Beat Changes

Those who knew me back in high school or college know that, while I did do creative writing groups back then, I was really more of a drama kid. Fall semester always meant the school play, and Spring the musical. While acting and writing are certainly different art forms, I do thank that experience for helping with one very important part of creative writing: Dialogue. You might be speaking someone else’s words when reciting a script, but you certainly develop an ear for how conversations flow.

The other very important lesson I picked up was beat changes.

You see, unlike a novel or short story, plays tend to give very little direction. You might see something like:

John: (sarcastic) No. Really?

Which would tell the actor how the line is meant to be read, but, for the most part, the script allows the actors to make roles their own without any sort of narration that says how each line is meant to be delivered.

Because of this lack of direction, it also is up to the actor to figure out where there are natural pauses, emotional changes, or just separate thoughts all crammed into one line. These breaks are–as my college drama professor was always prone to yelling at us–beat changes. And they are very important to acting. By picking out where there are natural shifts, it is possible to add complexity to a scene rather than just speaking the words.

In writing fiction, there is something similar. While our characters might not be picking out all of the emotional shifts in a scene, breaking up the beat changes for the reader will make for more powerful scenes.

So, how do you do that? The easiest way is to give the readers a natural pause. This gives the same effect as an actor physically giving the audience a beat change. Pauses can be done a number of ways, but the simplest to use dialogue tags/narration properly.

For example, say your character has a beat change between two sentences in dialogue. Just the line might be something like:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. Are you listening to me?”

There is naturally a beat change between those two sentences. Without any sort of break between the sentences, however, they end up mushing into each other. There is no “beat” for the reader to switch tones in their head. The emotion you have for “I just don’t know what to do anymore” carries straight over to “Are you listening to me?” By instead writing:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “Are you listening to me?”

You have a natural break between the lines. It can be stretched out a little longer using “She paused” depending on what suits your scene.

These beat changes can become even more powerful by using the tag to “show” the emotions/stretch out the beat (rather than just using the word “paused”). For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed, looked up again. “Are you listening to me?”

Now there’s action “on stage” that is showing the switch in thoughts, along with a sizable break between the two sentences that gives the illusion of the character pausing–all using body language, like an actor would.

To really stretch out a beat change, you can even separate the dialogue all together. For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed.

John stared at his hands.

Jane frowned. “Are you listening to me?”

Even though John doesn’t say anything in the scene, throwing him in there with his own action stretches the silence in the reader’s head, leaving no mistake that these are two separate thoughts.

While what is said is always important to a story, it is also sometimes important to remember the silences for a more natural feel–and emotional effect–to scenes. You want your characters to “act” in your readers’ heads. Not just give them the lines and leave them to figure out the emotion.

There are no actual actors to bring stories to life in prose like you have in plays.


 Live in the DC area and want to see some great emerging playwrights? The DC Fringe Festival runs through July 27th with wonderful plays (like TAME by Jonelle Walker). Check it out.

This Totally Makes Sense

A while ago I wrote a piece about Dei ex Machina (singular: Deus ex Machina), an inadvisable plot device where–when all else is lost and the protagonist is backed into a corner–something comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from an otherwise hopeless situation. Meaning “god from the machine” dei ex machina get their name from Euripides’ play Medea where a god (in a mechanical chariot) quite literally comes down at the end of the play to life the titular Medea out of the mess that forms at the end of the play.


Medea on Chariot
Source: Howling Frog Books

While you don’t generally see gods popping up to fix everything in modern literature, the plot device has kept its name, generally seen these days when a character suddenly develops a magical power they didn’t know about at the climax (oh yeah! She totally has the ability to teleport right when there’s no other way out of this corner I’ve written myself into) or less flashy acts of god (He’s about to be killed, but oh! A tree branch fell on the bad guy. The end). While I have already addressed Dei ex Machina specifically, more and more while editing/critiquing/reviewing, I have begun to see Deus ex Machina’s less offensive cousin in stories, the “Oh yeah, this is important” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way, but work with me).

Perhaps related to both foreshadowing and fixing deus ex machina, writers should always keep one thing in mind: If it’s going to be important later, mention it when it might pop up logically before you need it.

  • If your character is going to need to teleport out of the climax, show that they can teleport earlier on.
  • If your character is going to use a “prop” later in a scene, show they have it with them the scene before.
  • If your character has done something that doesn’t really make sense, don’t later explain why it makes sense three chapters in.

I understand why these things happen (especially points two and three) while authors often have climaxes planned out and know to avoid using a deus ex machina, when writing quickly (cough, NaNoWriMo, cough) sometimes you realize later on you haven’t explained something you meant to or you need something in a scene you didn’t of until the moment you need it.

What you  don’t want to do, however is end up with something like:

  • He pulled out his glasses, which he had put in his backpack that morning before leaving the house


  • [after a chapter of helping someone it makes no sense to in a zombie apocalypse] But she had always had a softness for people who limped. It made sense she couldn’t leave him behind.

Why? Because it makes those moments seem, at best, an afterthought, at worst, an author trying to write themselves out of a corner.

What should you do instead? Put the information in ahead of time where it logically fits.

Is your character going to need glasses he doesn’t generally bring with him later in the scene? Show him grabbing them on his way out the door the scene before. Is there an explanation for why your character is risking their life for someone they just met (which isn’t part of a larger reveal)? Put that information in when she decides to help them.

