Discover more from The Shit No One Tells You About Writing
Four actionable writing tips, advice from a NYT-bestselling author + we answer your burning questions!
✨Plus, a step-by-step guide to figuring out when your manuscript is ready to query✨
Welcome to our March Issue! We are so glad you’re here and have loads of goodies in store. But first: we hope you will take a moment to appreciate yourself. Being a writer takes guts and a lot of persistence. As any writer manically cleaning out the fridge or staring into the middle distance will tell you: writing is only one part of being a writer. Daydreaming, eavesdropping, chatting with other writers, or even just reading a newsletter like this are all part of the job and will help you to write—and finish—the book of your heart. So big up to you today! Thank you for sharing your writing journey with us,
❤️ The Shit No One Tells You About Writing Team
This is a monthly newsletter chock-full of guidance and support from publishing industry insiders. Expect author interviews, guest blogs, giveaways, and more! Sign up and immediately receive an exclusive webinar from literary agent Carly Watters
SHELF LIFE with New York Times-bestselling author Jill Santopolo
We caught up with the internationally bestselling author to chat about what to do when you receive feedback on your work that doesn’t feel right, what she wishes she had known as a younger writer, and the importance of building a writing community online.
Welcome to SHELF LIFE where we interview successful authors about one of their backlist titles so that you can get the scoop from authors who’ve been there and done that. If hindsight is 20/20 perhaps some of the most successful authors in the business can offer a little foresight to emerging writers. Plus, you might just discover some great books you missed!
Jill Santopolo is the internationally best-selling author of Stars in an Italian Sky, Everything After, More Than Words, and The Light We Lost, which was a Reese’s Book Club pick and has been optioned for film. Her books have been translated into more than 35 languages and have been named to the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Apple, and Indie Bound bestseller lists. Jill holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia University, an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in Intellectual Property Law from NYU. She is the publisher of Philomel, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, where she edits many critically-acclaimed, award-winning, and bestselling books. Jill has traveled all over the U.S.—and to Canada and Europe—to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in Washington, DC and New York with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel for adults, The Light We Lost, was published in 2018.
SHELF LIFE: From The Light We Lost through your kids’ and teens’ book and all the way up to Stars in an Italian Sky, your writing career has gone from strength to strength. Do you have any regrets about your journey so far? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
JILL SANTOPOLO: This is such a kind question, but I think it probably speaks more to how we present things on social media than anything else. My writing career has had ups and downs, too, and I’m always wondering if there are things I could have done better, ways I could have connected with more readers, time I should have given to promotion that I didn’t. I often wonder if I should have at some point taken the leap into being a full-time writer, but I love my editorial job, too, so I have a feeling I’ll be debating this question with myself pretty much forever.
SL: Is there any piece of advice that resonated with you while writing The Light We Lost that you still stand by today?
JS: One piece of advice I got from one of my MFA professors back in the day was that when you hear feedback about your writing, some of it will resonate, and some of it will not. You should take the feedback that resonates. And for the feedback that doesn’t, think about the why. You don’t have to agree with the what, but if you can figure out the why, you can probably make that feedback resonate too. I still revise with that in mind—if feedback feels off to me, I peel it back and think about the why.
SL: What do you wish you had known about being a writer and/or the publishing industry before you published The Light We Lost?
JS: I was in a lucky position when I published The Light We Lost because I was working as an editor at a big five publishing house and had published some chapter books for young readers already, so I already knew the nuts and bolts of the industry. But I didn’t realize the extent that social media and social media connections would play in the post-publication roll out. I also didn’t realize how wonderful the Instagram writer community is. I wish someone had told me how powerful it would be to connect that way with other writers—and readers as well.
SL: If you could travel back in time and meet your past self in the year after the publication of The Light We Lost, what words of encouragement and/or warning would you give yourself?
