Tension is the secret sauce that ensures that “I’ll read just one more page before bed” feeling. Four ways to ensure your story has the right amount:
1. Create a conflict your characters care about
Before you plan your story’s main conflicts, choose carefully. You want to create conflict that your characters care about. What does your character want to achieve and what could stand in their way? Conflict can be as seemingly insignificant as an internal struggle or a relationship breaking down. Or it can be as large as fate itself.
The last thing you want is for your story to read like an endless episode of The Amazing Race — with tension after tension and no breathing spaces. Your goal is to keep people reading, not to wear them out! You need quiet periods to build character and subtle plot points — gaps in the excitement to let readers fall in love with the characters.
It’s important topace your suspense, and while the big moments may grow until you reach the climax at the end of the book, along the way there should be smaller moments of tension and ease, too.
3. Raise the stakes — again and again
Your story will be too quick (and predictable) if your protagonist tries something and immediately succeeds. To maintain suspense and tension, your protagonist needs to try and fail a number of times. Or, if they succeed in reaching their goal at first, adverse consequences must lurk in the background.
To ensure rising conflict throughout, keep in mind the rule of threes. This simply means there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third succeeds. Don’t you often try a few times before you succeed? We want art to mirror life in this way.
Brainstorm rising and falling plot points and create two situations that take your character further from where they want to be before an event improves their situation. This is less a hard-and-fast rule than a reminder that success is often hard-won — the interesting and exciting type of success, that is!
4. Keep your reader curious
How did you feel the last time you read a really great book? Curious, engaged, excited? One of the keys to sustaining tension in a story is to keep the reader asking questions — particularly important for keeping readers engaged in the quieter moments of your story.
Essential to keeping your reader curious is to create characters who are interesting even when not in a state of emergency. Weave in questions your readers want answered. Try to raise these at the ends of chapters in particular, so you create a sense of propulsion to the next event — just enough so the one-more-page-before-bed becomes another, and another, and another.
Bridget McNulty is an author, journalist, and editor. She studied Creative Writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before writing her first novel. Bridget is also cofounder of NowNovel.com.
But even I don’t try to navigate the publishing world by myself, despite having been an author, an editor, a publisher, and a writing coach over the last 45 years.
That’s why I have an agent.
To land a traditional publishing deal—where the publishing house pays you and takes 100% of the financial risk, you’ll need an agent, too.
But know this: While you may be writing out of your passion for a burning message you want to share with the world, agents might appear to base their decisions solely on money.
But don’t despair.
That doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion—in fact you wouldn’t want an agent UNLESS they shared it. It simply means they must make a profit to stay in business
You want a literary agent who also:
Clicks with you
Knows the publishing landscape
Has enjoyed success in your genre
Carries an impeccable reputation
What A Literary Agent Does
He (and I’m using He inclusively here to represent men or women agents) handles the business side of your career, representing your writing to publishers.
While you would still work directly with the publishing house’s editor and proofreader, your agent would negotiate your agreement so you can stay in your lane.
It’s difficult to negotiate for yourself, even if you’re a veteran in the publishing industry.
Ultimately, an agent’s job is to make you money. He profits only when you do.
He receives thousands of manuscripts every year, searching for the next mega-bestseller, that rare gem that captures his attention so completely he forgets he’s reading.
That’s the one he will shop to publishers on the writer’s behalf.
He will negotiate every clause in the publishing contract to secure the best deal for the author.
Standard commission for a U.S.-based agent is 15% of all proceeds from the book, and 20% of any international income.
A common question is whether it makes sense for a writer to cede 15% of his income to an agent.
The answer is yes. It is unlikely you could negotiate a deal at the level an agent can, and they earn their cut.
What A Literary Agent Doesn’t Do
Landing an agent does not guarantee you a publishing deal.
Your agent will be your cheerleader and should guide you to your best work.
He may even help fine tune your manuscript before he submits it anywhere. But he not your editor, nor is it his job to rework your manuscript.
Do You Need a Literary Agent to Get Published?
