Writing An Impacting Love Story

Writing a love story is tricky. I’m not talking about romance as a genre. I’m talking about any element of a romantic relationship between characters. Creating that kind of compelling connection is tough work. But when it’s done right? We get something personal, something relatable and impacting.

A lot of times the romance is made up of what should really just be a friendship. Similar priorities, an internal need that the other person can meet, a few traits that challenge the other person– that’s a fantastic recipe for a friendship, but it’s not deep enough for a love story. Even if you add physical attraction to it, it’s not really a love story.

A love story, no matter how big a part of the story it is, needs to go much deeper than friendship plus attraction. When you’re reading, ask yourself why these two characters love each other. Why does he love THIS intelligent, confidant woman with a dark past, and not some other one? Why does she fall for THIS quiet, funny guy, and not any of the other million men who have those traits? When you’re building a love story, it’s key to the whole process that these people have more than just the building blocks for a friendship. Of course, friendship love stories are wonderful things– but they don’t stop with the materials for friendship.

True attraction might look simple. It absolutely may feel simple to your characters: I see her+she’s hot+not a bad personality=I’m attracted. But I’m not convinced by that. Genuine attraction is a thousand tiny, powerful connections being made– perhaps in a single day or maybe over a decade.

Generating these connections is how you get the potential for a love story, and getting them on the page is what makes the love story impacting. It’s what convinces readers they’re watching something real happen. It’s what makes them believe that out of all the people on this planet, these two people want each other and no one else. And most importantly, those connections breaking is what makes the near-misses and fights and failures so painful. Things really are breaking.

So what kind of connections? How many? When? Where? How do we generate these connections and put them on the page?

The connections I’m talking about are most often tiny little points of recognition, challenge, enjoyment, desire, and admiration. Sometimes these things can be huge and obvious– two characters together on quest. But that’s not nearly as impacting because there’s really nothing new about it, and it’s such a big thing we’re not surprised. Maybe they both like cinnamon in their coffee. Okay, that’s much smaller, but it’s also a little contrived. Can you get away with it? Maybe, depending on the reader. But readers don’t want a giant sign on the page that spells out “these people are perfect for each other!” There’s very little reason two people liking cinnamon would result in a lasting, important connection. At best, it’s a mildly interesting parallel.

The connection points we’re looking for are ones that are impacting. Impact is created by weight. It leaves a mark; it has an effect. Connection points should be things that are emotionally important, surprising, thought-provoking, unusual, or endearing. In one of my recent manuscripts, my main character falls for a guy partially because he’s been able to survive both physically and emotionally in some pretty terrible circumstances, and she’s not sure she’ll manage to do either of those things. They have a connection point because of it. One of the reasons he notices her is her competence–she adapts to new circumstances and figures out how to handle herself well enough to get the task done. He likes that because he feels like he failed to do that when it really mattered.

Connections don’t need to be so straightforward, either. My guy likes my girl in part because she’s hell-bent on getting justice, and he has almost never been treated fairly. Her search for justice has nothing to do with him, but he likes her vision of how the world should be. And after a while, she notices his reclusive hobby is getting revenge on the villain in a much more subtle way than she is, almost as a side effect of his own success. So, the connection points don’t have to be exact matches or immediately recognizable. Twist them a bit, turn them over, put them inside something else. Readers will love digging into them and seeing why they matter.

Now, those are emotionally weighty things. They’re not small connections. But by themselves, they wouldn’t be a solid enough foundation for a love story. We need dozens more. And they all need to have emotional impact and a reason for the other person to connect with it. They should be big things, little things, things they find fun, different things they hate for the same reason, things they love for opposite reasons– so many complex, important connections that it becomes a powerful physical attraction, no matter what the characters look like.

The combined effect of so many complex connections gives both the characters and their story uniqueness and individuality. That’s what will convince readers that THIS quiet, funny guy is the one she’ll fall for, even though she’ll come across a lot more quiet, funny guys pretty similar to him. That’s why they’re not just friends. Their pattern of connections is unique, weighty, enjoyable, and key to who they are. It makes them want each other.

