Killing Your Darlings: How to Know When to Cut a Character

I’ve always loved the phrase “kill your darlings.” It’s a piece of writing advice handed down through the years that encourages authors to cut out parts of their stories—even their favorite parts—when necessary to improve their novels. (For the nerds like me, Slate put together a great history piece about the phrase.) In this case, our darlings are going to be secondary characters.

Secondary characters can be hard to write. Your main character(s) will have change, growth, and momentum throughout the story, but many secondary characters don’t get the same treatment. In fact, they often end up sidelined. It’s a curse of storytelling—you can’t focus on every detail of every character and write a good book at the same time. Readers don’t expect your secondary character isn’t the star of the show, but they will notice if that character is underdeveloped.

So how do you know when your secondary character necessary to your story? We’ll use the STOP method (patent pending) to ferret out useless characters. If you answer “yes” to the questions below, it may be time to kill your darling.

Is your character… STATIC?

If your character doesn’t experience any inner change, you have a static character. There’s nothing wrong with writing someone who is stubborn or unwilling to accept change—those are character traits that can be explored. A true static character ends up being flat and one-dimensional in a way that isn’t interesting to the reader or useful to your story. These characters are the product of too little attention rather than being an intentional choice in the writing.

Is your character… a TROPE?

Stereotypical characters pop up in fiction all the time. If you can subvert those stereotypes or use them to make a point, more power to you. If you’re using a stereotype as a shorthand because you’re not getting creative, kill that darling. A personal pet peeve is the “mean girl rival” trope: the super popular, super pretty, super mean girl who is vying for the same things as the heroine (usually a guy). Yes, there are mean girls out there. But are they all blonde with long red finger nails, three-inch heels, and an evil sneer? No. If you’re going to write a character who falls into a stereotype category, break outside the mold. Give them depth, motivation, and their own personality, even if it’s a mean one.

Is your character… a ONE AND DONE?

First, let me say it is possible to have strong characters who only appear once in the novel. However, if you have a character whose only line is “Hello!” or who interact with your overall story in a meaningful way, they probably aren’t vital. The true test here will be to see how much of an effect this one appearance has on the rest of the novel. If this character causes a ripple, keep them. If they pop in and out of existence without so much as a blip, kill them.

Is your character… a PLOT DEVICE?

Characters should certainly influence your plot, but no character should exist for the sake of plot. A plot device is a quick fix, a workaround, and using a character solely to advance your storyline is—quite frankly—lazy writing. You have to think of your characters as real human beings (or real aliens or animals or monsters) who have hopes and dreams and fears and their own stories. They cannot be picked up and dropped in the middle of a scene because you don’t know what to do next. Find a natural way to move your story forward, with or without that character.

When it comes to writing secondary characters, there is one all-important rule: Make each character count. STOP writing characters who don’t count, and start writing ones who do.

Most Anticipated YA Books of 2018

It’s list time again! 2018 promises to be another great year of reading, and I’ve pulled together 15 of my most anticipated novels of the year (plus a few bonus titles at the end). The first set includes new standalones or series starters, and the second set contains books from ongoing series. And as always, the list is in alphabetical order and doesn’t contain books I acquired (even though I can’t wait for those!).

Whether you’re a contemporary, fantasy, mystery, or historical reader, you’re sure to find something to add to your TBR list! Continue reading

10 Ways Being an Editor Is Like Being a Doctor

My sister-in-law actually is a doctor, and she would probably say an editor isn’t like a doctor at all. Technically, she’d be right. (And thank goodness—no one wants me giving out medical advice.)

Not-so-technically, here are 10 ways being an editor is like being a doctor.

1. An editor’s submission inbox is a waiting room. It’s packed with people (manuscripts), and sometimes it can take a while to get in to see us. Many editors take between 4 and 8 weeks minimum to review a submission, so you may want to get comfortable. (But hey, you know we’ve got a ton of great reading material out in the waiting room to keep you busy.) Continue reading

Favorite Books of 2017…Part 2

I know it’s not quite the end of the year yet, but my reading pace drastically slows in December with the craziness of the holidays. (I do reserve the right to add more books to this list if I can fit one or two more great reads in before December 31!) Somehow 2017 is nearly over, and I’m celebrating the arrival of 2018 with my favorite books of 2017…part 2. (If you missed part 1, check it out here: Favorite Books of 2017…So Far.)

A reminder on the rules of this particular list:

  • Not all of these came out in 2017. Some came out a while ago and I am just behind on my TBR pile! *Shame*
  • Books are listed in alphabetical order and not ranked order. Choosing favorites of the favorites is too hard!
  • None of these are books I have edited, since obviously I love my babies the most.
  • And finally, these are all YA novels because, well, I’m a YA editor. (And Peter Pan. Who needs grown-up books? Okay, maybe grown-ups.)