If there is a logical place for an event to happen/information to be placed, don’t put it where it will feel like an afterthought (or at least move it once you go back to edit if you’re still working on a rough draft). It’s a quick fix, and makes a world of difference to the reader (they don’t have to jump back and file that information away where it makes more sense themselves), the story (you don’t have to stop the action to explain, “oh yeah, this totally makes sense once you know X”), and your perceived ability as a writer (you don’t have a reader thinking “man, this writer had to throw something in at the last minute to make up for their poor planning”). Keep up with a little internal logical.

Novel Layout Tips

News Alert: I am happy to announce that my third novel, The Copper Witch, has officially signed with 5 Prince Publishing for release this coming spring. Updates will continue as release draws closer. So for now, a post about publishing:


I will be the first to admit that I am not generally a layout person. I do have some experience with it, and now have software that would let me do it pretty simply, but I’m generally an editor, not a designer.

Now, we all have our specialties, it’s to be expected. Being a good editor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good writer, and being a good writer definitely doesn’t mean that you’re good at graphic design. As more and more people go the self-publishing route, however, it’s falling on authors to do their own formatting (at least if they aren’t going to pay for someone else to do it, which is sometimes advisable). As an editor, a lot of my work comes from people planning to self publish. I’m sure there are likewise freelance designers out there to hire to get a book up to professional quality without the help of a publisher and their in-house designers. If you’ve decided to strike out on your own, please keep a few things in mind that even I, with my limited layout experience find annoying in self-published novels (my reviewer self will thank you).

1. Indents and margins. Luckily for self layer-outers, the combination of publishing platform uploaders and many word processing programs saving to PDF make it simpler than ever to turn a manuscript written in Microsoft Word (or the like) into book format. It’s important to realize, though, that traditional manuscript format (8.5″x11″ pages, double spaced, 1″ margins, 0.5″ indents, 12 point Times New Roman font) does not magically become book format just by changing the page size. Most people realize without being told that books aren’t often double spaced, but what people seem to often miss is that indents and margins that seem normal on a 8.5″x11″ page suddenly are giant when something’s 6″x9″. One of the simplest ways of pointing out a book is self-published (or published by people who aren’t used to doing layout) is by looking at the formatting. Indents of 0.5″ rather than 0.3″ make it seem like someone shrunk Word pages rather than formatted a book. Likewise, margins should be made smaller on a 6″x9″ page. Just think about it. 1″ margins on each side of an 8.5″x11″ paper leaves you with 6.5″ of writing space across. On a 6″x9″ page, that’s only 4″. Everything should shrink in proportion.

2. Chapters start on new pages. When writing in manuscript format, it doesn’t always matter if you do a page break or not at the start of a new chapter. In book format, however, each chapter should be on its own page. This can be done simply by just inserting a page break in the document you are using, or you can be a little fancier and have a chapter start slightly down the page from normal. If doing the second, make sure that you use the ruler function on the side of a Word document so all the chapter headings line up on the same part of the page.

3. Scene breaks. When typing in manuscript format, you generally are expected to use some set of markings between scenes (most commonly it is either *** or #). These marks (especially the hash mark) arose as a way to tell typesetters there should be an empty line there as a scene break. While most books just use a “hard break” (an empty line before the next paragraph) for a scene break, using a hard break in a manuscript would make it possible for a typesetter to miss a scene break should it be pushed to the bottom or top of the page. When laying out your own book, however, this shouldn’t be an issue. Get rid of these “scene break” marks for a more professional look.

4. Font choice. Some typesetters have a strong dislike of Times New Roman (feel it looks amateurish) but for someone who isn’t a designers, I truly have no problem with it. The larger point is to use a “professional” font that is serif. After that, Times New Roman, Georgia, or Garamond–I at least couldn’t tell you the difference.

5. Text alignment. While typing in manuscript format, left text-alignment  is generally the best so you don’t have any strange gaps between words while writing. When laying out as a book, however, justified is the gold standard. If you look in most published books, text is justified to give it a more formal, professional look. Doing so with your own book will lend your layout more credibility.

There are a million other little things that a professional typesetter would be able to tell you about layout that I’m sure I’m missing, but if you take care of these five things, I likely wouldn’t notice it–which at least gives your book a leg up when it comes to first impressions.


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“Plot Device” Disorders

Last year, for Mental Health Month, I touched on writing characters with mental disorders. As far as I can tell, mental problems have always been something writers have liked to use in their stories, and it makes sense. “Normal” is not what tends to make for a good story. A perfectly happy character who wakes up, goes to school/work every day, watches some TV, and then goes to bed is pretty boring. Stories are based around conflicts, desires, and the way characters overcome some sort of adversity. As mental disorders present their own sort of challenges, they can make for very interesting characters/stories.

Before I left off with some general advice about writing a character that has a mental disorder while not being insulting (namely doing your research and making sure your character isn’t one-dimensional/only their disorder). Today I’d like to retouch on the topic looking a little further into what I’ve come to call “plot device” disorders.

