You Should Outline At Some Point! Why and How to Outline Effectively

Many of the manuscripts I see as an editor need a lot of tidying up—and no, I’m not talking about misplaced commas. While there are certainly plenty of those as well, today I want to focus on macro-level messiness: pieces that don’t fit together and loops that remain unclosed. When I talk to those writers, most of them share the common trait of hating to outline.

There’s a lot of talk online about plotting versus pantsing, and I want to be clear that both are entirely valid options for a first draft. You know best how to get those initial words on the page. (And if you don’t, experiment with different methods to see how to make the words flow faster.) But I do believe that at some point, it’s helpful to create an outline of what you’ve written to give you a different perspective on your work and allow you to see things you might miss when you’re immersed in it line-by-line.

 To further illustrate, here are a few things outlining can help you discover:

1. Dangling Plot Threads

Writers generally see the primary plot all the way through, but often subplots get left behind. Readers can easily become invested in minor characters, and you don’t what to undercut your happy ending by leaving the reader wondering what happened to your main character’s sister after she had that big fight with her husband.

 2. Character-Driven Narrative Arcs

Successful stories are more than just a succession of events; they’re comprised of events that build in intensity to a climax, and these events are driven by your main character’s actions. (For more on active characters, check out this previous post.) When you list the main action in your book, it’s easier to see how each incident is leading to the next.

3. Disconnected Subplots

Even if you’ve tied together all the threads of your subplots, those plots may not be well connected enough to your main plot. If you’re trying to outline and can’t figure out how the subplot fits in, that’s a sign that it’s too tangential.

4. Timing Issues

Timing is tricky for so many writers. You’re already juggling all these characters and plot threads, and now you have to worry about a calendar? But nailing the timing—both providing logic for the internal story events and marking external events like holidays or school breaks—can really help with your book’s pacing.

 

So how do you outline to avoid these problems? If you’ve only ever outlined for an academic paper, you may be imagining a sheet of paper with roman numeral headings—you’ll probably be pleased to know that’s not really the most effective method for novels. Here are a few ways to outline, before or after you’ve written your first draft.

1. Diagram

 If you read my previous post on plot, you know I’m a fan of the good old-fashioned plot pyramid. To take that a step further, I really love this resource on the three-act structure. Put that diagram on a page and then place the events of your novel along it. If you prefer to come at your novel from the character angle instead of plot, the same principles apply; it’s just a slight shift in your mindset to think in terms of how your character changes. You might also write the events on notecards or post-its if you sense some things need to be shifted around.

2. Beat Sheets

Another way to break down the three-act structure is to create a spreadsheet of the events in your novel, called a beat sheet. This post is a good overview of what that might look like. I highly recommend Googling more if this seems like a useful tool for you; there are a lot of resources out there. One popular version of this is Save the Cat!, which released a book about their method geared toward novelists.

3. Calendar

If your novel depends heavily on timing, print out a calendar and put the events on it. Mark holidays, your character’s birthday, etc. This is the perfect way to make sure you’re accurately accounting for the passage of time.

4. The Snowflake Method

This method is pretty involved and comes at your work from more of a narrative angle, helping you build from one sentence into a one-page overview into character charts into a massive scene breakdown. It can be a little overwhelming, but several of my clients really love it. You can read more about it here.

 

I’ll be discussing one final method that I successfully used with a client in my newsletter next week, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. And if you have any favorite outlining methods, please share in the comments!

2018: A Year for Patience

Sometimes you just have to wait.

One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make when they seek traditional publication is not having enough patience. It’s completely understandable—they’ve spent YEARS working on their manuscript, and this might be just one in a long line of manuscripts. If they’ve worked with HYPHEN, they’ve made a financial commitment in addition to the huge investment of their time, energy, and heart.

But publishing moves at its own pace, and that pace is often glacial.

If you don’t have patience at the writing and querying stage, it’s less likely you’ll find an agent. You might not take the time to revise fully or give up on querying before you’ve exhausted all your options. And it’s important to develop patience early on because you’ll keep having to draw on it throughout your career—as you wait for your agent to send notes, for an editor to read your manuscript, for your book to come out, and so on.

It is important to know when to give up—you’ll see some people say that you should NEVER do that (as an agent, I had a few writers send me the same manuscript over and over hoping my response would change…it did not), but the reality is that you may reach a point at which you’ve queried every agent who might be interested in your work, you’ve gotten as many eyes on your manuscript as possible, and you can’t find a single comma to move. That’s the time when you should tuck that work in the proverbial drawer and move on to your next project.