Writing a believable attraction on an emotional and physical scale is tough, interesting, rewarding work. You’re creating one of the most powerful, affecting relationships on earth. By its very existence, it has meaning for us and how we live our lives.

Want more on this topic? Below are two TED talks that I found very interesting and useful for writers who are dealing with some element of attraction or a love story in their writing. They’re also very helpful for building characters with charming/sexy/attractive personalities. They’re highly recommended.

The Power of Seduction In Our Everyday Lives: Chen Lizra at TEDxVancouver

The Art of Seduction: Seema Anand at TEDxEaling

A Plotting Tool (With Good News for Your Query and Synopsis): Pixar Rule #4

I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist.  It’s been a ton of fun so far and is really exercising my blogging muscles! If you didn’t see my interview with author Mindee Arnett from yesterday, check it out in the right sidebar, because she’s brilliant and so is her book.

Here’s the 4th rule of storytelling from Pixar and Emma Coates:

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This one is a bit different. It’s actually a formula for the spine of your story, and it’s a great one. Filling this out before you start writing your draft will help you think through where you want to go with your concept. The first two blanks establish character and situation. The 3rd is the initial conflict- bam, your protagonist has a problem. This problem intensifies and the stakes leap higher with 4 and 5. One of those should probably even be a twist we didn’t see coming. Finally, the main characters hit the do-or-die moment. Of course, you still need to fill in your resolution.

This kind of 6-sentence synopsis is a great writing tool. Fill it out before you start writing- just one sentence for each step.  (To follow my own advice, I’m going to sit down and fill this out for THE BALLAD OF DINAH CALDWELL today, so why not do it with me?) Then revise it as you draft the first half, and revise again when you finish. Not only will this help the plot stay focused, avoid tangents, and progress at a good pace, but when you’re done, you will have your synopsis basically written. This is a fantastic starting point for both your synopsis and your query. Turn each sentence into a paragraph for the synopsis, and that’s a great start. Use the establishing and main conflict sections of the 6-sentence outline plus a few killer developing details, and you’ll have the bones of a query!

If you want to see a great article that expands each of these 6 ideas and adds in the resolution, go here.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

Pixar 22: Rule 1- Character Struggle

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.

The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.

Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

We’d love it if you’d comment on our posts and share anything you enjoyed as we do this blogging challenge to keep us accountable and motivated! As always, thanks for reading!

3 Ways to Set Yourself Apart in the Slush

I’ve been considering writing a post for a while on common issues I see in submissions, and I’m seeing enough of the same things coming up that I think that might make a great topic. If you’ve been reading agent blogs or following writers on Twitter, you probably know to avoid super common openings in your novel- alarm clocks ringing, the main character waking up, an action scene before we’ve been given a reason to care, etc. Beyond those things, there are several elements of writing itself that makes me question the submission and occasionally stop reading.

1) Lack of contractions. I see this a lot in SF/F/paranormal writing. More formal phrasing is often the first route writers take when they want to make an angel/vampire/immortal of any kind sound as if s/he is from another culture. This idea might have worked for the first few who did it, and it still might work if done extraordinarily well, but it’s such a common device now that I expect it, so it isn’t interesting anymore. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes the writing stilted. Even if your character is from another culture, unless she’s the Dowager Countess, it doesn’t work. Try saying the lines out loud yourself; if it sounds weird, it reads weird. It pulls me out of the story and makes it that much harder to catch my attention.

2) Modifier overload. This has to be one of the most common things I write in reader reports. Adjectives and adverbs stand out; be choosy. An author friend of mine told me her agent says she gets ten adverbs per novel. That’s how choosy you should be. Now, if you’re that choosy, maybe you can do more than ten. The point is, I get the distinct feeling a lot of writers aren’t actually aware of how many they’re using. And you have to be. If using words is going to be your career, you have to be aware. Take just your first page and highlight how many adverbs and adjectives are on that page. I frequently see 15+ modifiers on the first page. Of course, the commonly advised solution is to delete the modifier and use stronger nouns and verbs- “china” instead of “plate”, or “hurtle” instead of “run.” I like to keep in mind the principle of “detail that matters.” If it doesn’t matter that the flowers are pink, don’t tell me. They’ll show up as a color in my imagination even if you don’t supply one. But if the tangle of the stems and the withered leaves matter as insight about the protagonist, then by all means, use it. Just be aware, and be intentional.