Now, there are many, many mental disorders in the world. The recently released DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersfifth edition) contains 17 categories for various disorders–ranging from Anxiety Disorders to Sexual Dysfunction–with several different specific disorders inside each. While I’m sure it is possible to find stories using a full range, certain disorders are much more “en vogue” for use in fiction. For example, it is simple to list famous characters who are presented with disorders such as psychopathy (Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Dexter Morgan from Dexter); DID (Norman Bates from Pyscho, Susannah Dean from The Dark Tower, the narrator from Fight Club); and OCD (Adrian Monk from Monk, Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets) it’s a bit less common to see characters with pica, adjustment disorder, or central sleep apnea (all listed in DSM-V). While it might simply be more “fun” to write about certain disorders over others, it leads to certain issues for writing when a disorder becomes trendy to use in plots.

What brought me to this topic to start today was finding this post in a writing forum today:

Could anybody just tell me more about it [dissociative identity disorder] in general? Because I know very little about it.”

While the question is generally pretty innocuous (they were provided with a link to WebMD with the basics) what worries me the most about seeing questions like this on writing sites is the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,” and that was the end of that. Hopefully the asker of the question is planning on looking further into the disorder and (if s/he decides to proceed does a fair deal of research) but with different disorders so prevalent in fiction, it becomes so, so easy for writers to decide X disorder would be an awesome plot device and jump into using the movie/book/TV show’s portrayal as the basis for their entire character.

Why is that such a problem? Because often times works of fiction still get disorders wrong on a very basic level. And by taking that version of the disorder at face value to throw in your story you’re simply going to perpetuate all those issues. A bump on the head causing, and fixing, amnesia? Not going to happen. Not all psychopaths are going to be serial killers (or are even likely to be). PTSD doesn’t mean you’re going to be acting out flashbacks in real life. From a storytelling stand point, it makes sense why we see these things. It makes for easier or more hair-raising scenes, but that doesn’t make it anymore correct. And with the amount of misinformation surrounding mental disorders, it can be damaging to perpetuate these “facts”.

So, how do you keep from falling into these “plot device” traps?

1. Know movies/TV/novels often get it wrong. Watching a movie with a character with X disorder does not mean you suddenly are set to write about the same disorder. Some media does do a very good job of representing certain disorders (the beginning of Silver Linings Playbook is actually very well done in displaying a manic episode in bipolar, for example) but far too often, disorders (especially popular disorders) are incorrect. Look to real-life accounts rather than fiction for what living with a disorder is actually like (Dangerous Jam has a very in-depth account of one girl’s experience with PTSD and her tips for using it in fiction here. I highly recommend it if you intend to use PTSD in a story).

2. Figure out what the mental disorder is adding to your story. Perhaps one of the most amusing questions I find on this Mary Sue Test is:

Does your character have any of the following psychological disorders or conditions for the following reasons?

  1. Antisocial Personality Disorder – to explain your character’s Jerk Loner personality? 
  2. Split personality/multiple personalities – so your character can do “bad” stuff, yet still have a claim to innocence?

If your entire reason for using a mental disorder is for an excuse or because you intend to use it as a plot device, rethink and do more research. Because…

3. Think about how the disorder would affect your character outside the plot. As I stated before, people with mental disorders are not entirely defined by their disorder, but mental disorders do affect many things in everyday life when you are dealing with one. Pulling out a mental disorder just when convenient for an excuse or your plot will 99.99% of the time come off as incorrect and/or insulting. “Having X” is as much of a personality trait as “she doesn’t like apples” or “he’s hot headed”. Pulling a disorder out only when convenient or just for plot is as jarring as having a character gain or lose any other trait they have.

4. Research, research, research. Really, I can’t stress this enough. You don’t always have to “write what you know” but you should only write that which you are willing to learn about. At least if you don’t want to seem like you’re clueless or to stick your foot in your mouth. There are great resources for first-hand accounts, you can ask in a forum (many people are actually rather open with sharing their experiences if you ask, I find), and you can talk to mental health professionals. There are many great depictions of mental disorders in well-rounded characters out there, you just have to be willing to put in the legwork to get there.


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Prior Works

Submitting a novel can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’re putting your baby out there into the world, and knowing that it’s most likely going to be shot down over and over again. It can be especially bad for first-time novelists, especially when it comes to that part in the submission guidelines where agnets/publishers want to see a list of past works. This is your first novel, you don’t have any past works. What are you supposed to do? Do you have to have already been published to get published.

Short answer, no, whether you have never been published or a dozen times, a book still has to stand for itself. If you’ve written a good book, people will look at it.

So what do you do when people want a list of prior works? Or what do you put into that last paragraph in a query letter that’s supposed to be about you? There are a couple of different options:

1. Leave it out. If you don’t write that you have any prior works, most publishers/agents are going to assume you don’t have any and leave it at that.

2. Give other relevant credentials. Do you have an English degree? Feel free to throw that in to a query letter where you’d be listing works if you had them. Did you with an award for writing something unpublished? Put that in. Did you write a book about a farm? Maybe put in that you’ve worked on a farm all your life. You can fill in that empty spot with things that show you are qualified to write the book you have written instead of a list of prior novels you’ve had published.

But what if you don’t want to leave it out or don’t have any relevant credentials? What to do then?

Well, to start off, I’d like to strongly urge first time submitters to go with one of the above options. For those who will go with another choice, however, I at least offer some don’ts.

