy! So although there can be some hesitation, shyness and teasing, ultimately everyone, reader included, needs to be on tenterhooks to get their hands on each other. To get down to it. Restless, like scratching an itch. Salivating, like the desperation to drink cold water in the desert. Structure Your Scene Structure your scene like the sex act. That is, foreplay, action, climax, wind down. Too obvious? You might think so, until you start writing the scene. Think of the foreplay as the aforementioned setting. The removal of clothes, the first sensation of skin on skin starts the action rolling in the obvious direction. If it helps, think of a movie scene. I know actors always say how pedestrian and workmanlike it is simulating sex in front of a crew of burly cameramen, a bank of arc lights and a demanding director, but imagine yourself as an extremely involved, generous, hands-on director with your characters, but make sure the bed is soft, the studio is warm, and soon they’ll take off on their own towards the strong, satisfying, long-awaited penetration! As for the climax, well, no beating about the bush, is there? This is when the glorious pinnacle of where we all want to be is reached, and tread carefully here with the language (see below). Challenge yourself to find different ways of describing that rush of ecstasy. Avoid waterfalls, avalanches, orchestras! What actions or words stimulate the eventual moment? Keep A Tad Of Realism Alive Slightly unrealistically erotic couples tend to come together every time but if you want to be more realistic, let one come before the other and show who is the generous one, who the thoughtful, who the selfish one? Or are they both equally considerate, and if not, will they become so as the novel progresses. Finally, the wind down is often the hardest. After the shivering and shuddering, do they fall asleep, or analyse, or do it all over again? I often have a knock at the door, or a phone call after the act, so that in the early days the couple are never at leisure totally to relax or take each other for granted until the next drama occurs. Find The Right Balance Of Cinematic And Plausible Make it dramatic, but human. Not impossibly athletic, but not mundane either. The characters will already be attractive and/or beautiful, or arresting in some way to turn us on. The men have got to be strong and well hung and very experienced. The women curvacious, soft and wonderfully proportioned, and if not experienced, then primed and ready to learn. If this is a romantic setting, lots of kissing and stroking, exploration. If this is more down the BDSM route, then the participants will get their kicks from spanking, binding, and pain. But there is always room for sensuousness and tenderness. Don’t Get Coy With Your Language Keep it simple, punchy, evocative, but not obscene or anatomical. Don’t, like John Updike, veer away from simple words and use hideous ones like ‘yam’ to describe a penis. Don’t use euphemism or flowery words, either. ‘Cock’, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ are acceptable with some publishers, but not others, and certainly not in the new mainstream type of erotica. I have written a trilogy where those words are only uttered in the words of a character who should know better – not the narrator, or the main characters themselves. Believe me, you have to use your powers of evocation very carefully to avoid sounding awkward or coy. So ‘manhood’ and ‘sex’ can be used, but sparingly. Read works of your chosen genre, or find a publisher’s house style, to find what is acceptable. Use The Rhythm Method Next try to get into a rhythm similar to the rhythm of sex. Slow, slow, quick slow. Yes, that’s it. Like a dance. Why else to you think dancing was considered so daring in the old days? It was the nearest people could get to each other in public. And have you ever seen sex better choregraphed than in the Argentine tango? That’s it. Hope that helped. Go write a great book – and have a wonderful time doing it!
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Outline your novel fast, easily and well with this simple story template

All stories share a simple common structure, right? So the simplest way to outline your novel (or any type of story) is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding. And you do need to use some kind of novel outline before you start writing. Plotting a novel from scratch? Imagining the whole thing in your head before you start? That’s hard. Or, scratch that, it’s pretty much impossible. So don’t do it. Cheat. Use a simple, dependable template to build an outline of your novel, then slowly fill out the detail. Yes, filling in the detail can be a slow and tricky process. But you don’t care. Because if your basic outline is strong (and the idea that lies behind it is strong), you can’t really go wrong. And figuring out that template and how best to use it is exactly what we’re going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. We’ll just help a little on the way . . .) Novel Outline Template In A Nutshell You just need to figure out: Main character (who leads the story)Status Quo (situation at the start)Motivation (what your character wants)Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo)Developments (what happens next)Crisis (how things come to a head)Resolution (how things resolve) What A Story Template Looks Like Use a simple plot outline to get your ideas straight Let’s start simple. And that means, yep, that YOU need to start simple. Get a sheet of paper or notebook and have it by you as you work your way through this post. Ready? Pencil sharp and ready to go? So do this: Write down the following headings: Main characters Status Quo Motivation Initiating Incident Developments Crisis Resolution Simple right? And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible. That means a maximum of 1-2 sentence for each heading there. If that seems a little harsh, then I’ll allow you 3 sentences for the “Developments” section: that’s where the bulk of your book is going to lie. But that’s all. At this stage, we don’t want complex. Complex is our enemy. We’ll get there soon enough, but for now just think, Structure-structure-structure. Too