Thursday, July 26, 2018

Big Dreams, Small Budget

You have to spend money to make money ... or do you?

Let me make this clear: writing a novel is not a shortcut to fame and fortune. Many novelists never make any money. Other novelists make a little money, but not nearly enough to support themselves, much less a family. Some novelists make good careers out of their writing, and a few even manage to make millions. For those who find financial success in writing books, it usually takes years and years of hard work to succeed.

Do not get into writing if your goal is lots of money. Get into writing because you love writing. Be prepared to work hard and to face years of rejection. Unless you have someone to support you financially, expect to get a day job and spend your free time writing. If this is not something you can handle, look into other career options. Might I suggest insurance?

If this is something you're interested in, you'll find some helpful tips and resources on this site. The pages have some basic information about things like getting agents and avoiding scams. The blog below has writing tips to help you improve your craft.

I created this site to help writers break into the publishing without going broke.

Many aspiring authors get discouraged by rejection. This often leaves them vulnerable to scam artists and other dishonest types who promise fame and fortune but deliver nothing. Other times, aspiring authors spend money because they don't know how else to proceed. 

Not everything that costs money is a scam. Writers who decide to self-publish will likely need to spend some money on things like cover design and editing. Even in traditional publishing, while it's not absolutely necessary, there is value in getting professional critiques, paying for workshops and attending conferences. But you don't need to spend thousands of dollars to find success in publishing.

It is absolutely possible to land a book deal without spending tons of money. Some people manage it without spending any money at all. This site will show you how. 

The toolbar on the right will take you to different pages that tackle big issues, like avoiding scams and finding agents. This blog will focus on more specific writing tips, like making characters likable and creating strong opening pages. 

I hope you find this site helpful. Look around and consider leaving a comment!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seven Misconceptions About Writing Children's Books

As a children's writer, I come across a lot of misconceptions about writing children's books. You yourself might be guilty of some of these. 

To set the record straight, here's the skinny of the top seven misconceptions I hear over and over. 

Misconception One: It's easy.

Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. 

Writing for children is NOT easy.

First, when you write for children, you have to appeal to the children as well as their parents, teachers, and librarians. Also, contrary to what some people seem to think, children's books do contain complex ideas, and children's writers have to convey these complex ideas in a way that's easy to understand. This can be quite challenging. 

Children's books are often shorter than books for adults. This means that they might take less time to write, but it doesn't mean that those words are easy. Picture books are often only around 500 words, but those words have to be perfectly chosen. There's no room for clunky prose or superfluous words. 

The brevity also brings other challenges. Even picture books need to convey a complete story with endearing characters and a full plot -- and this has to be done in only about 500 words. 

Misconception Two: You need to get illustrations.

Unless you are both an illustrator and a writer, don't worry about the illustrations. If a publisher buys your manuscript, the publisher will select and hire the artist. In fact, agents and publishers really don't want the author to get involved in this. Provide the text only, and include illustration notes where absolutely necessary.

Of course, this is only for traditional publishing. If you're self-publishing, you are the publisher, so you have to select and hire the illustrator. 

Added: I have encountered a couple of small publishers that encourage authors and illustrators to collaborate prior to submission. But this is still the exception, not the rule. 

Misconception Three: It's Easy to Self-Publish Children's Books.

I have nothing against self-publishing. I think it's a great option for many writers. I also think competition in the publishing world is healthy, wherever this competition comes from.

But self-publishing works better in some genres than in others. Many self-published romance novelists do very well, for example. 

Self-publishing children's books is harder for several reasons. Many of these books are distributed through schools and libraries, and it's hard for self-published authors to get into these locations. Also, most children read physical books, not ebooks,* and the physical books are expected to be relatively inexpensive. It's hard to produce physical self-published books at a competitive price point. 

*Added: I realized I should back this claim up with some data! This Publishers Weekly article says that, according to Nielson, only 10 percent of juvenile fiction sales in 2016 were ebooks, whereas 49 percent of adult fiction sales were ebooks. Only 1 percent of children's non-fiction books were sold as ebooks. And remember that not all ebooks are self-published! 

Misconception Four: If your kids like it, it will sell millions.

I'm glad your kids enjoy your book, but the children's literary market is very crowded. To achieve commercial success, you need a product that really stands out. Many authors have to write multiple books before they manage to sell one. I know I did. 

