Fiction Writing Tips 110

Welcome to the first page of Fiction Writing Tips.

Here you will find the original 10 tips from when the site began in October 2006.

To return to the tips index, click here.

If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.

Enjoy!

Tip #1: An (Accepting) Audience of One

I wanted to start this column out the right way by giving you the best tip of all: Be sure you understand Who you're writing for and why you're writing it for Him.

I'm a Christian and this is a Web page with lots of Christian content. I won't assume you're a Christian but it's probably a pretty safe bet.

If you haven't yet understood what it is to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then your life hasn't even started yet. I beg you to begin there. Here's a good site to check out.

The Christian novelist may be writing fiction for any number of reasons. You just love to tell stories. You can't help yourself. You want to spread the creativity you've been given. You may even want to use fiction to get messages across to as wide an audience as possible. You may want to use gifts God has given you.

These are wonderful motivations. But they're not the whole picture.

There are less savory motives, too. Some writers are trying to prove someone wrong who said they would never amount to anything. They may want to try to show they're worth something, after all. They may be writing to create a world that serves their every desire. They may be trying to show off or look important or make their mark in the world.

I can tell you from experience that none of those motives is where the action is really at.

I spent a lot of years thinking that I wasn't actually worth the oxygen I consumed. I thought writing a book would make me, I don't know, special. Worthwhile. Then I thought that becoming a bestselling author was what I needed. Sadly, that never happened to me, which really made me crazy. It made me consider doing some dumb things to try to gain more readers and thus improve my importance.

Only in 2006 did I learn what a joke that all was. I'd given lip-service to the idea of writing for an audience of One, but until then I didn't really mean it. it's what I said to console myself because I wasn't getting the success I really wanted.

The realization I had came from some books and some Christian counselors. The main book that helped me was Search for Significance by Robert McGee.

That book told me that my lifelong addiction to approval and the validation of others was nothing but false thinking. The truth, McGee wrote, was that God has permanently given me His approval, favor, and delight.

If you are an approval addict, or a perfectionist, or you play the blame game because of what it might mean if you're actually to blame, or if you feel you are permanently damaged and can never, ever change, then I plead with you to get that book.

Through it, God freed me to finally begin writing, and living, simply for Him. No longer am I enslaved to achievement or approval. I have all the approval I can ever handle, and it is reserved for me, imperishable and safe, in God's hand.

For as long as you write for any other purpose than to glorify God, you will not be writing for the right reasons.

Incidentally, wanting above all else to glorify God means you also have to be willing to give up writing if He shows you that doing something else would glorify Him more. And anything we're unwilling to let go of, anything we place higher in our hearts than Him, is an idol.

Next time I'll give a bona fide fiction writing tip, but I wanted to be sure I'd started by pointing you to God, the audience of one who delights in you as a mother delights to see her firstborn child.

Tip #2: Proper Manuscript Formatting

Technically, there is no "right" or "wrong" formatting for your proposals or manuscripts. No acquisitions editor I know would reject a proposal simply because it's in the "wrong" font.

However, there is an identifiable set of formatting choices that, if used, will align with industry expectations and will make your proposal or manuscript fit into what acquisitions editors think of as a professional look.

This I can help you with.

Formatting for the Entire Proposal or Manuscript

Some formatting options, such as fonts, margins, and page size and orientation, should be used for the whole package.

For instance, always write in 12-point Times New Roman. (Titles and subheads can be bigger.) I know that older formatting books or books about screenwriting say to use Courier 10 pt., but don't. Times New Roman, or a serif font like it, look most professional in the Christian publishing industry. Courier looks old-fashioned and a little out of touch with modernity.

Always include a 1.25" margin on left and right and a 1" margin on top and bottom.

Always use 8.5"x11" paper size, and always use it in portrait (not landscape) orientation.

Always submit your entire proposal and/or manuscript in a single Word document. Making an editor cobble together your disparate pieces (especially when the file names are inconsistent) aggravates the person you're wanting to get on the good side of. You can keep them in separate files on your computer, if you wish, but put them all together before sending.

Always include your name, the book title, and page number in the header. If the editor prints out your proposal or manuscript and puts it with other printouts, then somehow the whole stack falls on the floor, if you don't have your name and page number on every page it could be trouble.