JS: Ooh, this is an interesting thing to think about. I think I would have told myself to remember that books are like people, and each one has its own trajectory—and not to compare my books to anyone else’s or to each other. And I would have told myself to hold on to the reason I do this—I’ve always tried to write to connect and to make people feel less alone in their experiences—and not to get too caught up in outside markers of success (as wonderful as they are and as much as I love celebrating those!).
You can purchase The Light We Lost and Stars in an Italian Sky on our Bookshop.org affiliate page here. Buying books through this link supports a local indie as well as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing 📚❤️
SHELF LIFE is produced by Bronwen Keyes-Bevan, a Toronto-based writer and editor. Bronwen is newsletter editor at The Shit No One Tells You About Writing and is at work on her debut novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their son. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at her website.
Let’s Talk About…
In this monthly advice column, Bianca Marais shares concrete, actionable craft tips that will immediately elevate your writing. This month Bianca shares four practical ways to make your writing really come alive on the page.
Let’s talk about the tools you can use to make the world that you’re creating come vividly alive on the page…
A primary goal of an author should be to write something in a way that makes it bloom in the reader’s mind. The reader should imagine the setting just as the author does. When they picture a main character, it should be as though they’re peering into the author’s brain. If the author felt deep sadness while writing a particular scene, then that should translate to the reader who, in turn, should experience sadness when reading it.
This is something you should be doing on top of creating a propulsive plot and characters that the reader falls in love with. Not an easy feat, so what kind of tools can you use to help with this?
I swear by vision boards! Whenever I begin a new project, the first thing I do is create at least one, often more, large whiteboards that are filled with pictures that will help inspire me as I write. For example, with The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, I created two vision boards: one just for characters and one for setting.
I found illustrations and photos of how I imagined my characters to look at the various ages they appeared in the novel. Not just pictures of their faces, showing various kinds of expressions, but ones of their bodies as they moved through the world so that I could describe their body language and gestures.
Think of the sentence: He walked down the sidewalk.
Compare it to: He loped down the sidewalk, arms and legs loose and bandy like a marionette’s. It wasn’t so much a strut as a swagger, the walk of a man who was deeply satisfied with his lot and wanted everyone to know it.
Think of the sentence: She had a habit of fiddling with her hair.
Compare it to: She had a habit of dipping her head and gazing up through her fringe as she wound a grey-flecked curl tightly around her gnarled finger. Each time, when she finally let it spring free, she’d look surprised, as though she was expecting a completely different outcome.
Each of these descriptions not only gives us an action which is very specific to imagine, but they also tell us something about the character’s personality or state of mind.
It’s this kind of specificity that elevates a piece of writing and imprints itself on the reader’s brain. They are countless ways to picture walking or fiddling. Make sure your reader imagines it exactly as you do!
For my Witches vision boards, I also found pictures of old mansions, trees, rooms, distilleries, bottles, wands, tarot decks, etc. which would either serve as inspiration for a particular scene or give me the kind of “vibes” I was aiming to capture in the novel, almost like a visual representation of tone.
If a picture was deliciously dark and moody, I’d examine how the illustrator or photographer captured it like that to figure out how I might describe it, so that the reader would not just picture it, but also assign the same dark and moody filter to it in their imaginations.
Pinterest is a great resource for this!
Now, with AI technology like OpenAI it’s even easier. You can type in descriptions of how you imagine a character or a setting to look, and it will help generate pictures/photos/illustrations/paintings for you. You can also upload existing pictures you have so that it can better understand what you’re imagining. I’m having a lot of fun with this as I work on my latest vision board and am enjoying how apt the creations are.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a writing room in which to install your vision boards on the walls. You can create your own digital boards on Pinterest, or you can save the pics to your computer and create collages of them. My advice is just to keep them open and on hand when you’re writing. When I hit a blank, and need to stare off into space to figure out what comes next, I ensure that the ‘space’ I’m staring at is my vision board. That way, I’m one hundred percent immersed in the world I’m creating, and not staring at something that would be totally out of place there which would take me completely out of it.