Besides the instant credibility of an agent’s interest—establishing that you and your writing has survived a rigorous vetting process, you’ll also get valuable input and coaching on how to fashion your query and proposal.
Though it’s as hard to find an agent as it is to find a publisher, it’s nearly impossible to get traditionally published without one.
Most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but even those who do would insist that you find representation if they offer a contract, so there will be no question they took advantage of you.
They might recommend a specific one, but you should do your own due diligence to find your own.
For example, my novel Riven has two lead characters—Brady Wayne Darby (a no-account loser from a broken home) and Thomas Carey (a struggling small church pastor).
Their lives initially play out in separate settings, but eventually their stories intersect. My Theme ties the stories together: The extent of forgiveness for even the most heinous crime.
Can Thomas forgive those who’ve treated him so shabbily that his own daughter has abandoned her faith?
Can Brady Darby be forgiven for the ultimate mortal sin?
Ideally your readers think for days about your theme. They may remember the plot, but they should chew on the theme.
Digging Deeper: 7 Plot Types
While stories seem limitless, most plots fall into these categories:
1. Adventure: A person goes to new places, tries new things, and faces myrid obstacles. Examples: Harry Potter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Chronicles of Narnia, Gulliver’s Travels, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
2. Change: A person undergoes a dramatic transformation. Examples: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Beauty and the Beast, A Little Princess, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings.
3. Romance: Jealousy and misunderstandings threaten lovers’ happiness. Examples: Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, The Fault in Our Stars, The Notebook, Wuthering Heights, Water for Elephants, Redeeming Love.
4. Mistake: An innocent person caught in a situation he doesn’t understand must overcome foes and dodge dangers he never expected. Examples: Indiana Jones, Finding Nemo, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Left Behind.
5. Lure: A person must decide whether to give in to temptation, revenge, rage, or some other passion. He grows from discovering things about himself.Examples: The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Riven, A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, The Hobbit, MacBeth, The Pearl, Oliver Twist, The Secret Life of Bees, Animal Farm.
6. Race: Characters chase wealth or fame but must overcome others to succeed. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Treasure Island, Chariots of Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Devil Wears Prada.
7. Gift: An ordinary person sacrifices to aid someone else. The lead may not be aware of his own heroism until he rises to the occasion. Examples: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, The Green Mile, Charlotte’s Web, Schindler’s List.
Regardless which basic plot you choose, your goal should be to grab your reader by the throat from the get-go and never let go.
Plot Development Secrets
Ask yourself two questions: Is your story idea weighty enough to warrant 75,000 to 100,000 words, and Is it powerful enough to hold the reader to the end?
Discovering novelist Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction) was the best thing that ever happened to my career. I immersed myself in this book in the 1980s, and my writing has never been the same. It has informed every novel I’ve written since, and several have sold in the tens of millions.
If, like me, you’re not an Outliner but write by the seat of your pants (we call ourselves Pantsers), don’t panic—this is just a basic structure, not an outline. But, even we Pantsers need a basic idea where we’re headed.
Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
The terrible trouble depends on your genre, but in short it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character. For a thriller it might be a life or death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman must decide between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice is revealed a disaster.
Just remember, this trouble must bear stakes high enough to carry the entire novel.
One caveat: whatever the dilemma, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character. The trouble is seen in an entirely different light once a reader is invested in the character.
2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only worse…
Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist.
Every complication must be logical (not the result of coincidence), and things must grow progressively worse.
3. …until the situation appears hopeless.
Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.
Make your predicament so hopeless that it forces your lead to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
4. Finally, your hero learns to succeed against all odds.
Beginning with chapter one, page one, your singular mission is to make every word count.
Gone are the days when a reader enjoyed curling up with a book and spending the first hour or two by immersing herself in the beauty of the setting and culture. These are important, certainly, and must be woven into the narrative as seasoning.
But today’s readers have nanosecond attention spans. By the end of the first page, they should be hooked.
One final piece of advice: avoid main characters who can do no wrong.
Heroes should be fundamentally likable, but we need to see their struggles too. They shouldn’t be wimps or cowards, but they must have imperfections. Character arc is crucial to a successful plot.
