Friday, August 30, 2019

Create a Charismatic, Complex Character Readers Will Worry About

by Jodie Renner, editor and award-winning author     

(Excerpted from Captivate Your Readers)

What's the secret to engaging potential readers and compelling them to keep reading? Make them identify with, root for, and worry about your main character!

Your novel can have an intriguing premise and riveting plot, but if your lead character is bland, wimpy, ditzy, arrogant, or lacking in personality or drive, readers won’t warm up to him or care what happens to him, so they’ll put the book down. Conversely, if your protagonist is fascinating, sympathetic, and clever, but complicated, readers will be drawn to him and start worrying about him, which is exactly what you want. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

“Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring fiction.” ~ Lajos Egri

Unsuccessful authors very often have written a promising story, but have neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. You should spend as much or more time creating depth for your lead character and learning about her strengths and weaknesses, her fears, secrets, regrets, hopes, motivations, needs, and desires as you do on creating an exciting plot. 

As Elizabeth Lyon points out in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.”

A big mistake newbie fiction writers make is modeling their main character too much after themselves or someone they know. Instead, to hook readers, create a fascinating lead character, one who is larger than life, more charismatic, braver, more determined, and also more troubled, with more secrets and inner conflict than the average person you know. Those attributes will make them appealing and worth following and cheering on for a whole story.

Don’t annoy your readers by making your main character:

~ Flat, superficial – a cardboard character

To avoid a one-dimensional, boring protagonist, you’ll need to create a complicated backstory for him, including his fears, regrets, insecurities, and desires, as well as his hopes, strengths, and talents. Also, give him conflicting desires.

To get to know your character’s deepest secrets, his hopes and fears, his weaknesses and regrets, and his wants versus his needs, try putting him on the psychiatrist’s couch or journaling in his voice. Write in his secret diary every day, in free, stream-of-consciousness form – just let the ideas flow. Let the character vent his frustrations uncensored. What’s his strongest desire right now? Why is he afraid he might not get it? What or who is standing in his way or frustrating him? What is he worried about? Angry about? What secret is he harboring that he hopes no one will discover? Why? Let the character vent here.

Also, in the actual story, a sure-fire way to deepen your character and your readers’ engagement is to have him react more to events. Show how he’s feeling, through his thoughts and his emotional, physical, and sensory reactions, as well as his words and actions. An emotionally flat character will leave readers cold, and they’ll start thinking about what else they should be doing.

~ Nerdy, dull – lacking in charisma or sex appeal

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, your lead character should have “grit, wit, and it.” Grit is courage, determination, and resourcefulness. Wit, the ability to make the occasional witty or humorous comment, can rescue a character from maudlin self-pity or a moment from being overly sentimental or sappy. Wit also refers to cleverness, the ability to solve problems and think quickly in sticky situations. And “it,” according to Bell, means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It.’” 

So be sure to make your protagonist charismatic, with lots of personality and sex appeal – and plenty of attitude.

~ Too wimpy, too whiny, too victimized

Don’t have a primary character who’s fearful about everything, who’s always reacting rather than acting, who just takes what’s dished out to her. Or one who’s victimized, who doesn’t rise to the challenge or fight back. A character who’s constantly feeling sorry for herself gets tiresome quickly, and readers will lose patience with her and put the book down.

If you want your protagonist to start as a bit of a wimp, then get stronger as the story progresses, don’t go on like that for too long. Make her gather her courage and wits and search for ways out of her predicament. In other words, she needs to be forced by circumstances to become stronger, more courageous, more resilient. No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve her life. We need to see some grit, some resourcefulness, some fight!

As Jack M. Bickham says in his little gem, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), “Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active – risk-takers – highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person – a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.” 

So don’t model your hero or heroine after someone you know. They need to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Jessica Page Morrell puts it in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, “Fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.” Readers who lead a humdrum life want to escape and vicariously live a more exciting one, through the head and heart of someone who’s not afraid to challenge herself and confront her fears head-on. 