Watch videos or create your own
I was recently writing a scene which called for a character to climb a construction crane. Here’s the thing: I know nothing about construction or climbing things. The last time I properly climbed anything was probably a tree when I was twelve years old. I do like to get up on my high horse every so often, and I also like climbing up on bar stools and soap boxes, but those aren’t quite the same thing.
I visited a few construction sites but was most disappointed to discover no daredevils shimmying up cranes for lunchtime fun. I was just starting to despair, thinking I’d have to risk getting arrested and potentially break my neck to experience it for myself, when I thought to Google someone climbing a crane. And I got a ton of video hits.
Watching these videos helped me describe the scene with the kind of specificity that puts the reader right there with the main character. Karen Dionne, author of The Marsh King’s Daughter, spoke at the Deep Dive Workshop Series about having to watch all kinds of videos about hunting and fishing when she was writing that book. Her scenes were so vivid that most readers assumed Karen was a hunter, which she is not. It’s the same level of detail that had readers of Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid thinking that the novel was based on a real band.
Besides doing this, watch movies and videos that allow you to focus on characters’ actions and their body language in various scenarios.
In some instances, you might want to create your own videos of a scene you’re writing. For example, in another scene I wrote, I had the main character tying someone up and gagging them. Struggling to describe the scene in enough detail, I got my husband to sit on a dining room chair while I tied his hands behind his back and then gagged him, while filming it all. Firstly, it was a lot of fun! LOL. But watching the video afterwards helped me visualize the scene in a way that allowed me to know exactly what to describe, and in what order.
Study people out in public
Writers are observers. How else can we describe life, in all its messy and glorious detail, if we don’t carefully observe it? Watch couples in restaurants or coffee shops, or even while they’re grocery shopping, and based on their body language, try and figure out what they’re talking about or how they feel in that moment.
Listen to the way people speak, how certain kinds of personalities inflect certain words or how often they pause while searching for the right sentiment. Do they talk a mile a minute, loudly while gesturing emphatically, or are they more contained, speaking softly while using only a few economical words? Pay attention to the syntax and word choice. Do they use regional word choices that might give away where they grew up? Do they use slang that hints at their age or which subculture they belong to?
This is something you can pay attention to on the radio, in podcasts, and on television as well. If you close your eyes and just listen to the characters, how can you tell them apart? If you turn down the volume and just watch them, what does their body language tell you even if you can’t hear the words?
Pay attention to what triggers certain emotions for you
When writing a scene, you always want to be aware of your reader’s emotional calibration. It sounds awful to say but it’s true: writers are manipulators to a certain degree, because we strive to manipulate our readers’ emotions in a way that doesn’t make then feel manipulated. Simply put, we want our readers to feel a certain way when reading specific scenes. You might want them to laugh or cry, or feel enraged, or be melancholy. Always know exactly what you want them to be experiencing, even if it’s ambivalent or conflicted.
When watching TV or films, or when reading, pay attention to your own emotional responses and what the filmmaker or writer did to elicit them. The HBO series The Last of Us has made me weep and tense up, curse and bite my nails, laugh and breathe a sigh of relief, sometimes all within a few minutes of each other. It’s not only a masterclass in pacing, but also in eliciting emotion. I’m taking a ton of notes as I gauge my emotions in each scene, understanding how what happens on screen in terms of dialogue or action causes me to feel a certain way. And then I try and apply that in my own work.
Sometimes, it’s the way two characters look at each other. Other times, it’s a beautiful line of dialogue. Often, it’s an expression or what the characters aren’t saying that tugs at my heart strings. Regardless, you know the writers and actors knew exactly what they were doing to get me to feel that way—it wasn’t an accident.
As always, some techniques will work for some writers while others won’t. Find what works for you and try to have fun with it!
