Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Commas, the Trickiest Punctuation Mark Ever, Part One—Lists and Setting Off

Welcome to our comma extravaganza! This is part one of a two-part series. This week, we'll be focusing on a few of the most common uses for commas and why some of the things you think you know about commas are probably wrong.


Perhaps you have heard these guidelines of when to use a comma:
"It's when you should take a breath when reading."
"It's to indicate a pause."
"A comma takes the place of 'and.'"
"Use it around someone's name."
These mantras, though popular, are incorrect. So what the heck is a comma for? Let's find out.

The truth

I like to think of commas as the support structure in a sentence. Grammar and punctuation is a lot like architecture. You can't just throw together a bunch of materials and hope it comes out right; you need the proper structure in order for it to stand up properly and be what it's supposed to be.

Let's start out with a few of the most common uses for commas.


Almost always, commas are used to separate elements in lists. For example, "Today I had eggs, toast, and bacon for breakfast." Wait. Or is it "Today I had eggs, toast and bacon for breakfast"?

Ah, the old debate. There are two ways of using commas in a list, and there are a lot of people who insist that one way is better than the other. For example, newspapers insist on one way (the latter in our previous example), and novels prefer another (the former).

Oxford comma
This is the form most advocated by publishing houses and academia. It includes a final comma before the "and," which, as its proponents argue, tends to eliminate unnecessary confusion.

Source unknown. If you know, tell us!
The other way
Journalism tends to be about concision above all. If there's anything in there that is deemed unnecessary, a newspaper editor is going to cut it. That's why you almost never see that final comma in lists in a newspaper or online article.

Setting off parts of your sentence



Appositives might sound scary, but they're actually pretty simple. They're just a technique for renaming something. For example, in the sentence "Barack Obama, the president of the United States, will be giving an address to the nation today," we've named Obama twice. Once with his given name, once with his title. There are many ways of doing this, like "Joe's sister, Anne, hates chickpeas."

That last sentence is an example of the confusing part about appositives. Sometimes appositives imply things about the person or thing being renamed. In this case, the fact that we used "Anne" as an appositive surrounded by commas implies that Anne is Joe's only sister. Those who know Joe would already know this, but the commas signal to the rest of us that Anne is the only sister. There is no other sister, so "Anne" and "sister" are the same thing. That puts Anne in a nonrestrictive position because she wouldn't need to be named for the sentence to mean the same thing. "Joe's (only) sister (Anne) hates chickpeas."

If Joe had more than one sister, we would leave out the commas and write "Joe's sister Anne hates chickpeas." Remember, this is because appositives are equal to the thing they're naming, but if Joe has more than one sister, then Anne only partly defines "Joe's sister." She no longer qualifies for the appositive comma escort because she's not the only sister. What if the other sisters love chickpeas? It's only fair to restrict that preference to Anne, so she takes the restrictive position next to chickpeas. "Anne is Joe's sister who hates chickpeas." But seriously, who even likes chickpeas?

Parentheticals, or Asides
Commas can also be used to set off parts of sentences that are deemed "extra information" that aren't necessary to understanding the sentence. You probably learned about them as "asides."

"The Oxford comma, despite all its detractors, is flourishing in print."
What's the aside in that sentence? An easy way to tell is to take out sections and see if the sentence still makes sense. Let's try it.

  • "Despite all its detractors, is flourishing in print." Well, that doesn't make sense.
  • "The Oxford comma is flourishing in print." That sounds right! Let's check the last one to be sure.
  • "The Oxford comma, despite all its detractors." Yep, looks like that second one is right. So that means "despite all its detractors" is the aside.

There are actually a lot of ways to set aside an aside, but commas are used most often. If you wanted to, you could set off an aside with em dashes or parentheses. These techniques are especially useful if the aside has punctuation inside it already, like in this sentence: "Greg packed up his three favorite things—his teddy bear, his microscope, and his toothbrush—and headed out for an adventure."

Well, that's it for today. Next time we'll be discussing dependent, independent, and other types of clauses and what commas do for each of them. (Don't worry; we'll explain what clauses are.)

Is there something we missed that you want covered? Comment below and we'll add it to part two. Got any questions about this post or our polishing service? Feel free to comment or email us at

Link to part two.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

4 Contemporary Young-Adult Novels That Give YA Lit a Good Name

Young-adult literature gets a bad rap. It’s easy to see shelves of paranormal fiction stuffed with vapid female protagonists and obsessive love interests—or worse, the dreaded love triangle—all brought to dozy half-life in barely passable purpose prose, and run the opposite direction, maybe to a nice, safe biography of Abraham Lincoln. But more and more of this genre is making a name for itself, such that “young adult” describes not the quality of writing, but the age of the protagonist. YA lit published in the last few years is chock-full of big themes packaged in spellbindingly inventive plots. And, let’s face it, we’re always learning how to grow up, making these coming-of-age stories delicious literature for readers of all ages, everyone from twelve to one hundred twelve.

1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

It was a Michael L. Printz Honor book—the coveted prize for young adult literature—for good reason. When a British spy plane crashes in Germany during WWII, its lone passenger, a secret agent, is captured by the Gestapo. Forced to reveal her mission or face a grisly execution, the agent scribbles her intricate confession onto scraps of paper supplied by her Nazi interrogators, weaving her confession with reminisces of her past and the iron-clad friendship she developed with the pilot of the plane that crashed. Called a “fiendishly plotted mind-game of a novel,” its twists and turns will propel you to an astounding conclusion.

And if you still aren’t convinced: It breaks from YA’s tired tradition of love triangles entirely because it’s about two best friends instead of hormone-ridden puppy lovers. And a more charismatic, fallible, and honest pair of friends you could not find. If you find you adore this one as much as we did, check out its companion novel, Rose Under Fire.

2. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

This is not a story of ordinary dragons. The country of Goredd is preparing to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of an uneasy peace between dragons and humans, when the Crown Prince is murdered—and all signs point to dragons at work. Seraphina Dombedgh, the court musician, is thrust into the turmoil of politics surrounding the treaty with intelligent, unemotional dragons that humans find so threatening.

And if you still aren’t convinced: Hartman’s lyric style is complemented by the music chiming through the story. Her experience with medieval culture and its music sings throughout the novel, blending an enchanting setting with bewitching melody, everything from sackbuts (the trombone’s early predecessor) to megaharmonium (a fictional instrument that’s based on a real one, the organ-like harmonium).