On the other hand, don’t go to the other extreme and make your protagonist:

~ Cold, unfeeling, arrogant

Your main character can and should have a few inner conflicts and character flaws, but overall, she needs to be at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable – not cold or arrogant. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character, to start caring about her and worrying about her. If the readers don’t warm up to your protagonist and care about what happens to her within the first few pages, they’ll very likely put down the book and go on to another one. If you have a tough hero with a gruff exterior, try to show some glimmers of hope, some redeeming qualities early on. Maybe show him to be sensitive or caring in some small ways, like perhaps he rescues a dog or cat in the traffic. Robert Crais does this with his gruff, strong, silent hero, Joe Pike. 

Also, don’t make your character:

~ Too perfect 

A too-perfect character is insufferable. Don’t make your hero or heroine constantly cheery, selfless and giving, stunningly beautiful or handsome, super popular, or perfectly sculpted and toned – in other words, too good to be true. Perfect people are both boring and annoying. They’re boring because nothing really challenges them, so we can’t identify with them; they’re annoying because they don’t have to work for things like the rest of us – everything’s handed to them on a platter. And they’re so unrealistic we think they must be faking it. And let’s face it, we’re probably jealous of them. You want readers to identify with and bond with your protagonist, not envy them.

Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes,” and unless you’re writing a story for very young children, a main character who’s always positive (a “Pollyanna”) is annoying, too. So be sure not to make your protagonist nicer, kinder, or more selfless than your average person. Give them some character flaws, some secrets, regrets, and insecurities, a weakness or two, and maybe even a phobia. 

Along the same lines, don’t make your protagonist:

~ Too smart, too powerful

If your hero is ultra-smart and all-powerful, even big problems and challenges will be minor, a mere bump in the road. If he’s not sweating or stressed or in danger, readers aren’t going to worry about him. And if readers aren’t worrying about the hero or heroine of the book, they aren’t emotionally engaged. Which means they can put down the book at any time and look for one that engages them. So don’t make your character a genius or invincible. Give him some human qualities and foibles. Even Superman could be weakened by kryptonite and was vulnerable and off-guard whenever Lois Lane was threatened.

On the other hand, don’t make your character:

~ Clueless or oblivious

If your protagonist is too dumb to figure out what’s going on, to pick up on all or most of the clues, readers will feel like yelling at him or throwing the book across the room. Readers have no patience with a detective or other hero who’s dumber than they are. They expect to meet a bright, resourceful main character, one who’s worth their investment of time, one who warrants their support. If something obvious is staring your character in the face and he’s not seeing it or getting it, find a way to make that info less evident, so a smart, savvy character could realistically miss it.

Similarly, don’t make your character:

~ Ditzy, silly, or immature

Beware of airheads. They can be great for minor characters, but your hero or heroine needs to be someone readers can admire and identify with, not someone to scoff.

So when inventing your story’s protagonist, be sure to make him likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He should be intelligent, brave, and somewhat strong, but with emotional depth and a few flaws, secrets, and insecurities or vulnerabilities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your main character is flat, boring, perfect, arrogant, dumb, or a wimp, readers won’t want to follow him for a whole story. They’ll lose patience and find another book to read.

And don’t make your villain 100% evil, either! He or she also needs to be multi-faceted – and intelligent, determined, and powerful – a worthy opponent for your protagonist.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, workshop presenter, judge for fiction contests, and the
award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides 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. Jodie has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys, and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at and on Facebook and Twitter. Jodie's Amazon Author Page.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – and to focus your own revisions

by Jodie Renner, editor and author 

(Excerpted from Jodie Renner's award-winning Captivate Your Readers - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction.)

So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off to agents or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.

To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don’t write. Or, to save paper, change the font and formatting, then put it on your tablet or e-reader and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer.

Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript, making notes as you go. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.

Now it’s time to seek out about 3 to 6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It’s best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteers should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre and are willing to give you honest feedback.

So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

Questions for your Beta Readers:

1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?

5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?

6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?

7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?

8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?

10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?

14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

Additional questions:

If you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?
– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?
– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?
– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?
– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?
– Which characters did you really connect to?
– Which characters need more development or focus?