Bianca Marais is the author of the bestselling The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, as well as the beloved Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh, and the Audible Original, The Prynne Viper. She taught at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies where she was awarded an Excellence in Teaching Award for Creative Writing in 2021. She is the co-host of the popular podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, which is aimed at helping emerging writers become published.
The Great Beta Reader Match-up is back!
Are you looking for beta readers for your work-in-progress? For feedback from fellow writers with whom you might form a writing group?
Sign up to be matched with between three and six other writers who work in similar genres and time zones. Each group will receive their peers’ submissions along with instructions on how to critique the work. Your manuscript does not have to be complete to sign up!
For more info or to sign up, click the button below.
“I was 34 years old when I made my first salad”: a Q&A with CeCe Lyra
If you’ve ever wondered who the hosts of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast really are, you’ve come to the right place. We asked you to submit questions to get to know the hosts better and you did not disappoint. Here CeCe reveals what fictional family she’d like to belong to, whether she’ll ever write another book, and how long she thinks she’d survive on a desert island. Tune in next month when Carly Watters will dish all!
If you were stranded on a desert island for six months and could only bring three books to read / re-read, what would they be?
Best Friends by Martha Moody, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner. I’d expect to be able to bring along a plethora of notebooks, post-its, and multi-colored pens. I’m an unapologetic annotator. Alas, it’s a moot point as I would not last six days, let alone six months, on a desert island. I have zero survival skills. The thing about this question—which I’ve asked of others, so I understand the impetus—is that it prompts me to select dense titles that are ripe for re-reading, stories that ignite the motor of my imagination. By that logic, my favorite untputdownable page turners wouldn’t even make the shortlist. Perhaps a more revelatory question might be: what three books would I love to be able to read for the first time? But I’m glad you didn’t ask that because it would be even harder to answer!
Do you think you’ll write another book?
Yes, but not for (at least) another decade. Being a literary agent does not allow for the lengthy periods of sustained introspection that I need to write—not at this stage in my career, anyway. I am a compulsive person: when I love something, it soaks up all my attention. I quite like that about me; I enjoy having an obsessive brain. To anyone who is thinking, That’s not healthy or Balance is important in life, let me assure you that I am wedded to passion and it’s a blissfully happy union. Agenting brings me purpose, delight, and fulfilment beyond my wildest dreams, and working on my clients’ brilliant works allows me to channel my creative energy. Together, we brainstorm, scene solve, and psychoanalyze characters to elevate their stories. What that means is that my favorite part about writing—story crafting—is something I get to do practically every day.
What skill would people be surprised to learn you have?
I can drive a stick. Is that surprising? I also love to skydive and hang-glide but that’s not really a skill, though it’s something about me that typically shocks people. I think people would be more surprised about skills I don’t have. I can’t work a can opener. I have no sense of direction to the point where I get lost in my own neighborhood. I was 34 years old when I made my first salad. (I did not eat it, as I don’t understand the appeal of munching on leaves.) I blame my obsessive personality: if it’s not about books, I’m not interested.
Favorite place to get work done (coffee shop, kitchen table, etc.)?
The oversized armchair in my office. I put my feet up on the footstool, Baba hops on to cuddle on my lap, and I get work done while he snores. I am very lucky to have my own space. It’s something I’ve always wanted and that we made happen when the pandemic hit and our apartment shrunk. Do you know that show Love it or List It? Well, for my husband and me it was House or Divorce. (I am only half kidding—all the respect for couples who can work from home side-by-side.) Every day when I step into my office, I contemplate how lucky I am. It’s a proper room of my own, complete with a color-coordinated bookcase, desk, file cabinets, and white board—I even have an altar for my spiritual charms. Virginia Woolf’s words ring true for literary agents, too.
Is there a fictional family from a book that you wish you were a member of?
