Five Reasons Your YA Novel Isn’t Selling

This is an excerpt from Writing for the Young Adult Market: Crafting YA Books that Sell, a new ebook from The Author Studio about how to research, write to, and dominate the young adult market.

So many posts on writers’ forums and questions that crop up at agent and editor discussions at conferences relate to the viability of a specific project. It’s natural for a writer to want to get a yes or no answer on whether or not the concept of their book is sellable. Unfortunately there’s no way for a book to address every possible permutation of a YA concept and whether or not it sellable. However there do seem to be a few patterns in books that do get stuck in limbo, and so it can be helpful to set them out in case any of these apply to your work. Let’s dive in.

Not in touch with today’s market:  As was mentioned before, YA books are generally written by adults. That doesn’t mean that adults are out of touch with teen culture, necessarily, and plenty of excellent YA popular with teens and adults alike is written by people over the age of, say, 40.

However, in terms of marketability, if you’re an older writer and you’re drawing on your memory of published YA that you read as a teenager for a starting point in approaching your own writing, you are, necessarily, behind the times. Writers who pitch their books as in the vein of Catcher in the Rye or something like Sweet Valley High or inspired by Judy Blume are going to have a tough time proving their relevance to industry professionals. Of course, those YA titles from your past have a lot of thematic resonance, because the internal landscape of being a teenager stays constant. However, the publishing marketplace doesn’t, and comparisons to these legacy titles can be something of a canary in a coal mine for publishing professionals that indicates that the author is not market savvy. Do more research and find more recently published books that feel similar to what your book is attempting. Again, read the best sellers. Read the award winners. Know what’s going on today, because that’s the only way to get your book published tomorrow.


Too slow—the book of your heart problem: Writers always encourage other writers to keep focused on the “book of their heart.” It’s a lovely notion, and a good one too. No one should give up on their dreams. That’s not how writing works. We do it out of passion and we do it out of care for the particular project that we’ve undertaken.

However, when the writing process drags out over multiple years, the market will shift. Sometimes, writers will invest lots of time, energy, and passion into a project that either becomes outdated in terms of trends, or that get “scooped” buy another book that’s acquired before they have a chance to get their work in the hands of editors and agents. Some writers spend years laboring and perfecting and polishing a single work, and never get it published, not because they weren’t persistent, but simply because they didn’t move fast enough. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see a deal report for the exact same concept you’ve been writing for years. Granted, it’s always hard to say what’s an identical concept and what just another peer book in its trend category—however, sometimes you do just get scooped.

For example, if you are book is a retelling of a relatively obscure myth set in a particular updated or unusual setting—say you retold “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in Imperial China—and that kind of book is just sold, it will be difficult to convince publishers that yours is anything different. They’ll be reluctant to try and market the exact same book at the exact same time. It’s sort of like when two movies come out at the same time and have a very similar concept, like Armageddon and Independence Day, or that summer we had a lot of movies about the president’s daughter with Chasing Liberty and First Daughter, or No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. In the minds of consumers, they’ll get conflated, no matter how different they actually are. And editors will avoid that, because it weakens their title’s market potential.

Fortunately, things come and go in cycles, and something that may not work now may work in another, say, ten years. If you can stand to wait, that’s fine. But know that the longer you take with the book of your heart, the less responsive you’re going to be able to be, and the less able you’ll be to strike when the iron is hot.


Too fast—you’re rushing and it’s sloppy, an obvious cash-in: The opposite problem of lingering on the book of your heart is writing too fast to attempt to cash in on something. YA editors and agents can see through that. They know when something is an authentic, and they know when it’s something you don’t like writing but are just writing because it seems on trend. There’s just no way to fake genuine enthusiasm. This is why it’s so important to make sure that you’re not just writing about something that’s selling, but about something you genuinely care about. It’s all about finding an intersection. And it’s also about improving your craft, so that when you do execute something that’s timely, it’s well done. But that’s more of a craft book discussion!


The “freshness” of your premise knocks it out of YA: Fresh concepts are good. As you’ve established, publishers don’t want to knock themselves off. However, writers who get too experimental with YA can risk knocking themselves out of the age category entirely in traditional publishing.

The most common example of this is toying with the protagonist’s age—for example, an eleven-year-old protagonist, or a twenty-five-year-old protagonist, or a protagonist who is an adult reciting accounts of their teenage life. These just go against genre conventions.

The time span of the novel is another example. YA books don’t typically follow a character for an extended amount of time. A series might, but an individual volume is unlikely to follow a character from ages 13 to 18. That’s because kids do read relatively close to their age: a 13-year-old will want a book about a 14 or 15-year-old, and so on. It’s also just a lot of events to tackle in a YA book. And this isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, but it could be a red flag. It’s another craft element to consider whether it’s really necessary to your book or not.

Basically, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A fresh and exciting conceit is great, but not to the point where it isn’t giving YA editors what they actually want. And maybe that means you’re just writing adult sci-fi, or romance, or new adult, or literary fiction. That’s fine! You just have to be aware of what you have on your hands and target your submissions appropriately.

All that said, this is advice really stands more for traditional publication. In indie YA, you will see the occasional 19 or 20-year-old protagonist. You might also see more sex. And you might see plot lines that seem to skew more towards the adult version of whatever genre the book is written in, like sci-fi or fantasy. Given the readership of indie YA is, as we’ve established, generally older than teenagers, these adjustments are more widely accepted. You’ll also see more series, which, again, is more accepted by the indie readership than it is by traditional publishing gatekeepers.