I'm not trying to be discouraging -- quite the opposite. When people underestimate how hard it is to succeed, they get depressed when they don't find immediate success. If you're serious about children's publishing, accept that it will be a long and difficult journey. 

Misconception Five: You don't need to read children's books now because you read them when you were a kid or when your children were young.

Expectations have evolved. Many classics that were published decades ago and continue to do well would probably be rejected if they were submitted to an agent or publisher today. 

Read recently published children's books so you know what modern readers -- and publishers -- expect. 

Misconception Six: "Children's books" is a single category.

Before you start writing a "children's book," narrow it down. Are you writing a picture book? A chapter book? A middle grade novel? A young adult novel?

Each age category comes with a number of expectations in terms of word count, language, plot, character age, and acceptable content. If you try to write a book without knowing these categories, you are likely to end up with a book that doesn't fit into any category -- and a book that no agent or publisher knows what to do with. 

Learn about the different age categories. Before you try to write in one, research the expectations and read widely. 

Misconception Seven: You don't have to pick an age category because your book will appeal to all ages.

Some writers will be tempted to ignore the advice I just gave because they think they're the exception. Their books will appeal to everyone, they argue. 

We all want that to be true, but it's still important to understand your target audience. 

Take the Harry Potter series. The first books are a little long, but they're still easily recognizable as middle grade novels in terms of the characters, content, plot, and language. Older and younger people may enjoy the books, but this doesn't change the fact that they are middle grade novels. 

Also note that the Harry Potter series matures as it progresses, and many people classify the last books in the series as young adult novels. Following the "rules" of publishing doesn't mean you can't be creative or do something unique. It just means that you're approaching publishing as a professional, and you're taking the time to understand the industry. 

Publishing is already hard enough -- don't make it harder than it needs to be by assuming you'll be the exception. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Fixing a Novel That's Too Long

A while ago, I blogged about fixing a novel that's too short. Now I want to look at the opposite problem: a novel that's too long.

First of all, this is a problem. Some agents and publishers will reject manuscripts based on the word count alone. An unusually long book might also overwhelm readers, who aren't sure they want to invest that much time in a new author. A swollen word count can also be a sign of problems in the writing, suggesting the plot is unfocused or the author tends to ramble.

When assessing your manuscript's length, make sure you're looking at the word count, not the page count. Compare this word count to the word counts of published books in your genre and age group, especially recent books from debut authors. You can also check out this post from LitRejections to get an idea of word count ranges in different genres. 

Of course, there are some exceptions -- books that have become hits despite their mammoth size. But getting published is already hard enough. You don't have to make it harder for yourself by trying to be an exception.

If your manuscript's word count is way outside genre norms, you're going to need to cut it. Here are some ways to do that.

Conquer and Divide

It's possible you've written two or more books, not one. You may be able to keep all the content you've written by dividing it into two or three books.

But be careful -- you need to make sure each books stands on its own. 

Don't just divide the word count by two or three and call it a day. You'll need to make sure each books has a complete plot with a satisfying end. This will almost certainly take some rewriting and reorganizing on your part. 

  • Do you have a subplot that can be reworked as the main plot?
  • Do you have a false ending -- a point that feels like it could be the ending but isn't? If so, you might be able to rework it as the real ending of the first novel. 

Depending on the structure of your book, this option might not work for you. Let's look at other possibilities. 

Remove Threads

Sometimes trimming your word count means getting rid of things -- big things, like characters and subplots. It may be hard to delete characters and events that you love, but doing so might help your book become more focused. 

  • Does the plot meander too much? You don't want the plot to be overly simple or linear, but you want some degree of focus. Try to summarize the main plot in a sentence. Can you do it? If not, you may need to trim some plot elements.
  • Do you have subplots that don't add much to the story? Cut them.
  • Do you have so many characters it's hard to keep track of all of them? Get rid of them, or combine some of them. 

This type of cutting will require some rewriting and reorganizing on your part. You'll have to go through the entire manuscript to remove every trace of the thread.

Remove Scenes and Chapters  

This can be a little easier than removing characters and subplots, but it can still be brutal.