3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

The first of a trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of Karou, an enigmatic art student with an unusual day job. With a necklace of wish-granting beads and a sketchbook of fantastic monsters and demons, Karou’s story unravels with the elegance of smoke as she learns the true story of the only family she’s ever known and of the war that tore her world apart.

And if you still aren’t convinced: This kind of book will prove it—YA lit is where the epic story went. While adult literature is invested in home stories and realism, YA lit like this is where Homeric stories of gods and heroes. A lovely and ambitious, if not perfectly executed, tale of angels and demons.

4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

It’s not been 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for nothing. Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two normal Indianapolis teenagers—oh, except they met at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Hazel is ultimately terminal, though experimental treatment has delayed her inevitable end for a while. But when she meets Gus, her ending suddenly seems much less certain. Theirs is a love unlikely and unmatched.

And if you still aren’t convinced: Wary of reading another book about cancer kids? Fear not. This is the funniest book about cancer we’ve ever read. Which is not to say that it’s insensitive and inhumane. Its irreverent, laugh-out-loud humor belies its warm heart and serious contemplation of fate, death, and fates worth than death.

Friday, December 6, 2013

NaNoWriMo: It's Over. Now What?

National Novel Writing Month has come and gone. So, all you NaNo-ers, how did it go? Did you meet your goals? Honestly, I fell short at the end there. I thought NaNo would be so easy, with my very attainable 2,000-words-a-day goal! But it ended up being much harder than I expected. When I went to bed on November 30th, I had a dream that I wrote my brains out and found myself miraculously at 52,000 words! I felt so accomplished . . . until I woke up. But there's no need to feel bad if you didn't finish. Whether you wrote 50,000 or 2,000 words, you should feel great! You finally got going on your novel. Now you either need to start revising or, like me, finish writing the rest of it.

What's Next?

Yes, NaNo is over, but your writing isn't confined to one autumn month a year. And your book still has a ways to go, regardless of how many words you were able to type. So what is the next step in the process?

Make a Goal and Keep Writing

If you weren't able to finish your novel, never fear! Now's the time to set a new goal. Perhaps you didn't hit the fifty thousand you were shooting for. Can you get there by the end of the year? Can you get there by mid January? Maybe you did hit the 50K, but the story isn't over. Can you estimate how much is left to be written? If you can't, that's okay. Instead of making a word-count goal, make a goal for how much time you'll spend writing during the week. It could be a daily goal of three hours or a weekly goal of five. Whatever your goal is, try to make it attainable as well as useful. A weekly goal of one hour isn't going to be that helpful, but it is better than not writing anything at all.

photo credit here


Revise, Revise, Revise

If you were able to finish your novel, that's great! I suggest taking a day or two to relax and let the text just sit. The next step in publishing your novel is not to send it off to a publisher right away (as editor Lisa Mangum mentioned in our recent interview). You've been writing as much and as quickly as possible, so there are bound to be a few typos, errors, plot-holes, or even missing scenes. Now is the time to go back through your novel and figure out where the problems are. First, save a new copy of your manuscript. Title it something like, "Book Revision 1." That way, if you delete an entire chapter one day during revisions and then decide you want it back on another day, you still have an original file with everything you once wrote.

After you've saved your previous work, you are ready to start revising. One way to do this is to just read the story. Fix any typos you come across immediately. For bigger things you want to change or fix, highlight the text, bold it, and insert a query to yourself. You may even want to make a master list of all the changes you want to make. If you are inspired to include a new scene or chapter, add that to the list. Once you've gotten through the entirety of the manuscript, go through your master list and begin making the changes. Go through the manuscript a couple of times in this fashion, making notes to yourself and adding or subtracting different elements. It may also help to read the text aloud.

Once you feel like your revisions are where you want them to be, take your manuscript to a reader. This can be your writing buddy, your writing group, or even your sister-in-law who loves to read. Ask them to make comments and suggestions as they read. Their comments can be invaluable in the revision process. You may be too close to the manuscript to see errors like, "Wait, I thought Carly had brown hair," or "Is there a word missing here? The sentence is confusing." So the fresh eyes of your reader(s) can help find these problems.

Revisions can take some time, so try not to get frustrated. If you do, take a break from the manuscript and let it sit for a day or two. But remember, you're almost ready to submit your manuscript for publication, so don't give up!

photo credit here


Until Next NaNo . . .

I still have quite a ways to go with my NaNo novel, but it was such a blast to give the whole "write a book in a month" thing a shot. I hope all of you had as much fun as I did! Feel free to return to these NaNo posts if you ever find yourself stuck in a writing rut. And hey, if you're missing NaNo, here's one last suggestion that my writing buddy, Katherine, and I came up with: Make your own mini NaNoWriMo. Call it My Novel Writing Week (MyNoWriWee? MyNo for short!), and make a word goal. Can you write 10K this MyNo? Or maybe *gulp* 25K? You can do it!

Have a great year. Keep writing—don't stop—and I'll see you next November when we take on NaNoWriMo all over again!

Farewell, fellow NaNo-ers!
Current Word Count: (sigh) 32,685

Friday, November 29, 2013

NaNo Day 29: Write-A-Thons

It's the end of NaNoWriMo! Are you putting the last few thousand words together this weekend and making it to that beautiful 50,000? I hope so! And hopefully I'll be right there with you. But if you feel like you are crazy behind in your word count (like I happen to be, yet again), then you can do what I did last week and have a write-a-thon.


A write-a-thon is just like those read-a-thons you had in fourth grade. You can load up on healthy snacks, grab a comfy pillow, and spend the day writing away. Last week, I was very behind in my writing. We're talking about ten thousand-ish words behind. I called my writing buddy (you all remember Katherine, right?), and she popped over for a few solid hours of writing. We wrote and wrote and blasted past those difficult blocks. Then, sadly, she had to go home. But did I sulk in the corner and watch Netflix for the rest of the night? NO! I kept writing. And writing. And writing! And the next day, guess what I did? I wrote some more! And by the end of that day, I was completely caught up in my word count and feeling great about life.

Of course, things happen. And you, like me, may find yourself off the high of being on track and back to thousands of words behind (think 17,500). If you're losing hope, you can join me tomorrow, Saturday, for a NaNo write-a-thon! You'll be writing with thousands of others because, well, it's Saturday, and it also happens to be the last day of NaNo. So if you really want to finish, you may have to spend some solid hours at the keyboard, pounding out all the words you need. Just don't give up. That's the key. Start early, take some breaks, don't give up, and try not to fall asleep!

photo credit here
You can make it! This is coming from a girl who is seriously far behind. But I can do it too! Use all of the tips you can think of and just finish that manuscript. Maybe by the end of the day tomorrow, we'll be NaNo winners after all.