Too long wordcount: Another piece of advice that has to be prefaced with “never say never,” but: YA novels just aren’t that long. If your book is 200,000 words long, you’re not going to sell it to a traditional publisher until you cut it down. Period. This can be very discouraging to writers, because, well, editing is hard! And you love your story, and it’s hard to let any of it go. However, if you’re serious about making it in traditional YA publishing, you’re going to have to give it up. It’s a good skill to acquire.

As with any quote-unquote rule, it’s totally possible to find some outliers that break this one. However, that doesn’t mean you should do it yourself. Rule breaking books tend to be published by authors with an established track record, or authors that publishers are super super confident they can break out and make a killing on. As a debut, you’re giving yourself an even steeper mountain to climb if you’re asking a publisher not only to bet on you, but to bet on you as a gangbusters success. Do yourself the favor of making yourself as easy as a yes for a publisher as possible, and make your book conform to genre standards.

Generally speaking, YA fantasy can see word counts that go as high as a hundred twenty thousand words, maybe even slightly higher. Sci-fi, too, will also get a high word count, as will some historical—anything with a lot of world-building, in other words. Romance or contemporary  will tend to be shorter, anywhere from a brisk 45,000 words to 85 (ish) thousand. Thrillers and mysteries can go either way, but generally don’t get super long. Do your research, once again. Read things in your YA genre and get a feel for how they’re paced and how long they are.

Again, however, this varies in indie YA. Ebooks don’t have literal pages, and so the “weight” of 50,000 vs. 200,000 is not an issue. That said, indie YA authors do tend to keep individual volumes from getting too long—usually, it’s just in their interest to sell more, shorter titles over one longer one.


For more information on how to crack the YA market and get your YA novel published, check out Writing for the YA Marketout now!

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The Subtle (But Common) Mistake That’s Killing Your Book Sales: Guest Post from Beehive Book Design

This post is a guest post by Jeremy and Alise of Beehive Book Design, experts in ebook formatting and packaging. Take it away!

Have you ever heard this?

Self-publishing isn’t professional.

Anyone can self-publish a book. You don’t have to have any skill.

Self-published authors aren’t real writers.

As self-published authors we can sometimes have an uphill climb to convince potential readers that our book is worth a look. Despite some high-profile self-published successes out there, there is still considerable stigma around self-publishing.

The beauty of self-publishing is how easy it is for any author to publish their work. But too often, we forget that just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean anyone can do it well. Crafting your story takes skill and artistry. Most self-pub writers work very hard at that. Revising your story takes an expert eye. Smart self-pub writers bring on professional editors to critique and proofread their novel.

But packaging your book—meaning paying attention to the formatting of the eBook—also requires skill and attention to detail. Yet for many writers, it’s an afterthought. If the formatting of the book is wonky (broken links, strange fonts, missing chapters), a reader will end up frustrated (and leave a bad review). Even if a reader can’t articulate what’s wrong with a book, they can sense if something is wrong. And they’ll stop reading—even if they aren’t quite sure why.

So if you’ve self-published a book and are struggling with dismal sales despite your best efforts, it could be that your formatting is killing your sales. Read on for some of the subtle formatting mistakes that can instantly signal to your readers that your book is self-published and “unprofessional.”


Your cover looks homemade.
Okay, technically your cover isn’t “formatting,” but we’re including it here because your cover is your first (and last) chance to grab your reader. If your reader is scrolling through the Kindle store and doesn’t give your book a second glance, you’ve already lost them. It doesn’t matter how good your story is if your cover doesn’t attract readers.

The most important thing your cover needs to do is look professional. (It doesn’t need to be designed by a professional—you can teach yourself!—but it needs to look that way.) A professional looking cover is enough to get past that first hurdle of a reader automatically discounting your book because it looks “homemade.”

Your book isn’t speaking the language.
Good writers know that all books, all genres, have specific tropes and cliches that readers clamor for. But most writers don’t think as much about how those conventions and expectations extend to design and formatting. This starts with your cover, of course, but continues as a reader picks up your book to look inside. And we’re not just talking about plot!

The colors, fonts, and design elements of your novel should reinforce to your reader that “yes, this is the kind of book you wanted.” Do the interior font choices look like what a reader expects of a romance novel? Dystopian YA? Science fiction? Many readers may not be able to put their finger on exactly what makes a book look like a serious nonfiction book, or literary fiction, or pulpy sci-fi, but they’ll feel it instinctively if something doesn’t look right. Design choices in covers and formatting that aren’t quite right will often put a reader off and communicate that your book is not professional.

In short, the formatting of your book should match the content and genre of your book. Your formatting is part of the packaging of your book as much as your cover is, and, just like a cover, it’s not something to try and whip up yourself at the last minute. Formatting needs to show your readers that you understand the genre, and that you have put care into the way that you’re presenting your work.

Your book has inconsistent or just plain bad formatting.
Of course, there are also the less subtle formatting mistakes that can really kill your book sales. In these cases, truly awful formatting will likely get your book returned by the few customers who do buy it—the book will be literally unreadable. And Amazon will certainly let you know that your book is garnering complaints from readers. They care FAR more about the reader experience than the author, and if your book is making people frustrated because of multiple glaring errors and formatting that makes reading challenging, your account is likely to get shut down.

