Friday, August 20, 2010


A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ reactions, feelings, and actual words.

To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell”, think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see a great movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.

In order to “show” instead of “tell,” you need to put your characters right in the middle of the action and play the action as it’s happening. And it’s important to show your characters’ reactions, emotions and feelings, through actions, dialogue, interior monologue and descriptive metaphors, to heighten the interest and make the reader bond with them. When you’re showing an important scene, use mostly direct dialogue, word-for-word, in quotation marks. Don’t summarize what the speaker says. And don’t forget to bring in details of the setting, and to show cause, then effect; and stimulus, then response.

As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to see the story, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it, all the while experiencing the thoughts and feelings of a living, breathing character. Telling means summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the sensory information and goes straight to the facts.” (p. 178)

Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.” Put another way, “It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience.”

The most basic mistake of novice writers is that they tell the reader what happened rather than showing them. Take this paragraph, a summary or telling:

“Nat knew she had to find another car, and fast. She approached some teens in a restaurant and ended up buying an old Neon for $300. She drove off quickly with it.”

Now here’s the real scene (showing) from Lisa Scottoline’s book Daddy’s Girl:

“… A take-out pizza joint stood on the far corner, and a few old cars were parked in a small lot out front—which gave Nat an idea.
She put on her pink glasses and a NASCAR cap, and hurried to the restaurant. […] The storefront contained only a few red tables, and one held a trio of teenagers hunched over a hamburger pizza with a pitcher of Coke. They looked up when Nat walked over.
‘Excuse me guys.’ She pushed up her glasses. ‘Do any of you want to sell me your car?’
The teenagers burst into raucous laughter. The tallest one, a good-looking kid with a fake diamond earring, said, ‘Yo, dude, you for real?’
‘Yes. I need a car, now. I’ll pay cash.’
‘Cash money, dude?’
Nat turned to the shortest one, who wore an Eagles knit cap. ‘What do you say? You got a car?’
‘An ’86 Neon. Got 120,000 miles and no radio, but it runs good.’ Eagles fan cracked a lopsided grin. ‘S’my stepsister’s car.’
‘I like Neons. You like cash?’
‘Yes.’ Eagles Fan’s eyes glittered. ‘And I totally hate my stepsister.’
‘Sell it, dude!’ the others shouted. ‘They’re gone the whole frickin’ weekend!’”

(… and continues like that. Great stuff! Thanks, Lisa!)

As Jack Bickham says in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike;…it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – shortchanged of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.” (p. 61)

Here’s another example:

Telling: Michelle suspected her husband of cheating on her.

Showing: Michelle tossed and turned, thinking about the phone call and hang up. Finally, she got up and crept over to the chair where Eric had left his pants and shirt. She sniffed the shirt collar for perfume, then quietly went through the pants pockets. She found a piece of paper and his cell phone and tiptoed out the bedroom door to read the note and check his recent calls.

(Dialogue, inner thoughts and emotions would make this even more vivid. This could be expressed through a phone call or in-person conversation with her sister or trusted friend.)

As Shelly Thacker says in her article, “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel,” “Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry.” Shelly also gives another excellent piece of advice in the same article: “Strive for more dialogue than narrative. … Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing….Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.”

Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. The conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony” (Bickham, p. 62). In order to grab your readers and intensely involve them, your scene must be lifelike and involve lots of emotion and conflict, and appeal to as many of the five senses as possible.

Scene (show) versus summary (tell):

Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your reader outs – or worse, end up boring them. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”

The rule, according to Bell, is “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.” That’s the difference between scene and summary. You don’t want to describe every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell”, to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail. Instead of describing your heroine getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast, brushing her teeth, going out the door, locking the door, getting into the car, etc., etc., just start with her rushing into the elevator at work, running late for an important meeting. Narrative summary is used to get past the boring, uneventful parts quickly and on to the next scene.

Therefore, “Show, don’t tell,” like all rules, has exceptions. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but often what happens between scenes (transitions) should just be told/ summarized/skipped past, so the story can progress. The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, scene versus summary.

By Jodie Renner, freelance manuscript editor,

© Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2010

Resources: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell; The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy; Wikipedia; “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel” by Shelly Thacker (

tips for writing fiction, advice on writing fiction, how to write more effective fiction, how to write a novel that sells, write better fiction, imagery, dynamic writing

Monday, August 16, 2010



by Jodie Renner, editor and author

See also my Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.

