Justine's first piece of literary non-fiction has been accepted for publication in an anthology by and for chronic illness sufferers. Her piece is about suffering with migraine. For more information, read her blog post about it here!
After choosing our lottery winner for the month, we had the chance to dunk back into our submission pool and choose another great story, an epic fantasy with a fun main character. Below, you’ll find what tips we chose to share that were inspired by working with this manuscript. As always, we hope they serve to teach all of our readers a little more about their own manuscripts as well. Also, we will be opening up to submissions again for a 24 hour period on July 5th, so if you're interested, check out the "How To Reach Us" portion of the site for information on how to submit.
I’ve spoken before of the importance of starting a manuscript as close as possible to the inciting incident. You definitely want to start with a bang. That is how you get your reader along for the ride and 100% hooked. Once you have that momentum, however, you must capitalize on it. When you’re telling a story, you never want to lose momentum. You want to start strong and build momentum from there, so the reader is, even in the quiet moments, eager to know what happens next. If you lose the momentum, you could lose the reader.
Some writers start their stories with flashbacks or dreams. Some go back and tell us what happened before Chapter 1. Some just write a boring, stale Chapter 2 without any of the excitement that made us love the first chapter. That is how you lose momentum.
If you open with a flashback or a dream, you destroy your reader’s idea of what the stakes are in the story. They believe the stakes will be one way, then you pull the rug out from under them and give them different stakes. That doesn’t build momentum, it makes the reader wonder why they’re reading.
When you start your story at a point and then move back to the point before that, you’ve killed any momentum you’ve been gaining by telling us what happens to your characters before you truly get the story underway and if you don’t maintain the same level of momentum, your story could lose the reader’s interest by Chapter 2--and that’s the last thing you want.
A good story must have solid pacing, a natural ebb and flow to the narrative for the purpose of creating the clearest story possible. Poor pacing—even in small doses—can cause the reader to walk away from a story. Having a large, complex sentence is not wrong in and of itself, but when you have several, closely packed together, it can form a wall around which the reader might feel trapped. Likewise, too many short blunt sentences—artistic license notwithstanding—can make the narrative feel stunted and abrupt. The key is to alternate between the two in the right places, and to use the sentences that best reflect the events occurring in the story. For action scenes, it usually serves the narrative better to have shorter, direct sentences, but too many can work against you and make the action read like a list of ingredients, so be cautious.
The same applies to the story at large. It is possible to have a good flow to one’s sentence structures, while creating a narrative in which it is difficult to remain engaged. Breaking an action sequence to expound upon a bit of information the reader might need to know can hurt the story. The story as a whole must have a seamless flow, even when transitioning from action to dialogue and vice versa. As always, a useful method of ferreting out these stumbling points in the story is to read it aloud. Usually, even if you don’t know what’s wrong with a sentence or a scene, if you read it aloud, you’ll catch that something doesn’t sound right. You might find yourself struggling to get the sentence out or tripping over a part. That’s because your mind knows something is wrong, and it’s always best to reevaluate those parts, to see how it can be reworded or rewritten for maximum impact.
An important thing to pay attention to while writing is sentence structure, not just the ebb and flow of a sentence, but how it comes across to a reader. Long sentences are often fine as long as they’re grammatically correct. They even fit in certain genres like high fantasy. However, sometimes these sentences become run ons and what a writer is trying to say dissolves. You don’t want your audience to reread the same sentence in order to understand it. You want your narrative to move smoothly from one sentence to the next. An easy way to fix this problem is to chop the sentence in half and form two sentences, or add punctuation which allows pause. Without these things, you can lose momentum or the point trying to be conveyed. You want your message to be given to the reader in the most concise way possible.
This leads me into my next point of comma usage. Any time a character is switching actions or you need to take a breath, a comma should go there. If there is a lot happening in your story, you’ll want commas to stop your thoughts from going on and on without a connection to one another.
“He reached for his sword locking his emotions away before the big fight.”
In the sentence above, reaching for his sword and his emotions are just kind of dangling together.