Bottom line: Subtle Formatting Changes Can Give Your Book an Edge
Beyond just having a well-edited book and intriguing story, here are a few things that can give your self-published book an edge and boost sales (all of which we do at Beehive Book Design):
● A well-organized and clickable table of contents
● Genre-appropriate chapter headers, drop caps, ornamental breaks
● Embedded links to your social media accounts and mailing lists
● Smart links to your back catalog that take readers to the appropriate store for their country and device—increased sales!
● Page numbers and footers in print copies that are correctly positioned and genre-appropriate

You shouldn’t have to figure this out on your own. You’re a writer, not a formatter, and struggling with hand-coding your eBook files or clunky conversion tools is a waste of your time and energy. When you invest in professional formatting, you’re sending a message to your readers that your books matter. And that’s what publishing is all about.

About Beehive Book Design
Beehive Book Design was launched by two authors interested in using what we’ve learned in nearly six years of self-publishing our own books to help other authors succeed. For authors, by authors isn’t just a slogan for us, it represents our mission as a company – to support indie authors and make self-publishing less complicated. We are passionate about self-publishing and we are here to help you every step of the way.

Six Ways to Describe An Attractive Character

When it comes it describing an attractive character, “show don’t tell” is crucial. But how do you describe the love interest without just repeating “she was beautiful” or “he was drop-dead gorgeous”? Just like any kind of writing exposition, good description can make or break the introduction of a stunning new character. Never fear! Here are six ways to write about a good-looking guy or gal in your book without being boring, repetitive, or flat.

Get physical.
As with writing kissing scenes, physicality is, if not everything, then a lot of things. Instead of focusing on the purely visual aspects of an attractive character, focus on how their appearance affects the other characters. Stomach butterflies? Racing heart? Rising temperatures? Don’t hold back.

Use all five senses.
Another classic romance writing tip—but applying all five senses specifically to appearance of an attractive character is absolutely crucial. Don’t just focus on the visuals; consider how the person smells, sounds like when they talk, and feels (if your POV character is lucky enough to touch them, anyway!).

Don’t go crazy with adjectives.
Too many descriptors can make your character sound like a laundry list of features rather than an actual human being (or wolf shifter, or vampire, or whatever). A hero with “sapphire eyes” and “bronzed caramel skin” ends up being more distracting than specific to the reader—the ten-dollar words aren’t adding anything, and in a pile-up, can read as clumsy and amateurish.

Use voice.
All that said, it is actually okay to “tell” what the attractive character looks like—as long as it’s grounded in the voice of the narrator. Using the turns of phrase that your narrator is accustomed to in writing about an attractive character does double duty, because it not only conveys information about the character being described, but also the worldview and particular attitudes about the narrator.

Avoid cliché.
You know this, of course! But in romance and YA romance in particular, readers want writers to know how avoid clichés in their writing. Clichés make books feel generic, and make readers skim—which is the opposite of what you want! The only real way to avoid clichés is to know what they are in the first place, and the only way to know that is to read widely in your genre. It’s a fine line between delivering on genre expectations and settling too heavily into cliché, but the more you know about the other books in your category, the better you’ll be able to make your writing stand out.

Subtext, subtext, subtext.
Dialogue is a big part of showing off a character’s magnetic appeal. But it’s human nature that people don’t mean what they say or say what they mean. (Seriously, when was the last time you just walked up to someone and said “hey, you’re hot!”?) When your character is talking to someone they find attractive, what they talk about isn’t as important as the way they say it. Too much talking about mutual attraction outright is a sure way to kill tension. Amp up the mystery and sensuality by cloaking their real intentions—even a discussion over something as simple as grocery shopping can become electrically charged when attraction is at a fever pitch.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

How to Tackle A Major Revision

There are tons of theories, tricks, and methods for how to revise a novel. But sometimes novel revisions can seem so huge that it’s impossible to apply any strategy. Major plot reconstruction, new or different points of view, changes in setting, cutting or deleting characters, or any kind of alteration to the core of the novel can feel less like improving and more like breaking it—which makes it incredibly daunting to start!

Make a list.
No good revision starts without a battle plan. Pantsing may work for drafting (and, okay, for some revising), but if you’re doing some major alterations, keeping track of your to-dos in writing is immensely useful. If you’re working with a freelance editor or good beta reader, you may already have an edit letter with your book’s issues spelled out, so you’ve got a jump start on making a list of things to address in your revision. If not, think hard about what you know you need to fix first, and write all that down—then reorder as you see fit. Chances are, the thing that’s bugging you the most will be the biggest problem to tackle.

Save everything.
The beauty of working digitally is that you can have almost unlimited versions of the same story. Make sure to keep your drafts distinct—save a copy of “draft 2” and make any changes there. That way, you can always revert to the “original” version if you don’t like the changes you made (which hopefully will make you feel bolder in terms of risk-taking!). You can even draft up alternate versions of single scenes or entire endings. If you use Scrivener, use the “snapshot” feature to save different versions of scenes and avoid the headache of multiple project files.

