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I decided to create an addendum to this article, originally posted in 2010, due to insights that I wanted to add. I understand from feedback that this checklist has been quite helpful to my readers. I hope the additional comments will make it more so.

As writers, we all need to start somewhere. Ask anyone who writes for a living, and they’ll tell you: they’re a better writer today than they were a year ago. The simple fact is, do anything long enough, and your skills improve. The same goes for writing.

I’ve worked as a fiction editor and story analyst since 1996, and have judged adult fiction in writing competitions. Many of my writing clients have been first time writers. In analyzing their manuscripts, I’ve noticed some recurring writing tendencies, what I call “habits of prose,” that severely limit the content – sometimes rendering the manuscript unmarketable.

If you have your first fiction manuscript in hand, try checking your work against the list below of the most common writing omissions and errors made by first time writers:

Proper Formatting

Don’t let something so simple and basic hurt your chances of being well-received by anyone who holds your manuscript. Standard formatting is so easy: Times New Roman or Courier font in a 12pt typeface. 1″ margins on top/bottom and sides. A SMALL header containing your: last name/book title followed by 5 spaces and the page number, all on one line in the upper right hand corner of each page. The header makes it easier for any reader to track where they are in your manuscript and what/who they’re reading throughout. For a busy professional, this ease of management can make the difference between being read or rejected, so don’t let your hard work be demolished by a lack of attention to expected details out in the real world of publishing. Also, use hard page breaks to eliminate hanging windows, phrases or sentences that run from one page to another. Having a little extra space at the bottom of a page is okay if it means keeping a thought coherent. If you are using Chapter Headings, make sure to put a hard page break at the end of each chapter. A new chapter should start on a new page. There are other small tricks to formatting that are more about personal choice of the author, such as extra spaces between paragraphs to indicate a time or scene change, but you don’t need to get into that until your final line edit, although seeing this device properly used beforehand is always a joy. Just make sure that your manuscript is formatted to allow for the greatest ease of reading, tracking and managing before you submit it to anyone, even casual readers, so you don’t burn bridges.

Characters/Back-Story

You may think you don’t need to go through this common writer’s exercise, but the fact is, the better you know your characters, the easier it will be for you to know what he/she will do in any given situation, and the clearer your character will be on the page, even if, and especially if, you don’t use all the back story you create. Knowing what shaped your character into who they are when your story opens is a key exercise for inhabiting your story with memorable characters. And, unfortunately, when a writer omits this step, sooner or later in the story, it shows.

Engage the Reader’s Senses

Many beginning writers fail to utilize taste, smell, touch and hearing in their storytelling. I once read a thriller by a first time writer, which took place in India. The entire time I felt as though the story was taking place in some gray zone. Here I was in India, and it felt like the clouds! Ground your reality with the things we all pick up on in our environments everyday. Use weather, smells, sounds, how something feels in one’s hand…to bring realism and place to your story. After all, if your story takes place in an exotic locale, it’s your job to take the reader along!

Give Every Character an Arc

Although some of us never learn, it’s irritating to a reader when your characters don’t. Nobody wants to read about a character who goes through some great adventure only to have them end up no different than they started once the smoke clears. Even minor characters should be shaped by the events you put them through.

Clear Definition between Characters in Dialogue

Again, this is a benefit of doing back story on each character. Many new writers end up creating characters that all talk the same way, even when they come from supposedly diverse backgrounds. You don’t expect a southern belle to express herself the same way as a mercenary soldier, and you don’t want your characters all sounding like you! Back story helps you know your characters so well that they cannot express themselves the same way. If you’re still stuck, try creating a simple scenario and situation, put each of your characters in that, and write how each one feels about it and expresses what happened.

Organic Flow of Time and Scenes

When you watch a good movie or read a good book, there is an element working that you may not be consciously aware of, and that is the logical and organic flow of one scene to the next, of one element of your story leading logically into the next element. The flow of information should always be a conscious and deliberate choice of the author. This gives the reader/viewer a sense of time within which the story unfolds. Many new writers struggle with a cohesive alignment within their story and I believe it comes from a reluctance to eliminate scenes that do not serve the whole story during the self-editing process. There is a wonderful literary quote, with conflicting sources cited if you look it up online, but it’s a quote all writers should live by: “For good writing, you must be willing to kill your darlings.”  As writers, we all get caught up in the excitement of our ideas, scribbling them down as fast as possible on any surface available. But the thing is, even some of our most brilliant ideas will not serve a story as a whole, and we must be willing to sacrifice those brilliant little darlings on the altar of good storytelling. It’s probably one of the hardest lessons in developing your craft, and one of the most difficult disciplines to enforce on your writing, but it must be done if your goal is to create a quality product.

