Posted in Books, Writing

Why ‘Thrill Me’ is a Craft Book on Writing You Need to Read

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What It’s All About

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a craft book from novelist Benjamin Percy (The Dead Lands, Red Moon) that discusses various important elements in the writing of fiction. He infuses some of his chapters with a little memoir, of childhood memories, his time in graduate school, and in the successes and failures in his own writing.

But mostly the book is comprised of chapters that touch on essential fiction writing subjects like character motivations, setting description, the importance of revision, and, the central theme — mixing literary with genre. These chapters mix Percy’s own advice with examples from popular works of short fiction, novels, screenplays, and films.

He opens with the one chapter solely dedicated to memoir, in which Percy talks about his love of reading growing up and his pursuit of writing fiction from a young age. Next he talks about a mix of fascinating chapters on craft, some of which clearly relate to my own MFA thesis project, like Urgency (the need to keep readers flipping through the pages), There Will Be Blood (an entire chapter about violence in fiction and how writers need to be careful with how much is seen and how much explicit detail), and Designing Suspense (how three-dimensional character and clear motivations mixed with major conflicts and rising stakes can make for effective suspense).

He goes on to discuss such elements as Making the Extraordinary Ordinary, The Art of the Reversal, and Making the Stakes Clear. The book ends with a chapter on why revision will make a writer successful and that rejection will only make the most motivated writers even stronger in their craft.

The main theme of Percy’s craft book is to mix exciting genre work with effective literary qualities to make fantastic and memorable works of fiction. He writes,

Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’

Percy’s belief is that literary fiction is not inherently good and genre fiction is not inherently bad. He talks of his frustration, particularly in writing workshops, when his professors would immediately look down on anyone writing genre work and promoted the idea that everyone should focus on literary fiction. Percy writes,

Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Make certain your devotion to pretty sentences and flesh-and-blood characters and cityscapes and exquisitely crafted metaphors works in service of story, contributing to the momentum that will propel your readers forward.

He believes that both literary fiction and genre fiction have their strong qualities but that blending the two can bring out the absolute best kind of storytelling, particularly when the writer focuses on telling a compelling, propulsive story with focus still given to stylish prose, quality descriptions, and characters over plot.

Why You Need This Book on Your Shelf

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a terrific craft book. I loved how Percy weaves memoir with writing advice, sometimes discussing various tools in his writing that have worked for him over the years and why, then immediately moving into advice for the reader with clear examples from outside texts. I particularly liked that Percy doesn’t overdo the memoir, or talking about his own works; his discussion about himself is in the book just the right amount to be effective, never too much to come across as egotistical.

I admired his use of examples from not just novels but also short fiction and even a few films. I learn a lot about writing fiction from the movies I watch, and so I found it appropriate for an author to include them in the conversation.

His chapters are varied and sometimes unexpected, like his devotion to an entire chapter about the use of violence in storytelling. Percy writes,

This is the world we live in. You don’t have to look that far to find horror. And your job as a writer, no matter how uncomfortable, is to occasionally but responsibly shine a lamp lit with blood into those dark corners of human existence.

The novels he has written obviously goes to some dark, horrific places, so I was thrilled to see a chapter from him on this subject. I also especially enjoyed his chapters on the dangers of backstory, where he says,

The impulse to explain [backstory] will insult the reader. […] Stories are about forward movement, and if you turn to backstory, you have effectively yanked the gearshift into reverse.

Lastly, he wraps up the craft book with a bit of inspiration that will keep me going for a long while:

Thirty-nine rejections. Remember that the next time you’re feeling low at the keyboard or thumbing open a letter addresses, ‘Dear Writer.’ Go the distance.

He talks often about the writers that go the distance are the ones who persevere, who shrug off the rejections and keep going, keep improving their craft. Percy had to write five novels before he got one published, and his various struggles he lays out in the book give me, and should give you, the ammunition to keep going. No matter how long it takes!