Once you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers, it’s time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.

Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” on The Kill Zone blog.

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, all available on all Amazon sites and elsewhere. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage, and has organized and edited two anthologies for charity. You can find Jodie at, and on Facebook and Twitter or at her Amazon Author Page.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Amp up that Dialogue!

by Jodie Renner, editor and author 

Are you working on your first popular fiction novel or a short story you'd like to submit to a contest, anthology, or magazine? How you portray your characters interacting with each other is critical for bringing them to life on the page. Following are some tips I posted several years ago that newbie fiction writers and aspiring authors will still find useful.

Dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. If the dialogue is wooden, stilted, or artificial, most agents will assume that the rest of the writing is amateurish, and the manuscript will be quickly rejected. Here are some concrete ways to make your dialogue more compelling and natural-sounding.

 A. Dialogue needs tension, conflict and emotion!

This one is huge. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.”

1. Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Nice day,” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk.

2. Avoid any kind of long monologue or dialogue that just imparts information, with no tension or emotion.

3. Don’t use dialogue as “filler” – if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out.

4. Include lots of emotional or sexual tension and subtext in your dialogue. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.

B. Loosen up the dialogue.

 The most common problem with dialogue for new writers is that it often sounds too stiff and formal. Here are some easy, quick tips for loosening up the dialogue to make it sound more natural:

1. Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you cut some words out, or use more common, everyday conversational words, rather than more “correct” words? In conversation, use “bought” rather than “purchased,” “use” rather than “utilize,” etc.

2. Use contractions. Change “I am” to “I’m”, “we will” to “we’ll”, “do not” to “don’t”, “they will” to “they’ll,” etc.

3. Break up those long, grammatically correct complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences in informal conversations with friends (or enemies) and family, especially in stressful situations. Frequently, use some short sentence fragments, and one-word answers.

4. Don’t have one person go on and on about a subject. Fiction is not the place for a lecture on a topic, or somebody speaking at length about himself. It’s not natural, and your readers aren’t interested in long monologues! Have the other person interrupt to ask a question, give their opinion, seek clarification, change the subject, etc.

C. Keep it real!

 Avoid unnatural dialogue caused by having the characters say things they would never say, just to impart some information to the readers! An extreme example of this would be a character saying to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Or even the more subtle, “As your lawyer, I must advise you…” Using dialogue this way to get some information across to the reader is artificial and a sure sign of an amateur writer. Work the information in subtly, without having one character say something that the other would obviously already know.

D. Give each character his or her own voice or speaking style. Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same (like the author).

 First, pay attention to differences in gender, age, social status, education, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while others will use rougher language, with a lot of one- or two-word questions or answers, sprinkled with expletives.

 Then, think about individual personality differences within that social group, and the situation. Is your character: Shy or outgoing? Talkative or quiet? Formal or casual? Modern or old-fashioned? Confident or nervous? Tactful or blunt? Serious or lighthearted? Relaxed or stressed? And give each character their own little quirks and slang expressions, but exercise caution when using slang or expletives. (More on that in another article.)

E. Gender differences.

Bear in mind that men and women tend to express themselves differently.

- In general, men are terser and more direct; they usually prefer to talk about things rather than people or feelings; and they often use brief or one-word answers.

- Women, on the other hand, like to talk about people and relationships; often hint at or talk around a subject, tend to express themselves in more complete sentences; and often want to discuss their feelings.

- These differences are especially important to keep in mind if you’re a female author writing dialogue for male characters, and vice-versa.

F. Other tips:

1. Avoid “talking heads” – pages of unbroken dialogue, with little action or description.

- Move the characters around the scene, and indicate their reactions, gestures and body language:

“…as they walked into the kitchen,” “They pulled up in front of the police station,” “He crossed his arms,” “She got up and started pacing.” “He touched her arm.” “She gasped in alarm.” “He clenched his fists.” And so on.

