Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday Updates

I hope the holidays are treating you all well! I wanted to let everyone know that I’m currently on vacation, so my next post will be on January 1, when I’ll raffle off the manuscript critique. I also wanted to let you all know that the raffle will occur in the early evening of January 1, as I’ll be away from Internet until then. I hope everyone has a great New Year, and let’s resolve to write more!

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Balancing Thoughts, Description, Dialogue, and Action

We’ve all come across books filled with page after page of description. Many of us have also come across books never-ending internal monologue. Some of us might even have come across a book that was all action and dialogue, and thus lacked reflection and depth. These books stand out for their flaws.

These flaws are all symptoms of a much more basic problem: an unbalanced combination of thoughts, description, action, and dialogue.

Why Should the Four be Balanced?
Most if not all narration can be broken down into one of these four categories, and all work together to make a story functional. Finding a balance between the four will, not surprisingly, produce a well-rounded book that will appeal to a larger audience.

Giving Preferential Treatment to One Category
Have you noticed that you or authors your read tend to spend more time with one of these categories than the others? This is not a bad thing. In fact, most books do tend to lean towards at least one of the four categories. It’s part of what gives an author that particular voice that is wholly their own. But it’s important to not make one category so overbearing that it makes your story less enjoyable.

Ignoring a Category
On the flip side, you might see an author deemphasize one of these four categories. This tends to be more of a problem than giving preferential treatment, and this often indicates that a writer has overlooked an aspect of his or her book. Why? Take this example: Imagine having significantly less description than everything else. The story is moving forward, but you the reader might only have a vague idea of where the characters are and what the surroundings look like. This is not good because it can lead to confusion and frustration, and you don’t want readers to be angry at your story. Not after all the time you’ve invested.

Noticing and Fixing Imbalances 

Noticing Imbalances
There are two ways you can go about noticing whether your narration has an imbalance between one of these four categories. One is visual. If you tend to have lots of long paragraphs, you are probably inserting a significant amount of thoughts or description. If you have mostly thin, lean paragraphs, you are probably inserting a significant amount of dialogue and action. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve inserted too much of one category, but it is assign you prefer one or more categories over the others. 

Another way to figure out which category you rely on too much or too little is analyze what tends to be problematic for you. If your book is too slow, it’s probably because you rely more heavily on thoughts or description. If you have long lists of questions your book still needs to answer, then you might be focusing too much on action and dialogue.

Neither method is foolproof. For instance, you might have too much filler, and that’s why it’s slow—that filler could even involve action and dialogue. So take these methods with a grain of salt.

Fixing Imbalances
Fixing an imbalance depends on whether you have inserted too much or too little of one category. For instance, I have a tendency to write too many thoughts and too little description. Once you’ve identified your problem(s), dedicate a round of edits to inserting more or less of one or more categories into your manuscript.

When to Make These Edits
These are more technical edits that will polish your writing. I’d suggest not worrying about making these changes until you’ve fixed all the major problems with your book’s content. There’s no use wasting your time making these edits if you’re going to be rewriting entire scenes or chapters.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cut out the Filler and Tighten Your Book

I am reposting here a guest post I wrote on Friday for Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors. I was inspired to write this post after working with a series of clients who all had the same problem: including too much filler in their books. The topic of filler, which I define below, is both difficult to identify and difficult to discuss, perhaps because we see it so much even in published books.

Have you ever read a book that was underwhelming, but you just couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong? The characters were okay, but the book just never went anywhere? That might be because the author had too much filler and not enough plot-driven scenes.

So today I want to discuss what filler is, where it’s often found, why it’s so corrosive to your story, how to edit filler out of your book, and the parting caveat.

What Is Filler?
I define filler as the unnecessary information that writers insert between two scenes. In order to understand filler, you must understand what a scene is. There’s a general formula for scenes, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to say that a scene pushes the plot forward in some way. Filler does the opposite. A book’s forward momentum comes to a halt when a writer inserts filler.

Scene 1: Sarah interrogates Bob and learns the location of a stolen item.
Filler: Sarah gets into her car, hits a few stoplights, admires her grungy surroundings, and spends some time finding a place to park.
Scene 2: Sarah is ambushed once she arrives at the location.

This example illustrates that scene 1 and 2 push the plot forward—these scenes also increase the book’s momentum because they’re exciting. Meanwhile the filler slows down the two otherwise fast-paced scenes by describing the ride from the interrogation room to the divulged location.

Where I Often See Filler
Early drafts and new authors are the usual victims of excessive amounts of filler.

Like the example illustrated above, transportation is often a common area where authors fall into the trap of inserting filler. The example above demonstrates how easy it would be to talk about Sarah getting into the car, driving across town—perhaps getting lost—before finally making to the next scene. While a scene can occur that takes place as your character is on the road, walking home, or in an airplane, many times this is just the author filling in the time between two scenes.

Another example I see a lot is a character beginning the day at the moment they wake up. If something important occurs later in the day, don’t start the scene in the morning, start it when the conflict starts.

Why Do Authors Fall into the Trap of Inserting Filler?
It’s so tantalizingly easy to connect one scene to the next, and the alternative—ending one scene and beginning another—can initially appear too abrupt. It’s not.

Filler is usually the result of having too few exciting scenes in the book. Often if you add in more exciting scenes, you’ll find yourself taking out the unimportant ones to make room for them.

Why Filler is a Bad Thing
Having sections of text whose only purpose is to connect one exciting event to the next is not only a waste of time and space, it can halt the momentum of your book and lose reader attention. Worse, I’ve come across writers who have “scenes” of filler; whole days dedicated to doing nothing of importance.

