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The One Where You Get to Be Pygmalion

frenchheadshot2Here’s what I think. I think I say, “Pygmalion,” and then you say, “Oh, she’s gonna talk about carving out the perfect Story from the chunk of undefined marble known as ‘Idea.'”

And then, I think I say, “Nope.”

Today we’re not talking about your Story Idea or even your Ideal Story. Today we’re talking about your Ideal Reader.

Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why

A couple weeks back, I waxed eloquent on how to choose your target audience. If you haven’t read that article, I do recommend it to you, as everything I said about choosing a target audience also applies to targeting an Ideal Reader:

  • know your genre
  • know your readers’ defining characteristics
  • write toward your readers’ expectations
  • pay attention to critiques.

You should also come back tomorrow and read Rachel’s article about using your cover art to target a reader. What she says about demographics and psychographics is crucial in writing toward and marketing toward a specific audience.

As you write your novel, you need to keep your target audience and their needs/expectations in mind. (Please note that this is not “selling out.”) But, more than a specific audience, it’s also helpful to keep a specific reader in mind: your Ideal Reader.

Ideal Reader loves your genre.
Ideal Reader looks exactly like the kind of person who would love the story you’re writing.
Ideal Reader needs and expects just what your story has to offer.

Why do you want an Ideal Reader? I feel like a broken record, but even those are right twice a day. Once again it boils down to that simple word: clarity. If you’re writing to an Ideal Reader, you’ll communicate your story more clearly.

You’ll know if a word or phrase is the right one, because you’ll know whether or not it would resonate with Ideal Reader. You’ll know if a character’s development comes across clearly, because you’ll know whether or not Ideal Reader can relate to that character. You’ll know where your story’s structure is clear and stable (and where it isn’t), because you’ll know whether or not Ideal Reader is confused by said structure (or lack thereof).

The Part Where You’re Pygmalion

Back to Pygmalion. If you don’t know the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it goes something like this: Pygmalion swears off women and carves himself a marble statue of the “perfect” woman. In answer to his prayer, Venus turns her into a real woman. Boy gets girl, happily ever after, ba-dum ching.

You, dear fellow writer, needn’t swear off members of the opposite sex. But you still get to carve yourself a perfect counterpart and make sure it receives the breath of life. Ideal Reader is your perfect reader, the one your story is meant for. Ideal Reader is the answer to your prayer for someone who will simply love your work.

Ideal Reader is a construct to help you hone your writing skills — but if this were a real person, Ideal Reader would also give you the kind of critique you need (praise for the good stuff, honest feedback on the not so good stuff, and helpful suggestions on how to fix it).

Ideal Reader perfectly fits the demographic and psychographic you’re writing toward: in age, gender, education, social class, thinking style. Ideal Reader is that one person your story connects with on an intimate level, creating that magic moment in which immersion in the story is complete. Ideal Reader is the person who not only reads your story but lives it, in that moment forgetting that she even exists in the “real world.”

You can’t make all of your readers happy all of the time. (Face it, write enough stories and eventually you’ll write something that doesn’t even make some of your readers happy some of the time. It happens to all of us.) But if you write toward your Ideal Reader every time, you come ever closer to writing stories that your readers would want to read. If you’re writing to make that intimate, magical connection, then you will make it with readers in your wider target audience. Because there’s a little bit of Ideal Reader in all of them.

Before You Hire an Editor

consortiumpic.croppedRecently I let you hear from one of my freelance editor friends, Laurie. One thing that she mentioned is that your manuscript (MS) needs to be in good condition before you send it off to your editor.

Your manuscript needs to be polished and perfected, written at least four times, before you hand it over to an editor. It wouldn’t hurt to have a friend or two read it for larger, more obvious mistakes, too. It should be more like a term paper that’s ready to be turned in at the end of the semester. Then your editor, like your professor, can give his little red squiggles in the margins and write a few overall remarks to you.

Editors aren’t here to hold your hand and give you encouragement with every sentence you write. I’m sorry, but that’s what your mom is for. Neither is your editor here to tell you how to construct paragraphs and scenes. That is what your English teacher is for (and the columns on Prewriting and Rewriting here on Unstressed Syllables, and other writing advice sites). Editors are here to give the final review before you put your words out there for the rest of the public to see. They can gauge what your readers are going to like and what they are going to complain about, and they are giving you one last chance to correct those unenjoyable parts before it’s too late.

The sad truth of the matter is that your editor doesn’t have time to rewrite your book for you. As much as we want to help you become a great writer, we can’t take your rough draft and reconstruct the entire thing so that it sounds amazing. Well, we could, but you would have to pay us a lot more and put our names on the cover as your co-author.