2. For dialogue tags, use mainly he said and she said (and asked for questions), which are non-intrusive, rather than words like remarked, conjectured, queried, interjected, insinuated, pronounced, and uttered, which draw attention to themselves and can be annoying.

3. Also, beware of using non-speaking words as attributes, like “That’s so nice,” she smiled, or “You bet,” he grinned. You can’t “smile” or “grin” words! But you can say, “You bet.” He grinned and waved as he pulled away.

 4. However, in addition to he said and she said, words like shouted, whispered, mumbled, yelled, murmured, and screamed are very useful for advancing the plot and ramping up your imagery.

5. Avoid the dialogue tag if it’s obvious who’s speaking.

6. But do make it clear who’s speaking. Readers don’t want to have to back up and check to see who’s talking now.

7. Try to use action tags (beats) instead of dialogue tags, such as:

Shelley hung up the phone. “That was Carole.”

Mark tensed. “What did she want?”

8. Avoid having the characters constantly using each other’s names. Once in a while is good, but don’t overdo it.

See also "Dialogue Nuts and Bolts - How To Write Dialogue Accurately."

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides 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: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. and two anthologies. You can find Jodie at and on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Interview of Jodie Renner, Judge for Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards

I've had the privilege of judging short stories and novels for Writer's Digest's contests several times in the past, and will likely serve as judge again this year. Since the annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction (short story) competition deadline is fast approaching (Sept. 16 - early bird deadline; Oct. 14 - final deadline), I decided to repost an interview from August 30, 2016 in which WD magazine asks me about my criteria in judging the thriller category of short stories. Most of these tips apply to any popular fiction short story, and will help you polish your story for any competition or publication.  Here's the original interview:

Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition with Thriller Judge Jodie Renner
By: Chelsea Henshey, Writer's Digest Magazine, August 30, 2016

Today, as part of our "Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition" series, Thriller judge Jodie Renner discusses how to avoid common mistakes and take your submission to the top.

Meet the Judge:

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides 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. She also judges short stories for several other groups as well as Writer’s Digest. You can find Jodie at and on Facebook and Twitter.

What are you looking for in a submission?

I’m looking for story that intrigues me right from the very first sentence and compels me to keep reading. I want a story that transports me away, makes me forget I’m judging a story or looking for errors. The story should have no distracting errors or formatting issues. I want a fresh voice, a unique, charismatic character with a significant problem he or she needs to solve. The story should have lots of tension, intrigue, and conflict, with suspenseful, nail-biting moments. I also hope for a surprise twist or even a shocking revelation at the end.

What makes a submission stand out?

The premise and plot line seem fresh, not familiar; the voice is unique and appealing; the protagonist is charismatic and likeable but complex, with secrets, regrets, fears, and hopes; the protagonist’s life is shaken up early on; he is confronted with a significant challenge, conflict, or critical problem he has to deal with; the characters come to life on the page through inner and outer reactions, including thoughts, feelings, and sensory reactions; there’s tension on every page; the dialogue is snappy and true to life for those types of characters; the story is free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors; and the ending is unexpected, but in retrospect, seems inevitable.

What are some common mistakes entrants can avoid?

* A slow or boring opening
  • revving your engines, starting with neutral “telling” or description from the author’s point of view (omniscient);
  • starting with backstory – setting the scene with explanations rather than jumping right in with the story;
  • opening with the character alone, musing – best to have your character interacting with someone else in a dynamic scene, with some tension and attitude.
  • Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.
  • Not enough tension at the beginning. Disrupt your main character’s life in some way on the first page.
* A confusing opening: Who is this, where are they, and what’s going on? Establish the four W’s on the first page – who, what, where, when, to situate readers so they don’t get confused or annoyed trying to figure out what’s going on.

* Fuzzy or distant POV: No evident point of view right from the start – whose story is this? Whose head are we in?

* Head-hopping or a wavering point of view within the story. For short stories, best to stay in one character’s viewpoint. Use first-person or close third person POV to establish intimacy and engage readers emotionally.

