This is a full episode of writing tips from America's Editor, a professional book editor. These tips are for new writers and published authors alike.
Music licensed from Storyblocks:
“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory
"Chill Out In The Coffee Shop (No Sax)" by Jon Presstone
If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.
Hi, writers. Today, I have another special episode for you. Every week I provide you with at least one writing tip, and I’ve put together a clip show of the last 10 writing tip segments as a refresher for you.
Next week, we’ll begin reviewing the entire writing process for a three-act book. If you have a writing or publishing question you’d like me to answer, email me at email@example.com or send me a message on Instagram at @writingbreakpodcast.
Now, let’s settle in at the Writing Break cafe and get started on a full episode of writing tips.
From Episode 12: Every Writer Needs This One Document
In publishing, we have manuals of style, house style, and style sheets. What is the difference between them, and why should you care?
A style manual contains all of the standards for writing, formatting, and designing your document as decided by an organization. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style is compiled by The University of Chicago, and APA Style is compiled by the American Psychological Association. These manuals tackle everything from whether or not to use a series comma to how to capitalize your title. To make your life easier, I recommend picking one style manual to follow for all of your books.wn house style guidelines. In:
When I edit for publishing houses and there is a discrepancy between the style manual they follow and their house style guidelines, just like in casinos, the house always wins.
Then we have style sheets, which are guidelines specific for a particular work. Publishing houses that follow a manual of style and have their own house style guidelines will still provide me with a style sheet for each book I work on. So, yes, that means I’m referring to all three documents while editing.
A style sheet keeps track of character names, unique spelling, and author preferences.
From Episode 13: Why Every Writer Needs a Style Sheet
The main reason you need a style sheet is for your own sanity. Details about your characters go on the style sheet, including character names, personality traits, appearance, and magical powers, if applicable. Setting and location information is also added to the style sheet. You could also put down the answers to any grammatical questions you have while writing so that you don’t have to look them up again. This is also the place to note any spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary unique to the manuscript.
Once you get a stylesheet going, you can either continue to add to it throughout your writing career or create different documents for each manuscript or series. A style sheet is also a useful document to hand off to your editor, your proofreader, your agent, and your publisher. Your editor should keep their own style sheet for their own reference, but you’re significantly helping yourself if you have a style sheet ready to pass on to your publishing team. This way, they know not to make any changes you specifically don’t want, and they can reference the characters and make sure that everything listed on the style sheet aligns with the manuscript.
Nonfiction editors, you need a style sheet as well.
From Episode 14: 2 Free Gifts for Writers
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “you can’t be a prophet in your own land.” The gospel of John, chapter 4, verse 44 says, “For Jesus himself testified that a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” That’s the King James Version for a bit of spice.
The general idea is, once you set out to do the thing. That is, an artistic endeavor, a business move, or a global takeover, the people who knew you when, meaning, the people who knew you before you set out on this latest venture, will not admire you or support you the way a person who is hearing you for the first time will.
For example, I work hard to bring this podcast to your ears, but most of my friends and family members don’t listen to it. These episodes, which are important to me, are of little value to them because they can access me whenever they want. What’s more, when they do interact with me, they don’t ask me about the latest happenings in publishing. It’s not of interest to them.
In this same way, the people closest to you are not going to be your most enthusiastic readers. They might be excited for you in general, but they’re not going to read your stuff the way a true fan would. If they do read your writing, it can be disastrous. More on this next week.
Now, it’s time for you to open your gifts! In the past two episodes, I talked about style sheets: what they are and why every author needs one. And I have prepared two style sheet templates for you, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. I’ve added some information to serve as a guide for how to fill it in, but you should adapt the document to fit your needs. You’ll see some text in brackets where you’ll need to decide what style you prefer, and there are also some words added in the word list serving as placeholders so that you can see how I set up a style sheet.
The templates are free for you to download. I tried to make the process as smooth as possible, but there is a verification process, and I ended up in my own spam folder during one of the tests, so check your spam folder if you don’t see the email with the templates.
Check the show notes for the sign-up link.
From Episode 15: Why We Love Anti-Heroes
I have anti-heroes on my mind today, that is, the main character of a story who does not behave like an archetypal hero.
They are often title characters in their own novels, for example, Carrie White in Carrie by Stephen King, Emma Woodhouse in Emma by Jane Austen, and Circe in Circe by Madeline Miller.
I like the idea of anti-heroes, but I don’t fall for everyone I meet. To me, Emma Woodhouse is too meddlesome, and by the end of the book, I still don’t like her. Sorry, Austen. Another one that didn’t gain my allegiance is Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get it when I’m older. Although, when I was young, I knew I could not be friends with Harriet from Harriet the Spy, another anti-hero title character and possibly my first introduction to this type of character. Regardless of the incompatibility between Harriet and a young America’s Editor, I read the story multiple times. It is a fun read with all of the elements of a proper hero’s journey.
