Monday, October 19, 2015

Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing

- Part I  

From Fire up Your Fiction - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Stories

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, it seems one of my most important jobs is to help my clients streamline their writing so the ideas flow more smoothly.

I’m talking about those extra words that aren’t needed to enhance the mood, plot or characterization, or bring the story to life; the clutter of words that are getting in the way of the imagery and story and slowing down the pace.

Think of a flower garden that is stifled by weeds to the point where you can’t see the flowers. Or a cluttered basement or workshop, where you can’t find the things you really need. The good stuff gets lost, or at least difficult to find among all the junk.

So once you’ve gotten through your first draft, it’s important to go back in and cut down on wordiness and redundancies in order to make your story more compelling, pick up the pace, and increase the tension and sense of urgency.

But of course, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water—no need to make your style so laconic that you’ve sucked the life and voice out of it. Keep all those juicy words and phrases that set the tone, define your voice and attitude, add atmosphere, provide sensory details, deepen your characters, add to the suspense and intrigue, and so on. Just cut out the excess blah-blah and leave the gems behind.

Sol Stein calls this important part of the editorial process “liposuctioning the flab.” As he says, “Flab is the enemy of every writer. Superfluous words and phrases soften prose. […] Flab, if not removed, can have a deleterious effect on the impatient reader, who will pay less attention to each word and begin to skip….” But after you go through and cut the flab, the remaining text will be much stronger and more compelling.

So if you want your fiction to sell, here’s some clutter to look for and expel, so the readers have nothing between them and your story:

First, take out any words, sentences, or paragraphs that are unnecessary, impede the flow of ideas, and slow the pace down. Search and destroy all those little words and phrases that just clutter up your sentences, adding nothing.

Here are some examples from my editing. I’ve changed the details to provide anonymity.

Before: They slept each night in the cheap motels located less than a mile’s drive from the interstate.

After: They slept each night in cheap motels just off the interstate.

Before: “You must never touch anything in this room if I don’t tell you to or if I haven’t given permission.”

After: “You must never touch anything in this room without my permission.”

Even better: “Do not touch anything in this room without my permission.”

Or even: "Do not touch anything in this room."

Before: The captain often asked a question of his men without really wanting their opinion. It was his way of providing a sense of democracy to his leadership style, when in actuality there was none.

After: The captain often posed questions of his men without really wanting their opinion. It was his way of pretending his leadership style was democratic.

Before: Jason motioned to a particular number in the middle of the spreadsheet that Tom currently had on the computer screen.

After: Jason motioned to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet on the screen.

Or: Jason pointed to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet.

Or even: Jason pointed to a number on the spreadsheet.

Take out empty, filler words like “It was,” “there was,” and “there were”:

Before: There was a long scar just above both eyebrows that gave him a sinister look.

After: A long scar above his eyebrows gave him a sinister look.

Or: A long scar on his forehead gave him a sinister look.

Before: I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the basement. There was a dim light ahead in the hallway. To the right there were cardboard boxes stacked high. To the left, there was a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. There was someone upstairs.

After: I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the dimly lit basement. To the right cardboard boxes were stacked high. To the left, I saw a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. Someone was upstairs.

I could play around with this some more, but you get the picture.

So, avoid cluttering up sentences and paragraphs with little words and phrases that aren’t needed, and impede the natural flow of ideas:

Before: Admiral Paul McLean strode into the room. A four-star admiral who currently was commander of the US Special Operations Command located in Tampa, Florida, McLean directed all the Special Forces throughout the military from the Green Berets to the Navy SEALs.

After: Admiral Paul McLean strode into the room. A four-star admiral and commander of US Special Operations in Tampa, McLean directed all the Special Forces, from the Green Berets to the Navy SEALs.

Finally, an example from Sol Stein:

Before: There is nothing I would like better than to meet an interesting person who could become a new friend.

After: I would like to meet an interesting new friend.

In Part II, we’ll examine more ways of streamlining your language to make your message more compelling, like cutting way back on adverbs, reducing the number of adjectives, avoiding repetitions, and cutting paragraphs that don’t drive your story forward.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie is currently organizing several multi-author anthologies, including Voices from the Valleys – Stories & Poems about Life in BC’s Interior. She also judges short stories for contests, including Writer’s Digest. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. 
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Also, see Jodie's article, "Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing." - See more at:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

REVISE FOR SUCCESS – Workshop Handout, with 25 links to Jodie Renner's posts

Handout for workshop at When Words Collide in Calgary, Aug. 16, with lots of links to craft of writing articles by Jodie Renner

After you’ve finished your first draft – or even if you’re only a third or halfway through your novel but have some nagging doubts about the viability of various aspects of it – take a short break. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then come back to it with a bit of distance, as a reader:


Premise: Is it intriguing and solid? Will the foundation of your story stand up to scrutiny?