Always use italics for emphasis. Don't use underline or all caps or bold. (Again, titles or subheads can be the exception.) This is true for your synopsis and cover letter and the like, but it's especially true for the manuscript or sample chapters. I know the older books say to underline where you would like italics, but that's just because typewriters could do underlines but couldn't do italics. If you want emphasis, use italics.

Don't hit the space bar twice after the end of a sentence. I know, that's how we all learned it, but modern style is to leave just one space after sentences. While you're training yourself to hit the space bar only once, before sending your proposal or manuscript off, do a global search and replace function in which you replace every instance of "space-space" with "space." That'll take care of most of them.

Always communicate your manuscript length in wordcount, not pagecount or number of chapters. The latter can vary widely due to spacing, margins, font sizes, etc., but wordcount tells no lies. Never say, "My manuscript is 335 pages long." Say, "My manuscript is 84,930 words."

Front Matter

By "Front Matter" I mean anything you turn in with a proposal or manuscript that is in front of (i.e., comes before) the actual manuscript or sample chapters. This might include a cover letter, synopsis, bio, hook, etc.

All front matter should be single-spaced. Separate your paragraphs with a blank line and use no indent. The paragraph spacing on this Web page is what yours should look like in your front matter section.

The Manuscript or Sample Chapters

When you get to the pages of the story itself, the formatting rules change a bit. Everything in the general section remains the same, however: paper size, font, etc.

While all front matter was single-spaced, all manuscript pages should be double-spaced.

While paragraphs in the front matter were not indented and were separated by a blank line, in the manuscript pages you should separate paragraphs by using a .5" indent when a new paragraph begins.

Note, use the indent feature in your word processor, not the tab key, to make these indents.

Here's a Jeff preference, not a requirement: I like to remove the indent in the first paragraph only of a chapter or new scene. I like the flush left look of that first line. But this is just my stylistic preference.

As far as chapter length, look for ways to keep your chapters in the 12-17 page range (double spaced). Shorter is fine, but longer is frowned upon. When we start getting into 50-page chapters we start wondering if you really understand the concept of chapters.

Okay, that's it. If you turn in a proposal or manuscript formatted in this way, you won't stand out as looking unprofessional. You'll blend right in with the best-looking submissions the agent or acquisitions editor will have received. That means this person is not tripped up by your formatting, thinking, "This person's obviously an amateur but I guess I'll try to keep an open mind." You don't want that strike against you, trust me.

Now...go make it look beautiful! Let your story and your writing, not poor formatting, be what make your project stand out.

Tip #3: Your Hero's Inner Journey

One thing I have seen often in new novelists' work is the lack of a satisfying inner journey for their main characters. The protagonist may go through many trials and make a significant decision or take a big risk, but there's something lacking, something organic that, if it had been there, would've turned the novel into something special.

I believe that the best fiction involves a main character who has a problem, an issue, an unresolved inner conflict. He's sitting around trying to make it through life, but is hindered by this inner problem. He may not even realize that he's got this issue. But God knows. And God loves him too much to let him go on this way.

So God decides to break out His tools to go to work on this person. He is going to make this character deal with his issue and finally jump or slide or get pushed off the fence to one side or the other. God is going to force the issue.

In other words, the story is really about God helping the protagonist deal with something or learn a lesson.

Most of us must be brought to a place of brokenness before we will accept any kind of major change. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Isn't that how God works with us? He sees the way we sabotage our lives and relationships, and sometimes, because He loves us, He breaks out the power tools to get us fixed. Nobody likes to be drilled or hammered or cut in two, but that's how the Carpenter builds His masterpieces.

If fiction is about bringing the main character to a breaking point, then all the events of the story are about bringing that to pass. They're God's hammer strokes or they're the hero's efforts to resist the change, to keep making things work the way he's been going. The more he resists, the more pressure God brings, until the hero reaches the breaking point.

At rock bottom, when the hero is finally humbled and is utterly beaten, he has a choice: to surrender to the new way or to reject it and go down doing it the old way. There, when his life is in pieces and all his old ways have failed him, he's able to begin to "hear" the wisdom of the other way. He's finally willing to give it a try.

Or he reaches that breaking point and decides he's not going to change no matter what anyone says. He realizes that he's at fault. He realizes what has been causing all his problems. But through lust or pride or selfishness or just plain stubbornness, he decides he can't or shouldn't or won't ever change. And so he pursues a course that leads to his own destruction.