I seek out books with anti-heroes because they are complex characters that, when written well, make me feel a range of emotions for that one character alone. I become more empathetic and more protective of that character as the book continues. My heart softens as the pages turn, and that is such a good feeling.
I think that writing an anti-hero that people will like is more challenging than writing a hero. Why? A hero is a character you can admire and maybe even want to emulate. You expect great things from the hero, and they deliver.
The anti-hero, on the other hand, is presented as a relatable human right from the start. I suppose that, just like in real life, first impressions matter. The first impression we are supposed to get from an anti-hero is a person we can’t feel comfortable with right away. Then it’s the author’s job to tap into the reader’s heart to make us see the shadow parts of ourselves that are like the anti-hero. In order to accept the anti-hero, we must see and accept those parts in ourselves.
Sometimes a hero’s story can make us feel good about the hero but a little worse about ourselves. We have shortcomings that the hero did not exhibit during the story. They were brave, cunning, and charming in ways we’d like to be but are not sure we can be, and we might never be given the chance to find out.
The anti-hero, however, takes us on a more relatable journey. With all of their flaws, they still win. That makes us feel better about our flaws, insecurities, and shortcomings. It makes us feel like we can win just as we are. When Stephen King’s Carrie loses her temper, she doesn’t have to apologize for her behavior or vow to do better. She just has to rage. Wouldn’t we be just as dangerous with a trace of telekinesis?
If you’ve never written an anti-hero before, I encourage you to try it out. Take the week to think about an anti-hero you might like to build a story around. There are many types of antiheroes, and next week we’ll go into the different types to see if anything strikes your fancy.
From Episode 16: The Different Types of Anti-Heroes
Last week, I explained what an anti-hero is and why people like them so much. Today I’m going to give you a rundown of the three main types of anti-heroes. I want you to think of these types as a Venn diagram. A lot of these traits blend well together. These definitions can serve as a basic framework, but don’t let them limit your creativity.
Let’s start with the pragmatic antihero. These characters might still follow the hero’s journey. They know right from wrong, but they are realistic and know that sometimes they have to do a bad thing for the greater good. Examples include Sherlock Holmes, Wolverine, and even Harry Potter by the end of the series when he’s using the unforgivable curses and robbing a bank. Most female antiheroes I read fall under this category.
Next up, is the hero in name only. These characters have dark actions and get really close to being a villain. Their actions might result in good, but they’re not even that concerned with that, such as Walter White in Breaking Bad. Or, their actions are vile, but they claim to be doing it for the greater good, such as Dexter Morgan in the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter and the TV show Dexter. We still root for them, but maybe we’re a little uncomfortable with their methods.
Then there is the gray area of the unscrupulous antihero. They might have good intentions, but mostly they’re concerned with their own desires and interests. Morality isn’t really a factor in the unscrupulous antihero, and that means there isn’t much of a character arc. Think Rambo and Jack Sparrow. Backstory is really important when writing this kind of antihero. The reader will be okay with the mayhem these characters cause if their behavior is rooted in trauma or can be explained in some way.
Those are the three main types of antiheroes. I’ve heard of other types of antiheroes, but I feel like they’re just subcategories to these. There is also the general antihero who is the character who doesn’t have so-called hero qualities but is a hero. Frodo from Lord of the Rings, for example. He doesn’t consider himself to be a hero. He isn’t brave, he isn’t decisive, but then by the end of the book he believes in himself. The detective stories trending on Kindle that I mentioned at the beginning of this episode often have anti-hero protagonists. Who doesn’t love a pushy, nosy, rule-breaking, justice-seeking amateur sleuth?
If you’re looking for some modern antihero characters, I refer you to the author Nicole Banks. She writes strong male and female antiheroes, and her books are a lot of fun.
Try your hand at writing an antihero, and let me know how it goes for you.
From Episode 17: The Future of Publishing
At this year's Pikes Peak Writers Conference, fantasy author Todd Fahnestock explained how he successfully markets his books at conventions. Over his 35-year career, Fahnestock moved away from traditional publishing and toward self-publishing. He says that 88 percent of his book sales are now through cons.
Fahnestock is one of a special breed of writers who can write well and sell well. Here are some of his tips, which might help you at cons, book signings, or anytime you're face-to-face with a reader:
Let’s begin with logistics:
The first thing you need is a good book. Preferably, a few good books. Fahnestock uses a scrapbooker’s cart to transport his gear, which includes pens, sharpies, giveaways, book stands, and so on. Wear something appropriate for the con. You want to make sure you grab people's attention through signage that clearly represents your books and genre. Displaying books upright helps with maximum visibility.