Your challenge is to look at each scene to determine the flow of your story and to be ruthless with yourself when a scene you’ve written (that you just LOVE) really does not work, does not serve or stands out awkwardly from the rest. Cut them out and paste them in a separate document so you can refer back to them if you must, but cut, cut, cut. It’s your best friend. And use formatting tricks for indicating big time leaps or POV changes.

Clear Sense of Place

In a way, this vital element of good fiction relates to the item cited above, using the senses. Every story unfolds somewhere. We are sensory beings who experience our environments through our physical being. Ensuring that your readers experience the environment of your story is just as important as ensuring they experience your plot or premise.  So many new writers dash about from scene to scene without grounding the reader firmly in each place. My intuitive response to this common omission is, if it’s not important to ground me where the action is, maybe the action isn’t so important.

Most of us spend years working on a story. We can get so close to it, know it so well, that we often forget to include important information for those who know nothing of our story. It is a fine line, deciding what you can allow a reader to “fill in” and what must be presented as a full painting. Make sure to review your scenes with this sense of grounding in a solid “place,” whether your story unfolds on a wildly-advanced, organically intelligent, interstellar space ship – or a quaint  and sunny sidewalk cafe on the ancient island of Malta. Creating vague locations well get you a “no-pass” from publishers and readers alike.

Defining Your Premise

Why are you telling this story? What do you want a reader to walk away with after reading it? Is there an understanding or basic underlying philosophy to your story? Maybe you’re writing about courage in the face of great adversity (a common element for any drama). Maybe you feel that doing “the right thing” pays off in the end, no matter how it looks, and this is your underlying message. Maybe your story is more literary, full of angst and condemnation of the human race or western culture. Many great writers have taken on that challenge, framing the human dilemma within one character and using his environment as metaphor to deliver a subtle or not so subtle message about ourselves.

The thing is, most new writers don’t think of their story in this manner, from such a remote overview. If you had to boil down the message of your story into one line, what would that be? It’s actually quite helpful to gain clarity on your premise before you start writing. You can tape it to your computer as an anchor that keeps you from wandering too far. Knowing your premise is like having a glue that will keep all elements of your story relevant and connected to each other. Knowing your premise can help you eliminate ideas that have the power to pull you from your narrative path, wasting time and brain power on ideas that don’t quite fit.

There is a wonderful book I have on my reference shelf titled “A Story is a Promise,” written by Bill Johnson, manager of Willamette Writers, (the largest and oldest writer’s group in the U.S.), teacher, author and friend. If you feel at all fuzzy about the concept of a premise or its importance, I highly recommend this book. Heck, I recommend it to all storytellers, no matter your level of craft.

Sending Queries before a Book Proposal is Complete

Ah, the dreaded Book Proposal. Unless you plan on self-publishing, a book proposal is a marketing tool that your agent needs to shop your manuscript to a publisher. You must have this ready to send out along with any other sections of your manuscript that an agent wants you to send. There are plenty of books and information on how to create a book proposal, so I won’t go into that herein. However, I will share the cautionary tale of one writing client of mine who lost representation by a well known and very busy agent, because he was scrambling to assemble his proposal. He wasn’t prepared to respond immediately to her interest from his query, and she wasn’t interested in representing an unprofessional writer.

* * * *

It’s an unfortunate fact that, even if you’ve never been published, all agents expect professional level manuscripts and materials from any writer they represent. This means your work must compete against an enormous and never-ending slush pile of submissions. The good news is, if your writing is any good at all, you stand a chance of “getting the ink.”

So check your manuscript to see if your story has all the necessary elements required to transport the reader into your world, whatever world that is. Make sure you get a professional editing job done on your manuscript before submitting it anywhere. And compile a book proposal to have ready to send out to any positive responses you receive to your queries. Once an agent is contacted, and disappointed, it’s extremely rare that they will be bothered with you again, so make sure your materials represent your best abilities right out of the gate.

Break a pen!

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From the movie: Winter's Bone

Pamela Gray (credits as long as your arm with “twenty good scripts gathering dust in my garage,”) was honest and hilarious about writing stories told from a woman’s point of view, as well as seeing them through production. A bit of horror from the trenches launched the room into bursts of laughter over the difficulty in getting a female orgasm shown on the screen – if she’s over 40. Doesn’t matter if that’s the spine. But you had to be there. She shared keen insights on female mythology differing a bit within the classic Hero’s Journey.

