Archive for the 'Writing Articles' Category

Jul 13 2011

List of Instant Rejections

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Here’s a list of submission mistakes that may be instantly fatal to your query or submission letter.

1.  You’ve submitted something in a genre or medium the publisher doesn’t handle.  If you submitted a novel without a major romantic component to Harlequin or a comic book to a novel publisher, you’re dead on arrival.

2.  You’ve submitted a story that isn’t yours.  For example, if your story bears a startling resemblance to something that’s already been published, is fan-fiction, and/or is fan-fiction with the names changed, you’re probably dead on arrival.  Note: Most publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions for preexisting series or licensed works.  When DC Comics needs a writer for Batman or Dark Horse needs somebody for Star Wars, they’ll call authors that have already published notable works.

3.  Your submission was missing something listed in the submission guidelines.  For example, if the publisher asked for illustrated comic book pages but you forgot to include them, you’re dead on arrival.

4.  You submitted a query for an incomplete novel but are an unpublished author.  Finish the novel and try again.  I have not yet encountered a publisher interested in novel submissions from unpublished authors because nobody knows how long it will take the author to finish the novel or even whether the author is capable of finishing the novel.  The publisher can wait.

4.1. You tried submitting an “idea” or a “concept.”  Sorry, but novel publishers only consider completed novels from unpublished authors*.  On the other hand, some comic book publishers will consider partially-completed series (but usually want to see at least one issue scripted).  If you’ve been professionally published, you might be able to query a proposal for a book you haven’t started yet, but even then you’d have to finish it yourself.

*Unless you’re a major celebrity, like a film star or head of state.  In that case, a publisher might be willing to ghostwrite a book for you.

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7 responses so far

Jul 10 2011

22 Ways Fiction is Usually Different than Reality

Published by under Realism,Romance

Two psychologists independently argue that romance novels are unrealistic and set their readers up for unhealthy relationships. Take Twilight, for instance.   Bella falls for Edward because he’s preposterously good-looking (as she reminds us incessantly), tough (abusively so) and more exciting/unpredictable than the nice guys she knows.  If Bella were your friend in real life, you’d probably beg her to stay away from this unhealthy relationship even if Edward weren’t 50+ years older.  Do you think she’ll have the guts to walk away when Edward starts (keeps) abusing her? Hell no–she wasn’t even tough enough to walk away when he told her to.


I think that fiction authors of every sort frequently bend reality to make their stories more entertaining.  Here are some other common examples.


1.  Fictional dialogue is generally wittier and more concise than in real life.  Most real-life conversations have a lot of idle chatter, but there’s less time to waste in a novel (usually ~80-90,000 words) or comic book (~22 pages).


2.  Across the board, when a character lies, somebody will almost always find out.  A perfectly-maintained lie is not as dramatic as dealing with the consequences of being found out.


3.  By the end of the story, the main character will almost always know everything important.  It’s very rare for, say, a detective to fail to solve the case even though it happens quite often in real life.  (Half of U.S. murders go unsolved).


4.  The story tends to revolve around the main characters and everybody else gets sidelined.  For example, Harry Potter goes off on adventures and saves the world because nobody actually running Hogwarts seems to have any idea about the nefarious plots unfolding there each year.  (Don’t even get me started on the Ministry of Magic).  In contrast, I really liked how the TV show Dexter handled this–Dexter is a serial killer with a day job as a police lab tech.  Instead of passively benefiting from incompetent authorities, his coworkers are competent enough to pose an obstacle, so he sabotages them to keep himself safe. For example, he frequently delays investigations by planting evidence to implicate plausible suspects.

4.1.  Authority figures are useless, unless they’re the main characters.  It wouldn’t be a very satisfying horror story if the victims could just call the police, right?  So authority figures (like the police in any kind of story, parents and teachers in young adult fiction, the army in alien invasion stories, etc) will almost always be useless, antagonistic or unreachable.  Outside of a police story, when was the last time the police actually solved a case on their own?


5.  Cellphones fail surprisingly often, especially when it would short-circuit the plot.  Count on the batteries to run out, the phone to get misplaced or stolen or damaged, the reception to fail, and/or something exotic like electronic jamming or magical interference.  Alternately, perhaps the character never had a cellphone for financial or criminal reasons or the character has a working phone but does not call the police because he/she would also be implicated in illegal activity.


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16 responses so far

Jul 05 2011

How to Introduce Major Characters

1.  If at all possible, give the new character something interesting to do that ties into a plot element that has been major.  For example, maybe the new character has some obvious connection to a major goal or obstacle for the main character.  For example, maybe a wizard or superhero can only graduate from her academy if she passes telepathy, but there’s only one telepathic teacher’s assistant and he has a reputation for singing about himself in the third person while scrawling lewd graffiti in the cafeteria.  (Sigh, telepaths).  The more you connect the new characters to things we already care about, the easier it will be for us to care about them.


2.  Please use only interesting visuals that help develop the character.  Red flag: The story spends more time on the colors of the character’s eyes, hair, skin and sometimes clothes than on visual details that would help develop interesting and/or important information about the character and/or his role in the plot.


  • UNACCEPTABLE: “Damon the necromancer was wearing black robes that clashed with his smoky blue eyes.”
  • BETTER:  “Good God, Damon, is that rabbit’s blood on you?  You’re soaked in it!”  Damon sipped his coffee.  “It was him or me, ma’am.”

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92 responses so far

Jul 05 2011

Which love interests have been most effective/memorable? Discuss!

Feel free to discuss anything related to love interests.  For example, which love interests have you found most interesting?  What do you think distinguishes interesting love interests from forgettable ones?  If you’re familiar with a few superhero stories, how do you think their romantic love interests stack up against love interests in other types of stories? 