3) Common phrasing. This is a little more abstract of a concept, but it’s easy to identify in a manuscript. When I read about bright sunny days, fear creeping over someone, half-smiles turning up a corner of someone’s mouth, etc., I get bored because I’ve seen all these things too many times. Cliches might be a part of this, but it’s more just ordinary words being used in an unimaginative way. When I read, I want to see a new perspective on something. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent example of breaking away from the ordinary in showing the main character’s thoughts. Not everyone should go so far as to strike out portions of the text, but I do at least want to think, “hey, this writer sees that man’s shoes a little differently than most people would” or “I’d never thought of describing a street like that.” So, I want to see more language that shows unique thought.

When I see a writer who doesn’t have these struggles, I know he is both aware and intentional with his writing. That fact alone helps the submission grab my attention.

New Adult Round-up: Definition, Hurdles, and a Suggestion

If you’ve been following the blogs of agents and authors recently, you’ve probably seen the term “new adult” come up. It’s an interesting development in the world of books, and it’s generating some even more interesting discussion among writers, agents, and editors. The idea of new adult fiction is coming up against some tough obstacles, but it’s also developing a loyal following.

Since it’s such a new and intriguing development, I’ve been doing some research on the topic, and here’s what I’ve discovered, as well as an idea I think might actually solve some of the obstacles NA is encountering.

What is New Adult?

St. Martin’s Press coined the term “new adult” back in 2009 with the launch of a contest for manuscripts with protagonists slightly older than YA range with stories that could appeal to an adult audience.

The current idea is that NA is a category of fiction about a collection of experiences particular to “new adults”- moving out on their own, going to college, maintaining that first adult romantic relationship, buying a car and paying bills, landing and keeping a place in the professional workforce. Kristan Hoffman’s article for Writer’s Digest goes a bit more in-depth on what NA is and could be in the future, and author Sharon Bayliss wrote a great post on the what and why of new adult, so read those if you would like a bit deeper explanation.

Why do we want NA?

New adult currently revolves around the themes and situations common to YA fiction, but takes those ideas further. Becoming independent as a teenager in high school looks different than becoming independent as you move out of your parents’ home and begin your own life. This particular slice of life is rare in adult fiction, and the YA category doesn’t allow for those experiences, either (with a few rare exceptions). YA protagonists are almost always 18 or younger, and 18 can even be difficult to sell. Usually, if the protagonists aren’t teenagers/high school aged, it can’t be marketed as YA. Now this does look different for situations where no high school is involved (say, dystopian or fantasy genres), but the perspective of becoming an adult stays the same. See my post over at YA Stands for a discussion of the unique perspective of YA fiction and what elements make a work YA.

In an interview (here) shortly after that St. Martin’s Press contest, S. Jae-Jones, an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s, talked with Georgia McBride about the gap between YA and adult fiction, and how NA can help fill that gap.  J.J says, “Just as YA is about discovering who you are as a person, I think NA is fiction about building your own life.” I agree; there is a gap between the experiences of adult and YA fiction. Writers who still want to explore the themes of becoming independent and taking on the world, but want to do so beyond high school experiences, might find themselves fighting the current. I haven’t yet heard of a great way to market that kind of work, and I do think there is a readership for it.

In fact, Dahlia Adler, a YA writer represented by Andrea Somberg, argues in her post “Whose ‘Failure’ is New Adult?” a market for NA  exists, and it’s a market authors will reach with or without the support of the publishing industry. She lists some great deals of NA works originally self-published and then bought by publishing houses–proof readers are willing to vote with their money for NA stories.

