About Barbara Scott

Barbara J. Scott has been a book editor for 14 years. She has more than 30 years of editorial experience, ranging from newspapers and magazines to books. Among her many published works, Barbara is the co-author of best-selling novel Sedona Storm, as well as the sequel Secrets of the Gathering Darkness, both published by Thomas Nelson.

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers spend little or no time examining as they go through each successive draft of their novel: character. The people who populate a novel should seem real to the author, and yet, readers often notice that characters are stereotypes—cardboard cutouts.

To explain the importance of knowing your characters well, let me use an example from the relationship between the famous editor Maxwell Perkins and the well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby.

After reading the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, Perkins wrote a note to Fitzgerald about one of his characters, which read:

 “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”

Last month we talked about how every scene should have intention, but so should every character. Characters need motive. They must seem credible in all they do, as though they truly exist—as if they live down the street.

Fitzgerald, no slacker when it came to building characters, reexamined Gatsby through the eyes of his famous editor and wrote a note back to Perkins:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”

To fulfill Gatsby’s intention, Fitzgerald needed to make him an enigmatic figure, but to accomplish his purpose, the author also needed to know Gatsby’s history to make him real.

A reader doesn’t need to know who Gatsby’s grandmother was, but Fitzgerald as the author should know if and how she shaped his character. Do you know your character’s history, or did you begin your novel with a vague sense of what kind of character needed to occupy a certain place in your plot?

My suggestion is to keep a notebook on every character, making notes throughout your writing on character development. As you self-edit, you can then look back at your record of their motives, history, and tone of voice to make their dialogue and actions consistent, intentional, and credible.

To make your characters come alive, remember they are more than the sum of their physical traits. Characters possess social, psychological, and spiritual uniqueness as well.

 

What method do you use to develop your characters?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Intention

In my first post last month on the topic of the Top 5 Self-Editing Tips, I covered in detail how a novel is structured and how you can be more aware of how to build the structure of your novel.

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers rarely hear much about:  intention.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines intention as “(1) a determination to act in a certain way: resolve; (2) import, significance; (3) what one intends to do or bring about.”

The definition of intention includes other topics, but for our purposes, we can examine the synonyms for intention and determine how we might find intention in a piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective goal.

Once you finish your first or second draft, ask yourself, “Did I fulfill my overall intention for writing this piece, and did I achieve my intention in each scene or section?”

Whoa! That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? You might be thinking, how long am I supposed to spend on an edit? The answer: as long as it takes. Because if you have not fulfilled your intention in writing your book, then how can your reader know what you were trying to say?

Let me make this a little simpler by starting with a chapter or even a part of a chapter. Did you intend to make your character unsympathetic in this scene? If not, then you have not communicated the soul of your character to the reader. You have not fulfilled your intention. The reader might even think, “Marsha would never say that. Why is she being so rude?”

On a greater scale, your story or your non-fiction book should have an over-arching aim or goal. It is the road that connects you to the reader and pulls the story along. Yes, even a non-fiction book is more successful if it tells a story that persuades your reader to believe in what you’re writing about.

Your road will twist and turn in a novel, but you, as the author, should always keep the goal in mind. You don’t want to tell your reader up-front what your intention is, but you should know where you’re headed. If you take readers down a rabbit trail and nothing of significance happens, they will soon stop following you through the brush.

Only you know what you want to achieve in your book. If you’re leading your reader down a “road less traveled,” the trip may be leisurely or it may zip along. You may travel on a super highway, on a country lane filled with potholes, or you may walk with your reader down a garden path.

But if you veer off that highway/road/path just because you have a sudden inspiration, your book may be filled with pointless arguments (non-fiction) or characters who pop out of nowhere to deliver a useless piece of dialogue (fiction).

My intention in this post is not to say that plotters are better writers than pantsters. You can write your book as you please, but if you know your beginning and where you aim to end—intention—then the journey will be that much sweeter.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel or non-fiction book to make sure your intention is clear and that you have achieved your goal in every chapter? 

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Structure

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is self-editing. “But isn’t that the job of the editor after I’ve made the sale?” No. Some writers think running spell-checker is self-editing. Not so much.

“But won’t rewriting my work edit the life out of it?” No, but it will catch the eye of an agent or editor as a well-written manuscript and may lead to a sale.

Obsessive editing during the writing process will destroy your work. However, after you’ve written the first draft, gain some distance and perspective on your manuscript by setting it aside for a few weeks or a couple of months. Now it’s time to rewrite.

Here are my top 5 self-editing tips in their order of importance for polishing your work to a high sheen.