“He reached for his sword, locking his emotions away before the big fight.”
In this example, these phrases are connected, and follow after each other. Commas can be super tricky to pin down, but a lot of it comes from practice. In the end, it will only help your story.
This month surprised us. We opened up submissions and we got a quick influx that we never expected. So quick, in fact, that we had to shut down submissions for the month, a week earlier than we’d planned. That has never happened before. As such, we will be buckling down this month, and trying to churn out a few more analyses than we normally handle, if possible. In the meantime, please enjoy the tips we gleaned from our work on our monthly lottery winner’s work. We hope you find our tips helpful, and you continue to stick with us on this journey.
Sometimes, we create sentences because of the ebb and flow of words, the effect of them when we think them in our minds, but when we get them down on paper, they don’t necessarily convey the same meaning or provide the same effect they have in our heads. There are a few instances that can cause this, but in this case, I want to talk about the use of added connective tissue in sentences, as well as sentence fragments.
Both of these can be used to create tension or to convey a point. However, in the case of connective tissue (Ands, Yets, Buts, Sos, Becauses), sometimes they are just excess words that don’t change the meaning of the sentence they find themselves attached to. One of the challenges of writing any story, especially one that contains worldbuilding, is the need to keep the word count down and the storytelling tight. Any unneeded words should be cut out to make sentences flow smoother.
As for the issue of sentence fragments and hyper short sentences, these are not a problem in and of themselves, but when dealing with these, the writer needs to insure they are using them for a specific purpose. The flow of the sentences impacts the feeling of the scene. Short, choppy sentences work well for action, to maintain a fast pace. Longer sentences with connected clauses, read at a more normal, conversational pace. When used at the wrong times, sentence fragments can give the narrative a choppy, start-stop, kind of motion, like you’re braking a car too abruptly. If used correctly, they can create an effective high tension scene.
Characters cannot exist in a vacuum, they must feel like real, three-dimensional people. Accomplishing this in minor characters is difficult and often overlooked, but that’s understandable. It not so easily ignored in the main character. Developing a fully-fleshed out character, one that is tangible to the reader’s minds, usually requires two things: description and emotional depth.
While it’s true that physical descriptions are not always necessary--and a description that is overly long can break up the narrative and draw the reader out of the story--it does help the reader to connect with the character to have some idea of what they look like. It helps if the descriptions are inserted seamlessly throughout the narrative, rather than simply dumped onto a page. Without at least a few details, the reader may have trouble visualizing the character, and thus have trouble connecting with them.
More importantly, however, the character must have emotional depth. To create a more realistic character, the reader must be able to see them as more than just a collection of actions or words. Many times the writer can use these actions and words to convey emotions without actually having to state it (example: He listened to the other man in silence, fists balled tight under the table, knuckles white from the effort), but eventually further insight will be needed to put the character’s actions into clearer context. If not, their actions might seem detached or inconsistent, and might confuse the reader.
As with physical description, providing emotional insight need not consist of a long ramble. That would draw away from the narrative and feel forced. Subtlety is best. You don’t want to sacrifice the narrative to hammer home a point.
When it comes to stories that involve world building or back story, a writer must find the balance between sharing too much and sharing too little. In order to draw a reader in to whoever your main character is, you need to show the reader who they are. You don’t need a long winded exposition in your opening pages, but you need snippets, fragments, a thread for the reader to pull themselves along for the ride. Revealing too much or too little can harm a story, both from a reader’s perspective and a professional one.
Often for editors and agents, you have three chapters to grasp their attention and hold it. If they don’t know enough about your main character, they can’t get lost in the story. Questions will interrupt their read. Who is this character? Who are they in relation to the people around them? Why are they important? You want your main character to have a presence and there are several ways to do this. Add a thought, a motive for an action, an emotion. Instead of saying, “They hated Billy,” try something like “They remembered what Billy did, the jokes, the taunts that never ended.” In this example we not only get a hint of anger, but we get a reason and a glimpse of who the character is.
