As a writer, if you ever want to publish – be it indie or traditional – you are going to need feedback on whether your novel works or doesn’t work. Critiques can be hard to take, and here’s some tips from our President, Judy Mohr, on how to find the value in even the harshest analysis.
Every writer who puts their work out there will have to face critiques of all flavors: the good, the bad, and the outright mean. For the new writer, one just starting down the journey, sending that baby out for review can actually be a terrifying experience. “What if they don’t like it? What if I’m doing it all wrong? What if they tell me my writing is shit?”
Well… Not everyone is going to like what you write. Writing is like art — filled with subjective opinions. If you’re determined to have everyone in the world like your writing, then you might as well give up now. It’s never going to happen. The best you can ever hope for is that the fans of books you like to read, the stories that influenced your writing, also like your book.
In terms of doing it wrong… I’m sorry, but this is your…
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You’ve finished your book. It’s been edited thoroughly and all the typos and grammatical errors have, to the best of your knowledge, been removed. Well done!
You’ve eyed up the pros and cons of the self-publishing and traditional routes, and have decided — for whatever reasons— to go it alone, and do it yourself.
So, how to make your book look professional?
This step will vary depending on which site you’ve chosen to publish through. Some offer templates, which merely require a cut-and-paste, then a quick tidy through. If you’ve chosen an unusual trim size, or just want to maintain complete control, then here are a few steps you can follow to make your book look as professional as possible:
– First, adjust the page sizes of your manuscript to match those of the Trim Size you have chosen. Most writing programs should allow you to “custom” your page sizes. It will then reformat your entire work.
– Now, you must add in the front pages. For some ideas here, pick up the nearest book in your house and look at the way the front pages are set out:
(Odd numbered pages are on the right hand side, evens on the left. Therefore, even numbered pages are on the back of the odd numbered pages)
Page 2*: Often blank, or you can list other books you have written here.
Page 3: Title page – shows title of book, author’s name etc
Page 4: Copyright details, ISBN, perhaps a dedication (unless you want that on the next page)
Page 5: Dedication or quote
Page 6: Blank, Map or other Illustration
Page 7: The story begins.
* My earlier self-published books skip these two pages, and start with the title page (meaning the story starts on page 5). There are a few traditionally published books that do this too, but not many.
> The story should always start on a right-hand page, even if this means leaving a page blank.
> Page numbers should not be on the pages before the story begins.
> Justify your text. Unjustified text in a printed book pretty much screams of amateur publishing (however, poetry and books written for dyslexics are the exception to this rule). After justifying it, you may like to look through for any sentences that have been stretched too long and manually add in hyphens/divided words. Do this after the ebook conversion, or you’ll find random hyphenated words in your ebook. Either that, or you can also adjust the kerning (the spaces between letters).
> Be consistent. Make sure your line-spacing remains consistent for the entire novel, that you don’t accidentally change font size or style, or the size of your margins.
Other Things to Consider:
Margins: I generally set the same margin left and right, with a larger gap top and bottom. You may choose to have a narrower margin along the gutter of the page. My margins are quite wide, which worked well when CreateSpace did one of my print runs at a smaller trim size (the books were still readable), but you may choose to make them narrower. Study printed novels of the appropriate size to determine your own, preferred, measurements.
Headers: I don’t really like Headers, and a random opening of my shelved books shows that not every traditionally published book has them anyway. If you do have Headers, remember to remove them from the pages which say “Chapter One” in them, or whatever. Otherwise they look poorly formatted and ugly.
Footers: Page Numbers are ESSENTIAL. The library needs to put a tag in your book on page 33, after all. You can center your page numbers or set all the left hand pages to the left hand side, and all the right hand to the right side.
Font: I prefer serif fonts for my manuscripts and all of my novels use Century Schoolbook. You can use Times New Roman, but it’s so common, it’s kinda blah. Century Schoolbook adds a bit of class (in my opinion!). Make sure the font you use is easy to read, also be aware that some fonts are not royalty free, meaning you can’t use them in something you’re making money from. If you set your font too large, it will look like a book for young kids or the elderly. If you set it too small, it is difficult to read. I use font size 10-12, Century Schoolbook for my novels. Note that font size (and line spacing) will affect your number of pages, and if you want a really thick book, you need a bigger font! (Which is why I think some traditionally published authors use such big text, either that or it is for their older readers!). Sans serif fonts (like Arial) are good for children’s books, however, as they are easier for dyslexics or those with reading difficulties.
Paragraphs: Note that after a line break, the first sentence of a paragraph is not indented, but all the rest are.
Line Spacing: I publish my middle grade books with spacing set to 1.5, because these make it easier to track the lines. In my adult books, I set it to 0.54, which allows some space between lines without looking too “childish”.
