Stakes: You need them!

This is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit on my own website, but I still see a lot of writers struggling to include stakes in their query. So we’re going to talk about it again here.

So you’re writing your query. It’s going well. You’ve established your setting. You’ve established your characters. You’ve even got some good conflict going. That’s all great! Now you want to end your query with maximum level impact. Something that will leave the reader with that I-gotta-have-this-immediately feeling.

How do you achieve that effect? If you can’t guess from the title of this post, the answer is stakes. Character, setting, and conflict are all necessary aspects of your query. But really standout queries also rely on clearly established stakes.

Stakes are more than just conflict. Stakes are what your main character stands to lose if they don’t win the conflict you’ve already presented. Without stakes, there’s no real reason to care whether the main character succeeds or not.

Would we care whether Frodo could destroy the ring if the fate of Middle Earth didn’t hang in the balance? Would we care whether Katniss could win the Hunger Games if failure didn’t mean death? Probably not. In your query letter, you need to be clear about what happens if the main character can’t successfully resolve the conflict.

If you’re unsure how exactly to do this, I have a simple formula I recommend. It goes as follows:

Main character must do [insert really hard thing] or else [insert really bad thing] will happen.

You can play with the wording, of course. But that’s the gist of it. Not too hard, is it?

Don’t leave your reader wondering why they should care. Give them stakes!

Making your writer’s block productive

It happens to everyone. That I-can’t-stand-the-thought-of-writing-right-now feeling. You get to this moment where you feel like just looking at your manuscript will make you vomit.

Most of the time I would advise you to just write through it. Butt in chair until words happen. But what if you can’t even handle that? Here are a few things you can do while you’re waiting for that spark to reignite.

  1. Read. Read as much as you can. It’s the best non-writing thing you can do to improve your writing.
  2. Learn a new skill. If you’re struggling with writing, try your hand at another creative outlet. Give sculpting a go. Learn a dance routine. Alternatively, try learning a skill your main character would us. Are they an archer? Try shooting some arrows yourself. Or if they ride horses, try that out.
  3. Get some exercise. Focusing on a physical activity will help clear your head. This doesn’t even have to be a hardcore workout complete with cardio and strength training. It can be as simple as going for a walk.
  4. Research agents. One of my favorite things to do during a bout of writer’s block is to stalk the Manuscript Wishlist feed or the Ten Queries feed. If you’re planning to get an agent eventually, you may as well start researching now (just don’t send before you’re ready!). I also find that this gets me excited about writing because it reminds me what my long term goals are.
  5. Get into your novel aesthetics. Make a Pinterest board for your book. Choose your dream cast for when they make your bestseller into a movie.  I recently discovered a site where you can make manga-esque pictures of your characters, and I had a lot of fun with it.
Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 5.59.31 PM
The main character from my current work in progress, who apparently is not impressed by the very science looking thing behind her.

Sometimes writing blocks happen. But when they do, you can still find writing-productive things to do. Let us know in the comments what some of you like to do to make your creative dry spells productive!

Tips for Self-editing

Even if you plan to hire an editor, it’s a good idea to edit your own work as much as possible. That said, it can be hard to edit your own work. Especially when you feel like you’ve been working on it so long that it your eyes seem to glaze over at the mere mention of it. Today I want to give you some practical tips for getting through edits.

  • Give it time. I find I pretty much always need to let a project sit for awhile before doing serious revisions. Give your brain a little time to forget some of the details so that it doesn’t just gloss over them while reading.
  • Change the font. I’m alway surprised by how effective this is in tricking my brain into thinking that I haven’t read the page a hundred times before. It’s subtle, but I’ve found it useful.
  • Print it out. I think everyone has had that experience where they notice a typo as soon as they print out a paper or hit send on an email. I don’t know why this happens, but you can use it to your advantage. Like changing the font, looking at a printed page will help your brain see the work in a fresh light.
  • Go through it backwards. This is something I suggest if you’ve made it to the line-editing stage of revisions. Start with your last sentence and then work your way to the beginning. This forces your brain to focus on the flow of individual sentences, rather than the story at large.
  • Vary your reading speed. I think sometimes it’s really helpful to go through the manuscript really slowly. Other times I like going through really fast. I notice different things depending on how fast I read.
  • Change your environment. This may be as simple as moving from your living room couch to your kitchen table. Just switch things up a little bit so that your brain is forced to pay more attention.
  • Read it out loud. Or have somebody else read it out loud, if you can. Listen to which parts make you stumble. Those are your problem areas.
  • Edit for somebody else. You’re more objective when editing for other people. Look at strengths and weaknesses in their writing. Then compare it to your writing. Are you struggling with the same things. Or are they really good at something you have a hard time with? Learn from them.
  • Refine your process. The more you edit, the more you know what works for you. You’ll get better the more you do it.


What editing tricks have worked for you? Share in the comments!

Welcome to Publishing: Class Rules

In elementary school, one of the first things you did when starting a new school year was go over the class rules. These rules were usually pretty simple, but they did a lot to keep the class running smoothly. So in the back-to-school spirit, I’m going to be sharing the class rules for publishing.

  1. Be nice to everyone.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Be patient.
  4. Read as much as possible.
  5. Have fun!

Pretty simple, right? Of course there are other things you should do. But at the end of the day, I think these are the basics . They make a world of difference.

Publishing is a hard business to be in. There are a lot of people trying to get in and get published, so etiquette is important. As simple as these rules may be, they go a long way to keeping publishing afloat. The rules are there to help you too.

So stick to them and you’ll have a great year (and career)!