Villains must be three-dimensional too. Yes, even bad guys need a soft side, a weak spot, maybe even a modicum of generosity. And their evil has to have some genuine motivation. No one is simply mean for no reason.
Adding dimension to your characters gives dimension to your plot.
As novelists, you and I have one job: to invent a story for readers that delivers a satisfying experience. Readers love to be educated and entertained, but they never forget what moves them.
Stephen King advises, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.” But you’ll find that a whole lot easier if you take the time to develop the plot of your story using the powerful tools above.
Realistic, evocative dialogue is an important part of any successful story. We need our characters’ interactions to be authentic, consistent, and engaging to draw readers in to what’s happening. So when we’re learning to write, we spend a lot of time on mechanics—learning all the grammar and punctuation rules. But proper form is just the first step.
When writing strong dialogue, we often forget that real-life conversations are rarely straightforward. On the surface, it may seem we’re engaging in simple back-and-forth, but if you look deeper, to some degree our conversations are carefully constructed. We hide our emotions, withhold information, dance around what we really mean, avoid certain topics, downplay shortcomings, or emphasize strengths—all of which leads to exchanges that aren’t totally honest.
Completely candid dialogue scenes fall flat because that’s not the way people converse. Subtext plays a huge role in conversation. It’s often tied to how characters are feeling, which can trigger readers’ emotions and increase their engagement. So we need to include this crucial element in our dialogue scenes.
Simply, subtextis the underlying meaning. Hidden elements the character isn’t comfortable sharing—their true opinions, what they really want, what they’re afraid of, and emotions that make them feel vulnerable—constitute the subtext. They’re important because the character wants them hidden. This results in contradictory words and actions.
A Subtext Example
Consider this exchange between a teenaged daughter and her dad.
“So how’d the party go?”
Dionne plastered on a smile and buried herself in Instagram. “Great.”
“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”
Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t dare swallow. Despite the hour, Dad’s eyes shone and searched, spotlights carving her mocha-infused fog.
“The usual. Sarah, Allegra, Jordan.” She shrugged. Nothing to see here. Move along.
“What about Trey? I ran into his mom at the office yesterday and she said he was going.”
“Um, yeah. I think he was there.” She scrolled, images blurring.
“He sounds like a good kid. Maybe we could have him and his mom over for dinner.”
Her stomach lurched. “Oh, I don’t know.” Her fingers trembled, so she abandoned the phone and sat on her hands to keep them still. “We don’t really hang with the same crowd.”
“Well, think about it. Couldn’t hurt to branch out and get to know some new people.”
Dionne blew out a shaky breath. How could her dad be so smart at work and so stupid about people?
Something happened at the party involving a boy Dionne’s now avoiding, and she clearly doesn’t want her father to know about it. While Dad is kept in the dark, the reader becomes privy to Dionne’s true emotions: nervousness, fear, and possibly guilt.
This is the beauty of subtext in dialogue. It allows the character to carry on whatever subterfuge she deems necessary while revealing her true emotions and motivations to the reader. It’s also a great way to add tension and conflict. Without subtext, this scene is boring, just two people chatting. With it, we see Dionne desperately trying to keep her secrets while it becomes increasingly difficult—even unhealthy—to do so.
So how do we write subtext into our characters’ conversations without confusing the reader? It just requires combining five common vehicles for showing emotion. Let’s look at how these were used in the example.
We all go a little Pinocchio when we start talking, and Dionne is no exception. Her words scream status quo: nothing happened at the party and she doesn’t feel anything in particular. But the reader can clearly see this isn’t the case.
2. Body Language
Nonverbal communication often reveals to readers the truth beneath a character’s words. Notice Dionne’s body language: the plastered-on smile, frantic social media scrolling, and trembling hands. Readers hear what she’s saying, but her body language clues them in that something else is going on.
3. Visceral Reactions
These are the internal physical responses to high emotion. They’re not visible, but the point-of-view character will likely reference them, since they’re so strong. Here, Dionne’s dry mouth and lurching stomach contradict her claims that everything went swimmingly at the party.