  • Did you feel compelled to show every event? Let's say the character has to travel. If the trip is interesting, or if important things happen along the way, show it. But if the trip is boring, just make it clear that the trip happened and cut to the next scene. 
  • Can you chop off the first chapter (or two or three) and still have the story make sense? Do it!
  • Does every scene and chapter add something unique to the story? If not, cut them.

Go Line-by-Line

If you're at all wordy, you can probably cut a lot of words just by doing line edits. 

  • Do you overuse words like "just," "that," and "very"? Cut as many instances as you can.
  • Do you have too much description? Get rid of some. 
  • Do you have redundant sentences? For example, do you show that a character is angry through the actions and then tell the reader that the character is angry? Deleting the "telling" part will make your writing stronger and reduce your word count. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Yes, It's Okay to Use Adverbs and Be Verbs in Your Novel, But—

Grab a novel. Any published novel will do. Open it up to any page. 

Look for adverbs. These include most words that end in -ly, like quickly, slowly, and carefully, as well as words like always, never, sometimes, often, too, very, and then.

Now look for forms of the verb be: am, is, are, was, were, been, being, and be.

I'm guessing you find some examples pretty quickly. These words are both common and useful. 

Many new writers are told to avoid them. The advice is based on some good wisdom. When overused, these words can result in weak writing. New writers tend to overuse them, and they are warned not to.

The problem occurs when writers go too far. They decide to strip all instances of be verbs and adverbs from their writing. The result is an unnatural-sounding mess.

Do not attempt to eradicate these words from your writing. However, if you find that you overuse them, look for ways to reduce your dependence on these words.

Overusing Adverbs

Overusing adverbs may be a sign of weak word choice. Eliminate some adverbs by picking stronger words that don't need modification.

        weak: speak quietly
        stronger: whisper 

        weak: walk heavily
        stronger: plod, trudge

Some adverbs, like very and really, can often be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

         weak: very angry
         stronger: angry, furious

Overusing Be Verbs

Likewise, overusing be verbs can be a sign of weak sentence structure.

Some people mistakenly believe that be always indicates the passive voice. This simply is not true. A sentence is passive when the subject receives the action and when a combination of be and a past participle are used.

          not passive: She was teaching. She was a teacher.
          passive: The students were taught by her.

Active sentences are generally considered stronger than passive sentences, but occasionally it makes sense to use the passive voice. Just avoid doing so too often. 

Even sentences that are not technically passive can be weak, and overusing be verbs can be a sign of this. 

         weak: He was cold.
         stronger: Shivering, he grabbed another blanket. 

Breaking the Rules

If avoiding adverbs and be verbs is a rule, it's one that's made to be broken. The key is knowing when.

Strong writing does not come from following broad rules blindly. It comes from learning to use the best words, structures, and techniques for the job at hand. It's about paying attention to the rhythm of the page and varying sentences. 

All writers have crutch words  i.e., words that they overuse. These crutch words may be adverbs or be verbs. Identify your crutch words and find ways to use them less often, but don't eliminate whole classes of words from your vocabulary. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How to Edit Your Novel

Congratulations! You've finished writing your novel. Now it's time to celebrate, to treat yourself to a reward -- and to think about edits.

Writing the first draft of a novel is a huge accomplishment, but it doesn't mean you're finished. Think of a complete draft as an important milestone rather than an endpoint. Edits can be just as challenging -- and sometimes even more challenging -- than the initial draft.

Edits are just as important, too. You've spent a long time on your manuscript, but it's bound to have numerous flaws, from plots holes to typos. If you want readers to love it as much as you do, you need to make it shine.

Here's a step-by-step guide to editing your own novel.

1. Put it aside for a while.

You're too close to your manuscript to see its flaws. Put it aside for a while so you can look at it with fresh eyes. During this time, you can start plotting your next novel, work on smaller projects, or even take a break from writing to, I don't know, spend time with your family or whatever.

2. Tackle the big issues first.

Sometimes editing your novel means rewriting it. You may need rearrange chapters, add or delete characters, cut scenes, add subplots, rethink major plot points, and more. It may sound overwhelming, but if your goal is a book that readers will love and that you can be proud of, it's worth it. 