As readers, this is relevant because we want to be grounded enough in a story that we can follow the main character. We don’t have to trust them or even like them, but we need the right footing so their journey becomes immersive. If we don’t know enough, questions can outweigh interest and that is the last thing you want.
In our last analysis, we mentioned that we took on two short stories and the first three chapters of a novel-length piece for this submission round. In our last manuscript analysis, we tackled one of the short stories. In this one, we dive into the novel-length piece. As always, we broaden our comments so that they can be used for more than just the manuscript we’re discussing. We’re hoping our readers take something away from these posts.
An issue I run into frequently is a story that starts in the wrong place. A story’s first three chapters have to pop. It’s what agents and editors look at, and it’s what you need to set up the story. We are often asked what our story is about, and we are told we should be quick with an answer. But even more important than your elevator pitch is having a story that begins to pay off on that promise very early.
A story should start as closely as possible to its inciting incident, also known as the incident that sets up the rest of the story. You want this at least beginning to happen somewhere in Chapter One, preferably at the end, so that you hook readers in for the rest of the ride. At the very least, you should be able to get some tangible idea of what’s about to happen by the end of the first chapter. This sustains the reader’s interest in the story so the payoff can come in Chapter Two. But the story should already be starting to get underway before Chapter Three, so an agent, a publisher, a reader, is hooked into the story early on.
This is why we, as readers, are often encountering advice that tells us not to start a story with a dream, or with our character waking up in the morning. A dream gives us a false start, so we don’t really know who the character is. Our character waking up in the morning usually means we’re going to see a lot of the mundane process of them getting ready to do what they are supposed to do, instead of just doing it.
Leap into the story. Start us as close as you can to the part of the story that makes you say, “that’s where things got interesting,” and you will have your reader completely hooked.
When you write a story, aside from your characters and plot, you usually pick a tense and POV. First person, third, limited, all knowing. Every writer chooses a different tense and often some work better for certain stories. Present tense gives a more immediate sense of events as they take place. This can also be done in past tense too, but there is greater room for reflection since it already happened. First person creates a stronger link to your main character given you’re in their head, but third person can grant you a broader view of characters other than your main one. Each of these techniques possesses their benefits and drawbacks and I always recommend choosing the tense you’re most comfortable with writing.
Once we pick a tense, the main rule is to stay consistent throughout. There will be exceptions to this rule, but usually it holds. If you switch tenses too often – this does happen in manuscripts by accident – your reader loses focus. They not only have to pay attention to what you’re saying and the plot, but also how it is being written. The narrative, instead of streaming on to progress the story, gets muddled down and this is something you definitely don’t want. You want a smooth read where your characters and plot can come to life.
If you find this happening, one easy technique to catch it is reading your sentences aloud. Shifting from past to present, or vice versa, is a very sharp contrast and you’ll be able to hear it easily. A good amount of past tense verbs end in ‘ed’ whereas a lot of present tense verbs are in a singular form or end with ‘s’. I would suggest too if you’re struggling, to pick the one that feels the most natural. There are conflicting views on whether past or present is more natural, but it’s up to everyone’s individual discretion to pave the path for their story.
Clarity in writing is often hard to achieve. The simple reason for this is that we know what we mean to say when we write something and hence, the meaning is clear to us. It is important to remember that the reader doesn’t have access to your thoughts. What might be obvious to the writer, may cause the reader to struggle for understanding, or may go completely unnoticed. Proper communication can only be achieved when the message is understood as intended. As writers we must strive to make our prose as clear as possible.
Ways to fix this problem are to have someone who has no knowledge of the story read it for you. Sometimes it helps to put the story down for a bit, or work on something else for a while before rereading, so that your thoughts are not as connected to the piece as they once were. You could also read the story out loud, allow yourself the chance to hear how the words sound and see if it still makes as much sense as you once thought.
However it is done, clarity must be achieved, otherwise the reader is deprived of the full scope and intent of the story.
