If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.
It is review time again, dear writer. Every week I provide you with at least one writing tip, and I have put together a clip show of the last several weeks’ worth of writing tip segments to help you keep things fresh in your mind.
As always, if you have a writing or publishing question you would like me to answer, email me at email@example.com or send me a message on Instagram at @writingbreakpodcast.
Now, let’s settle in at the Writing Break cafe and get started on a full episode of writing tips.
From Episode 54: What Genre Sold the Most Books Last Year
As I mentioned earlier, romance is selling strong. Alex Newton of K-lytics recently released a report about the sales of second-chance romance books. If you are writing a second-chance story or thinking of writing one, here are some interesting takeaways from Newton’s report about this subgenre.
Common categories for second chances are contemporary romance, romantic comedy, holiday romance, and sports romance.
About half of the top-selling 500 titles show a man on the cover; the next most popular cover image is a couple or group.
And the phrase second chance is in the title or subtitle of 40% of these books.
From Episode 55: Sensitivity Reads: The Upside and the Downside
Today we’re talking about what happens when the good intentions of a sensitivity reader misalign with your good intentions as an author. First, in case you don’t know, a sensitivity read is when your manuscript is reviewed for stereotypes, misrepresentation, and offensive content. The person who performs this review is called a sensitivity reader, and they usually turn in a report with what needs to change, why it needs to change, and suggestions on how to change it.
The topic of a sensitivity read can be a sore spot for many authors, primarily because of the cost and the time it adds to the publishing process. As a side note, if you’re looking to save money, you might be able to get away with sending a sensitivity reader passages of your book to review instead of the whole book. For example, if you’re concerned with the way you’ve presented a gay character, you can send just the scenes with or about that character to a sensitivity reader who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Aside from time and money, there’s the concern that publishers are muffling the author’s message.
I’m going to present both sides here.
On the upside, I’ll say that I have found sensitivity reads to be helpful.
I’ll give you an example. I worked on the developmental editing of an action thriller about drug trafficking, gun violence, and gangs. Are we really going to be that concerned with offending people? Yep. We sent it off to a sensitivity reader who was from Paraguay because parts of the book were set in Paraguay, and the author was not from Paraguay. At a couple of points in the story, the characters visit each other’s homes. Originally, the characters went up to the door of a house and knocked. The sensitivity reader informed us that this is not done in Paraguay. Instead, people stand by your fence or gate and clap. They do not enter your yard until you come out of your house, even if your gate is unlocked, even if your gate is wide open.
So, the author made that change, and we were on our way.
Consulting someone on a manuscript is not a new thing. Authors consult scientists, gardeners, the police, and military and weapons experts all the time. It’s usually called research. But the term sensitivity read either puts some people on the offensive or makes them scared to dispute a sensitivity reader’s notes.
Literary agent Jeffrey Herman recently shared the downside to a poorly conducted sensitivity read in a Publisher’s Weekly article (linked in the show notes). He explained that his client “received a Big Five contract for a book about his time as a Marine sniper during the Vietnam War, when he was 17. The original manuscript (written with the assistance of a coauthor) told his story in the context of its time and place, including florid verbatim language and descriptions that wouldn’t be appropriate in other settings, then or now. Historical authenticity and truthfulness were the author’s priorities.
The manuscript passed the publisher’s editorial and legal protocols with relatively few revisions, and no additional hurdles were expected.”
Herman says they were told that the manuscript would have to undergo a sensitivity read, but he didn’t know what that was, and there seemed to be no reason to be concerned. Then, they received the notes from the sensitivity reader.
“Under the threat of having his book deal terminated, my client was forced to meaningfully modify his manuscript to accommodate a five-page document full of subjective complaints about how the Vietnam War was fought by the author and his co-combatants, the unfiltered descriptions of his horrific experiences, and the unsavory language used by the mostly very young men who were there on behalf of their country. The sensitivity review was written by one person. This person was hired by the publisher, and no information about their qualifications, or who might have reviewed their review, was provided. No appeals or rebuttals were allowed. My author reluctantly complied in full.”
What sounds an alarm for me is the fact that this author and the agent did not get any information about the sensitivity reader, and the author was told to alter his true life story without discussion or there would be no book. A bit draconian, don’t you think?
The missing part of the equation for a great sensitivity read in this case seems to have been handing the manuscript to someone who regularly reads and enjoys the genre. If you are going to pay for a sensitivity read for your historically accurate war book, make sure you hire someone who regularly reads and enjoys historically accurate war books.
I would like to think that the editorial team went toe to toe with the publisher on this one and tried their hardest to advocate for the author’s right to tell their life story as it happened.
My question to you is, what would you have done as the author? The agent mentions that the author had already accepted one advanced payment, and the second advance payment was to be made once they had accepted it for publication.
From Episode 56: Should We Rewrite the Classics or Let Them Go?
I’m sure you have seen the International Standard Book Numbers on the back of books, more commonly called ISBNs. If you are self-publishing, you need to purchase your own ISBN. Self-publishers should not allow a publishing service, book packaging company, or anyone else to purchase the ISBN on their behalf. Some platforms offer to provide you with an ISBN claiming that it’s free, although the price is worked into what you’re already paying them. The reason you don’t want to do this is because the ISBN will be issued to the organization, so you can’t take the number with you if you want to publish the book elsewhere. Because ISBNs are not transferable, you don’t want to buy them from another person. So, where should you get them?
