The Value of Agent-Assisted Self-Publishing

Writer's Digest October 2014

Last year, I wrote a feature article for Writer’s Digest magazine that explored the intersection of literary agents and self-publishing. I researched how literary agents are helping their established clients who self-publish, as well as when or how they offer services to new authors whose work doesn’t find a traditional publisher. I also addressed how authors benefit (or not) by having an agent help them.

Before self-publishing with an agent’s assistance, ask the following questions:

  • Who covers the costs associated with self-publishing? In most cases, the author covers the cost, but sometimes the agent will cover expenses and deduct them from the author’s earnings.
  • Who controls rights to the self-published work? (It should be the author.)
  • How long must you commit to giving the agent 15 percent of sales on the work? (It shouldn’t be indefinitely.)
  • How/when can the agreement be terminated?

To learn more about assisted self-publishing with agents, as well as a list of agencies that offer such services, read my full article, now available for free at Writer’s Digest.]

Also related: Agent-Assisted Self-Publishing and the Amazon White Glove Program

Taking the Risk to Write Deeply About Your Family History

Benjamin Vogt with family, standing in front of the homestead (1980s)

Note from Jane: This fall, I’m delighted to be offering a 10-week course on writing about your family, taught by writer and professor Benjamin Vogt. Benjamin has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an MFA from Ohio State University, and has taught nearly 60 English classes while receiving four awards for his work with students. Benjamin’s writing has appeared in over 50 publications, such as Creative Nonfiction, Orion, and The Sun, as well as in eight anthologies, including The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (University of Iowa Press).

For years I’ve been working to discover my life. Wait. I mean writing a memoir. Wait. I mean researching where I come from and who I carry with me. Lots of recent research shows that emotional and other psychological trauma can be passed on genetically to future generations; if these experiences can be passed on, what others might linger in my blood or color the way I act or think or perceive the world? Who am I?

I spent the first ten years of my life in Oklahoma, and every time we went back to visit family after moving to Minnesota, it was complete gut-wrenching torture. As soon as we crossed the border from Kansas, the soil turned red and my heart sank. For most of my life I hated Oklahoma and the small town I came from, filled with old people and old stories and backwater tendencies. When we unearthed thousands of photos cleaning out my grandmother’s house in my twenties, I suddenly realized how little I knew about myself, how important it was to know where I was from, how much I’d want to know as I got older but was quickly losing. I hoarded black-and-white pictures of people and places no one recognized, each one an ember I would stoke. It took years after my grandmother’s passing for me to leap into Oklahoma like she had always wanted, to discover just how wonderfully complicated that home was, and how to honor a past (and myself) that I misunderstood.

It was not and still is not an easy journey, and it took all sorts of research to develop stories that opened up the well of writing within me. I also have had to come to terms with the fact that what I’m writing will upset some people—exploring how my ancestors helped destroy other cultures, from Native Americans to prairie wildlife, is an essential part of honestly and authentically knowing who we are and living better lives. Bravery, and a better story, comes with research.

Prairie Dogs

I interviewed my great aunts and learned about farm life—making sausages with pig intestines, Sunday ice cream socials, a chivaree gone bad after chickens were let loose in a house, how each windmill has a distinct voice. I heard the story of my grandmother, who as a child witnessed the spirit of her own grandmother lift up through the bedroom floor on out the window late one night when she passed away. I got tours of various homesteads, walked fields where I cried and touched the same rusted barn light switches my family once touched.

I visited regional libraries and churches to learn about my Mennonite heritage, the persecution of Mennonites in Europe, their immigration and integration into American culture. I discovered that a fire had destroyed the church record book, the genealogy for many families dating back centuries, except for those few pages that held my family’s history. I now know who “died of diarrhea” in the 1700s.

I read one hundred books on Mennonites, prairie, wildlife, Oklahoma’s cultural history, outlaw gangs, oil, Native Americans, Custer’s attack on a Cheyenne village (where peace chief Black Kettle’s body floated down the same creek my grandmother was baptized in decades later).