Tackle one problem at a time.
And do your best to do them in order of biggest/most major to smallest/least significant. Major, universal changes—to things like setting, narrator character, point of view (i.e., first person to third person or vice versa) or verb tense—should be up first, since they’ll affect the revisions of anything else you’ll write. Then, once you have your priorities, work on one issue at once, and get it as completed/resolved as possible before moving on. Too much jumping from problem to problem can lead to loose ends, dropped threads, or inconsistencies—which ultimately just means more revision. If you absolutely must change it up while you’re revising, make some kind of note so you know where you left off on one issue.

Diagram everything.
Okay, maybe not everything. But if you feel yourself slipping into a creative vortex of words and paragraphs, changing gears to a more left-brained approach can help you refocus. Big revisions require bird’s eye views of the entirety of your novel, not just individual scenes. So get some quantifiable stats on your manuscript to inform your revision process. You can count up words—for example, in a novel with multiple narrators or protagonists, figure out how many words (or what percentage) of the manuscript each one takes up. You can make charts, like rating the tension of each scene on a scale of 1 to 10 and plotting it on a graph—then tweaking where it looks like things are lagging. You can make a character sheet mind-map style, with characters connected based on their relationships, or you can make a simple family tree. You can even just draw a map of your novel’s setting—sometimes visualizing the world of your book really snaps everything into place.

Get to the heart of your story.
Not all of revision is about the words that end up on the actual page. When revising, don’t get so caught up in doing the major overhauls that you lose sight of the themes and meaning behind your story. What big questions does it answer? What’s the point of what you’re trying to write? What inspired you to start it in the first place? Knowing the answers to these questions will keep you from flagging when the going gets tough.

Don’t copy edit too soon.
Good copy editing is important—there’s no doubt about that. When revising, it’s tempting to start tinkering with proofreading mechanics, but resist the urge! Clean, grammatically-correct prose is important, of course, but if you’re doing a major overhaul, the little changes you make might be wiped out entirely when you delete a scene. So don’t waste your time—and don’t get suckered into thinking that deleting commas and fixing typos is “revising” when it’s really procrastinating making the bigger, more necessary changes.

Track your progress.
It’s easy to feel like your revisions are going in circles—or even backwards. Keep a log of all the progress you’ve made to maintain enthusiasm and momentum—it can be as simple as a journal-style entry about the day’s work, or as visual as a bar graph you gradually fill up, or a list that you scribble on every time you knock out another task. And don’t forget to reward yourself!

Take breaks.
Overworking your brain when revising your novel can cause serious diminishing returns. You can just tap out of energy, and start repeating yourself, rushing, or just doing generally shoddy work. Worse, there is such a thing as too much revisionwork that actually weakens your novel. Revision is a marathon, not a sprint, and rushing it doesn’t do you or your book any favors.

Want more on revision?

Get our Ultimate Novel Revision Checklist and make sure your revision doesn’t miss anything, from plot to character to proofreading.

How to Write Great Exposition (and Avoid Infodumps)

Writing good exposition is one of the qualities that truly sets apart talented writers from amateurs. Exposition—the portions of your novel’s narrative that introduce information not shown through the action of the scene—is essential to storytelling, but writing it smoothly and skillfully can prove challenging, particularly in genres like fantasy that require lots of worldbuilding. The “infodump” occurs when a writer drops in large chunks of exposition that interrupt the flow of the narrative and effectively boot the reader out of the story.

So how do you write exposition that not only slips in seamlessly, but engages your reader and makes her want to keep reading? (Or, phrased another way, how do you avoid bad exposition that detracts from your novel?) It’s not impossible—here are some strategies.

Get voicey.
If you’ve already written a chunk of your book, one way to quickly make your exposition more interesting is to revise the paragraphs as much into your character’s voice as possible. This gives these paragraphs double duty: they relay information while also revealing character through voice. So, for example, a teen boy character might call his school “a total craphole” instead of “worn down and in need of repair.” Word choice matters (always!).

Attach emotions.
Bad exposition tends to exist in a vacuum, with the information dropped in for no reason besides the writer’s need to plant it in the mind of the reader. One way to revise this type of exposition is to use a character’s emotions as the catalyst that sets the exposition into motion. For example, a character grieving over a breakup might naturally notice—and detail—the parts of her surroundings that remind her of her broken relationship. The more sensory details, the better! Once again, this will make your exposition pull double its weight by also revealing backstory and/or character.

Relate information to the action of the scene.
What’s the central action point of the scene—the dynamic part of the plot that starts one way and ends another? Use that driving force to motivate exposition. For example, a chase scene early in the novel may include the POV character searching around for an escape route—conveniently allowing her to describe her scenery.

Give your characters something to do.
So-called “maid and butler” dialogue is one thing that editors dread and can make an agent stop reading. If the scene is two secondary (or even primary) characters simply discussing things they already know, then it’s a textbook example of bad exposition. (After all, you don’t start a coffee date with your best friend by saying “ever since we met in 11th grade, I’ve relied on you for advice, especially now that I’m deciding between two equally rewarding career opportunities.”) Still, sometimes writing exposition in dialogue is unavoidable, and that’s okay—just be sure your scene has a secondary goal in the form of an action. Have your characters pack suitcases, bake cupcakes, trim hedges, anything that allows for some action beats that break up the dialogue and avoid a scene of talking heads. Bonus points if the action moves the plot into the next scene!