If you are in the United States, you should purchase your ISBN from Bowker, whose website is myidentifiers.com, and there’s a link to that in the show notes.
We’re reaching the end of our writing break, so we’ll discuss ISBNs and copyrighting in depth next week. The tip today is, if you are self-publishing, buy your own ISBN. Do not let anyone else get it for you.
From Episode 57: Copyrighting Your Book
Last week I foolishly promised you that I would discuss copyrighting your book this week. I say foolishly for three reasons. One, my audience is international, and I can’t provide information for all of the countries my listeners represent. Two, there is so much information available online. You don’t need me to tell you this stuff. And three, I dwell in the land of developmental editing, which means I do not involve myself in the marketing of books anymore. I prefer to hang out with your words, as I’m sure you do, but we do need to talk about copyrighting at some point. No time like the present, I guess.
First off, once you’ve written your book, it’s yours. You own the copyright. You technically do not need to do anything else to make it yours. In the past, authors used what was called the poor man’s copyright where they mailed, yes, snail mail, they mailed a copy of their manuscript to themselves and left it in its sealed envelope once they received it. Because the manuscript would make it to the post office before being returned to the author, the envelope was date stamped, so if it ever came down to it, the author could prove they had written the work by presenting the sealed envelope.
Nowadays, the poor man’s copyright is email. Email a copy of the work to someone, yes, even to yourself, and you’re done.
So why do people register their work with their nation’s copyright database? I guess because it makes it even easier to prove that you wrote it. Depending on where you live, you might be able to improve distribution by registering your work. In the United States, you can also get a Library of Congress number and a Publisher's Cataloging-In-Publication number, which can help with distributing and marketing your book.
And then there’s the ISBN I told you about last week, which is internationally available. I consider an ISBN a necessity, but technically it’s not. However, there are some platforms that won’t sell a book without an ISBN, so think of it as a number you need to have. Currently, ebooks and audiobooks do not need to have an ISBN, but I do think you should have one number for your paperback, one for your hardcover, one for your audiobook, and one for your ebook.
You’ll have to check your country’s regulations for more information about copyrighting your work. US-based authors can check the show notes for a link to a video on how to get your numbers, and an article about how to copyright your work.
From Episode 58: Writers vs AI
I think of AI as a tool, but I can understand how writers might feel that AI is the competition. So, how can you gain a competitive edge over AI-generated content? If you look at some of AI’s blunders, you’ll see that computing is not the same as understanding. AI can compute from what has been input into its database, but it doesn’t understand the way a human does, and it certainly does not understand how truth can be individualized. Yet, humans turn to books over and over again seeking a new truth, the author’s truth.
Ernest Hemingway told us that the writer’s job is to tell the truth. In A Moveable Feast, which is about his time in Paris, he wrote, “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”
There is such a thing as facts, but truth as Hemingway talks about it, is honesty laid bare. We crave honesty, even in fiction. Write with as much truth and honesty as you can. Even if you’re world-building, write the truth as you understand it. Understanding, truth, and honesty, are key parts of human intelligence that have yet to be replicated by artificial intelligence.
From Episode 59: Should You Write Blog Posts for Money
People who meet me outside business hours have many strange reactions when they find out I’m a book editor, and I might share some with you bit by bit over time. But one thing that some people will ask is, “What’s the biggest mistake writers make?” And if you remember, I answered that in Episode 45, which speaks to what authors do during the writing process. But then the person says, “No, I mean, when they write.” Which doesn’t make any sense because I was talking about when they write, but my entire job depends on being able to understand what someone meant to say. So, I venture into characters with no dimension, rushing through a scene, and so on, and the person again says, “No, no, no, like in the writing. Like typos and grammar and stuff.” This has happened more than a handful of times.
At this point, I realize the person has no idea what I really do for a living or maybe even what an author does. So, I say, “Oh, that really varies from author to author.” And I end the conversation and my entire association with this person as quickly as possible.
But here’s an answer for you, a true writer, who would never ask me about typos. There is one error, not the biggest error, but a simple little typo that often makes it all the way through to publication on best sellers. And that is, a missing period at the end of a paragraph.
I can theorize why this happens. Maybe it’s a riveting part, and everyone working on the manuscript is really into the story. Maybe it gets accidentally deleted during manuscript clean up. Maybe our brains fill in the punctuation at the end of a paragraph. I don’t know exactly. But it’s always worth checking for during copy editing and proofreading.
Either way, it’s not the writer’s job to worry about typos. Just write the damn thing.