much complexity – all that intricate plot detail – just gets in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel. (Oh, and I don’t want to digress too much, but that same basic template works if you want to build a scene, or write a synopsis, or structure a key piece of dialogue. In fact, it’s just like this universal unlocking device for pretty much any structural challenge in fiction. Good to know, huh?) The Novel Template: An Example You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right? OK. So let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. Your story outline might look something like this: CharacterElizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England. Status QuoLizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well) MotivationLizzy wants to marry for love. Initiating IncidentTwo wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive. DevelopmentsLizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems. CrisisLizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone. ResolutionMr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all. Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy. You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments. If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.” And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.) Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this, it’s really useful! Finally, don’t complicate things if you don’t want to, but if you find it helpful to add a “character development” heading, then you should do that as well. Effectively, you’re extending your novel outline template to cover not just plot movements, but character development too – a brilliant all-in-one tool. Developing Your Story Outline Taking your template on to the next level Now, OK, you might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic. Which it is. So let’s develop the structure another notch, and what we’re going to do now is to add in anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure. So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this. (Oh, and we’ve called them sub-plots, but you can call them story strands, or story elements, or anything that feels right to you.) Subplot 1Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry. Subplot 2Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy. Subplot 3Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes. Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end). But again: don’t worry. Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and all that – that’ll do your brain in. Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up. And that actually brings us to another point. How To Use Subplots If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff. There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on. And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good. What does matter, however is your character’s motivation. Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book. Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place. In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously: If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots and so on.If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word. And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself. The act of writing always is. Plotting Your Novel: The Template Remember as well that every subplot (or story strand, or whatever you want to call them) has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it’ll have its own beginning, middle and end. Its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution. So you may as well drop everything you have into the grid below. (If you want to adapt that grid a little, then do, but don’t mess around with it toooo much. The basic idea there is golden.) MAIN PLOTSUBPLOT 1SUBPLOT 2SUBPLOT 3INITIATING INCIDENTMAIN PLOTCRISISRESOLUTION If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after. What would your story look like, if you did this? How To Further Develop Your Plot Outline Advanced techniques for writing ninjas What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank? Well, no worries. The basic problems here are twofold: You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, orYou just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel. Two different problems. Two different solutions. If you don’t yet understand your own plot in enough detail, you want to use … Plot-building Tool: The Snowflake Method Seeing your own plot in detail, before you write the book, is really hard, because it’s like you’re standing on the seashore trying to jump onto Mount Everest. In one bound. Not gonna work. So get there in stages, Base Camp. Camp 1, and so on up. What that means for you, is that you use our basic template in sketch form to start with – a sentence or two per section. Then you go at it again, and give each section its own paragraph. Then you go at it again, expanding to 2-3 paragraphs, or whole pages if you want to. The same basic exercise, but getting into deeper levels of detail each time. If you want more about the “snowflake” approach you can find it right here. OK. But what if your plot outline just feels a little bit thin once you sketch it out? Answer you fix it – and you fix it NOW before you start hurtling into the task of actually writing. Here are the techniques you’ll need to do just that: Method 1: Mirroring This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. (Remember: if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter and you need to delete it.) To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it. One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done. A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout? It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird. Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature. Method 2: Ram Your Genre Into Something Different Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime. So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Looked at one way, that’s a pretty much standard issue romantic story, which, yes, could have sold, but could never have made the huge sales it actually racked up. But then ram that into a story of time-travel, and you have something shimmeringly new and exciting. What you had was still a romantic story at its heart – it certainly wouldn’t appeal to hardcore fans of SF/fantasy – but the novel element gave it a totally new birth. Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters. A picaresque Victorian historical novel . . . that kind of thing always had its audience – but that audience had never encountered a frankly told lesbian coming-of-age story in that context, and the result of that shock collision was to produce a literary sensation. Method 3: Take Your Character And Max Her Out Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe? It wasn’t the quality of Stieg Larsson’s writing, which was never more than competent and which was quite baggy, to say the least. And the actual plot? Well, on the face of it, he delivered a fairly standard issue crime story. Nothing so unusual there in terms of actual narrative. But Stieg Larsson rammed that basic story with an exotic character: Lisbeth Salander. That woman had Aspergers, she was a bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor . . .and boom – vast worldwide sales resulted. Method 4: Add Edge – A Glint Of Steel A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. (here) The basic plot was strong. The mystery element was good. There was at least one quite unusual element. The climax was rip-roaring (set on a trawler at sea in a force 10 gale.) But . . . The book wasn’t quite working. It was long. And it was just a long, long way from the set-up phase of the book to the denouement. My solution? A glint of steel. I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist. That addition made a long book even longer . . . but it made the book. It’s not just that the sequence itself was exciting, it’s that its shadow extended over everything else too. Whereas before the book had felt a bit like, “yep, gotta solve the mystery, because that’s what these books have to do.” Now it was: “We HAVE TO solve that mystery, because these bastards abducted our protagonist.” Steel. Edge. Sex or violence. Those things work in crime novels , but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died? How To Write A Plot From Multiple Perspectives If you’re eager to write about multiple protagonists, you need a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each one. George R.R. Martin took this to new levels in A Song of Ice and Fire, each protagonist having his or her own richly developed plot and character arc. John Fowles’ The Collector, for example, is narrated by a kidnapper and the girl he’s kidnapped. Sullen, menacing Fred justifies all he does. Miranda chronicles her fear and pity. The result is taut, terrifying. We’re engrossed in their shared experience to the end. Multiple protagonists can work in romance novels, too, even ones told in third-person narration, such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. This said, managing multiple points of view, even from minor characters, can work well for thrillers, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release (though these things depend on story, as much as genre). The key thing to bear in mind here is that you need a mini version of your novel outline template for each of your main characters. Each one of those guys needs a complete little story of their own – and those little stories need to interweave to create one great and compelling one. More About Plotting How to write seven basic plotsHow to chart your plot mountain or plot diagramHow to fix your plot problemsUsing internal and external conflict in genre writingHow to write beginnings, middles and endsThe Power of Story and Discourse by Allie Spencer
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How To Write Dialogue In Fiction

Writing dialogue in the novel: tricks, tools and examples. Speech gives life to stories. It breaks up long pages of action and description. Getting speech right is an art but, fortunately, there are a few easy rules to follow. Those rules will make writing dialogue easy – turning it from something static, heavy and unlifelike into something that shines off the page. Better still, dialogue should be fun to write, so don’t worry if we talk about ‘rules’. We’re not here to kill the fun. We’re here to increase it. “Ready?” she asked. “You bet. Let’s dive right in.” How To Write Dialogue: Keep it tight and avoid any unnecessary wordsMove the action of the scene forwardKeep it oblique, where characters never quite answer each other directlyReveal character dynamics and emotionsKeep speeches shortEnsure characters use their own voiceAdd intrigueNo small talkAnd remember, interruptions are good Dialogue Rule 1: Keep It Tight One of the biggest rules in dialogue is: no spare parts. No unnecessary words. Nothing to excess. That’s true in all writing, of course, but it has a particular acuteness (I don’t know why) when it comes to dialogue. If you include an unnecessary sentence or two in a passage of description – well, it’s best to avoid that, of course, but, aside from registering a minor and temporary slowing, most readers won’t notice or care. Do the same in a block of dialogue, and your characters will seem to be speechifying rather than speaking. It’ll feel to a modern reader like you want to turn the clock back to Victorian England. So don’t do it! Keep it spare. Allow gaps in the communication and let the readers fill in the blanks. It’s like you’re not even giving the readers 100% of what they want. You’re giving them 80% and letting them figure out the rest. Take this, for instance, from Ian Rankin’s fourteenth Rebus crime novel, A Question of Blood. The detective, John Rebus, is phoned up at night by his colleague: … “Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors. “Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?” “Can you describe him?” Rebus froze. “What’s happened?” “Look, it might not be him …” “Where are you?” “Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.” That’s great isn’t it? Immediate. Vivid. Edgy. Communicative. But look at what isn’t said. Here’s the same passage again, but with my comments in square brackets alongside the text: … “Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors. [Your friend: she doesn’t even give a name or give anything but the baresr little hint of who she’s speaking about. And ‘on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors’. That’s two sentences rammed together with a comma. It’s so clipped you’ve even lost the period and the second ‘she’.] “Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?” [Notice that this is exactly the way we speak. He could just have said “Andy Callis”, but in fact we often take two bites at getting the full name, like this. That broken, repetitive quality mimics exactly the way we speak . . . or at least the way we think we speak!] “Can you describe him?” [Uh-oh. The way she jumps straight from getting the name to this request indicates that something bad has happened. A lesser writer would have this character say, ‘Look, something bad has happened and I’m worried. So can you describe him?’ This clipped, ultra-brief way of writing the dialogue achieves the same effect, but (a) shows the speaker’s urgency and anxiety – she’s just rushing straight to the thing on her mind, (b) uses the gap to indicate the same thing as would have been (less well) achieved by a wordier, more direct approach, and (c) by forcing the reader to fill in that gap, you’re actually making the reader engage with intensity. This is the reader as co-writer – and that means super-engaged.] Rebus froze. “What’s happened?” [Again: you can’t convey the same thing with fewer words. Again, the shimmering anxiety about what has still not been said has extra force precisely because of the clipped style.] “Look, it might not be him …” [A brilliantly oblique way of indicating, “But I’m frigging terrified that it is.” Oblique is good. Clipped is good.] “Where are you?” [A non-sequitur, but totally consistent with the way people think and talk.] “Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.” Just as he hasn’t responded to what she had just said, now it’s her turn to ignore him. Again, it’s the absences that make this bit of dialogue live. Just imagine how flaccid this same bit would be if she had said, “Let’s not get into where I am right now. Look, it’s important that you describe him for me . . .”] In short: Gaps are good. They make the reader work, and a ton of emotion and inference swirls in the gaps. Want to achieve the same effect? Copy Rankin. Keep it tight. And read this. Dialogue Rule 2: Watch Those Beats Oftener than not, great story moments hinge on character exchanges, that have dialogue at their heart.  Even very short dialogue can help drive a plot, showing more about your characters and what’s happening than longer descriptions can. (How come? It’s the thing we just talked about: how very spare dialogue makes the reader work hard to figure out what’s going on, and there’s an intensity of energy released as a result.) But right now, I want to focus on the way that dialogue needs to create its own emotional beats. So that the action of the scene and the dialogue being spoken becomes the one same thing. Here’s how screenwriting guru Robert McKee puts it: Dialogue is not [real-life] conversation. … Dialogue [in writing] … must have direction. Each exchange of dialogue must turn the beats of the scene … yet it must sound like talk. This excerpt from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is a beautiful example of exactly that. It’s  short as heck, but just see what happens. As before, I’ll give you the dialogue itself, then the same thing again with my notes on it: “The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?” “No, Dr Lecter.” “Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.” Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk. “I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.” Here Hannibal holds power, despite being behind bars. He establishes control, and Clarice can’t push back, even as he pushes her. We see her hesitancy, Hannibal’s power. (And in such few words! Can you even imagine trying to do as much as this without the power of dialogue to aid you? I seriously doubt if you could.) But again, here’s what’s happening in detail “The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?” [Beat 1: What a great line of dialogue! Invoking the chrysalis and moth here is magical language. it’s like Hannibal is the magician, the Prospero figure. Look too at the switch of tack in the middle of this snippet. First he’s talking about Billy wanting to change – then about Clarice’s ability to find him. Even that change of tack emphasises his power: he’s the one calling the shots here; she’s always running to keep up.] “No, Dr Lecter.” [Beat 2: Clarice sounds controlled, formal. That’s not so interesting yet . . . but it helps define her starting point in this conversation, so we can see the gap between this and where she ends up.] “Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.” [Beat 3: Another whole jump in the dialogue. We weren’t expecting this, and we’re already feeling the electricity in the question. How will Clarice react? Will she stay formal and controlled?] Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk. [Beat 4: Nope! She’s still controlled, just about, but we can see this question has daunted her. She can’t even answer it! Can’t even look at the person she’s talking to. Notice as well that we’re outside quotation marks here – she’s not talking, she’s just looking at something. Writing great dialogue is about those sections of silence too – the bits that happen beyond the quotation marks.] “I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.” [Beat 5: And Lecter immediately calls attention to her reaction, thereby emphasising that he’s observed at and knows what it means.] Overall, you can see that not one single element of this dialogue leaves the emotional balance unaltered. Every line of dialogue alters the emotional landscape in some way. That’s why it feels so intense & engaging. Want to achieve the same effect? Just check your own dialogue, line by line. Do you feel that emotional movement there all the time? If not, just delete anything unnecessary until you feel the intensity and emotional movement increase. Dialogue Rule 3: Keep It Oblique One