Chapter Headings: Make sure your fonts, size and style are consistent. Don’t write “Chapter One” then have “Chapter 2”, for example. Also note that changing the size of the font here may affect the way the text lines up at the bottom of the page, and it is preferable to have these consistent. For this purpose also, you should Kill all Widow and Orphan Control*. Adjust the font size of the Chapter headings until you can see that they line up in the PDF version. An easy way to do this is to make sure that the line spacing is proportional – ie: I usually set my line spacing to 0.54, which leaves a bit of a gap between lines, and for the headers I set it to 1.08 (2 x 0.54). This seems to work.
Adding Illustrations to Text: There are two sorts of ways you can include illustrations in the story – one is as a full page spread, the other is as little line drawings interspersed with the text. There’s no real rule to doing this, just make sure it looks right. Personally, from here-in I intend to draw my images at a size that is proportional to the page size so it will fit without having one or two sentences around it. Aroha and Midsummer Knight both have them mingled with the text, but for my Lemur Saga books, I’ve got them on full single pages at the end of the relevant chapters. Use lineart, or grey-scale your colour images first, to make sure they look right; you can make adjustments to brightness etc to make it clearer. If intermingling it with the text, use the “padding” option to provide a few millimetres of space around the image so that the text doesn’t run into it. Trying to get them to sit right on the page can be endlessly frustrating and I have no advice but perseverance. If you are also writing for ebook format, illustrations will mean the text on the page preceding may run for half a page or less, as they often (but not always) show up on an individual page. I have removed the illustrations from most of my ebooks, as it gives more incentive to buy the physical book.
* Widows and Orphans – when the page re-formats itself so that if you have two lines in a paragraph at the base of the page that would be left hanging, they get shifted up to the next page leaving a gap of two lines. They are the bane of my OpenOffice existence, since I want my text to line up at the base of the page, and I don’t care if there are only four words on the next page. I keep turning this off on OpenOffice, and it keeps coming back to haunt me.
Once you think you’re done – export your novel as a PDF file and look through it, to make sure everything looks as it should.
Many of my followers on Twitter will know that I have recently completed my manuscript and am now on the path of querying for agents and publishers. It’s a hard road, one that many turn away from.
Writing the manuscript was hard. Editing it into something worth reading was harder. Writing a query letter was harder still. And the synopsis was a nightmare. Let’s face it: compressing a full-length novel into one page is a frightening task. Not all agents want a synopsis, but most publishers do. So if you are fortunate enough to snag an agent without needing to write a synopsis, you will eventually need to write one.
During my preparation of my submission materials of my own manuscript, I struggled to bring my synopsis to under one page, like so many other writers, but I did it. Everything is now ready to go, it’s just a matter of working out…
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“A Glint of Exoskeleton” is a highly entertaining and extremely enjoyable read, with a wonderfully adventurous heroine. Throughout her life, Crick has been able to speak to insects. The story begins with a snapshot of events as she grows up: meeting Peri the cockroach at the age of 3, learning to hide her abilities, until she becomes a teenager and then the story truly begins.
Peri is a very important cockroach – he’s decades old and basically the main spokes-bug for all the cockroaches of his species in the world. And he has some terrible to report: the mosquitoes are turning against humankind. After decades of persecution, they’ve had enough and, with the aid of a mysterious and devious human associate, they are engineering a virus that will destroy the world. And who can stop them? Well, adults can’t – they’d never believe Crick if she told them – so it’s up to Crick to save the world. And to do that, she must find a way to get to Panama, the birthplace of “leopard spot fever” as it is known. A place where, already, villages have been depopulated by the virus.
The writing was very vivid, I’ve never been to Panama, but the prose was so descriptive, so evocative, I was transported to that land of rice fields and mud. I shared with Crick her sense of despair at being alone in such a foreign environment. But Crick is never really alone, because she has her insect friends to aid her and they do – in no small way!
There are a few darker moments (such as the fate of the evil conspirator), and a few that are creepy (Crick is stalked by her school friend, after she does the responsible thing and reports his self-destructive behaviour to his parents), which may make it a little disconcerting for the more sensitive readers, but these are well balanced with a healthy dose of humour, an action-packed romp of a plot, highly entertaining characters and a gutsy heroine. This book is almost guaranteed to make the reader look at insects in a different light (Weiss is an entomologist and her passion for her profession shines through), as well as educating them (so subtly that they’ll hardly realise it’s happening). A great read for adventurous girls, and boys too!
Purchase “Glint of Exoskeleton” on ebook.
What is Exposition?