Because they’re private, thoughts are honest. Dionne’s mental musings (nothing to see here; move along) show that she desperately wants her father to drop this line of questioning. And her final bit of internal dialogue reinforces that she knows something he doesn’t. Because there’s no reason for characters to disguise their thoughts, this can be the best vehicle for showing readers the truth behind the words.
5. Vocal Cues
We choose our words carefully when we’re hiding something; we may even do certain things with our body to fool others. But when emotions are in flux, the voice often changes, and at first, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Shifts in volume, pitch, timbre, and speed of speech happen before the character can force the voice back into submission. So variations in vocal cues can show readers that not all is as it seems.
Nonverbal vehicles are like annoying little brothers and sisters, tattling on the dialogue and revealing true emotion. Put them all together and they fill out the character’s narrative and paint a complete picture for readers. And you’ll end up with nuanced and emotionally layered dialogue that can intrigue readers and pull them deeper into your story.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and author. Her latest publication is a second edition of the bestselling Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the bestselling original volume. Her books are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. You can find Becca at her Writers Helping Writers blog and her website for authors, One Stop For Writers.
The more you’ve done, the less you need say about it. Don’t emphasize your lack of experience, but resist the urge to exaggerate or embellish.
You need not list your entire resume. Instead, refer to a web page where an agent can find more details.
Better to just say something like, “I’ve been a professor of astrophysics for more than two decades, the last four years at Notre Dame.”
An amazing book idea can even transcend the need for a vast platform. So if you don’t have one, it’s all the more important to well represent the potential of your book.
6—Exhibits your flexibility and professionalism.
Keep it brief and express your ability to provide whatever is requested: proposal, synopsis, sample chapters, whatever. Conclude with a simple “Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Be sure to:
Include your book’s genre, title, and expected word count.
Properly format: limit yourself to a single page, single-spaced, and use a 12 pt. serif type. The shorter your letter the better, but say what you need to.
Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T, including how to send (via email attachment, not as an attachment, by snail mail [rare], etc.).
Gushing, flattering, or waxing obvious, like, “You’ll notice I got it to you early, because I’m so excited,” or “I hope you like it.” Represent yourself as more potential colleague than fan. Be professional.
Submitting more than one page. Trust me, your query will be ignored if it’s too long.
Querying only one agent at a time. Volume is your friend.
Typos. Proofread! Then proofread it again. Even one typo in such a short document smacks of amateurism. Have someone read it with fresh eyes.
“I sent my query letter, now what do I do?”
Be patient. Occupy yourself with your next project idea.
Some agencies say that if you get no response after a certain period, assume they’re not interested. That’s rude, and sometimes you’re not even told whether they received it in the first place. In that case, wait six weeks and follow up with kind note asking about the status.
Best case: the agent reads your query and immediately asks for more. That’s rare, but it happens.
Agents get thousands of submissions, and they reject most of them within minutes.
Too many writers give them too many reasons.
My goal is to get you to where you’re seen as the next success. That’s why agents are in the business.
Despite how many ideas they reject, they’re longing to discover the next bestseller. Be the one who writes it!
Need help writing your book? Click here to download my ultimate 20-step guide.
Before an Acquisitions Editor or an Agent reads a word of your manuscript, they can tell if it’s properly formatted.
That’s crucial. Why?
It’s about more than looks. Sure, they’re going to decide on buying your work largely on the writing and market potential.
So why is formatting so important?
Any errors will have to be fixed before printing — which adds costs on their end.
Poor formatting indicates that either you didn’t read their submission guidelines or can’t follow directions.
Proper formatting doesn’t guarantee publication, nor does poor formatting guarantee rejection. But you’ve worked hard on your manuscript. You want to give it the best chance to become a book.
This guide offers you:
Formatting guidelines to ensure your manuscript looks professional
Simple instructions to formatting in Microsoft Word.
An example from my own writing
Need help writing your book? Click here to download my ultimate 20-step guide.
Getting Started: What is a Manuscript?
A manuscript is your work of fiction or nonfiction that you submit to a publisher or agent in the hope that someone will turn it into a published book.