In September The Guardian asked readers what they thought about NA, and if they would be more likely to buy NA vs. YA works, and then posted some of the responses. Those responses are excellent for reading some new perspectives on the issue, so I definitely recommend taking a look.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not all problems and obstacles. New adult IS enjoying some success, which is great. The word is spreading, the group blog NA Alley is gaining a wide readership, and NA works are occasionally being published.

Tammara Webber, a new adult author, discusses her recent deal here and PR Newswire has also reported Atria’s deal with Coleen Hoover for SLAMMED and POINT OF RETREAT, both NA titles.

Part of the difficulty NA fiction is encountering is that many people in the publishing world believe it’s not really a thing yet. A few agents represent NA, some NA works have been sold and are doing well, some small presses accept NA works, and involved readers are starting to recognize the term. But just barely. Most of my friends, even voracious readers, hadn’t heard of NA when I asked. Many agents and editors insist it isn’t a separate category. NA is still early in its development, and wide-spread recognition still has to be fought for.

One of the biggest problems NA is facing is where to put those books in stores. Currently, a NA section doesn’t exist on shelves. Publishers can’t convince booksellers to purchase books they don’t have a shelf for. Booksellers aren’t going to create a whole new space for something with only a few recognized works. Most agents and editors aren’t going to take on projects facing this kind of issue. NA simply lacks a defined place in the current market, though recognition is spreading little by little. Canadian actor and writer Adrienne Cress wrote a blog post, “Why New Adult Interests Me”, addressing this problem with NA.  She quite appropriately points out the cross-over appeal of upper YA, as some have called NA, but also discusses why it’s hard to sell.

Agent Kristin Nelson discusses another hurdle in her blog post on NA. She says the target audience wouldn’t know where to find these books, even if they were to go looking for them. Would they look for them in the teen section or in general fiction? Creating space for them in a book store would take a shift in process and marketing.

Some people in the publishing industry believe these divisions aren’t necessary. Michael Stearns, founder of Upstart Crow Literary, argues here that dividing fiction up this much may become a slippery slope. He points out that in his own early 20’s, specifically because he was becoming an adult and figuring out his own tastes, would have reacted against the idea of a category of books developed especially for people in his age group. He didn’t want to be told what he should be reading at that age.

Another problem is that some people argue NA isn’t different enough from YA. NA is about the perspective of transition. But YA is about that too- the transition between adolescence and adulthood. This is, I suspect, one of the biggest hurdles for NA. I can see how NA is a different point in that transition from adolescence to adulthood, but I’m not sure the difference is distinct enough to change the industry. Different experiences, yes- high school is very different from college. Dorms and apartments are distinctly different from living at home with your parents. But that’s not what categories in fiction really deal with.

An important idea here is that categories are different from genres. Many people mistakenly refer to NA or YA or MG as genres, but they aren’t. Genres are divisions like science fiction, contemporary, horror, romance, etc. Genres are primarily about experiences and structural elements that follow similar patterns- water rights disputes, lone wolf cowboys, and girls who refuse to ride side saddle are common elements of westerns, for example.

Categories are basic divisions that separate fiction (and even nonfiction) into works targeted for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and adult readers. Of course, young adult is enjoying tremendous crossover appeal, with as many adults reading the category as teens. So it’s not just the targeted audience that makes something YA, MG, or adult. It’s the perspective, the lens through which the protagonist(s) view the world. In MG, the protagonist has an experience that may teach them more about himself or the world, but in the end still views the world like a child- which is a great thing. That age was a distinct point in my life, and it’s wonderful to be able to go back and remember it through MG works. In YA, the protagonist meets a challenge that changes how they view the world- they go from viewing the world as an adolescent to viewing it more or less as an adult. S. Jae-Jones (JJ) develops the difference between adult and young adult perspective more here.

Do certain experiences tend to gather around these perspectives? Of course. Perspective influences the events of the story and certain experiences gather around the age category. But those experiences are a mark of genre, not a defining element of category.

