In today’s episode, we’re going to do something fun and a little different. Since we’re nearing the end of 2022, I thought it would be fun to continue with last week’s theme of lessons learned over the last twelve months. I hope some of the lessons you’ve learned this year came from this podcast, and I hope you walked away each week with a new strategy to implement or a new idea to explore. And I hope you’re closer to accomplishing all of your big, beautiful writing goals, too.
So, as we inch our way closer to counting down until the ball drops, I wanted to count down some of the best clips from the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in 2022. You’re going to hear clips from the top ten most listened-to episodes, so I know it’s going to be full of good stuff. And without further ado, let’s dive right in starting with number ten.
Tip number ten comes from episode #54, How to Test Your Story Idea Before You Start Writing. In this episode, I walk through two different exercises that will help you make sure your story idea is fleshed out enough–or, if it’s not, these exercises will help shine a light on any areas of your story that still need work. Here’s the tip:
“As I mentioned earlier, what we’re trying to do is get a sense of which piece of the puzzle your story idea might be missing. When you consider your idea:
If you don’t know the answer to these answers, I suggest looking to your genre for clues. Your genre can guide your answers to each of these questions.
For example, if you know you’re writing an action story, then the genre framework tells us that a) your protagonist wants to defeat the antagonist to save lives (most likely including their own life), b) your protagonist will face specific (and dangerous) conflict thrown in their path by the antagonist, and c) their life and the lives of others are at stake if they don’t successfully stop the antagonist. So, we have the WHO, WHAT, and WHY right there in our genre framework.
And this is why I really like doing this exercise first whenever I have a new idea because it helps develop your idea's narrative potential. A lot of writers I work with have not thought through the central conflict in their story, so they might know some stuff about their protagonist, or they might have some ideas for scenes, but they haven’t done the work of fleshing out the conflict and/or their antagonist.
So, by doing this exercise, it’s easy to see where and why an idea is falling flat. And to me, if an idea does fall flat in this 1-2 sentence summary, that never means the idea is terrible or that this story shouldn’t be written. It just means there’s a little more work to do to flesh things out.
So, once you write your 1-2 sentence summary, step back and ask yourself if you like it. Does it sound interesting to you? Or not? If it doesn’t, keep digging until you’ve fleshed out each of the ingredients.”
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to #54, How to Test Your Story Idea Before You Start Writing.
Alright, moving along to tip number nine. This one comes from episode # 55, 3 Tips for Writing a First Draft in 90 Days. And in this episode, I give some tips and strategies for writing a first draft in about three months IF that’s your goal–it certainly doesn’t have to be your goal, but some people want to do this. And in this clip, I talk about how outlining can help you write a draft in 90 days. Here’s the clip:
“I highly recommend creating a scene-by-scene outline for your entire story before you start writing. And I know some of you do not like to outline, so that’s totally fine if you’re in that camp, but I will say that every single writer I’ve worked with who doesn’t like outlining usually comes around to the value of outlining after they see how much time and energy an outline can save. And not only that, but there really is a way to make the outlining process feel as fun and as creative as writing is.
One of the ways to do this is to think of your outline as your draft zero. So, the draft before your first draft, but in scene summary form. I know this advice won’t work for everyone, but maybe give it a try if you’re normally not into outlining, but also not exactly happy with the progress you’re currently making.
So, two things here. Once you have a full scene-by-scene outline, I want you to go back through it and pressure-test it. So, look for plot holes, inconsistencies in logic, pacing that feels too fast or too slow, characters who appear but then go missing for the second half of the book, subplots that appear out of nowhere in act three–things like that. Then, I also want you to look at each one of your scenes and look for the point of view character’s GOAL + CONFLICT + DECISION in every single one of your scenes. Doing this work upfront will make a HUGE DIFFERENCE in the quality of your first draft.
This is the exact same process I teach in my Notes to Novel class and most of the time, no matter how someone felt at the onset of this lesson, most of the time, they’re REALLY happy to have gone through this step and done this hard work once they’re done. It’s seriously a game-changer!
So, after that, once you feel good about your outline, it’s time to start writing. So, this is where the 90-day clock starts ticking. And remember, if you’re aiming for 80,000 words in your first draft, this means you’ll need to write about 6,000 words per week. But now, if you’ve fleshed out your story, and pressure-tested your outline, it should be SO MUCH EASIER to sit down to write every day.
And think about it like this… when you have little pockets of time–30 minutes here, 30 minutes there–you don’t have to spend half of that time thinking about what you need to write–it will all be there on your scene-by-scene roadmap.”
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode # 55: How to Write a First Draft in 90 Days.