What is Formatting?
Formatting is how your manuscript looks. This includes things like whether the lines are single- or double-spaced. What size font? What typeface? How are numbers rendered — as digits or written out?
Manuscript Formatting Guidelines
Each agent and publisher may have slightly different submission guidelines — some specifying that they prefer The Chicago Manual of Style or the AP (Associated Press) Style, and some offering style specifics of their own.
If you’re submitting to one who specifies, naturally you want to give them what they want.
But some don’t give instructions beyond “standard manuscript format.” Then your best bet is to make your own choices, but be sure you’re consistent.
For instance, if you write out numbers between zero and nine and use digits for any after that, do it the same way every time. If they wanted to change them, they can do it easily.
As for how to layout your manuscript pages and determine their look, following certain general rules will make your manuscript look professional. For more detail, refer to the “Implementing Formatting” section.
Use 12-point type
Use a serif font; the most common choice is Times Roman
Double space your manuscript
No extra space between paragraphs
Only one space between sentences
Indent each paragraph half an inch (setting a tab, not using several spaces)
Text should be flush left and ragged right, not justified
If you choose to add a line between paragraphs to indicate a change of location or passage of time, center a typographical dingbat (like ***) on the line
Black text on a white background only
One-inch margins (the default in Word)
Create a header with the title followed by your last name and the page number. The header should appear on each page after the title page.
Additionally, agents and publishers want your name, email, address, and phone number in the top left and word count to the nearest hundred in the top right of your title page. Your title should be about a third of the the page from the top and centered. It should be the same size and font as the rest of the text. Don’t make it bold, italic, or larger.
Implementing the Format
Here’s more detail on each of these rules to help you understand how to format your manuscript in Microsoft Word.
Use 12-Point Type:
Twelve-point is the size of the text (letters an inch high would be 72-point type). Make sure your formatting is set to 12 by clicking this button in Word.
To format your document all at once, press and hold Ctrl and press A to select the whole document, then use the font change box to change all the text. You can apply this same procedure to any editorial change you wish to make in an entire file at a time.
Use a Serif Font:
Fonts are the various designs of typefaces. Serifs are those small projects that finish off a letter, as in Times Roman type. Choose Times New Roman, and you can’t go wrong. Here’s how to change your font, if necessary, using the same procedure we used to change the type size:
Double Space Your Manuscript:
This means your manuscript will a space between lines, like this:
This is an example of double spacing, as opposed to the single spacing of the rest of this blog post. You do not want to accomplish this by hitting Enter at the end of each line. That will result in such garbled formatting that it’s an almost automatic rejection. Set your word processor to double space using this button:
No Extra Space Between Paragraphs:
Notice the extra space between the paragraphs of this blog post? Manuscripts shouldn’t have those because published books customarily don’t. (And if they do, it’s an indication the book was self-published.). Unfortunately, Word is often defaulted to adding .8 points extra between paragraphs, so you’ll want to change that this way (and make it your default):
Only One Space Between Sentences:
Those of us who learned to type on typewriters were taught to hit the space bar twice between sentences, and it’s a hard habit to break. But you never see more than one space between sentences in published books.
So if you’ve already written your manuscript with two spaces between sentences, don’t despair. There’s a shortcut to fixing this in Microsoft Word.
First, click Replace.
You should see a box labeled “Find and Replace.” In the first box, type two spaces. In the second box type one space. This tells the word processor, “Wherever you see two spaces together, change that to one space.”
Finally, click “Replace All.”
Indent Each Paragraph Half an Inch:
Choose this option in the menu shown here, not by hitting the space bar several times at the beginning of each paragraph. This way your new paragraphs are automatically indented when you hit Enter at the end of the previous one.
Text Should Ragged Right, not Justified:
Ragged Right means your text doesn’t line up perfectly against the right side of the page the way it does on the left. In a published book, text is often Justified, but that’s after editing and proofreading and final formatting. For your manuscript, any copy that you don’t want centered (like chapter titles) should be Flush Left and Ragged Right.