Good luck!
Current Word Count: 32,685

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Interview with a Publisher

We're taking a break from our NaNo posts to think about the future of those NaNo manuscripts. Have you ever wanted to get the inside scoop on how to get your manuscript noticed? Recently, we were privileged to interview author, editor, publishing veteran, and Disney enthusiast Lisa Mangum about her publishing insights. Read our interview with her below.

What do you look for in a cover letter that pushes you to read the manuscript attached?
I like a cover letter that is well-written and professional. The best cover letters have a solid hook for the manuscript that is specific and engaging and that touches on the four main elements of the story: the protagonist, the main goal, the main obstacle, and the consequence of failure. (For example: Frodo must journey to Mount Doom, battling an army of evil creatures, in order to destroy the Ring of Power, or else all of Middle Earth will fall into shadow.)

What kind of information do you like to see in the short author bio?
When it comes to author bios, tell me the important details about yourself that relate to writing. I’m interested in if you’ve been published before, if you belong to any writer’s groups or attend any writer’s conferences, or if you have won any awards or honors for your work. For first-time writers, that can be tricky since you may not have a long writing resume to share. In that case, less is more; use the space you would have used on your bio to tell me more about your book.

In the first page or so, what are the first clues or triggers in a manuscript that make you know you won’t read more? And which elements do you recognize that make you want to read more?
The first page is so important when it comes to reviewing a manuscript, and yet the main job of the first page is to make me want to read page two. I think it’s important to present a problem on that very first page—it doesn’t have to be a big problem, but if there is something amiss right out of the gate, I’m more likely to continue reading. It’s also great if you can show your hero doing something heroic in the first couple of pages. Again, it doesn’t have to be him saving the world, but a small act of kindness, or a clever quip to showcase his sense of humor, or a moment of bravery can go a long way in establishing a character and making me want to read more about him. I’ll often stop reading early in a manuscript if there are too many grammatical or spelling errors, if the writing voice is flat, if the characters are two-dimensional, if there is too much info-dumping or unnecessary description.

How can authors get their manuscript to the top of the slush pile? How can they set their book apart from other submissions?
Easy—write the best book ever written. :) Seriously, though, often I’ll pay special attention to manuscripts that come in from authors who are active in the writing community, who have attended writer’s conferences, or who have clearly paid attention to the submission guidelines and who have done their homework. Your submission is essentially your job application. You want a publisher to hire you to write stories, and your submission is proof that you would be a good investment. You wouldn’t apply for a job with a company that you didn’t know anything about, so don’t submit your manuscript without doing some homework about the company beforehand.

What are some vital things you feel a manuscript needs before you’ll consider publishing it?
I love to find a great story told with a fresh voice and built on a solid foundation of excellent writing.

What advice would you give NaNoWriMo writers who want to submit their work for publication?
Wait! NaNo is a wonderful way to get words down on paper, but any time you write that many words that quickly, you’ll want to make sure you go back through it and revise it and polish it before you submit it. So enjoy NaNo. Write all the words you have. And then wait a few months to let it settle, then spend a few more months editing and revising. Wait another month just to be sure. Then submit it. It’ll be a better book when you do.

What's the most important thing a writer can do with their manuscript before submitting it?
I don’t know if this is the most important thing, but one thing I like to do is read the manuscript out loud. That will help slow you down and see what is actually on the page and not what you think is on the page. It will help you catch typos, missing words, and spots where the writing is awkward or uneven. And if you are brave enough to read it out loud to someone else, you’ll be able to gauge if you’ve hit the emotional notes you were aiming for. Did they laugh in the right places? Cry? Beg you to read just one more chapter? If not, then you know where to go back for another look at revisions.

Do you like it when authors attach photos of themselves?
Author photos are unnecessary at the submission stage. I’m sure you look very nice, but I’m way more interested in what you’ve written and the kind of story you can tell than in how you look.

Can you tell us a bit about the manuscript acceptance and rejection processes and about how long it usually takes to hear back?
At Deseret Book/Shadow Mountain, the process is essentially the same. An author may submit his or her work online at or Then it undergoes our review process, in which we look at every single submission that comes in and evaluate the overall idea and the strength of the writing. We look at our current publishing plans and see what kinds of manuscripts we need (or which genres are oversaturated). Manuscripts that show promise are passed around the review committee for additional feedback. When we find one we would like to publish, we contact the author and begin the next phase of the process: contracts and scheduling. If, unfortunately, we decide to pass on a manuscript, we email the author with that decision as well. Our review process takes anywhere between eight to twelve weeks.

What steps should authors take upon receiving a rejection, if any?
Rejection hurts, no doubt about it, so I think it’s okay to feel sad when you receive a rejection letter from a publisher—but only for a short time. After that, you need to move forward and submit your work elsewhere. There are a lot of publishers out there, and a lot of options for authors, and the best way to turn a rejection letter into an acceptance letter is to continue to practice your craft, improve your skills, submit your work, and never let a rejection be the end of your career.


The editors at Castle Editorial know how much you want your manuscript to shine before you submit it to publishers. We want to help you get your submission noticed by any acquisitions editor as well as help free your manuscript from those tangles that prevent a publisher from picking your book. Those subtle issues, as Lisa mentioned, include "too many grammatical or spelling errors, if the writing voice is flat, if the characters are two-dimensional, if there is too much info-dumping or unnecessary description." When we get a chance to point those elements out to you with our guaranteed two sets of experienced eyes, we help your polished manuscript rise to the top! If you have any questions, leave a comment below. We can't wait to read your work!

Many thanks to Lisa for all of her great tips and information! Her wisdom and experience never cease to amaze.

Lisa Mangum has worked in the publishing department of Deseret Book since 1997 and is currently the Acquisitions Editor and Product Development Assistant. She specializes in editing fiction for the Shadow Mountain imprint and has worked with several New York Times best-selling authors, including Ally Condie, James Dashner, and Jason F. Wright. While fiction is her first love, she also has experience working with nonfiction projects (memoir, educational, cookbooks, etc.) and some children’s picture books.