I walked Oklahoma’s diverse landscapes, from prairie to sagebrush to mountains buried up to their necks, to salt flats and bat caves and hills shimmering with crystals. It took my breath away. These travels even helped my marriage, sharing those spaces with my wife, learning about my past together.

Glass Mountains

And when I began putting it all together I discovered my story in the stories of complete strangers, related or not. I found the story of our country and the Great Plains I’ve called home most of my life. I’m still finding the stories as I bear witness through language, a language that time fades and warps and twists until truth is a strange, exhilarated mingling of fact and fiction; such a mingling defines who we are when we take the great risk to look deeply at our lives.

Learn more about Benjamin’s 10-week course, All in the Family, starting September 28.

5 On: Allyson Rudolph

Allyson Rudolph

In this 5 On interview, Allyson Rudolph (@allysonrudolph) discusses some of her favorite experimental fiction, the day-to-day life of an associate editor at a publishing house, common problems she sees in fiction and nonfiction, her commitment to increased diversity in media and the arts, and more.

Allyson Rudolph is associate editor at The Overlook Press, where she acquires an eclectic mix of fiction and nonfiction. Before joining Overlook, she worked at Grand Central Publishing, Hyperion, and various academic and association presses in Washington, DC.

5 on Writing

CHRIS JANE: You co-founded, with Meredith Haggerty, the League of Assistant Editors Tumblr to help connect young (but not new) agents and editors. As a (twenty-nine? thirty?)-year-old associate editor at a traditional publishing house, you already have a long history of working as an editor. What fueled your passion for editing or the publishing business in general? When you were in high school, were you an avid reader, or were you more interested in working on the yearbook or the school newspaper (for example)?

ALLYSON RUDOLPH: Twenty-nine! For now.

I didn’t notice until after I got into publishing that I’ve been editing—or at least working with writers and readers on their writing and reading—for most of my life. In elementary school I was a reading buddy for English language learners. I was on the newspaper in middle school and became the managing editor of my high school newspaper as a sophomore. (There were no juniors and seniors at my school at the time—long story—so that’s not as impressive as it sounds.) I line-edited my peers in that position and learned a lot about how to tell someone, sensitively, that their modifiers are dangling. In college I was a paid writing tutor at my school’s award-winning writers’ center; some of my frequent “clients” from that center still send me work they want feedback on, and one sent me flowers when I graduated, which is just the nicest feeling.

I loved working with students whose high schools hadn’t prepared them well for college-level writing—I watched one kid’s grades go from Cs to As after we had a big “what’s a thesis statement” conversation. No one had taken the time to tell him that college essays revolve around a set of structural (and cultural) expectations, and it seemed insane that I’d be the person to help him unlock that, but I was. What a privilege, right?

I was also an annoyingly avid reader. I was not the most social kid (see above, on dangling modifiers) and my favorite childhood activities were reading and daydreaming on the swing set in the backyard. And I was raised by two great, diverse readers who kept me in books and who were able to guide me to appropriate adult reading when I’d bled the kids’ and YA sections of my library dry.

Despite all that, it never once occurred to me, until I was already working in publishing, that I could or should pursue editing as a career. I was never curious about how the books I loved were made until I found myself, quite unintentionally, working in the industry. But, like, not on books anyone read voluntarily. And not as an editor. It took years and years before I began acquiring and editing books that will appear in bookstores.

Among the manuscripts you’ve edited, what kind of work do most of them need? Is there a popular problem area for writers?

This is such a good question!

So, first: to a large extent, I get to pick what I’m working on. Most of the writing I work with is already very, very good—or at least I think it is—or I wouldn’t be editing it. There are certain problems I know I am not good at editing, and so I tend not to pursue projects that have, for example, clunky dialogue. Or clunky sentence-level writing, in general, for fiction.

There are a number of things, though, especially in fiction, that I find myself commenting on over and over. Unearned emotion is a big pet peeve for me—if your main character is going to have a breakdown, or agonize over something for years, or change the whole course of her life because of some Thing that happened to her, that Thing needs to have the same weight as the concomitant breakdown/agony/life-change. Or, the character needs to be written so the reader believes she would react in an outsized way.

