Themes in My Inbox: What I’m Seeing in My Freelance Projects & Advice!

As most of you know, I’m doing freelance editing on the side now. I’m currently booked through the beginning of September so if you’re thinking about using me, now’s the time to email me!

I’ve been noticing some common issues amongst my unpublished editorial clients’ manuscripts. I want to share those, as well as some solutions and resources I often recommend.

1. Pacing

Pacing is hard. I speak as a writer who still struggles with pacing herself. Uneven pacing, or no pacing at all (which is also a structural problem: no pacing often means no arc. And stories need arcs. See #4.) is one of the biggest issues I’m seeing across all of my unpublished clients’ manuscripts.

I think we novelists can learn from screenwriters when it comes to plotting, pacing, and structure. From a screenwriting perspective, your plot should look something like this: opening scene, first plot point, midpoint whammy, second plot point, closing scene. Tension should constantly be rising. you can have moments of relief! That’s fine. But overall, tension should rise.

How do you keep tension rising and make sure that scenes are all necessary and building off each other? Another screenwriting tip. This one I learned from Naomi Hughes who shared this link on Twitter. Each scene, or the beats of the story if you use Save the Cat beat sheets, should be linked by the words “but” or “therefore.” NOT “and then”. And then = BORING. It means that you’re just saying things happen. But or therefore tell a story.

“I didn’t go to work on Monday, therefore I was home when the zombie apocalypse started. But I was outside weeding so I didn’t hear the front door ring. Therefore, I survived the first wave. But then I had to survive what came next.”

We don’t need to see the character calling into work, then making his to-do list for his “sick day”, or peeing, and then deciding whether he was going to buy new toilet paper today or tomorrow. That’s not important to the story of ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.

FAQ:

Q: “Well this story’s beginning is just slow.”

A: Yes! Sure! I don’t mind slow beginnings–some people do, so just know you’re not going to get every reader–but I also require slow beginnings to be interesting. I highly recommend reading Victoria Schwab aka V.E. Schwab’s books. Both her Young Adult and adult SFF books have slow beginnings. I’d say the first 20% to 40% of her books are slow. Except they’re also exquisitely done. They are full of tension, despite very little happening. It’s like watching a grandmaster chess player set up a chess board. You know the pieces are going where they belong, but you also know that what follows will be magical. If you write slow books, you must be interesting and methodical about it.

Q: “My book has a weird structure and time jumps and flashbacks!”

A: Cool! Okay. No problem. Lots of writers do this. I highly recommend Tess Sharpe’s FAR FROM YOU for learning how to weave this all together well.

Q: “My book isn’t about a plot. You just watch these two characters do things and their lives are average. It’s a commentary on the American middle class.”

A: Go away, Guy in Your MFA.

2. Flat Dialogue

Okay. Let’s be real. Not all YA has teenagers sounding like teenagers. And it doesn’t seem to be an indicator for success. I have yet to run into a teenager who speaks like Augustus Waters. But whether or not your teenagers sound like teenagers, regardless of your genre and intended audience, your dialogue needs to be dynamic and energetic. Dialogue does not happen in a void. Dialogue is a conversation and conversation is, by nature, fluid.

How can you make your dialogue bouncy and lively?

1. Read it aloud. Again, and again, and again. Your cats don’t think you’re crazy. They’re not judging you. Anymore than normal, anyway.

2. Write dialogue only scenes. My dialogue-only scenes in Second Position and Finding Center started as exercises to make myself focus on the verbal dynamic between two characters. It forced me to look at what wasn’t being said (as important as what was), the rhythm of sentences, the tension you can build just in dialogue. I highly recommend it, even if you fill in the rest of the narration later.

3. Cut the small talk. You rarely need it in fiction. We get it. Dialogue is the same as the rest of the book: it should further plot/world-build/develop character. Or all three at the same time.

4. Think about where your characters are from and the worlds they inhabit. And how they differ from each other. Each character should sound different in dialogue. One character might use improper speech (Zed of District Ballet Company books isn’t always grammatically correct, to my copy-editor’s chagrin!), which is fine within dialogue. A character from Michigan might say, “ya know?” at the end of his sentences.

5. If you’re struggle with teen voice, read YA writers who get it right. Recommendations: Corey Ann Haydu, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, Stephanie Perkins, Courtney Summers, Katie Cotugno, Evan James Roskos, Steve Brezenoff.

FAQ
Q: “I’m writing mature teens.”

A: Okay. They’re still teenagers. See above.

3. Overwriting/Underwriting

I’m seeing things either overwritten (purple prose) or underwritten (telling, not showing). Overwriting isn’t pretty writing. You think it is, but I promise you that it isn’t. You can write beautiful tight prose. We can’t see the beauty in your words when everything’s buried under unnecessary crap. On the other hand, give me something. Don’t tell me “I was confused.” SHOW me confusion. Confusion feels different in different characters! And how you show confusing in one character develops that character. Two birds, one stone!

Resource links:

External link to cutting purple prose (will open in new window)
External link to showing, not telling (will open in a new window)

FAQ:

Q: “But this is my style.”

A: I don’t buy it. I think your style might be lyrical (take it from a lyrical writer!) but purple prose/telling-not-showing is just bad writing. Like I said, you can write beautifully without overwriting. You can write sparsely, and still show me, not tell me. You don’t know what your style is yet if you’re defending your style as bad writing. Be open to critique and try it. I promise you that you’ll see the difference. This is one of those writing things that you can SEE the improvement right away.

4. Character Arcs

Characters must have arcs. It is literally not a story without this. A collection of vignettes isn’t a story unless something changes. Arcs are about change. You’re looking and examining the distance between a character and what the character wants. That distance’s flux? That’s the story. Lately, I’ve been giving my clients some very basic homework, but sometimes it’s these questions that either show us the gaps in our manuscripts or give us the answers!

What The Character wants at the beginning of the book:
What happens:
What will happen if The Character gets what The Character wants?
What will happen if The Character doesn’t?
Does The Character get what The Character wants?
Why or why not?

FAQ:

Q: “But my character doesn’t change! That’s the point!”

A: Your character should have the opportunity to change, and choose not to. The choice not to change is, in fact, change. A story without an arc, without a character arc, is not actually a story.

I hope this is helpful! Leave questions in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Themes in My Inbox: What I’m Seeing in My Freelance Projects & Advice!

  1. Totally agree with all this. Bonus suggestion: give your manuscript to someone else to read it out loud to you. Cold read, no prep, what sometimes is called a sight read. It’s excruciating, but you hear every stumble, every lapse in rhythm, every wrong moment. Reading your own work out loud is good, but we all auto-edit as we read – sometimes, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. Get somebody else to read your work out to you also means you don’t have to stop to make notes/corrections.

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