Moving onto tip number eight. This one comes from episode #61 where Abigail K. Perry and I analyzed the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. In this clip, we talk about pacing and structure–specifically what happens when the inciting incident of your story comes too late. We also talk about scene length, and how scenes relate to chapters and other fun things like that. Here’s the clip:
“Abigail: I’ve seen a pattern, and I don’t know if you’ve seen this at all, Savannah, but usually, if you don’t have an inciting incident by chapter three—your pace is probably off and your story can start to feel slow. I’ve noticed it tends to be like that.
Savannah: In theory, you could have three very bloated chapters and you're not getting to the inciting incident until like 20,000 words, which is not ideal either. So, what I like to say is like, the inciting incident usually occurs around 10 to 12% of your entire manuscript. It's usually like halfway through the beginning section of your story. And if the beginning is 20-25%, the 10-12% mark is about halfway through the beginning section. And the reason I like to think about it like this is that you see those plot maps where it’s like we build up to something and then come down, we build up to something and then come down. And that first peak is usually your inciting incident. If you don’t have it by that point, whether it’s chapter three or whatever (I say that 10-12% mark), why is someone reading your book? What’s keeping them going? They’ll stop.
Abigail: And if you're doing traditional publishing, I've seen a lot of agents say, okay, give me the first three chapters–so if you don't get to it by chapter three, your book is out of the running. They’ll put it down. So, just kind of an FYI type of thing. Now, what else is really interesting about that is that we've talked about in the past about how the ideal scene length is around 2,000 to 2,500 words–we call this “potato chip” length. We want readers to get to that place where they’re getting to the end of a chapter and thinking, “Oh, I’ll just read one more.” In most cases, in these earlier books, Rowling hasn’t been around 2,500-words per scene. Sometimes they've been a little bit longer. But, when you’re thinking about this or helping your clients, do you think people get caught up in the word count and focus too much on percentages? Or how do you get them to focus on what really matters versus the ideal word count or percentage?
Savannah: I find that most writers think in chapters and that's kind of it. So, they're just like, I need to write a chapter. A lot of chapters can be like 3,000-4,000 words. So, because they don't know any better, they end up just writing 3,000-4,000 words without any scenes in there or anything. So, I like to strip all that away and just say, let's write a scene with the structure we talked about and try to keep it somewhere under 3,000 words. Even if you're at 3,000-3,500 on your first draft, it's okay. You can strip things out later once you know what's happening in your story and what's important and what's not, but yeah, I find you just cannot think about chapters at the same time you’re writing scenes. It’s just too much.”
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #61: First Chapter Analysis: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Tip number seven comes from episode #74, When should you write in scene vs. summary? And this is a great episode to listen to if you’d like a deeper understanding of what a scene actually is. The clip I’m going to share includes some general guidelines for what types of things need to be written in scene vs. in summary. Here’s the clip:
“Not everything that happens in a story needs to be dramatized in a full-blown scene. The narrative would become long, flat, and boring.
Here are some general guidelines to help you determine which parts of your story should be written in scene and which parts should be written in summary. Keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules, but rather guidelines to help you write the best, most impactful story possible.
Want to listen to the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #74: When should you write in scene vs. summary?
Number six comes from episode #63, Don’t Start a Scene Without These 3 Things. And in this episode, I talk about the three contextual elements you should include at the start of each one of your scenes. This is something many of the drafts I edit are missing, so I highly recommend listening to this episode. But in this clip, I talk about establishing your character’s mental and emotional state. Here’s the clip:
“The second thing you’ll want to establish is your character’s mental and emotional state. So, what are they thinking and feeling when the scene opens? Have they carried in their mental or emotional state from the last scene? What are they expecting to happen or what are they hoping for?
This is important to establish at the beginning of each scene because it will contextualize everything that happens in the rest of the scene. It will also help you write realistic behavior because you’ll better understand what’s fueling and motivating your character as they navigate the external events of the scene.
In general, there are two main ways you can show your character’s mental and emotional state. You can:
Coupled with your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, physical gestures can go a long way toward conveying how a character is feeling, but there are a few caveats to this.
First, you can’t just tell readers that your character is upset. You need to show them exactly why they’re upset and what specific thoughts are triggering these feelings.
Second, you’ll want to avoid using generic gestures (like sighing or having a character release a breath they didn’t know they were holding) as well as repetitive gestures. So, don’t use the same gestures over and over if you can help it.
And all of this is important in establishing the stakes of the scene. So, stakes are basically what your character stands to lose or gain within a scene or within a story. It’s why what the protagonist wants is important to them. And you can always get to the stakes of a scene or a story by asking two questions:
And you’ll want to make the answers specific, so don’t just say something like “she feels failure,” or something abstract. Zero in on the specific mental images the protagonist is picturing as their best and worst-case scenarios.