When we opened up submissions this time, we got some short stories sent our way and decided it would be a good idea to select two short stories and the first three chapters of a manuscript. Maybe...next time...no? We did take a little longer to get through everything this time around, but it still wasn’t as long as we had initially planned for our Inkwell submission periods. We’re often surprised at how quickly we read through submissions. We truly love doing this.
That being said, here is a look at our latest Manuscript Analysis, for one of the short stories we worked on this time around.
Point of View is crucial when creating any story. Not only do we want our main character, or sometimes several main characters to be of interest, but we want the right one to tell the tale we have in our heads. Some stories start off with the right voice. Others may take several tries before settling on the right character.
The challenge then becomes holding onto that voice and making sure said POV doesn’t know anything it can’t possibly know. This will obviously vary when using first or third person, and if it’s limited perspective or not. Most of the times however, our narrator is not all seeing and all knowing, especially when it comes to other characters. They have to feel out characters and get to know them the same way readers do.
Sometimes as writers, as we get to know our characters, we accidentally slip into the head of one that isn’t the narrator. It’s almost like a reflex, wanting to explain a character’s motives or backstory. But breaking POV, unless it’s a dual/multi perspective, is not common and in a short story, POV is even more crucial. You have less pages to capture readers and move to the climax. If you find this happening, it can be as simple as rearranging the focus of a sentence to get back on track. Instead of, “So and so often did this out of nerves,” you can say something along the lines of, “I had witnessed so and so do this often times before.” It is a way of bringing POV back into perspective for both you and your readers.
At the heart of every great story are great characters. The setting, the plot, the themes, are all very important, but none of it matters if the characters are not believable. That’s not to say that they have to be likeable. Likeability and believability are mutually exclusive, and the myth that a character must be likeable, limits a writer’s avenues of creativity. What one must strive for is to bring the reader into the head of the character. If done correctly, even a clearly deranged or ‘bad’ person’s actions will seem logical--not right or justifiable, but logical. Their actions should seem like normal behavior for that character, not out-of-the-blue deviations from the norm.
In a short story, this task can be more difficult as there is little time to develop a character as well as create an exciting narrative for the reader. For an uncomplicated character, this can be done quickly, by showing them doing something that defines them (such as a generous man stopping to give a poor person money or a fearful man crossing the street to avoid helping someone being robbed). When dealing with an unlikeable character, the task becomes much harder because it would easy for the reader to misinterpret the character’s motivation. It is important to establish them as deeply as possible, because it will be harder for the reader to relate to that character. The closer to the character’s mind the reader can get, more the reader will understand that character as the writer intended. A writer can do this with a more extensive backstory, through internal thoughts, or by interactions with other characters. Sometimes all three is required, lest the character seem two-dimensional.
Continuing from Ismael’s statement about keeping characters from being two-dimensional, another way to keep your character feeling real is to make their behavior believable. The reader should be able to fully imagine a character as a person, and believability can crush that. A large problem we, as writers, can run into with believability is the need to advance the plot. Plot is central to the story, but characters need to feel like they move through naturally, not like they are forced through.
Sometimes we create characters that seem unreal. The character moves through the plot, but in order to do so, he makes foolish decisions, is unreasonably trusting, comes across as naive. Or worse, the character simply waits for things to happen to him, effectively waiting to die, and only reacting to what is thrown at him in ways that seem uninspired. They’re shrugging when they should be screaming, because our plot says that a shrug is more convenient.
When you create a character, make sure they behave in the way a person like that would, not in the way you’ve made him, and you will tell a stronger story, one with twists and turns, one that rattles with the clamor of a battle of wills.
No character should feel like a plot device. A character’s behavior should never be convenient. Their inconvenience creates the kind of tension that makes a good story great.
It’s been awhile since we’ve posted one of these on the blog--four manuscripts ago, to be exact. Our reasons have varied. We’ve either felt like we didn’t have enough to say, or we’d said it here before (although it was still new to the author we were working with), or, in some cases, the author didn’t give us permission--we ask our authors before we discuss their work, even anonymously on the blog. But, finally, we feel like we have something fresh to say! Also, we got to work on our first middle grade story, which was very interesting for us, and we loved it. Now, onto the discussion!