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

This is the One Thing a Reader Wants

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

Today’s publishing marketplace is tough. Not all writers who set out to publish will see their dreams come true. And even if they do publish, readers will not automatically flock to your writing without good reason. The only thing a reader wants, at the end of the day, is to care about a character and a story. That’s it, that’s all. If you let them down here, they will not return to your pages.


The one thing a reader wants is simple.

A reader wants a character and a story to care about. That’s it.

A character. And a story. To care about.

Sure, there are other factors that will keep a reader flipping through the pages all the way until the end.

Big surprises. High stakes. Constant tension. A good mix of dialogue and description.

But a compelling novel especially comes to down to that one thing: a character and story to care about, deeply and completely.

I don’t know about you, but if I don’t care about both of those elements, I struggle continuing on with a novel I’m reading.

Especially when it comes to character. I don’t even need an extraordinary story if the characters mean something to me.

I just adored every minute of the third season of Stranger Things, and something that hit me by the end of the first episode was that I love the characters on the show so much that I’d still enjoy the show if nothing extraordinary happened.

If there were no monsters. If there were no big stakes.

If all the show did was explore those characters’ lives, I would still want to be there for every minute of it.


Such is the case with the best fiction.

You want your characters to be so compelling that very little could happen in the story, and you would still go along for the ride.

So when you do have a lot happen throughout the narrative, when you throw endless surprises and twists at the reader, when there’s a major death nobody sees coming, when an ending reveals something about a character that changes your entire perspective on the book…. your reader will absolutely love you for it.

Mary Kole is right: the publishing marketplace is tough. There are lots of reasons for an editor to say no to your novel.

What you want to do is write a story and characters that nobody will want to say no to.

That no readers will ever be able to put down… even if they try!

All a reader wants at the end of the day is to care about a story and a character.

If you can master that part of novel writing, there’s no telling how much success you’ll be able to achieve.

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Here are the Essentials of Young Adult Fiction

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].


It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.

Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.

Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.

But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!

But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.

Let’s take a look at the essentials of young adult fiction!

Young Adult Essentials

Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing YA books…

  • Your main character or characters should be fifteen to seventeen years old. Sixteen is typically ideal.

Of the twenty books I’ve written, fourteen of them are young adult. This is the market I love to write for the most. I’ve written all kinds of YA. Realistic YA, fantasy YA, horror YA, thriller YA, LGBTQ YA. I’ve tried so many different kinds of stories for the young adult market.

And one thing I have found over the years that has brought me the most success is writing main characters that are sixteen years old. This age seems to be the sweet spot. Seventeen works, too. And fifteen as well, although I’ve never actually written a YA to date about a fifteen year old.

Keep in mind that most YA readers are younger than the age of your protagonist. Like eleven, twelve, thirteen. These readers want to read up, so sixteen or seventeen is typically ideal for your character’s age.

One thing I’d recommend? Try not to write about an eighteen year old. A literary agent once told me to my face, “I can’t sell YA with an eighteen-year-old protagonist.” I was told this five years ago. Maybe things have changed.

But if you can, try to make your protagonist sixteen unless there’s a really strong and specific reason why the character needs to be older or younger.

  • The length of your young adult novel can go as short as 50,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 90,000 words.

I’ve tried all sorts of lengths in my YA books. The longest one I ever queried was 82,000 words. The shortest one was 58,000 words. I didn’t have success with either one.

You want to know the lengths of the YA novels I did have success querying? Between 65,000 and 70,000 words. That seems to be the sweet spot for YA word counts because it’s long enough to tell a complete story but not too long to overwhelm any of the agents who might request your book. 75,000 is fine, too, of course. 80,000 probably won’t raise any eyebrows.

But I’d think long and hard about querying a novel that was longer than 90,000 words unless you have a really good reason for it. If you’re writing hard science fiction or fantasy, then maybe. But as soon as you hit 100,000 words and up, you’re going to have lots of agents click over to the next query letter in a heartbeat, remember that.