  1. Structure: Think of the structure of your work as an arched bridge spanning a great river. If the contractor takes short cuts (such as using less cement, steel, or fewer bolts) because she’s bored with the process and rushes to the end, the bridge is weakened and will collapse.  The same holds true for both ends of the bridge. If too much cement is used at either end of the bridge, it will collapse from the added weight.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll concentrate on the structure of novels. If the structure of your story is solid, the reader will continue to turn the pages until the ending scene.

The material of the structure is comprised of the elements of the story arc (the basic story thread) held in place by a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty simplistic, huh? Yet the three-act structure has worked since Aristotle’s days whether you write plays, scripts, short stories, or novels.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Some authors maintain they have a four-, five-, six-, or even eight-act structure. I maintain if you break down the parts of their story arcs, you will discover classic Aristotelian structure.

Using the bridge analogy, a car drives onto the bridge. This is the point in the novel when you can lose a reader in the first page or two. I’ve thrown many a book (or manuscript) on the pile beside my bed if nothing happens right away. The author might as well have written “blah, blah, blah-blah, blah.”

A novel that piques the reader’s interest starts as far into the story as possible. I don’t want to know that the protagonist’s parents left him stranded in a snowstorm when he was a toddler and that’s why he’s terrified of snow (or abandonment). That’s back story. The story should begin with stasis (a state of equilibrium) and then the main character, pressed with conflict, reveals her goal.

One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story throws you into the action, and the back story―Indy’s character, profession, the setting, and the antagonist―are revealed as Act 1 plays out.

As the story progresses into the middle (Act 2) and the bulk of the novel, you should have rising and falling tension as your protagonist encounters numerous obstacles or crises.

The main turning point, or big surprise, comes in the middle of the novel. By this time the reader believes he has the story figured out. You need to turn his assumptions on their head. The major turning point should be such a shock that no one sees it coming. It should keep your reader up at night turning pages.

The crises continue. Will he? Won’t she? Oh, no! What will happen to this character your reader has invested her time in? Will everything turn out all right? How will the story ever end on a happy, satisfying note now?

Tension mounts and we reach another major turning point before we head into the final third act. Every turning point should be a surprise to the reader.

The crises are unrelenting until we reach the climax halfway through the third act. The protagonist faces off against the antagonist. The clash of the titans ensues. A woman faces her attacker or her paralyzing fear. The antagonist is not always a person. A man pushes his wife out of the path of a stampeding herd of cattle. Will he live? You get the picture.

Tie up all the loose ends of your storyline in the denouement―the final resolution of the plot or story arc. Is your ending satisfying? Does the main character live happily ever after? If you live and write in America, trust me, she better if you want to succeed as a professional author. Americans are eternal optimists.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel to make sure your structure is strong enough to carry your storyline through to the end?

Photo credit: Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the background by Ian, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:SydneyHarbourBridgeandOperaHouse_IB.jpg (GNU General Public License Free Resume Builder)

The Search-and-Find Feature

Over the years I’ve harped at authors never, ever to turn in a first draft. Some writers think the editor’s job is to spiff up their grammar, correct misspelled words, change passive voice to active, eliminate repeated words and phrases, or do laser surgery on their mixed metaphors.

Word travels in publishing circles about whether you’re a professional or you’ve made your living on the backs of good editors. You don’t want to be known as a hack writer.

Hopefully, the electronic tool known as search and find will make your self-editing chore more enjoyable.

  1. Passive voice (one of my pet peeves): Passive voice is created by using a form of be, such as am, is, are, was, were, being, be, or been and followed by the past participle of the main verb, or gerunds comprised of a present participle (ending in “ing”) that functions as a noun. Learn more in Hacker’s Rules for Writers. Search for these words and recast your sentences to make them more active. Examples:

Passive: He was jumping over the cliff into the river below to escape.

Active: He jumped over the cliff into the river below to escape.

  1. Qualifiers: These words clutter up your writing. Sometimes I think writers use them to boost their word counts. Examples: begin, start, started to, almost, decided to, planned to, a little bit, almost, etc. Examples:

With qualifier: Mary felt a little bit out of place among the nouveau riche.

Better: Mary felt out of place among the nouveau riche.

  1. Weasel Words: These words are easy to spot. You can drop them and no one will notice. My high school English teacher told me that if you could replace the word very with the word damn, you didn’t need it. Other examples: really, well, so, a lot of, anyway, just, oh, suddenly, immediately, kind of, extremely, etc. I’m sure you can come up with your favorites.

With weasel words: Suddenly, she stood up and said, “Oh well, let’s retire to the drawing room and just stay out of his way.”