1. Don’t give credentials that aren’t relevant. Ok, you don’t have anything relevant to say in that last paragraph in a query letter, but you don’t want to tell the agent/publisher nothing about you. So let’s throw in that you were a computer science major in college, live with your three dogs on Long Island, really enjoy writing… It’s better than leaving the space blank, right? Actually, not really. Coming from working submissions, you never seem to be caught up. There’s a reason query letters should be kept to one page. Short and to the point is good. When you start cluttering put a letter with things that don’t show either a) You’re most likely a good writer or b) You’re qualified in some way to cover the books topic, it’s just more to wade through. Dogs, family, irrelevant hobbies, those should all be kept out of a query letter if you want to stay on the good side of a slush pile reader.

2. Don’t say this is your first novel. As I said above, by not saying anything about other novels, agents/publishers are 9 times out of 10 going to assume you haven’t published anything before. There is no reason to draw attention to your inexperience. Especially stay away from “This is my first novel, but…” statements (“This is my first novel, but I’ve been writing since I was three” “This is my first novel, but I’ve always loved science fiction” etc.) When you do that, you’re not only highlighting your inexperience, but sounding inexperienced and like someone who has something to prove. Not a good combination when trying to find someone easy to work with. You could have the best novel in the world and still get passed over if an agent/publisher doesn’t like your attitude in your query letter. Afterall, they know they’re going to be working with you for as long as the contract lasts.

3. Don’t talk up your self-published/vanity-published book. At least don’t if it isn’t wildly popular. If you self published a novel and it ended up on the best seller chart, but all means, mention it. If you self published a novel and your friends have read it, it’s at best a sign that you like writing, at worst, a sign you think you’re a much better writer than you actually are (a type of author people in submissions are loath to pass off to their editors). Vanity-published books are no better. The reason agents/publishers like to see prior publishing credits is because it tells them something about you are a writer. Someone else has read your stuff and at least thinks it’s good enough to publish, they’ve vetted/vouched for you. Perhaps have even shown how profitable you are. If you’ve paid someone to publish your book, that endorsement is moot. It’s no better than if you had self-published the book.

Trying to act like the vanity publisher is a reputable press is even worse. Working in publishing, you know the names of the big vanity publishers, thus having a book from one of them is discounted as basically self-published right away, and when I was in submissions, I’d check out any publishers I wasn’t familiar with. Indie presses I always liked to get to know, and vanity presses I liked to add to the list. (This is one more reason going through a vanity press really isn’t worth it. You aren’t “self published” but you’ve paid a ton of money for a name that means nothing along with editing/lay out services you could get cheaper from a freelancer). Trying to talk up a vanity-published novel is also a red flag to people in submissions as someone who possibly has something to prove and thus are not going to be fun to work with.

Long story short, it is best to not point out your inexperience, but not try to pretend to be something you aren’t either. After all, agents and publishers are looking for good, profitable stories and authors who won’t be a headache to work with.

So take a deep breath, and get those submissions out there. First, third, or fifteenth novel.

Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.


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Floating Dialogue

In a previous blog post, I discussed why writers shouldn’t be afraid of using the word “said” too much when writing dialogue. While I did talk about being able to tag dialogue with actions rather than “said” and its replacements (whispered/exclaimed/etc.) I didn’t mention another possible route that will also save dialogue from repetitive tags. Not using a tag at all.

Now, it’s absolutely fine–if not sometimes preferable–to not have tags after dialogue,  especially in a quick exchange. The more words there are to read, the slower action will seem to be passing. So, if Bill and Sam are having an argument, it might be preferable to have an exchange along the lines of:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill said.
“You’re an idiot.” Sam crossed his arms.
“Who’s the one who tried sailing a bottle to China?”
“I was five, let it go.”

And so on and so forth. Without the tags, more focus is placed on the dialogue, and it, as a whole, reads more quickly. So, all in all, a good thing.

Why I don’t suggest not using tags as a suggestion in my previous “said” article, however, is it’s very, very easy to abuse it. While it’s fine to have some untagged dialogue, what you definitely want to avoid is floating dialogue. That is, untagged dialogue that leaves the reader wondering who the heck is talking.

As I have said before, writers tend to have a bias when it comes to dialogue vs. narrative. Some find dialogue difficult to write, some hate narrative, it really just comes down to what each writer’s strengths are. For those who tend towards dialogue, floating dialogue is a common problem I see with new writers.

Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but the reason I tend to write so much dialogue is that, where narrative can seem wordy and forced, the call and response nature of dialogue keeps it coming so quickly that sometimes I have troubles keeping up with where I want the conversation to go. Since I hear the characters talking in my head, it’s easy enough to just write what they’re saying and forget about writing what they’re doing in my head. It’s their words that are important after all, right?

Well, sort of. While, in those situations, you are probably doing the bulk of your story telling in the dialogue, the readers sadly isn’t seeing what you’re seeing your characters doing while reading. And so, while you are writing a powerful, emotional scene between your main characters, filled with brilliant, brilliant dialogue, your reader is being left with something akin to the written version of hearing a movie in the next room without being able to see who’s talking or what they’re doing.

While it’s a fine balance–you never want to talk down to your readers/hit them over the head with something they probably already understand–you don’t want to make it too difficult for them understand what’s happening. If you’re spending every other page flipping around trying to understand who’s talking, you’re more than likely not going to get invested in the story. When you aren’t invested in the story and it’s taking a lot of effort just to understand the basics, it’s pretty likely you aren’t going to enjoy the book/will be putting it down not too far in.