Luke Skywalker, like everyone around him, believes in the prowess of technology. Through the events of Star Wars: Episode IV he begins to believe that there is a spiritual power that is greater even than technology: a targeting computer or a Death Star. Flying down the trench in his X-Wing hHe reaches his point of decision, to which the whole story has been driving, and he makes his choice.

Lightning McQueen thinks he's the only person (er, car) of importance. He offends and walks on people, and as a result has no friends. The "accidental" detour to Radiator Springs forces him to care for a community. In the big Piston Cup race at the end, he has the choice to apply the lesson the whole story has been teaching him--that he needs others to be complete--or reject that lesson and go back to his old ways.

Getting the character to that breaking point, that moment of truth when he finally can see all the issues and make a choice knowing the stakes, is what the whole story has been about. What he decides in that moment of truth spells either his salvation or his damnation.

It's the story of man, you see. We can't live without God, though we try to. God comes to us in mercy and pushes us to the end of ourselves, urging us to surrender and accept God's way. Either we do or we don't. But our eternity hangs in the balance as we choose.

So, what about your story? What is the issue or flaw the protagonist has? What does God want to teach him? How will God use the story to bring him to a point of accepting or rejecting that change? How will the protagonist work to resist making that change? What does "rock bottom" look like for this character and in this story? What will he ultimately decide?

This is your protagonist's inner journey (also called a character arc). It is a journey with an observable and predictable trajectory. Include this in your fiction and it will feel well-rounded and spiritually complete. Ignore it and readers (and editors) will feel that there is a certain ineffable something missing from your novel.

Tip #4: What Does Your Hero Want?

Luke Skywalker wants to defeat the Empire. If he doesn't, freedom in the galaxy will perish.

Lightning McQueen wants to get out of Radiator Springs to get to California for the Piston Cup. If he doesn't, his dream to win the cup as a rookie will die.

E.T. wants to get home. If he doesn't, he'll be stranded on Earth forever, and he's dying here.

Frodo wants to get to the Cracks of Doom and throw the Ring in to destroy it. If he doesn't, all the free peoples of Middle-Earth will be enslaved.

In simplest terms, a novel is about a hero who wants something and the consequences if he or she doesn't get it.

I'm surprised at how many aspiring novelists lose sight of this and write meandering stories that seem to lose their way, leaving readers adrift.

No matter what happens to your protagonist, you can't have him forget what he was originally after. He may realize, of course, that what he was really after was something else, but it has to resonate with the reader.

For instance, in Cars Lightning McQueen thought what he wanted was to get to California to win the race. But what he discovered he really needed was to learn humility and an appreciation for others around him. He still got to his race, but now his heart had changed. This goes with Tip #3.

Luke Skywalker realizes that what he really needs is to align himself with the Force and, later, to redeem his father. He still opposes the Empire, but his goals have become more focused.

What about your story? Do you have your hero wanting more than anything to get a bill passed in the Senate and yet halfway through she's caring more about deep sea fishing? Was your hero originally trying to mend his marriage but the climax is about the recovery of a stolen artifact?

In your story:

  • Who is your hero (are you sure you know?)
  • What does your hero want?
  • What stands in the way of your hero getting what s/he wants?
  • How is s/he pursuing that goal in every scene?
  • What are the stakes? What will happen if the hero doesn't get what s/he wants?
  • Will the hero's goal become more focused as the story progresses? If so, how and why? Does this "redirected" goal makes sense with what s/he thought s/he wanted at the outset?
  • Will your hero attain his or her goal?

If you can answer these questions it will help you be sure your protagonist's goals will be clear to the reader, which will keep the story pointed in the right direction.

Tip #5: Description, Part 1 Introduction

With this tip I am beginning a four-part series on description of the locations in which you set your scenes.

One of the most common complaints I have of the fiction written by beginning (and many advanced) novelists is that I just can't imagine the scene. I don't know what anything looks like. I can't picture where I am or what's going on.

This is the fault of the writer. I mean, as a reader I want to fill in the blanks for the author. If you give me something to go on I'll help you out with the rest. But you have to give me that something to go on or I'm lost.

And few things frustrate me more than not being able to figure out what's going on in a scene I'm reading.

Some authors feel that it's a good idea to ration the description of the setting, doling it out here and there throughout the scene, so that by the end of the scene the reader knows what the place looks like. I hate that.