If you articulate a character’s hopes and fears, the reader will understand why what’s happening matters to the protagonist and will feel more invested in the outcome. It’s also what makes things more satisfying if your protagonist ends up succeeding, or more poignant if they fail–because we understand what success or failure means to them.”
That’s a good one, right? I love the episodes where we get to talk through actual examples from An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir–I feel like that’s so helpful to see a tip or a strategy play out in real life.
And this is such an important tip because, like I said, establishing your character’s emotional and mental state helps ground the reader at the very start of each scene. So, keep that in mind, and let’s move on to tip number five.
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #63, Don’t Start a Scene Without These 3 Things
Number five comes from episode #73, The 4 Phases of Editing: How to Revise a Novel. And in this clip, I talk about the very first thing you should do once you finish your first draft. I won’t spoil it for you, so here’s the clip:
“The very first thing you should do after finishing your first draft is...
TAKE A BREAK from your story!
Taking time away from your draft is what will help you get some distance from your story so that you can come back to it with more objective eyes... and this will make your revisions a whole lot easier. TRUST ME.
So, that's the very first thing you should do once you have a finished draft.
Once you’ve taken some time away from your draft, it’s time to read what you have.
And yes, this will probably be a bit cringe-inducing, but hang in there.
But the key to this first step is to not make any changes to your manuscript as you read through it.
And that's because you have to see the whole picture of your story (and you have to remind yourself of everything that’s already in your draft) before you can revise with any sense of clarity. So, try not to make any changes to your actual manuscript while reading it.
If you know you’re going to struggle with this part, you can print out your draft, export it to a PDF and read it on your computer or put it on your Kindle. You can also use a text-to-speech program like NaturalReaders or the “Read Aloud” feature in Microsoft Word that will essentially read it to you…
Basically, do whatever you can to prevent yourself from editing as you read.
Now, you might be wondering... Well, what about any notes I need to make?! Or any new ideas I come up with!?
And here’s the thing… If you want to take notes or jot down new ideas, go ahead. For some people, it’s easy to take in the big sweep of their story and jot down notes. For other people, it’s not that easy, and they prefer to read and then take notes. Do whatever works for you.
I just don't want you to waste your time making any changes in your actual manuscript just yet. Trust me, it may feel counterintuitive, but this will save you time in the long run!”
Oh my gosh, it’s funny hearing this tip because I’d say 70% of writers don’t take this advice because they’re so eager to dive back into their drafts–and I’ll admit, for some people, this totally works. Sometimes, it’s okay to dive back in if you know that’s going to work for you. But if you’re unsure, or if you’re feeling even the tiniest bit of burnout or lack of creative energy, please just take a break. I’m not kidding when I say that doing so could be one of the best decisions you make in the entire writing process!
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #73, The 4 Phases of Editing: How to Revise a Novel.
Moving onto tip number four. This one comes from episode #56, 5 Reasons Why Readers Stop Reading a Book. And this one is fun because we all want our stories to be read, right? Here’s the clip:
“And what I mean by this is that a lot of writers use the beginning of a story to warm the reader up for what’s coming next. So, they’ll put in a lot of backstory or exposition in the opening pages so that the reader knows everything there is to know about the characters or the world before anything happens. And this is just not ideal–imagine your favorite story, and think about if the author did this to you. You might think all the backstory and exposition is fun, but you don’t need to know it all before the story starts.
For example, I love the worldbuilding in Harry Potter, but I don’t need to know how many floors are in the Ministry of Magic or what flavors there are in Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans before I meet Harry on page one. That would be boring.
So, what should you do instead? Well, you need to make sure something compelling is happening from the very first page. You might have heard the advice to start with action or start in media res, and that’s all saying the same thing–start with something compelling that will pull readers into the story. But one caveat here–this doesn’t mean to start with car chases or explosions or something super extreme like that. Rather, think in terms of a meaningful or impactful opening.
And meaningful and impactful are subjective, right? So, what’s a meaningful and impactful event for your character? You can also ask, why does the story need to start today, not yesterday or tomorrow?
You’re looking for the moment things start to change for your protagonist even if they don’t know it just yet. That’s usually a good indicator of when your story should start.
And then, don’t feel like you need to tell readers everything. Instead, give them enough context to understand what’s happening in the scene or in the story present, but not much more–you can save that for a later scene or chapter.”
If you need help with your opening pages, check out my workshop called How to Hook Readers in Your First Five Pages here.
Such a good one, right? I love that episode. I don’t ever go back and listen to the episodes once they’re published, but I re-listened to the ones I’m including in today’s episode, and this one about why readers might stop reading your book is a good one (especially if you’re about to start editing or querying)!
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #56, 5 Reasons Why Readers Stop Reading a Book.