26 responses so far

Jul 03 2011

How to Make Interesting Headquarters and Bases for Superheroes and Villains

1.  Please make the base distinct to your superheroes or supervillains. For example, you can put in unusual touches that help develop the character(s) or team.  For example, one of the secret doors into the Batcave is opened by setting a clock to the minute when Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.  Superman’s Fortress of Solitude incorporates the hero’s dead parents in a much different way (he keeps his family recordings and other mementos of Krypton there).

2.  Please use the architecture and scenery to set the tone. It’s hard to get grittier and more bleak than a cave built into an almost-unpopulated Gothic mansion.  In contrast, the Fortress of Solitude is much brighter and generally looks more hopeful and futuristic.

3.  I’d generally recommend a headquarters appropriate to the circumstances and needs of the owner. For example, if your team will be arrested on sight, it’d make more sense to do a low-key safehouse or something else discreet rather than a downtown skyscraper.

4.  It might be interesting to describe how the characters came by this particular facility, particularly if they’re not very wealthy. You can use it to establish traits of the characters.  For example, in The Taxman Must Die, one of the supervillains is undercover as a crime scene investigator for a police superagency.  He needs a base he can easily sneak off to without arousing much attention.  Buying a building would leave a paper-trail (paper-trail + taxman = location for airstrike).  This police agency maintains life-size models of several critical buildings on its training grounds.  (Like the Secret Service and FBI do in real life).  So, for example, agents will do a lot of counterterrorist training at models of the White House, the Capitol Building and the Sears Tower in case terrorists ever do attack these buildings.  The only model building that is not used for training anymore is the World Trade Center, since the real building has since been destroyed.  So the villain sets up at the model World Trade Center because it’s unused, large and not linked to him by any documentation.  I think this helps establish that the villain is dangerously clever and disturbingly utilitarian.

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41 responses so far

Jun 21 2011

Most Writing “Rules” Are Optional–These Rules of Professionalism Aren’t

1.  The cardinal rule of professionalism: Don’t do anything in private that would embarrass you if it became public.


2.  Dishonesty ruins careers. If you’ve done any of the following, I would recommend stopping immediately.  

  • Don’t use a fake name (sockpuppet) to hype your work.
  • Don’t write fake Amazon or B&N reviews without mentioning that bit about being the author.  Likewise, asking and/or paying others for 5-star reviews is shady.
  • Don’t plagiarize.
  • Don’t deceive or otherwise mistreat your teammates (editors, comic book artists, etc).
  • Don’t create or unilaterally edit your Wikipedia page. (Yes, they can find out).  If there is a factual error on your Wikipedia page, propose a change in the Discussion section and be upfront about who you are.  If nobody objects to your proposed change, then you can safely make the change even though you have a conflict of interest.  For more details, please see Wikipedia’s guidelines for users with a conflict of interest.  PS: Making enemies over at Wikipedia is REALLY bad business.  Almost as much as the US Air Force or Google, they can really give you a bad day.


3.  Anger and rudeness are almost always unhelpful.

  • A rude response to a negative review is MUCH more dangerous to your career than the review ever was.  For more advice about how to take criticism well, please see this.  PS: Don’t worry too much about negative reviews. There are several reasons a negative review might lead a reader to buy the book.  For example, “This reviewer didn’t like it, but it sounds like the sort of book I would enjoy,” “After I heard about the book, I checked for other reviews and they generally sound pretty positive,” “Now I want to see if it really is that bad,” etc.
  • Please don’t publicly rant about the publishing industry.  Most professional publishers do cursory Google searches on prospective authors before offering a publishing contract and it would be potentially problematic if your blog had several posts angry about the publishing industry.  That’d suggest you would be harder to work with.  (You wouldn’t apply to Ford or Toyota with a paper trail indicating that you were surly about car companies, would you?)
  • Be as polite as possible in your personal dealings.  When a publisher Googles you, what will they find?  If they find a news article about getting thrown off a plane for disorderly conduct, that would be (pardon my French) le bad. PS: If you DO get thrown off a plane for disorderly conduct, please don’t try to use the 9/11 attacks to make yourself look more sympathetic.
  • Don’t threaten a lawsuit unless you know what you’re talking about.  In most cases, threatening a lawsuit against a reviewer is ill-advised.  “Your negative review used quotes from my book in an unauthorized manner.”  Fair use, chief.  I’d recommend consulting with a lawyer before escalating a situation with legal threats.  (If a reviewer publicizes that you’re incompetently trying to browbeat them, it could damage your reputation).

8 responses so far

Jun 20 2011

Signs You Might Need a Confidence Adjustment

Published by under Professionalism

1.  You feel the need to bad-mouth your writing to readers/reviewers. There isn’t any advantage to including a disclaimer like “I’m sorry, but this isn’t very good.”  It reduces your authorial credibility and will scare away some prospective readers. Give your readers a chance to decide whether it’s good without inflicting a bad first impression on them.  PS: Some authors are so self-flagellating that they might come across as fishing for compliments to reviewers.  Please don’t be that writer!


2. Your query makes unsubstantiated claims about your story. Some red flags include hype words like “fascinating,” “compelling,” “interesting,” “excellent,” “well-written,” etc.  It’s much more effective to describe the characters and plot of your book in such a way that the readers conclude on their own that the story sounds really interesting.  (Show, don’t tell).  YOU telling me that the story is interesting is not at all convincing because, ahem, that’s just your opinion.

  • UNSUBSTANTIATED HYPE: “D.O.A. is a gripping detective story that will really excite a variety of readers and editors.”
  • MORE EFFECTIVE: “John Kimball is a poisoned detective that has 48 hours to solve his own murder.”  This is a lot more persuasive.  I can totally see why this would excite a variety of readers–I’m excited!

3.  Your query/proposal talks too much about you and too little about your novel or comic book. In fiction, I generally think 0-1 sentences is the ideal amount of self-description for an unpublished author.  A few sentences might be helpful if your background is unusually interesting and relevant to the story you’re writing, like a SWAT officer writing a detective story.  Unless you have something genuinely interesting going on, don’t worry about it.  Unless the publisher or literary agency specifies otherwise, it’s okay to say nothing about your background, because the author’s background doesn’t matter much for most fiction books.  (Nonfiction is totally different).