Characterization: Is your protagonist charismatic, multi-dimensional, conflicted, and at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable?

See Create a Complex, Charismatic Main Character.

Does he have significant, meaningful goals and motivations? Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic?

Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Are your supporting characters different from each other and the protagonist, for interesting contrast and tension?

Point of View: Are you staying firmly in the head of the viewpoint character for each scene, or are there places where you’re hovering above or inadvertently slipping into the thoughts of other characters (head-hopping)?

POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There 

POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View 

Plot: Does your protagonist have a significant challenge or dilemma that’s difficult to solve? Are you piling on the problems as the story goes on? Make sure every plot point directly affects the character and his journey. 

Structure: Should you start your story or any of your scenes later? Or earlier? Would it be more effective to change the order of some chapters or scenes? Shorten some or expand others? Or even delete a few?

Scenes: Does every scene drive the story forward?

Every scene needs tension and a change.

Make brief scene outlines, using this template:

   Scene: Chapter: Place:
   - Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):
   - POV character for this scene:
   - Other main characters here:
   - POV character’s goal here:
   - Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):
   - Main problem/conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:
  - Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:

Delete or rewrite any scenes that don’t have conflict and a change and don’t advance the story. 

Plot holes, inconsistencies, or discrepancies: Ask others to watch out for any bloopers for you.

Opening: Will your opening paragraphs and first pages hook the readers and entice them to keep reading? Don’t warm up your engines with backstory or start with lengthy description – get right into the story!

12 Dos and Don’ts for a Riveting Opening.

Length: Is your story too long or too short? If it’s more than 90,000 words (okay, unless it’s a fantasy or epic), check out

How to Slash Your Word Cut by 20-40% - Without losing any of the good stuff!

This would be a good time to send your story off to some trusted beta readers, volunteers who read critically in your genre. They don’t need to be writers.

Here’s list of 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions


Show, don’t tell. Be sure to show, rather than tell, all critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue, and quickly summarize or skip over humdrum scenes. See my article, Show, Don't Tell.

Show character reactions: Bring characters to life on the page by showing their emotions, physical reactions, thought reactions, and sensory perceptions.

See: Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions and

Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details.

Relax your writing. Is your writing style too correct and formal for fiction? If so, loosen up the language. Read it aloud to see where you can make it more casual by streamlining sentences and using contractions and everyday words.

See Tips for Loosening up Your Writing.

Spark up your prose. Use strong, specific nouns and verbs instead of tired, overused ones. Check out my article,

 Nail it with Just the Right Word.

Pacing and adding tension: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner and

Add Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue.

Write tight. Read aloud to see where you can cut down on wordiness and repetitions. Take out any “little word pile-ups” and all unnecessary detail to improve flow and pacing. Make every word count. See many chapters of Fire up Your Fiction for more specifics on this, and my post,

Don’t Muddle Your Message.

Authentic dialogue. Read aloud to make sure your dialogue sounds natural, like that character would actually speak. See my blog post,

 Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.

Avoid these Style Blunders in Fiction.

STEP 3: Go through the revised copy for a final proofreading.

Look for typos, spelling, punctuation, missing or repeated words, and anywhere the prose doesn’t flow easily and sparkle. Also, look for formatting problems. Is your prose broken down into short paragraphs, for more white space? Have you started a new paragraph for every new speaker? Is your dialogue properly punctuated? See my article

Dialogue Nuts and Bolts.

Some techniques that work for effective proofreading:

~ Change the font and print out your story on paper or download it to your e-reader or tablet; or get a sample book printed. Then read it in a different location from where you wrote it and make notes.       

For more tips on effective final proofreading, see my article,

Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work.