And now, your pitch:
Once you have people standing at your table, you need to be able to talk about your books in an engaging way. That means, put your phone down, stand up, smile, and be genuine. Fahnestock says that selling at cons is a performance, and you have to get people to like you. Prepare a mini-story without spoilers to use when you talk about your books. You can't appear desperate. Don't show that you're nervous. Talk enthusiastically but not too quickly. People have to believe that what you're selling is something they would like. You're not just there to make money; you're also there to create superfans. Superfans spread your name far and wide, even beyond the confines of the con.
His best conversation starters are: Wanna hear about a book? Are you a fantasy reader? and Do you read for fun?
This kind of selling is not for everyone, but if you think you have what it takes, start small and work your way up.
From Episode 18: The Author Who Murdered Her Husband
In publishing, and many other industries, women over 45 are dismissed from any profit margin equation, despite their purchasing power, intellect, and good taste. In publishing, women over 45 are the dominant consumer group. They buy the most books in both fiction and nonfiction. Books with female characters ages 45 and up sell very well.
My tip today is, if possible, age up your characters. Maybe younger characters seem easier because they are like a blank slate; nothing has happened to them so far, so the backstory is minimal. Or maybe you’re writing young characters because that’s what you see other authors do. Who knows?
But I do know that in the International Booker Prize winning novel I told you about earlier, Tomb of Sand, the female protagonist is 80 years old.
If you have a great plot on your hands and you have the talent and creativity to write well, and I think you do, your sales might be even better if you can leverage the experience of an older woman.
From Episode 19: The Best Way to Start Any Story
I will never yell at you, dear author, but if I were to yell anything from the mountaintops of publishing, it would be this: start your book as late into the story as you can.
You’re no fool. You know not to start your book with a dream or with your protagonist running late or getting ready in the morning. Those are amateur mistakes.
But you’re enamored with your characters. You have to love them in order to spend your nonrefundable time writing their story. So you write too much in the beginning. You write things that don’t advance the plot because you think it will be interesting to readers. But it won’t. They don’t know your characters yet. You haven’t made your readers care yet. Get into the action. Show, show, show, and avoid telling as much as possible.
Please, start as late into the story as you can. You can fill in any missing details as needed. This takes some mastery of the writing craft, and I know you can do it if you try.
From Episode 20: Self-Editing Tips for Writers
My tip for you today is to review your second draft with a critical eye, keeping your book’s main message and central focus in mind, and then cut out that which does not serve your goal for the book.
It can be hard to accept that the tangent in the middle of a chapter or a scene might turn readers off to the entire book, but it’s the truth. A good editor can help you identify those parts that are dragging down your manuscript, but doing as much as you can on your own first will save you time and money.
From Episode 21: Two Writing Tips I Cannot Live WIthout
Tip #1: Tell yourself the story backward.
This helps you know what to leave in and what to leave out.
So, how does this work?
Let’s say your friends are coming over to your house. You want to text them to see if they’re on their way, but you can’t find your phone. So, you look for it in the obvious places. You don’t find it, so then you search in more obscure places. You get frantic. Your searching gets messy. You turn things over, searching in places you’ve already searched and in places where it would never be. Finally, you head out to your car, and there it is.
At this point, your friends arrive. They walk into your home and see the mess you’ve made while searching for your phone. Now you’re going to tell them what happened.
Let’s tell it to them backward: “I found my phone in the car. I searched all over the house before I checked the car.”
That’s it. That’s the entire story told backward. It would be boring to say: “I checked my pockets and then the kitchen and then bathroom.”
Now, what is worth adding to a story like this?
Well, you might make your friends laugh if you admitted that you checked behind the refrigerator.
If you have soot on your face, it might help to explain that you checked the inside of the fireplace.
So, when you’re writing, telling a story to yourself backward will help you cut out everything that doesn’t advance the plot. Then, when you turn the story around and write it in chronological order, you can leave out all of the fluff and only add in details that help the story along or help us get to know the character better and in an interesting way. Remember, just because something is descriptive doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your readers.
Tip #2: Read the story aloud.
This is useful at all stages of the revision process.
During the developmental editing stage, reading the text aloud can help you improve your story’s pacing and organization. You’ll be able to find the boring or choppy parts and revise as needed.
During the copy editing stage, reading the story aloud can help you find typos you might have missed. This is especially true if you have the computer read the text to you. It takes longer, but the computer won’t fill in missing words the way your brain might when you’re doing the reading.
Macs, PCs, and Google Docs all have the ability to read text aloud. Check the show notes of this episode for information on how to set this up for your document.
I hope you enjoyed this clip show. Next week we’ll start Season 2, which will take us through the entire writing process for a three-act story. Tune in for that and for the latest publishing news and book trends. We’ll also continue our international bookstore visits.
If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.
Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at email@example.com.