This is such an enlightening question! It got me thinking for the longest time. As an adult, I gravitate toward stories about dysfunctional families, so those are out because if I’m going to belong to a dysfunctional clan, then let it be my own. I’m left with the families from one of the many stories I devoured as a child. I used to love reading about well-adjusted people: homes in which the adults were serene and level-headed, in which the drama revolved around the kids’ lives and not the parents’, homes with routines involving family meetings and curfews and packed lunches. If I had to choose, I’d go with the Wakefields from the Sweet Valley series because I’d get to be an identical twin (I’ve always wanted a twin sister) and because that way I’d experience the novelty of having an older brother (I’m the eldest in my family so I have no idea what that’s like). But I’d miss my own family too much, which is why the conclusion I reached is that I don’t wish to belong to another family. There’s a wholesome allure in imagining what it would be like to grow up in such a stable home, but if that had been my experience, I wouldn’t have my brain. I wouldn’t be me. And after years of a tumultuous relationship with myself, I have grown to love me. It’s a beatific feeling, one that I wish for every human.
Bonus question: Can I use CeCe as my protagonist’s name in my novel (an obsessed psychologist who is an unreliable narrator with deep internal conflicts and a secret so deep, even she doesn’t know it)?
Yes, of course, and she can be as diabolical as you’d like with the sole condition that she love fur babies. Make her an animal hater and I will hex you. Come to think of it, that’s another skill I have.
Thank you to @bethmorriswrites, @sophiedominiquewrites, @flywrites2live, @danniviafore and everyone else who submitted such great questions for our hosts!
Cecilia (CeCe) Lyra is a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency and the co-host of the popular podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Find out more at her website.
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How to Know When You’re Ready to Query Agents: A Step-By-Step Breakdown
It’s often difficult to look at your own writing objectively so knowing when the work is ready to query can be challenging. Here, Bianca Marais offers a step-by-step breakdown of what you should do before hitting send on that query letter
So many writers I’ve spoken with have experienced the heady rush of sending out their first query letter only to realize, five seconds after pressing send, how they could have elevated the query letter and pages in a myriad of ways. And then, what inevitably follows, is a scramble to figure out if they can either recall the email or message the agent to ask if they can submit revisions.
None of this is surprising because as the joke goes: writers tend to do their best editing after they’ve already pressed ‘submit’.
Needless to say, even if an agent agrees to look at a revision, this doesn’t create the best first impression. The publishing industry is like any other in that there’s a degree of professionalism that’s expected of you, and so you don’t want to be the writer who looks like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Even if we are all just feeling our way around in the dark, we want to at least pretend to have things under control.
So, how do you avoid this trap?
Firstly, let’s look at how to know you’re not ready to query just yet:
If you’ve only recently typed those two blessed words that we all love so much: the end. Work that you’ve only just recently finished drafting is not ready to query. Trust me on this. There’s much to do after completing a manuscript, some of which includes phoning loved ones and demanding to be rewarded with chocolate; cracking open that bottle of bubbly that you’ve had on ice for so long; and celebrating with social media announcements and smug emails to everyone who ever doubted you could do it. Querying should not be on that to-do list.
If you want to curl up in the foetal position just thinking about someone else reading your work and so you haven’t shown it to anyone.
If the only people who’ve read your work are your best friends or family members. (Unless these people happen to be successfully published authors or brilliant editors!)
If you know there are problems with your manuscript that you aren’t sure how to fix but figure an agent can help you with that.
If you haven’t finished your manuscript yet but figure you can do so quickly if an agent expresses interest.
These are all major red flags warning you that you need to check yourself before you wreck your chances.
So, that’s what not to do, but how do you know when you’re ready? The answer is once you’ve moved up The Writer’s Polishing Pyramid and can tick almost all of the following boxes.
You’ve had alpha readers critique your work:
At the bottom rung of the pyramid, start with at least five other writers who will alpha read your entire manuscript during the drafting stage—this works well in the form of writing groups where other writers critique each new chapter that you write. We always say that a strong foundation leads to a strong structure. If you get critique on your work as you’re going along, it’s a great way to brainstorm solutions and ensure that you haven’t gotten off to a rocky start.