Check the plot. You should be able to answer the following questions fairly easily. If you can't, you might need to do some major revisions to clarify and strengthen the plot. 
  • What is the inciting incident (the event that gets the story started)?
  • What are the major plot points that increase the tension and up the stakes?
  • What is the climax?
  • What is the resolution?
  • What is a one-sentence summary of the story? A one-paragraph summary? A one-page summary?

Check the characters. You should be able to answer these questions for the main character, as well as the villain and supporting characters. If you can't, figure out how to strengthen your characters.
  • What is the character's goal?
  • What obstacles does the character face?
  • What are the character's strengths?
  • What are the character's weaknesses?
  • How does the character grow and change over the course of the novel?
  • How is the character more than a stereotype?
  • How do the character's actions contribute to the story?

Check the pacing. You don't want to bore the reader, but you need to spend time on character development as well. Go through you manuscript chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, and page-by-page.
  • Do all chapters and scenes contribute to the story?
  • Is there tension on every page?
  • Does the type of tension vary? (Sometimes it's action, sometimes it's relationship conflict, etc.)
  • Are any of the chapters or scenes boring? Either cut them or make them interesting. 

Check the world-building. You want your world to be believable.
  • If this is fantasy, is the magic system consistent? Make sure you understand the rules and limitations of the magic system. 
  • If this is science fiction, have you researched the science behind it? Grab some books or talk to an expert. You can take some liberties with the science, but you don't want to say things that are flat out wrong. 
  • If this is historical fiction, have you researched the period? You need to know as much as possible, from the food and clothes to the class structure and religion.
  • Have you fact checked other elements? For example, if you're writing about an FBI agent, you need to understand how FBI agents work. Do the research. 
  • Is the world developed enough? Add enough detail to make it come to life.
  • Have you avoided infodumping? Weave details into the story as they come up naturally.

Check the length. Both readers and publishers have certain expectations for the length of a novel. When assessing your novel's length, look at the word count (not the page count).
  • How long is your manuscript?
  • Is this within the accepted range for your genre? 
  • If your novel is too short, think about how you can develop it. Don't just add fluff. Develop characters and the world. Add subplots and obstacles. Make the story richer. (I offer more tips on fixing short novels here.)
  • If your novel is too long, think about how you can cut it. This might include cutting whole chapters, scenes, characters, and subplots, as well as individual words and sentences. (I offer more tips on fixing long novels here.)

3. Tackle the small issues. 

Once you're satisfied with the big-picture elements, it's time to look at the details.
  • Is the dialogue natural? Characters should not engage in unnatural conversations just to inform the reader of important facts. Also make sure that characters speak in ways that make sense for their background -- a child should not sound like college professor, for example. 
  • What are your crutch words? These are words that you use too often -- words like really, just, and definitely. Search for them and delete them whenever you can. 
  • Is the sentence length and structure varied? Avoid starting too many sentences with "I" or the character's name. 
  • Do you avoid using distancing words like "feel" and "see"? For example, instead of saying the main character saw something happen, just say something happened.
  • Are you using strong nouns and verbs? The goal isn't to show off your vocabulary; it's to use the most precise and evocative word possible. 
  • Is the punctuation, spelling, and grammar correct? Get a grammar book if you need to.
  • Have you corrected the typos? You may have an easier time spotting them if you change the font or read it aloud. 

4. Let it sit before going over it again.

You're back at step one. You're too close to the manuscript, so put it aside for a while. 

During this time, pay attention to any nagging thoughts you have about your manuscript. This could be a sign you need to do another round of revisions.

If you're happy with your revisions, go over everything one more time. Big revisions can create inconsistencies and redundancies, so make sure you fix them.

5. Get feedback from someone else.

There's only so much you can do on your own. Show your manuscript to a critique group or beta reader to get more feedback. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

How to Handle Rejection

If you want to be a professional writer, you need to be ready to face rejection. It happens to all authors, whether they're just starting out or having been published for years, whether they're traditionally published or self-published, and it can take many forms:

  • A critique partner who thinks your manuscript is seriously flawed.
  • Agents who politely say your manuscript isn't a good fit. 
  • Your agent, who doesn't want to rep your newest manuscript.
  • Publishers who pass on your manuscript.
  • Reviewers who don't like your book. 
  • Awards you don't win.
  • Lists you don't make.

Rejection stings, so you need to learn how to handle it in a way that doesn't crush your soul or ruin your career.


