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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.


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!

Image by Chris Miles

None of us is all good or all bad. If your goal is to craft believable characters in your stories, then none of them should be, either.

When dipping into the vast and brilliant reservoir of material on “The Hero’s Journey” and basic archetypes as a storytelling model with which to create your stellar beings, remember to give them more than one Internal Archetype to wrestle with. Layer the archetypal qualities in your characters as a means to develop and understand their unique perspectives and likely choices.

(No Spoilers): For an example, let’s look at the protagonist in the recent film (2010) “The Warriors Way,” (which became a guilty pleasure): The protagonist is both “Warrior” and “Priest,” quite literal expressions of the archetypes in most martial arts films. Tones of the “Artisan” gave the protag sensitivity (poetic, deep emotion) reflected in the stylistic look/shot choices of the film, and in his storyline choices (respect for purity – save the condemned baby – turn his back on a horrible “blood feud” tradition).

Our Hero takes the higher yet more difficult path and gives up everything in order to try to save The Child (Innocence, Potential, Seed, the Future, Continuation, Hope). As as a Warrior Monk, he is self-sacrificing and highly disciplined, and in the highest expression of that archetype, cannot turn a back to Innocence. We delight as his embodiment of the “Warrior” (Action/Courage in service to some kind of authority, be it King or Clan or an inner sense of morality), moves him forward on his chosen path (character goal/plot line).

The use of the archetypes Priest, Warrior and Artisan for creating the protagonist’s skeleton and flesh, if you will, gives us a character with depth whose choices we subconsciously accept as making sense for who he is in that story. But a key component to this character really working comes from the Artisan, because that element created a character capable of inspiring compassion in us for someone we care about and relate to on some level, no matter how tenuous. The Artisan makes him vulnerable, human and accessible to us after an intense embodiment and expression of the Warrior/Priest, who is not very emotionally approachable. (Imagine a warm conversation with Ripley from the Alien movies). Most people can relate on some level to the messy Artisan who takes leaps based on intuitive hunches and indefinable reasons, the Divine Fool, impossible to control or predict but willing to open their hearts. We relate because we all either embody the willingness to leap ourselves – or we long for the faith and confidence it takes to do so.

I know that some storytellers have intentionally created unsympathetic characters, and I can understand that choice when it comes to purely artistic exploration, or when writing something based on actual events, but personally, the stories I enjoy the most are the ones where I have the means to root for the bad guys on some level, or feel sympathy when they lose, or at least get a sense of understanding why they’re crazy or mean. And I like to see the good guys hesitate with self-doubt during critical moments. Even the good guys have cracks in their armor, and I want to see them because it makes me root for their moments of courage all the more.

Bottom line: Please, don’t create flat characters by modeling them after one archetype. Audiences want flat characters to go away and don’t care how as long as it’s soon. When a fiction writer creates characters that nobody cares about, they’ve got a story nobody wants to hear.

By layering multiple archetypes, you have the potential to create a character capable of inspiring enough mystery and depth to convince us that we will never fully know that character, just as we are limited in our complete understanding and knowledge of each other. This is just one foundational approach for the proper use of multiple archetypes for creating characters whom we want more of once the story is over, characters who arouse our sense of curiosity. There should always be the sense that there is much more to be explored in your major characters long after “The End” and/or “Fade Out” appears.

Too often, we see movies or read manuscript and screenplay material wherein the characters are transparent in how they’ve been modeled after one archetype rather than revealing a deeper understanding and use of this storytelling model by layering multiple archetypes within each character. You can apply a simple, 2-or-3 archetype layering approach right down to the third spear carrier on the left, if you want. When you know each character at least on an Archetypal model level your spontaneous creative choices when blocking out scenes and writing your narrative and dialogue will all be truer to the characters and therefore more believable and emotionally powerful.

**7 Basic Archetypes

I primarily use the following seven archetypes for delineating fundamental characterization, as I find that most other archetypes are subtle variations that exist within each of these basic seven themes, depending on how the inherent energies are expressed:

King: Commander, guiding/providing for/affecting many others, yet seeking/needing to learn self-mastery (leaders, business owners, politicians, military commanders, role models)

Warrior: Action oriented, the “doers” of the world devoted to serving/upholding existing systems and/or powers (business people, soldiers, institutional workers, police, martial artists)

Artisan/Craftsman: Acutely aware of and affected by harmony in spatial and human relationships, and seeking to creatively express their observations (actors, builders, entertainers, designers, architects, photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers)

Sage/Counselor: Agents of reflection, communication and change (writers, visionaries, entertainers, comics, musicians, filmmakers, spin doctors, artists, mentors, all trail-blazers)

Server/Healer: Compassionately aware of and seeking to tend to the needs of others (nurses, doctors, all healing arts, educators, social workers, therapists, religious workers)

Priest/Priestess: Primarily concerned with the spiritual welfare of others (all religious and spiritual fields, especially those who are actively guiding/teaching others)

Scholar/Scientist: Wants knowledge above all else; life-long careers of study and gathering information (workers in research oriented fields of science and other fields of specialized expertise and understanding)

Of course, the understanding of archetypes in human consciousness and in our storytelling is abundantly available through many authors better than I, and is a specialized field of understanding unto itself. You can delve as deep as you like through reading the works of Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to name just a few.