4.  You hype your writing talent. Excessive egos are always unattractive, but if there were ever a time when it would be acceptable for an author to have an ego, it’d be after hitting the big time.  I think that unpublished authors that are completely convinced their work is ace tend to strike me as delusional and doomed.  If there weren’t anything in your work that could be improved significantly, why haven’t you been published yet?  (But don’t take this too far in the other direction–there’s a huge gap between “My writing can be improved and I’m working on that,” which I think is mature and professional, and “My writing  sucks,” which suggests an unappealing lack of confidence).

9 responses so far

Jun 19 2011

Are Marvel or DC Movies Better? A Research Survey


  • Including the older movies, the average Rotten Tomato score was 47.3% for DC and 58% for Marvel.  If we look only at movies since 2000, DC drops to 47.2% and Marvel inches up to 60%.  DC’s movies have actually gotten slightly worse since 2000.

  • Marvel has been having more critical success with more series.  Since 2000, DC’s non-Batman movies have averaged 38.7%.  Since 2000, Marvel’s movies without Spider-Man have averaged 56% and its movies without X-Men have also averaged 56%.

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13 responses so far

Jun 17 2011

Dialogue Checklist

1. Do the characters have distinct voices? Voice can be influenced by diction and syntax, the sorts of details they’d notice and/or mention, personality, how educated they sound, accents, etc. If the characters sound distinct, readers should usually be able to tell who is saying what even if you cut out most of the dialogue tags (like “John yelled” and “Mary said”).


2.  Are characters talking naturally, rather than just narrating for the benefit of readers? One red flag here is that the characters are recapping what they already know (“As you know, Bob…”).  If characters talk about things they already know, you can use the conversation to develop some new angle, like what they’re doing moving forward.  Make sure that your characters have a reason of their own to talk–if they’re talking about something because you want them to, it will probably feel stilted.


3.  Please don’t have characters incessantly address each other by name. That’s annoying, Greg.  People don’t talk like that, Greg.  If the characters are well-voiced and/or have distinct goals, it should usually be obvious who’s delivering each line without such addresses. If not, adding a dialogue tag like “Mary said” is usually less annoying than adding an address. (I wouldn’t recommend using one every line, though).


4.  Does all of the dialogue develop a character and/or advance the plot? Please stay away from chatting, idle chatter that doesn’t go anywhere.  Chatting tends to waste space and stall the plot.  For example, it’d probably be boring for characters to talk about the weather unless you’re, say, trying to foreshadow an impending hurricane.


4.1.  Are the characters trying to accomplish anything? If the characters are just idly talking without any particular goal, I think that’s a red flag that the characters are chatting.  Give the characters objectives that really matter to them.  For example, if a detective is trying to figure out whether Jim is the murderer and Jim is trying to allay the detective’s concerns, it’d be really surprising if the conversation weren’t interesting.


5.  Have you handled your dialogue tags well? Here are some common problems that can arise with dialogue tags.

  • Don’t use unnecessary tags.  For example, “I’ll never leave you,” he promised uses an unnecessary “he promised.”  Readers can easily tell this is a promise, so you don’t need to beat them over the head with it.
  • Please don’t load up on exotic substitutes for “said” that don’t add anything.  I wouldn’t recommend using an exotic substitute for “John said” unless the substitute word provides some information to readers that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For more details on how to use substitutes for “said” effectively, please see this article.

13 responses so far

Jun 14 2011

Contact Guidelines

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7 responses so far

May 31 2011

7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do

How many times has a Hollywood protagonist screwed a silencer onto his pistol, cocked the hammer a few times, and delivered a perfectly silent shot or ten into the bad guy, causing him to fall backward and knock over a storage unit full of lead weights? There is so much wrong with that premise, and yet we see it all the time. It’s given many people a poor perspective on firearms, how they really work, and their capabilities. I’m here to help dispel these myths and improve the realism in your writing!

1. Guns are loud!

Crazy loud.  Without any ear protection, a gun battle is louder than a rock concert.  The cartoonish image of somebody’s ears bleeding after a loud sound is almost accurate if a gun battle were to erupt inside a building. Decibel levels of a gunshot can be 140dB, which is more than four times as loud as a common rock concert (115dB). (See this breakdown for more info.) It is worth adding, though, that when adrenaline (and even morphine) levels are running high during a fight-for-your-life scenario, strange things have happened where (in addition to expected things like tunnel vision) gunshots feel much, much softer, so it’s conceivable for a conversation to take place right after a gun shot.  However, this is incredibly unlikely.


2. “Silencers” aren’t.

They’re also more formally (and accurately) referred to as suppressors. Technically speaking, they suppress the concussive shock waves that are released from the barrel in front of the exiting bullet. Suppressors tend to greatly reduce the “boom” associated with gunfire, but the sounds of the actual explosion of gunpowder and all the metal moving parts on the gun are not really decreased at all.  Either way, it’ll be very loud.  For example, most suppressors on the market will bring a .22lr round from 160 dB (loud enough to rupture an eardrum) to about 120 db (a rock concert or jet engine).

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29 responses so far

May 29 2011

A Literary Superagent’s Thoughts on Publishing

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie (of the Wylie Agency).  Here are some excerpts that I think would be interesting to prospective authors (and maybe some published ones).

