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January 2008--#4 Writing Fiction to Sell: Keep it Brisk

This is my first chat with you since the Holidays. I hope yours were relaxing and fun. Thank you to all of you who sent your good wishes for the season. As my gift to you, and to anyone else interested in selling their stories to book or magazine publishers, here are a few thoughts that might help you shape your fiction and snare a publisher. . .

Regardless of genre, editors today are choosing to buy material that is tightly written and briskly paced. What does that mean for writers trying to break in today? Well, if you grew up reading and loving the classics, chances are you’re going to need to regear your own writing style. I say this because we all instinctively absorb the flavor of writing that we most frequently read. And let’s face it, much as I admire the works of Austen, Faulkner, and Tolstoy, I’m not going to be able to sell a book written in their style. I need to keep in mind the tastes of today’s readers. 

Let’s talk a little about the fiction that most commercial publishers seem to be buying today. They want plots that move quickly. Yes, interesting characters are important, and a solid plot with strong conflict is too. But the way the story moves forward, in short scenes that are vividly created from the characters’ movements and dialogue—that’s paramount.

Students often tell me that their story/book is fast paced. But they qualify this by explaining to me that “the good part” begins on page 10, or in Chapter 4. The editors and agents I speak with at conferences admit that they simply don’t have the time to read through a 500-page manuscript, looking for “the good parts.” If the writer hasn’t captured their attention within the first few pages, they will not read further.
This isn’t only true for new writers. Even authors of many published books are finding it difficult to place their next novels if they write in too relaxed a style.

How do you tighten your writing and your pacing? Here are a few tips:

  1. Take out clutter words. (For example: in order to, that, (and sometimes) the.

Bad: Maxwell simply adored the summer days in order to frequently go to the park more often.
Better: Maxwell adored summer days. He often went to the park.

    2.  Get rid of unnecessary adverbs

Ann cried out pitifully, “Oh, please don’t!”
Ann cried out, “Oh, please don’t!

   3.  Cut scenes that dump background information on the reader; instead, weave only necessary details into active scenes.

   4.  Keep paragraphs, scenes and chapters short—they’ll read almost as if they’re free flowing dialogue.

In upcoming tips I hope to show you more ways to strengthen your writing and create a manuscript that will be appealing to both readers and editors.

Meanwhile, keep on writing stories you love, and enjoy the company of other writers. -- Kathryn