* Author intrusions: Don’t interrupt the action to explain things to the readers or describe things, the setting, or characters in a neutral point of view, as the author. Stay in the main character’s head and body! All explanations and descriptions should be through the characters, in a natural way, colored by their personality, attitudes, and agenda.

* Protagonist is one-dimensional, unlikeable, or boring; lacks personality, baggage, secrets, regrets, fears, and a driving goal or burning desire.

* Flat characters who don’t react to what’s going on. Show your character’s inner and outer reactions – thoughts, physical reactions, sensory perceptions – to bring them to life. (See Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions and Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details.)

* Dialogue is stilted or boring. Too correct, no slang expressions or contractions (“I cannot” instead of “I can’t”, “We are not” instead “We aren’t” etc.), doesn’t sound natural. Read the dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like people actually speak. Make sure each character speaks differently, and not like the author. Leave out all “filler” dialogue, like “How are you?” “I’m fine,” etc. Cut to the chase! (See "Amp up That Dialogue!")

* Talking heads. Pages of dialogue, but we don’t know what the characters are doing. Use action beats and inner reactions to help readers visualize what’s going on with the characters at that moment.

* Lack of editing. Story rambles on, is all over the place, lacks focus and a clear problem/plot. Get to the point! Make every element, every image, and every word count!

* Not enough tension, conflict, and intrigue. For my category, thrillers, not enough suspense and intrigue. (See “Checklist for Adding Suspense and Intrigue to Your Story.”)

* Too much telling, not enough showing. Too much narration, especially neutral, author-like narration. Instead, “show” critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue. See “Show, Don’t Tell.”

* No real “voice” – a too-correct, nonfiction style of writing. Get into the character’s head and body, and stay there. Use free-form journaling to capture their true voice, with plenty of attitude.

* A too-formal, overly correct writing style. This is fiction, not a scholarly or professional paper. Forget a neutral style and long-winded, grammatically correct sentences, especially in dialogue.

* A pedestrian, uninspired writing style – use lots of concrete specific nouns and verbs. Avoid overused verbs like “walked” and “ran”. Don’t prop up generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs – use a more specific, evocative noun or verb instead. For example, instead of “he ran quickly,” say “he raced” or “he charged” or “he dashed” or “he sprinted” or “he darted” or “he scurried.”

* An overly wordy writing style. Don’t clutter up your writing with a lot of extra words – this will hide your meaning, slow down communication, and lessen the impact of your message.

* A conclusion that drags on – tie the story up quickly.

* Spelling, grammatical mistakes, typos. Incorrect paragraphing for dialogue, incorrect punctuation and capitalization for dialogue. (See “Dialogue Nuts and Bolts”).

* Formatting errors – paragraphing, spacing, etc. (See “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101”).

*For more specific advice on writing a winning short story, see: “33 Tips for Creating a Short Story Worthy of Contests, Magazines, and Anthologies

What is unique about the WD contest and why should writers submit?

Writers should submit their short stories to the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards because there are lots of different genres/categories to choose from, so you know your story is being judged by someone who reads and loves that genre. Also, since WD receives thousands of entries, a win or even an honorable mention from the Writer’s Digest contest is a real honor, something to be proud of. An award from this contest will really raise your status as a writer and advance your career.

For the original interview posted by Writer's Digest on August 30, 2016, click HERE.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

by Jodie Renner,  
Here are some guidelines for formatting your short story or novel manuscript before submitting it to a freelance editor, a formatter, a contest, an agent, a magazine, or a publisher.

1.      For editing, your manuscript needs to be in Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office). This is a must for submitting to an editor, as almost all editors use Word’s Track Changes.  

2.      Send the manuscript as a .doc or .docx, unless instructed otherwise. Some contests prefer or require rich text format (.rtf) or even plain text (.txt), but most submissions want .doc or .docx documents. 

3.      The preferred font is Times New Roman. It’s easier to read than many other fonts.

The font size should be 12-point. 

4.      To change the font and size for the whole manuscript instantly, click Control + A (for All) at the same time, which highlights the entire manuscript, then change the font and size by using the toolbar on “Home,” and then click “Enter.” 