Pare way, way back.
Truth bomb: maybe you don’t need that much exposition. Part of the psychological phenomenon (not to mention enjoyment) of reading is that the author and the reader meet halfway to create the fictional world of the novel. Trusting your reader to fill in the gaps will make her a happier reader—whether she realizes it or not—because it’s actively engaging her on the page. Try this exercise: rewrite your current chunk of exposition in half as many words as it takes now. Then halve the word count and revise again. Then boil it down to a single sentence. That may end up being a little too bare bones, but if your beta readers don’t feel confused, then it’s probably more than sufficient.

Create a character as conduit.
Particularly in novels with complex worldbuilding, a “new kid in school” character can be a great avatar for the reader in the world of the story. A new recruit, a stranger in town, or a literal new kid in school will provide a set of fresh eyes that naturally notices all the details that more situated characters are now accustomed to (and therefore would never actively describe). This isn’t a foolproof method—it can easily fall victim to the “maid and butler” dialogue, or take place in scenes with no purpose beyond exposition—but it can also be a powerful way to establish empathy with the reader and create a guide for her to navigate the world of the story, especially if you’re writing an ensemble cast.

No mirrors!
What do agents and editors hate, hate, hate reading in an early chapter? The clichéd scene of the protagonist standing in front of a mirror and describing herself. Yes, it’s convenient, especially in first-person point of view, and yes, people do tend to spend time in front of mirrors before heading out for the day, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting on the page. In short, there’s pretty much no way to make this kind of scene interesting. Be more original: instead of showing your protagonist combing her hair, have her best friend tell her how jealous she is of her natural highlights. Rather than merely describing her outfit head to toe, have her spill a cup of coffee on her skirt and give her a natural opening to describe what it looks like—stain and all.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Write a Romance Novel with All Five Senses

How to Use All Five Senses When Writing A Romance Novel

A big part of writing a romance novel that sells—and captivates readers—is creating a world that’s immersive, personal, and thoroughly believable. But it’s easy to rely on phrases that tell the reader about the characters’ romantic relationships instead of choosing language that lets them feel every heart-stopping, pulse-pounding, stomach-fluttering moment of falling in love. So how to write a romance that’s unique, and never cliché? Go deep into the character’s sensory experience.

Here’s how to use the five senses to write an unforgettable romance.

First things, well, first: there’s a reason we talk about “love at first sight.” Humans are hugely visual creatures, and creating a mental picture on the page is a crucial part of writing a believable romance novel. Lazy description can make this sense fall flat. Don’t cheat by saying “he was the hottest guy she’d ever seen” or “he looked like a black-haired Chris Pine.” Instead, show every individual piece of the person as your character takes them in. Use strong verbs to communicate how they move (e.g., swagger, breeze by, saunter) and choose evocative adjectives to describe their hair, skin, and body type. Avoid telegraphing too much about how their appearance makes your character feel, and let the description speak for itself—yes, show don’t tell. Consider, too, how the setting contributes to the visual picture of the love interest: is the air clear, the lighting golden, the haze of the bar obscuring their face, the moonlight sharp?

When we fall in love, the mere sound of our sweetheart’s voice is enough to make us perk up and turn around. This is true in fiction, too! But sound often ends up neglected compared to the other senses—which is a shame. Let your characters notice how the other one speaks, not just the words that they use, but the quality of their voice. Is it clear and high or low and raspy? Do they whisper, or shout, their sweet nothings? Don’t forget to get nonverbal, too; whether it’s a sigh or a moan, so much in romance is said in sounds that aren’t words, and so much about the character is revealed through what sounds they make and when.

It’s scientifically proven that the way a person smells affects what kind of partners they attract (and no, that doesn’t just mean that having B.O. makes it harder to date…although that’s certainly part of it). Tap into that powerful chemical reaction by letting your characters notice each others’ scents: sweet, clean, and floral, or musky and earthy? But don’t limit it to just body smells, either: perfume, cologne, even the scent of food can contribute to a complete sensory experience on the page.

Touch is essential when writing a romance novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward! One of the most common mistakes when writing a physical scene in a romance novel is to neglect the fact that touch is a two way street: you can’t touch another person without feeling something yourself. Let your characters notice the sensation of each other’s skin, the texture of their hair, the feeling of their lips, but don’t forget to let your point of view character feel sensations on their body as well—not just when being touched, but when initiating, as well. Even little touch details like the feeling of bedsheets or the touch of the night air are crucial to writing a good love scene.

Kissing is, of course, supremely important in romance, and it’s as much about tasting as it is about touching. Like with the sense of smell, tasting is a powerful way to connect to a partner on a chemical level, and it’s not something to gloss over! Consider both what your love interest tastes like “naturally,” as well as any lingering tastes that may be on their mouth: wine, cigarette smoke, lip gloss. The more grounded in concrete experiences, the better: don’t say a kiss “tastes like heaven” since no one has actually tasted heaven—the reader won’t be able to call anything to mind! Taste can also be combined with other senses to create yet more powerful sensory imagery: your heroine might have a “honey and whiskey voice,” for example.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

How to Write an Ensemble Cast in Your Novel

How to Write an Ensemble Cast

Some of the most beloved stories start with a ragtag band, a scrappy group of buddies, or a rogue’s gallery setting off on adventures. But that doesn’t mean that writing an ensemble cast is easy. When your book has more than three “main” roles in the cast, it’s tough to know how to distinguish your characters on the page. You don’t want a reader to be lost wondering how to tell your characters apart, and you definitely want to make each character in your novel interesting and unique.