One of the main things to keep in mind as a writer is to not repeat yourself. This can not only harm the showing versus telling lesson we’re all taught, but it takes a toll on your narrative. You don’t want to tell your readers the same bits of information over and over especially once you’ve moved onto another action or thought. With writing comes the question of: how much do I need to say in order for my readers to understand what I want them to? If they love the story and their interest is held, it doesn’t take much. They will take what you’ve given them and create images in their head, hold onto plot points as they read further.
Not to mention, repetition can make your narrative come across as a brick wall. You want to be moving closer and closer to the next inciting incident, conversation, or realization your character is going to have. Repetition can break the flow of the narrative and dislodge the reader from focusing on where the story is going. Don’t get me wrong, some repetition can be a stylistic choice. It’s a matter of being able to gauge when repetition is necessary or understanding that perhaps, you’ve overdone it.
A good question to ask is what is this line, paragraph, or chapter adding to the story? Is it helping the plot? Are your characters developing? Are you leaving breadcrumbs for your reader to find? Considering all of this as you write, whether immediately or in the editing process, can help cut out repetition. If you want to talk about something again, make sure it adds something or connects a piece of the puzzle. Leave the rest to your readers.
I’ve probably talked ad nauseam about the need for descriptions in stories, how they anchor readers to the prose, place them in the moment and draw them deeper into the narrative. While they might not be the skeleton of the story, they are the appendages that help build a stronger tale. With that, I’ll forgo repeating myself and, instead speak about another aspect of good storytelling that relates to our latest submission.
A good story always has a bit of mystery embedded in it, whether it’s a small, underlying subplot, or an ambitious, overarching plot that affects every aspect of the narrative. Either way, the telling of it can make or break the book. If done correctly, the author sets up a series of clues for the reader to find, each one giving only as much information as needed to guide them to the next piece. If done incorrectly, however, the reader either gets too much information too quickly and spoils the surprise, or the mystery is so deeply hidden behind convoluted events that the reveal makes no sense and feels forced upon the reader.
At the Inkwell Council, we are limited to only 3 chapters of an author’s work, so while it is possible to determine if the author gave away too much of the mystery too earlier, it is impossible to tell whether seeds planted in the early chapters grew in a natural and satisfying way. When writing a story with an underlying mystery or a mysterious element, it's always a good idea to remember to justify all strange behavior as well as the reasons for not revealing things too early. If the big reveal could have happened in chapter 1, but didn't, it must be for a believable reason. Also, if a crime occurs, and suddenly everyone acts guilty of that crime when only one person is, the story will suffer for it. Basically, don't write the plot or a character's actions to satisfy the mystery. That's a sure way to confuse the reader.
In the past, I have discussed the difference between showing and telling, and this is something that I addressed in this manuscript. However, in an attempt to keep things fresh for this blog, I will discuss my second most important edit on this manuscript--passive writing and creating distance between the narrator and the main character.
Passive writing has a strange effect on an otherwise well-written piece. For one thing, the main character isn’t experiencing things, things are happening to her. It’s a very slight difference, but it’s enough to put you at a distance from your reader. Your reader is supposed to endure things with your character. So make sure they are in the thick of it.
When your character hears something, they should hear it. If there is a scraping sound against the wooden door, the best way to state this would be, “Something scraped along the length of the wooden door,” not “she could hear a scraping sound on the wooden door.” The first one is more immediate, and a bit more spine chilling, while the second is told at a distance. The first one also uses less words than the second, something that should always be a consideration.
Whenever we get the chance, we should use the opportunity to bring our reader into a closer, more immediate situation with the main character. That way, it will be much harder for the reader to put the book down. After all, if you heard that scraping on the door, wouldn’t you want to know what creature lay beyond it?
Megan's short story, Kaleidoscope, was published by Shift Magazine. Check it out here.
Justine talks about where she has found story inspiration and where you can uncover some of your own over at her blog.
Megan explores how to handle potentially triggering scenes in your work on her personal author blog, here.