Here we go! Continue reading

For the Love of Books: How to Give Thanks When You’ve Burned Out

With Thanksgiving only days away, I’ve been thinking about what I’m most thankful for when it comes to my professional life. I have some awesome coworkers, a list of super talented authors, and I get to work on books every day. So in some ways, that list of “thankful” items is a mile long.

But as everyone in the book business knows, ours is an industry of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. It’s an industry of two steps forward and one step back. It’s an industry where every yes seems to come with a no.

The reality is, publishing is not for the faint of heart. The success of any book is based on the ability to merge business with art, consumerism with creativity. It’s a difficult balance to strike. On top of that, rejection follows us at every stage of the publishing process. Authors are rejected by agents. Agents are rejected by editors. Editors are rejected by pub boards. And all of us know the pain of putting an amazing book out into the world—one we all poured our hearts and souls into—and watching that book be rejected by readers.

It can be hard to push past the setbacks and the rejection and the self-doubt. It can be even harder to admit to ourselves that while we may be in our dream industry, we don’t always feel like we’re living the dream. Continue reading

Rocking NaNoWriMo: 7 Tips for Reaching 50,000 Words

We’re almost halfway through National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, which encourages writers to participate in a 30-day challenge. The goal? Write 50,000 words in the month of November. Tens of thousands of people have participated since the program’s creation, and many of them have gone on to complete manuscripts, make great writing friends, or eventually sell books. Amazing!

50,000 words in 30 days can sound daunting (especially if you’re planning to spend a whole weekend in a Thanksgiving-dinner-induced food coma). But here are seven ways to make the most out of NaNoWriMo and to help you reach your goal. Continue reading

The Right Writer: A Quiz

With the recent press about the forthcoming novel American Heart, I’ve heard a lot of people asking, “Am I the right person to write XYZ type of story?”

First of all—this is not a stupid question! (And because I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are no stupid questions, you know I mean that.) “Am I the right person?” is predominantly asked by writers seeking to create books that feature diverse characters and stories. Hooray! Please do create narratives that are diverse and inclusive, because we can all agree that having more diversity in the book market is a very good thing. An even better thing is when those stories are written by own voices authors who share the experiences or backgrounds of their characters.

Now, few authors create characters exactly like themselves…that’s usually called a memoir. Writing outside our own lives and tapping into the collective human experience is a hallmark of storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with creating characters who are different from you. In fact, we should always be exploring other points of view—if we didn’t, reading would be really boring! But are you writing a book that would be better (i.e. truer, richer, more compelling) coming from an expert voice? Because there’s a big difference between sharing a story and sharing someone else’s story. Continue reading

“What Kind of Book Should I Write?” An Editor’s Plea to Ignore Trends

When I meet with aspiring authors, I’m often asked, “What kind of book should I write?” Everyone wants to know what the next big trend will be and if they should start writing in that niche. My answer? Ignore trends. Don’t ask someone else what kind of book you should write—write the book that speaks to you. Don’t follow the crowd—stand out from it.

Here’s the thing about publishing: it moves slowly. This may not be news to you if you’re a George R. R. Martin fan (though let’s be real, that one’s all on George), but some folks are surprised when they learn a book can take a year—or two or three—to get published. Factor in the time it takes to write a manuscript and query it, and you can be looking at anywhere from two to five years. Sometimes even more.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the publishing process here, though I will note that those years are well spent developing a manuscript, creating a cover, building a marketing strategy, and launching a book into a competitive market. The real point of this post is that writers should ignore trends no mater how enduring those trends seem to be. Continue reading

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… an Edit Letter

When a book gets acquired, it goes through several rounds of editing. This process goes beyond proofreading and copyediting—an acquisitions editor will go through the entire manuscript and look at plot, character development, pacing, and all kinds of other big-picture elements. This is called a developmental edit or a macro edit, depending on the publisher. And when the acquisitions editor is done, the author gets an edit(orial) letter.

Edit letters can be scary! Authors get a document telling them all things they need to do make their book better after spending months—maybe even years—writing and editing and polishing a manuscript. Yikes!

Now, I can’t speak to how each individual editor creates their edit letter since everyone edits differently and every book needs a different kind of attention. Some edit letters are three pages long, some are twenty-three. Some letters focus on a particular subject (like voice or plot line), some talk about lots of different issues. But for me, there are five key pieces to this kind of letter: Continue reading