But there are far more moments when you just need to sit still or to work on something else while you wait for things to happen.

The idea of patience has been on my mind a lot lately, in part because of what I’ve observed with writers, but more because it’s a virtue I’ve been forced to practice this year.

2018 did not go to plan. I had so many ideas for ways to expand HYPHEN and help more writers, but between two month-long illnesses and a cross-country move, it was all I could do to keep up with the regular workload. And now, here we are at the end of the year, and I’ve been pushing myself (and those around me) to finish this year’s to-do list and get ready to start off running in 2019.

But as the deadline looms, I’ve had to accept that I can’t push past the 24-hour limitations of a day or the 8-9 hours of sleep my body obnoxiously demands every night, and I can’t make other people do things they aren’t willing to do. I have a long list of house projects carrying over to the new year. (The maintenance person for my building works about as quickly as your average literary agent.) I haven’t even had time to watch all the Christmas movies on my DVR.

All I can do is keep moving forward when I can and try to relax in the moments when I can’t. It’s good to have goals and plans to achieve them, but sometimes life gets in the way. I’ve done a lot of hopeless flailing about in 2018, trying to make things move FASTER, when that really only made things worse. Patience. It’s not just a virtue; it’s a survival skill.

As I did my usual looking back on the year, though, I realized that 2018 wasn’t such a waste after all. Even with all the upheaval, I still managed to help a lot of writers and read a lot of books. Here’s a snapshot:

Hyphen 2018 Infographic (1).png
2018 Reading Infographic.png

I find it useful to quantify the year: it helps me take pride in what I’ve done and consider what I might like to do differently next year. It’s been a great year for reading. A few of my favorites this year were The Great Alone, Look Alive Out There, God Save Texas, Circe, Love and Ruin, Luck of the Draw, and The Summer of Jordi Perez. I don’t like to put too many restrictions on my reading because it’s already partially work, but it would be good to read a bit more nonfiction, especially craft books, and dive into one or two of the classics I missed—starting with The Age of Innocence before I see the film in late January.

My reading also informs the genres I’d like to work on more. I love the women’s fiction specialty I’ve developed, but I’d really like to edit more young adult fiction and a lot more contemporary romance as well. I also have space for one or two more long-term coaching clients as I’ve finished up work on a revision with one recently.

I’ve shifted my big goals for 2018 on to 2019, and I sat down today and made a plan of attack for January. I hope you’ll see some exciting and helpful developments from HYPHEN this year.

But when things go awry, as they inevitably will, when I have to shift part of January’s attack plan over to February, I hope I’ll respond with patience—for the process and for myself.

Any favorite reads from 2018? Hopes for 2019? Feel free to share in the comments!

How to Decipher Agent Responses

I often have clients trying to figure out the meaning behind agent responses. The obvious meaning is clear: a request for more pages, an offer, a rejection. But writers sometimes want more—to understand why an agent passed on their work, to assign significance to the timing of a request.

As an agent-turned-editor, when I generate editorial letters for clients who have already queried their work, I have them send the responses they’ve received thus far, and I incorporate them in the letter, explaining the feedback when I can. Frequently, though, these passes don’t say much.

But since it’s obviously a topic of great concern for writers seeking traditional publication, I wanted to offer a few general thoughts on understanding the responses you get from agents.

Literary Agent Rejection.png

A Word of Caution

To start, my biggest piece of advice is to try not to read too much into the responses. I often see writers thinking, “This agent got back to me so quickly! They must really love my work; I must have a great shot at representation!” Or a writer might try to discern meaning from a generic sentiment like, “I’m sure other agents will feel differently.”

I would never put stock into timing, whether it’s fast or slow. Sometimes a quick response means an agent is enthusiastic, but often it’s a matter of chance. Your query arrived just as they finished catching up, or you sent your partial right before they boarded a cross-country flight. Agents respond to queries and requested materials whenever they can; usually this means they reply slowly, but occasionally it means they respond more quickly than you might expect. A slow response doesn’t necessarily mean they hate it; a quick one doesn’t necessarily mean they love it. 

Similarly, I’d take the wording of their response at face value. If they offer specific feedback, that can be useful. But often it will just be generic politeness, and you should take that for the neutral, professional response that it is. But there are a few nuances to the wording, so let’s dive into that.