Your text should look like this:
Not like this:
Notice that the second paragraph adds space between the words to make the lines all the same length. Click here to make your text ragged right.
One Inch Margins:
Your margins are the white space at the tops and bottoms and sides of the page where there is no text. They should be one inch by default.
If you need to adjust them in Microsoft Word, simply click on Layout, then Margins, and choose the first option, Normal.
Creating a Header:
A header is text that appears above each page before the first line. For your manuscript it should show your last name at the left, the book title centered, and the page number to the right.
Do not include a header on the title page.
To create a header in Microsoft Word, move your cursor into the margin above the top line and click twice. A new tab should appear at the top that reads “Header and Footer Tools.” Within that, click the button labeled “Page Number.” You’ll see a drop-down menu that allows you to place the page number on the right.
To keep your header from appearing on the first page, press “Different First Page” under the “Header and Footer Tools” tab.
Example from My Own Writing
Here’s the title page of the manuscript of my new novel, Dead Sea Rising, that I submitted to my publisher. Yours should look something like this:
Too many writers worry more about formatting that they do the writing of their nonfiction book or novel manuscript.
If all the above tips read like Greek to you, get a young person to walk you through them. And if all else fails, follow as many of the basics as you can. The crucial ones are san serif typeface and 12 pt. size, Ragged Right, double spaced lines, one space between sentences, and indented paragraphs.
Most important to an Agent or an Acquisitions Editor is whether you have something to say, can write it engagingly, and tell a story (fiction or nonfiction).
Need help writing your book? Click here to download my ultimate 20-step guide.
Want to write in a favorite genre? Read at least 200 titles in it first.
Read everything you can. You’ll soon learn what works and what doesn’t.
4 – Start small.
Take time to build your craft and hone your skills on smaller projects before you try to write a book.
Journal. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Write short stories. Submit articles to magazines, newspapers, or e-zines.
Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing.
Attend a writers conference.
5 – Write, write, write.
Dreamers talk about writing. Writers write.
Keep writing even when you don’t feel like it.
Write every day. And don’t expect to be good at it at first. You were bad at walking until you learned to walk, bad at riding a bike until you learned how, bad at baking until you mastered it. Allow yourself room to grow.
6 – See yourself as a writer.
If you’ve read this far, I assume you’d like to become a better writer.
Don’t let imposter syndrome* crush your dream before you even give yourself a chance. [*Feeling as if you’re pretending because you don’t feel like a real writer.]
Do you have a message to share with the world?
Don’t listen to those who tell you you’ll never be good enough — even if they’re just voices in your head. You’ll guarantee failure if you don’t muster the courage to try.
Your goal with every word is to make your reader want to read the next and the next. Hook him and don’t let him go.
That doesn’t mean violence or chase scenes — unless you’re writing a thriller. It means avoiding too much scene setting and description and getting to the good stuff — the guts of the story — as soon as possible.
11 – Search and destroy passive voice.
I could tell you about subjects and objects and verbs and which is acting vs. being acted upon, avoiding adverbs, and all that. But unless you excelled at grammar and diagramming sentences, that’s going to sound like gibberish.
The easiest way to spot passive voice is to look for state-of-being verbs and often the word by.
Passive: The party was planned by Jill.
Active: Jill planned the party.
Passive: The wedding cake was created by Ben.
Active: Ben created the wedding cake.
Avoiding passive voice will set you apart from much of your competition and add power to your writing.
12 – Use powerful verbs. Avoid adverbs.
Ever wonder why an otherwise grammatically correct sentence lies there like a dead fish?
Your sentence might be full of those adjectives and adverbs your teachers and loved ones so admired in your writing when you were a kid. But the sentence doesn’t work.
Something I learned from The Elements of Style years ago changed the way I write and added verve to my prose: “Focus on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.”
You think you’re pretty talented. You think you’re pretty smart. And you are. But the best way to fail at being a writer is to spend all your time proving you know what you’re doing rather than learning from the people and resources around you.
I would want my younger self to realize that as wonderful as publication is, it isn’t the point of the writing process.