Because that’s not what editors are for. We’re not here to write your book for you. So send us a book that is complete, that is written, not that is a rough draft. When I worked at Tate, many authors were afraid to take my suggestions because they were afraid that once they did so, the book would not be theirs any more. They were afraid, essentially, that I would rewrite their book. But if you’ve properly self-edited beforehand, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Not only does self-editing help eliminate a lot of work and rewriting that your editors don’t want to do, it can give you a confidence and humility in your own work.

Confidence and humility? How does that work?

Going back to my timid Tate authors, they were afraid that if they took my suggestions, that their book would become “tainted” by my voice and suggestions. But if they’d gone over their book multiple times, rewriting their own sentences, they’d come to know their own voice more confidently. They could have taken my suggestions and put it in their own words, keeping the tone theirs. Be confident in your book.

Conversely, when some authors get their edits back, they refuse to make changes because they’ve become too attached to their words. They think they are too wonderful to be subject to criticism. “My editor says that this sentence doesn’t fit here, but I slaved over this sentence! My readers will appreciate it more than she does.” If you’ve already taken a critical eye to your work three or four or five times, you’ve (hopefully) learned that there is nothing in your book that is perfect. Every word is subject to scrutiny. You’ve humbled yourself enough to realize that you can always make changes.

So. Sorry to break it to you, but you have a long road ahead before you’re ready to select a professional editor. Fortunately, you have me and all the other contributors here at Unstressed Syllables to help you get ready for that step. Come back next week to learn about getting ready for that second (and third and fourth) draft.

Jessie Sanders is the managing editor at Consortium Books, editor of the bestselling Dragonprince trilogy, and author of the young adult fantasy novel Into the Flames. Every Friday she shares an article about editing and how to improve one’s grammar.

Find out more about Jessie Sanders at her author and editing website, and check out her novel, Into the Flames, in stores now!

The Magic of Marketing: A Cautionary Tale

Josh-1Once upon a time there was a man named Aaron Pogue. He worked every day as a writer, and yet he dreamed every day of working as a writer. You see, he worked as a technical writer translating Engineer into English. But he wanted to be a fiction writer so he could translate words into dreams.

Then, one day, a mighty wizard named Bezos created the Amazon Kindle, and Aaron published his magical story about dragons and a boy who would be…a kingish thing. He sold millions of copies, quit his evil day job, and became a professional dreamweaver.

You’ve heard about and from Aaron before. He’s the progenitor of this site and the original font of writerly wisdom here. I wanted to bring his success up here to illustrate a very important point. In order to do that, I have to ask a few questions. You don’t have to answer them out loud, but do fix them in your mind.

  1. How much time did Aaron spend writing Taming Fire, the first novel in the fantasy trilogy that made his dreams come true?
  2. How much time did Aaron spend finding a great, professional editor for Taming Fire?
  3. How much time did Aaron spend managing the cover art for Taming Fire?
  4. How much money did Aaron spend on professional marketing for Taming Fire?
  5. How much time did Aaron spend on self-marketing for Taming Fire?

Now let me tell you a story about a few other writers, all of whom also longed to make fiction writing their day jobs. You’re also familiar with these names. Courtney Cantrell, Jessie Sanders, and me (Joshua Unruh). All of us have several short stories published and somewhere between one and five full length novels. Allow me to ask similar questions.

  1. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend writing their novels?
  2. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend finding a great, professional editor for their novels?
  3. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend managing the cover art for their novels?
  4. How much money did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend on professional marketing for their novels?
  5. How much time did Courtney/Jessie/Joshua spend on self-marketing for their novels?

So fascinatingly, the answer to both number ones and twos are the same in principle if not in actual time. We all spent as much time as it took to create a publishable novel. I love that word, by the way. We didn’t want perfect novels or our  pièce de résistance or our opuses. We wanted novels of high quality and exciting readability. Aaron wrote Taming Fire in his teens, so it had been rewritten a few times. I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo and then we managed to publish it two months later. The unerring Jessie Sanders edited them flawlessly. (Well, she got a friend to do her own, but if I’d been any of Jessie’s friends, there is no way I’d edit her novel. Might as well make a watch for Mr. Rolex.) The time isn’t the point, the quality is.

But the answers on the other questions are wildly different. Aaron released Taming Fire into the world with no fanfare, no marketing, a mostly finished cover, and barely marketed it himself via social media. By contrast, the rest of us agonized over our covers, did blog tours or interviews, endlessly plugged them on social media, and looked for ways to leverage them into book clubs, signings, and a host of other marketing ideas.

Exactly none of them have taken off like Taming Fire.

So what’s the point? The meat of this sandwich is that, no matter how much effort or know-how or money you sink into marketing your books, they might never find an audience. Or they might find one ten years from now. Or, if you are very lucky, they might find one instantly and make you a hundredaire…or maybe even a thousandaire!

Why am I telling you all this doom and gloom? Because this is an advice site and, while I don’t think we’d ever fall into the trap of making success in publishing sound easy, we might make it sound like a foregone conclusion. And I, as your resident marketing friend and guru, want to make sure you know it just ain’t necessarily so.