Query Rejections vs. Partials and Fulls

In general, the more material an agent evaluated, the more consideration you should give their response. My agency didn’t ask for any materials to start, just the query letter. As such, my responses to queries were form responses that I wouldn’t recommend reading a single thing into beyond the obvious (I’m not interested in seeing more of this project). I did have a different response for Manuscript Wish List queries (some agents have many different form responses to fit various situations from referrals to conferences), but it was more of an acknowledgement than a useful response—indicating that I saw the writer was responding to a specific request I’d made, yet I still didn’t think the manuscript was right for me. 

Some agents use form responses for partial and full manuscripts as well, and this is sometimes done as a matter of agency policy. Agents are far more likely to provide personalized feedback for a requested manuscript, though, so this is where you might obtain some useful information.

When I responded to requested partial and full manuscripts, I did my best to name a positive aspect of the work and something I thought could be improved. This would often still be fairly vague, though, along the lines of, “I really liked the protagonist but didn’t find the plot propulsive enough.” That’s not really enough to justify a full revision of your manuscript. However, if a few agents mention something about the plot, that should prompt you to send your work to a set of fresh eyes, asking them to focus on that element.

More Thoughts on Vagueness

A comment about plot at least gives you something specific to focus on. But I’m sure if you’ve been querying for a bit, you’ve received a pass along the lines of, “I didn’t connect with the voice.” Voice is probably the most nebulous story element and deserves a blog post of its very own. But when it comes to passes, unless you get more specific feedback, e.g. the voice feels too immature for the age category, I’d translate a voice comment as meaning, “Something about your work just didn’t grab me in the way I wanted it to.” It’s only slightly more helpful than the perennial pass: “I just didn’t fall in love.”

Obnoxious as that response is to receive as a writer, the simplest explanation is often the truest. Agents can only represent a small amount of what they read, and they really do have to love it. So while it doesn’t present a path for you to improve (more on that below), it’s the foundation of every rejection.

Offers to Read Again

One thing to pay particular attention to is whether an agent indicates they’d like to hear from you again—either with this work or a future one. Such invitations often come at the end of a rejection, so it’s important to read them even when it’s difficult! I’m sure there are some agents who mention they’d be happy to hear from you again as a standard part of their response, but I always used it rarely and specifically, indicating that I’d like to see this again if substantial revisions were made or that this work wasn’t for me but I’d like to see future works. Make sure to keep track of these opportunities to try again; it means you’ve already nudged the door open a crack.

What Literary Agent Rejection Means.png

Why?

I know many of you just want to know why. Why don’t agents provide more helpful feedback? Why do they seem so enthusiastic when requesting only to turn around and tell you they didn’t fall in love? The second question is easy enough to answer: a request is made largely on the basis of a concept and perhaps a brief writing sample. There’s a lot for an agent to love or not in the execution of that concept over several hundred pages. The first question is more complicated; I can think of at least three significant reasons why agents don’t provide more feedback.

The biggest issue is time. Agents are obligated to prioritize their clients; they’ve already made a commitment to them and their work. Handling their needs usually takes up more than a 40-hour work week. So reading queries and manuscripts is almost always done at night and over the weekend, and there just isn’t time to respond meaningfully to everyone—not if agents are going to sleep and occasionally have lives beyond publishing.

A second reason is that providing feedback on queries and manuscripts simply isn’t their job. I mean that in two ways.

First, as discussed above, an agent’s responsibility is to their clients. Selling their clients’ books and doing the necessary editorial and advisory work to make that happen is their primary job. Most agents work solely on commission, so it’s also the only way they make money—agents typically don’t make salaries to pay for their time regardless of what they’re working on. Obviously, reading queries and manuscripts is how agents get these clients and eventually get paid…but giving detailed feedback to work they’re not interested in is free labor.

Second, it isn’t their job in the sense that they aren’t reading your work as editors. Now that I’m a freelance editor, when someone hires me to read their manuscript, I’m looking for ways to improve it. I’m scrutinizing every element, every chapter, thinking about how to make it better. As an agent, my initial read was at a higher level and only sought to answer two questions: Do I love this? Do I think I can sell this? I would often have some general editorial ideas when I finished reading, but if I wound up signing the writer as a client, I would typically read their book again before sending an editorial letter for revision. Often as an agent, I would pass on a book because I really didn’t have any ideas for what could be done editorially; all I knew was I didn’t think it was there yet.