In another article, I talked about how to make your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted or confused, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, follow these technical guidelines.

First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker.

Punctuation for Dialogue:

1. Put quotation marks around all spoken words. Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes for quoting or emphasizing words or phrases within the quoted dialogue. (Italics are also used for emphasizing words or short phrases – but don’t overdo it.)

2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied.

3. If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“Help!” he shouted.

Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.

4. If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.

“Turn off the TV.”

6. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:

He said, “My game is on.”

7. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:

“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.”

8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (not a great idea), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.

“…no matter what you do.  

“And another thing, don’t ….”

Finally, a few style tips:

1. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said (or asked), or John said and Carol said (or whatever their names are). These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, etc., which are distracting.

2. You can’t use words like “laughed” or “grinned” or “smiled” or "grimaced" as dialogue tags:

“Why, thank you,” she smiled. (wrong)

Why not? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” words. Change it to something like:

“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)

Or “Why, thank you,” she said, as she smiled at him.

3. Use adverbs very sparingly. Avoid:

“Come here,” he said loudly.

“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.

The words they say should express how they’re feeling and how they’re saying them.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writingguides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. ~Enrique Jardiel Poncela

I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter. ~James Michener

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. ~ Michael Crichton

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say. ~Mark Twain

The wastebasket is a writer's best friend. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~Anton Chekhov

Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money. ~ J.P. Donleavy

My first draft is not even recognizable by the time I get to the last draft. I change everything. I consider myself at Square Zero when I finish the first draft. It’s almost like I use that draft to think through my plot. My hard copy of each draft will be dripping with ink by the time I finish, and I’ll do that several times. ~ Terri Blackstock

Writing is Rewriting.

Amateurs fall in love with every word they write. ~ William Bernhardt

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. ~Author Unknown

Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. ~ Michael Crichton

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. ~James Michener

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. ~ Francis Bacon

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit. ~ Richard Bach

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else. ~ Gloria Steinem

I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others. ~ Moliere

You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. - Jack London

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~ Walter "Red" Smith

When asked, "How do you write?" I invariably answer, "One word at a time." ~ Stephen King

When you sell a man a book, you don't sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue; you sell him a whole new life. ~ Emerson

Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure. ~ Oliver Herford

I write fiction because it's a way of making statements I can disown. ~ Tom Stoppard

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ~ Ray Bradbury

When I stop, the rest of the day is posthumous. I'm only really alive when I'm writing.~ Tennessee Williams

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. ~ E.L. Doctorow

Writing a book is an adventure: it begins as an amusement, then it becomes a mistress, then a master and finally a tyrant. ~Winston Churchill

Words - so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain [and] the noise of battle. ~John Cheever

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
~William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~Gene Fowler

Every writer I know has trouble writing. ~Joseph Heller

If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. ~ Stephen King

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. ~Sholem Asch

All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading to themselves. ~Don Marquis

There are men that will make you books, and turn them loose into the world, with as much dispatch as they would do a dish of fritters. ~Miguel de Cervantes

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. ~Henry David Thoreau

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~Arthur Polotnik

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. ~ Stephen King

Pen names are masks that allow us to unmask ourselves. ~C. Astrid Weber

A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident. ~W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, 1938

There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily. ~ Anthony Trollope

If I'm trying to sleep, the ideas won't stop. If I'm trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness. ~Carrie Latet

Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason. They made no such demand upon those who wrote them. ~Charles Caleb Colton

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. ~Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851

Write your first draft with your heart. Re-write with your head. ~From the movie Finding Forrester

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~Gustave Flaubert

The scariest moment is always just before you start. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published. ~Russell Lynes

A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order. ~Jean Luc Godard

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~A. Bronson Alcott

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. ~Colette

I keep little notepads all over the place to write down ideas as soon as they strike, but the ones that fill up the quickest are always the ones at my nightstand. ~Terri Guillemets

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. ~ G.K. Chesterton

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

No man should ever publish a book until he has first read it to a woman. ~Van Wyck Brooks