She loves finding that “diamond in the rough” in the slush pile, and she is particularly skilled in the developmental editing part of the process. Lisa is also the author of four national best-selling YA novels (
The Hourglass Door trilogy and After Hello). She graduated with honors from the University of Utah and currently lives in Taylorsville, Utah, with her husband, Tracy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

NaNo Day 15: Writing Buddies

Hello fellow NaNo writers! Another Friday is upon us, and guess what? It's day 15! You know what that means? The month is halfway over. Can you believe it? Do you have 25,000 words? I know I don't. Man, this whole NaNo thing is way harder than I thought!

Anyway, remember my last post when I talked about eating an elephant? About writing 500 words and then doing something else (like laundry)? Well, let me just say, that toooootally saved my word count that day! And I've never done so much laundry in my life!

The problem was that I did that for a total of one day. And here I am, back to thousands of words behind schedule. A few days ago, I was really upset about my lack of words. Yes, upset enough that I cried (though I blame that slightly on the pregnancy hormones). After my dear husband comforted me and then went off to work, I did the only thing I could think of to help me get over this block: I sent a whiny text to my writing buddy.

Writing Buddy

Well, she's more like my writing coach. Her name's Katherine, and she's one of my fellow Castle Editorial editors, and she is one of the best developmental editors I know. She was there while I wrote my manuscript over the summer, and she helped get me through the rough patches of that project. She does three very important things for me and my writing:

1. She reads as I write.

Basically, after I write a few thousand words, I throw them all up on a Google doc for her to read when she has time. And she reads them soon after they're posted.

2. She asks me for more.

Whenever I haven't posted chunks of manuscript for a few days, she asks me to send her more. If I tell her that I haven't written more, she asks me to write more for her. How can you say no to someone who asks you to write more because they want to read it?

3. She never talks about the bad stuff.

She is constantly making comments about how great the story is. She'll say things like, "I love this character!" or "That description makes me so hungry," or even "This is so intense! Ahh!!" She rarely, if ever, says things like, "Your dialog seems incredibly forced," or "The setting needs some serious work." Of course, those types of comments are valid and helpful. But during a first draft, they are more inhibiting than beneficial. So instead, she says all the nice, happy things to keep me writing.

Once the manuscript is finished and we start going through revisions, that's when she pulls out the red pen and starts going after the flaws. The point is that we both know there are flaws (it's a first draft, people!), so why focus on them when there is still story to be written?

If you are feeling like you just can't do it, if you think you have the NaNo blues, then find yourself a writing buddy. Your significant other, your mom, your crazy uncle in Jamaica, anybody who you trust and who cares about you. If they push you in a positive way, then you can lean on them during the rough patches. That's what I did! And after her pep talk, I wrote over 4,000 words! So it works. I'm telling you, it does.

photo credit here

Happy NaNo!
Current Word Count: 21,178

Friday, November 8, 2013

NaNo Day 8: Losing Steam?

It's day eight of National Novel Writing Month! Are you losing steam? Well, grab some fruit snacks and a mug of cocoa and just keep on keepin' on.

Okay, so I should probably take my own advice. At the beginning of NaNo, I was totally rockin' it. My word counts were thousands of words above my goal for each day! I was feeling so accomplished. The words were flowing, the outline was moving me along perfectly, and the writing wasn't laborious.

But then life happened.

For some people, this could be having to work overtime or needing to study for a midterm or even, hopefully not, dealing with some kind of tragedy. All of these things can throw you off and make you forget that NaNo is even happening. And who could blame you? But then, there are also positive things happening in life that can distract you: a family member coming to visit for the weekend, an awesome party thrown by your roommate, or, in my case, a happy doctor's appointment followed by hours of shopping for little pink onesies. When life happens, NaNo can really just slip your mind.

And so here I am. Fifteen hundred words behind my goal word count. With dishes piled in the sink, laundry taking over the bedroom, and who-knows-what molding in the fridge. And I have no idea how to prioritize any of it. Is anybody else in this boat? I have an inkling that I'm not alone. . . .

When I was younger and would get overwhelmed with school and things, my dad would say to me, "How do you eat an elephant?" And I would sigh and mumble, "One bite at a time." I can eat today's elephant! And so can you. So here's the one-bite-at-a-time plan: 500 words. That's it! I'll write 500 words then put in a load of laundry. I'll write 500 more words then start the dishes. You probably have different tasks you need to worry about. But you can divide them with 500 words. We can do it! I mean, what's 500 words? Just a little bite of the elephant.

Good luck!
Current Word Count: 10,537

photo credit here

Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNo Day 1

Hello, NaNo-ers! (NaNo-ers? NaNoWriters? NaNoWri-ers?) And welcome to day one of National Novel Writing Month! The crowd erupts in applause. Hooray! How's it going? Are you feeling good about things?

What's your word count? I just hit 2,102. Starting off strong! Do you have a writing plan or schedule that you're hoping to stick to? I know I do, and I wouldn't be able to succeed without it.

photo credit here

My Plan

This is how I broke down my schedule. There are 30 days in November. Of our 30 days this wonderful year of 2013, there are 4 Sundays. Personally, I don't want to write on Sunday. For some people, Sunday is their only day to write. But for me, that's my day with the hubbans. So now I'm down to 26 days. I previously decided that 2,000 words a day would be a good goal because, in my writing style, that's usually half of a chapter. So I thought, What if I wrote 2K every day for 26 days? That gets me up to 52,000, and you know what that means: wiggle room! In case I don't hit 2K every day, I have two thousand words to spare by the end. So that's my goal. That's my plan. You can make a plan, too. You can choose to go the math route, or just write your brains out every single day. For me, I needed to know what my smaller, daily goals were.

Anyway, I know the day isn't even close to being over. And there's no reason to stop writing (except for the fact that I'm starving—where'd I put that Count Chocula . . .), but I figured I'd post early to help motivate those who are struggling. I exceeded my goal by 102 words! Are you on your way to hitting your goal on Day 1?

Happy NaNo!
Current Word Count: 2,102

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Hey, everybody! It's Holly again. Holly stands on tiptoe and waves to the vast audience. Remember me? First, Happy Halloween! Don't forget to hoard your kids' candy tonight (I don't have kids, so I'll just turn off all the lights in my house and pretend I don't hear the doorbell. The Jolly Rancher Chews are MINE!), because you just may need it in the coming weeks.