5.      Left-justify the text, rather than justifying both sides. That way, it’s easier for the editor to spot spacing errors. That means the text is lined up straight down the left side (except for indents), but the right side is jagged, depending on the length of the last word in the line. To do that, click Control + A, then click the left-justify icon on the toolbar along the top (Click tab for Home first). You can also do that by clicking on the little arrow to the bottom and right of “Paragraph,” then click on the down arrow beside “Alignment” and click on “Left.” 

6.      Use only one space between sentences, not two. Two spaces between the period and capital went out with manual typewriters. 

7.      Do not press “Enter” at the ends of the lines to add an extra line-space between the lines (to double-space the document). This is a HUGE no-no! It causes major headaches and a lot of frustration. As soon as a few words are added or deleted (which is what editing’s all about), everything screws up. So make sure that when you’re typing and you come to the end of a line, do not press “Enter” unless it’s for a new paragraph. Let the text “wrap” around on its own. 

8.      A quick and easy way to double-space your whole manuscript: Control + A (for “all”), then Control + 2 (Click on Ctrl and on 2 at the same time). VoilĂ ! It’s done! To go back to single-spacing later, Click Ctrl+A, then Ctrl+1. 

9.      To see at a glance all kinds of formatting errors, click on the paragraph symbol on the toolbar along the top. It’s called a “Pilcrow” and it looks like a backward “P”. Here it is: ¶. You’ll see dots where spaces are and a ¶ for every hard return (Enter), at the end of a paragraph or for an empty line space between paragraphs. 

10.  Correct spacing between sentences. Click on that ¶ symbol again to see a dot for every space (click of the space bar). If you have two (or 3 or 4) dots instead of one between sentences (between the period and the next capital), you need to take out the extra spaces and just have one space between sentences. You can fix that for the whole manuscript in a second or two by using Find and Replace. Click on “Replace,” then after “Find what” hit the space bar twice (if you have 2 spaces). Then after “Replace with” click the space bar once. Then click on “Replace all” and VoilĂ  again! All fixed! 

11.  Correct line-spacing and paragraphing:  Click on that ¶ symbol in the toolbar again. You’ll see the pilcrow symbol ¶ at the end of every paragraph, to indicate a hard return (“Enter”), and then again at the beginning of a line-space. If you see the ¶ at the end of every line, all down the right margin, that’s a real problem – the biggest formatting mistake of all! You need to remove those pilcrows (returns) at the end of every line, either by using your “Delete” or “Backspace” keys before or after them, or by doing a “Find and Replace.” After “Find” you type in this: ^p (for the pilcrow or paragraph mark). After “Replace” you just hit the space bar once, to replace the carriage return with a space. 

When you click on that backwards “P”, also look for extra dots at the beginnings of paragraphs, before the first indented word, and take them all out. There should just be the indents, with no extra dots in front of them. 

Note that you should only see the pilcrow ¶ in two places – at the end of a paragraph, and on any blank line. If you see a ¶ anywhere other than those two locations, it’s misplaced and will probably cause some type of inadvertent mischief.  

12.  Paragraphing for fiction: For fiction manuscripts, don’t add an extra line-space between paragraphs. Just leave it at your normal double-spacing. Press “Enter” at the end of the last paragraph, then indent the new paragraph (0.3 to 0.5 inch) using the built-in paragraph styles. Do not indent paragraphs by using the Tab key or the spacebar. This only causes problems that will have to be fixed by you or someone else (at your cost). (See #15 below for instructions on how to indent the right way.) 

13.  Paragraphing for nonfiction: Nonfiction usually uses block formatting, with no indents for new paragraphs but instead an extra space between paragraphs.  

14.  General rule for indenting and spacing paragraphs: If you indent your paragraphs, don’t leave an extra space between paragraphs; if you don’t indent, insert the extra space between paragraphs. 

15.  How to indent the first line of each paragraph:

Do not press Tab or click repeatedly on the space bar to indent!