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it. ~Ernest Hemingway

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new. ~Samuel Johnson

The best style is the style you don't notice. ~Somerset Maugham

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~ Stephen King, On Writing

I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody's head. ~John Updike

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible. ~Leo Tolstoy

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed. ~ Ray Bradbury

I don't think it is possible to give tips for finding one's voice; it's one of those things for which there aren't really any tricks or shortcuts, or even any advice that necessarily translates from writer to writer. All I can tell you is to write as much as possible. ~ Poppy Z. Brite

Good books don't give up all their secrets at once. ~ Stephen King

Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


– compiled by Jodie Renner,

Here are some quick ways to perform various functions on your keyboard instead of searching for the icon along the toolbar at the top with your mouse. I start with the most well-known ones, then add lesser-known shortcuts. Keep this list handy beside your keyboard or tacked up nearby. If you get used to using these, you’ll be surprised at how much time you save!

Select all – Control + A

Copy – Control + C

Cut – Control + X

Paste – Control + V

Word count – Ctrl + Shift + G

Undo – Control + Z

Save – Control + S

Print – Control + P

Open – Control + O

Close – Control + W

New document – Control + N

Bold – Control + B

Underline – Control + U

Italics – Control + I

To top of document – Control + Home

To end of document – Control + End

To start of current line – Home

To end of current line – End

Center text – Control + E

Left align – Control + L

Right align – Control + R

One-line spacing – Control + 1

Two-line spacing – Control + 2

Indent paragraph – Control + M

Unindent – Control + Shift + M

Hanging indent – Control + T

Unhang indent – Control + Shift + T

Find – Control +F

Find and Replace – Control + H

Manual page break – Control + Enter

En dash (–) – Control + minus (on the numeric pad)

Em dash (—) – Ctrl + Alt + minus

Straight apostrophe ( ' ) Type an apostrophe, then Control +Z

Small caps – Control + Shift + K

All caps – Control + Shift + A

Cents symbol (¢) – Control + /, then c

Degree symbol (°) Ctrl + Shift + 2, then space bar

To highlight a word – double-click in middle of word

To highlight a line – click in space to left

Highlight sentence – Ctrl + click in middle of sentence

Superscript – Control + Shift + +

Subscript – Control + =

Footnote – Alt + Ctrl + F

Endnote – Alt + Ctrl + D


acute accent (é) – Ctrl + ‘ then type letter

grave accent (è) – Ctrl + ` (above Tab), letter

circumflex (ê) – Ctrl + Shift + 6, letter

cedilla c (ç) – Ctrl + comma (,) then c


Trademark (™) – Ctrl + Alt + T

Copyright (©) – Ctrl + Alt + C

Registered (®) – Ctrl + Alt + R

Euro symbol (€) – Ctrl + Alt + E


Format painter – great for when you import a paragraph in a different font into your document. Simply highlight a few words, click on “Format Painter” and highlight the new text you have just pasted in. It will now be in the same font as the rest of the page.

Double-click the Format Painter button to apply the same format changes to multiple places in the document.

This is also useful for making sure all your headings or sub-heads are in the same font and size.

If your Toolbar doesn’t have Format Painter, just use Control + Shift + C to copy the format (not the words), then Control + Shift + V to reproduce the font, size, etc. (bold, italics) on the new text. You can continue to go to other headings (or whatever you are formatting) and just keep clicking Control + Shift + V, without having to go back to the “copy” step.

For mathematical and Greek symbols: press Control + Shift + Q and your keyboard will convert to a symbols keyboard. To get back to normal font, go to the ribbon (toolbar) along the top and, in the Font window, switch back to your original font.


F1 – Help F7 – Reply

F2 – Undo F8 – Fwd

F3 – Redo F9 – Send

F4 – New F10 - Spell

F5 – Open F11- Save

F6 – Close F12 - Print


by Jodie Renner, freelance manuscript editor,

Here are twelve ways to avoid those “deal breakers” that will cause an agent or publisher to reject your fiction manuscript.

1. First, read a lot of published books in your genre, so you know what agents and publishers are accepting. As you’re reading, pay close attention to point of view, characterization and dialogue.