  • “As a general rule, we find that while the strongest market is usually the writer’s home market, it’s roughly equivalent to the rest of the world. And increasingly, what’s important is getting the rest of the world right. Fifty percent of American writers’ sales should be outside the U.S. That’s vital.”  [Fun fact: Superhero Nation’s audience is ~40% international].
  • “We try to avoid people who can’t write. You can usually spot them from the first sentence, or from the cover letter. It’s a little like sitting in the audience at Carnegie Hall and watching someone walk up to a piano. If you’re trained, you can tell the difference between someone who knows how to play and someone who doesn’t. Of course, sometimes you want to work with people who have a significant achievement, which is not writing, and so that usually requires closer editing, and ghostwriting. Heads of state are not always the best writers.”
  • “Things are generally tough and getting tougher across the industry. In the U.S., publishers are continuing to pay advances at pretty much the same level as five years ago, but they’ve reduced the number of high bets they’re making… Each house has a large number of titles to publish, and with a difficult economy, fewer people to handle the publications. But publishers need to become smaller, leaner, and they will have to learn new disciplines.”  [Note: Having fewer editors per title gives publishers less flexibility to publish manuscripts that will require a lot of editing, so your manuscript is pretty much dead on arrival if it’s not proofread carefully, unless you’re a head of state or something].

36 responses so far

May 20 2011

Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20?

Assuming your manuscript has survived to page 2, here are some thoughts about how to keep a publisher’s assistant reading to page 20. At a major novel publisher, the PA rejects ~995 out of each 1000 unsolicited manuscripts and sends on the rest to her boss.  PAs are under huge time constraints and have other job responsibilities (really!), so the only way for them to get through the slush pile is to stop reading manuscripts as soon as it’s clear they’re not among the very best. With that in mind, here are some of the shortcuts I would use to determine within 20 pages which manuscripts deserve more time and which don’t.


1.  As always, a manuscript with serious proofreading issues is dead on arrival. First, this is a generally reliable indicator that the story is not among the very best*.  Second, the more proofreading a manuscript needs, the more it will distract the editorial staff from their other duties (such as, umm, all of the other titles they’re working on).  If I were reviewing manuscripts for a publisher, I couldn’t envision any many circumstances where I would keep reading a submission with more than a few proofreading errors in the first 1000 words (~3 pages).  (Main exception: If the author is a celebrity or has a really interesting bio, such as experience as a Navy SEAL or SWAT officer, the publisher might be willing to put extra time into proofreading and/or ghostwriting).


*If you are an author that has gotten an unsolicited manuscript with more than ~10 typos professionally published, please let me know.  That must have been some story!


2.  I’d really like to see a main character quickly separate himself/herself from other protagonists in the genre. For example, he/she can do something that most other heroes in the genre wouldn’t do in the same circumstances.  If the main impression I get of the main character is “standard genre hero,” the character probably isn’t well-developed enough to hold my interest.  Relatedly, if the main character can be summed up in one word, I would regard that as a really bad sign.  If I’ve gotten through ~20 pages and the main character can be boiled down to “nerd” or “soldier” or “superhero” or “astro-ninja” or whatever, the characterization probably isn’t deep enough.  If I could use my own work as a positive example (even though I’m not a published author), I feel Agent Orange established himself as a lively, unusual sort of superhero.  Here’s what I did with 5 comic book pages in The Taxman Must Die (~200 words).  Given 20 novel pages (5000-6000 words), you can surely can do more.


3.  I’d really like to see the main character(s) doing interesting things as soon as possible. For example, if the story starts with a character waking up, I feel that’s a huge red flag unless the character’s morning routine is highly unusual and/or dramatic.  For example, if the character is woken up by artillery fire, that’s probably a good sign.  If the character has an ordinary morning leading into what seems to be an ordinary day of school, why not just skip to the interesting part?


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18 responses so far

May 03 2011

13 Legal Warrantless Searches in the United States

If your characters are police officers, warrants are a hassle.  They’re designed to be (so that the police can’t just intrude on citizens’ privacy without cause).  To obtain a search warrant, the police must show a judge that they have “probable cause” (substantial evidence demonstrating that they’re likely to find evidence of a crime at the location or on the person specified on the warrant).


Reasons why a character might not be able or willing to obtain a warrant:

  • Time.  Under the best of circumstances, a police officer can get a warrant within an hour, but in smaller towns, there might not be any judges on duty in the middle of the night.  Also, judges will be slower to respond if the case is less urgent (i.e. no lives are at stake).
  • The police may not have probable cause yet.  Gotham’s police may find it suspicious that Bruce Wayne always seems to disappear right before Batman shows up, but that isn’t enough to get a search warrant for Wayne Manor.
  • Search warrants come with limits attached.  For example, if the police/district attorney can convince a judge that a murder victim’s body has probably been stashed at a house, the judge would probably allow a search of the house but only places where a body would fit. If the police started searching drawers or other small containers, any resulting evidence would probably be inadmissible.

So let’s say an American police officer doesn’t have a search warrant.  Under what circumstances can he legally search?


1.  The suspect voluntarily lets officers inside and/or consents to a search. “Hello, I’m Detective Smith and I have some questions.  May I come inside?”  If an owner lets the officer come inside, anything within plain view of the officer is admissible as evidence.  If an owner consents to a search, anything found is admissible.  Note: Consent must be freely and knowingly given.  If the officer uses deception or threats to obtain permission, any resulting evidence will probably be thrown out at trial.


2.  In certain circumstances, permission may be given by a third party. Third parties are almost always more receptive to searches because they have less reason to fear the police than criminals do. 

  •  A spouse (or anybody with equal rights to the property) can let police search.  Frequently, spouses don’t know about the criminal activity and will let the police look around if asked nicely.  One really effective tactic is emphasizing the possibility that the search may help clear the suspect.  (“We’ve received some troubling information about your husband and we’d like to clear his name as soon as possible.  Do we mind if we look around? We’ll leave everything like it was and you can watch us.  Or we can come back with a warrant later, but it’ll be messier”).
  • An employer can let police search a workspace (including lockers and computers).  “We’ve received some troubling information about your employee.  Could we check his computer?  We’ll be real quiet.”  Note that a manager may be leery about offering access if she fears that the company is somehow involved in the crime.  If so, police can gently prod the manager with veiled threats like “We can come back later with a warrant, but if we do, we’ll have to cordon off the building.  It’d be bad for business.”
  • Police can ask school officials for permission to search the lockers, purses and backpacks of minors without a warrant.  School officials don’t have much reason to decline such a request (they hate crime as much as the police do).
  • When a child lives with his parents, a parent can allow police to search the child’s space unless the child pays rent or has otherwise established exclusive, private ownership over his space.
  • A host can allow police to search a guest’s quarters. A landlord cannot.
  • Hotel employees can let police search a vacant room.  See #9 for more details.
  • Store-owners are usually very cooperative about sharing surveillance footage.  But you’ve got to be fast!  Many stores cut down on costs by retaping over old footage every few days.


