Writers Helping Writers: Blurbs and Pitches - Summarizing Your Novel

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is coming up with a summary blurb for the back cover and a pitch to quickly and concisely tell what the story is about without giving away the entire plot. As a writer, summing up thousands and thousands of carefully constructed plot points and vivid characters into a 100 word blurb is the stuff of nightmares. It is not easy and it is not something that comes naturally.

My advice is to start big. Write out the summary of your novel as it stands. Don’t be worried about how long it is, just get it down on the page. When you are done, notice how long it is. Blurbs are typically 100 words or less (I know, right?).

Now that you have something to work with, your next challenge is to cut what you have on the page in half. How? Well, begin with removing these things:

·         Anything that is not relating to the main plot.

·         Any mention characters that are not pivotal to the main plot.

·         Any physical description beyond the general age and/or occupation of the main characters

·         Adjectives

·         Adverbs

·         Passive Voice

·         Unnecessary filler words

Keep going and strengthening your sentences to pare down that original description to the 100 words. I can tell you that the key is using active voice and eliminating unnecessary filler words. Brevity is the point here, so there’s no point in using long meandering sentences.

To add in another layer of difficulty, here are the things that you need to have in your blurb:

·         A convincing hook into the story

·         Timeframe of your story

·         Describe the genre without actually saying what kind of genre it is (use your genre’s key phrases or words.)

·         Don’t reveal the ending

·         Suspense

·         Enough of the plot to keep the reader’s attention

I know this is a lot, but if you spend some time with it, eventually, you will make it to the 100 word goal for the blurb.

Pitches, also known as elevator speeches, are even shorter. One or two sentences that wrap up the story and yet entice readers to take a look. For sanity’s sake, wait to do your elevator speech/ pitch until after you’ve completed your blurb. Then, take the most attention grabbing sentences and use those to formulate your pitch.

Example: “Angel’s Prophecy is about the son of two angels who shouldn’t exist. He’s destined to end the war between heaven and hell, but he has to find a weapon that was stolen from heaven first.”

I promise that if you take the time and have a little patience with it, you will create an amazing blurb and a truly intriguing pitch.

Revise, Rewrite, Revise Again!



Writers Helping Writers: Formatting Your Novel

All of the editing has been done, the feedback from your Beta Readers has been implemented, and even the cover art has been conceptualized and completed. Believe me when I say that you are almost done. The finished product will be well worth the months or even years that you’ve spent on it so far.

But now you are in the home stretch where you format the manuscript and finalize it for printing.

Now, I am not going to go step by step because there’s already a step by step formatting guide in our Writing Advice and Help. Please feel free to use that for formatting in conjunction with your chosen printer’s format requirements.

In this blog, what I am going to remind you of is that this is your novel. Ultimately, you get to decide how it should look and how it should feel. So, while we and probably a lot of other places give you a lot of how-to’s, be sure to make it your own.

Also, have patience. It is going to take several takes to get it all right. Expect quite a few versions the first time around, but don’t give up. Keep going until you are sure you have it just the way you want it.

You can do this!


Writers Helping Writers: Books Are Judged by Their Cover

Growing up, I was always told never to judge a book by its cover, meaning not to judge people by how they look. While that’s a great trait to have and a wonderful practice to do as you go through life, it is sadly not how the world really works, at least not here in contemporary America. How someone or something appears generates a judgement from us humans.

Example, an elderly lady (let’s call her Gloria), in a cardigan and modest flowered dress sits at a bus stop. She has carefully curled gray hair underneath a silk kerchief and spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose. She has a large carpet bag next to her. A typical initial reaction; someone’s grandma with her knitting is waiting for public transportation, right? Gloria is probably on her way to visit her friends at the nursing home.

Wrong. Gloria never had children and in that giant carpet bag she’s toting is her glock and extra rounds because she’s on her way to the indoor shooting range to practice her aim. Underneath her silk handkerchief are small headphones blasting her favorite Slayer album.

How you decide to act on the initial assessment of a person or thing is between you and whatever higher power you believe in, but that immediate assumption based on appearance will always happen.

It’s the same for books. That’s why if you really want to sell your book, you have to not only take great care in what the content is, but also how it looks. That means putting a lot of thought into the cover. The front cover will be the thing that catches your reader’s eye. It has to give an idea of what your story is about in a single glance, which means there are some questions you need to ask yourself when you are getting ready to design your cover.

1.       What do other books in my genre have on their covers? Take a stroll down to your neighborhood library and check out the other books in your genre. Notice the similarities. Notice what is not on those covers. A lot of book genres will have similar looking covers to earmark what kind of story they are telling. Example: Shirtless men on the covers of romance novels. You don’t have to follow the path they are laying out, but it is a good idea to understand the boundaries of your genres cover art so that your sci-fi action adventure is not misinterpreted as a romance murder mystery.