I love Halloween. The decorations, the candy, the pumpkin-flavored everything. Yep. This is my kind of party. But in a few hours . . . the world of witches and warlocks and goblins and ghouls becomes . . . NANO! Lightning flashes in the windows and cackling catches on the wind. Don't worry, don't worry. It's all going to be okay. Don't believe me? That's okay. Let me help you convince yourself.

Outline Time

Go on, open a word processor, grab a notepad, or steal some note cards from a nearby backpack. It's time to get down to business. Of course, as you know, we can't actually write anything for a few hours. But we can get our thoughts in order. There are a bunch of ways to outline, but I'll just tell you the two ways that worked for me.

Timeline Note Cards

With my summer manuscript, I used 3x5 note cards. I wrote titles of scenes on them and put them in order. I also drew maps of locations like a house, a school, or even a bedroom. I made lists of characters that went together. I wrote "Flashback" on a few and filled them in with background info. On some of the cards, I used specific colors of ink, so that I knew what was going on. The stack of cards was my lifeline (and I almost lost it a few times). But if chapters spilled onto the page in the wrong order, that was okay with me. I just made sure to move the cards around so I didn't forget the important stuff. Scenes got lumped together, and scenes got stretched out. But overall, the note cards stayed the same. You may like this style of outlining if you like to have something physical to connect you to your manuscript. You can hold the scenes in your hands, stare at them, scribble on them, whatever you want. If that sounds appealing, you should try the note card outlining method.

photo credit here

List of Thoughts

This is the kind of outline I used for my NaNo manuscript. I pulled up my word processor, and I made a bulleted list. But, well, things kind of got out of hand. At first, the list was practical. Something like,
  • Lisa lives in Florida.
  • Lisa's mom is sick.
  • Lisa's dad is in jail.
  • Lisa gets a letter from her dad talking about how he's getting out in a few months.
Practical, right? By the end of my outline, things became more like this:
  • Lisa dives into the ocean, mere moments before the gunfire erupts behind her. She knows that Derrick will stop at nothing to capture her, so she swims with all her might. But the waves are crashing and the salt stings her eyes. Her arms flail, and soon, she's choking water into her lungs and sinking into the ocean. Suddenly, she feels fingers wrapping around her wrists! She tries to kick away, but the person holding her is much too strong. She can't open her eyes to that salt again, but she knows that she has to escape somehow. Before she has a chance to worry about drowning (or maybe she is worried about drowning), the fingers turn into arms around the trunk of her body, lifting her to the surface of the water. She coughs water out of her lungs and breathes in the sea air. Too exhausted to fight, she leans back against her rescuer and feels her hair get caught on his stubbly chin like velcro.
Yes, that was one bullet point. And that is how my outline became 6,000 words. Yeah. Just like that. Anyway, it worked for me. That bullet point, though it teeters on the edge of writing, will bring me back into the story and remind me of where I want things to go. You may like this outlining strategy if you are really worried about forgetting stuff (that's why I liked it). This strategy also helps if you desperately want to get started with your manuscript, but the clock has not quite struck midnight yet. The degree of description will help satiate your craving to write ahead of time.

photo credit here

Hopefully these two outlining strategies will help you as you fret during the remaining hours of October. But really, don't fret, just write (after midnight, of course). It will all work out. And if you ever feel stuck, just keep writing anyway. But now's not the time to talk about getting stuck. I'm sure all of that will come later.

Happy NaNo! (Oh, and Happy Halloween!)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

Hey, all you writers out there! In just a few short days, Halloween will come to an end . . . and National Novel Writing Month (also known as "November") will begin! Are you ready? Are you inspired? Are you freaking out because you don't yet have an idea? Well, never fear! We here at Castle Editorial will be with you every step of the way.

CE has four editors, and I am just one of them. Perhaps it is time to introduce myself. I'm Holly. Hello! Yes, I'm an editor. So why do I care about NaNo? Well, I'm also a writer. Okay, I don't quite feel like I can call myself a writer just yet. I've never been published. (Unless you count that haiku from third grade.) I've actually never submitted a manuscript for publication either. But have I written a full-length manuscript? YES! Just this past summer, actually. Anyway, I like to write. And I would like to be published some day. And NaNo is one way to force yourself into writing a lot and build the habit of writing all the time.

This is my very first time doing NaNo, so I'll be posting a lot about my experience. Hopefully the things I learn along the way will help you in your venture. And hey! Maybe by the end of all this, we'll all have pretty decent manuscripts to send off to agents, publishers, or our dear friends at Castle Editorial.

Good luck this month! Just 50,000 words to go!

Photo Credit

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How to Work with an Editor

Editors can be scary, we know. We know how attached you are to your work and how intimidating it is to let anybody read it, let alone someone who is paid to criticize it. Today's blog is all about how to help you navigate your relationship with this scary person so that your work comes out the other end nice and polished and ready to publish.

Know What to Ask For

When you first submit your manuscript, make sure you know exactly how much editing you want your editor to do. Didn't know there were different levels of editing? Here's a quick rundown:
  • Substantive editing (sometimes called structural or content editing) is the heaviest level of editing. This involves potential rewriting or restructuring on the editor's side, which is done to ensure the highest level of comprehension and consistency. Expect to see significant changes to your work.
  • Copyediting aims to achieve accuracy, clarity, and consistency in a document. This may involve reworking sentences to make them more effective.
  • Proofreading includes checking for grammar and missing punctuation, ensuring that elements are in the proper order, etc. You will likely not see content changes.
Editors will also frequently include "queries," which are pretty much exactly what they sound like. Any questions the editor has regarding your work will be presented as a query. Sometimes they will ask your preference on certain changes or ask you to verify an aspect of your project.

Hopefully your MS doesn't look like this when you get it back.
But it might! Credit:
(Normally, editors at publishing houses will do a comprehensive or substantive edit of your work, so just expect that level of edit. But if you hire a freelancer, you will be able to specify what type you'd like. When you've gone through your freelancer and submit to a publishing house, expect it to go through another round of more intense edits.)

When you are ready to have your project edited, make sure you have these facts in mind and know what you want, otherwise what you expected to be a light proofread could come back with stricken paragraphs. Editors don't want to overstep their bounds, so make sure you tell them exactly what those bounds are.

Challenge Queries and Changes

Now, odds are you're going to disagree with some of the changes your editor is making. That's okay! It's your work, and we recognize that. If you think a change is not appropriate, let your editor know. He or she can explain their reasoning, and you can explain yours. This opens up a dialog that allows you to get what you  need while still improving your MS. Win-win!