3.  Exigent circumstances–action is immediately necessary to prevent physical harm, preserve evidence or prevent a suspect from escaping. For example, let’s say your officer is on patrol when he hears a scream from inside a building.  He would be entitled to force entry to investigate a possible assault in progress.  Anything he sees in the course of investigating this possible assault would be admissible, even if it wasn’t related to the assault (e.g. drug paraphernalia).

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8 responses so far

May 02 2011

How to Become a Super Self-Editor

Every writer needs beta-readers and every author needs editors, but YOU are the first line of defense when it comes to content and quality control. If anyone knows your writing intimately, the verbal tics and words you lean on too often, the character traits and archetypes you put into your work, it’s you.

That’s both quasi-tragic and wonderful.

It’s quasi-tragic because you’re an expert in your own writing and can’t see your own flaws.

It’s wonderful for the same reason. If you can step back and brutalize your own writing, your finished manuscripts will have a sense of polish. It’s hard–the story and characters are your babies and you’ll do anything to keep them from harm–but necessary.

So let’s bring out your inner self-editor.

Put it aside, no matter how long it takes. The best time to self-edit is several days after you’ve finished a project. Maybe you need several weeks or a month, but you must mentally separate yourself from the story. When you do this, you’ll spot grammatical errors, inelegant language, poor plotting, repeated words, and hit-you-in-the-face foreshadowing lacking in subtlety.

Just print it, baby! The “green” among us will hate this one. Print out a physical copy of your work to catch your mistakes. It’s too easy to gloss over problems on a computer screen. If the idea strikes you as environmentally unfriendly, try reading your work on a device other than your computer…something like a smartphone or e-reader. Changing up the reading format helps you read your work with fresh eyes.

Activate the T-800 Adverb-inator. Writers and editors are embroiled in an all-out War on Adverbs. Unleash the T-800 Adverb-inator. In many cases, you can eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs. Whenever a sentence starts to rhyme from all the “-ly” words in it, you need to pare it down. The less often you use adverbs, the more impact the ones you do use will have. If you’re using Word, employ the “Find and Replace” feature and search “ly.” The results will amaze you.

“That” doesn’t always fly. The word “that” has many uses. The fish was that big. The horse that won the race is from champion stock. That movie was great. In many cases, “that” can go. Some sentences need it for flow or clarification purposes…and if it feels right to use “that,” by all means do it. However, you can trim it most of the time.

Comma comma down dooby doo down down… Breaking up is hard to do, but using commas correctly can prove even more challenging. Nothing is worse than the meandering, paragraph-long sentence that’s really several sentences strung together with commas. In most cases, shorter, punchier sentences are easier to follow.

Theme show. Not every story starts with some grandiose, life-changing theme. Like it or not, your story has some theme or purpose tied to it, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Make sure to identify the theme, no matter how elusive it may be.

“Be” aware. Action verbs, action verbs, action verbs! The verbs of “be” are flexible and familiar. They work well with adverbs, but limit your arsenal. Action verbs engage readers and turn so-so prose into memorable writing.

Get some perspective…and stick with it. When working with a first-person narrative, watch out for writing stating what another character is thinking. In third-person writing, look for any jarring changes in perspective, especially in stories with multiple points of view. A scene starting from a certain character’s perspective should never deviate from that perspective.

What’s the consistency? Character traits and motivations should not inexplicably vary from scene to scene or page to page. Think about it like this: Your very best friends usually won’t surprise you with their behavior. You know them well enough to predict what they’ll say or how they’ll react. Characters should be like your very best friends. When they do something inconsistent with their personalities, you should identify it with laser-like precision.

Read it. Out loud. People may look at you funny, your significant other may tell you to shut up, and you may feel uncomfortable. However, this is the best way to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of your words. Read the whole thing aloud…you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you’ll pick up. Your brain won’t “fill in the blanks” when you read aloud, allowing you to find missing words, awkward structuring, etc.

End it, already. Writing an effective ending is one of the hardest things to do. A good self-editor feels the pace of the story and understands when it reaches its conclusion. Writers easily succumb to pitfalls like false endings, unnecessary epilogues, and thematic diversions. Understand the exact moment when the proverbial credits should roll.

Self-editing is only part of the revision process. You always need to have someone with a critical eye look over your work. And if you do know an experienced editor, make friends!

Matt Adams is a TV news producer whose short stories have appeared in A Thousand Faces, Wily Writers for Speculative Fiction, and anthologies from Library of the Living Dead Press.  He lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and man-eating frog. You can check out more of his work at

12 responses so far

May 01 2011

Worldbuilding Rules

Published by under Research and Resources

If you’re writing a story with heavy worldbuilding, I’d recommend checking out K. Stoddard Hayes’ Worldbuilding Rules.  It’s a how-to blog with a lot of interesting articles about how to build innovative worlds and broaden your writing horizons.