2.       What would grab your attention in a book cover? As you are walking down the aisle of your library, when you see a particularly striking cover, stop and analyze why this one is grabbing your attention. What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? What was that initial “Oh!” moment. Consider how you can depict that sort of concept with your own story in mind.  **Important** do not simply copy another person’s book cover concept. Make it your own. Incorporate your own tastes into it and make it relevant to your story.

3.       Consider who or how you will go about generating your cover. There are several options before you; you can make it yourself, you can get a pre-made one from the internet, you can pay an artist to commission one for you. They all have their ups and downs. Ultimately, you need to do what best fits your story and your budget. If you are collaborating with someone, it’s important to listen to the artist’s input on your cover. They have an amazing eye for design and remember, this cover art is their work too.

4.       Pay attention to the things that are on every book of all genres. I am talking about the title, the author tag, the bar code, the back cover blurb (more about this later), and how the spine is arranged. These elements need to be included in your print cover as well.

5.       Consider the size of your print book. Will it be a large tome or a small trade paperback size? This will also impact how much space you have for your graphics/ art.

These decisions and the research involved are daunting. However, it is vital if you want your book to be presentable. I promise that if you take your time with it and thoroughly think it through, your cover will be amazing.



Writers Helping Writers: Beta Readers

So you’ve written and edited your novel within an inch of its life. It’s been transformed from an unsightly rough draft to something that you are really proud of. Let me be the first to say fantastic job! You’ve come a lot farther than most writers out there.

But there’s still some work to do.

If you are intending on publishing your work, then you will need to go through yet another round of people reading your story. These are your Beta Readers.

Beta Readers are people that you trust to give you honest feedback on the story you’ve written. The feedback doesn’t need to be full on edits, but they should be able to tell you what parts made them happy or what parts didn’t make sense. What they liked, what they didn’t like, etc. That being said, there are a few vital traits your beta readers need.

1.       Honest. They have to be comfortable enough with you to give you an honest opinion of your work. It defeats the whole purpose if they simply tell you “it’s good.” The whole point of feedback from Beta Readers is much the same as editors; their comments and opinions are meant to improve the work.

2.       Reliable. Your Beta Readers need to be reliable enough to get you the story back along with their comments in a relatively good timeframe. Sure life happens, but it won’t do you any good to give someone a copy of your story and then never hear back from them or if they don’t bother to read it.

3.       Trustworthy. You are entrusting your Beta Reader with something you’ve worked months on. You have to be confident they will respect the integrity of your work.

There’s no set number of Beta Readers required for your work. I try to get at least one or two for my projects, but that’s really your choice.

May your Beta Readers be enchanted by your tale!



Writers Helping Writers: How many edits does it take to make a novel?

It’s been some time since you’ve hidden your glorious first draft from yourself. You have created enough distance from it to be objective and ready to fix what needs to be fixed. It’s time to edit!

Now, your instinct will be to jump right in and start changing stuff. Don’t. Give yourself time to read through the story without making any changes. The reason for this is that when you start changing things, it will send a ripple effect throughout the novel. It is best to understand where all the changes will take place and how it will affect the rest of the story. Keep a separate document for your editing notes during this initial editing read through. Note down page numbers and what you need to address. It can be as big as complete plot change or as little as a spelling fix. This means as you read, you are creating a list of things to address in your edit. It will help guide your edits and make sure all of those ripples are accounted for.

When you are done with the initial read through, save your first draft into a separate document. This will be the first edit document. I personally like to keep versions of my stories by edits so I can see the progression. This is in case I change my mind about deleting that plot point. I can go back to the original and salvage what’s already been written and edit it into the newer edited version. Believe me, it happens more than you think. Plus it’s fun to see how far you come along the editing process. You can see how the manuscript transforms.

When I am ready to start actually changing things, I tend to go chapter by chapter and address the big things first. This means the plot changes, character reactions, prose clean up, etc. One of the absolute biggest things is the concept of “show, don’t tell”. More or less this means not telling the reader what’s going on, but showing the reader through descriptions, character actions/reactions and body language. A good way to look at it is that you are painting a picture with your words. Your words are being translated into images in each reader’s mind, so why not get as descriptive as possible? Instead of writing “Chloe was upset”, show what that means. “Chloe’s fingertips were white with the pressure of pressing into her hips. Her eyes narrowed into suspicious slits as she cut off his stammering excuses with an angry exhalation.” See the difference?