And so, if you are planning on using untagged dialogue, watch out for floating dialogue by:

1. Only use untagged dialogue when there are two people in the conversation. When it comes to floating dialogue, this is probably the biggest problem I’ve found in my editing work. While it’s fine to switch off between two people in an argument without tags, you can’t do that where there are multiple people sitting around. For example:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said.
“How are you?” Karen asked.
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Ok, hands up. Who can tell who’s saying what at the end of the conversation? Since Karen asks Sam a question (How are you?) the “I’m fine” is probably Sam again, but then, is it Karen saying “Awesome”? Or is it Bill? And who says it looks like rain? Bill? Sam? Karen? Depending on who said “Awesome” it could be any of them.

In contrast with just two people:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Perhaps still a little float-y, but at least you can more than likely tell it’s Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill.

2. Don’t use untagged dialogue when the characters are doing something. As stated in my “don’t be afraid of ‘said'” article, you can get around using ‘said’ over and over again by making the tags action. For example:

“How are you?” Bill shuffled his papers away.
Sam took a seat across the desk from him. “I’m fine.”

In this case, the dialogue tags are not only telling the reader who’s speaking, but acting as stage directions in a way. Going back to the movie example, with no tags and multiple people, you’re in the other room listening to a bunch of talk from who knows how many people. With no tags and two people, you at least can tell who’s speaking, but that’s all you have, a bunch of lines with no action. If all your characters are doing is standing around having a conversation, you don’t need any tags. If they’re moving around, though, you need to show it–and while it’s happening. Putting on an action tag not only shows the reader what’s happening (what the “actor” is doing on-screen) but it also keep the reader up to date. One thing I perhaps find the most annoying of all floating dialogue problems is something along these lines:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool, have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
While they had been talking, Bill had walked around the corner and pulled out a giant dog that then attacked Sam.

a) Action slows down when the actual exciting part is buried under a mountain of “this is what you missed”

b) For the past five lines I’ve been picturing Bill and Sam standing there talking, now I have to reattach it to the incorrect visual I have in my head, which means I have to backtrack in my mind slightly rather than staying with the action.

Both of these problems can be solved by simply tagging the lines with action:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool.” Bill slowly moved towards one corner of the room. “Have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
Bill pulled out…

3. Don’t put tags in after a new person has already entered the conversation. In the same vein of not making the reader play catch up to the action, if a third person enters into a two person untagged conversation, make sure the reader knows it immediately.

“Hey,” Bill said.
“Hey, how are you?” Sam asked.
“Not bad.”
“Awesome, do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know. It looks like rain.”
“Oh, hey Karen, how are you?”

Wait, what? When did Karen get there? Was she actually speaking when I thought it was Bill? When possible–if you don’t have a legitimate reason for keeping the reader off balance–try not to make the reader confused enough to stop and reread previous lines.

4. Even in a two person conversation, don’t only use tags at the very beginning of the conversation. Ok, so there are two people standing there talking to each other. Nothing else it happening, it’s just going to be a quick back and forth. Sounds like the perfect place not to use tags. You mark the first speaker as Bill, the second as Sam, and then go at it. If it’s a very short conversation, that’s absolutely fine. If it’s going to go for pages back and forth, still make sure you throw some more tags in their down the line, even if it’s just to make sure someone doesn’t miss a line somewhere and get really confused when it seems like Sam’s saying what Bill would. A good rule of thumb is to have names attached to dialogue atleast three times a page, just to make it clear which speaker is which. Of course, that’s just a vague outline. If it seems likely the reader is still going to get confused even with three tags, make sure you put more in. If you think it’s crystal clear, you might be able to go for longer between tags (though checking in with a beta reader/editor who can tell you if they’re lost will help you know whether or not it really is that apparent later on).

5. Remember the reader isn’t inside your head. And, as always, this is the big one. While it might be obvious in your head that Bill is saying something and then Sam is, you just can’t expect the reader to know that. While it’s so obvious to you that Bill’s moving across the room while speaking, until you’ve written it down, the reader just can’t know that. Don’t over explain things (if it isn’t important that the main character just got their hair done and put on some new sneakers they bought last week, you don’t need to say it. If you already said they don’t like peas, you don’t have to repeat it) but make sure you have all of the necessary information to keep them from being confused a couple of paragraphs down. Are multiple people speaking without any way for someone outside of your head to know who you mean says what? Then use tags. Is the character moving around while talking? Then use action tags. Are there just two people standing there having an important conversation? Then you’re probably ok if you don’t want to use tags for a little while.


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I am woman, hear me roar

Recently, an article (“The five most pathetic female film characters of all time” by Lindy West) popped up on my Facebook feed, outlining West’s choice of “most-standy-there female movie characters.”

West goes on to point out female characters in movies who are “boring, old-timey, textbook damsel[s]-in-distress” with entries like:

-Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) in Red Riding Hood (described as “nubility personified/human Keane painting/tube of lip gloss made flesh…[whose role is to] Stand there. Wait to be rescued. Weep. Stand there some more. Quiver under the male gaze. Reapply lip gloss.”)

-Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (“could Buttercup maybe DO something once in a while besides brush her hair and contemplate suicide because she and her boyfriend broke up? The woman is a blue silk sausage casing stuffed with whines.”)

and, of course:

-Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight Series (“Limp bag of tears waits for marriage to have sex with her undead boyfriend; is paralysed by grief every time he goes in the other room.”)

