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.

Sight
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?

Sound
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.

Smell
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
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.

Taste
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 errors.re

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.

Ten Ways to Title Your Novel

Even if you haven’t finished writing a novel yet, it’s never too early to think about how to title the book. The right title can even inform your writing and help you come up with new ideas for your book as you draft. And, as someone famously said, the title may be the only words of your writing than anyone ever reads—so choose wisely!

In short, brainstorming book titles can be a fun and worthwhile exercise, and give you something to call your book beyond “WIP” or “this novel is totally going to be awesome.” Here are ten strategies you can use to start brainstorming.

1. Your protagonist’s name
This approach to titling a novel is straightforward and even a bit old-fashioned: think of Jane Eyre, Tristram Shandy, or Ethan Frome. But you can also find a fresh new spin on your protagonist’s name by adding an object or an action, like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. These titles work well if you’re writing a character-driven book, because, well, they put the character front and center. If your book spans several years of the character’s life, or is even an entire fictional biography or family saga, this may be a good approach for you.

2. An important place in the book
Although this method for titling a book is also a bit vintage-sounding (think Wuthering Heights), it’s also cropping up in more contemporary works (think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls). A place-name title implies a kind of class and caché, so it’s a good choice for books that are either literary or high-concept. (Writing a fantasy novel? Fantasy language is important, and so are place names, so give this one a try.)

3. A resonant, unusual phrase from your book
This kind of title works well for literary works that have exquisite and precise language use. The phrase you use as the title should grow in meaning and resonance throughout the book—think of Tell the Wolves I’m Home—so don’t necessarily go fishing for it; if your book is suited to this kind of title, you probably already have a phrase leaping out to use.

4. The title of a song that inspires you
Generally speaking, song titles aren’t copyrightable (but song lyrics are, so don’t put those in the book). Kristan Higgins’s book Fools Rush In, for example, is named after a song that is both a romantic classic and suggests the content of the book: it’s funny, but romantic. If a particular song has inspired your book, consider snagging the title and sharing it.

5. A line from Shakespeare, an epic poem, a religious text, etc. that evokes the sense of your book
If you’re writing a literary fiction novel, this title method could lend your book an elevated status by association with one of the greats. All kinds of novels use snippets of well-known texts as titles: Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, Band of Brothers, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises…the list goes on. You can search the internet for phrases that fit with your book—just make sure it isn’t already a book title!

6. X & Y titles
Two elements united with a simple “and” can make a lovely title: think Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility. The two words don’t have to start with the same letter or sound, of course, but it does add another level of poetry to the phrase. Don’t pick two words for your title that are similar; go with two that are linked, but different, to create contrast and intrigue in the mind of the reader.

7. Three-Element Title
The next step up from the two-word title is the three-word title. Often called “the rule of threes” in copywriting, this structure uses two ordinary list items, then one unexpected and/or longer list item that breaks the pattern: look at Eat, Pray, Love; Love, Lies, and Lemon Pies; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

8. The _________’s Daughter
It’s well-documented that “wife” and “daughter” titles are not only cliché, but downright sexist. However! They still trend, and they still create titles for women’s fiction that promise the reader a certain kind of reader experience. You can swap in “apprentice” or “assistant” for “daughter” for a stronger option: think The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or The Magician’s Assistant.

9. A pun about the content of your book
Pun titles work especially well if you’re titling a mystery novel: think High Strung or Knot What You Think. If you’re writing a cozy mystery series, your setting or protagonist will probably lend themselves to great puns that you can use to title a whole host of books.

10. A single word title
Single word titles are evocative and spare in the way that only a single word can be. Because of their relative brevity, they work well if you’re wondering how to title a thriller novel, mystery novel, or literary fiction novel. Try an adjective, a noun, and a verb that all sum up the action, feeling, or character of your book, and play around to find the one that’s most appropriate. One caveat: since it’s just a single word, the odds that someone’s already snagged that title are pretty high (of course, two books can have the same title, but it will hurt your book’s SEO and searchability).

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Writing a romance kissing scene

How to Write A Heart-Stopping Kissing Scene

There comes a time in writing a romance novel (even writing a YA romance!) when it’s time to, well, kiss and tell. Even if you’re writing a romance with no clichés, a first kiss is pretty much a given. Your characters are dying for it, your readers are definitely dying for it, and all the action of the story has built to this one moment. So how do you write a love scene that starts out with a kiss—and delivers everything the reader wants?

Build to the kiss to create romantic tension.
By the time your characters lock lips, they should be desperate to do it—whether they’re conscious of it or not. Each scene that precedes the kissing scene should build on the characters’ budding desire for each other, and the subtler, the better. Ground your character’s reactions in the physical (racing heart, fluttery stomach, hyperawareness of the other person’s presence) so that your reader knows they want to kiss the romantic interest long before they do.