1. Complain to a friend. Any sympathetic friend will do, but friends who are familiar with publishing or other rejection-filled creative pursuits will probably be the most understanding. 

This can be done online, but it needs to be in private -- stick to emails and DMs, not your public social media feed.

2. Treat yourself. Not everything has to be about writing. Take a day off and do something you enjoy. Indulge in your favorite treat. Take care of yourself.

3. Read negative reviews of other books. I do this sometimes. It's not to gloat. It's to prove to myself that no book appeals to everyone. No matter how popular and successful a book is, there will always be someone who hates it. 

Look for scathing reviews of award-winning, best-selling books, and you'll see what I mean. This is especially helpful if you're dealing with a negative review of your own book. 

4. Try again. Did an agent reject you? Query another agent. Did a book fail to find a publisher? Write another book. You haven't failed if you're still trying. 


1. Complain in public, especially online, where your words are preserved forever. Wanting to vent is normal, but don't do it where publishing professionals and potential readers can see. 

(I'm not saying you should keep all rejection hidden. Sometimes it's helpful to confess that you've received rejection and that it's hard. This lets other writers know they're not alone. Just don't present it as a rant against the people who rejected you.)

2. Tell the person rejecting you they're wrong. This never goes well. Don't argue with an agent or publisher. Don't respond to a bad review. Doing so will only convince people that you're unprofessional and to be avoided.

3. Demand feedback. It's good that you want to improve, but the person who rejected you doesn't owe you a writing lesson. If you want feedback, look for a critique group or beta reader, or pay for a professional critique. Don't demand feedback from the person who passed on your manuscript.  

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Fixing a Novel That's Too Short

You'd be pretty mad if you went to the movie theater, spent $9 on a movie ticket, and settled in with your tub of buttery popcorn, only to have the movie end thirty minutes later. When you see a movie, you expect it to be a certain length.

Similarly, readers expect novels to be a certain length. Agents and publishers also have expectations and may reject an otherwise wonderful book because of a small word count.

What's acceptable will depend on your genre and age group. Romance novels tend to be shorter than epic fantasies, and the children's novels are usually shorter than novels for adults.

When assessing the length of your manuscript, look at the word count, not the page count. Compare this word count to the standard range for your genre.

If you don't know the range for your genre, you should be able to find this information pretty easily. If you're writing for children (picture books to young adult), I recommend using the guidelines on Jennifer Laughran's old blog. Otherwise, you can get a good idea of acceptable word counts for most genres at LitRejections.

If your novel is too short, you'll need to figure out how to add more words. Don't just add fluff! If you do this, you'll have a novel that's long enough, but no one will want to read it because it's boring.

Instead, figure out why it's too short  what is it lacking?

Here are some possible ways to increase your word count.

Add obstacles. If your novel is too short, it may be because the plot is linear. Does the character achieve goals too easily? Is the plot predictable? If so, add some setbacks and complications for the character to overcome. Ideally, some of these problems will stem from the character's own flaws and mistakes.

Add world-building details.
Infodumping -- inserting long summaries explaining the world and background -- is generally a problem, but you do want to include enough details to bring the world to life. Weave details and descriptions in throughout the story. Try to insert them where they are relevant and natural. 

Show, don't tell. Every writer has heard this advice at some point  because it's important. While occasionally it's okay to tell something to convey the information quickly and get it out of the way, too much telling can make a story seem dull.  

The house was old and dilapidated.

The house used to be green, or maybe it was blue. So much paint had peeled off that no one could say for sure. Shards of glass dangled from the window frames, and there were holes in the roof that raccoons used to access the attic. 

Make sure you're writing scenes, not just summaries. This is a mistake I see a lot from new writers, and it's a big one. It's related to the issue of showing versus telling. When you write a scene, you want the readers to feel as if they're experiencing the scene as it happens, not getting a summary of it after the fact. While some minor events, background information, and transitions may be summarized, the important events should not be written this way. Provide enough detail  including the dialogue, action, and emotions  to bring the scene to life. 

Add characters. Not all tension comes from action. Some of it comes from relationships. Adding a character or two can help increase the word count while adding depth to the main character and the plot. 

Add subplots. These subplots should help develop the plot, characters, and/or themes of the novel. Weave them in throughout the novel.