Ok, now even I can’t support a character that falls apart as soon as their man leaves (“You’re just… lifeless, Bella.”) but does that mean that you can never have a “weak” female character?

Now, having previously gone to a very liberal, very politically active university (we were in DC after all…) I have known my share of feminists, from radical to lipstick. I’ve also known a couple of people on the “feminism is subjugating men” side of the equation. Likewise, I would define myself as a feminist, by the fact that I support “equal political, economic, and social rights for women” What I have a problem with, however, is the idea I have found circulated in some groups that the only way to be a feminist is to rebel against what society has decided are “traditional” female roles. While I do fully support equal rights for women (which I don’t believe should shock many people reading this) I also like makeup, am currently wearing a dress, like to cook, and plan on taking my fiance’s last name once we get married (for at least social situations). Does the fact that I genuinely enjoy “traditionally feminine” things mean that I can’t be a feminist? If anything, how is telling women they have to like “traditionally masculine” activities to be acceptable any different from telling them they have to like “traditionally feminine” activities?

Now, there are so many different arguments you can go off of from there (“traditional” roles are really fairly modern, men and women are different, but equal in their different ways, feminism is losing site of its original goal, what have you) but my point through all of that is: How is forcing a character to be strong just because she’s a woman any different from forcing a character to be weak?

I fully understand not wanting weeping, standy-there female characters. But I don’t think that, over all, is a problem with the characters being female. It’s a problem with the fact that standy-there characters, in general, are boring (and many times annoying). A protagonist that doesn’t make any decisions and lets the rest of the story carry them along isn’t much of a protagonist at all. Male or Female.  The “damsel in distress” (or her male equivalent) is not often cast as the main character of interesting books. Why? Because she doesn’t do anything. There isn’t much of a plot to be written when your main character is sitting up in a tower waiting to be rescued (at least not if you aren’t planning on doing some psychological drama about the effects of isolation, which I could actually see being pretty interesting).

Day 1: Sitting in tower. God I wish I weren’t in this tower.
Day 2: Still sitting here, you’d really think someone would come help me. Oh well, still hate it here.
Day 3: Sitting against the opposite wall now. I passingly considered trying to make a ladder out of sheets, but I think I’d rather keep sitting here and whining about being stuck in a tower with no one to save me.

Male or Female, I don’t care, I would get fed up with that character (and that book) very quickly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting people rely on stereotypes for any of their characters. A female character shouldn’t be weak and emotional just because she’s a woman any more than a Latino character should eat nothing but tacos just because they’re Latino. But there are people in the world that can be weepy messes. As an author, you are perfectly allowed to have one in your story.

But I can also promise you, at least 99% of the time, being a weepy emotional mess is not all that real person is. Perhaps they’re battling depression. Perhaps they cry at the drop of a hat, but they are a genuinely good, happy person. Perhaps they used to be more balanced, but something happened to make them think that’s how they should act to be accepted. Don’t feel the need to make your character something they’re not just because it’s something that could be seen as a stereotype, but don’t make that trait their entire personality either. If you dig a little deeper, you will find so much more to them that will keep them who they are (weepy) but make them so much more than a one-note stereotype.

Some people fall into “traditional” stereotypes, there’s a reason they’re stereotypes after all, but people are complex. If you can capture that complexity in your character, you don’t have to make them something they’re not to not be “insulting” Let’s face it, making a character “un-stereotypical” but, again, just that one simple trait, it isn’t any better.

The Unneeded Words

Recently, I talked about how long novels (generally over 120,000 words) can have problems getting published.

Beyond all of the generally valid reasons publishers may have for saying away from long novels for business reasons, there is the added fact that many long novels could do with a harsh editing before publishing–something the publishers likely don’t want to spend their time doing.

As I said before, if a story demands for a long book, and the 200,000+ length is nearly entirely action-packed or, at least, interesting, there’s no problem with it. If the story drags, however, you have more of a problem. Even if the writing isn’t quite up to purple prose levels, there are very few reasons to be wordy in most forms of creative writing.

And so, if you’re trying to cut down on your word count, keep some of these things in mind:

1. Unnecessary Scenes. Not every scene you write is necessary to your plot. There might be a cute date night or someone running into an old friend that gives you some fun banter, but while reading the story…it does nothing to advance the plot. Unless a scene serves a purpose, it sadly might be better to cut it–especially in a long book.

– Is the scene necessary to the plot?
– Does it show us something about a character that hasn’t been shown before?
– Does it have necessary background information that has to come out now (hopefully not in an info dump [see below])?

If not, seriously consider cutting it. If you can’t bear to see the conversation go, you can always save it elsewhere (I have folders for each project on my laptop with outlines, manuscripts, and a document with all the cut scenes that had to go but I still love–most just because the dialogue amuses me).

This likewise goes for laundry lists of actions. It’s perfectly allowable to have time jumps in novels. The characters get in their car, and then, scene break, they pull up to their destination. You don’t need pages of them talking about nothing in the car, playing the license plate game, explaining how they’re changing their clothes, brushing their teeth somewhere…unless it’s somehow important, you can time jump.