Everybody has a sad story, with the scars to prove it, so I also decide what sort of scar/s each of my characters carries, and how they acquired them. (Gotta love back-story). From deciding where each character is at with dealing (or not) with those scars when my story opens, I can determine the state of the character’s Inner Child (another archetype), which comes into play with the character’s sense of confidence, spontaneity and rebelliousness – and that affects how they experience and interact with their entire world.

Armed with this basic information, a writer can move forward secure in the faith that both the character/s and the story will fight them relentlessly (a good thing in this case) if they move their characters away from the natural choices and reactions those characters would normally have, given what the writer knows about them. This is just one way to develop a deeper connection to and keener intuitive understanding of your characters, which thereby allows you to keep them sharply in focus throughout their mis/adventures. In this manner, no matter what you throw at them or how quirky their choices might seem, your characters will sound like real, multi-faceted people and will stay true to the qualities you want them to embody.

**Archetypes taken from the Michael Teachings, as the information has been written and shared through multiple authors and channels, i.e, “The Michael Teachings” by Jose Stevens.

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.

You finally finished writing your book. Now what?

In spite of all the hard hours put into it, and the sacrifices made, coming to the end of your manuscript is, for all writers, only the first step toward seeing your work published. Now that you’ve got your manuscript in hand, what do you do?

Most writers pass their manuscripts on to a “trusted reader” or readers. This would be anyone you know who you feel is qualified to give you sincere and honest feedback on your work, and who is willing to commit the time for this. If you are fortunate enough to have this as a resource, make sure you stress your desire for an honest opinion: it will do you no good as a writer if you’re out for nothing but empty praise.

If no friend or loved one qualifies, you might be able to find a reader through mutual support groups with other writers. These can be found through your local writer’s organizations, of which there are several in most major U.S. Cities.

Once you address any glaring issues pointed out to you by reader feedback, you’re ready for a professional edit. So – how do you find one where you live? How do you determine compatibility? How do you know what to expect, both in terms of fees, time and the actual work done?

Here are a few tips for finding your perfect editor:

  • Ask your local writer’s group

Many freelance editors belong to local writing organizations. Finding an editor this way allows you to easily check their reputations, as well as their qualifications.

  • Online search for local help.  Many freelancers have websites. Usually, they will list what they’ve edited in the past or testimonials, any genres that they specialize in, and their rates. (Expect to pay between $4 – $6 per page for line editing cleaned-up manuscripts). Using someone local is reassuring to most writers, although not necessary. Local help gives you the opportunity to assess your comfort level when turning your project over to the hands of someone else. And you can meet in person to discuss any questions or issues your editor finds.
  • Determine your budget.  Many professional editors will work with you to help you achieve your final goal of a manuscript ready to shop. We understand how dear your project is to you, not only in terms of the hours already invested and the hours of promotion ahead, but also with the costs for hiring professional help to bring your manuscript up to a competitive level. Determine how much you can spend each month, and if necessary, ask the editor if they can work within your budget on your project. It might take longer, but you can accomplish the desired goal chapter by chapter, if necessary.
  • How well does your editor write? It’s not unreasonable to ask your editor for samples of their own writing. You want the best possible judgment applied to your own project, and this is a sure-fire way to determine the skill level of your editor.
  • Remain open to initial feedback. I always ask for a sample, the first 20-pages, when first meeting with a new writing client. This allows me to determine whether or not the project is ready for professional editing. Believe it or not, I’ve turned many writers away. This does not mean that the writers in question are not capable of being good, even great, writers. It just means that they either don’t have a cohesive project in hand, their voices are undeveloped, or that they don’t yet possess the skills required to produce a draft that can compete in a highly competitive arena. If this happens to you, do not be discouraged and certainly, don’t stop writing! Keep at it, and save your money for a future edit that will result in a truly viable manuscript. No one wants to waste your time or money, so listen to whatever input your editor gives you, and don’t take it as a judgment of your talent. We see a lot of manuscripts.
  • Get it in writing.  Any editor worth their fee will insist on a contract before commencing work. Remember, you are absolutely within reason to discuss and amend any clauses that make you uncomfortable. A contract is standard, and ensures that both parties are clear on the level of editing work that will be done, deadlines, payment fees and schedules, and editing credits. If your manuscript is topical, i.e., hot in the news, you should ask for a non-disclosure statement, as well. Most editors won’t have a problem supplying you with one. As a rule, a professional editor won’t discuss your work with anyone other than yourself, but if you have any qualms, and it isn’t offered with your contract, feel free to ask for one.

A last word of caution is given for dealing with online companies that offer a flat, standard fee for editing manuscripts: check for complaints. Some people will accept any manuscript, without thought to the readiness or marketability of either the manuscript or the client. These are the folks who charge standard rates without first reviewing the manuscripts in question. They often sink the hook by charging much less than someone else for the equivalent hours of work. Unfortunately, in these cases, you usually get what you pay for, which is a manuscript not much evolved from the original. My advice is that you don’t waste your money on such superficial services. The exception might be with an already solid draft of non-fiction material needing nothing more than corrections in punctuation, table of contents, glossaries and/or final proofreading.

I have a few writers whom I’ve worked with for years now, in multiple genres and on a wide variety of stories. It is definitely worth your time to shop around until you find an editor with whom you feel comfortable, who is honest as well as nurturing to your talents, and who you can develop an ongoing relationship with for all your future writing endeavors.

And remember: even the greatest writers need an editor.

Break a pen!

December 2019
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