  • You can go edgier in your subject matter in YA than you can in MG.

Honestly this is a big reason why I often choose to write books for the YA market than the MG market. I don’t like to feel restricted about what I can and cannot do in my storytelling, and what’s so exciting about YA is that you can basically write any story you want, without restrictions, without too many rules or guidelines.

The truth is that librarians and parents are much stricter toward what MG books kids might read, but there’s not as harsh a strictness for YA books kids might read. In YA, for the most part, almost anything goes.

A few more rules to keep in mind…

  • Teens have a sensitive, built-in BS-o-meter, so for the YA market especially, authenticity is super important.
  • Realistic, contemporary stories do really well in YA.
  • There are fewer opportunities to target boy audiences in YA than there are in MG. You’re taking a gamble if you target your YA to a solely male audience.
  • Conflicts in YA tend to be bigger and all-consuming and are resolved in a more bittersweet note than MG.

Pay close attention to that first one. It’s critical that you bring authenticity and reality to your YA novels. Even if you’re no longer a teenager and aren’t around a lot of teenagers, you need to find that authenticity through any means necessary!

At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your YA writing.

Follow that story you love, that compels you. It’s important to take chances in YA and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.

At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.

Once you’ve master the essentials of young adult fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Here are the Essentials of Middle Grade Fiction

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].

It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.

Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.

Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.

But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!

But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.

There are subtle differences between MG and YA which I plan to go into later. For now, let’s look at the way to tell at first glance what exactly is middle grade fiction…

Middle Grade Essentials

Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing MG books…

  • Your main character or characters should be eleven to thirteen years old. Twelve is typically ideal.

I’ve written three middle grade books to date, and all three feature twelve-year-old protagonists. I just feel like that’s the perfect age for MG. The characters are just entering middle school, always an awkward and scary time in adolescence. Things are changing. Friendships are being tested. It’s a great age to write about.

Thirteen is OK, too. So is eleven. But I wouldn’t go younger than eleven. Similarly, as soon as your main character hits age fourteen, you might find yourself being pushed into YA territory.

  • The length of your middle grade can go as short as 35,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 60,000 words.

My first middle grade novel came in at 90,000 words, and then I queried it a few months later at 80,000 words. I was so clueless I actually thought MG novels were supposed to be just as long as YA, but such is not the case. Most MG novels are much shorter than YA novels, and some have even sold at 35,000 words.

My MG novel currently on submission to editors is 45,000 words. My newest MG I’m currently revising is at 43,000 words, and I’m trying in this latest draft to build it up a bit to 45,000 or 46,000 words. My agent once said that you’re pretty safe as long as you don’t go over 60,000 words. That seems to be the max number of words for most MG novels.

  • The most popular MG genres are magic and high fantasy, adventure, paranormal, mystery, and humor.

At the same time, it’s important you remember to write the kind of MG novel that speaks to you. Don’t just write a high fantasy because you think it’s popular and therefore will sell. If you want to write a quieter literary MG novel, go for it. I’m writing spooky horror MG books, which seem to be getting more popular for kids with each passing year.

But it’s at least important to keep in the back of your mind the kind of genres that usually fare well with agents, editors, and readers.

A few more rules to keep in mind…

  • There are more boy readers of MG than YA, so give your MG books greater room for boy appeal.
  • Think about the cultural and racial diversity of your cast of characters.
  • MG readers are welcoming of animal protagonists.
  • Historical novels have a place in MG, but the historical setting needs to be essential to the story.
  • Don’t set a story in the same decade that you were a child just because that’s what you remember. If you’re going to write an MG book set in a previous decade, you’ll need a better reason.
  • For the most part, modern or future settings work best in MG.

I would pay particularly close attention to those first two. Lots of boys read MG, so don’t think your audience is going to be strictly female. And make sure you think critically about cultural and racial diversity in your fiction writing as well.

At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your MG writing… within reason.