Better: She stood and said, “Let’s retire to the drawing room and stay out of his way.”

  1. Adverbs: I don’t hate adverbs, but they “usually” are unnecessary, especially in dialogue tags. Your prose should communicate a character’s state of mind without using a tag line such as the example below. Use search and find to look for an ly followed by a space or a period.

With adverb: “I’ll kill him,” she said ferociously. (Really?)

Better: “I’ll kill him,” she said.

  1. Extraneous thats or thens: Use the global search-and-find feature for the word that. If you can understand the sentence without it, you don’t need it. You notice I didn’t write, then you don’t need it. Both of these words are over used.

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting involves self-editing. It’s your job to turn in the cleanest manuscript possible to your agent or editor. Use the search-and-find tool to speed up the process.

Can you think of other ways you can employ the search-and-find feature in Word to edit your work?

A How-To for Meeting Editors

Book acquisitions editors are some of the busiest people I know and the most elusive. If they admit what they do for a living, people want to send them their grandmother’s self-published poetry or a best friend’s novel that she wrote in high school.

They aren’t flashy dressers. They don’t talk about publishing trends in the checkout line. And at parties, if someone asks them what they do for a living, they mumble and then wave at an imaginary friend. “Nice meeting you,” they say before darting to the other side of the room.

Then how can a writer catch a break? Ah, my dear contestant, you must know the secret lives of editors…not bees. Following are ways to meet an editor:

1. Make friends with other writers, especially those who have published at least one book.

They’ve made the leap, and many are willing to give you advice or help you achieve your dreams. Attend their workshops at writers’ conferences, listen carefully, and ask thoughtful questions. Learn the craft of writing and how to market a book while you write your manuscript.

Published authors know editors, and if you’ve written a manuscript that other authors like, they’ll be more willing to give you a recommendation or an endorsement.

2. With your polished manuscript in hand, query an agent.

Make sure to read an agent’s submission guidelines before you approach them, or pitch your project to an agent at a writer’s conference.

Attend the best conference you can afford. One of the perks of attending a conference is that you can request an appointment with an agent. Agents know editors, and they know whether your manuscript is ready to be published. Listen to their advice, and rewrite your manuscript if necessary. An agent can be your best ticket to meeting an acquisitions editor.

3. Acquisitions editors attend writers’ conferences as well.

They set up appointments with agents, and they take 15-minute appointments with conferees. Sometimes they will agree to critique your manuscript for a fee.

4. Attend workshops taught by editors at writers’ conferences.

Editors teach a variety of workshops that vary from character development to plot development to self-editing. They will tell you what kinds of projects they’re looking for so that when you get your chance to meet an editor, you’ll be prepared.

5. Attend meetings of a local writers’ group.

If the group is large enough, they will invite published authors to speak, and through the friendships you make with authors and other members of the group, you can support each other through the process of becoming a published author. If you don’t have a local writers’ group, consider starting one.

Finally, what’s the best way to meet an editor? Keep writing and improving your craft until someone takes notice of you. Editors love fresh, unique voices. You could be the next American Idol of the publishing world.

WordServe Literary News

Exciting things have been happening at WordServe Literary!

On the final post of each month you’ll find a list of Water Cooler contributors’ books releasing in the upcoming month along with a recap of WordServe client news from the current month.

March New Releases

WordServe has several collaborators who do a fantastic job at writing the message/story for others. Marcus Brotherton collaborated with Jonathan Falwell, pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church (not a WS client) for 1000 Days, a book about the ministry of Christ (Thomas Nelson).

Zeke Pipher launches his book career with Man on the Run: Helping Hyper-Hobbied Men Recognize the Best Things in Life (Howard).

New WordServe Clients

Amanda Jenkins, daughter-in-law of well-known author Jerry Jenkins, is a nonfiction author who has written Journey of a Recovering Perfectionist. She lives in the Chicago area with her filmmaker husband, Dallas, and their four young children, including their newly adopted 5-year-old son. (Agent: Barbara Scott)

Tara McClary Reeves, daughter-in-law of football star and head coach Dan Reeves, has written a children’s picture book with Amanda Jenkins titled The Night and the Firefly. She also writes nonfiction. (Agent: Barbara Scott)

Tricia Williford, blogger, mother of Tuck and Ty and reluctant widow at a young age–this extraordinary writer (www.triciawilliford.com) is putting the finishing touches on her first book with a tentative title of, And Life Comes Back. Part memoir and part practical thoughts for those whose life gets turned upside down. (Agent: Greg Johnson)