So here is my own personal suggestion: NA might meet with fewer obstacles and solve some of the issues it’s facing if it were treated as a genre instead of a category. Many of the experiences and structure elements unique to NA could easily be seen as genre elements, and NA could gain its distinctness and place in the market just like other new genres- steampunk and the genre mashup. Many elements of NA stories aren’t currently marketable as YA, but could NA become a genre of adult fiction? That’s what I wonder.

Truthfully, it’s hard to say what NA is or isn’t, since it’s still developing. To book people who believe the difference in perspective is significant, keep advocating for NA as a category, and keep showing readers how different that perspective is. I’d like to see that more clearly, and I’ll cheer on any NA success I see.

My closing thought, however, is that NA might do well as a genre, instead of a category. Could this genre still have fun being part of a mashup- say, NA paranormal, NA thriller? Sure. But some of the objections I’m hearing from agents and editors to new adult as a category might be solved if it were shaped into a genre.

For those of you who write new adult, Vickie Motter, Lauren Hammond, and Sara Megibow all represent NA. In fact, Vickie Motter wrote some advice on querying NA works.

From NA Alley, here is a list of NA books and films (though some were marketed and sold as either YA or adult):

For those of you who don’t write and don’t work in the publishing industry, but still love books and are wondering why in the world I’m talking about this tiny difference, what you need to know is this: whether NA is a category or genre makes a huge difference in who writers can submit those manuscripts to, how their chances of selling that book sit, and what the future NA as a whole looks like. Those first-time-as-an-adult experiences are dear to a lot of people, so go check out a NA book. You might like it!

Drafting and YA Stands

Hello, readers! How did September come and go so quickly? I’m pretty sure it should still be the end of July. But here we are, square in the middle of apple cider and pumpkin season. Every time I look at my Twitter feed, someone is talking about pumpkin spice lattes, which I have never tried. Should I? The idea sounds strange to me- I’m not a fan of fruit coffees, either- but people seem to seriously love these lattes. So, I need some expert opinions.  I’m putting a poll at the bottom of this post- let me know if you think I should try my first pumpkin spice latte, or if I’m better off sticking with my standard hazelnut. I’ll try one if I get enough votes!

In other news, last month I finished the first draft of my WIP- the young adult contemporary. It took me eight weeks instead of the six I had planned, but spending 9 days in Canada slowed me down quite a bit.  I had a fantastic time at my friend’s wedding, and I’m now an expert at tying ribbons for ceremony programs. But the draft is finally completed at 52,000 words, and I’m well into the second draft. This manuscript is quite a bit different from my first novel, but I still loved it. Writing this story was just plain fun, and I really enjoyed writing a more rural novel. I love my main character’s voice, so hopefully it’s a fun one to read as well. My goal is to have it ready for beta reading and critiques by the end of this month.

Don’t forget I’ve also been posting on the group blog for YA Stands! In case you don’t follow that blog, here are my last few posts there.

Identifying Young Adult Fiction: in which I discuss why YA books are really books for every age group, and why age of the characters isn’t the most important factor in determining whether or not a book should be called “YA.”

Marathoning a Novel: in which I give some tips and tricks I learned while drafting my current manuscript, and why you should marathon a novel too.

Handing the Rejection Blues: in which I take an honest look at one of the most difficult parts of querying.

Getting It Done: Writing and Publishing Tools: in which I point writers to 3 of my favorite writing tools of all time.
As always, thanks for reading! Now, pumpkin spice latte- try, or no?

Prose Tips: the Psychology of the Short Sentence

Intentional sentence construction is vital to good writing.  Knowing what you’re doing with your sentences and why you’re doing it is absolutely essential to making the desired impact on your reader. Writers all have different sentence styles, ranging from sparse and cryptic to long and flowing. I prefer short, punchy sentences in general, with longer, more complicated ones taking the limelight where I want some poetry in my writing or else during more contemplative scenes. No one way is perfect, but shorter sentences can bring a dramatic impact that longer sentences often lack.