Follow that story you love, that compels you. If that story is set in the 1940s in France with dog protagonists, go ahead and write it! It’s important to take chances in MG and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.

At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.

Once you’ve master the essentials of middle grade fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!

Posted in Books, Writing

10 Thrillers to Read if You Want to be a Writer

I absolutely love to read thriller novels, both for adult and for younger audiences, and here are ten of my all-time favorites…

1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is one of my favorite novels of recent years, a sensational story that works in many ways on many levels. On a basic surface level, it is a hugely entertaining read, with endless twists and turns from beginning to end. The novel is alive with big surprises both in terms of the plot itself and in terms of Flynn’s framing of the story. Amy and Nick are fascinating protagonists, sharply drawn, greatly flawed, and relatable. Finally, I love the way that Flynn constantly ups the tension throughout the book through the use of stakes being raises higher and higher and strong chapter cliffhangers, even in the novel’s final thirty pages when other authors would feel comfortable in just wrapping things up.

2. A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith

A Simple Plan is one of my favorite thrillers. I find it outstanding in almost every way, with author Scott Smith, who to date has only penned one other published novel — 2006’s The Ruins — proving himself to be a master at suspense, tension, character development, setting details, point-of-view work, to mention a few. And of course the suspense is unbearable. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book is nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Scott Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying that shocking moment, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, it’s the leading up to the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.

3. The Painter, by Peter Heller

The Painter is an impressive literary thriller that is insightful, harrowing, occasionally heart-pounding, and always fascinating. I love the complexity of the lead character and how flawed he is. Of course there are stakes in The Painter’s story-line, and moments of action and tension, but never is the complexity of Jim ever lost amidst the thriller plot. The stakes keep rising throughout the narrative, an antagonist on Jim’s trail, the police questioning him, and at one point it doesn’t seem he’ll make it out of this mess alive.

4. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

What’s not to love? The Hunger Games is one of the most popular young adult novels ever released, and it earns its popularity with terrific, tension-filled prose, a dazzling story, and a memorable lead character. One major reason the book works as well as it does is that Collins chose to write it in first person, present tense, and this immediacy and urgency gives the story its nearly non-stop tension. Secondly, I love that the violence is never shied away from, considering this is a book for teens. The violence is never gory or over-the-top by any means, but Collins wisely shows in detail that, yes, kids are getting slaughtered in this world. Additionally, Collins’ use of setting is vivid all the way through. Even in first person present, Collins makes the settings always pop in front of Katniss’s eyes.

5. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

I absolutely loved this literary thriller. Author Ng is a tremendous writer and brings such love and care to her prose in this novel. I love the omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character’s head whenever she wants. Not only does that show us that someone outside the characters is in control of this story, that someone else knows more than what these characters do, but it also offers a great deal of tension. This is a murder mystery, after all, with secrets and twists galore throughout its pages, and Ng understands that even in a literary work she does need to keep the reader flipping through those pages.

6. Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

One of my favorite films of all time is Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and it was a delight to finally read the novel that inspired it, one written by an early master of the thriller genre — Patricia Highsmith. I enjoyed the book a lot, particularly in the way Highsmith highlights interiority in her characters. I have read thrillers that bypass interiority for action prose and suspenseful moments and chapter cliffhangers, but Highsmith often slows the narrative pacing down to let the reader get inside Guy and Bruno’s heads, and in the case of this story, that element is a plus not a minus.

7. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a terrific literary thriller. One tremendous aspect of the book is Eileen herself, one of the most disturbed and compelling protagonists I’ve read in a work of fiction in a long time. Eileen is darkly funny, always smart, and sometimes vicious in the way she thinks, and I loved every minute spending time with her. The character development is solid throughout, and the thriller elements in the last fifty pages are extremely effective, all the more propulsive since the reader genuinely cares about the characters. The tension builds and builds, with the stakes constantly being raised.