No here’s a little silver lining. This is not significantly different than the traditional publishing world. We can all name books that are terrible but became household names anyway. My novels are better than TwilightThe DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Gray put together. That’s not ego or hubris, it’s just a fact. I put more work into my craft than those novels received.

But even better, we can all name books that maybe weren’t wonderful, but they got the nod anyway, which gave the author time to hone their craft while making a living, and now we have cultural treasures we wouldn’t otherwise. This may be controversial, but I’ll put it out there. The first two books in the Harry Potter series aren’t very good. They aren’t terrible, but there is also no reason that they should have rocked the world’s collective socks.

But they let Ms. Rowling get paid, which let her keep writing, and led to amazing novels of high adventure and friendship that the culture gets to treasure for decades to come.

Marketing can’t make crap writing into gold or vice versa. It can’t force somebody to read crap and claim it’s gold, or vice versa. All marketing can do is position (that’s a key word, people) your work to succeed. It will never be the only deciding factor in success.

So how do I handle this potentially crushing news? Well, first, I keep writing. Second, I make sure everything I publish is something I can be proud of. I never know which one might be the one that takes off, and I don’t want to be embarrassed about it when it does. I control the things I can control (positioning), and let the rest sort itself out. That’s my advice to each of you, and Unstressed Syllables is dedicated to helping you do exactly that.

The Characters in Orbit

Last week we talked about what it takes to make a realistic main character. We discussed how to start by making some decisions for him, but then letting him make other decisions for himself.

We even went through the character creation process. The end result was Nathan, a 17-year-old boy with OCD who lives with his dad. Through the process of using improvisation rather than planning to develop his personality, we also discovered that he’s a picky eater, he avoids intimacy with others, and he’s observant of people.

His character still needs considerable amounts of prewriting and improvisation to make him ready for a novel. But for the purposes of this demonstration, we’re going to instead focus on the secondary characters that fill his world.

The secondary characters are the ones who help or hinder your main character on his quest. They’re his best buddies, his love interests, his enemies.

And they require just as much time and attention as your main character.

Don’t believe me? Think back on the Harry Potter series. Be honest. Would you have kept reading if it weren’t for Ron and Hermione, for Sirius and Snape? Those aren’t some of the bestselling novels of all time because we care about Harry. We care about all of the characters in that world. Even if there are some characters we don’t care about, it’s not because they’re flat. It’s because they have strong personalities that we genuinely don’t like.

Would The Princess Bride have been a cult classic without Inigo and Fezzick? Would Firefly fanboys foam at the mouth without Wash and Kaylee? What’s The Lord of the Rings without Gimli and Gollum? The Chronicles of Narnia without Puddleglum and Reepicheep? Romeo needs Mercutio and Tybalt. Woody is nothing without Buzz.

I rest my case.

The process of developing realistic secondary characters is simple. It’s the same as the process for developing realistic main characters.

Secondary characters are the main characters of their own stories. They need to be just as thought out, just as rich, as your primary protagonist and antagonist. After all, that’s how real life is. Other people are just as real as you and me.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that secondary characters are only there to serve the protagonist. They’re not. If they’re good characters, then they’ll be interested in making society better, though how they define better is not necessarily how the main character defines it. And if they’re selfish, they’re only out to serve themselves.

This is why Shakespeare’s work has lasted this long. Every character was vivid, every relationship real. We can see eye-to-eye with Macbeth and Macduff and pity one and cheer the other. We can facepalm at Beatrice and Benedick because they’re so completely self-absorbed. We forget that they aren’t actual people.

Let’s put it into practice. Just as we did last week, let’s create a character to go alongside Nathan.

This time let’s make a girl. Same age. The temptation here is to start characterizing her by how she feels about the protagonist. Don’t fall for it! She’s a person in her own right. I do believe that she needs to come from a strong, nuclear family, let’s say the middle of five children.

And what does she want from life? She may not have it all figured out, but I bet she feels very passionate about a particular cause she volunteers with. Orphans? Too cliché. Let’s say she’s trying to get an internship at a physical therapy clinic.

Erin leaned back against the tile wall and sighed. Her nose rankled at the faint smell of disinfectant. Her arms were killing her. Mister Peters was a really nice man, but that didn’t make massaging his knee any easier.

Doctor Duval had said her muscles would build up with the practice. Erin knew she was right, as usual. She just wished it didn’t take so long.

Someone cleared his throat nearby. Erin hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes. She opened them and looked up.

Gary stood over her, arm in a brace, goofy smile shining in the fluorescent light.

Erin sighed. She wanted to close her eyes again, but she didn’t know him well enough yet to trust him.

“Hi, Gary.”

Gary apparently took that as an invitation to sit down. He glanced at her, then carefully adjusted so that he was sitting just like she was.