Readers subconsciously pause when they see the period in a sentence. This pause can emphasize subtext or emotion nicely. Use shorter sentences and back-load them when you want high emotional impact. Readers will process the sentence for a moment more than they might otherwise.

Long sentences (and long paragraphs) can be tempting to skim. Shorter sentences can help your readers stay engaged, because that briefest of pauses between sentences allows a moment to refocus. Be aware that this refocusing happens, and use it to your advantage.

Shorter sentences prompt readers to keep reading, especially sentences with only a handful of words. Because what they are reading now is so brief, it’s just a fraction easier to be wondering “What happens next?” Lining up all these punchy, short sentences together can speed your reader along and heighten the urge to find out what happens in the next paragraph, the next page, the next chapter. They automatically increase the pace of action scenes, as well.

Short sentences are less likely to contain unnecessary words. Because you’re focusing on paring down the thought to something punchy and brief, it’s easier to see what you can cut. Words and phrases like “that”, “there are/is”, and other word clutter are more likely to be tossed out. Additionally, short sentences have a smaller chance of being confusing than long sentences.

Another benefit of short sentences is the flip-side of the point above- as you write your short sentences, you might not only be separating a long sentence into two sentences; you might be reducing your words and turning your thought into something more concise. Conciseness lends itself to subtext- and subtext is a beautiful thing. People aren’t always transparent in what they say and do, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Narrators can use the subject inherent to a great short sentence to full effect, as well. This treats the reader as if they’re intelligent enough to notice and process the subtext, and it makes your characters deeper and more realistic.

A word of warning: Variety is key here. An entire paragraph of four-word sentences would probably bore the most dedicated reader. Be careful that you feed your reader a variety- no one wants the same meal every day, so mix it up.  Long sentences can be a gorgeous, winding adventure full of voice. Don’t avoid them. Just use long and short sentences in the places where the pacing and subject matter are prime for them.

How do you decide what type of sentence to use for which moment? Do you have a specific style, or do you go with your gut on a case-by-case basis? Tell me what you love about short sentences.

A companion post in praise of the long sentence is in the works.

Prose Tips: Be the Biggest Loser

Avoiding empty words and cutting  unnecessary words are two fantastic things you can do to immediately improve your writing.

Even if you already do this, check again. Empty and unnecessary words slip by even the most watchful writer. Actively avoiding these kinds of words helps, but searching for them and cutting them out is a normal part of the revision process.  Hunt them down and hack them out.

Empty words include words like there, is, are, this, that, etc. Rather than being content-bearers, these words are grammatical markers carrying little meaning themselves. Starting a sentence with “There are” or “there is” weakens the sentence and makes the writing unwieldy and vague. Cutting out these power-drains in your sentences will noticeably improve your prose. For example: “There was a loaf of bread on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection” can be easily revised to read “A loaf of bread rested on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection.” Adding an action verb can fairly easily solve the issue.

Most uses of the word “that” are unnecessary as well. “The girl waited for the train that she was sure would never come” becomes “The girl waited for the train she was sure would never come.” Use ctrl-F to highlight each use of “that” in your writing, and check to make sure you’re only using it when absolutely necessary. If it seems necessary, see if you can rewrite the sentence so it isn’t.

Cutting unnecessary words is a bit broader topic. Writing good fiction (and nonfiction) requires condensing. Many writers use rambling phrases to say what could be said in a word or two; knocking these out and replacing them with concise, punchy words is necessary to brighten your prose. Of course, many fantastic writers use long, flowing sentences- but every word is necessary and specific. Don’t use more words than you need to say what you mean. “Grover walked slowly over to the counter, picked up a knife from the knife block, and cut back and forth through the loaf of bread” is much better as “Grover strolled over to the counter, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread.”

Right now that sentence reads like an action beat to break up thoughts or dialogue. If the event is an important moment for the character or is meant to carry metaphorical meaning or subtext, much should be cut or rewritten. The sentence probably still contains detail that doesn’t matter, even though it’s condensed. If what matters is the bread being sliced, then we may not need to hear about Grover walking or choosing a knife. The fat needs trimmed. “The knife rasped through the crust, breaking apart the loaf” is a more specific image conveying similar information.