            So how many edits need to happen to make a coherent novel? A whole bunch. Not only do you have to go through it (I recommend at least three times), you then hand it over to one or two trusted people. These people need to be ones you trust and have a very strong friendship with because if they are worth their salt as editors, they will rip your beloved manuscript apart. You take your time to heal from their edits and realize that what they are saying is intended to make your work even better than it was before. You edit again with their feedback, rinse and repeat. How many times? Well, it depends. You will know when it is ready for the final clean up edits.

            Next, you give the story to a few beta readers. More on them in a later blog post though.   The last stage of editing is giving it to a professional editor for either content or line/copy edits. It is up to you and your budget for how much in-depth editing you want the professional to do. Because I have two very trusted friends who can find a content error like a shark can find blood, I usually have my (absolutely fabulous) editor, Beth, do copy edits- meaning grammar, spelling, etc.

            The whole process can take months or even a whole year depending on how busy your editors are. Have patience. Remember, this is when your draft becomes a novel. It is being polished and perfected. Consider this the labor of bringing a fully ready manuscript into the world and no one ever said giving birth was easy. In the end, you will have a beautiful new novel to present to the world.

Happy Editing!


Writers Helping Writers: Starting and Finishing the First Draft

Ok, you’ve got your characters, you’ve got your plot, you’ve got an outline. You are finally ready to start writing!

It’s going to go amazingly well for, oh, say the first chapter or two. You will marvel at how quickly and easily everything is coming to you. Your characters are sticking to the outline, there haven’t been any plot bunnies discovered, and the words are flowing like lava from a volcano.

Then it happens. Suddenly, one of your characters takes an abrupt left turn and refuses to stick to the script. Along with that, you realize that the whole pace of the story is floundering. Somewhere along the way, what had been going so well is all of a sudden the worst thing ever put to paper. The doubts trickle in. The words grind to a halt and you are stuck there, staring at the blank page before you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The truth rears its ugly head; writing is freaking hard.

We’ve all been there. Getting the first draft on paper is one of the MOST challenging things you will experience as a writer. This is the make or break moment. Only 3% of writers actually complete a novel. If you want to be in that 3%, try some of the following techniques to get yourself out of the first draft rut.

1.      Keep putting words on the page. One method to dealing with a block is to keep writing. If you are at a loss of what to write next, start describing things in the scene. Go in depth with a character’s inner monologue to explain from their point of view what is happening. Explore the senses and paint the picture of what the scene is supposed to be. Remember, any of this can be edited out, but you can’t edit a blank page.

2.      Give yourself some time away from the project. Work on something else. Sometimes we get too close to the story and it’s hard to distinguish the good from the bad. If the story is all we are thinking about, it’s easy to lose sight of where you are. So, take a break. Go for a walk, read a short story, write something else, and then go back to it with fresh eyes.

3.      Resist the urge to edit or start over. Once you get into that mindset that everything is horrible, it’s mighty tempting to erase it all and start over. DON’T DO IT! Keep moving forward. If you fall into the trap of going back and editing things, the first draft will never be completed and you will effectively get yourself stuck in a never ending loop of revisions. Trust me, keep moving forward.

4.      Don’t give up. Writing is hard, but remember that adage; nothing worth doing was ever easy. Keep yourself motivated and moving forward. Whatever that means for you. Perhaps it’s a shopping reward for hitting the word count goal for the day. Maybe it’s promising yourself a free evening if you finish at least 30 minutes of writing. However you motivate yourself, do so.

A few other things to keep in mind: first drafts are supposed to be terrible. You are not going to write your masterpiece on the first go. That is OK! First drafts are getting it all out on paper and strung together. The polishing and fine-tuning comes later on. Writing is a process and first drafts is just one of the initial steps to a completed, published book. You do have what it takes to be a writer. Believe in yourself. I promise that the excitement and ease that the first chapter or so had will come back. You just have to have a little patience.

Keep Writing!


Writers Helping Writers: Plotting and Outlining

You can’t have a compelling story without a plot. People want to read about characters that embark on some sort of journey- be it internal or external. The most rudimentary plot consists of a definitive beginning, middle and end. There’s more to it than just those three phases, though. The beginning is home to the exposition and then flows upward into the rising action. At the end of the rising action is the climax or the middle of the story. Immediately after is the falling action. I should note here that there can be more than one climax in a plot. Some of the more celebrated stories have multiple rising and falling actions and multiple climaxes. After the final falling action, we arrive at the resolution and end of the story.

It’s a lot to keep straight. There are three basic types of styles when it comes handing the plot of the story.

1.       Plotter: This means completely outlining your plot. You know what happens in the beginning, the middle and the end before you even begin writing the story. This method is good for when you have complex and long story lines. Plotting every aspect is understanding how they all fit together. The down side, at least for fiction writers, is that sometimes your characters will throw you curve balls and completely throw off all of your carefully crafted plans.