Click on that pilcrow again ¶ and if you see 2-7 dots at the beginning of the paragraph, you’ve used the space bar to indent. That’s another big no-no, and a bit of a headache to fix, especially if you don’t always use the exact same number of spaces. Using the “Tab” key to indent paragraphs is also a big no-no.  If you’ve done that, you’ll see an arrow at the indent. It’s important to indent for the first line of a new paragraph by using Word’s formatting. To do this for the whole manuscript at once, use Control + A (for All), then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the little arrow to the bottom right of “Paragraph” (in Word 2010), then under “Special” click on “First line,” then 0.5" or 0.4" or 0.3". Don’t go for less than .2" or more than .5". 

16.  To center your title and chapter headings, do not repeatedly click on “Tab” or the space bar.

Again, if you click on the pilcrow (¶) and you can see a bunch of dots in front of the title, you’ve used the space bar to get it over there in the middle. And don’t use the Tab key for that, either. Instead, highlight the title with your cursor, then click on the centering in the toolbar along the top, under the “Home” tab. Or go to “Paragraph” below that, and click on the arrow in the lower right corner, then go to “Alignment,” then click the down arrow and choose “Centering.” Or a quick trick is to place your cursor in the title you want to center, and simply click CTRL + C (at the same time), which will automatically center the paragraph (title) in which your cursor is located.

17.  For extra line spaces between chapters, do not repeatedly click on Enter or Return. To force a page break at the end of a chapter (in Word 2010), place your cursor at the end of the chapter, usually on the line below the last sentence, then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the tab “Insert” then click on “Page Break.” In Word 2007, click on “Page Layout” in the toolbar, then click on “Breaks”, then on “Page.” Another quick trick?  Press CTRL+Enter.  This will give you a forced page break for the end of each chapter. Do not do this at the end of a normal page, only for the end of a chapter. 

18.  Your next chapter heading (chapter name or number) should start at least 3 line-spaces down from the top of the page.  

19.  For more advanced, specific formatting, read the guidelines set out by the agent or publisher.

20.  And a few quick notes about formatting for dialogue: 

Make a new paragraph for each new person talking. Also a new paragraph for someone else reacting to the previous speaker.

Comma after “said”: He said, “How are you?”     

Comma at the end of the spoken sentence, where a period would normally go, inside the last quotation mark. “Come with me,” she said.

Also, check out these three excellent blog posts on formatting, by others in the biz:

5 Book Formatting Mistakes to Avoid, by Chandler Bolt:

First Steps in Formatting for Print by fiction editor Beth Hill.

Using Font Styles When Formatting for Print by Fiction Editor Beth Hill 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides 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. Jodie has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys, and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at and on Facebook and Twitter.


By Jodie Renner, 

Here are 33 concrete tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines – like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, genre, and story idea.
When referring to the main character, I’ll be alternating between using “he” and “she”, so just fill in the gender of your own protagonist.
1. Keep the story tight. Most short stories are between 1,000 and 7,000 words long, with the most popular length between 2,500 and 4,000 words. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one principal character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum – better yet, a few days, or even hours.
2. Create a main character who is complex and charismatic, one readers will care about. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be fascinating, with plenty of personality. But give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.
3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. What does he or she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.
4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. What does your heroine regret most? What is she feeling guilty about? Give her some baggage and secrets.
5. Devise a critical story problem or conflict. Create a significant conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three. It can be against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.
6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story. First, get to know your character really well by journaling in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions.
Then take it a step further and carry that voice you’ve developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the viewpoint character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations, and reactions. This technique ensures that your whole story has a unique, compelling voice. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters that are in other characters’ viewpoints.)
7. Create a worthy antagonist. Devise an opposition character who is strong, clever, determined, and resourceful – a force to be reckoned with. And for added interest, make him or her multi-faceted, with a few positive qualities, too.
8. Add in a few interesting, even quirky supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities, and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast. Start a diary for each important character to develop their voice and personality, and ensure none of them are closely modeled after you, the author, or your friends.
But don’t fully develop any very minor or “walk-on” characters, or readers will expect them to play a more significant role. In fact, it’s best not to name minor characters like cab drivers, cashiers, and servers, unless they play a bigger role.
9. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, enigmatic, even quirky or weird character; an unusual premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.
10. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re brief, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.