more point, which sits kind of parallel to the bits we’ve talked about already. It’s this. If you want to create some terrible dialogue, you’d probably come up with something like this: “Hey Judy.” “Hey, Brett.” “You OK?” “Yeah, not bad. What do you say? Maybe play some tennis later?” “Tennis? I’m not sure about that. I think it’s going to rain.” Tell me honestly: were you not just about ready to scream there? If that dialogue had continued like that for much longer, you probably would have done. And the reason is simple. It was direct, not oblique. So direct dialogue is where person X says something or asks a question, and person Y answers in the most logical, direct way. We hate that! As readers, we hate it. Oblique dialogue is where people never quite answer each other in a straight way. Where a question doesn’t get a straightforward response. Where random connections are made. Where we never quite know where things are going. As readers, we love that. It’s dialogue to die for. And if you want to see oblique dialogue in action, here’s a snippet from Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. (We don’t usually reference films so much on this blog, but there’s an obvious exception when it comes to talking about dialogue.) So here goes. This is the young Mark Zuckerberg talking with a lawyer: Lawyer: “Let me re-phrase this. You sent my clients sixteen emails. In the first fifteen, you didn’t raise any concerns.”MZ: ‘Was that a question?’L: “In the sixteenth email you raised concerns about the site’s functionality. Were you leading them on for 6 weeks?”MZ: ‘No.’L: “Then why didn’t you raise any of these concerns before?”MZ: ‘It’s raining.’L: “I’m sorry?”MZ: ‘It just started raining.’L: “Mr. Zuckerberg do I have your full attention?”MZ: ‘No.’L: “Do you think I deserve it?”MZ: ‘What?’L: “Do you think I deserve your full attention?” I won’t discuss that in any detail, because the technique really leaps out at you. It’s particularly visible here, because the lawyer wants and expects to have a direct conversation. (I ask a question about X, you give me a reply that deals with X. I ask a question about Y, and …) Zuckerberg here is playing a totally different game, and it keeps throwing the lawyer off track – and entertaining the viewer/reader too. Want to achieve the same effect? Just keep your dialogue not quite joined up. People should drop in random things, go off at tangents, talk in non-sequiturs, respond to an emotional implication not the thing that’s directly on the page – or anything. Just keep it broken. Keep it exciting! Dialogue Rule 4: Reveal Character Dynamics And Emotion Let’s take a look here at Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower as another example. Protagonist Charlie, a high school freshman, learns his long-time crush, Sam, may like him back, after all. Here’s how that dialogue goes: “Okay, Charlie … I’ll make this easy. When that whole thing with Craig was over, what did you think?” … “Well, I thought a lot of things. But mostly, I thought your being sad was much more important to me than Craig not being your boyfriend anymore. And if it meant that I would never get to think of you that way, as long as you were happy, it was okay.” … … “I can’t feel that. It’s sweet and everything, but it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.” “Like what?” … “I don’t know. Like take their hands when the slow song comes up for a change. Or be the one who asks someone for a date.” The words sound human. Sam and Charlie are tentative, exploratory – and whilst words do the job of ‘turning’ a scene, both receiving new information, driving action on – we also see their dynamic. And so we connect to them. We see Charlie’s reactive nature, checking with Sam what she wants him to do. Sam throws out ideas, but it’s clear she wants him to be doing this thinking, not her, subverting Charlie’s idea of passive selflessness as love. The dialogue shows us the characters, as clearly as anything else in the whole book. Shows us their differences, their tentativeness, their longing. Want to achieve the same effect? Understand your characters as fully as you can. The more you can do this, the more naturally you’ll write dialogue that’s right for them. You can get tips on knowing your characters here. Dialogue Rule 5: Keep Your Dialogue Tags Simple A lot of writers try to add colour to their writing by showering it with a lot of vigorous dialogue tags. Like this: “Not so,” she spat. “I say that it is,” he roared. “I know a common blackbird when I see it,” she defended. “Oh. You’re a professional ornithologist now?” he attacked, sarcastically. That’s pretty feeble dialogue, no matter what. But the biggest part of the problem is simply that the dialogue tags (spat, roared, and so on) are so highly coloured, they take away interest from the dialogue itself – and it’s the words spoken by the characters that ought to capture the reader’s interest. Almost always, therefore, you should confine yourself to the blandest of words: He said She answered He replied And so on. Truth is, in a two-handed dialogue where it’s obvious who’s speaking, you don’t even need the word said. The simple rule: use dialogue tags as invisibly as you can. I’ve written about a million words of my Fiona Griffiths series, and I doubt if I’ve used words other than say / reply and other very simple tags more than a dozen or so times in the entire series. Keep it simple! Dialogue Rule 6: Get The Punctuation Right Do make sure you punctuate correctly. It’s so simple and looks so bad if you get it wrong. Here’s what you have to know: Each new line of dialogue (ie: each new speaker) needs a new paragraph – even if the dialogue is very short.Action sentences within dialogue get their own paragraphs too.The only exception to this rule is if the sentence interrupts an otherwise continuous piece of dialogue. for example: “Yes,” she said. She brushed away a fly that had landed on her cheek. “I do think hippos are the best animals.”When you are ending a line of dialogue with he said / she said, the sentence beforehand ends with a comma not a full stop (or period), as in this for example: “Yes,” she said.If the line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, you still don’t have a capital letter for he said / she said.  