I think what the author is trying to do is avoid the supposedly dreaded paragraph of nothing but description. Perhaps they feel that such a paragraph is telling and stops the story cold.

I disagree. Describing a place (and, by the way, this whole "tip series" applies to character description, too) is not telling. How else is the reader going to know what the place looks like if you don't describe it?

Do you give us a weather report? No (unless it's pertinent). Do you give us a 360 of the place? No, not unless it's important for us to know right now. But you must describe what the place looks like or we won't know what we're seeing. We'll feel distanced from the story. Our minds will begin to drift.

A scene without a detail-laden description of the setting is like one of those experimental theatrical productions with just gray geometric shapes on the stage. They're supposed to be suggestive rather than specific. Makes it easier on the set builders, too.

Do you really want your scenes to feel like they're on a stage filled with gray blobs? Or, worse, to feel like there's no setting at all, just talking heads?

Because that's what you get when you have a dialogue scene with insufficient description. The lines of dialogue go back and forth with nothing tying them to the ground. They begin to become detached from their tethers like hot air balloons, floating up into a vague ether of gray nothingness.

Sounds like fun to read, huh?

Stop and give us a paragraph of description. Do it very early in the scene. And every time you change locations, even within the same scene, give us a paragraph of description of the new place.

When a filmmaker turns on the camera, the viewer immediately knows a lot about where the action is, who's there, what everyone's doing, and what everyone looks like. That all comes automatic with the director's tool-kit. The author of fiction is not so lucky. She has to actually spell it all out.

Go, thou, and do likewise.

Tip #6: Description, Part 2 The Establishing Shot

This is the second in a four-part series on descriptions. This tip applies to character descriptions as well as descriptions of settings, but I'm thinking mainly of setting descriptions as I write this.

When you watch a movie and you see the skyline of a big city and then a closer shot of someone walking down a city street, you understand it means that this person is walking down a street in that big city you saw a second ago, right?

If you see an aerial shot of snowy mountains and then you see a closer shot of a wizard and a Balrog fighting on a snowy mountainside, you assume that this fight is taking place somewhere in that mountain range you saw in the first shot, right?

If you see a blimp shot of a football stadium and then you see a close shot of a couple huddled together in the stands, you assume they're at that stadium watching a game, right?

These wide shots are all examples of what are called, in filmmaking, "establishing shots." They establish for the viewer the wider, macro context of the action we're going to be watching at a more micro level. They give the reader a sense of where the action is taking place.

Even in movies or shows that pride themselves on not using establishing shots (like the TV series Lost) you still very quickly see the context of where things are happening: beach in the background, jungle all around, cave, hatch, etc.

For the viewer to understand what's going on, the filmmaker must show him where it's going on. Two people having a swordfight is interesting, but devoid of context it's not as interesting (or meaningful) as it could be. Are they on stage? Are they in the middle of a medieval melee? Are they on a crossbeam high above a pirate ship? The establishing shot gives meaning and placement to the action that will follow.

Establishing shots are not for movies only. In fiction, if your reader doesn't know where the action is taking place she won't understand what is taking place.

Two people start talking. They're talking about important matters, but you have no clue where they are. Maybe you find out from the author that the characters are "outside." Well, what does that mean? Outside in the Bahamas or outside on the tundra of Kazakhstan? Is it night or day? Raining, snowing, cold, hot, windy, or fair? Are other people there or are they alone? Is there traffic nearby? What are the characters wearing? What are they doing? Are they walking or working out or lazing on the grass? Are they at a park or in a dark alley?

One of the things that aggravates me most about some fiction I see is that there is inadequate description of the location in which any given scene is taking place. I hate not knowing where I am or what the people are doing.

As a writer, it is your job to tell the reader what the context is of your scenes.

In film, the viewer gets a huge gestalt of the characters' setting just by looking at the screen. Even if there is no true establishing shot (like an aerial overview of the location) the viewer can still see behind the character to know a few things about where this is taking place.

In fiction, not so much. The reader can't see behind your characters to fill in the setting. If you don't tell her what's there, it simply isn't there. Maybe they're in a spaceship or underwater or in an office building. Maybe the characters are wearing hobo outfits or scuba gear or a Groucho Marx nose. They just don't know. And that's the writer's fault.

In your fiction, whenever you put us in a new location, you must give us a description of what the place looks like, how many people are there, what they're wearing, what they're doing, where they are in relation to one another, and anything else the reader needs to understand the moment.