  • What Does Your World Smell Like?:  This will help you incorporate smells into your story.  I don’t think smells come naturally to most first-world authors because we don’t encounter many on a daily basis.  That’s okay if you’re writing a story set exclusively in a sterile lab or a vacuum tube, but if you’re not, here’s some ideas about what you’re missing. 
  • Worldbuilding Legal Systems: If you’re building alien legal systems, this will help you keep them distinct from the ones closest to home.  Especially if you’re Norwegian–nobody wants to read about publicly drowning criminals in mayonnaise, you sickos.
  • Clothes and Setting: This provides useful ideas about picking clothing that is culturally and physically well-suited to your story.  (In case you’re saddled with characters that can’t rock out in trenchcoats and sunglasses).
  • Language in Worldbuilding: This has some helpful ideas about how to use language to reflect cultural attitudes and other ways of thinking.  You know how Eskimos supposedly have ~30 bajillion words for snow?  Starcraft’s Protoss need just as many ways to say “we’re screwed.”


PS: I’m looking forward to Hayes’ upcoming superhero anthology, Gods of Justice, and not just because it won’t have many executions-by-mayonnaise.  She and Kevin Hosey really know their stuff.

6 responses so far

Apr 25 2011

How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively

Published by under Dialogue

Dialogue tags are phrases like “he said” or “she joked” that let readers know which speaker is delivering a line.

1.  If the dialogue tag isn’t necessary, remove it. Does the dialogue tag provide enough information to readers to justify spending 2+ words?  I’ve read manuscripts with hundreds of unnecessary dialogue tags.  Cutting back can free up pages for actual content.

  • WASTE OF SPACE: “I’ll never leave you,” he promised. “I’ll never leave you” is obviously a promise, so “he promised” is unnecessary.
  • HELPFUL:  “You study three hours a day,” she accused.  Without “she accused,” readers might misinterpret this as a compliment.

2.  Make sure your tags fit the context of the sentence.

  • WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he stated.   “Stated” is far too formal to fit here.  (It also connotes deliberation and authority/confidence, like someone delivering an official finding or report).
  • RIGHT: “This man was murdered,” the coroner stated.
  • SO VERY WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he ejaculated.

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Apr 20 2011

How to Punctuate Dialogue in Novels and Short Stories

Published by under Punctuation

1. A line of dialogue with a tag like “he said” or “Joan replied” should end with a comma rather than a period. If a line of dialogue ends without a tag, then it should not end with a comma.

WITH TAG: “If I wanted your opinion, I would give it to you,” said the drill instructor.

WITHOUT TAG: “If I wanted your opinion, I would give it to you.”


2.  Begin a new paragraph when you switch from one speaker to the next. It helps readers figure out who’s speaking.

Take my spare pistol,” Lex Luthor said.

“Not my style,” Batman said.

“Suit yourself.  I plan to live through this.”


3. Like the dialogue tags for sentences, dialogue tags for questions and exclamations should not be capitalized.

“Was this before or after you threatened to eat a district attorney?” the Senator asked.

“I plead not guilty by reason of my own badassery!” said Agent Orange.

“It is my professional duty to remind you to shut your damn trap,” Agent Orange’s long-suffering lawyer said.


4.  When a line of dialogue is addressed to a person or people, separate the addressed person/group from the rest of the sentence with commas.

“I can help you, Jim, but I’ll need a grenade launcher.”

“Right on, man,” said Jim.

“Ready, boys?” asked Monica.


5.  Quotation marks ending a sentence should come after any other punctuation.

Example: “Check out any of the above lines,” said B. Mac.

WRONG: “This shouldn’t look right”, said B. Mac.

WRONG: “Do you see what’s wrong with this question mark”? asked B. Mac.


6.  When a line of dialogue is interrupted by the dialogue tag, don’t capitalize the second clause like it’s a new sentence.

“You have upset Mr. Bigglesworth,” said Dr. Evil, “and when Mr. Bigglesworth gets upset, people die!”

6.1  The first word of a line of dialogue should be capitalized even if it isn’t the first word of the sentence.

The politician sang, “My name is Willie O’Dea.  They’re hanging me for perjury.”  Incidentally, those are perhaps the only two lines of the song that are safe for work.

7.  When a line of dialogue is interrupted by another line of dialogue, end the first line with an em-dash (–).

James Bond said, “I always thought M was a randomly assigned initial, I had no idea it stood for–”

“Utter one more syllable and I’ll have you killed,” said M.


For more tips, I’d recommend checking out How to Punctuate Dialogue at the Editor’s Blog and Dialog Tags.



37 responses so far

Apr 08 2011

Another publisher is looking for superhero short stories: Boxfire Press

Boxfire Press is looking for contemporary speculative fiction and is very receptive to gay characters. Its preferred genres include contemporary sci-fi, contemporary and urban fantasy, slipstream, supernatural, paranormal, alternate history and (of course) superheroes. Their preferred length for short stories is around 5000 words but can go up to 20,000.  They also do flash-fiction up to 500 words.  (Hat-tip: Aponi).


How to catch their eye: “Being clear and concise, using unadorned language, concrete modifiers (only when necessary) and strong, active verbs will send your submission skyrocketing to the top. On Writing Well by William Zinsser, while specifically about non-fiction, has great advice for anyone learning to write.”  Also, they are not fond of abusing substitutes for “said.”


They are separately looking for short stories to fill an anthology.  “The idea is pretty simple, all the stories revolve around a red scarf lying on the road and answer the question, in some way or another, how did it get there?”  (Note: This theme is just for the anthology).   Story length for anthology entries: 2000-20,000 words. The preferred genres are the same as above.


If you know of any other publishers looking for superhero short story submissions, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.  Thanks!

4 responses so far

Mar 30 2011

How to Format a Novel Manuscript

William Shunn’s guide to manuscript formatting is the best reference I’ve seen on this subject.  If I could add some minor formatting points that should be obvious:

  1. Please do not ever use more than one exclamation mark at time.  It looks awful!!!
  2. Even if you’re writing a heated conversation, please don’t end a string of sentences with exclamation marks!  It will look really strange!  I wouldn’t recommend it! In a heated conversation, readers can infer that the characters are shouting at each other even if the sentence ends with a period.
  3. If you’re inclined to capitalize words for emphasis, 1) don’t and 2) if you do, please do so super-sparingly.  (No, really, just a FEW times in the manuscript, PLEASE.  It’s SO HARD to read when AUTHORS just seemingly use all-caps AT RANDOM).