11. Start with a compelling scene. Short stories need to grab and emotionally engage the readers right from the first paragraph. Don’t open with a description of the scenery or other setting. Also, don’t start with background information (backstory) on the character or an explanation of their world or situation.
12. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age, situation, and role in the story world.
13. Put your character in motion right away. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best – much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, it’s best not to start with your character waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s trite and too much of a slow lead-up for a short story – or any compelling story, for that matter.
14. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your lead character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Continually show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And take care not to show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Show the attitudes and reactions of others through what the POV character perceives – their words, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, actions, etc.
Even the narration should be expressed as your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language. You want to keep your readers immersed in your fictive dream, and interrupting as the author will burst the bubble of make-believe they crave.
15. Situate the reader early on. To avoid audience confusion and frustration, establish your main character immediately and clarify the situation and setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs. On the first page, answer the four W’s: who, what, where, when. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a long descriptive passage.
16. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. As I mentioned, there’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, in short fiction, start as close to the end as possible.
17. Show, don’t tell. Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened – put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Use a few words to go from one time or place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.
18. Your character needs to react. Continually show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer, to what’s going on around him. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible, not just sight and hearing. Scents or smells are especially powerful and evocative.
19. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.
20. To add tension and intrigue, withhold key information, especially about character secrets or regrets, but hint at them to arouse reader curiosity. Then reveal critical info bit by bit, like a tantalizing striptease, as you go along.
21. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, “How are you? I’m fine. Nice weather,” etc., and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Avoid complete, correct sentences in dialogue. Use plenty of one or two-word questions and responses, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topics, and even a few silences.
22. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Each character’s word choices and speech patterns should reflect their gender, age, education, social standing, and personality. Don’t have your kids sounding like adults or your thugs sounding like university professors. Even men and women of similar cultural backgrounds and social standing speak differently. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real, has tension, and moves along at a good clip.
23. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle – whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal. This is where they’re challenged to the max and have to draw on all their courage, wit, and resources to avoid defeat and/or reach their goals.
24. Brainstorm to devise a twist at the end. Create a surprise ending to delight readers – something that’s unexpected but makes sense in retrospect. Give the readers what they hope for, but not in a way they expect it.
25. Provide some satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat little bow, but do give your readers some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else. Keep your hero or heroine heroic. And don’t let your conclusion drag on – tie things up quickly.
26. Provide a character arc: Your protagonist should have changed as a result of his recent struggles.
27. And a story arc – how are things different? How has the life of the main character changed as a result of what she’s just been through?
28. Hook ’em in right away. Now that you’ve got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.
29. Cut to the chase. The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a paragraph, sentence, or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.
Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He stomped” or “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly,” say “She tiptoed” or “She crept.”
30. Make every element and every image count. Every significant detail you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. Don’t show us a knife or special character skills, for example, if they don’t show up later and play an essential role. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story.
31. Try to make all descriptions do double duty. When you’re describing a character, for example, rather than listing their physical attributes and what they’re wearing, search for details that reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them. And there’s no need to go into detail on everything they’re wearing. Paint in bold brush strokes and let readers fill in the details – or not, as they prefer.
32. Stay in character for all descriptions. Filter all descriptions through the attitude and mood of the main character. If your POV character’s aging father shows up at the door, don’t describe him neutrally and in detail as a brand new character. Show him as that character actually sees her own father.
Similarly, if a teenage boy walks into a room, don’t describe the space as an interior designer would see it – stay in his viewpoint. He is most concerned with why he entered that room, not all the details of what it looks like.
33. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines. As I mentioned earlier, short stories are generally between 1,000 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language no-no’s, and so on. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, judge for short story contests, and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, available on all Amazon sites and elsewhere. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys, and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers.  You can find Jodie at and on (and .ca and others), Facebook, Twitter.