Narrative exposition is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (wikipedia)
Exposition is an important part in any story–we’ve got a lot to tell, and a limited time to tell it–and thus it is occasionally necessary to give the reader decent chunks of information or backstory. However, excessive exposition can lead to what is known as an Infodump, and is something that many critiquers and beta-readers can be very harsh on. It can also be off-putting to many readers.
Why don’t I like Infodumps?
- They distract from the narrative flow by delivering a history lesson.
- Too much information, given too densely, is difficult to process.
- They reiterate what the canny reader has already inferred.
- I’m more interested in the characters than the level of world building or research the author has done.
- They are a prime example of Tell, not Show.
- They can ruin the flow of action if placed inappropriately.
How do you know if you’re Infodumping?
Generally the best way to know if you’re committing excessive exposition is to ask your beta readers. They should be able to highlight points where the prose has slowed, or even halted, to deliver information, be it world history, character backstory, or other. Also, if you have delivered information that is not actually relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. Whilst you may have created an extensive world, with a dynasty stretching back five generations and encompassing the seven kingdoms, this may be better kept to a companion encyclopedia. Likewise, we don’t need to know your character’s entire life history, not if we can infer it by their interactions and relationships with the people around them.
When writing the first draft, don’t be afraid to throw in as much backstory and exposition as you like, especially if it helps you to develop the world and the characters in your head. You can always edit it out later and store it in another file. Then, when you’re a successful author, you can publish them as part of a companion book!
Upon revising your draft, take the opportunity to look for places where you have actually shown through actions, dialogue or other, the information you’ve previously explained. If you’ve shown it, you don’t need to explain it as well and can safely edit it out.
Explore the world through your characters’ eyes
Show your world building skills by sending your characters on an epic “road trip” that allows them, and by proxy the reader, how wonderfully you’ve developed your world. This is possibly why the Quest narrative works so well. However, try and keep their interactions and adventures somewhat concise and focused.
This is also why novices and apprentices, or the “innocent outsider” is so popular as a main character in Otherworld fictions. It allows other characters to explain things that the character —and the reader— need to know.
Hint at backstory in conversation and interactions
I have created many, many characters, and a lot of them have fairly developed backstories. However, as they are not major players in my stories, the reader doesn’t really need to know all the details, just enough to make them unique and give them a life outside the book.
Here’s an extract from my (very old and incomplete) Furritasia web-series:
“How ya been, lad? How’s Leif? Still playing the harp?” Julius greeted his old friend.
At the mention of the name, Titus’s face seemed to crumple in on itself. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I doubt it somehow. Last time I was permitted,” and there was real bitterness there, “to see him, he could barely string two words together.” He paused and shrugged. “Head injury.”
And that is all we ever hear about Titus’s ex-boyfriend, Leif.
Be aware of the “Maid and Butler” dialogue trap.
The ever popular “classroom lesson”
A popular way of telling the reader about world history is by sitting the main character in a class room. Whilst this can be a successful technique, it is also one that can come across as rather contrived, especially when the students are being taught about things they should already know. To be used with caution.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs of information throughout the narrative
Vague references to things such as “the rubble left by the 30-day war” or similar, can be great for rousing the reader’s curiosity in your world’s backstory. For example, instead of saying your world is post-apocalyptic, you could sprinkle the landscape with remnants of human civilisation –things the readers will recognise, but the characters may not. Let the reader infer what has happened in your world’s history. Drop hints. Tease them.
There are more alternatives, of course, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment below!
Placement is key
If you must insert exposition, chose the position wisely. Firstly, it must have relevance to characters or events and secondly, exposition slows prose and can be a useful tool. If you are writing a high-fueled, adrenaline adventure, it may be necessary to occasionally give your characters, and readers, time to breathe and relax. This is a good time to give expository information.
Having your character think about their past, especially in detail, feels very forced. If you are going to do that, have something trigger the memory, keep it fleeting, and keep it appropriate to the tone of the narrative at that point: if the character is fleeing for her life from a giant tiger, she might have a brief deja vu moment, but she’s hardly going to suddenly remember, in great depth and detail, seeing a similar beast in a zoo.
Likewise, don’t break the tension with an infodump. If the farmer has just pulled an ancient sword from his attic, so that he can run to aid his wife, who’s holding off raiders, we’re not going to want to know how he happened to have such a weapon. We might be curious, yes, but we’re more interested in whether he’s going to make it to her in time.
Please don’t start your book with an infodump (unless it’s contained within a prologue). If I pick up a book and it is an extensive world history, I’m going to put it back on the shelf. Start with your characters, then deliver — carefully abridged — exposition.
Some genres are more forgiving to exposition than others: epic fantasy, being immersive, the reader will be more open to it; crime thriller or fast-paced action, not so much.