34 responses so far

Mar 29 2011

A List of Literary Rejections

Published by under Getting Published

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor for Tor Books, wrote this list of the most common evaluations of novel manuscripts.  Where do you rank?  (The best I’ve ever gotten is #12, sadly).

  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
  6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
  7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
  8. (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)


  9. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
  10. Nobody but the author will care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
  11. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
  12. (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)


  13. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
  14. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  15. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
  16. Buy this book.

24 responses so far

Mar 19 2011

It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks–Don’t Let Perfectionism Derail Your Productivity

1. First drafts always suckNobody writes publishable material on the first go.  It takes rewrites to make the story coherent and stylish.


2. Your first draft has permission to suck (hat-tip: Linda Gerber).  When your first draft sucks, as every first draft does, you have not failed as an author. You have succeeded in creating a scaffolding for a better story–maybe even a publishable story.  Excellence emerges only during rewrites, and you need to give yourself something to rewrite.


3. When writing first drafts, I would recommend focusing on getting it done rather than trying to get it done excellently. I find Tiffany Reisz’s take on this to be very helpful.  “I don’t view my first completed draft as my book any more than I view a bunch of ingredients as a meal. The first draft is just the groceries still sitting on the counter. But at least I’ve got the stuff to make the meal now. Once I have a first draft, THEN I start cooking. Cooking is the hard part. People are impressed I can write a 100K book in six weeks. But I can’t. I can write a draft in 6 weeks, but that draft, those ingredients, takes another three or four months to become the book. I don’t stress about the first draft, just throwing it down, anymore than I stress about buying groceries. I might stress over the cooking, but not buying the ingredients.”


4. Doing extensive preparation/outlining may help, but will not prevent the first draft from sucking.  Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.


5. I would recommend holding off on most research until you’ve finished the first draft (unless the research is absolutely integral to the story–e.g. historical fiction or nonfiction). You’ll have a better idea of what you need then, so your research will be better targeted and more efficient then. For more details on research and increasing your productivity as a writer, please see this.

40 responses so far

Mar 12 2011

Another place to submit your superhero story: Wily Writers

The Wily Writers site is looking for superhero stories between 1000-5000 words. Deadline: April 30, 2011. Thanks, Aponi!

6 responses so far

Mar 08 2011

This opening was really solid

Published by under Introductions

From The Amulet of Samarkand:


“The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments in each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow, choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled. From far away came the sound of many voices screaming. Pressure was suddenly applied to the door that led to the landing. It bulged inward, the timbers groaning. Footsteps from invisible feet came pattering across the floorboards and invisible mouths whispered wicked things from behind the bed and under the desk…


Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him.”


A few observations:

  • The book has two rotating points-of-view, the ancient djinn here and an eleven year old magician.  It was refreshing and brave to start with the character that wasn’t the audience stand-in.
  • I like that the author implies (rather than exposits) what’s going on here.  He never explicitly says that this is a magic ritual, but it’s pretty obvious even before you get to the invisible mouths whispering nefarious things.
  • The atmospherics and sensory details did a really good job foreshadowing the plot and setting the mood.  The description of the magic is a lot more sinister and evocative than, say, the Harry Potter series.  (Quickly distinguish your story from competing works, particularly if your main character is a tween British magician).

9 responses so far

Mar 07 2011

Writing Memorably

1.  Think outside the box. When you’re writing, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the most conventional (and forgettable).  It probably came to mind first because you’ve seen it (or something like it) so many times before.  If for some reason you need to try something that’s very conventional, at least have characters respond in a different way or build to a different outcome or try a different angle.  For example, killing off the parents in a superhero story gets used more often than a taser at a hippie convention, but it was still extremely effective as dark comedy in Kick-Ass.  (Instead of leading to a “MOTHER, I WILL AVENGE YOU!”, it was a deliberately random aneurysm).  Likewise, instead of another scene where a protagonist saves a love interest, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim his dead dog.  It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for something that wouldn’t matter to pretty much anybody else.


2.  Let your characters act unusually compared to other characters in their genre(s). If the characters only make decisions and do things that 90%+ of other characters would do in the same situation, they’re probably going through the paces of a pretty banal plot rather than anything we will want to remember.  This is most immediately noticeable for protagonists, but distinctive villains can also excel.  For example, who else but Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter could get away with psychically strangling one of his boss’ subordinates in front of him or taking down two cops with his teeth?

Continue Reading »

18 responses so far

Feb 17 2011

Open Writing Forum

Published by under Writing Articles

What would you like to talk about?

795 responses so far

Feb 14 2011

More places to submit your superhero short story!

I’ve added these three publishing markets to my list of publishers that want superhero short stories:

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Feb 08 2011

10 Reasons Novel Manuscripts Get Rejected

1.  Proofreading problems, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and/or poor word usage. Failing to catch these sorts of mistakes in a manuscript or query will almost always lead to a quick rejection.

2.  The plot sounds too banal. Your query has one page to give us enough details to show what’s at stake and make your plot come alive.  For more on quickly getting to the point, see this article on two-sentence summaries.

  • REJECTED: “A man has to save the day.” The only way this could be more generic is if you replaced “man” with “person.”  Next time, say something about what he has to do to save the day, who he’s saving it from, etc.
  • STILL PRETTY BAD: “A detective has to solve a case.”
  • BETTER: “A poisoned detective has 48 hours to solve his own murder.”  I like the sense of urgency here.
  • SWEETNESS: “A killer who believes himself an artist of unmatched talent is incensed by being placed last on the FBI’s most wanted list.  He begins killing off those fugitives above him in twisted manners that serve his creative vision.”