Elizabeth Hunter (as in Director of Development for Universal-Apollo 13-Clockers-Crooklyn-Twelve MonkeysJumping The Broom and so very much more) was an elegant foil, with a lot on structure, plus lifting the skirt on writing and producing stories from the ethnic woman’s point of view.

Wish you were there for this powerful duo. Really. Hunter and Gray could take it on the road.

Pamela Gray

  •  The good news is, in 2008, four women were nominated for an Oscar for their original screenplays. That was big news for women. And it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. As often as possible.
  •  Forget all the reasons not to, and write female characters that the best actresses will want to play. (Jim Uhls also advised creating actor-attracting characters as a means to break into Hollywood. We see a pattern, here).

Elizabeth Hunter

  •  Everything starts with structure and story. If you don’t nail that, you’ll be called on it.
  • What stories should you tell? Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself over and over. Those are probably the stories you should tell. Just write the stories that you want to “tell to the world.” Movies told from a female perspectives are all “a story about a woman who…”

Conversation between Hunter & Gray

  • Unfortunate fact, but make sure your female protag, no matter what she’s dealing with or initiating, has a core that’s likable, as in a bad woman but a good mom. Both said if you don’t, you’ll get lots of notes to make your tortured fem “redeemable” and that as within a narrow confine of what execs might see as acceptable. (I guess that’s why, if she’s bad, she better be a hottie – if you want your film to be made).
  • TELEPLAY WRITERS: Take note. Television is friendlier towards a wider variety of interesting, female-driven stories than Hollywood is for film. (Note: If you’ve only written screenplays, you might want to do some reading on the 7-act structures required for accommodating the ad placements in network television. Grittier material would gravitate toward the cable market, without ads, so same 3-act structure as film applies for cable without ads).
  • Both panelists said they often return to reading favorite classic and contemporary feminine-perspective stories as those written by: Georgia Elliot, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin and Toni Morrison. (This is just what I wrote down, and does not reflect the full scope of all they cited as favorite authors).
  •  Structure holds everything together. Both panelists recommended “Writing Screenplays that Sell,” by Hal Ackerman, with Gray swearing by Ackerman’s Scene-o-gram for ensuring structure.

Pamela Gray

For those familiar with the archetypes in storytelling, understand that the Female Protagonist’s classic Hero’s Journey is a bit different than it is when using the same story arc for a male protagonist.

  •  In many aspects, the world itself is more repressing for a woman than it is for a man, so environment is often at least one of the female protag’s Antagonists or Threshold Guardians.
  • In the Call to Adventure, the female protag often says no to “the call” more than once before she finally succumbs and goes on her Journey. Her extra hesitation reads natural. The female protag is often more heavily invested in community and family than the male protag, so she has more at stake in leaving all that behind to pursue her Adventure.
  • The Mentor or Ally is different for women. Often more intimate and unexpected. It can be a friend who, without a clue, chirps in with bulls-eye honest insights. And who is capable of delivering the Betrayal 2nd Act Reversal from the Ally and/or Mentor, which occurs in both the classic Hero’s Journey story arc and in most good screenplay structure. (For the male protag, an example of that moment of betrayal/reversal might be “Obi Wan Kanobi dies without giving Luke the further training and help that he feels he desperately needs).
  • Threshold Guardian (can be antagonist): In a woman’s story, this can also come from intimate sources. It can often be her spouse who challenges her level of commitment (think Norma Rae). You rarely if ever find the spouse playing this role in the male Hero’s Journey.
  • Returning with The Prize and Sharing that with Community. This is the returning home conclusion in the Hero’s Journey story arc. A return home to share what she has learned and won is a very natural action for the Heroine’s Journey protagonist to take. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion.

The panel included an excited announcement about Hunter and Gray ganging up to offer a one-hour long series online entitled: Pitching: Making it Happen. Time on that TBD.

We wait with baited breath, and will share as soon as we know. Until then, may your female protagonists continue to push the envelope on what we expect from a buncha women.


 

 

This panel degenerated into a steaming plate of Hollywood arrogance, but I did manage to wrestle a few gems of wisdom, especially those from Lawrence Kasdan, who kept nudging things back on topic.