“…H-Hi, Erin.”

Erin didn’t want to start the conversation, but she didn’t want to be rude, either. “How do you feel today?”

“G-Good. Great. Even.”


“You know what would make me feel better?”

Erin winced. “No, Gary. What?”

She waited patiently as he stammered. “T-t-t-taking you out for dinner tonight.”

She’d guessed as much from the way he’d gawked at her over the last few weeks. The way he asked for her help even though he was assigned to someone else.

Telling him no would hurt him. She hated to see that look on someone’s face. But she couldn’t lead him on, either.

“That wouldn’t be very ethical,” Erin said.

That confusion, it was so innocent. “Ethical?”

“It’s not right for therapists to date their patients.”

There it was. He was beyond crestfallen. He looked like a deflated zeppelin.

Do no harm, indeed.

How about that? I wanted to find some kind of flaw, some mistake for her to make, but I just didn’t get an opportunity. No matter. I can use another scene to find her character flaws. This one showed me how responsible and level headed she is. She isn’t flighty, but she’s still compassionate. That’s a lot for fewer than 300 words.

I didn’t make it a scene where she interacts with Nathan, not yet. That’s for next week, when we discuss the most important part of character creation. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

This article took four read-throughs.

The Cover Uncovered: Shopaholic Edition

“The Cover Uncovered” will be a monthly post where I dissect the cover of a relatively recent book and take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and what you can learn from it.

Every month, we here at Unstressed Syllables are given a literary genre to loosely focus on in our work for that month. And, to be honest, this month’s–chick lit–isn’t really my cup of tea. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the book covers of this genre just don’t draw me. The high-heels of The Devil Wears Prada or Bond Girl variety, curly writing and pink of Confessions of a Shopaholic, or the wistful photos and simple typography of a Nicholas Sparks novel might as well be advertising a book in a foreign language. Actually, I might pick up a foreign language book, so that’s a poor comparison. When I see a pink book cover, something just reaches into my curious mind and finds the “off” switch.

thebelljar_cover-e1360125869395 (I would never pick up Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” if this was the only cover for it)

So how to analyze a cover of a genre who’s graphical elements I have no personal interest in? After all, what’s uninteresting to me is obviously attracting other women and allowing these books to become bestsellers. It’s a bit of a trick question, actually. The principles of design still hold, whether it’s a hated genre or a beacon of light and perfection among other genres.

This week’s cover comes from my sparse knowledge of popular chick-lit: The Shopoholic Series. Whatever else might be wrong, you can argue that this series offers a bright and colorful companion for your vacation on the beach. For simplicity’s sake, I’m just choosing to focus on this one:


Color, Background & Graphical Elements:

Bright yellow on a light blue background makes the cover seem cheery and fun to read. Even if there is drama within, you know it’ll be resolved happily at the end. With everything bright, the black text stands out against it.  The watercolor illustrations on the cover also compliment the colors, adding more of that cheery “everything is fun and happy” feel. I am a little confused why the bouquet of flowers is hovering on the price tag, since there’s wedding jewelry and a wedding dress train below. It did take me several minutes to figure out that blue blob was a wedding dress train, so maybe the designer wanted to drive home the “wedding” aspect. Overall, I would say the graphical elements and their layout is inefficient at best.


There is a lot of typography going on here, and not the good kind. See, a big part of putting together a good design is to make sure the over-all look is consistent. And nothing will mess with consistency more than having too many fonts on your cover.

Take a quick moment to count the number of fonts on this book cover (I even made it larger than normal to help you).


I count at least 6 different fonts: two in the title, one in the “the don’t miss event…”, one in the tagline, one in the author’s name, and I believe two in the “New York Times bestselling,” but the text is pretty small so I can’t really tell. The result makes the cover seem disheveled and not unified. It’s as if the designer put together the title and illustration , then someone else decided to add the author’s name but didn’t know what typeface to use and guessed, then someone else added the tagline, and so on.

Hence one of the most important rules to keep a  book cover from looking amateurish:

Keep font use limited. Rule of thumb is two fonts (one fancy and one basic)**.  Three only if you absolutely have a good reason for it  (for example, you have a logo that incorporates a different font).

If you keep to that rule, it’ll automatically improve the quality of your book cover in 99% of cases.

All in all, the covers of all the Shopoholic books covey a light, fun read rather well through its color use. The graphical elements and typography, however, suggest a messiness that should have been tightened for a more efficient and eye-catching cover. Inconsistency and messiness in a cover means the potential reader has to work just that much harder to figure out what the book cover says. Often times, that one little second of extra work means a lost sale and another potential reader gone.


**It’s important to note for the above rule, that things such as italics and bold don’t count as a different font. Even though it looks different, they still belong to the same type family and so will still feel consistent.