So if you’re writing a book with an ensemble cast, how do you make sure it’s working—and not overloading the reader? Here are some best practices for plotting out a story with lots of characters.

Introduce them slowly.
Knowing how to engage your reader is key for any kind of book, but when writing an ensemble cast, it’s especially clutch. Starting your novel with a busy scene full of seven characters talking quickly is an easy way to scare your reader off. Instead, break your characters into “clumps,” and introduce them in groups of no more than three to keep confusion to a minimum. For added depth, introduce your characters in individual, unique settings—it’s easier to remember three girls who were chatting at a frozen yogurt shop and two who were at track practice than five girls who were all talking in the hallway at school.

Play to types.
Many guides to writing an ensemble cast will warn you against creating a “one of each type” cast, where each character has a different archetype. But writers do this for a reason: it helps. Creating unique characters often, counterintuitively, requires playing to familiar tropes that give the reader a foothold in your world, and using character archetypes is a solid way to do so. Consider The Breakfast Club or Ocean’s Eleven; these stories need their characters to have “types” so that the story feels well-rounded. But even characters that are more demographically similar can each take up a “role”: for example, in Mean Girls, you have the three Plastics: Regina the Queen Bee, Gretchen the second-hand man, and Karen the airhead, but also Cady, the straight-man main character, and Janis, the rebel. They’re all teenage girls, but even just picturing them, you can tell them apart—that’s the power of archetypes! The archetypes don’t stop the film from being hilarious and non-generic; they merely give the viewer a point of access.

Vary the speech patterns.
Just like when writing a book in dual point of view, you want to make sure that each character sounds different from all the other characters. Ideally, the reader will know who’s speaking just by the words on the page, without any need for dialogue tags. This can work especially well in SF/F novels, when you’re creating your own fantasy language, because you have that much more flexibility to experiment and play around with registers of formality, slang, and so on.

Watch them move.
No two characters should move the same—especially when in an ensemble cast. Use strong, individualized verbs to make their movements come alive, not just when they’re walking from place to place, but when they’re sitting (or slumping, sleeping in, slipping out of) their chair. Likewise, give them physical tics: maybe one character plays with her hair, or maybe one has a nervous habit of polishing his glasses. Don’t overdo it—too much repetition will drive your readers crazy—but use it as a way to ground the reader and bring back their focus to each character.

Don’t be afraid to signpost.
The classic writing advice “show, don’t tell” can get lead very quickly to very muddy writing when writing a novel with an ensemble cast. There may be times where you simply have to specify explicitly who each person is. Don’t shy away from stating things like family relationships, age, jobs, or other “un-showable” character attributes—a few of these plainly-stated facts now and again are like signposts for the reader. They help the reader know which way to go and keep her from getting lost in the weeds.

Make their names stand out.
If you have a John, James, and Jake, your reader is not going to know how to tell your characters apart. Similarly, a Lexie, Katie, Angie, and Molly can throw off the reader’s mental register because all the names end in the same “ee” sound. Vary length of syllables, first letter, and vowel sounds to keep things identifiable, and make sure your beta readers aren’t getting tripped up.

Consider your POV.
If you’re writing from multiple characters’ first-person POV, you’re not really writing an ensemble cast; you’re writing a novel in alternating POV. Which is okay! That’s a different practice but still an acceptable stylistic choice. Generally speaking, in novels, an ensemble cast is written in third person limited (i.e., restricted to one character’s emotions and insights), or third person omniscient (i.e., able to hop between character’s heads within a single scene). If you’re having trouble figuring out which POV to use for an ensemble cast, start simply and work up: third person limited will give you a static point to shape your story around as you get to know the cast, rather than forcing you to juggle the challenges of omniscience while also building up three-plus unique characters.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

When NOT to Listen to Your Beta Reader

Unless you’re just going to keep all your stuff locked in a journal, outside readers are essential to your writing process. A beta reader (or critique partner) is a fellow writer who reads your work and gives you feedback, whether that’s in-line notes, copy edits, an edit letter, or just a chat session about the strengths and weaknesses.

But even good writers aren’t born knowing how to critique a novel. When you find a beta reader, you’ll need to make sure that the comments and critiques you’re getting are not only worth your time but are things you want to change in your novel. Here are a few situations where you should—maybe—ignore your beta reader…or find a new one entirely.

They change their mind.
A good beta reader does a lot, and is flexible and open to discussion if there’s a point you want clarification on. But if you press them for more depth on one comment, only to have them shrink away and take it back, they clearly don’t have a very strong conviction about their assessment of your novel…which is not good news. Your novel needs critique that’s solid and unshakeable—even if it’s not what you want to hear!—and a beta reader who cowers and flip-flops isn’t giving you opinions that are firm enough to be actionable.

They only praise you.
Everyone loves praise! And one of the things a good critique partner does is point out the strong sides of your novel. But if she’s pointing out the highlights and only the highlights, you’re not getting the critique out of her beta read…which is the whole point. You don’t want a yes-man (or -woman); you want a personable but honest assessment. Writer friends can be a double-edged sword here—they want you to succeed, and may not be able to tell it like it is (or couch it when they do—see above). Hiring a novel editor is an easy way to make sure you’re getting an impartial opinion.