 

Below are highlights on advice offered:

 

  •  Use what you know to write what you want. In other words, what you know can bring the stories you want to tell alive with the details of experience. This is good advice for all writers.
  • Hate your day job. This interesting POV from Kasdan was based on how he, like myself, started a writing career in advertising. He hated it (more than I did, apparently. But I’ve had worse jobs), and feels that if you can adapt to and tolerate your day job, it won’t give you the impetus you need to keep writing and trying to break into film. Interesting thought…
  • Define what’s important in your story, and defend that at all costs. Like much of the conversation by this panel, this was off-topic, and does not come into play until you’ve sold a screenplay, but it’s a good point that applies to much more than storytelling. We all have to compromise in life and in work. Defining what you’re not willing to compromise on is a strong foundation on which to stand. The rest, as we all know, is negotiable.
  • Stay relaxed in meetings, and don’t say “no” to notes. Again, not about breaking in but applies once you do. All writers get “notes” from executives on their story once their script is sold. The idea is that you never give a flat-out “no” when getting this feedback, but rather, you should stay relaxed, remember how terrified studio people are about betting on any project and the power the writer really has in the process (I heard of this prevailing fear in several panels), and try to figure out the spirit of the feedback received rather than the exact letter of it. One helpful hint was to make changes that YOU feel addresses the issue/s raised, and present those by prefacing with: “Inspired by your notes, I….” (which I think is rather brilliant).
  • Start your 2nd screenplay before marketing your 1st. Tapping into the excitement and inspiration inherent in a new project can help a writer deal with the ensuing “nos” they’re bound to get when starting out. One writer quipped: “You’ve got to be like the T-1000 in Terminator II, so no matter what happens, you morph back into your original shape.” Cute.
  • D.I.Y. Tremendous revolution in Independent film-making. A writer doesn’t have to go through the jaded Hollywood system anymore. They can shoot it themselves or collaborate with others who want to make films. (Good advice for the highly energetic. But be prepared for the real work this means).
  • Balance your writer’s solitude with community. Self explanatory, right? Otherwise, I think one turns into a sort of troll.
  • Write even when you’re afraid to write. The act alone will lead eventually to a momentary lapse of the fear.     Another gem from Kasdan.

Offering but a smidgeon of interesting tips over the course of a long hour, I did regret the time spent here because there were so many interesting panels I wanted to attend. Yes, consider the WGA a competent and required legal resource for protecting your intellectual property, but if my experience was the norm, don’t expect much from them at conferences.


When your manuscript is complete, and your book proposal is at least in your first draft stage, you are ready to seek representation with query letters to agents. It’s a strange fact that, although many writers may be masterful in their prose, when writing a query letter, they face the blank page with trepidation. After all, it’s one thing to devise interesting characters and make them move through the world you’ve created, and to surrender to your own creative process, but it’s altogether different trying to speak of yourself and your work with clarity, brevity and in such a compelling manner that an agent immediately picks up their phone to call you. Yet this is exactly what you must do if you want to stand out from the slush pile. Your query letter is your first point of contact and should reflect your uniqueness and your craft, as well as respect for the reader’s time.

My background as a writer includes over a decade of working as a copywriter in ad agencies. The training a writer gets in this sort of milieu is to convey ideas quickly – and in a memorable way. The same approach is effective for writing query letters. Below are a few tips to help you craft the most effective queries:

  1. Start Out with a BangThis is where you grab your reader by the shirt – and don’t let go. What is the most compelling, quirky or inspirational aspect of your story? Define that idea into a sentence or two and open your query with it. Agents have to wade through hundreds of queries a week; you have only a few seconds to make them read all the way through. Don’t waste that. In addition, defining your story in such a clear, concise way will serve you down the road when you pitch your story to anyone who might be of help to your writing career. This could include filmmakers, who are used to such pitches, and refer to these as “log lines.”
  2. Why You?Let the reader know why you are the person to tell your story. We all find inspiration and are motivated by events in our lives. Use this to give the reader a sense of your unique insights or qualifications.
  3. Other Book ProjectsLike all of us, agents are limited in the time and energy they can devote to their clients. They must choose them carefully. For this reason, they are more inclined to work with writers who have several books in them. Mention yours here. They may not be drawn to your current project, but if you’ve crafted your letter well and they are still reading, here is your chance to pitch any other project you have completed or are working on. This serves the dual purpose of showing them your ongoing devotion to your craft, as well as pitching alternative projects. Remember: only a line or two.
  4. Why this Agent or Agency?Show the reader you’ve done your research. Mention any authors you share in common, especially if you have any personal connection. Mention books they’ve published recently (that have done well), that you can cite as reasons for wanting this particular agent.
  5. Writing Awards or RecognitionsEnd with these, as though they are an afterthought. Humility goes a long way.
  6. Ask Them to Contact YouIn advertising this is called a “call to action” – and yields a significantly higher response than ads run without it. You’ve gotten this far, so don’t be shy. Thank them for their time, and tell them you would be thrilled to talk to them further – and to call anytime.

Once you’ve completed this, edit your query for brevity. It’s critical that your query delivers the necessary information quickly and in an engaging manner, so don’t run on too long with any of your points.