3. The manuscript isn’t finished yet! I’m not aware of any novel publishers that work with first-time novelists that haven’t completed the manuscript.  Unproven first-timers prove themselves by completing the manuscript, and until then nobody will know whether you have it in you to finish the job.  The publisher can wait.

4.  The characters come off banal. What are their personalities like? How are they different from other protagonists in their genre?  (Personality? Key traits? Flaws? Hard decisions? Unusual choices? What’s at stake for them? What are they trying to accomplish? What mistakes do they make?)

5. The author has stumbled into a highly-developed niche without trying hard enough to stand out in a good way. In particular, if the author has only read a few books in the genre, it’s probably going to feel like a ripoff of them.  Read extensively and try looking for unusual choices you could give the characters.  For example, Peter Parker is more human than purely heroic, so it makes sense that he pettily declines to stop the robber that later kills his uncle.  Bob Swagger is so loyal that, even after being framed as an assassin, he breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue so that he can bury his dog properly.  In each of these cases, the unusual choice leads to a major negative consequence.  (Peter’s uncle dies and Bob gives away his position to the FBI).

Continue Reading »

45 responses so far

Feb 06 2011

An introduction to bounty hunting

Bounty hunters may be a useful point of reference for your superhero story:

  • Like most superheroes, bounty hunters have a non-government job that entails some violence.
  • They hunt criminals without all of the assets of a police force (authority, the ability to threaten prosecution for noncooperation, forensics labs, generous access to state records, virtually unlimited backup, etc).

Learning more about bounty hunters may give you some ideas about how to write superheroes cracking cases, so I’d recommend checking out this Washington Post article (hat-tip: Contra Glove).  In particular, I liked the tactic of calling the fugitive’s cell phone*, posing as a FedEx dispatcher and then asking the fugitive if he will be available tomorrow for a package delivery.  “Can you confirm the street address?”

(I also found the use of MySpace pretty hilarious, but I’m sort of hoping that your Lex Luthor isn’t on MySpace).

*You can get somebody’s number by asking family members,  friends, disgruntled exes or sometimes the cell company.

8 responses so far

Jan 26 2011

How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)

Some tips for fixing a Mary Sue, a protagonist that is insufficiently challenged by his or her story.

1. Give the character flaws, ideally one he’s accountable for. Most unchallenged characters have a bevy of strengths but few well-developed flaws.  One approach is to play up the character’s strengths so much they sometimes become liabilities.  For example, in Point of Impact, Nick Memphis is unfailingly loyal, even though it ruins his career.  Virtually any strength taken to an extreme could create obstacles for the character.  For example…

  • Being too smart could create social obstacles for the character (see Flowers for Algernon or House), impatience with less intelligent people, overconfidence, a willingness to jump to erroneous conclusions on too little information, etc.
  • Being too nice could lead to gullibility/naivete, a reluctance to confront someone even when a confrontation is necessary, or a handicap against tougher (and maybe more brutal) foes.
  • Being too honorable could result in situations where the character loses because he/she refuses to take the most effective course of action available.  At its most cliche, perhaps a superhero stops chasing a gang of villains so that he can defuse a bomb or free a hostage from a deathtrap.  But that only affects a scene.  More significantly, a villain can manipulate a hero’s sense of honor so that he/she does something that shapes the plot.  For example, Cassius draws Brutus into the assassination plot in Julius Caesar by exploiting Brutus’ honor.
  • Being too brave could result in reckless mistakes.  The character’s overconfidence might get him hurt, and possibly bystanders as well.  For example, if a superhero tries to rush a hostage-taker without any sort of plan, hostages will probably get shot.
  • Being too committed to one’s goals (even honorable goals) could result in obsession and/or a willingness to sacrifice friends, morals, bystanders, and anything else to achieve the goals.

2.  Have the character make some decisions the audience won’t approve of. If the character is so purely heroic that readers will probably approve of every decision he makes, he probably doesn’t have much moral complexity.  Usually, that’s not as believable or interesting as giving the characters some human edges.

3.  Have the character make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions distinguish the character.  If the character is just making banal decisions that 90%+ of the genre’s protagonists would make in the same situation, the plot probably isn’t giving the hero enough room to distinguish himself.  Let your hero show how different he/she is with some decisions that most other heroes wouldn’t make.  For example, the protagonist in Point of Impact, Bob Swagger, is on the run after he’s been framed for an assassination attempt on the President.  The people framing him planted incriminating evidence in his house, but they had to kill his dog to sneak inside. Almost every action protagonist in this situation would probably have started by trying to take down the conspiracy.  Swagger starts by breaking into the FBI-occupied morgue where the dog’s body is being held as evidence so that he can properly bury it.  It really helps develop his character: the dog is the closest thing he had to a friend and he feels honor-bound to return its loyalty.  It also gives the villains reason to panic and ratchets up the tension.  If this guy is suicidal enough that he’d risk a high-speed chase with the FBI over his dog, his dead dog at that, what’s he gonna do to them?

4. Challenge the character! Raise obstacles high enough that it will be interesting for the character to overcome them.  For example, if your character is the most powerful superbeing in your story, the potential for interesting straight-up action is probably pretty low because he’s more powerful than his opponents.  For example, The Watchmen couldn’t have done much with a straight-up duel between invulnerable hero Dr. Manhattan and semi-powered villain Ozymandias.  Instead, Ozymandias challenged the heroes with his stealth and subterfuge, buying time so that he could make his survival so valuable to the heroes that they wouldn’t dare to kill him.   Another approach would be to try challenging the character in a sphere where his superpowers aren’t very useful.  For example, in a superhero romance, a guy that’s used to solving his problems with violence would have to try a very different tack to wooing the girl of his dreams.

5. Have the character face some morally gray obstacles. I would really recommend against making everyone that opposes the hero a straight-up bad person. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc.  If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.  (Hey, even Gandhi and MLK took some flack over their pragmatism).

59 responses so far

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