How to Correct Filler
This is the easy part. Delete. This is the beautiful simplicity of removing filler. If it is unnecessary to the story, then it doesn’t need to be there. Now you might be worried that the transition is too choppy. This is where you insert a scene break, or you insert a concise sentence to few sentences that transition the character from one scene to the next.

The Caveat
I’m sure by now you’ve all thought of a few examples that disprove this general content edit—and you’d be correct. That’s because this is a content edit that is a matter of degree, rather than an absolute rule in writing. It is also untrue to say that a segment of text either is or is not filler; there is a gradient. Most things in writing are not black and white, and this discussion is no exception.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guest Blog Post on Removing Filler

I guest posted today on K.M. Weiland’s blog, Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors. I discuss removing filler in your novel. Please check our Weiland’s wonderful blog and fantastic site. She has some incredible writing tips and great incentives for members that join her blog. In addition, she’s won the 2011 award for the Top Ten Blogs for Writers.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Querying Agents: Why isn’t it Working, and What can I do to Change this?

Now that many of you who have joined the holiday raffle have sent me your query to edit, there appears to be a collective worry amongst you: why hasn’t an agent picked you up?

You might be wondering what it is exactly that makes your story so unappealing. The obvious problem is that it’s your fault. And it’s good to be critical of your own work—that’s how you make progress. However, there are far more factors at play than just the quality of your writing and your storyline.

Agents are Subjective
Often I hear agents reject queries, partials, or fulls with catch phrases like, “It just didn’t grab me,” or “I just didn’t love it.” What these responses illustrate is that agents are looking to fall in love with a book. But this also means agents are using their personal tastes (to some extent) to dictate which books they represent.

Obviously every writer wants every reader to fall in love with his or her story, but the truth is that even runaway bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code have low reviews and readers that feel only lukewarm about the book. Not every agent will love your topic even if it’ll go on to become a bestseller.

Agents are Busy
This is exactly why I tell writers to insert phenomenal hooks in their queries and to begin their books with a bang. Good agents are swamped. Always. And this means that writers don’t have much time to capture their attention. If you don’t have a strong hook in your query, or a strong opening scene in your manuscript, many agents are going to use that as a yardstick by which to measure your talent as a writer.

And no, this is not completely arbitrary. After all, think of your audience. They are used to getting things almost instantly, thanks to the Internet. And thanks to online bookstores, they can now browse the first few pages of your manuscript for free. If they’re not captured by it, you’re not going to get a sale out of them. Now think of agents, who have to sell your product. They’re not going to take a chance on you if they think this could be the potential outcome.

The Rise of Amazon
Did you know that Random House and Penguin are in the process of merging? Did you know this is in reaction to the rise of Amazon? Amazon has revolutionized how books are published, sold, and distributed. Writers are now able to self-publish their own books on Amazon for free, price them lower and earn a much higher percentage of the royalties than traditional competitors.

In addition, many are also turning to Amazon to buy print books rather than buying them in bookstores. This in turn has deeply impacted bookstores. In 2011 Borders, an international book retailer, applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was ultimately liquidated. If anyone has looked at the stocks of the remaining booksellers, you might notice that within the last few years they’ve taken steep hits as well.

This has had a direct and devastating impact on publishing houses, which now have to compete under a rapidly changing paradigm. This has led to an increasing demand for books that are guaranteed to generate money, such as books by celebrities, and a reluctance to pick up books that have unpredictable sales models.

Agents are Minimizing Their Risk
Because Amazon is changing the rules of the game, agents and editors have to minimize their risks. Time magazine published an article on the self-publishing industry—a topic I will discuss in a future post—that indicated that traditional publishing houses lose money on 9 out of 10 books. That’s huge! It’s that tenth book that curbs their losses for the other nine.

Now consider how many people have to make a living off of these books—the agent, the editor, the editor’s boss(es), shareholders, the cover designer, the typesetter, the marketing director, the sales team, the printer, the wholesaler, and the bookseller. (This is why traditionally published authors get much smaller royalties than their self-published peers.)

Because so much money goes into a largely untested product, agents must try to minimize their losses in any way that they can. A great way of doing this is to represent books that are similar to those that have been widely successful. This is also why it is good to give examples in your query of similar books that have done well—although it can appear amateurish if you compare your novel to a ridiculously well known and only loosely similar book. Examples in the YA genre are comparing your book to Twilight, The Hunger Games, and/or Harry Potter.

What You can Do to Better Your Odds

It’s a Numbers Game
Query more agents. Don’t stop at five—that’s giving up before you’ve even begun. You’ve read about how hard agents are to acquire, so now it’s a matter of making your work as visible as possible. Go on to query tracker and find out who the agents are in your genre, and aim to query all of them.

Do research before you query. Get a feel for the people and the industry you’re reaching out to. Read up on the correct format for queries, get a feel for them by reading successful queries. There’s an etiquette to the process, so make sure you read up on what additional items you put into that envelope you’re about to mail out.

There should be statistics out there about how well the average query does. Find out what those statistics are, aim to be better than the average, and keep track of your odds—they’ll indicate whether you have room for improvement. Don’t query all at once; you don’t want to belatedly find out that you were doing something fundamentally wrong and use up all your options for representation.

Tighten The Beginning of Your Book
Now that we’ve come full circle, make sure that you tighten your writing, especially the query letter and the beginning of your book. Those are the areas of your story that have the highest visibility, and those are the easiest ways for agents and editors to determine how much promise your story has. There are many factors that you cannot control, so optimize the ones you can!

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services