2. Info Dumps. For those not wanting to click over to Wikipedia, an info dump is a long section of text that gives a bunch of back story all at once. Worst thing about info dumps? They’re often unneeded (or at least parts of it are). While we authors do (or at least should) know the entire history of a character (where they grew up, how long they’ve been in a job, who their parents are, why they don’t like so-and-so) it may or may not be important to the plot. An info dump slows down the action (Oh no! It’s the villain! Looks like the Main Character’s (MC) is really going to have to run for it…oh, five pages about how the villain became a villain and how he doesn’t like the MC…what was going on again?) and more than likely, it isn’t necessary.

Pick out the important bits (do we need to know the villain was abused as a child? Does that come up later? Do we need to know he went to Villain University?) and then find a way to weave that information in later. While hopefully your weaving it in doesn’t surface as an “As you know, Bob” even that is preferrable, in my personal opinion, to an info dump. “As you know, Bob”s will likely take up less space (with the unnecessary parts already clipped) and keep the action moving.

3. Too much description. Now, description is good. As I’ve said before, it’s a sad fact, but readers don’t see what’s happening in our heads while we’re writing. Without description it’s either just a bunch of people moving around empty spaces, or worse, floating dialogue. What you don’t need is every last detail in a room (see my comment about skipping those three pages of description about that tree in Return of the King).

Like everything in writing, how much description to use is a fine balance. Tell me the MC is in a classroom. You can say there’s a whiteboard, tables, a podium…whatever you see. You don’t, however, need to spend a page giving every last detail, especially if it’s not important. Is the exact pattern of the carpet going to come up later? Do we need to know how many posters are up and what each is of? If not, consider cutting back a bit–or at least not doing it all at once.

Like an info dump for exposition, description dumps aren’t good. Maybe the pattern of the carpet will be important. Can that come up later? Say a little while later the character looks down at their feet because they’re bored. They can start counting how many stars are across the floor? That way you get the pattern in without, “The room was large with X number of tables. Whiteboard took up one wall, there were 7 posters on the others. In the back… The carpet was… Three windows faced east… yada yada yada.”

4. Wordy phrasing. While not everything has to be in its most succinct form, it’s possible to cut down on your word count and make your writing/imagery stronger a lot of the time by rephrasing things. For example:

The sheets were soaked through, made a squishing sound when Sam moved.”

Not awful, and it’s good to get senses involved in a scene (too often people forget smell and sound for sight when writing). But I would edit it like this:

The sheets were soaked, squished when Sam moved.

Squishing would also work, but since squish is an onomatopoeia, “squished” gives me the same sound as “made a squishing sound” You have the same effect, and give a stronger feeling without all the words couching the sound. Now the sentence has gone from 12 words to 8 words. Chopping out 4 words at a time in a 100,000 word novel can add up quickly.

5. Redundancy. Has it been said before? Cut it. No matter how important a fact is, repeating it over and over isn’t just space consuming, it gets annoying.

All the same, she was happy to be there.”
Two paragraphs later.
Happy to be there, she…”
A paragraph later.
She really was happy to be there.”

We get it, we get it, she’s happy to be there. If a point is very important, maybe say it twice, but more likely than not, the reader will get it after one time. That means you can take out at least 11 words there (“Happy to be there” and “She really was…”) Again, that adds up.

This likewise goes with scenes that are redundant. Did your MC already talk about how he really wishes he could go home? Maybe you need to restate that later, but you don’t need to spend multiple scenes with the character talking about the same thing. Especially not if it is something the character is complaining about. A lot of complaining, whining, or angsting gets old quickly. Namely because a character is continuously complaining about something, but doing nothing to fix it. The plot doesn’t move forward and the character seems one-note.

6. Unneeded Words. And, last but not least, what this blog is titled after–all those little words that sneak in that really don’t need to be there. I believe, so far this year, I have yet to return an edited manuscript that isn’t at least 1,000 words shorter than when I got it (even with adding in needed words/sentences). Even without the other things on this list, there always tends to be unnecessary words.

Now there are plenty of words that can be unnecessary depending on context, but the three I find myself deleting the most are “up”, “very”, and “that”.

Now, if you have someone look up, yes you need up, but often I find “She stood up” or “She raised her hand up” For the first, there isn’t much difference between “She stood” and “She stood up” Up is contributing nothing. For the second, raising implies “up” You don’t “raise your hand down” thus you don’t need to specify.

“Very” is a modifier that “very” often gets abuse. I know I use it all the time (you can probably find plenty of “very”s in this blog). Mostly, though, “very”s get cut before adverbs/adjectives in my editing.

He ran very quickly.”
Her singing was very beautiful.”

Very can bog the sentence down, and they change “very” little. It’s still possible to picture someone running quickly or singing beautiful without modifying it with “very”

As for “that” I have a bit of a vendetta, I admit. Lets look at some examples:

I hope that I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing that she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe that he had been there so long.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with those sentences, but let’s get rid of those “that”s:

I hope I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe he had been there so long.”

Have the sentences lost any of their meaning by taking out “that”? Not really.

So, depending on how often you use unneeded “up”s, “very”s, or “that”s in sentences, you can cut your word count down substantially just by taking out words that don’t serve a purpose.


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Word Limits

Today’s post: Word Limits or: Why won’t they publish my 300,000 word novel?

People write some long novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is 145,469 words long. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead 311,596. And, of course, as the king of long novels, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287. With most novels clocking in around 100,000 words (give or take 20,000), Tolstoy has arguably written six books in one, and Rand a one-book trilogy (with the shorter of her two most famous works).