From Episode 60: Writing Advice from a CIA Agent Turned Fiction Author
After working nine years as a CIA officer, Brittany Butler has released her debut thriller called The Syndicate Spy. In a recent article she wrote for Publisher’s Weekly, Butler describes a bit about her time working with the CIA, and she also discusses how her experiences inform her new book, which she assures is fiction and not a memoir. “When people ask how I got into the CIA, I emphasize that I did not have a fancy Ivy League education, nor was I the daughter of a diplomat. What I did possess was a strong work ethic and a high degree of emotional intelligence. By ‘emotional intelligence,’ I mean the ability to gauge both a source’s veracity and their willingness to work with the CIA—something I believe women are better qualified to judge than men. Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the James Bonds, Jason Bournes, and Gabriel Allons of spy fiction. While highly entertaining and well done, it’s time for a different kind of spy story—one in which a real female spy emerges from the shadows to tell her tale.”
You’ll find her article linked in the show notes, and it is an interesting read if you want a couple of anecdotes about what it’s like to be a female CIA agent.
Whether or not you’re writing a story with a law enforcement agent as the protagonist, it is important to keep emotional intelligence in mind. Emotional intelligence should be something your characters have to varying degrees. A book in which all the characters successfully manage their emotions and recognize the emotions of others is going to be a boring book.
Emotional intelligence could be something your protagonist gains throughout the book or throughout a series, often with the help of friends and family members who have more and sometimes less emotional intelligence. Maybe some of your characters understand their feelings but do little to manage them. If your character has a lot of emotional intelligence, they might be able to not only identify but also influence the emotions of those around them.
A character who has a great deal of influence on others but does not understand what others are feeling will often be blindsided by the actions of others. For example, Voldemort had a great deal of influence on Narcissa Malfoy’s emotions but underestimated a mother’s love for her child.
For many writers, it’s easier to write a loner character who doesn’t play well with others, but in real life, how much can a person without emotional intelligence resolve on their own? And if a loner character has high emotional intelligence, why are they loners? This can be explained to the reader through backstory, but it should be addressed in some way.
Perhaps a character can be emotionally intelligent for some things but not others. Maybe they’re smooth operators until they fall in love. Or they’re kind-hearted and generous, except when it comes to their neighbor with whom they have a long-standing feud. Maybe they’re great with their friends but not with strangers. Maybe they have no self-reflection at all and continually get in their own way. Maybe they wear their lack of emotional intelligence as a badge of honor, no matter how much it impedes them and harms others.
Make it make sense. I would refrain from using the phrase “emotional intelligence” in your explanations. This is definitely a “show, don’t tell” situation.
The idea is to develop characters whose natural personalities and life experiences match their emotional intelligence. Write so that the reader can understand what your characters have gone through and are going through, but do not spoon feed your audience. Let your readers put the pieces together for themselves.
Emotional intelligence is an excellent space to add skills and flaws that make your character feel real to the reader.
From Episode 61: 3 Main Ways Weather Can Enhance Your Writing
Many early drafts of books that cross my desk do not mention the weather. Yet we know that the weather is a powerful force in our lives, and it can have a profound impact on our stories. Weather can be symbolic or ironic, and it can also serve as foreshadowing, which is one of my favorite literary devices. Here are the three main ways I think weather enhances a story:
Weather can set the mood. A dark and stormy night creates a sense of foreboding or danger, and a long drought creates tension. You can also juxtapose the weather to what’s happening in the book, which can then give us information about the character’s mood. For example, a bright and sunny day can evoke feelings of happiness and hope, but if it’s bright and sunny during a funeral that might give you a chance to tell us that your protagonist is feeling out of place in the world or like things aren’t fair for them at the moment.
Weather can drive the plot. Weather raises the stakes in our own lives. Why wouldn’t it do the same in your book? For example, a natural disaster can force characters to evacuate their homes. A snowstorm might slow down a character who is trying to escape from a pursuer, and a character who is trying to find their way in the wilderness might get lost in a fog.
Weather can add realism. This is the main reason weather should be mentioned in your story. It makes stories feel more realistic and more complete when it is included. Of course, it’s important not to end up writing purple prose. Do not overdo it. At the same time, don’t make it read like a weather report (unless that fits the story). Even if you’re talking about a story taking place in a climate-controlled environment, that’s important to mention. Clarifying that your characters never see daylight and never feel the wind helps readers get into the world that you’re building.
From Episode 62: Naming Your Characters Like a Pro
Julian Simpson, a writer and director working in film, TV, and audio, recently discussed why some scripts don’t sound modern enough to be picked up by producers. One interesting thing he noted as a turn off to those in the business is when they receive a script with characters whose names don’t match their age. What that means is that all the characters were given names that don’t sound at all like what people were naming their kids during the decade in which the characters were born. I hope that doesn’t sound too confusing. But here’s an example, giving a 50-year-old male character a name like Chase or Brandon doesn’t make sense today because people were not naming their kids Chase or Brandon 50 years ago. It might be okay for one or two characters, and maybe you can explain why your character has a name that doesn’t fit their generation. It just seems easier to me to use a name that makes sense.
Of course, fantasy and sci-fi writers get a bit more wiggle room there, although I suppose they have to worry about giving their characters names that are too common.st popular names by year from:
I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode. Next week, we’re on Spring Break. Do something fun. The week after that, we’ll be starting season 4. Now is the time to let me know what you’d like me to discuss.
Thank you so much for listening. As always, you deserved this break.
If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.
Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at email@example.com.