Also, see How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality and

  Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Click HERE to sign up for Jodie’s occasional newsletter.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Create a Complex, Charismatic Main Character

 excerpt from Captivate Your Readers, by Jodie Renner, editor & award-winning author

“The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” ~ John Gardner

Your novel can have an intriguing premise and riveting plot, but if your lead character is bland, wimpy, ditzy, arrogant, or lacking in personality and drive, readers won’t warm up to him or care what happens to him, so they’ll put the book down. Conversely, if your protagonist is fascinating, sympathetic, and clever, but complicated, readers will be drawn to him and start worrying about him, which is exactly what you want. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

“Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring fiction.” ~ Lajos Egri

Unsuccessful authors very often have written a promising story, but have neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. You should spend as much or more time creating depth for your lead character and learning about her strengths and weaknesses, her fears, secrets, regrets, hopes, motivations, needs, and desires as you do on creating an exciting plot. 

As Elizabeth Lyon points out in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.”

A big mistake newbie fiction writers make is modeling their main character too much after themselves or someone they know. Instead, to hook readers, create a fascinating lead character, one who is larger than life, more charismatic, braver, more determined, and also more troubled, with more secrets and inner conflict than the average person you know. Those attributes will make them appealing and worth following and cheering on for a whole story.

Don’t annoy your readers by making your main character:

~ Flat, superficial – a cardboard character

To avoid a one-dimensional, boring protagonist, you’ll need to create a complicated backstory for him, including his fears, regrets, insecurities, and desires, as well as his hopes, strengths, and talents. Also, give him conflicting desires.

To get to know your character’s deepest secrets, his hopes and fears, his weaknesses and regrets, and his wants versus his needs, try putting him on the psychiatrist’s couch or journaling in his voice. Write in his secret diary every day, in free, stream-of-consciousness form – just let the ideas flow. Let the character vent his frustrations uncensored. What’s his strongest desire right now? Why is he afraid he might not get it? What or who is standing in his way or frustrating him? What is he worried about? Angry about? What secret is he harboring that he hopes no one will discover? Why? Let the character vent here.

Also, in the actual story, a sure-fire way to deepen your character and your readers’ engagement is to have him react more to events. Show how he’s feeling, through his thoughts and his emotional, physical, and sensory reactions, as well as his words and actions. An emotionally flat character will leave readers cold, and they’ll start thinking about what else they should be doing.

~ Nerdy, dull – lacking in charisma or sex appeal

As James Scott Bell says in Revision & Self-Editing, your lead character should have “grit, wit, and it.” Grit is courage, determination, and resourcefulness. Wit, the ability to make the occasional witty or humorous comment, can rescue a character from maudlin self-pity or a moment from being overly sentimental or sappy. Wit also refers to cleverness, the ability to solve problems and think quickly in sticky situations. And “it,” according to Bell, means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It.’” 

So be sure to make your protagonist charismatic, with lots of personality and sex appeal – and plenty of attitude.

~ Too wimpy, too whiny, too victimized

Don’t have a primary character who’s fearful about everything, who’s always reacting rather than acting, who just takes what’s dished out to her. Or one who’s victimized, who doesn’t rise to the challenge or fight back. A character who’s constantly feeling sorry for herself gets tiresome quickly, and readers will lose patience with her and put the book down.

If you want your protagonist to start as a bit of a wimp, then get stronger as the story progresses, don’t go on like that for too long. Make her gather her courage and wits and search for ways out of her predicament. In other words, she needs to be forced by circumstances to become stronger, more courageous, more resilient. No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve her life. We need to see some grit, some resourcefulness, some fight!

As Jack M. Bickham says in his little gem, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), “Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active – risk-takers – highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person – a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.” 

So don’t model your hero or heroine after someone you know. They need to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Jessica Page Morrell puts it in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, “Fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.” Readers who lead a humdrum life want to escape and vicariously live a more exciting one, through the head and heart of someone who’s not afraid to challenge herself and confront her fears head-on. 

On the other hand, don’t go to the other extreme and make your protagonist:

~ Cold, unfeeling, arrogant

Your main character can and should have a few inner conflicts and character flaws, but overall, she needs to be at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable – not cold or arrogant. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character, to start caring about her and worrying about her. If the readers don’t warm up to your protagonist and care about what happens to her within the first few pages, they’ll very likely put down the book and go on to another one. If you have a tough hero with a gruff exterior, try to show some glimmers of hope, some redeeming qualities early on. Maybe show him to be sensitive or caring in some small ways, like perhaps he rescues a dog or cat in the traffic. Robert Crais does this with his gruff, strong, silent hero, Joe Pike. 