It’s just a stop along the road. Writing is more about the journey than the destination. As award-winning author Anne Lamott points out, “Being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Writing is.” So don’t let your non-published status get you down. Just enjoy where you are right now.
Put in the Time, and You Can Get Better at Writing
I’ve made it my life’s work to coach writers because I’d love to see you enjoy the benefits I’ve enjoyed.
These 15 steps aren’t overnight fixes. The process can be long and messy, but don’t quit. Commit to putting words on the page every day, and remain a lifelong learner. Then share your progress with me.
Need help writing your book? Click here to download my ultimate 20-step guide.
When we writers spend hours alone at the keyboard, that isolation can get to even us introverts.
The solution is to find a writers group—populated by like-minded fellow strugglers.
I belong to three—one that meets in person and two that interact online, and I encourage Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild members to find one or form their own.
If you’re serious about your writing dreams, a writers group can help you fulfill them.
Writers understand each other.
You can look to family and friends for support, but unless they’re writers, they’re not likely to really comprehend what you’re going through.
You want someone who’s been where you are.
Whatever your challenge, someone in your writers group has experienced the same and gained insight they’re happy to share.
Late motivational speaker Jim Rohn said we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.
That’s why I enjoy spending time with writers.
Before Joining a Writers Group
Know what you hope to gain from it.
A writers group should help you become a better craftsperson, not serve only as a cheerleading squad for you. And neither should it be the opposite—a gaggle of critics that leaves you feeling low after every meeting.
Rather, seek (or form) a group that includes at least one member who has succeeded in the business. Ideally, the leader should be someone who has published two or more books, has an agent, and knows how to work with editors at publishing houses.
Most important, be sure the leader allows both praise and constructive criticism. Otherwise you could wind up in a writers group where everyone praises everyone else’s work, yet no one gets published. Or one in which everyone criticizes each other’s writing but no one learns how to improve.
Guidelines for Joining a Writers Group
Choose as specific a writers group as possible. Some have writers of all sorts who write in a variety of genres—fiction, nonfiction, children’s, sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, you name it.
That isn’t all bad, but such assemblages tend to discuss what applies to all—the business side of things, like agents, contracts, promotion. If you’re looking to specifically improve your writing, look for a writers group made up of others in your genre.
How to Find a Writers Group
Finding an online writers group is as easy as publicizing your interest. Google or announce in social media your desire to interact with other writers in your genre.
In-person groups offer more dynamic interaction, but you may find online groups easier to form by genre.
If you can’t find a writers group that seems the right fit, consider starting one. Word Weavers offers a great model.
Even if you don’t live near other writers (don’t assume that till you’ve sought others in your area online), you could meet using video conferencing tools like Zoom and sharing manuscripts through email or via collaboration tools like Google Docs.
The #1 thing to remember when searching for a writers group:
You’re not alone. And you have plenty of options to find out who’s out there with you and for you.
The right writers group can help improve your craft, motivate you, and give you confidence. Finding one is worth the search.
Are you already in a writers group you love? Tell me about it in the comments.
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2. Google Docs
Google Docs is a great collaborative tool. My team and I are literally a thousand miles from each other, and we use this program virtually every day.
It’s a free, standard word processor that allows multiple people to work on the same document simultaneously. I’m working on this document in Google Docs right now.
Just as with Track Changes in Word, an agent or editor or accountability partner can help fine-tune your work-in-progress in Suggestion Mode. You accept or reject the suggestions, and you can both comment in the margin.
Easily share your work-in-progress via email or a link
Access from any device
Performance slows when tracking changes on documents of 80 or more pages
Unable to toggle between Tracked Changes and Final Version without accepting all the changes
Freedom allows you to temporarily block apps, websites, and social media across all your devices so you can focus on writing (don’t worry, people can still reach you in an emergency).
You can even schedule the app to work automatically when you need it most — when you’re writing.
If you’re like me, you’ll be glad for the freedom from online distractions where “just a few seconds” turns into hours of unproductive net surfing. Freedom can help you focus and increase your productivity.
And it works on all devices.
Cost: $6.99 per month, $29 per year, or a $129 lifetime fee.