You need to give us an establishing shot.

Otherwise, we'll be lost. And we'll start burning you in effigy. (Okay, maybe that's too harsh, but you get the point.)

You don't have to be formulaic about it. You don't have to go, "Okay, first, are they inside or outside? Second, what does it look like? Third..." You don't have to give these descriptions on the first line of any new scene. Don't get locked into doing it one way.

But you must, very early in every new setting, tell us what it's like, who is there, and what they're doing. This applies even if you move into a new setting in the same scene, like when you go from the car to the garage to the house.

This is a basic skill of fiction. Be sure you're doing it.

Remember, the reader is completely dependent upon you to furnish this information. If you don't, the reader will be adrift and you will have frustrated and distanced a reader who had been trying to follow your story closely.

By the time you get halfway down the first page of a new scene you should have included, or at least begun, a paragraph or two of description giving your reader an establishing shot.

There are exceptions to this. Sometimes you want your reader confused about the setting, as when you're trying to disguise it from the reader in order to conceal someone's identity or location. But this is exceedingly rare. Most of the time you want your readers to be able to visualize your story, right? Help them out. Add establishing shots to every scene and every new setting in your book.

Tip #7: Description, Part 3 The Full Sensory Sweep

This is the third in a four-part series on descriptions. This tip applies to character descriptions as well as descriptions of settings, but I'm thinking mainly of setting descriptions as I write this.

Many beginning novelists fail to describe their new setting (or character) at all. Or they give the briefest of hints, like "outside" or "a spacious room."

But when they do think to describe a location, they usually do so by describing what the place looks like.

Now, that's fine. We need to know what it looks like. But it's not enough. It doesn't give the reader a full sense of what the place is like.

When you go somewhere, what do you notice? Let's say you park your car and get out in the parking lot behind a row of restaurants at dinnertime. Do you mainly notice what you see? Not if you're hungry. You'll notice the tantalizing smells that are drifting by on the breeze.

If you step outside your house in the middle of a heat wave in Phoenix (or a cold snap in Minneapolis), are you mainly going to notice what the place looks like? Not likely. You'll feel the heat (or the cold) slam into you and punish you for leaving the climate controlled house.

The sound of a jackhammer or a chickadee. The grit of sand in your teeth at the beach. The feeling of a hot plastic car seat. These are all part of how we sense the world. Therefore they should all be part of how you describe your fictional world. It's certainly how you make your fictional world believable to the reader.

Whenever you introduce a new setting, you must describe it for the reader. When you're thinking about how to describe your new setting, go through the five senses to consider which ones might be presenting interesting detail that your character could notice.

It's very often the subtle sensory detail that sells your scene to the reader. Who can forget the story in the Gospel of John in which the aroma of the perfume could be smelled throughout the house? I once wrote a scene in which a woman opens a hot oven and feels the heat push back her bangs, and it was that sensory detail that made the scene come alive to some readers.

Don't be mechanical about this, like in every scene you go through the sensory checklist, saying something about each of the five senses, no matter how much of a stretch it is. Instead, just consider what the viewpoint character's senses might realistically be telling him at this moment in this place. Find one or two telling details from the other four senses to augment what can be seen with the eyes.

And don't forget internal senses, like pain or hunger or seasickness or even feelings of dread, joy, or regret. Certain settings will elicit internal feelings, too. Like what happens to you stomach whenever you smell a dentist's office...

Add sensory descriptions to virtually every description of new settings, and you'll help the reader suspend disbelief and enter fully into the world of your story.

Tip #8: Description, Part 4 Comparisons

This is the final installment in a four-part series on descriptions. This tip applies to character descriptions as well as descriptions of settings, but I'm thinking mainly of setting descriptions as I write this.

Neurologists tell us that the brain works by using comparisons. It analyzes any input, like what someone says or the appearance of a work of art, and compares it to information it has stored in the past.

"Hmm, the way she said that sounds kind of like how she talked when she was really mad at me last week. I think she may be mad." Or "Okay, this painting has a color palette that reminds me of warm and comfortable things. I think I like it."

The brain is always trying to find meaning or gain a handle on understanding and interpreting life by means of comparisons to known data.

Why, you're probably asking, is Jeff giving me a lesson on brain functions?

Because, dear writer, your characters in fiction ought to be using comparisons to understand and interpret their lives, too.