To avoid unnecessary words, think about what has to be conveyed and why- and then say it in as few words as possible. Linking words together to get Grover from point A to point B waters down the prose and simply doesn’t grab your reader. Make sure the words you use are necessary. Keep in mind “necessary” doesn’t deal with simply the information conveyed- tone and voice play into what words are necessary, too.

Don’t let your sentences be candidates for a reality TV weight loss program. Say the same thing in fewer, more specific words, and your sentences will be better off. Avoid words that don’t add meaning. Your readers will notice the difference.

Do you have a favorite editing trick or tool for cutting the fat out of your writing? Tell me about it!

Writing Contests

I’ve discovered a whole string of worthy contests of late, and so I’m sharing the love and posting them below. If you’re a writer, check them out. Some end tonight or tomorrow! If you’re a reader, stalk the contests.  Reading the pitches for as-yet unpublished books is fascinating, and you never know- you might see the book on the shelves next year.

Share the Lobov Critique Giveaway from Karen Akins

Pitch Slam 2 from YALITCHAT

Operation Awesome Mystery Agent from Katrina Lantz and the rest of the wonderful writers over at the Operation Awesome blog. This one is run monthly!

Crits for Water by Kat Brauer- contests/auctions for charity here until the end of June

Three Two One Pitch contest from Dorothy Dreyer

Tons of Giveaways for writers and readers- closing midnight tonight!

Miss Snark’s First Victim regularly runs writing contests- sometimes weekly! Keep an eye on the blog.

Cupid’s Literary Connection– contests run here regularly as well.

Mother. Write. (Repeat.) – The fabulous “An Agent’s Inbox” is run here monthly. Don’t miss it!

Watch Monica B.W.’s blog Love YA  and Brenda Drake’s blog Brenda Drake Writes for contests, giveaways, and more valuable info for writers and readers. These ladies are fabulous and recently hosted a major contest with Mother.Write.(Repeat.) and Cupid’s Literary Connection.

If you’re not familiar with these kinds of contests, go here for a great post on the topic and some worthwhile tips.

Like my posts? Follow my blog, and follow me on Twitter!

Book Giveaway!

Hello, readers. I have some exciting news. The fabulous Rochelle Melander, writing coach and author of WRITE-A-THON: Write Your Book in 26 Days, has offered to give away a copy of WRITE-A-THON to one of my readers. See my review of the book here. Honestly, I think you’ll love it. Ms. Melander writes insightfully and honestly about the perils, rewards, and challenges of being a writer. It’s motivating and full of unique ideas. Frankly, this book is good company.

To enter the contest, do the following:

1) Follow my blog, if you haven’t already, and comment below that you’d like to enter the giveaway. I have all kinds of goodies and useful materials for writers coming up, so you’ll want to anyway.

2) Follow me on Twitter here. If you don’t have an account, you should. Twitter is one of the most helpful tools I’ve seen yet for making professional connections and finding invaluable resources.

3) Follow Rochelle Melander on Twitter here. Tweet to me that you followed Ms. Melander, using her Twitter handle so she sees the tweet too.

That’s all you have to do! Here’s what you can win:

First prize: WRITE-A-THON by Rochelle Melander

Second prize: An ebook copy (readable on PC) of Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, one of America’s leading private creative writing schools. This book isn’t just the thoughts of one author on how to write fiction; each chapter is contributed by a different writer, all 11 of them published authors. Publishers Weekly calls this one “fresh and full of concrete advice.” You definitely want to win a copy- you know you do.

Third prize: Yes, there’s a third. Everyone will receive something- something I’ll announce when we have our winners. Check back to see what it is!

Contest ends Friday May 4 at 5:30 pm central time. That’s this Friday- so enter while you’re here! I’ll use random.org to choose the winners Friday night- results will be announced on Twitter. Thanks so much for reading!