I also comment a lot on pacing, in fiction. I feel strongly that my role as a fiction editor isn’t to tell writers that they’re right or wrong. I’m more like a professional reader, with fiction—my goal is to share my reactions to the book I’m reading, as I’m reacting. When action is starting to drag, I’ll note that. If things seem to be moving extra fast, I’ll note that. Sometimes I have ideas about how to edit things to address my concerns, sometimes I’m just saying “this feels weird to me.”

With nonfiction, I’m obsessive about logic and argument structure. I think nonfiction writers are often inclined to jam everything they know or have found, every quote, every tidbit, onto their pages. I spend a lot of ink asking, “Is this point doing work for you? Is it pulling its weight? What is it contributing to the argument you’re making?” If it’s not germane, I want it gone.

I’m also a tyrant about pronouns and specificity in nonfiction. If you are using a pronoun, I need to know right away what it refers to. Don’t make me guess. On any given page of a nonfiction edit, I’ve usually circled a handful of pronouns and written “Who?” or “What?”

Your bio lists experimental fiction as one of your interests. Do you mean reading it or writing it, and what author would you immediately point to if someone new to reading experimental fiction wanted a good example of it?

 photo interrogative mood.jpgI haven’t looked at my website bio in a while! Huh.

That said, my favorite thing to do with experimental fiction is play with it. There’s something interactive about writers who are really out there—I find myself wanting to get my hands dirty with their work, somehow. I found a copy of Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood in my office when I first started my current job; it’s a novel written entirely in questions. I loved it. I was also struggling with Tinder, the online dating app, when I was reading it. I started asking men on Tinder questions from The Interrogative Mood, and then it became a whole project with rules (no skipping questions, even if they’re uncomfortable, etc.) and I started posting screenshots of the answers to Tumblr. I haven’t done it for a few months, but the results were a lot gentler? sweeter? happier? than I was expecting. I thought I was going to create an archive of assholes, and actually I got a snapshot of something very different. It turns out if you ask people thoughtful and unexpected questions, you often get thoughtful and unexpected responses.

Other faves: The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner is one of the oddest novels I’ve ever read, but there’s a genius logic to it that made me swoony. I’d like to stage that, somehow. And Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes is bananas. I like when absurd things can still give you huge feelings, and House of Holes is the kind of book that inspires huge—well, read it alone, maybe.

Last year, the League of Assistant Editors’ Tumblr page recommended a link to a Reddit conversation that began with this prompt: “Tell me why you love your favorite book. Tell me about the plot, characters, writing style, themes.” I’m bouncing that prompt to you.

I have different reading needs at different times—it’s sort of funny to me that my website bio says I’m interested in experimental fiction, for example, because I’ve been in a reading funk lately and don’t think I’d have the brainpower, right now, to engage with something like The Interrogative Mood.

But there are books I go back to over and over for comfort. The Time Traveler’s Wife is one—I read it if I’m feeling numb and want to remember how to cry. When I first read it, I loved the way Niffenegger takes a historically genre concept (time travel) and makes it feel utterly plausible but allows the mechanics of time travel to stay mysterious—because the mechanics aren’t the point. The point is: this story about a thing that we all know can’t happen can still tell us a lot about things like love and loss, joy and despair—which not only do happen, they make us human.

 photo ella enchanted.jpgI also love Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which I read for the first time when I was maybe ten, and reread a lot. It’s comfort food—spunky, compassionate, brave heroine on a magical journey of self-actualization (although really she becomes her mother) with boarding school and ogres and stuff. I’m always proud of Ella’s choices, while I’m reading; even as an adult, I feel a lot of tenderness for this character who’s been with me for so long.

And then there’s Harry Potter. I’ll just leave that there.

You are forced to choose between the two: great writing/so-so storytelling or great storytelling/so-so writing. Please answer as (a) a hobby reader, and (b) an associate editor.