They’re too prescriptive.
Move this line of dialogue to chapter three, cut six sentences here, make your protagonist’s hair red and change her first name to Sylvia, never use the word ‘said’ without an adverb (hint: don’t do that)…sound familiar? A good critique partner shows you problems, but doesn’t solve them FOR you. Just because they’re very specific about how they want you to fix these issues doesn’t mean you have to kick them to the curb: you can choose to ignore their solutions and just work on the problems the solutions are for. Or you can find another CP or beta reader to counterbalance. If they’re getting really nitty-gritty in their line edits, remember, you’re probably better off finding copy-editing mistakes yourself (or, of course, hiring an editor).

They’re your only beta.
Unless you’re writing a book for one person, you need more than one beta reader. Ideally, you can find two readers who like your genre and category of book, but have little else in common, so that you get the widest range of takes possible. If you hack and polish and tailor your book to one person’s specifications, it may still fall flat for the next reader…who might be an agent or editor. You don’t have to go crazy—you don’t want to be waiting on sixteen different readers—but at least two is a good start.

They’re getting personal.
Is the critique more about YOU than your novel? Are they make cutting, passive-aggressive comments about your publishing track record, career choices, or anything else that’s just not on the page? Even the critique they do give you probably isn’t going to be great. Don’t waste your time.

The canary is dead.
When it comes to accepting critiques of your writing, there are some things that are dead giveaways that the critique might not be up to par. If you’re getting comments with bad grammar, misspelled words (or character names), or sentences that don’t make logical sense…chances are that your beta reader didn’t give you a truly thorough read. Those little mistakes are like the canary in the coal mine: if your crit partner can’t spell on her own, why would you trust her to check the spelling in your book?

They’re writing checks their experience can’t cash.
If your critique partner is telling you with authority that your book won’t sell because the market is too crowded for YA fantasy, or that you can’t write romance from two POVs because editors are tired of reading it, odds are they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s great to be up on trends in the publishing industry, but unless your critique partner has recent, relevant industry experience, those are just opinions—not facts. Don’t take career advice from someone who hasn’t worked on that side of the desk! Only a professional editor can accurately assess the conceptual potential of your book.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Seven Subtle Copy-Editing Mistakes You Might Be Making

Copy editing your novel is meticulous, time-consuming, and far from easy. Some writers love getting into the nitty-gritty of their language use, others…not so much. But even if you’re planning to work with a professional editor, and especially if you’re about to start querying your novel, it’s an essential step in preparing your manuscript for a reader. Small, obvious mistakes will yank the reader out of the story and torch your credibility as a reliable, polished writer. In short, every writer should have a basic idea of how to copy edit a novel—and most do! Nevertheless, there are some basic copy editing mistakes that are far from evident at first blush—or even third or fourth blush. Make sure you’re copy editing thoroughly and keep an eye out for these subtle

Mixed metaphors
Metaphors make writing sing; they give it depth, color, and panache. But using a metaphor correctly means more than just picking something that sounds good—an attentive writer will make sure that her metaphors are logical, especially when combined with the rest of the sentence or paragraph. This means going deep on what a metaphor truly means, and not just what we’re accustomed to using it to mean. If your novel includes phrases like “weave together an ocean of options” or “weeding out the bad seeds” take a second look (you obviously can’t weave together an ocean, and how can you weed out a seed that hasn’t even bloomed? Think about it!) If you’re really unsure of whether you’re abusing metaphor, hire a professional editor to give your book an expert eye.

Illogical word order
Similarly, drafting a novel doesn’t necessarily mean you’re thinking all the way through the way you lay down information in a series. Elements in a list need to proceed in a logical order to make sense. For example, the sentence “we’ll give your book our insight, hard work, and attention” isn’t correct—you have to give the book attention before you work hard on it and provide insight. This is a truly common error (made even by some freelance editors) and can be hard to spot, but it’s worth fixing every time.

Confusing description
Writing character description or writing setting description is like filming a movie: the camera has to move logically from point A to point B. Too many jump cuts and you’re making it impossible for your reader to follow. Describing a character with “blue-streaked hair, red combat boots, a pink plaid skirt, and deep red lipstick” is confusing: you’re darting from her head to her feet to her hips to her head again. Work top down or bottom up; scan over the scene like a camera.

Commonly misused phrases
“A hare’s breath.” “For all intensive purposes.” “I should of known better.” “Sneak peak.” “Deep-seeded.” If any of these look familiar, your book could no doubt use another go-over. Even smart writers slip up on these—but that doesn’t mean these commonly misused phrases should make it into your final draft!

The Department of Redundancy Department
Phrases like “very unique,” “collaborate together,” “true fact,” “end result,” “final outcome,” “free gift,” and so on are needlessly wordy—the kiss of death for clear writing. Strike out any adjectives that don’t truly modify; only keep them if they change the original intended meaning of the word.

Stealth cliché
It’s easy to think of phrases like “pitch-black,” “blood-red,” “dead as a doornail,” and “thick as thieves” as almost entire words in themselves: we use them together so frequently that they’ve practically inseparable. But they should be separated: clichés like this cause the reader to speed up, glossing over rather than truly reading, and absorbing less of your story. Whenever possible, break up clichés with more unexpected descriptions to force your reader to pay attention. Good writing doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated, but it should be complex (and non-generic) enough to provide texture in the reading experience. Eliminating these tired phrases will go a long way.