Comparisons and similes communicate wonderfully when you're describing locations (and new characters) in your fiction because we, your readers, thoroughly relate to them in our own lives. It's how we think, too.

Let's say you walk into a football stadium you've never been to. Maybe you're on the cell phone with a friend who couldn't make it. She wants to know what the stadium looks like because her boyfriend will be playing down on the field and she wants to picture it in her mind.

(Did you notice the implied request for a comparison in what she asked for? She wanted to know what the stadium looked like. To what, she was asking, might it be compared?)

So you say, "Well, it's kind of like Richland's stadium but the scoreboard is bigger. And it doesn't have the big press box like the Wildcats' stadium, but it does have these concrete tunnels that go under the stands. Do you remember when we saw the playoff game at the college last year? It reminds me a lot of that stadium."

When your viewpoint character enters a new setting, his brain is going to be trying to describe it. Giving an establishing shot view is very helpful, as is including sensory information. But the final component is a good comparison.

The great thing about a comparison is that it not only tells the reader what the place looks like, it also tells you something about the character doing the describing. It sets the scene and it characterizes the viewpoint character.

For instance, when I proposed to my wife I had a ring for her but I was still waiting for the ring I really wanted her to use as her engagement ring. It was coming in the mail from my Grandmother. When the ring finally arrived I called my fianc and tried to describe to her what the ring looked like. I described it in words that were brilliant, evocative, and above all, romantic.

I said it looked like a silver volcano.

Well...! It did look like a silver volcano. It had a circular...I don't know...mound of white gold that encircled a diamond. Kind of like a flat-topped volcanic mountain with a caldera at the top. I thought it was a great description, and something about the diamond being formed by the geologic pressures of the volcano seemed fitting to me.

Okay, did the comparison communicate? Um...kind of. Not in the way I'd hoped. Happily, she still married me! But do you see how the comparison did double duty? Not only did it sort of describe the ring, it also described me. It showed that when it comes to romantic poetry and a sense of the moment, I pretty much stink.

(By the way, I liked my wedding ring because I thought it looked like a space station. But we won't go there.)

In your fiction, let your viewpoint characters use comparisons to describe new settings (and characters). "It looked about the size of a basketball court," "She reminded me of a fat version of my Aunt Opal," and "It tasted like a combination of Grape Nuts and cod liver oil."

The more bizarre the location being described, the more the brain reaches for comparisons. This applies to all of us creating alien worlds and never-before-imagined creatures.

The thing was enormous, larger than a school bus. Like a squirrel on human growth hormone. Honey, I Blew Up the Marsupial kind of big. It jumped around in little hops, like a cricket on a garage floor. And it always seemed disoriented when it landed, as if every impact shook its brain loose for a second.

Comparisons will quickly give your readers a handle on what you're describing. You don't have to use them every time. Don't get formulaic about any of these description tools. But use them generously.

And remember to keep your comparisons consistent with who your viewpoint character is. If you've brought an alien to 21st century Earth, don't have him compare a room to a disco club. If your viewpoint character is a woman who's never been out of Saudi Arabia, don't let her compare something to Texas Stadium.

Put together, the tools of the establishing shot, sensory information, and well-chosen comparisons will help your reader picture the locations you're setting your scenes in. And a reader who can picture your locations is an engaged reader, and an engaged reader keeps reading your novel.

Tip #9: Beware Monster Paragraphs

A monster paragraph is a huge paragraph. I know, by this point you've come to expect me to write about actual monsters. You were hoping for a discussion of monstrous prose that would frighten even a deliverance preacher, weren't you? So solly. This tip is more mundane.

I think a lot of writers hear the voice of their grammar teachers reverberating in their head. "Topic sentence," moans the disembodied voice. "State your theme! Moaaaaannn. Stay in your paragraph until you change topics. Woe! Woe unto you who dares defy me. A pox upon thee!"

(Hey, that was a monster paragraph!)

In a lot of the fiction proposals I review I see paragraphs ten, twelve, even twenty or more lines long. That is what I mean by a monster paragraph.

Can you imagine what that would look like? Imagine this entire page in one unbroken monolith of text. Hard on the eyes, isn't it?

A monster paragraph is like a sheer cliff that a climber has to climb. He stands there gazing up at it, looking for places where he might be able to get a grip or find a wedge or take a break, but finds none. He might not give up, but he'd sure want to.