Also, don’t make your character:

~ Too perfect 

A perfect character is insufferable. Don’t make your hero or heroine constantly cheery, selfless and giving, stunningly beautiful or handsome, super popular, or perfectly sculpted and toned – in other words, too good to be true. Perfect people are both boring and annoying. They’re boring because nothing really challenges them, so we can’t identify with them; they’re annoying because they don’t have to work for things like the rest of us – everything’s handed to them on a platter. And they’re so unrealistic we think they must be faking it. And let’s face it, we’re probably jealous of them. You want readers to identify with and bond with your protagonist, not envy them.

Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes,” and unless you’re writing a children’s story, someone who’s always positive (a “Pollyanna”) is annoying, too. So be sure not to make your protagonist nicer, kinder, or more selfless than your average person. Give them some character flaws, some secrets, regrets, and insecurities, a weakness or two, and maybe even a phobia. 

Along the same lines, don’t make your protagonist:

~ Too smart, too powerful

If your hero is ultra-smart and all-powerful, even big problems and challenges will be minor, a mere bump in the road. If he’s not sweating or stressed or in danger, readers aren’t going to worry about him. And if readers aren’t worrying about the hero or heroine of the book, they aren’t emotionally engaged. Which means they can put down the book at any time and look for one that engages them. So don’t make your character a genius or invincible. Give him some human qualities and foibles. Even Superman could be weakened by kryptonite and was vulnerable and off-guard whenever Lois Lane was threatened. And James Bond has been done and overdone – most readers today look for a more believable, human protagonist, one they can relate to and worry about.

On the other hand, don’t make your character:

~ Clueless or oblivious

If your protagonist is too dumb to figure out what’s going on, to pick up on all or most of the clues, readers will feel like yelling at him or throwing the book across the room. Readers have no patience with a detective or other hero who’s dumber than they are. They expect to meet a bright, resourceful main character, one who’s worth their investment of time, one who warrants their support. If something obvious is staring your character in the face and he’s not seeing it or getting it, find a way to make that info less evident, so a smart, savvy character could realistically miss it.

Similarly, don’t make your character:

~ Ditzy, silly, or immature

Beware of airheads. They can be great for minor characters, but your hero or heroine needs to be someone readers can admire and identify with, not someone to scoff.

So when inventing your story’s protagonist, be sure to make him likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He should be intelligent, brave, and somewhat strong, but with emotional depth and a few flaws, secrets, and insecurities or vulnerabilities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your main character is flat, boring, perfect, arrogant, dumb, or a wimp, readers won’t want to follow him for a whole story. They’ll lose patience and find another book to read.

And don’t make your villain 100% evil, either! He or she also needs to be multi-faceted – and intelligent, determined, and powerful – a worthy opponent for your protagonist.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Click HERE to sign up for Jodie’s occasional newsletter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Links to Jodie Renner’s Top Craft of Writing Posts

at The Kill Zone blog and also links to some of Jodie's most popular articles on this blog. (below)

*Stay tuned - I will arrange these and more of my blog posts on writing compelling fiction by topic, one of these days!

by Jodie Renner, editor and author
I started guest blogging at The Kill Zone blog ("Insider perspectives from top mystery and thriller writers") in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. That was the year The Kill Zone blog first received the Writer's Digest Award for "101 Best Websites for Writers." I like to think my popular craft of writing posts helped us attain that award, which we've also received for 2014 and 2015.
Due to changes in my own life, including a move across the country and shifting my personal focus, I reluctantly decided to step down from The Kill Zone, and my last post as part of the team at TKZ was on June 1, 2015. It was a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of the talented team at TKZ during those few years, and I was told my contributions, including setting up the TKZ Library, helped expand the readership of the blog. 
I was also pleased to have brought in to TKZ as guest bloggers several friends who are bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.


~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions
…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel
… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: ...

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character
Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes
When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or d├ęcor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s.

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy
As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude!

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story
Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction.

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power
Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed.

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details
In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him.

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes
… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story.

~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy
… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly.

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word
To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation.

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!
An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents.

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing
As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality
below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff. 

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner
… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago.

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed
Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story
Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction.

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing
… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View
~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away
How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work
Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message
… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book.

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing
15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character
Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic?

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist
For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max.

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?
What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details
… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action.


Here are links to a few of the most popular blog posts from this blog, Resources for Writers. Click on the title to go to the article.


~ REVISE FOR SUCCESS: A Stress-Free, Concrete Plan of Action for Revising, Editing, and Polishing Your Novel.