2. Make sure you have a clear genre or target readership so it will be marketable to the publishers. Bookstores need to know where to shelve your book. If it’s not mainstream fiction, it needs to fit into a specific genre, not straddle three or four genres. If you’re writing a historical romance mystery western, you’ll need to decide which of these elements you’ll want to play up and then downplay the others, so your story can be easily identified as predominantly one of them.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by racing prematurely to an agent or publisher. The world of book publishing is extremely competitive these days. Take the time to hone your craft and do the necessary revisions. Don’t depend on family or friends to give you advice on your book – they’ll very likely be afraid to give you any meaningful constructive criticism for fear of hurting your feelings or making you angry. Buy some books on writing fiction (there are lots of great resources out there!), enrol in a local or online writing course, or hire a freelance manuscript editor. Revise, revise, revise!

4. Hook your reader in right away with a compelling first paragraph and first page. Don’t start with a description of the scenery, town or room. Start with a threat of some kind or a change that disrupts the status quo and causes anxiety. And use some dialogue and action right away.

5. Make sure your plot is compelling, not boring. Your story needs conflict, and lots of it! Your protagonist needs to face and deal with ever-increasing problems, drawing on inner resources to find ways to triumph over adversity. And your interactions among characters need tension, even if it’s just simmering below the surface, or they’ll be boring.

6. Don’t lecture or preach to your readers. You may be an expert in a certain field, or have busted your buns doing research, but resist the urge to explain concepts at length to your reader. It’s condescending and disrupts the flow of the story. If the readers want to find out more info on a topic, they’ll Google it. Remember, this is fiction, and the story is the most important thing. The readers want to get carried away with a good story – they don’t care how much you know about any given subject.

7. Establish a dominant point of view. Your reader wants to identify with your main character, to bond with him/her. Don’t dilute this effect by jumping around to various characters’ points of view within one scene – no “head-hopping.”

8. Make sure your characters are interesting and unique. No dull, cardboard characters, pious goodie-goodies, or wimps. Your characters, especially the main ones, need to be compelling and memorable. But don’t make them too perfect – they need to have some flaws and maybe an inner demon or a skeleton in the past, to make them interesting. A perfect character is a boring character.

9. Your dialogue should be natural and authentic. This is not the place for erudition, long words and perfect grammar; and avoid “info dumps,” where one character is explaining something at length to another character, which is really a poorly disguised and unwelcome author intrusion into the story. Your dialogue should sound like real people talking, poor grammar and all, but without the boring bits. Skip past the “How are you?” and “I’m fine. You?” stuff and get straight to the interesting bits – cut to the chase!

10. Avoid lengthy descriptive passages. Readers are no longer interested in pages or even long paragraphs of straight description. They’re impatient to find out what’s going to happen next. Keep the description of scenery, rooms, gardens, etc. to a minimum and concentrate on moving the plot along with dialogue and action.

11. Show, don’t tell! This one is huge! Which would you rather do, go to a great movie in a theatre with a large screen and surround sound, or stay home and let a friend tell you about the movie later? Put your readers right in the action, make them see and smell and hear and feel what your characters are feeling, experience their fear, anger, elation and joy, in “real time.” Don’t tell the reader about important events later. If the event in question happened in the past, use a flashback to depict the action and dialogue in the present.

12. Make every scene, every paragraph, every sentence and every word count. Revise and tighten up your writing. If a scene doesn’t further the plot or help to develop the characters, take it out. Same thing with a paragraph or a sentence. Avoid lengthy sentences – edit them down to increase the impact and easy flow of ideas.

© Copyright Jodie Renner, July 2010,

Monday, August 2, 2010


by Jodie Renner, freelance manuscript editor,

1. Read the top-selling books in your genre. Go to a big bookstore or a library and look at published books and bestsellers in your line or category. Have a look at the types of topics, settings, characters, plotlines and writing styles that are selling. Buy or borrow several books similar to the one you want to write, and read them, taking note of the specific literary techniques that made that writer successful in the genre.

2. Read the bestsellers in your genre critically. Read the first sentence, first paragraph, first page and first chapter to see how they hook the reader in. Ask yourself why the main character is intriguing to you. What makes you want to continue reading about him or her? Study the dialogue, and make note of techniques that were used to bring the dialogue to life and make it more natural-sounding. Notice point of view. Whose viewpoint is the story mainly told from? Does the author shift to other characters’ points of view? How many? How frequent are point of view shifts? How much description is there, compared to action and dialogue? What techniques does the author use to heighten suspense?