And speaking of querying, tip number three comes from episode #58, 10 Querying Mistakes Writers Make (and What to Do Instead). In this clip, I talk about what happens when a query letter is too vague–and this is something I see all the time. Here’s the clip:
“The next mistake I see writers make when it comes to query letters is that they write a summary of their story that is super vague. So, they’ll use vague, non-specific language, or they’ll hint at things in a way that doesn’t make sense to someone with no knowledge of the story.
So, for example, I read a query last week that said something like, “When the protagonist goes to XYZ land, his powers will be tested.” But that doesn’t really tell us anything—we can’t imagine what that looks like or why this person is going to be tested. So, instead, that author could say something like, “Upon arriving in XYZ land, the Protagonist will have to use every ounce of her telekinetic power to save her sister from XYZ.” So, it’s a little more specific and it hints at the protagonist’s goal and the stakes.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the sole purpose of your query letter is to give agents and editors just enough information about your story that they’ll want to read more. So, at the very least, you need to include: a character readers can care about, an indication of what that character wants (and why), the conflict that gets in their way, and what’s at stake if they don’t get what they want.
If you’re not clear about those four things, your query is most likely going to fall flat. And out of those four things, the one I see left out the most is what’s at stake—so, if you are writing a query letter, or if you already have one written, go double-check that you’ve included what’s at stake.
So, that’s mistake number seven—writing a story summary that’s too vague. When in doubt, it’s always better to be specific than vague, so just keep that in mind. And also, I’m going to throw in one bonus tip here… Please don’t ever end your query with any variation of, “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!” Trust me on that one, just don’t do it.”
This is such a good tip, and honestly, the advice to be specific, not vague, is something you can apply to all different types of things when it comes to writing. What does your character want? Don’t be vague, be specific. What is your character worried about in a scene? Be specific. When I’m drafting, I actually keep a sticky note on my desk that says “BE SPECIFIC” in all caps–it’s such a helpful reminder, so feel free to steal that one if you want to.
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #58, 10 Querying Mistakes Writers Make (and What to Do Instead).
Moving onto tip number two. This one comes from episode #67, The Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing. And in this episode, I share just that–some pros and cons to consider if you’re thinking about indie publishing, or if you’re trying to choose the best publishing path for you. Here’s the clip:
“If you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to you. This could result in a much better deal than you’d get as a first-time author with no evidence of sales. As an example, consider authors like Andy Weir who wrote The Martin–which started out as a self-published ebook, then went into audio and eventually became a big-time movie. E.L. James, who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, was first self-published. So was Colleen Hoover with her book Slammed. There’s also Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, A.G. Riddle–and many, many others. So, long story short, if you want a traditional publishing deal, this could be a good way to skip the slush pile and gain experience and grow your audience as an indie author.”
I heard a lot of feedback on this particular part of the episode… A lot of writers said they didn’t even know this was an option, or something that happens in real life, but it totally is. Of course, it’s not going to work out for everyone (or for every story), but if you put in the time to write a good story, if you work with the appropriate people to get your book edited and produced, and if you work hard to market your story, then who knows! You could be on this list of self-published authors turned traditionally published authors someday, too.
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #67, The Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing.
And speaking of traditional publishing, and marketing your book, tip number one comes from episode #66, The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing. And this clip is all about one of the cons of traditional publishing. Here it is:
“A traditional publisher is not going to help you market your book in any kind of significant way unless you get a big advance–and by that I mean high five or six figures.
If a book gets a big advance, the publisher has a big stake in earning that money back and will put more into marketing. But for the vast majority of traditional publishing deals, a big marketing budget and plan is not going to be part of it.
This means that no matter how you decide to publish your book, you will have to be engaged in selling it and getting it in the hands of readers.
Readers want authors who are accessible, and agents want authors who are actively engaged with readers in an authentic way.
This is what agents and publishers mean when they ask writers about their “platform.” They’re basically asking, “Do you have people interested and waiting to buy this book?” Or, “Do you regularly communicate with your readers?” And if the answer is yes, that’s going to be very appealing to traditional publishers.”
This is such an important one–and I ended with it on purpose because I didn’t want you to miss it. As I covered in episode #66 and episode #67, there are pros and cons to each of the main publishing paths. If you’re unsure of the rigth publishing path for you, I highly recommend giving each of those episodes a listen to determine which publishing path falls more in line with your goals as an author.
Want to check out the whole episode? Click here to listen to episode #66, The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing.
And there you have it–some of the best clips from the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in 2022. If any of these clips sparked your attention and you haven't checked out the full episode yet, be sure to go back and take a listen. I'll have all of the episodes linked up for you in the show notes.
Thank you so much for joining me, not only today but week after week or whenever there’s a new episode. I am so grateful that I get to show up for you and that I get to share all these writing tips and strategies with you. And I'm so excited to see all the wonderful things 2023 has in store for us–talk to you in the new year!
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