You’ve had a first tier of beta readers critique your work:
Once you’re finished the first draft, move up the pyramid by getting three completely new beta readers to read your finished manuscript. It’s possible to get critique fatigue, and if the same people have read the same manuscript over and over again, they begin to lose all objectivity, and might also know things from previous drafts that they’ll assume apply to the latest one, which means they won’t catch small changes. After you’ve revised based on their feedback, move up the pyramid.
You’ve had your work critiqued by aspirational writers:
We all have other writers whose work we greatly admire and who we aspire to be like. These are the people whose opinions matter the most and whose critique will be most valuable. It unfortunately isn’t always possible to get published authors to review your work because they have so many demands on their time, but you can enter contests or mentorship programs to try and make this happen. You can also submit pages to segments like Books with Hooks. Other emerging writers are probably the easiest to approach for this. Whose work have you heard on Books with Hooks that you admire? Which emerging writers have you met at conferences or in beta reader match ups whose writing and critiques you respect?
If you’re not biting your nails or pacing around while waiting to hear their feedback, then they’re not aspirational enough. This part of the process should be nerve-wracking.
You’ve sought professional help:
Full manuscript evaluations can be very expensive and not everyone is able to afford them. But here’s the thing: you don’t need a full evaluation in order to elevate your work. It’s my experience that emerging writers tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. Whether it’s a lack of causality, or writing scenes that don’t move the plot forward, or being overly wordy, or writing purple prose, they tend to fall into the same traps. Even a 5000-word manuscript evaluation, where you’re getting detailed feedback, can help immensely in terms of helping you see where you might be going wrong and how you might apply that critique to the entire manuscript. You can also enter your work into contests or mentorship programs at this stage.
You’ve done a final revision:
Writers are made at the line level. It doesn’t matter how amazing your hook or plot are, if the writing isn’t there at the line level, agents and editors are going to turn you down. At this stage, you’re reading your work aloud and checking for everything: repetition, redundancies, cliché, stilted dialogue and repetitive dialogue tags, punctuation and grammar, spelling and typos, rhythm and lyricism, etc. Use tools like Grammarly to assist you. When you send your manuscript out to an agent, you need to feel one hundred percent comfortable with the thought that if it were published the next day, and then reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus, you won’t be wishing you fixed that subplot issue that a reviewer might point out, or that readers won’t be mailing you about mistakes or plot inconsistencies or how confused they were by random time jumps.
Once you’ve done all this, you’re ready to draft that super-easy-to-nail perfect query letter (LOL!) and then start querying! As always, you’ve got this!
On The Podcast This Week
Check out this week’s podcast episode below!
In the latest Books with Hooks segment, Bianca, Carly, and CeCe discuss keeping names in a query to a minimum; an ‘excellent’ query with opening pages that have almost no notes; the importance of having movement in opening pages; a three POV query letter; CeCe meets a prologue that she likes; using a third person bio; and the effective use of weather in opening pages.
After which, Carly chats with her client, Jane Healey, author of Goodnight From Paris. They discuss her path to representation and publication; winning writing contests and anonymous pitching; having a long-term relationship with editors at one publishing house; how much is too much research in historical fiction; keeping the plot moving forward while building a historical world; knowing where to start the story when writing a real person’s life into your novel; author’s notes; her advice for writers seeking to publish; and historical happy hour!
Well, that’s a wrap for this month, folks! See you same time same place next month. If you enjoyed reading this issue, please tell a friend!
And if you’re interested in advertising in this newsletter, email us at theshitaboutwriting.newsletter at gmail dot com!
Thanks for joining us and, until next month, happy scribbling ✨
This is a monthly newsletter chock-full of guidance and support from publishing industry insiders. Expect author interviews, guest blogs, giveaways, and more! Sign up and immediately receive an exclusive webinar from literary agent Carly Watters