3. Go to the Writers section of large bookstores, or look through or for books on how to write effective fiction, YA fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, children’s fiction, romance, etc. There are a lot of excellent books on the market on techniques for writing effective, compelling fiction. It’s well worth the investment and time to thoroughly read several of these guides.

4. As you’re planning your novel, make sure it fits into a specific genre or category, as bookstores want to know where to shelve it. Walk around your favourite bookstore and look at the headings of the different sections. Your novel can have aspects of another genre, but it needs to be predominantly one genre, for marketing purposes. A romance mystery historical western, for example, would be a marketing nightmare. Make it mainly one of those genres, and make sure when you submit it, that you play up the main genre.

5. After you have finished writing your book, put it away for at least a week, and preferably a month, while you do other things, or even start another writing project. Then go back to your book with fresh eyes and start revising. Don’t be afraid to condense wordy passages or cut scenes or even chapters that are irrelevant or boring. Perhaps you have too many characters, and need to combine a few into one. Does your plot make sense? Are the characters interesting, sympathetic, and plausible? Can you find ways to up the ante and increase the conflict? Can you tighten up your writing? Successful writers go through their whole book, revising, cutting, and adding, at least four or five times, often many more than that, looking for different aspects each time.

6. The first page of your novel needs to be the best it can be. It needs to hook your reader (and agents and publishers) and grab their attention, right from the first sentence and the first paragraph. Gone are the days when you can start with a description of the landscape, town, etc. You need to jump right in with the main character and the problem they’re encountering, in a very compelling manner. And don’t start with your main character alone, musing or contemplating her life – put her in a situation that matters, with another character (or more). Throw in some interesting dialogue right away.

7. Publishers and agents no longer have the time or funds to work with authors to improve their book, as they used to. At the very least, have several qualified, knowledgeable, unbiased friends or acquaintances (rather than someone close to you) read your novel over and give you advice. Give them a list of questions to answer, including any weaknesses they may perceive in the plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc., to avoid a pat “It’s great!” when they may actually feel it has several specific areas that need work, but are reluctant to say so.

8. Better yet, hire a freelance manuscript editor or copy editor to read and edit your book before submitting it to an agent or publisher. You can find a freelance editor or proofreader by Googling “editing,” “book editing (or editor),” “manuscript editing (or editor),” “freelance editing,” “freelance copyediting,” “proofreading,” etc. Editors do more than proofreaders, who mainly check grammar, spelling and punctuation.

9. Finally, for a shameless plug: please visit my website at to find out about my process and services, and to read glowing testimonials from authors whose books I have edited.

10. Keep on writing!

© Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2010, August 2010


by Jodie Renner, freelance manuscript editor, www.

Gone are the days when readers of fiction were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:

1. DON’T: Begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character. DO: Begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

2. DON’T start with a character other than your protagonist. DO introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph.

3. DON’T start with a description of past events. DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.

4. DON’T start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. DO start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. DON’T delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation. DO develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.

6. DON’T start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. DO have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.

7. DON’T start with your protagonist planning a trip, or travelling somewhere; in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. DO start in media res – jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

8. DON’T introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. DO limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.

9. DON’T leave the reader wondering what the characters look like. DO provide a description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.

10. DON’T have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This had been overdone. DO work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

11. DON’T wait too long to introduce the hero (love interest), in a romance or romantic suspense. DO introduce the hero by the end of chapter one.

12. DON’T spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. DO introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).

In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction: Act first, explain later.

by Jodie Renner,, August 2010.

Sunday, August 1, 2010



Please note that most of my articles in this blog will be original, but for the query letter and synopsis, I’m reproducing or paraphrasing articles from published, reliable sources.


• Be double-spaced, to allow editing in the margins and between lines.

• Be written in present tense, to create a sense of immediacy

• Be more like a book review than a book report.

• Capture the tone of the book (i.e., the synopsis for a humorous book should have a lighthearted approach).

• Be based on a completed manuscript.

• Be written so its parts are roughly in proportion to the book (don’t spend the first half of the synopsis on the first chapter or two of the book.