Bad dialogue tags
It’s a truism of editing that the word “said” is far and away the best choice for 99% of dialogue. That said (hah), there are times when you may wish to opt for a slightly more descriptive dialogue tag. But besides making sure it isn’t distracting, you also need to ensure that it makes sense. A character can’t “hiss” a phrase with no S sound—think about it—and it’s impossible to “laugh” a line of dialogue. Be on the lookout for tags that don’t make sense—and again, when in doubt, swap in “said.”

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

The Right and Wrong Ways to Write Dual Point of View

Writing a book in alternating point of view is becoming more and more common. While books in the third person have often switched between several narrators (lookin’ at you, Harry Potter), “alternating POV” or “dual POV” refers to two (or occasionally more) first person narrators who trade off chapters or scenes to tell a story. For authors writing a YA love story, this can be a popular choice, because it allows the reader to get into the mind of two characters at once on an intimate, personal, sensory level.

But just because writing in alternating POV has advantages doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Like all stylistic choices, an author has to make it for a reason, and then follow through with the best execution possible. In short, there are good dual point of view books, and then there are…less good ones. Here’s how to know the different.

Right: There’s a reason to use two viewpoints.
Simple fact: writing craft matters. Stylistic decisions can’t be arbitrary. If one character is a relatively flat character, who won’t grow much over the course of the story and doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the action, is it really necessary for them to get a lion’s share of the narration? The best dual POV stories use the two narrators to tell two sides of a story (especially a crime or mystery—think Gone Girl), get inside the head of each character in a couple as they fall in love (like in Perfect Chemistry, Pushing the Limits, or He Said, She Said) or two characters who start in different geographical places and eventually come together (like Will Grayson, Will Grayson).

Wrong: Both viewpoints convey the same character growth, plot information, or thematic material.
Again, if the dual POV is just hitting the same notes again and again, it’s just dragging the pacing and taking twice as long to tell one story. Unless you’re going full-on Rashomon with your storytelling (which is a valid option!) you need to make sure your alternating POV doesn’t merely retell the same scene twice in a different voice.

Right: The voices sound—and look—distinct from one another.
Developing character voice is crucial in any book. Developing character voice in dual POV books is, well, twice as crucial. Good dual POV books have two narrators that sound entirely like themselves—and not like each other. They should use opposite (or contrasting) registers of speech, formality, slang, and so on. But consider, too, the amount of psychic distance in each: does one narrator wear her heart on her sleeve, while the other one keeps a tight lock on his emotions? Is one character up close and personal with sensory details, while the other is very much locked in intellectualizing and philosophy? Finally, consider the white space on the page. A very powerful way to distinguish between narrators is to utilize the psychological phenomena of white space on the page—a page with lots of line breaks and short paragraphs will subconsciously register as a very different voice than one with dense, wordy paragraphs.

Wrong: The voices are indistinguishable.
Once again, dual POV has to count! And if the experience of reading the two characters is the same for each, then there’s no reward for the reader. Give your book to an editor without the chapters named with narrators: can she tell which is which? If so, you’re doing great. If not…time to revise.

Right: The right character narrates the right scene.
Balancing which scenes get told by which characters is one of the trickiest parts of writing dual POV novels. Usually, one character shouldn’t dominate in terms of word count; you want an even split between the two. But well-executed dual POV not only balances the amount of “camera time” each narrator gets, but also makes sure that each scene is giving to the character whose POV will be most affecting in rendering the action. When it doubt, hand the narrative reins to the character who has the most to lose in that scene. That’s a surefire way to make sure that the emotional stakes for the narrator—and therefore the reader—will stay high.

Wrong: Some POV switches are just a “reset.”
If several scenes (or chapters) in a row are in the same character’s POV, it can be tempting to revise by inserting scenes in the other character’s POV in between to “break up” the stretches of the first character’s narration. But switching POVs just for its own sake doesn’t work; it just slows things down and waste the reader’s time. If you find yourself with lots of limp scenes in one character’s POV, you either have to find a way to insert some structure and dynamism to those scenes, or revisit whether dual POV is right for this story.

Right: Each character has their own world.
Setting might seem like the one thing that doesn’t change from character to character, but in fact it’s one of the most important things that does change. First person allows the reader to experience the setting through the eyes and experiences of a particular character…which means that each character who narrates will see the setting differently. A less-well-off character will notice the shabbiness of his bedroom and feel ashamed, while his wealthy co-narrator may only notice that he’s got a lot of basketball posters in there. Dual POV is always subjective, and setting is no exception.

Wrong: The writer gets no outside input.
Writing two first-person narrators in a single novel is essentially writing two entire stories—all the character growth, plot, pacing, and prose has to be there times two. While drafting may come easily, it can be easy to lose steam and hard to stay motivated while revising, since you’re so close to the material that it can be hard to tell whether or not you’ve broken any of these rules. You’ll really need someone who isn’t you—who doesn’t know these characters as intimately as you do—to gauge whether or not you’re pulling it off. An outside editor can really help bring a professional and impartial eye to your work, and make your dual POV shine.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.