Pick a good scene location.
Maybe your story naturally lends itself to the kiss occurring in a particular place—writing a fantasy romance with a long voyage? They’ll probably just have to kiss on the windswept face of a mountain—but if you can be flexible, try to change it up. Where’s a location that both characters feel comfortable? How about uncomfortable? What about a place they can’t stay in for long—tension! Or a place that’s just plain hilarious.

Throw a curveball.
Similarly, maybe there’s a reason your characters get to—or have to!—kiss that isn’t motivated by their own desires for each other. A school play, a need to create a distraction, a dare, a few too many beers…start with a convoluted premise and let the feelings play out. The suddenness of the kiss will shock the reader…and then delight her.

Don’t get too mushy.
“Is this a kissing book?” Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to get goopy with your language. Keep your prose lean and your adjectives to a minimum; forget all the “limpid pools” and “soft as rose petals” and let your character’s authentic voice shine through. If they’re sarcastic, let them be a little funny and wry. If they’re angsty, let them struggle with the onslaught of emotion. Temper the romance with reality to keep it grounded and authentic.

Try not to name too many feelings.
Kissing is an overwhelming act of physical affection—so much so that people don’t tend to verbalize their emotions while they’re doing it. A character isn’t going to think “I’m so happy!” “This must be love!” when she’s kissing that cutie for the first time, so don’t take that shortcut for the sake of telegraphing to the reader what she’s feeling. Instead…

Use all your senses.
The great part about kissing (ahem) is that it involves so many physical sensations—touch, of course, but also (ahem again) taste. But don’t limit yourself to the obvious: consider what your characters are hearing, what their kissing partner looks and smells like, and generally what’s going on around them. How does the air feel around them? The couch they’re sitting on? THe smell of the sweaty house party? Don’t editorialize the kissing scene with too many labels; just notice every sensation they’re feeling and transcribe it to the page.

Leave your reader wanting more.
The first kiss isn’t the time for eternal promises. Even if this couple is going to get the happily ever after they deserve, the first kiss isn’t when they figure that out. Ending your first kiss scene with a pledge of fidelity isn’t just moving too fast—it’s boring. Without the question of whether the couple will end up together hanging in the air, the romance loses all its tension. Writing a good romantic scene at this stage in the manuscript (unless the first kiss is literally the last scene, or close to) means giving your reader a reason to keep going—and the only way to do that is to withhold the resolution.

How to Write A YA Romance Without Cliché

YA fans are some of the most dedicated readers on the planet: they buy tons of books, tear through them voraciously, and worship the couples that earn their adoration. But write flat, stereotypical, or hackneyed, and these readers will not be pleased. The good news is, with a little smart revision (and not too much revision), you can make sparks fly. Whether you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, fantasy, or contemporary, here are some strategies for writing a romance that’s truly one in a million.

Cool it with all the physical description.
Do we need to know that your heroine has auburn hair, full lips, a sprinkling of freckles, and long eyelashes? Writing extensive paragraphs describing your characters is—no pun intended—a turn-off. It means you’re not trusting the reader to picture the characters herself, it slows down the action, and it weakens the writing overall. Use description as a springboard to establish the voice of the POV character, but don’t overdo it.

Avoid the oh-so-quirky factor.
There’s nothing wrong with the adorkable character: it works for Zooey Deschanel, and it works for many stories on the page. But there are some too-precious elements that can be huge turnoffs, not just to readers, but to agents, editors, and other industry pros, too. These include, but are not limited to: wearing Chuck Taylors, “half-smiling,” green eyes, curly hair, and anything that makes a heroine “not like other girls.” These things may seem original, but in fact, they’re tired and insufferable. Instead, branch out by writing heroes and heroines who don’t fit in the conventional modes of “beauty” and would normally be overlooked; that’s a real opportunity for nonconformism.

Make your characters imperfect.
This does not mean giving them small but forgivable charming qualities (see above), but instead, really digging deep and making them human. Write characters that are occasionally sloppy, mean, selfish, lazy, or rude. They need to feel like people—and teenage people at that. It’s okay to let them be cranky once in a while. Just so long as they don’t become unredeemable misanthropes, readers will appreciate the candor and authenticity of characters that gripe and flounder—rather than sail effortlessly—through life.

Dial back the physical beauty.
Similarly, don’t make your characters paragons of physical attractiveness. Not only does it reinforce cultural stereotypes of what’s “beautiful” and “acceptable” (e.g., girls who are white, thin, and able-bodied), but it makes your characters’ personalities worth less. If the love interest only likes your character for their looks, why should the reader assume there’s anything more to him or her?

NO instalove.
It’s what it sounds like: two characters that fall, well, instantly in love. Attraction takes time, and is confusing, and is often hidden under layers of competing feelings like envy, anxiety, or dislike. Don’t have your characters lay their feelings bare too early—it robs your story of momentum, and gives reviewers an easy slip-up to pounce on.