Finally, agents may avoid giving specific feedback because it potentially opens a dialogue or even encourages harassment. The nastiest response I ever received was when I (in an attempt to be constructive) told an author, with examples, that I didn’t think his concept was in line with what middle grade editors are looking for right now. It’s a lot easier to argue with something concrete than “I didn’t fall in love, but I’m sure another agent will!” And while I know YOU would never send an agent a nasty email or write terrible things about them online, it happens far more often than you’d think.

 

I’m sure a few of you read this blog post hoping for a magic response: This is what agents mean! This is the key to understanding it all! Unfortunately, the truth is that agents often don’t mean much beyond a polite “no, thank you.” What I hope this post does, though, is slightly alleviate your anxiety. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re not missing out. You don’t need to be doing more. Your struggle is one shared by many. And when an agent does take the time to give a detailed pass, pay attention—the very fact that they’re doing so is significant.

Is there any other agent behavior you find mystifying? Let us know in the comments! And subscribe to the monthly newsletter for suggestions on how to respond to agents.

HYPHEN Around the Web

Apologies for a light blogging month! Part of it is due to a busier-than-expected January—New Year's resolutions perhaps? I'm not sure, but I'm currently booking edits for delivery in late March. If you're nearing the end of revisions and would like a quick turnaround, get in touch today to book a spot. (Shorter projects, like query critiques, currently have a two week turnaround.)

But I actually have written two pieces on writing this month for other publications, so I wanted to make sure you saw them. 

On The Debutante Ball, there's "7 Tips for Writing the (Neglected, Dreaded, Necessary) Synopsis." As both an agent and editor, I've seen writers struggle with synopses, and I know they aren't your favorite. But they are necessary if you're querying, so I hope this advice helps you get the job done.

And in the second issue of Backlog magazine, I have "The Four Types of Editing." There are many different tasks under the editing umbrella, and this piece demystifies what those are, when they should happen, and who will perform them. 

I'll have more tips on the blog in February, but in the meantime, I hope you find these guest posts helpful! Both sites have piles of useful articles; check them out if you haven't yet. 

The Four Types of Editing

What to Expect from HYPHEN

Welcome to HYPHEN! Going forward, this blog will be a resource for you with writing tips and publishing industry expertise. HYPHEN’s mission is to help writers hone their craft, and our blog will be aimed at doing just that. For this first post, though, I wanted to talk a bit about what HYPHEN is, why I founded it, and what our plans are for the future.

HYPHEN is a freelance editorial and coaching company. Essentially, we’re here to help you with your writing, whether that means performing a quick query critique or being by your side through the entire self-publishing process. We have a list of editorial services—though if you need something that isn’t mentioned, please reach out! We’re happy to talk to you to see if we can be of assistance. Our coaching services are less delineated because they’re completely customized. The general concept of coaching is to be your long-term (at least 3 months is ideal) collaborator. That may include providing one of the listed editorial services—but then we would help you implement it and move to the next stage.

As you may know, until recently I was a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates. Deciding to leave was very difficult, as I loved my work and was closely connected to my clients. But I often felt torn by my inability to give the kind of feedback I knew would be useful to writers. For instance, sometimes I would read a manuscript and love the concept but know that the execution wasn’t quite there yet. While I gave personalized feedback on requested manuscripts, the reality of having to be client- and sales-focused meant I couldn’t go into great detail—there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. With HYPHEN, I can focus all my attention on giving writers the information they need and ensuring their manuscripts are in the best possible condition.

Publishing can be overwhelming, and it’s a very competitive industry. HYPHEN intends to be a positive force in the community, supporting all writers by demystifying the process and providing tools to help you succeed.

I hope to grow this company based on your needs, so if there’s a service that would be helpful to you as a writer that you can’t find elsewhere, please let us know. But here are a few things we’re planning to launch in the coming months:

  • Regular editorial letter giveaways for writers from marginalized groups who could not otherwise afford a freelance editor
  • In-person consultations around the world as I travel and work remotely (Australian writers, get excited for February/March 2018!)
  • Online courses, both downloadable and live

Make sure you subscribe to our monthly newsletter, full of tips and inspiration. And follow HYPHEN on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for more advice and bookish fun.

If you already know you’re interested in working with HYPHEN, go ahead and send us an email! We’re open for business and excited to help you reach your writing goals.