In the same way, the eye needs little resting places when reading. Paragraph breaks are those resting places. You give none and the reader looks at it and goes, "Oh, man, this is going to be a hard read." It reminds me of some of my philosophy of religion textbooks, actually. And they were hard reads.

A monster paragraph says, "You do not want to read me. You cannot read me. I defy you to read me. You can try to read me but I will be stronger than you. I will cast you down like the foolish rock-climber you are." (Should I add the arch-villain laugh? Sure, throw it in.) "Bwahahahaha!"

A collection of monster paragraphs makes the reader begin to long for something easier, something that will provide the escape she came to your novel looking for. She'll put your book down and reach for the remote...

In a future tip I'll talk about using varying lengths for your paragraphs to manage the pacing of your novel, but for now it's enough to know that monster paragraphs must be slain.

Go on a monster paragraph search. A quest to slay the giants, you could say (always trying to work in the speculative angle!). Look for any paragraph that is longer than seven (that's 7) lines long, and kill it. Cut it into little bits.

Shoot for a 3-4 line average for your paragraphs. You can go shorter, down to 1-line (or even 1-word) paragraphs your grammar teacher be durned but don't go any longer than 7 lines for any paragraph in your book.

Trust me, in a 12-line paragraph there is at least one (and probably three or more) good places to place the axe. Look for subtle shifts in topic, or simply go in and insert something that creates a good place to chop the paragraph apart.

Your readers will thank you. And your novel will have a better chance of getting read to the very end. Bwahahaha.

Tip #10: Master Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

What if I told you that if you did just one thing you could achieve mastery in a given craft? Would you believe me?

What if I told you that reading (and heeding) just one book and not a long book at that would grant you a level of craftsmanship with which you could make good money at that endeavor? You'd probably think I was an Internet marketer selling you something too good to be true.

Well, friends, it is true! And for just $99.99. Hurry, supplies are limited. Operators are standing by. All major credit cards accepted. And if you call today we'll throw in this complete set of ginsu knives. But you must act now. Sale ends soon! Offer void where prohibited. Some restrictions apply.

Okay, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the wonderful book on the craft of fiction by Reni Browne and Dave King, sells for just $13.95. And no knives, though they be perfect for slicing and dicing and making julienne fries.

I don't know of any other craft or skill-set that can be virtually mastered by adherence to one slim nonfiction book. And yet that's what you can achieve if you internalize the teachings in Self-Editing.

In my own writing, this was the book that single-handedly took me from aspiring wannabe to publishable novelist.

In my editing and book doctoring, it's the single most important reference I reach for. If you've ever spent time with me talking about fiction, you've probably heard me mention this book. It's the book I use when I teach at writer's conferences.

Why? What's so great about it?

I think what sets it apart is that these two authors so perfectly nail what are the main weaknesses in most new authors' fiction. The first three chapters on showing vs. telling, on point of view, and on characterization and exposition are the three things I'm most often talking about as I review manuscripts.

The chapters on showing and POV are each worth the price of the book by themselves. If every unpublished novelist I worked with had read these chapters and applied them to their fiction, they might've already gotten published.

Later chapters on beats and dialogue and interior monologue are in the second tier of things I'm correcting all the time in the fiction I see.

I don't mind telling people about this stuff again and again. It's job security for me. But you, dear writer friend, could save yourself grief if you were to learn these skills on your own.

I tell folks that there's only one book they really need to learn their craft. They may want to add a book or two in an area they're weak in, like characterization or plotting or establishing setting, but that's to shore up something. For the main stuff, one book is all. I try to read it every year.

Beware: it's not a Christian book. There's a section on writing sex scenes and the "proper" use of profanity. But hopefully you'll be able to see past that to the wonderful instruction inside.

There's a first edition and a revised, 2nd edition of this book. I've seen both and can't really tell the difference. Don't worry about which version you get, just get one!

Note that simply reading this book won't help you much. You must internalize these principles. And you must apply them to your manuscript.

As an added bonus (no, no ginsu) the book contains hysterical cartoons about the pains and joys of writing fiction. It's almost worth the purchase price just for those. My favorite is the one about using "said" one more time.

Every novelist and fiction editor has a favorite book on the craft of fiction. On Writing or Stephen King's book or Bird by Bird or Writing the Breakout Novel. This is mine. Try it and watch it improve your fiction and your prospects of getting published and it may just become your favorite, too.

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