Prewriting: Turn It Upside Down and Inside Out

frenchheadshot2Once upon a time, I started my series of posts on prewriting with a comparison to Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In that comparison, I posited the following:

Writing a novel is like joining a passel of dwarves on a quest to kill a dragon.

Neglecting your prewriting is like arriving at the dragon’s doorstep without the handy map that shows you how to sneak in the back door.

The result is getting fried to a cinder before you can write your happy ending.

As recently as “The Short Synopsis,” I mentioned that whilst engaged in your prewriting, you need to play around with it and make it useful to you. Add notes here and there. Delete things (or, rather, strikethrough, because you never know when you might need something). In my mind, this is equivalent to turning your map upside down or sideways to get a different perspective on your route.

Speaking of the short synopsis, it’s probably the best example I have of how I personally repurpose prewriting as I go along.

Making a Mess

My current WIP, Elevator People (working title), once boasted a short synopsis of just over 300 words. As you can see below, it didn’t stay “short” for long:


At some point after diving into writing the actual story, I referred back to my short synopsis and realized that I wanted more detail. So, as needed, I fleshed out characters, described more action, and even broke down the synopsis chapter-by-chapter. And then I  struck through “Short” in the synopsis title. As one does.

Eventually, I relied less and less on my synopsis, drawing instead on memory and letting the characters determine the direction of the story. The next time I skimmed the synopsis, I realized three things:

1. The story had gone off on a tangent that wasn’t in the synopsis.
2. Some of the changes were good.
3. Some of the elements of the original synopsis still needed to be in the story.

What to do? I didn’t want to take the time to rewrite the entire synopsis. That sounded like just so much busywork, and besides, I was nose-deep in this story I was having so much fun writing. Thus, instead of rewriting the whole synopsis, I highlighted the things I’ll need to go back and change in the story after I’ve finished the first draft:


And now, you see why in the first image, there’s an “only partially corrected” following the title.

Over the course of several months, my synopsizing (can I say that? it’s so much more fun than “synopsis-writing”) devolved from the penning of sentences to the simple jotting-down of bullet points as they occurred to me:


As for the story itself, I’m now in the final chapters but haven’t yet caught up to the notes in the image above. Some of those plot points will make it into the story, some won’t. I’ve made a little bit of chaos out of my once organized synopsis–but at least it’s organized chaos, and I can harness it anytime I need it.

Musing on the Mess

What I’ve done with my short synopsis I also do with the rest of my prewriting package. I revise chapter titles to inspire novel scenes. I rework my list of scenes and sequels (there’s not a post on those, yet, but we’ll get to it). I add to my character descriptions as the story reveals more nuances about my story people.

In navigating the world of your writing and the world of your story specifically, you often need a fresh look at the topography. Turning your map upside down–molding and remaking your prewriting–gives you that fresh look. As I’ve said before, us your prewriting material however you need to. Make it work for you. Run with it!

Choosing Your Categories

Aaron Pogue, Lead WriterWe spent the week discussing the role categories play in your books’ success–from the initial story design through cover design and promotion. I’d like to wrap that up with a brief discussion of where the categories fit in your publishing plans.

As Joshua pointed out on Thursday, the official category list provided by BISAC dictates the basic shape of your promotion, but you do still have some decisions to make. For instance, most sales channels will allow you to choose more than one category for your book.


That gives you the opportunity to mix and match. Maybe there’s no “Weird Western” category for cowboys who can talk to ghosts, but you can put your book in both “Fiction > Supernatural & Horror” and “Fiction > Westerns.”

That’s probably the right thing to do, but you need to be aware how your BISAC selections are used for you to get the most out of them.

I should say, right up front, that the makers of BISAC don’t encourage mixing and matching. The system is designed around the assumption that every book matches only one category.

If you wanted to ask them about Josh’s Weird Western, they would probably encourage him to choose the general “Supernatural & Horror” category and be done with it. BISAC designations aren’t meant to convey every aspect of your story; they’re meant to force it into a broad category.

Bookstore Categories

But here’s the problem: Driven by retail competition, bookstore categories shift much faster than the BISAC categories do. If readers are looking for them, bookstores will promote books as Weird Western or New Adult or Dystopia or any other marketing phrase catching popularity, even if BISAC doesn’t recognize those yet.

That disconnect has led to a situation where every retailer has its own set of categories. If you went shopping for bestsellers by category at Amazon, you’d find a different list from the one at Kobo or Barnes & Noble, and all three are different from the BISAC list.

And that’s where the mix-and-match really helps you. Instead of holding your nose and picking the least-objectionable category, slap as many relevant labels on your product as the retailers allow, and the retailers will use all of them to decide where you book fits in their categories.

Egregious Mis-Categorization

Before you go crazy with that, though, spend some time thinking all the way through the implications. The extra categories aren’t just hints; your book should completely fit into any category you assign it.