• Tell the story in a logical way, not necessarily in the order the information is presented in the book.

• Briefly describe the important characteristics of the hero and/or heroine.

• Show the main action sequences, to allow the editor to judge whether the story is logical and believable and whether the plot is realistic and well-organized.

• Show how the conflict is resolved.

• Tell the ending and show how it is brought about.


• Waste words (“The story starts out with…”)

• Include adverbs, clichés, internal monologue, dialogue or scenic descriptions.

• Comment about how humorous, mysterious, suspenseful, etc., the story is (let the editor be the judge).

• Leave the ending a mystery (“And to find out what happened, you’ll have to read the book!”)

- Taken from On Writing Romance, by Leigh Michaels, p. 236



• Standard font, 12-point, 1-inch margins on all sides

• Justify the left margin only

• Double-spaced, unless your synopsis is limited to one or two pages, then single-spaced is fine.

OTHER DOS AND DON’TS from Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript, by Chuck Sambuchino and the Editors of Writer’s Digest Books (p. 141)

• Do keep in mind that this is a sales pitch. Make it a short, fast, exciting read.

• Do establish a hook at the beginning of the synopsis. Introduce your lead character and set up a key conflict.

• Do introduce your most important character first.

• Do provide details about your central character […].

• Do include the characters’ motivations and emotions.

• Do highlight pivotal plot points and reveal the story’s ending.

• Don’t go into detail about what happens; just tell what happens.

• Don’t inject long sections of dialogue into your synopsis.

• Do write in the third person, present tense, even if your novel is in the first person.

Information compiled by Jodie Renner,, August 2010


A query letter has two functions: to tell an agent or editor what you have to offer, and to ask if she is interested in seeing it.

Though you can send the query letter attached to a novel package, many agents and editors prefer that you send the query letter either by itself or with a synopsis and a few sample pages from your novel. Follow the agent’s guidelines for submission.

If she likes your query, she’ll call and ask for either specific parts of your novel package – like the first few chapters or the first 50 pages – or, if you’re lucky, the entire manuscript. Then she’ll make her decision. (from Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript)


• Limit it to one page, single-spaced; block style (no indentations, an extra space between paragraphs).

• Typed (not hand-written), in a standard 12-point font, plain letter-size paper, 1-inch margins all around.

• Use business letter format, with your full name at the top, address, phone number, email address and the date.

• Address the letter to the agent or editor by name.


• A “grabber” or hook sentence that makes the reader want to get his hands on the actual novel

• One to three paragraphs about your novel

• A short paragraph about you and your publishing credentials (if you have any)

• A good reason why you’re soliciting the person you’re soliciting (why this agent or publisher instead of another?)

• The length and genre of the novel

• A sentence or two about the intended audience

• An indication that an SASE is enclosed if you are sending it through the mail


• Don’t fax your query.

• Don’t mention that you’re a first-time writer or that you’ve never been published.

• Don’t spend too much time trying to sell yourself. Your manuscript will stand on its own.

• Don’t state that some other agent has rejected your novel.

• Don’t ask for advice or criticism—that’s not the agent’s or editor’s job at this stage.

• Don’t mention anything about yourself not pertinent to the novel.

• Don’t bring up payment expectations.

- from Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript, by Chuck Sambuchino and The Editors of Writer’s Digest Books

… and here’s more:


• Summarize in one or two sentences the manuscript’s strong points.

• State the number of words in the full manuscript.

• Be based on a completed manuscript.

• State the line (genre) it is intended to fit into, and why you feel the book belongs there.

• Give the flavor of the book (funny? dark? tender?).

• Tell the editor important things about the characters.

• List your qualifications for writing this particular story (for example, it’s a historical set in Tudor times and you have a degree in English history).

• Briefly list your publication credits, if appropriate (any publication for which you were paid, even if it wasn’t […] fiction, is an indication of professionalism).

• Reflect your personality.


• List self-published or subsidy-published works as publication credits

• List the titles of your other, unpublished manuscripts.

• Say, “My mother thinks this is the best book ever!”

• Include a pen name.

• Go into detail about your education or experience unless this is pertinent to the book’s subject.

- From The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel, by Christie Craig and Faye Hughes

Information compiled by Jodie Renner,, August 2010
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