The former, every time. As an editor, I find so-so storytelling easier to fix than so-so writing. I see big shapes more clearly than small ones. As a reader, so-so writing tends to distract me from even the best story.

5 on Publishing

How did you get involved with Bindercon, and what have you personally witnessed (or heard through reliable colleagues) in your time in publishing that exemplifies a need for a conference whose goal is to “increase the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts by empowering women and gender non-conforming writers”?

In the conversations I’ve read on gender in publishing and media, I’ve seen arguments on the side of “[people who aren’t cis males] need to be more assertive,” and I’ve also seen, “People simply don’t take [people who aren’t cis males] seriously.” Does it seem to be more one than the other, or are both true?

I’ve always been involved with human rights and social justice activism, and I’ve felt strongly about the importance of diversity since I was small. In seventh grade, my middle school had kids from seventy-two countries and a lot of socioeconomic backgrounds; in eighth grade, my family moved to a much more homogeneous town, and I recall feeling distinctly unsettled by all the blondes at my new school. I’ve also been staunchly feminist for as long as I can remember, so the mission of the Binders appealed to me.

A journalist friend with similar views invited me into the Facebook group shortly after it launched, and then when Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum decided to organize a conference, I expressed interest in helping out. They needed someone to help coordinate programming, I’d done that type of work before, and voilà! I was programming co-chair for the first NYC conference last year, but stepped back my involvement after that. Shit got busy!

Publishing critically needs diverse voices—non-cis males, non-white anyone, people from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of life experiences. Even with the rise of self-publishing, traditional publishing has this enormous power to determine what stories are available to readers—and to market the heck out of those stories, and promote them—and, as we all know from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.

There are plenty of publications and presses that do a great job of lifting up potentially marginalized voices, and I know diversity is a key initiative at a lot of presses. At the same time, when I look around the industry, my own field of vision is full of people who are a lot like me—white, privileged liberal arts grads. That strikes me as a problem. (One I am absolutely benefiting from, to be clear.)

I don’t think anyone needs to be more assertive. Many, many people are speaking up, loudly, about what they want and need from the publishing industry. Binders are speaking up about needing non-cis male voices. I see #weneeddiversebooks and #blacklivesmatter everywhere. Very smart writers are writing very smart things about diversity in publishing and media, and they’re not, like, hidden. (Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two prominent cultural critics who come to mind for me right away.)

I try to listen, especially to the people who are challenging me or who are telling me I’m part of the problem. I try to boost voices and call out institutional impediments to change. I hope I can be an ally.

What’s a typical workday like for you? Are you in an office full-time or do you work from home? Do you spend a lot of time talking to the author of whatever manuscript you’re editing at the moment? How many manuscripts are you likely to be working on at once? Etc.

I work full time, in an office. I usually get to my desk around 7:30 and take advantage of two hours of relative quiet to edit manuscripts, write editorial letters, or do other focused work. When folks start to trickle into the office a little after 9:00, I turn on my computer and start in on emails—the vast majority of my day involves email. Lots of logistical questions, lots of getting X thing to Y person or asking person A to do thing B.

I write a lot—for every book I work on there’s internal descriptive copy, catalog copy, galley copy, jacket copy, and then I typically write a variety of letters about each book that I can send to potential blurbers, or to booksellers, or to media outlets. I look at covers and jackets and page proofs, and send those things out to copyeditors and proofreaders. I send many things to authors for approval.

There’s a lot of project management and staying on top of deadlines I’ve given people. I work on about forty-five books a year, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Those aren’t all books that need to be edited—I’ve been able to stick to editing one manuscript at a time, for the most part.

I don’t do much editorial work during office hours—if I’m talking to an author during the day it’s usually about some logistical publishing concern. The actual work of editing gets done in that early morning block, and I don’t typically have lengthy verbal conversations about edits; I prefer to write long, long letters that I send to authors with their printed manuscripts, which I’ve usually marked up with green or purple pen.

Reading and evaluating submissions from writers and agents happens on my commute and in the evenings or on weekends.

How much freedom do you have in choosing projects, and how do projects come to you?