Credit: Forbes

That said, of course, be polite when you dispute a change. Starting your objections with "I think..." or "I feel like..." is always a good way to go. Don't accuse your editor of shredding your manuscript or ruining your work. That's a good way to get your MS back without any improvements and without a refund. Realize that your editor is trying to help you get your manuscript in the best possible position before you publish, not trying to impose their own perspective.

Be Objective

On that note, sometimes it's best to trust your editor. After all, they're looking out for you and the success of your project. They also have a lot of experience working on different types of projects, and they know what needs to be done to a manuscript to really make it shine. Even though it's hard, try to let go of your feelings toward your work and see it from an outsider's perspective. You might realize that some changes you thought were too much are truly for the better.

Many authors make the mistake of allowing their egos to get in the way of editing, and this is almost always a guarantee for a shoddy product. Be humble and allow your editor to do what they do best. Working together will turn out the best version of your work you could have hoped for!

See, now, that wasn't so scary, was it?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Finishing Your Novel

Different writers struggle with different parts of writing a manuscript. Some have trouble keeping a consistent voice throughout. Some have difficulties creating a convincing character. And some write dialog that is forced and frustrating. These are all legitimate problems, but they can be solved during the revision process (and an editor can help you pick them out). The bigger issue is actually getting to the revision process. Below, you will find four tips on how to actually finish that elusive first draft of your manuscript.

1. Create an outline

An outline is like a treasure map. When you outline, you set up a story from start to finish, and you know exactly where it's going to end up. The plan may put your character on a dangerous path full of craggy mountains, goopy quicksand, and treacherous villains, but the prize lay at the end. An outline can seriously help you finish a manuscript. You can write your novel in order by following the map and eventually making it to the end. Or you can write out of order; you write the scenes that are in your head right then. Both strategies work because you know what scenes you will eventually have to work on. It's almost like a checklist. If you decide to use this tactic, taking time to consult the outline will help you stay on track, get excited about coming scenes, and work toward the end of the manuscript.

J. K. Rowling's "Writing Grid" style of outlining.

2. Don't look back

Every time you sit down at your computer to bust out another 2,000 words, do not go to the start of the novel and start reading. If you need to refresh your memory about what is going on, read the very last few paragraphs that you've written. That will remind you of the plot and tone of the story. Of course, if there are details you need to remember, you can glance back, but try not to. The reason for this is that you could get stuck in another chapter. You may begin reading and editing and revising and changing. And then you'll look at the clock and think, Wow! I just spent three hours on chapter one! This may not seem like a big deal, but if you spend every day reading and editing and revising and changing chapter one, you'll never get to the actual writing of chapter five. So here's what to do: Don't go back. If you see errors, just leave them. Or make a comment about it. But make your focus the actual writing of the book. Revision time will come. But right now, it's writing time.

3. Have a reader

This can be extremely beneficial to a novelist. Find someone you trust and talk to them about your novel. Get them excited about it, and then ask them if they'll read it. Tell them that this is a first draft and that you aren't editing or revising just yet. Ask them to make comments about what they like and don't like, but ask them not to edit or suggest changes (yet). Then write! Send your friend whatever you have whenever it's done. Don't think about the errors, typos, or other issues, just send it off! Since your reader is excited about your story, they will pester you: "Hey, I haven't seen a chapter in the past few days. You should send it to me!" Or "Have you written more lately? I can't wait to find out what happens next." Or even, "It's been two weeks, and I'm growing impatient. What's going on?" This pestering will motivate you to keep writing because someone actually cares and wants to know where the story is going and, more importantly, how the story will end.

4. Look into NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month happens every year during November. Basically, you commit to writing a complete novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. The rules state that you cannot begin writing your manuscript until November 1, but you can outline and prepare as much as you want before that time. NaNo helps you finish a novel because it is a challenge. If you register through the website and finish the 50K before December 1, you get cool coupons that writers want. Though the coupons are exciting, the feeling of completion is even better. By the end of ONE MONTH, you've actually written 50,000 WORDS! Your novel may be finished at 50K, and that's great. You've hit the finish line! But if your story isn't over at the 50K mark and there's more writing to be done, just keep writing into December and January and February and forever! Not only does NaNo motivate you to write every single day (or at least 2K a day, six days a week), it helps you build a habit of writing every single day. When November ends, your writing doesn't have to. You can keep going. And, more than likely, your habit will push you to do it every day until you do write the last few words of that manuscript.

These tips can help you reach that coveted accomplishment as a writer: a completed manuscript. Of course, the revision process comes next. But before you dive right into revising and reworking your precious first draft, take a moment to savor what you've just done! You reached the finish line! You wrote a book! Yes, the road to publishing is full of bumps and bruises, but this is a shining moment that you should be proud of.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Your Guide to Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens and dashes often bring confusion to writers. Each mark has its different uses, and each mark can be hard to distinguish from others, and even hard to type.

These marks are all used to separate or conjoin items, but there are different types of separation and conjunction, for each of which there is a certain type of dash you should use. The most common dashes are the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Let's start with the en dash.


En Dashes

En dashes (named so because they are the width of a capital N) have two primary uses: to separate ranges ("Please sit in rows 55–60."), and to hyphenate open compounds ("pre–Civil War"). They typically aren't used in Web copy or in newspapers; you'll usually see a hyphen there instead. But if you notice a longer-than-normal hyphen (see that compound modifier? Check out the hyphen section), it's probably an en dash, and it's a mark of good typesetting.


 Em Dashes

Em dashes (which are named, as you might have guessed, after the fact that they are the width of a capital M) have myriad uses. They can be used to set off a phrase in lieu of commas—which are an excellent punctuation mark—or they can indicate a sudden change in thought: "So, there I was, about to board the train—wait, is that Mark?"


Believe it or not, the mark that's the most familiar to most people is the most complex. Grammatically, hyphens can be used in compound words ("left-handed"), as separators ("my name is spelled A-B-B-Y"), and to combine adjective phrases ("His less-than-useful suggestions left everyone confused."). Hyphens are primarily used (as with most punctuation marks) to eliminate ambiguity.

For example, if a writer were to use the phrase "little celebrated paintings," a reader wouldn't know whether the writer meant "celebrated paintings that are small" or "paintings that are not celebrated very much." If we stick a hyphen in there, "little-celebrated paintings," the two words become connected, and it's clear that they are both meant to modify "paintings."