Word counts can be funny things. Interestingly enough, I seem to have some sort of power over my novels. If I’m aiming for a 80,000 word book, I tend to get one somewhere within that range give or take 5,000. My first NaNoWriMo novel, which had the goal of 50,000 words, wrapped up at around 50,500. Aiming for 80,000 with my latest project The Copper Witch (which has just moved into the submission stage) I finished up around 86,000.

Continuously managing to write a story within a general word count, though (be it through subconscious tinkering, or anything else) , doesn’t seem to be a universal trait amongst writers. And that’s something I completely understand. A story has a natural progression. It’s done when it’s done.

So what is there to be done when how long (or short) your novel is seems to be what’s keeping it from being published? Aren’t the word counts they give generally arbitrary anyway? As one NaNoWriMo Forum poster puts it:

I’ve read somewhere that 120 K is the upper limit for a new fantasy writer, which seems really… short for a fantasy novel…I still can’t believe it’s set as the upper limit.”

Now, first, I’d like to say I’ve never found 120,000 words short. My fantasy novels tend to be around 80,000, but perhaps that’s because I don’t write Tolkien-style epics.

Second, as the earlier books I’ve listed in this blog show, it’s possible to get a book published that is more than 120,000 words. You should never say “can’t” when it comes to publishing. Doing certain things can make it harder to get published, but nothing I have yet seen makes it impossible to get a book published.

But why do publishers even care about word counts? Sure, if the story drags on and on, that’s a problem, but if it’s action-packed and engaging for those 200,000 words, what’s the problem?

Having worked on both sides of publishing–as a writer and as someone working at a publishers–I can only point to one fact that is all to easy to forget as a writer. Your manuscript might be your baby as an author, but as a publisher, the manuscript is a product. Writing might be art to you, but writing is business to a publisher. Unless writing is your only source of income, money is something that might just be an added perk to us writers that coincides with seeing our books in print. To a publisher, however, those books are all business. It’s an added plus sometimes to give a first time novelist a shot at their big break, but if even a book you love isn’t likely to make a profit, it just isn’t something a publisher with a good business plan will take on.

So why does a publisher keep putting out the same generic vampire books? Because they sell. Why doesn’t a publisher put out any more vampire books? Because the market seems oversaturated and they aren’t as likely to sell (or the acquisition editor is sick to death of them).

And word counts come from this same need to mitigate risk and maximize profits. Beyond the fact that it’s likely many long manuscripts could do with a harsh paring down, there are two big problems with books over 120,000-150,000 words:

1. The longer the book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Unless you are going through a vanity publisher (and thus paying the press to put your book out) the general rule is money flows to the author, not from. A reputable publisher will pay for formatting, cover art, editing…and just about every other “start-up” cost there is to putting out a book. Focusing on the editing aspect of that, the longer your book is, the more they’re going to end up paying there editors. After all, there’s a reason I charge more editing a 200,000-word book than a 10,000-word one. The longer the book is, the longer it will take to edit. Especially edit well. If you’re paying an editor per project, you’re going to be paying for them more for a long project. If you’re paying an editor hourly, they’re going to have to take much more time to edit a long book. Even if you’re paying an editor a set salary, they may only be able to get one book done when  they generally would have three ready to go. Since most publishers worried about quality have at least three rounds of edits, that can add up to a lot of extra man-hours.

And then, of course, there’s just the production cost in general. With ebooks it’s changing a little, but as long as print books are popular, the longer a book is the more it will cost to print (ink, paper, etc.) Printing an initial run of 1,000 300,000-word books basically uses the same amount of supplies as 3,000 100,000-word books.

2. The longer a book is, the harder it is to sell. Now, this isn’t a “people don’t like reading long books” point. Obviously people are willing to read books that are longer than “average”. Going back to the fact that the larger a (print) book is, the more paper is needed to print it–the more paper in a book means the more it will cost to ship, and the more shelf space it takes up. Most bookstores prefer to have a range of books out, and thus don’t like taking many thick books, especially ones by unknown authors.

Likewise, with shipping and printing costs quite a bit higher for long books versus short ones, to make money off longer books they need to be priced higher. Now, not only do you have  to sell the story to someone (since not all plots are loved by all people) but you have to find someone who is willing to foot the cost of all that extra time and material. Someone who’s willing to pay for a book at $14.99 might not be so willing to by it at $24.99. There’s a psychology to marketing, and how you’re able to price things is a big part of that.

Add the fact that you have fewer books in general to sell in one run to the fewer buyers, and publishers see a lot of warning lights going off.

With the growing popularity of ebooks, perhaps the word count barriers will start to come down. The cost of pixels doesn’t go up with how long a book is. Even if you can’t decrease editing costs, you at least would be able to save money on printing and be able to price a long book close to a shorter book. But for now, limits on length when it comes to submissions makes complete sense to me.

Limits might be annoying to writers, but publishing isn’t about pleasing writers. You want the authors you work  with to be happy with edits, and cover art, and all of that stuff. But as a publisher, how the book sells dictates whether or not you get a raise, get promoted, or heck, even still have a job next month.

And so, with the surplus of manuscripts floating around out there, publishers can be picky about where they spend their time and money. While anything can happen based on whose desk a manuscript comes across, things that pose a financial risk (too long a book, an unknown author, a plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit any one genre) are often looked at critically.

After all, a book is art to an author, but business to a publisher.


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