I like to see projects from people I know personally—either agents whose taste I trust or unagented writers I know in real life. But I see a lot of manuscripts from a lot of people, usually agents who have seen my deals on trade websites, or who’ve heard about my taste from colleagues in their own offices, or who are looking for someone to submit to at my publishing company and found my email address online. (That’s most of the time, I think—I’m not so accomplished that folks are pounding my door down because of my own work, yet.)

I have more power to say no to things than to say yes—if I like a book, I need other people at the office to like it, too, and then I need them to see the business case for signing the author up. I work for a very small press, though, so I have fewer colleagues to convince than my colleagues at bigger companies do.

I also work on a lot of inherited projects—books that were signed by an editor who no longer works at the company, or books in a series from franchise authors. I didn’t pick those projects, but I usually like ’em all the same.

What happens if you recommend change X, and the author says, “Absolutely not”? If something is artistically important to the author—whether a character does or does not kiss another character, say—but the editor thinks it’s equally important to change that thing, how afraid does the author have to be that the publisher will drop the book?

This happens so, so rarely!

I take edits to my own writing extremely poorly. I’m still pissed off about a sentence I had to change in an essay I wrote years ago for an online magazine. So I’m always pleasantly surprised to find that real writers seem to be amenable to changing their own work.

This is perhaps a rosy view, but I find that authors, editors, and agents tend to be on the same team. I’ve had great luck—on most of my projects so far, everyone wants a successful publication and everyone respects and trusts each other’s vision, so editing feels collaborative instead of confrontational.

Also, with fiction, the book is usually complete by the time I see it. If there’s something huge that I don’t like, I’m either unlikely to pursue the book at all, or will have a conversation with the author and agent about that particular edit before anyone signs anything.

It’s rare to drop a book—I’ve seen it happen twice, and never with fiction. Nonfiction is a slightly dicier proposition: those books are typically signed up based on a proposal, not a full-length manuscript, and so it’s possible (although not common) that the finished product will bear very little resemblance to the book the editor was expecting. If a heavy round of editing doesn’t solve the problem, then maybe the publisher will consider cancelling.

When I worked as a collection agent, the overall mood of the place was straight-up business: Git ’er done (there were bonuses to make). When I was a cab driver, the mood of the cab stand was the sort of apathy you see in people who are either high or incredibly hungover—often because people were either high or hungover. At the newspaper, it was a blend of high energy, cynicism, and frustration, for what are probably obvious reasons. What’s the mood at a publishing house in the 2010s?

Oh, gosh. I’m sure it depends on the publishing house.

The number one thing I find in a publishing house, though, is a genuine love of books, of reading, of readers. Publishing people take a lot of pride in their work, and they tend to be very connected to the writers and readers who support this whole ecosystem. There’s a lot of love for indie bookstores, libraries, librarians, and online reading communities. The Twitter accounts of publishing houses talk to each other on Twitter and make extremely nerdy inside jokes about obscure writers, etc. It’s pretty awesome, actually, to be surrounded by people who spend their days talking about what people are reading.

Morale can get low when we feel like these things we love are threatened—when Amazon behaves like a bully, or when bookstores close and library funding is cut—and there’s certainly plenty of business talk and strategy. But the foundation of every house I’ve worked for: book people who love books.

Thank you, Allyson.

The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

Several water drops hitting a pond surface, resulting in circular ripples

by Trina Alexander | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is excerpted from the recently released Writing Deep Scenes by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld (Writer’s Digest Books).

When writing fiction (or even narrative nonfiction), scenes are microcosms of your larger plot. Each scene takes us into a crucial moment of your characters’ story and should engage both our emotions and our minds by creating real-time momentum or action.

What comprises a scene?

If you’ve never thought much about the shape of a scene, consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience.

The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward, and ends in such a way that he just has to know what happens next.

What’s the best way to start and end a scene?