~ 12 Dos and Don'ts for a Riveting Opening

~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)
How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

~ How to Create Workable Scene Outlines for Your Novel 
Use the outlines below to help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut.

~ A Checklist for Submitting Your Short Story to Anthologies and Contests

~ Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions

~ How and When to Use Hyphens, Dashes, & Ellipses

~ Writers' Conferences and Book Festivals in North America
Links to more than 150 conferences and book festivals, ordered by date. (over 38,000 page views since January 2015)

~ Pros, Cons, and Steps for Publishing Your Own Book on Amazon

~ Dialogue Nuts and Bolts
The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue

~ Every Scene Needs Tension and a Change

~ How to Slash Your Word Cut by 20-40% - Without losing any of the good stuff!

~ 21 Tips for Creating a Compelling Short Story

~ 33 Tips for Creating a Short Story Worthy of Contests, Magazines, and Anthologies

~ Style Blunders in Fiction - an oldie but goodie

~ Creating Compelling Characters - another oldie but goodie (This one is from my pre-writing days, so collected advice from writing "gurus", not me.)

~ Tips for Creating Sentences That Flow

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part I - who vs that; that vs which; caps

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II - past perfect; misplaced modifiers

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part III - lay vs lie; I vs me

To sign up to receive Jodie Renner's sporadic (3-6 times per year) newsletter with links to top craft-of-writing articles and other resources for writers, please click HERE.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Checklist for Submitting Your Short Story to Anthologies and Contests

A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 33 Tips for Creating a Short Story Worthy of Contests, Magazines, and Anthologies (the next post below), then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

“Tone or content inappropriate for…” (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)
Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

“Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos”
Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

“Structure problems”
For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. For a short story, it could mean the time sequencing is strange; you've started too early, too late, or in the middle; or perhaps you have too many characters or too many plot lines. Or perhaps you've interrupted the story by dumping in a lot of backstory or explanations.

“Formatting problems made reading frustrating”
Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs, but not by clicking on the space bar. Use Word's paragraph function. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

“Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable”
Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their goals, personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

“Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious”
This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

“Word choice needs refinement”
This one could cover the gamut from tired, generic verbs like walked, ran, saw, looked or overused adjectives like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short; to inadvertently inserting light-hearted words at a tense time or vice-versa; to using overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective; and more.

“Overbearing or heavy-handed”
This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Nothing seems to have happened”
This likely indicates no critical problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

“Strong beginning, then peters out”
This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

“Needs overall development and polish.”
This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides, like my award-winning editor's guides to writing compelling fiction, Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller. Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

“We didn’t get it.”
This is a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Also, I've started organizing and editing a few different anthologies, to be published through Cobalt Books. We're actively looking for submissions for both of these:

CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers is a collection of fictional stories to help reduce child labor in South Asia. Future anthologies will help to fight child labor in other countries, and also human trafficking.

For writers in BC, Canada, I'm organizing an anthology called VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS - An Anthology Celebrating BC. If you live or have spent time in BC, be sure to click on the title to submit a story or poem to this anthology.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving
e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


By Jodie Renner,, 

Here are 33 concrete tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines – like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, genre, and story idea.
When referring to the main character, I’ll be alternating between using “he” and “she”, so just fill in the gender of your own protagonist.
1. Keep the story tight. Most short stories are between 1,000 and 7,000 words long, with the most popular length between 2,500 and 4,000 words. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one principal character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum – better yet, a few days, or even hours.
2. Create a main character who is complex and charismatic, one readers will care about. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be fascinating, with plenty of personality. But give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.
3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. What does he or she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.
4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. What does your heroine regret most? What is she feeling guilty about? Give her some baggage and secrets.
5. Devise a critical story problem or conflict. Create a significant conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three. It can be against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.
6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story. First, get to know your character really well by journaling in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions.
Then take it a step further and carry that voice you’ve developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the viewpoint character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations, and reactions. This technique ensures that your whole story has a unique, compelling voice. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters that are in other characters’ viewpoints.)
7. Create a worthy antagonist. Devise an opposition character who is strong, clever, determined, and resourceful – a force to be reckoned with. And for added interest, make him or her multi-faceted, with a few positive qualities, too.
8. Add in a few interesting, even quirky supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities, and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast. Start a diary for each important character to develop their voice and personality, and ensure none of them are closely modeled after you, the author, or your friends.
But don’t fully develop any very minor or “walk-on” characters, or readers will expect them to play a more significant role. In fact, it’s best not to name minor characters like cab drivers, cashiers, and servers, unless they play a bigger role.
9. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, enigmatic, even quirky or weird character; an unusual premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.
10. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re brief, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.