2.       Pantser: This writer flies by the seat of their pants. There is no outline, just a vague idea of a plot and that’s all they need to sit down and start writing. The theory behind this is that the characters will tell you where the plot will go and what will happen as you write.  The bad thing about pantsing your way through the plot is that if you don’t know where you are going, it is much easier for your characters to take you down paths that have nothing to do with the current story. Also, it could take you much longer to get to the end of your tale.

3.       Plotser: This is a strange hybrid of both Plotters and Pantsers and can appear differently depending on the person. Someone may have a rough outline of one or two basic plot points that their characters need to hit and then wing the rest of it. Others may have incredible detail in their outline, but also leave options for their characters to choose which way to go.

The best part about all of this is that there is no wrong way to prepare for writing your story. You will find that some plots require some Plotting while others won’t work unless you Pants it. It is your tale, it is your voice and your style. If you take anything from this blog, please take this: make sure you know where your story is leading up to. It’s fine if you don’t have a perfect outline for every nuance, but have a general notion of what the end of the story looks like. Other than that, find what works best for you and what works best for the story you are writing.

Happy Writing!


Writers Helping Writers: Getting into your Characters

Characters are a critical part of your story. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, characters propel the plot forward and are what your reader relate to the most. It’s important to understand them and their motivations. After all, a story is more or less describing a character’s actions and you can’t do that unless you know what they would do or you understand their thought process.

When I write a story, I can’t get started on it unless I know who I am working with. In creating my characters, I must first know their name. I have a big baby name book that I turn to in order to find the right one. Sometimes, based on the research I’ve done, I know a character will be of a certain culture or ethnicity. That will help narrow the name search.

As soon as the name is there, it sparks an idea in my head of what they look like. You know how people will sometimes say, “She doesn’t look like a Sarah.”? Well, it’s like that in my head. Names often carry distinct looks and even personalities. If the name isn’t helping to give you a clear picture of your character, turn back to your research. What ethnicity? What culture? Where do they live? What’s the time period?

Once there’s the basic form for a character (general personality, traits, age, etc.), start asking questions and write down what comes to you. What do they like to do on their down time? Are they picky eaters? Do they have a phobia? How do they handle stress? What’s their family background? Those internet personality quizzes are also a great tool in helping understand your character. Another way to build an understanding of your characters are D&D character sheets, complete with rolling a dice for personality trait levels.

Getting to know your characters and how they interact with each other is vital to your story telling. Remember to be realistic with them. Take any and all opportunity to observe people in different settings. You can even take a Sociology class at the local college to help understand how people interact with each other and to get genuine reactions for various things. The more real you can make your characters, the stronger the story.

Sometimes your characters will develop into a voice in your head. No, you are not crazy. This can be a great tool in understanding them and getting them on the page correctly. In my experience, they will DEFINITELY let you know if something isn’t them.

Lastly, keep a page or two in your story notebook dedicated to each character. Keep track of all the information they give you, it will come in handy when you start to write!



New Year, New Blogs: A Peek Into What’s In Store For 2018

We are over a week into this New Year. So far so good, right? Well, following my own advice, I’ve decided to change up the way I do blogs this year. All of them are geared towards helping people (really, it won’t be all bad advice).

Don’t worry, Azra will still be dispensing all of his horrible advice, but it will be in a new way. Instead of focusing just on parenting, He’s decided to take on general questions about life, love, pop culture, history, even cooking. Yes, Azra has talked me into a new blog series for him called “Ask Azra” and it will be about as cheesy and terrible as his parenting blog (don’t tell him I said that).

In addition to Azra potentially ruining people’s lives, I am also introducing two new blog series: Writers Helping Writers and Indie Book Review.

Writers Helping Writers is a topic by topic overview of how to go from first draft to published novel and everything in between. This stems from my own personal experiences in the hopes that it will help aspiring authors on their own journey.

Indie Book Review is just that. I will read and review one Indie produced book a month. These books I will have gotten from my travels (I have met these authors either at conventions or book festivals) or by your suggestion. I’ve got a few good ones lined up already that I can’t wait to get into.

There is one more thing... I need your help to do all of this. That’s right, you are an integral part of my 2018 blog experiment! Here’s what I need you to do:

If you have questions for either the Ask Azra or Writers Helping Writers segments, let me know. Also, if you have an Indie produced book you want to spread the word about, give me the title and the author name and I will take the recommendation. It’s super easy to let us know your questions and recommendations. Simply drop us a line at fivesmilingfish@gmail.com. Or, you can comment on this or any posted blog. Additionally you can leave us a comment on Facebook. We really do read and appreciate any and all messages and shares.

Thank you for your help. Here’s hoping the rest of 2018 will go as well as this first week has!