Things can get confusing when two hyphenated terms with the same suffixes are used. For example, "Corruption was rampant in nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics." (Corruption totally doesn't happen in today's politics, right?)

Hyphens are also often used to separate prefixes from the main word, though this practice has been declining. Chicago prefers leaving hyphens out wherever possible, so to be safe, only hyphenate prefixes if omitting it could alter the meaning of a word, such as "recreation" versus "re-creation" (7.80). Another exception is when the main word is a proper noun, as in "un-American."

How to Type Each Mark

Now that you know how to use them, we'll let you know how to type them so you can start using them in your daily life! Aren't we generous? Keep in mind that, generally, these marks do not need spaces around them.

If you're on a Mac
En dash: option+hyphen
Em dash: shift+option+hyphen

If you're on a PC
En dash: alt+0150
Em dash: alt+0151

That's all there is to it, folks. As always, if you have any questions, leave 'em in the comments and we'll get back to you!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

5 Tips to Score an Agent

Many publishers these days (especially all your favorites out in New York) will only consider your manuscript if it comes through an agent. Why? Well, they trust that the agent has already spent time rejecting those manuscripts that are written poorly, are unlikely to sell, or just aren't in the genre that the publisher works with.

It's a good idea to get an agent because he or she will champion your book. Agents want the publishers to fight over your manuscript. They want movie makers to bid on it. They want you to make as much money as possible. Because the more money you make, the more money they make. Agents are your best friend. You can turn to them and vent when your editor makes you crazy. You can go to them and ask questions about contracts. You can send them your manuscript and ask for critiques. They have your best interest at heart.

How do you get an agent? Most agents have submission guidelines on their websites, and most submissions are done digitally through email. You email the agent a query letter and wait for a response. Once an agent accepts your manuscript and wants to work with you, you will sign a contract with him or her. The contract basically says that the agent will try to sell your book to publishers (while you work on another book) for, say, a year. At the end of the year, if the book hasn't been picked up, your contract terminates.

But, before you sign a contract, you have to get the agent to want you. Here are 5 quick tips to help you get noticed by an agent.

1. Send out a dozen agent queries every week. Yes. A dozen. Just keep sending them. If you don't hear back from any, it's okay. The next week, send a dozen more. Now, don't send a dozen queries to one agent. Send one query to a dozen different agents. By the end of a month, you'll have sent out queries to nearly fifty different agents. The big question: But what if more than one agent wants my book? Then you get to pick your agent! Not very many authors get that opportunity, so be excited!

2. Do your research. Make sure to read the submission guidelines on the website. This is where you will find out how to submit your query letter. You will also find out what kind of books the agent represents. Not every agent represents the genre that you're writing in. And some submission guidelines will explicitly state, "NO vampires. NO dystopian. NO erotica." If your manuscript falls under any of these categories, the agent won't even read your entire query letter. He or she will just click "Reject" and be on to the next author. Also, there may be a certain format that you need to submit in. Perhaps there is a keyword you need to put in the subject line of your email. Remember, you want the agent to like you. If you annoy him or her by not paying attention to the guidelines, they may just reject you on the spot. After all, there are plenty of authors sending in submissions every single day.

3. Include a sample of the manuscript. The first chapter or two of your manuscript should be copied and pasted at the bottom of the email. DO NOT ATTACH A FILE. Just copy and paste. If you include an attachment, some agents will just delete the email for fear of viruses. Pasting a little chunk of your manuscript is an excellent idea because the agent gets a better idea of your writing style and quality before he or she even contacts you. When an agent emails you and asks for more of your manuscript, you know that he or she already likes your style.

4. Make sure someone edits your query letter. Typos in a query letter are a huge red flag to an agent. It's important to them that you know your grammatical rules. You don't have to be perfect, but you do need to look professional. Castle Editorial is happy to edit query letters for budding authors. We know just what agents and publishers are looking for in these queries, and we can help you polish the letter so that you put your best foot forward.

5. Don't stop writing. This is important. While your query letters are sailing through cyberspace, sitting in inboxes, and waiting to be read, do not sit around and twiddle your thumbs. Keep working! Even more importantly, work on something new. So you're trying to get an agent for the first book in your trilogy. Great! Don't spend time on book 2. Move on to another project. Sound crazy? It's not. Even if an agent loves your book, contacts you, and you sign a contract, work on a different project. Consider this: The agent loves your book. He wants everyone else to love it too. But for some reason, the publishers aren't getting excited about it. After a few months, he's going to turn to you and ask for something else. What do you have? Half of book 2 isn't going to sell before book 1. But maybe a different idea will get off the ground first. Make sure that you always have something else, something different, something fresh that you can hand to your agent. Perhaps he doesn't sign a contract with you yet, but he likes your writing style. He may ask to read something else of yours. Always be working on that something so that you can hand it over.

Hopefully these tips will help you score the agent of your dreams, but remember: a poorly edited book, even if it's a great story, will have a tough time getting an agent or a publisher to notice it. So make sure to give Castle Editorial a chance. Together, we can polish your manuscript and make it shine brighter than any competition in that agent's inbox.

Monday, June 24, 2013

So What?

One of the most vital aspects of a novel that's often forgotten by rookie authors is the "so what?" or, in other words, the consequence. What happens if your main character fails in his quest? What if she doesn't break the curse? What if he joins the dark side? What if they don't reach the Emerald City? What is the consequence? What's at stake?

Part of thinking about your story in terms of consequences is thinking about the actions that precede the consequences. So basically: this action leads to this consequence, which leads to more action. Sometimes, consequences stem from your main character's decisions. Other times, the consequence is created by others' actions, which in turn affect the main character. Whatever the case, in a great story, something is always at stake.

Let's take The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as an example. Katniss Everdeen has one thing she loves completely: her little sister, Prim. When Effie Trinket draws Prim's name (action), Prim must fight to the death in the games (consequence). But Katniss cannot bear to watch her sister fight and inevitably die, so she volunteers to take Prim's place (action) and engages in a fight to the death (consequence).

What would have happened had the story been more like, "Prim sat at home, and one day she died. And Katniss cried." That's hardly a story. Even, "Prim's name was drawn, she fought in the games, and she died. Katniss cried." That's a little bit better, but still not a bestseller. But this, "Prim's name was called, Katniss cried out that she would take her place, and Katniss was immediately taken away from her family to go fight to the death in the games." Now that's a story people want to read. That's bestseller material.