New Contracts

Mindy Ferguson, founder of Fruitful Word Ministries and a published author, received her signed contract from AMG Publishing for two Bible studies titled: Eyewitness to Majesty and Eyewitness to Glory. (Agent: Barbara Scott)

Fred Hurr, a resident of London, signed a three-book contract with B&H Publishing Group for a series of spiritual warfare novels. The novels are tentatively titled: Light of the Wicked (previously published in the U.K.); Light of the Holy, and Light of God. The contemporary novels are set in Wales and England. These are Fred’s first books! (Agent: Barbara Scott)

Paul L. Williams, a multi-published author, received a contract from New York-based Prometheus Books for his non-fiction investigative work titled Crescent Moon Rising: The Cultural Transformation of America. (Agent: Barbara Scott)

Mike Yorkey, collaborator and sports author, got the deal of the month. Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American NBA player for the New York Knicks, has captured the attention of the sports world with his stellar play the last three weeks. It’s “Tebowmania” all over again. Mike had interviewed Jeremy last April for Playing With Purpose: NBA. Back then, he was a nobody. Greg was actually representing Barbour Publishers on a licensing deal, taking the content from this book on Jeremy, having Mike expand it times three, and then selling trade paper rights. Zondervan won the day after multiple offers were turned in over a 24-hour period. Included is a book for kids. (Agent: Greg Johnson)

Joe Wheeler signed a six-book deal with eChristian (Mission Books) for short story collections for boys (2), girls (2), new moms and new dads.  He also signed an audio deal for Great Stories Remembered Vol I, Joe’s first book to sell over 100,000 copies. (Agent: Greg Johnson)

What We’re Celebrating

Amy Sorrells is a finalist in the Thomas Nelson Women of Faith Writing Contest for her novel Comfort and Salvation (recently retitled Canary Song.) Congratulations, Amy!

Barbara Scott and WordServe Fiction Coordinator and Associate Agent Sarah Freese attended the “Writing for the Soul” conference in Denver. Barbara had lunch with Jeana Ledbetter of Worthy Publishing and was able to chat with publishers from Tyndale, Charisma House, Waterbrook, and Marcher Lord. She also had a conversation with client Henry McLaughlin.

Greg Johnson went to Nashville to the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention at the Opryland Hotel. He met with publishers from Thomas Nelson, Howard, Harvest House, Lifeway and Leafwood. He also me with clients Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, Craig Parshall, Sue Buchanan, and Tami Weisert.

Share your news with us! What are you celebrating?

Write With Realistic Expectations

Aspiring or first-time authors sometimes hold the misconception that they will hit it big with their first book. Visions of bestsellers dance in their heads.

It’s time for a reality check from The Agent’s Desk. One of our jobs is to manage your expectations through every stage of this long process called publishing.

The statistics have not changed much in the years that I’ve been involved in the book industry. In the entire Kingdom of Books, which includes every title sold in every category—not just Christian—only ten percent of authors make a living solely by writing books.

The authors you meet at conferences may still have day jobs, or if they freelance, they edit manuscripts, ghostwrite books, or conduct their own writing workshops. Or they still have day jobs. They work all day and then come home and write their novels at night. Or if they’re early birds like me, they hop out of bed at 4 a.m. and sit down at the keyboard before rushing out the door to make it to work on time. Some pound out two or three pages every day while riding a commuter train.

Another group of writers may be blessed with a spouse who is the sole breadwinner of the family. Mothers who are writers take care of the kids and write during nap time. I’ve known stay-at-home writer dads as well. The whole family tightens the purse strings and lives on a budget.

Of course, a few authors inherited their fortunes and live on Fantasy Island.

Here’s the reality. The average Christian novel sells about 5,000 copies. Some sell less; some sell more. You notice I didn’t say that the first-time author only sells about 5,000 copies. No, that includes experienced and newbie authors as well. Do the math.

A smaller percentage may sell 10,000 to 15,000 books each time. This is our hope for you because it will assure you a place at the table and a long-term career. Now we enter more rarefied air.

A much smaller group sells 20,000 or 25,000 books, but those are usually long-time authors or a new author who happens to write a book that hits a nerve with readers. We hope you are the exception and will publish books in this range.

Only a handful of authors sell in the 50,000 to 100,000 or more range consistently. You know their names. They live on the bestseller lists. You see their names month after month and year after year on the CBA or ECPA bestseller lists.

Then, once in awhile, an author catches lightning in a bottle, and you have a series such as Left Behind or a single book title like The Shack.

So please, if you are a newcomer to publishing, adjust your expectations, and if you knock it out of the ballpark, you’ll be as ecstatic as your agent and your publisher. We pray for bestsellers!

Image: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net