Retailers takes this pretty seriously. Apple will reject a badly-categorized book with the phrase “egregious mis-categorization,” and for an example they use a book that’s labeled as both “Erotica” and “Children and Teens.” Egregious, no?

But that’s not the only way to get it wrong. If your book is fiction, it shouldn’t have any non-fiction categories. As the publisher, it’s your responsibility to correctly and accurately label your product so the sales channels can market it as narrowly as possible to your actual target market. If you do your part, retailers and customers alike will reward you.

Come back for next week’s Technical Tip, and I’ll show you exactly how to select your book’s categories at each of the major publishing platforms. See you then!

Aaron Pogue is the head publisher at Consortium Books, author of the bestselling Dragonprince trilogy, and serves as the User Experience consultant at Every Saturday he shares an article about publishing and the new book marketplace.

Find out more about Aaron Pogue at his author website.

Three Common Grammatical Mistakes: Commas

Commas are a tricky beast for everyone. There are so many uses for the comma, and many times it feels like you’re just supposed to use your best judgment. But too often those pauses become unnatural and cumbersome, or, if you decide to be sparse, your readers feel like they’re galloping through a sentence. How do you find a balance?

Again, rules are key here, and today I’m going to tell you three rules about commas that I’ve seen misused a lot recently.

Before we begin, here are some ground rules. Excuse me if I’m being patronizing, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page.

A clause is a phrase or set of words that all go together. For example, “I went to the store” is all one sentence, but it is also all one clause, an independent. “Without her knowledge of psychology”  is also a clause, but it’s only part of a sentence.

A complete sentence or independent clause is one that can stand on its own. Every sentence or independent clause requires a subject and verb. That’s it. “I went.” “You ate.” “That is.” These are all legitimate sentences. Unfortunately, sometimes constructing a complete sentence is harder than it sounds, as you might see below.

All right, now let’s begin.

1. Oxford Commas

A lot of people don’t appreciate Oxford commas anymore, and this makes me sad because they make so much sense to me. I like it because of its uniformity to the rest of the list. Others think it just clutters up the sentence.  Many stylebooks don’t call for Oxford commas, but Chicago Manual of Style does, so if you’re writing a novel, make sure to include them.

What are Oxford Commas?

When you have a list of three or more items, the Oxford comma is the one right before the and of the last item. For example, “I went to the store and bought grapes, juice, and soda.” The red comma is the one in question. Here’s another reason why I think Oxford commas are important. If you look at the image I linked in the previous sentence, you’ll see that without a comma, the two last items can be run together. And yes, sometimes this is necessary.

2. Independent vs. Dependent Clauses

So the rule of thumb here is that if the clause is dependent, there is no comma. If the clause is independent, add the comma. I think the easiest way to remember is that independent clauses want to have nothing to do with the first part of the sentence, because they’re so independent, so they need a comma to separate the two. I think a hundred years ago the rule was different, becuase I saw the exact opposite when I read Jane Eyre.

What is a dependent clause?

This is where it gets difficult. Let’s consider the two sentences below.

a. I went to the store, and I bought a pair of shoes.

b. I went to the store and bought a pair of shoes.

These two sentences are nearly identical except for one thing. In sentence A, the second clause, “and I bought a pair of shoes,” has its own subject, I. In sentence B, the second clause borrows the subject from the first clause (also I). Sentence A has an independent clause because of its seperate subject. Therefore, it requires a comma.

Sentence B is dependent because it can’t stand on its own. “Bought a pair of shoes,” while perhaps an acceptable facebook status, doesn’t qualify as a complete sentence. Therefore it depends on the first part of the sentence, “I went to the store,” to sustain it by lending it its subject.

3. Introductory Phrases

Most of us have a penchant for setting off every single introductory phrase with a comma. However, most of the time this leads to unnecessary pauses when really the phrase can just flow into the sentence. The longer the introductory phrase, the more likely you are to need a comma after it. The rule I follow is that if there are four or more words in your introductory phrase, add a comma. Otherwise, leave it alone.

What is an introductory phrase?

Well, it’s basically what it sounds like. It’s a phrase that is at the beginning of  your sentence but isn’t the main clause because it doesn’t contain your sentence or verb.

Before I went to the store, I put on my shoes.

The first six words in this sentence are an introductory phrase. “I put” is the actual sentence. “Before I went to the store” just qualifies when I put. Becuase it was longer than four words, I added a comma.

After lunch I went to the store.

Again, “after lunch,” denotes the setting of the main phrase. However, since it’s so short, you don’t need to put a comma after it. Adding a comma wouldn’t change the meaning of the sentence, but if you’re going for a sparse, clean look with easy readability, I suggest leaving the comma out.


Well, I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you too much for one week. Come back next month, and I’ll have some more grammatical tips for you. Happy writing!

Categorical Ground Zero

Part of marketing your book in this brave new world of self, indie, and e-publishing is targeting your category. Categories are what most people call genres, but I’m not going to get into the minutiae of which term is correct. I’m going to call it category for the duration of this post for clarity and just in case I ever want to talk about genre down the road.