Taking the time to compose solid, professional queries is well worth the effort, and doesn’t take nearly as long as it took you to complete your manuscript. Put your best verse forward, let your personality shine through and you’ll be rewarded with enthusiastic responses. Of course, there are myriad reasons why you might receive some standard “thanks but no thanks” responses, and this does not necessarily reflect on your work or your query. But if you compose your query letters in the manner described above, your chances of finding the right agent will be greatly enhanced.


Have you been told that you should have an account on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Flicker or other social networking sites in order to promote yourself or what you do? Do you find yourself overwhelmed at the prospect of creating your “platform” (or presence) on the ever-evolving web?

The fact is, most people who are freelancers (self-employed) rely ever more on a solid web presence for generating awareness of who they are – and what services or products they offer. It’s one of our most important tools for reaching a world wide audience.

But if you are over a certain age (meaning you did not grow up with a computer in one hand and a rattle in the other), or you don’t have a “staff” to help you, attending to all these options may feel overwhelming – to say nothing of intimidating. So where in the world wide web do you start?

To Blog or Not to Blog

Most of us start with a blog (like this one). You can get them for free on many host sites, or at low cost. Most come equipped with design templates and simple instructions for customization and uploading your material. Open one here on wordpress for free, or use your favorite search engine to find other both free and paying blog hosts.

Now that you have a site, you need to define your voice and purpose, and from that, you’ll be able to determine your content. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the primary focus of my blog?
  • What do I want from it?
  • What kind of content can make my blog stand out?
  • What similar sites can I link to?

Once you define these, you can get the ball rolling by creating your content, and by linking your site to other appropriate sites that reinforce your objectives.

Content

There are a few rules about the effective use of a blog. Content is king, so start making a list of the topics you would like to discuss and share. Stockpile these whenever you have a chance. Try to keep a schedule for posting, i.e., write several articles and schedule uploading them at regular intervals, this will help keep you at the top of the search engines. Your articles, or postings, can be brief, in fact, it’s better if they are. Everyone wants information fast online.

Linking to Others

Use technorati to search for other blogs of similar topic as your own. Check them out, see how they’ve set up their pages and content. Here’s the important part: start reading and leaving comments on these sites, but only when you have something relevant to add to the topic. Relevancy is extremely important. This is how you begin developing a relationship with other bloggers. Once you’ve done this, it’s more appropriate to invite them over to your blog site to comment on your posts.

But let’s say you already have a blog, maybe even several. Now what? What other sites and applications do you utilize? How do you make it all make sense – and make it work together? Yes, Virginia, this IS where it starts to get complicated. But don’t despair…

In 2004, a dear friend of mine, and past collaborator, Kyra Reed, moved to Los Angeles from Portland (where we had worked together on a documentary film project). She was managing indie rock bands at the time. Being both sharp and devoted, she set about learning what bells and whistles she could create to help her musicians succeed – to get their music heard by as many people as possible – and by the people who could help their careers. She was successful. Eventually, she used what she learned about social networking to do the same for the famous Roxy Theater, one of the original rock and roll clubs on Sunset Strip in LA., and now they’re leading an exciting revitalization of the Sunset Strip club scene.

Today, Kyra is the co-founding partner of Markyr Media, a social networking consulting company. She travels to conferences all over the country to share how other artists can utilize social networking to promote themselves and their art. She’s also the author of a very helpful book, appropriately entitled: Blog 101. And she’ll be in my current home town of Austin, Texas come March, speaking on the same on a few panels at the SXSW 2010 Interactive Conference.

Blog 101 is beautifully laid out as an ebook, full of helpful links and clear explanations – plus it’s easy to assimilate and use. I highly recommend Kyra’s book as a resource to anyone new to blogging, or to anyone who wants a guide to the most effective strategies when using social networking channels.

But this all sounds so dry….

As a writer, when I feel pulled in too many directions, I remind myself of my “premise” – the point I’m trying to make. When overwhelmed with the intricacies of social networking, I pull myself back to something Kyra said to me in the very beginning of her explorations of what she’s since written a book about: It’s all about creating community. Just like the community you create of friends, neighbors and coworkers in your own home town, each contribution you make to your online community eventually builds into a “reputation.” And this takes time.

So step back, do what you can and let it build. Work with it a little each day. Schedule time for it. And buy Kyra’s book, or some other guide (I’m sure they’re out there) to lead you through the process of tapping in to all the networking tools available on the internet that can help you achieve your professional or artistic goals. A guide can really save you lots of time, and you can focus more on the expertise or the voice you are here to promote and share.

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