Scenes don’t so much begin as launch—often in the midst of an event or activity. That is to say, you need not start scenes with an explanation or exposition but simply with an entrance into the action. Then, by following a character’s goals and desires, you walk your reader through a setting—preferably in a way that shows the protagonist interacting with it, not just observing it—employing the character’s sensory perceptions, introducing his conflict and relationship with inner and outer antagonists and allies, and building the character to a high or low point. Never leave the reader too satisfied at the end of a scene; she must want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

What should a scene accomplish?

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. And thus, scene by scene, you tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music.

A scene is defined by the presence of more real-time momentum than interior monologue (contemplation) or expository explanation.

Real-time momentum is a combination of action, dialogue, and character interaction with his surroundings and other characters. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences any number of situations and scenarios. In contrast, narrative summary—lecturing, explaining, or describing—puts readers to sleep after too long.

Your scenes can end on a high note (a small victory for your character) or a low note (a moment of cliff-hanging suspense or uncertainty). It doesn’t matter which way it goes so long as each scene concludes by setting up future conflicts for the character(s) and creating in readers a yearning to know what happens next.

What qualifies as a scene?

If you’re wondering whether a passage or section you’ve written qualifies as a scene, consider what scenes are not.

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette).
  • Scenes are not a place to explain something or to lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer).
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory).

The difference between scene and summary

Not everyone understands the difference between scene and summary, so let us provide a clear distinction. 
Summary explains something to the reader. It offers information, ranging from long-winded histories of the town your character lives in to pat descriptions or rambling explanations for a character’s behavior. Summary doesn’t engage the senses, and it rarely involves moment-by-moment action.

Examples of summary include:

  • “It was a beautiful day.”
  • “She felt happy for the first time in months.”
  • “She didn’t trust men because her father had been the one to leave her all alone in the boat that night, when she almost drowned, and she now also had a terrible fear of water.”

When to use summary

You can get away with using summary in scenes in a few places:

  • Condensing time: When you need to change the time in a scene, you certainly don’t need to make your characters wait on the beach while you bring the sun down, describing every color change in the sky. To condense time, you can simply write, “Night fell,” or “Six hours passed,” or “A month later.” These are appropriate segues that don’t require further explanation.
  • Changing or condensing locations: Readers don’t need to see every storefront your character passes on her drive from one place to another. They don’t care how many red lights she goes through (unless she blows through them—that detail might be noteworthy). In other words, as with time, you have full license to get people where they’re going without any preamble or further description: “They walked three miles to her mother’s house,” or “The train took them a hundred miles closer to their destination,” or “They drove back to her apartment.”
  • Reiterating details previously revealed in the story: This is actually a very important and handy trick. Let’s say the reader witnesses an event that takes place earlier in the narrative in scene form. Later, one of the characters in that scene needs to tell another character what happened. Rather than have the character repeat all the actions, you can simply summarize: “I told him about the events leading up to the explosion,” or “She recounted the high points of the battle,” or “She told him everything she could remember about the abduction.”

Demonstrate, don’t lecture

Rather than citing the commonly used adage “Show, don’t tell,” a more helpful direction for scene work is “Demonstrate, don’t lecture.”

If you tell the reader a character is “outraged,” you’re lecturing. Where’s the proof? Demonstrate her outrage in action and dialogue. Don’t lecture us about your character’s wounded backstory; demonstrate her wounds through how she behaves, thinks, and speaks. Instead of using summary to rehash discoveries and epiphanies, keep them front and center—onstage—so that the reader experiences these moments with the character.

A fun phrase for remembering the functions of a scene is “A scene is a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality.”

  • Stylized: Nothing in your scene appears by accident; you have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but you know nothing is.
  • Sharper simulacrum: We read to experience a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In your bid to create a realistic experience, don’t put every single action—the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life—into your scenes. Include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing how things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Examples of scenes

Following are some examples of scenes—or “scenelets,” for our purposes, as these are not full scenes but have all the key ingredients that tell a reader a scene is unfolding: action, dialogue, and sensory imagery that create immediacy, momentum, and the sense that events are unfolding in the “now.”

They were moving quickly now, Wolgast at the wheel, Doyle beside him, thumbing away furiously on his handheld. Calling in to let Sykes know who was in charge.