 Po-Mo Confusion

Blame it on a singularity of access to fiction, the Hollywood High Concept, post modern ideas on meta-story, or just lay it at the feet of dichotomous consumers who want to be wowed by something new while also feeling the comfort of the familiar. Whatever the reason, most fiction I run into (and write) feels like a mash-up or twisting of two or more different types of stories into one, new type.

From the painfully misapplied “Urban Fantasy” that’s apparently about fantastical things happening in the world outside your window, through the thematic null space of Steampunk with its retro-historical sci-fi, and on down to Sense and Sensibility and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire HunterAny one of these would be difficult to sum up into one specific, easy-to-find category.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I’ve published a tween Spy-Fi and a Neo-Noir Viking Fantasy while a Weird Western (possibly one of the earliest examples of this category mashing) waits in the wings. How do I sum this up quickly? Well, that’s a question for later when we discuss the Elevator Pitch. But how do I sum them up in a way that will help potential consumers find me?

Aye, there’s the rub, Hamlet would say (right before teaming up with Venkman and Spengler to bust his father’s ghost).

 BISAC – Not Just an Evil Computer on Star Trek

The painfully annoying  answer to this question is, “you ignore all that complicated nuance and just apply a BISAC Heading.”

What’s a BISAC? Here’s a BISAC. The Book Industry Standards and Communications created a list of subject headings – and a tremendously long list of sub-headings, to help the publishing industry and libraries database books “properly.” No matter how revolutionary your new fictional idea, no matter how weird the cross-category pollination, when it comes down to listing your book at any major bookseller, you’re going to have to pick a few headings from the BISAC list.

Trust me when I say this is both blessing and curse.

Blessed Be the BISAC’d

If it were up to me–and other authors who write fiction as I do–there would be a million billion gagillion headings. Given time, I will decide that my precious jewel of a story is so unique/weird/clever/mine that it deserves a category unto itself.

Perhaps you deny that you’d operate this way. And perhaps you are right. But if you have a blog, go check and see how you tagged the latest post. Now compare that to how you tagged the first post. Did the specificity and sheer volume of tags grow? Did you not tag at all? Either way, you now see the problem.

BISAC forces me to narrow down my story type into something that any given potential consumer/reader can understand. That is tremendously useful, especially to pie-in-the-sky me. As much as I detest BISAC, I’d probably be lost without it.

That said, BISAC can be imperfect in its narrowness. So, so imperfect.


A Curse On All Your Headings

Remember my Neo-Noir Viking Fantasy? It’s based on concepts found all through epic poetry, specifically Norse Sagas. So, naturally, I put Downfall under the BISAC heading of Fiction/Sagas. Unfortunately, there’s a Fiction/Family Sagas that says “see Sagas.” Which means that Amazon is so confused by this specific and theoretically useful heading that my story about a Viking killing monsters sits next to a Danielle Steel novel and The Joy Luck Club. Or they’re put next to me, since I’m the one using the heading correctly.

That’s obviously not my fault. I’m using the term correctly, those other books aren’t. But BISAC–and, by extension, Amazon, Nook, and every library in the universe–doesn’t care. The hammer-like simplicity that delighted me when I found Sagas now frustrates me with the stupid asterisk next to Family Sagas.

A Hammer for Screws

BISAC is a hammer. Categories, especially in this complicated, post-modern world, are screws…screws of varying sizes, lengths, number of threads, and some of them even turn at right angles. I may not like using my hammer. I may find it inelegant. I may wish for something more subtle. But at the end of the day, I’m just happy to have something with which to force that screw into the board.

And every new reader I find is another board in the house of my literary career. And friends, I want a big, big house. Possibly even a cathedral. Then I can leave it to my worshipers to damn BISAC to eternal torment and elevate my work to categories unto themselves.

Seems legit.

The Character in the Middle

Fatherhood [fah-ther-hood] (n): The delicate balance between making a child into the person he is going to be and letting the child decide who he is going to be.

You won’t find that at But as my first child continues to grow and my second child has just announced his/her plans for imminent arrival, it’s what I’ve decided ought to be the definition.

On the one hand, when I tell my son that we aren’t going to watch TV, and he plants his feet, balls his little fists, and screams into my face, I engage in the process of making him into the person he’s going to be. If he remains as he is, it will invite complications later on.

On the other hand, when breakfast is over and I let him decide what he wants to do next, I engage in the process of letting him decide who he’s going to be. His decision between running around in the back yard and banging on the coffee table because it sounds really cool will have lifelong consequences as surely as a butterfly beats its wings.

And so it is when creating your main character.

Sure, you’re going to make big decisions about your character that she has no say in. But here’s a truth to parenting as much as writing: the more you decide the tiny details of someone else’s life, the more that person becomes only a caricature of you.