Cut out the tired phrasing.
“I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” “I melted at his touch.” “I shattered into a thousand pieces.” This bordering-on-purple prose will irk a reader at best, and at worst, make her throw the book across the room. Find unique ways to express your character’s inner monologue, and don’t rely on what YA is “supposed to sound like.” Some of the most romantic, unexpectedly sexy moments in romance use words and phrases that aren’t anywhere near the stock vocabulary of love and romance. Be creative.

Make it awkward.
Do you remember your first teenage kiss? Yeah, hardly a world-ending act of timeless romance. Let your characters miss, clack teeth, elbow each other in the ribs, and not know how to take off a bra. It’s not only genuine; it’s adorable.

Hold back on the HEA.
Many real-life lifelong romances blossom in high school, which is fantastic, adorable, and enviable! But let’s be real: most teen couples are not destined to be together forever and ever. And that’s okay! That doesn’t make the relationship any less powerful—in fact, it increases the intensity because the experience will end up being so formative for the characters. Don’t feel that you need to tack on some hint (or explicit epilogue—looking at you, JKR) that the characters all end up coupled forever until the end of time. Unlike adult romance, where a happily-ever-after is de rigueur, it’s okay to end a YA romance on a note of “happy for now,” or even of total uncertainty.

 

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11 Words Every Fantasy Language Needs

Inventing languages is a crucial—and fun—part of fantasy novel worldbuilding. Words unique to a country, region, people, or race give the world texture and depth that can’t come from ordinary words alone. But inventing a solid, believable, and rich fantasy language is about more than just throwing together weird-sounding combinations of words; when done properly, the language is creates conflict, reveals character, and even provides crucial solutions to the plote (can you say “Speak friend and enter”?)

Here are eleven words your fantasy language has to have.

Swear words
Swear words, curses, and oaths represent the immediate, impulsive instincts of your character, and so they often reveal lots about the psychology of the people who speak your language. Are the swear words religious in nature? Scatalogical? Do they reference societal taboos?

Insults
Similarly, insults are a necessary part of every language, and an excellent opportunity to weave in information about the societal mores of your speakers. What is the gravest insult a person could be called in your language?

Terms of Endearment
Ah, love. The flip side of insults are pet names and sweet nothings that people in your language’s society call each other. What do they value and prize? Consider how in English, we have not only a lot of sugar-related words (“honey,” “sweetie,” “sugar”) but value-related words (“dear” can also mean “expensive”—compare “mon cher” in French). In French, however, a parent or lover might refer to “mon petit chou”—my little cabbage! You can also creative diminutives—versions of words that imply smallness or youth (like “kitten” for “cat,” for example). Be creative and think about your society’s nearest and dearest things when crafting.

Honorifics
People who outrank your characters will need some term of address that conveys deference and honor—think “your Majesty” or the Japanese suffix “-san.” How will characters of lower rank speak to those of higher rank? Do the words have any literal meaning?

Greetings
How many levels of “hello” and “goodbye” does your language have? What do the words literally mean? Many languages use “peace” as a greeting (or valediction). Some are imperatives (like the Latin “ave”). Some are more extended, idiomatic phrases.

“Untranslatable” words
Language is a reflection of mindset, and your characters are from an unfamiliar society that you’re building. What concepts does their culture have that don’t translate neatly into English (or the primary language of your text)? Consider words like “tsundoku” (the act of letting reading materials pile up) in Japanese, or “saudade” (a feeling of longing or nostalgia) in Portuguese.

Kennings
A kenning is a term from Old English poetry that refers to a word construction out of two smaller words, whose meanings, when combined, take on a new, non-literal significance. For example, in modern English, a “passport” lets you pass through a port, i.e. a metaphorical door to another place. Combining two words of your language to create a new, deeper, or more abstract word adds depth.

Demonyms
Demonyms refer to the name for a person from a particular place—e.g. a Floridian, a Canadian, a Parisian, a Brit, a Scot. How do the names of cities, countries, and regions translate into demonyms? Don’t merely employ the form that we use in English; consider adding a prefix to modify your place names.

Foods
Of course, specific dishes need names, but also consider the differences between food in the field and food on a plate: in English, we have “pigs” in the barnyard, but “pork” on the dinner table. The reason for this difference is the Norman invasion in 1066 CE, when French-speaking invaders took over the nobility and referred to their cooked dishes by Norman French terms. The Anglo-Saxons in the farms, however, retained their native words. Consider how such a divide could reflect social stratification—or something else significant—in your fantasy world.

Poetry/Literature
All literate societies have common texts that speakers know of, if not know by heart. (For example, almost every English speaker will recognize “To be, or not to be.”) What phrases do your speakers know from their society’s written corpus, and what significance do they hold?

Sacred words
Similarly, any religious society (or a society with a strong moral code) will have prayers, blessings, and benedictions. What formulaic language do your characters use to ask for divine assistance?

 


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