11. Start with a compelling scene. Short stories need to grab and emotionally engage the readers right from the first paragraph. Don’t open with a description of the scenery or other setting. Also, don’t start with background information (backstory) on the character or an explanation of their world or situation.
12. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age, situation, and role in the story world.
13. Put your character in motion right away. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best – much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, it’s best not to start with your character waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s trite and too much of a slow lead-up for a short story – or any compelling story, for that matter.
14. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your lead character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Continually show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And take care not to show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Show the attitudes and reactions of others through what the POV character perceives – their words, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, actions, etc.
Even the narration should be expressed as your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language. You want to keep your readers immersed in your fictive dream, and interrupting as the author will burst the bubble of make-believe they crave.
15. Situate the reader early on. To avoid audience confusion and frustration, establish your main character immediately and clarify the situation and setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs. On the first page, answer the four W’s: who, what, where, when. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a long descriptive passage.
16. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. As I mentioned, there’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, in short fiction, start as close to the end as possible.
17. Show, don’t tell. Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened – put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Use a few words to go from one time or place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.
18. Your character needs to react. Continually show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer, to what’s going on around him. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible, not just sight and hearing. Scents or smells are especially powerful and evocative.
19. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.
20. To add tension and intrigue, withhold key information, especially about character secrets or regrets, but hint at them to arouse reader curiosity. Then reveal critical info bit by bit, like a tantalizing striptease, as you go along.
21. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, “How are you? I’m fine. Nice weather,” etc., and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Avoid complete, correct sentences in dialogue. Use plenty of one or two-word questions and responses, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topics, and even a few silences.
22. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Each character’s word choices and speech patterns should reflect their gender, age, education, social standing, and personality. Don’t have your kids sounding like adults or your thugs sounding like university professors. Even men and women of similar cultural backgrounds and social standing speak differently. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real, has tension, and moves along at a good clip.
23. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle – whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal. This is where they’re challenged to the max and have to draw on all their courage, wit, and resources to avoid defeat and/or reach their goals.
24. Brainstorm to devise a twist at the end. Create a surprise ending to delight readers – something that’s unexpected but makes sense in retrospect. Give the readers what they hope for, but not in a way they expect it.
25. Provide some satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat little bow, but do give your readers some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else. Keep your hero or heroine heroic. And don’t let your conclusion drag on – tie things up quickly.
26. Provide a character arc: Your protagonist should have changed as a result of his recent struggles.
27. And a story arc – how are things different? How has the life of the main character changed as a result of what she’s just been through?
28. Hook ’em in right away. Now that you’ve got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.
29. Cut to the chase. The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a paragraph, sentence, or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.
Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He stomped” or “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly,” say “She tiptoed” or “She crept.”
30. Make every element and every image count. Every significant detail you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. Don’t show us a knife or special character skills, for example, if they don’t show up later and play an essential role. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story.
31. Try to make all descriptions do double duty. When you’re describing a character, for example, rather than listing their physical attributes and what they’re wearing, search for details that reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them. And there’s no need to go into detail on everything they’re wearing. Paint in bold brush strokes and let readers fill in the details – or not, as they prefer.
32. Stay in character for all descriptions. Filter all descriptions through the attitude and mood of the main character. If your POV character’s aging father shows up at the door, don’t describe him neutrally and in detail as a brand new character. Show him as that character actually sees her own father.
Similarly, if a teenage boy walks into a room, don’t describe the space as an interior designer would see it – stay in his viewpoint. He is most concerned with why he entered that room, not all the details of what it looks like.
33. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines. As I mentioned earlier, short stories are generally between 1,000 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language no-no’s, and so on. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

*For anthologies Jodie Renner is organizing, scroll down to the two posts below this one.*

If you'd like to help children in Asia who are working long hours in factories, often without pay, please consider contributing a story to the anthology called CHILDREN BEHIND TURNED BACKS - Exposing the Plight of Asian Children. Resource materials will be provided.

If you live in BC, Canada, consider contributing a story or poem to VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS - An anthology celebrating BC. See down for more info.

And suggestions are welcome for themes for future anthologies.*
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
There was an error in this gadget