There’s an author out there. Really famous one, too. I read a lot of his books. But lately, I’ll be frank, I’ve been getting annoyed. The protagonist is always the same: young male, nerdy and awkward but snarky, and he always seems to know the right answers and he really knows how to manipulate people. Honestly, it’s most of his books.

The worst part is that I’ve read enough of his non-fiction stuff to know that that’s kind of how he is. Not young, no, but male, nerdy and awkward and snarky and he thinks he knows all the right answers. He essentially makes all of his protagonists young versions of him.

So I stop caring about his protagonists. I get tired of reading about the same people over and over again. I like his style and his plots. I want to be a fan. But it’s really hard when it seems like all he’s doing is subconsciously fulfilling all his deepest fantasies.

You can do better. If you make your characters unique individuals, trust me, you’ll keep your oeuvre much more enjoyable.

Now, Thomas, it’s one thing to say that. But how do you let your character—a fake person—make decisions?

It all starts with prewriting. Courtney can tell you more about this, and she does every Monday. The process is crucial for making basic decisions about your characters. John Grisham does this with every novel—with great results, I might add.

Then, once you’ve done the work of prewriting, write short scenes with your characters. Not the novel, not yet, but episodes, certainly. Prequels. Let your intuition guide you. Don’t pause to plan. Just throw circumstances at them and write down the first actions and dialogue that come into your head.

Still uncertain? Don’t worry. I’m going to walk you through it. With our philosophy of character creation firmly established, you and I are going to make a baby.

Male or female? As a male, I can create male characters more quickly, so let’s say male. Age? Adolescence and young adulthood are the most dynamic periods of a person’s life, so let’s say 17. Milieu? Building a fantasy world or doing historical research come with their own processes, so let’s say modern.

What about his personality? The world has expectations for him; which ones does he accept and which ones does he rebel against? And which of those were conscious decisions, and which of them were decisions that were made for him by genetics, epigenetics, or upbringing?

I can, and will, put together a fuller profile of this character later, but since space is at a premium right now, we’ll just establish a few basics. He’s more athletic than average. He’s of moderate intelligence. He lives with his father but not his mother.

But every character needs a twist. Just for the fun of it, let’s say he has the pure-O variety of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, wherein he is plagued by obsessive thoughts that do not manifest themselves in compulsive actions.

I’m going to take a moment to think through how a real teenager would develop under these conditions.

And now I’m going to throw stuff at him and see how he responds.

“That’ll be $3.78,” the girl at the Starbucks counter said through her plastic smile.

Nathan pictured a demon with a rusty pair of pliers shoving her back against the wall and pulling out her teeth one by one.

He pulled a five out of his wallet. “Keep it.”

The girl’s smile turned up at the corners, turned a little more real. “Thanks.”

Nathan took the coffee. “Thank you.”

What do we know so far? Because Nathan gave no outward reaction to his thought, we suspect that this is something he’s experienced before and has practice containing. We also know, through the description of the girl’s smile, that he’s observant of people—I’m using a limited point of view, so I’m only describing what he’s noticing.

Let’s continue.

Nathan walked back to the armchair in the corner, his heart pounding, the sound of the barista’s screams, her muffled pleas for mercy, blazing through his mind. He breathed deep the steam from his coffee, letting it wash the filth and sin away.

He sat down and took a sip. This Starbucks tended to put more cinnamon in his coffee than they were supposed to. He much preferred that to the one on Brooks Street, where they tended to make things to spec.

His cell phone buzzed.

We all go to hell toothless, he thought.

Dad’s picture graced the screen of the phone. Nathan answered.


“Black beans.”

“I don’t like farting when I run.”

“They’re good for you. Full of protein.”

“So is chicken. I don’t want beans.”

“Fine. I’ll eat the beans. You can get constipated.”

Nathan glanced up at the counter. The barista was giving him a coy look. She met his gaze with breathless hesitation, then turned away to help a customer.

“Deal.” He ended the call.

Nathan stood and left. She seemed like his type. That would make it hurt even worse when she left him.

I didn’t mean for Nathan to be particular about food. And he probably only really likes cinnamon because I like cinnamon, so that’s a little leakage there.

But the biggest decision he had to make was about the barista. He’s a hot-blooded teenaged boy. But he’s plagued by insistent thoughts of blasphemy and violence, and we know, though the reader doesn’t yet, that his mom’s not in the picture, suggesting another source of anxiety.

I wanted him to go after the girl. She’s really cute. But he knows he has too much baggage. So he made the choice a real person like him would make, not the choice that I, the author, wanted.

That’s what I meant by letting him make his own choices. The more you know about how people work, the more you can have your characters act like real people and not like tools of your plot.

I’m going to write a little more about him on my own, and next week we can decide what kinds of people surround him.

This article took eight read-throughs.