For example: “You like hippos?” he said.If the he said / she said lives in the middle of one continuous sentence of dialogue, you need to deploy those commas like a comma=deploying ninja. Like this for example: “If you like hippos,” he said, “then you are deserve to be sat on by one.”And use quotation marks, dummy. You know to do that, without me telling you, right? That’s not quite a complete set of rules, but honestly? You don’t need one. If you live by these simple rules, your dialogue will be punctuated fine. A Few Last Dialogue Rules If you struggle with writing dialogue, read plays or screenplays for inspiration. Read Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. Anything by Elmore Leonard is great. Ditto Raymond Chandler or Donna Tartt. Some last tips: Keep speeches short. If a speech runs for more than three sentences or so, it (usually) risks being too long.Ensure characters speak in their own voice. And make sure your characters don’t sound the same as each other.Add intrigue. Add slang and banter. Lace character chats with foreshadowing. You needn’t be writing a thriller to do this.Get in late and out early. Don’t bother with small talk. Decide the point of each interaction, begin with it as late as possible, ending as soon as your point is made.Interruption is good. So are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other. And if you found his helpful, you might want to think about taking our complete 17 hour How To Write course. That course is quite expensive if you want to purchase it outright, but you can get unlimited access by taking out a simple cancel-any-time membership to Jericho Writers. Learn more or Sign up. We’d love it if you joined us! About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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10 Great Examples Of How To Begin A Short Story

by Dan Brotzel In this article, author Dan Brotzel shares 10 examples of how to create a perfect opening for your short story. In a short story, where a whole world or emotional journey can be summoned up and dramatised in the space of a few pages, every line and word has to count – and that’s especially true of the way you begin. Here, for inspiration, are a range of starting strategies from some great exponents of the form… 1. The Telling Detail “One Dollar And Eighty-seven Cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheek burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.” From ‘The Gift of the Magi’, by O Henry Sometimes known as the American Maupassant, O Henry’s stories are tightly plotted narratives of ordinary lives with lots of humour that usually end with a classic sting in the tale that, while surprising, flows with unerring logic from the story’s premise. In this classic tale, we know the whole set-up within a few lines. It is Christmas and Della has no money to buy a present for her beloved husband James. In their whole house they possess only two things that they really value: his gold watch and her golden hair. In a formula that has been much copied since, we watch Della sell her golden locks to raise money to buy a fancy fob for James’s watch, while unbeknownst to her he has pawned his watch to buy her a set of ivory combs that she has long coveted for her (now departed) hair! It is a tale that sounds tragic, but is actually heartening, because in the end the couple are confirmed in their real gift: the love they bear each other. (Plus, of course, Della’s hair will grow back!) But it all stems from a single telling detail: that opening cinematic detail of a tiny sum of money, piled up in pennies and scrimped from tense negotiations with tradespeople, that is all Della thinks she has to show James how much she loves him. 2. The Paradox “In the beginning, Sanford Carter was ashamed of becoming an Army cook. This was not from snobbery, at least not from snobbery of the most direct sort. During the two and a half years Carter had been in the Army he had come to hate cooks more and more. They existed for him as a symbol of all that was corrupt, overbearing, stupid, and privileged in Army life…” From ‘The Language of Men,’ by Normal Mailer Published in 1953, ‘The Language of Men’ tells the story of an over-sensitive, frustrated serviceman who, after years of being passed up for promotion and never finding his niche in the army, ends up as a cook – the thing he hates most about the army. Immediately we are curious: What will happen to a man who becomes the thing he most despises? Carter feels that he never manages to understand other men, to feel either equal to them or able to lead them. ‘Whenever responsibility had been handed to him, he had discharged it miserably, tensely, over conscientiously. He had always asked too many questions, he had worried the task too severely, he had conveyed his nervousness to the men he was supposed to lead.’ Even after starting to enjoy his work as a cook, the story builds to an incident where the men come to him and ask for a tin of oil for a fish fry-up they are organising – a party to which he is not invited. Carter stands his ground, and earns some grudging respect, but then undercuts it all again after the event with his ‘unmanliness’ – the true source of his self-disgust. The whole drama of a man failing to fit in with and gain respect among other men is foreshadowed in the paradox that’s set in motion in the story’s opening lines. 