So what is the one thing that matters most to your main character? Is it family? Honor? Love? Survival? Whatever it is, take it away. But remember that it needs to be a consequence of someone's actions. For Katniss, her family was at stake. And then her own life hung in the balance.

Now, it was her choice to volunteer to take her sister's place in the games; it was her actions that forced her to deal with the consequence. But whose actions forced her to make that decision? The Capitol. And that is how an antagonist is born. The actions the villain takes against the hero are a means of revealing the villain. (If you want to throw your readers off the trail of the antagonist, have him take actions that benefit the hero at first. Then later, reveal that his actions were all just to further his plot to destroy the hero in some way.)

Every character or group will take action in your story. Does Katniss volunteer? Does Peeta throw the bread? Does Haymitch send supplies? These actions will all lead to consequences and future actions. Imagine how things would be different if any of these characters (or your own characters) had made different decisions. The consequences would be different. If you are stuck in writer's block, look at the consequences of your characters' actions. Make the consequences more severe. Put something even more important on the line. Does the character have anything left to lose? If yes, then put that on the line. If no, then put her life on the line.

The most important thing to remember is that without any consequences, there's no story. If Prim's name was drawn to receive a sack of potatoes, then Katniss would pat Prim on the head and they would go home. And that would be it. Or would it? Even the most innocent of actions can have dire consequences if you, the author, make it so. What if the sack of potatoes had been poisoned? What if the rest of the town was starving and they end up breaking into Katniss's house just for the potatoes? What if both of those things happened and the members of the town began dying off because of the poison? And then comes the question: who poisoned the potatoes?

Though a story about poisoned potatoes may be interesting, a story about a girl who has to fight other teenagers to the death may be a bit more interesting. So don't be afraid to raise the stakes. It is only when the consequence is so terrible that the character feels like she has no choice. And it's when she feels like she has no choice that she makes a decision. Does she sit back? Or does she stand up? Is she ready to face the consequences of her decision? Well, ready or not, she will have to.

So, you're an author and you write a book with high stakes and drastic consequences (action). So what? Well, readers will stick around to see what happens (consequence), and maybe you'll be the next bestseller (even better consequence). 

Friday, June 14, 2013

ABDs of Plot, Part 2

Read part 1


The climax is "the most intense, exciting, or important point of something; a culmination or apex." Let's use The Lord of the Rings. There they stand, Frodo and Sam, at the most important point in their journey to destroy the one ring, and Frodo manifests a change of heart. In comes Gollum, a character representing a culmination of years of servitude and devotion to the ring, and a scuffle over the ring ensues.
    Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words. 
    The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire. 
    "Precious, precious, precious!" Gollum cried. "My Precious! O my Precious!" And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. 
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
Did you notice the ABDs in play? The scene is clearly set and the action is quick and fluid; the story's background elements are merging in a pinnacle moment of development: the principal characters are finally brought into the critical situation; and the climatic struggle between betrayal and loyalty risks to thwart the characters' ultimate goal!

Apply this excellent example of the ABDs pattern to your own characters as you build the climax of your story. Because of unique backgrounds, each of your characters has separate longing and desires that drive their choices and actions throughout the tale. Thus your story develops, building up clashes of desire as well as conflicts preventing the fulfillment of desire, until finally something or someone is forced to choose, to struggle against a foe, to face the truth—at the risk of losing something very dear, possibly even their own life.

All roads lead to the climax, so the details you include should supply readers enough to chart out maps of strategy and build tension bridges all the way to the point of no return. Think of the climax as the thing(s) that your reader will never get back once your characters summit that paramount crisis.


Well, as they say, what goes up must come down. After the climax, comes the denouement. After the fable, Aesop states the moral. The end wraps up the overarching element that brought all the characters together. We may plot Lord of the Rings as a story about a ring that needs to be destroyed, but the concluding lines after the climactic scene reveal a deeper plot: a story about loyalty and enduring friendship.
    "Your poor hand!" he said. "And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared him a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever." 
    "Yes," said Frodo. "But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam." 
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
One purpose of a story's ending is to extract a moral or offer a broader conclusion. It may summarize or philosophize, leave the reader stunned or in happy tears, but what it must not do is stop the plot before it's finished. Throughout the entire story, the elements intersect and merge to propel us through the twists and turns and over the obstacles and around the bends. If those elements all intertwined are not somehow collectively or individually tied off, your credibility and likability as an author will promptly unravel.

Take the time to map out what you want each character to have learned or lost, gained or forfeited by the plot's end. The plot is largely completed at the climax because the driving components of the story have crashed head on. The denouement allows for the dust to clear and settle, accounts for damage and casualties, and offers a glimpse into the future of the survivors. Sometimes an epilogue can close the story, sometimes the promise of a sequel will take care of larger loose ends.

Whatever comes after the climax needs to fit the development and mood and tone of the preceding scenes and interaction between characters. But in the end, the story must end. And at some point in your background development, you must know to what end you're writing. If you don't know (and some of us are discovery writers who find the ending the closer we get to it), keep writing—don't surrender the story to a premature ending! Revisit and reapply the ABDs to every chapter until the ending reveals itself to you. Your characters will give up their secrets, the setting will settle at last, the dialogue will have the last word—and you'll have a bestseller.

And there you have it—a great start to laying your story down, letter by letter. Now you know the ABDs, next time won't you write with these!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The ABDs of Plot

Yes, usually it's the ABCs of something, but if you tend toward the slightly dyslexic (like I sometimes do) you won't find the following list out of sorts. While mnemonically muddled, it still includes the first five letters of the alphabet, so it's easy enough to remember.


Boom, your story's movin'.

Writers will often have a general idea of where their novels will start and end, but it's the road from beginning to end that provides the composition "adventure." The middle ground is riddled with alignment-destroying plot-holes and block after block of blocks, which is, ironically, the precise kind of rocky adventure we wish would permeate our paragraphs when our stories are making no progress.

When you're struggling to get from one end of your story to the other, remember the ABD building blocks. Stories are a matrix made up of many layers of beginnings and ends: scenes (which are ideally shaped out of action), background, and development. Chapter after chapter you'll find yourself repeating the same arcs as you build each scene in your story because that's what stories do. The road is paved one yellow brick at a time.

This post will be published in two segments: first the action, background, and development, then the climax and ending. Both are aimed toward helping you get the middles of your story paved so smoothly that readers will be baffled you ever battled writer's block at all.