“No goddamn signal.” Doyle tossed his handheld onto the dash. They were fifteen miles outside of Homer, headed due west; the open fields slid endlessly away under a sky thick with stars.

—from The Passage, an apocalyptic vampire novel by Justin Cronin

Her hands flew through the scalded feathers, plucking each one until a gray snow pile drifted at her feet and began to swirl in the breeze.

Mabel singed the skin with matches, sulfur rising from each filament, an acrid incense. She dragged on a Lucky.

“You dassn’t go saying bad things about the Doctor.” My grandmother’s cigarette bobbed at me, its orange ember blowing like a hazard light.

—from Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, a memoir by JaThe cover for Deep Scenescki Lyden

Keep in mind that not all scenes have the same effect inside a story—some are designed to slow the pace (contemplative scenes, for instance), while others bring the energy up (suspense scenes and twister scenes, for instance).

To learn much more about crafting compelling scenes, check out Writing Deep Scenes.


2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction

A pink pencil with pink lead has a broken tip. By Hernán Piñera via Flickr.

by Hernán Piñera | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by editor Jessi Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords).

As a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice about avoiding passive voice and colorless verbs, such as is, was, went, and so on. But you may not be aware of what I call the “stammer verbs” that mar the novels of many budding authors.

I call them that because they halt the flow of a scene. Just as stammering halts speech, stammer verbs halt the flow of a written sentence. The author uses these verbs as if stammering around while searching for the genuine words she’s intending.

As a book editor, I find two verbs in particular repeatedly used in a stammering way by many beginning novelists. Let’s take a look at these little suckers and identify why they pose problems for your story.


Ever notice how often you write “he turned” or “she turned” when you’re describing a character in your novel doing something? I suspect we all do this, in our first drafts.

The king placed the scroll back on the table. He turned and walked to the window.

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She turned, went to the door, and walked out.

Notice how turned adds nothing to the description in these two examples. The reader assumes, if a character is going to move from point A to point B in a scene, he or she will probably have to make a turning movement. That’s understood, so it need not be explained. Stating it merely slows down the action and spoils the vividness of the scene.

In the first example, rather than say he turned and walked to the window, it’s tighter writing to simply say he walked to the window. Better yet would be to describe how the king walked: he strode to the window, or he shuffled to the window.

The king placed the scroll back on the table. He shuffled to the window.

In the second example, She turned, went to the door, and walked out could be tightened to read She went to the door and walked out. A further improvement would be to get rid of went (a colorless verb) and to tell us how Libby walked:

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She stormed out the door.

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. Crying, she hurried out the door.

Notice I didn’t suggest She walked sadly out the door, because it’s better to nail the exact verb you’re looking for than to use a lackluster verb (like walked) and try to prop it up with an adverb (like sadly).


Began is another stammer verb that tends to creep into our writing unless we keep a watchful eye. Like turned, it’s typically misused as a way of launching into description of an action:

Jill sat down with a thud. She began to untie her shoelaces.

Jon put down the letter. He began to stand and pace the room.

There’s no reason to slow down the action in either of these examples with began. See how much tighter this reads:

Jill sat down with a thud. She untied her shoelaces.

Jon put down the letter. He stood and paced the room.

Or perhaps better still:

Jon put down the letter. He paced the room.

Unless something is going to interrupt Jon or Jill between the start and the completion of their action (standing, taking off shoes), there is no reason to say began. Can you see why began would be okay to use in the following sentences?

Jill began to take off her shoes as a spider made its way up her shoelace.

Jon put down the letter. He began to stand, but the man shoved him back down into the chair.

In these examples, began is appropriate, because something is being started, then interrupted. That’s not the case when began is just used as a stammer word.

Turned and began … Once you become sensitive to how these two stammer verbs infiltrate story writing, you’ll find yourself recognizing them as they pop up and naturally weeding them out. Like so many writing problems, the remedy is greater awareness.

Your turn: Are there other “stammer verbs” that annoy you? Tell us about additional verbs you would identify as “stammering” in place of efficient storytelling.