3. The Historical Backdrop “Paris was blockaded, starved, in its death agony. Sparrows were becoming scarcer and scarcer on the rooftops and the sewers were being depopulated. One ate whatever one could get.As he was strolling sadly along the outer boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and his stomach empty, M. Morissot, watchmaker by trade but local militiaman for the time being, stopped short before a fellow militiaman whom he recognized as a friend. It was M Sauvage, a riverside acquaintance.”From ‘Two Friends,’ by Guy de Maupassant A protege of Flaubert and the author of the novel Bel-Ami, Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories, many of them – like this one – set during the Franco-Prussian war, and showing how innocent lives are swept up and crushed by futile, brutal conflict. This story starts with a brief paragraph of context and another telling detail: the absence of sparrows. At this point in the conflict, the Prussian army has established a blockade around Paris and is seeking to starve out its citizens. The two friends of the title were passionate fishermen in peacetime, and after a chance encounter they convince each other to go off and fish once again. As well as the hunger they feel, they are motivated by a hankering for a return to the innocent pleasures of their pre-war lives. They slip out past the French lines, to an area where they think they will be safe, but after a brief interval of bliss the Prussians detect them, with tragic consequences… The opening line describes the war situation in vivid, journalistic terms, after which we are plunged into the tale of these two innocents. In a few telling phrases, it provides context and general background for the very particular tragedy which is about to ensue. 4. The Anecdotal Approach “Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.“That’s an… unusual choice,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.”From ‘Cat Person,’ by Kristen Roupenian ‘Cat Person,’ reportedly the first short story ever to go viral, tells a simple tale of a doomed romantic encounter. Margot, a student, meets an older guy, Robert, and they begin a flirtation that turns into a date that turns into a rather unsatisfactory (for her) sexual encounter. Robert starts off as rather funny and charming, but over time we see that he is needy, insensitive, possessive, and utterly unaware of what Margot is thinking or feeling. Margot regrets the whole thing but doesn’t know how to tell him; Robert, when he is let down, turns all-too-predictably toxic. In short order he goes from mooning after her to demanding who she’s slept with to calling her a ‘whore.’ This sequence of events struck a chord with many, many people because it is clearly so familiar. The story emphasises the banality of the whole progression by narrating events in a straightforwardly chronological, anecdotal style, right from the opening paragraph. This approach serves to underline the depressing banality of Robert’s misogyny while implicitly asking the question: Why should women have to accept this as normal? 5. In Media Res “And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that -parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.”From ‘The Garden Party,’ by Katherine Mansfield Literally ‘in the middle of things’, an in media res beginning is where the story drops us into the middle of the action of the narrative, so that we are instantly caught up in events. In this case, we are plunged into the excited bustle of a well-to-do family preparing a sumptuous garden party, and the story does a fantastic job of building up the anticipation and painting a picture of the affluence of the hosts. There is a marquee to put up, a band on its way, an enormous delivery of fancy flowers, fifteen kinds of sandwich, and a retinue of servants to ensure everything is ready. Beginning with ‘and’ adds to this effect, giving us to understand that garden-party fever has been going on already for days, and seeming to hark back to earlier worries about what the weather would be like on the day. But against all this blithely affluent gaiety comes the story’s turning point: news that a poor workingman living in a cottage nearby has died in a sudden accident. Laura, a daughter of the house, wonders if it appropriate to continue with the party, especially as all the noise and music and bustle will carry to the grieving widow (who also has six children, we later discover). But just as happens to the reader with the introduction, she is swept along by the occasion, and only really reconsiders the incident at the end of a successful party, when her mother suggest she take a basket of sandwiches from the party down to the widow. Laura’s reaction to this difficult task is initially ambiguous, but ultimately it seems as if again she finds a way to paint the tragedy in complacently optimistic colours, choosing to find a serenity and beauty on the dead man’s face and so blind herself to the grim reality of the tragedy and the agony of the grieving wife. 6. The Refrain “The thing about being the murdered extra is you set the plot in motion.You were a girl good at walking past cameras, background girl, corner-of-the-frame girl. Never-held-a-script girl, went-where-the-director-said girl.You’ll be found in an alley, it’s always an alley for girls like you, didn’t-quite-make-it girls, living-four-to-a-one-bedroom-apartment girls. You’ll be found in an alley, you’ll be mistaken for a broken mannequin at first, you’ll be given a nickname. Blue Violet, White Rose, something reminiscent of Elizabeth Short, that first girl like you, that most famous one. The kind of dead girl who never really dies.”From ‘Being the Murdered Extra,’ by Cathy Ulrich Cathy Ulrich’s extraordinary ‘Murdered Ladies’ flash fictions present a series of stories – there are 40 of them in her collection, Ghosts of You – which always begin with the same line: The thing about being the murdered extra/girlfriend/moll/classmate/witch/dancer [etc] is you set the plot in motion. It’s a thought-provoking line, which grows in power with every repetition. On the face of it seems strange to see these women as setting the plot in motion, when they are all victims of male violence. But we start to see that what they set in motion is actually the story that the people who survive them will appropriate from their lost lives, and blithely relate in their absence. Each woman may set her plot in motion, but in each case she is not alive to explain how everyone gets her wrong, or projects their own version of events to absolve themselves too easily. We see that this theft of each woman’s own story is another violence that is done to them, something the stories seek in some small way to redeem. As Ulrich says: ‘Every story is looking for the lost girl from the title […] I am looking for the lost in these stories. I don’t know if I will ever find them.’ 7. Setting The Rules “The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified. These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods—this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons—it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. These things are forbidden—they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.”From ‘By the Waters of Babylon,’ by Stephen Vincent Benét In any story that seeks to build a world that is not ours, there is some work to be done in establishing the reality of that world – its customs, its landscape, its people, its rules. World-building stories can sometimes fall down when they indulge in too much of an expository info dump, as the accumulation of background detail can quickly dent narrative momentum. What’s so clever about the start of this story is that the rules are themselves the engine of the plot. We pan cinematically across the edges of the story’s territory, and understand the legends and forbidden areas of this world. But the quest of the narrator – who is indeed the son of a priest – will take him east, into the forbidden Place of the Gods (about which, of course, we are already very curious). At the outset of the story we do not the time in which the story is set, what kind of being he is, or where he lives. But all these things will be revealed as the narrator’s journey through a post-apocalyptic, post-technological world takes him to places that gradually start to seem very familiar… 8. Beginning With The Inciting Incident “The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a longtrousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.”From ‘Charles,’ by Shirley Jackson Screenwriting guru Robert Mckee describes the inciting incident as a moment that ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in your protagonist’s life’. It’s the moment when our main character is plunged out of their normal routine and a challenge or quest appears which will shape their journey, and with it the rest of the story. It’s common to locate this point near the start of the story after some introductory ‘normality,’ so that we can understand how the main character’s life is to be disrupted.But here the inciting incident is placed by mystery and horror writer Shirley Jackson – best known for The Haunting of Hill House – at the very start of the story. Everything that happens flows from Laurie starting kindergarten. Laurie gets cheekier and less innocent with each passing day, as he brings home increasingly hair-raising tales of an even naughtier boy called Charles. The whole story deals with the comic escalation of Charles’ behaviour, as reader and narrator alike become ever more curious to meet the errant child and speculate on what his parents are like. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that there is perhaps a clue in the mother’s lament in the opening paragraph about the end of an era of innocence… 9. The Thought Experiment “MY LOVER IS experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.”From ‘The Rememberer,’ by Aimee Bender Aimee Bender’s story begins by asking the reader to imagine something extraordinarily counterfactual: that her lover is regressing through millennia, going through the evolutionary process so fast – a million years a day, in reverse – that we can actually track his progress by the day. One day he is a baboon, another a salamander; eventually he is no longer even visible to the naked eye. As with so many of Bendee’s stories the result is mournful, strange, poetic and profound. She takes a surreal thought like this and turns into a powerful meditation on memory, the difference between evolution and maturity, speciesism and loss. And it all begins with that challenging idea which confronts us in the very first sentence. 10. THE CONUNDRUM “1-0. Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!Next door to the embassy is a health center. On the other side, a row of private residences, most of them belonging to wealthy Arabs (or so we, the people of Willesden, contend). They have Corinthian pillars on either side of their front doors, and—it’s widely believed—swimming pools out back. The embassy, by contrast, is not very grand. It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.”From ‘The Embassy of Cambodia,’ by Zadie Smith This subtle and absorbing story from Zadie Smith opens with a mystery: an embassy, set in a leafy north London suburb rather than a grand central district of the city, and a wall, behind which a mysterious game of badminton is being played. The rest of the story picks at this mystery and uses the imagined score in the ongoing game-playing as a backdrop to the unfolding tale of Fatou, a domestic servant to the affluent Derawals, who has escaped servitude and dodged abuse in Africa only to face privations and hardships in London. Each mini-chapter of the story is headed with a score from the badminton match – from 1-0 up to 21-0. This mechanism provides a rhythmic framework to the tale. We may never learn who actually holds the rackets, but we see that the back-and-forth motion behind the wall of an embassy – an institution with the power to grant deny or people access to whole a country – is a fitting counterpoint to the enforced travels of impoverished migrants, and to the desperate movements of Fatou’s hopes and fears in a world where she has little agency or resources, and only one friend. Now you’ve seen how these authors have done it, it’s time to get stuck into actually putting pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – and start writing your short story. For more from Dan, check out his top 10 steps for writing short stories (with even more examples!). About Dan Dan Brotzel’s debut short story collection, Hotel du Jack, was published in 2020 by Sandstone. He is also co-author of Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound, forthcoming), a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers group. His short stories have featured widely in litmags and competitions, and two have recently received Pushcart Prize nominations. You can keep up to date with Dan’s writing on twitter. Don’t forget to head on over to Townhouse to share your advice for writing short stories too!
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