8. Big Driver, by Stephen King

Big Driver is a novella, part of Stephen King’s 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars, that tells of a female writer who is raped and seeks revenge. The novella showcases so much of what I love about Stephen King’s work. First of all, I love the way he builds character in the beginning of his stories, always using humor and humanity in his storytelling long before he takes the reader into the deep horror. I also love King’s use of humor; even in his scariest stories, there is always an element of humor that puts a stamp on the narrative, never a deadly serious tone from beginning to end. One of the major elements I adore in King’s work is his use of tension and the constant raising of stakes, certainly two reasons why Misery remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and there are lots of examples of them in Big Driver, too.

9. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood tells of the real-life slaying that took place in small-town Kansas in 1959, and the capturing, courtroom proceedings, and ultimate death of the two killers — Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. It really does read like a thriller novel, with impressive prose throughout and unique viewpoints into his characters. I enjoyed the level of suspense throughout the pages, especially considering that this is non-fiction and I already knew what happened to Dick and Perry. There are moments of genuine horror, fear, tension. Chapter cliff-hangers do the trick, as do the parallel structure of the book, where Capote will spend a few pages with Dick and Perry, then with Holcomb inhabitants, then back to the two killers. Capote is not afraid to keep his readers flipping through the pages, and he infuses endless moments with genuine suspense

10. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

What did I love about the book? The Goldfinch is one of the ten best books I’ve ever read. A thick doorstopper of a literary novel is typically the kind of book I avoid; however, the story intrigued me enough to give it a try, and it only took a few pages to recognize the power of Donna Tartt’s imagination and writing ability. Sometimes literary novels have such a focus on the beauty of the prose that the story gets lost, but Tartt has a remarkable ability to blend strong writing with a consistently entertaining story, which, yes, absolutely reads like a thriller at times. Every character is sharply drawn — from the protagonist Theo to his antiques dealer Hobie to the best friend Boris. Tartt always uses just the right language to help the reader visualize the characters. In addition, the way Tartt keeps the painting The Goldfinch an important element throughout the narrative is impressive, and I loved that the novel mixes various genres, like coming-of-age, literary fiction, and thriller, at all times. Overall, The Goldfinch impressed me all the way through.
Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) LGBTQ Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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As a gay person, I absolutely love to read LGBTQ novels, both for adult and for younger audiences. Earlier this week I shared five of my all-time favorites.

Below are five more I also adore with all my heart!

1. Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle

This is one of the few middle grade novels to be published that has a homosexual character at its center, and it’s a wonderful, inspiring read. While at the beginning of eighth grade, Nate isn’t entirely sure if he’s a homosexual or not, it’s pretty obvious from the beginning that he is gay, and I loved the way Federle handled this aspect to the character. Federle wisely never makes a big deal out of Nate’s sexuality, but he also never truly hides it either. Better Nate Than Ever is a brisk, entertaining read that keeps the reader entertained all the way through.

2. Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx

This collection features the famous novella, Brokeback Mountain, which is one of my all-time favorites. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning film from 2005, do yourself a favor and read the breathtaking novella in Proulx’s truly impressive short story collection. Her prose is always simple and vivid, treating a loving relationship between two men as something entirely beautiful. The descriptions of the setting are gorgeous, too, giving the story a specific sense of place. So many of the lines give the reader specific images of what Brokeback Mountain looks like, and showcase the love and heartache the main characters are constantly going through.

3. Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

I love so much about Golden Boy, and Tartellin’s use of the multiple POV in first person, present tense, is spectacular. I’ve read multiple POV in other novels before, but I think what Tartellin does is even more impressive because she balances six points-of-view and brings complexity and a sharp, unique voice to each one of them. Tarttelin’s book is a unique YA novel in that most young adult fiction depicts a teenager’s coming-of-age through familial hardship and emotional obstacles but never as literally as depicted in Golden Boy. Being a teen is hard, and Max has to deal with one of the greatest adversities any teen could possibly imagine: being intersex. This is an absolutely spellbinding read.

4. Highly Illogical Behavior, by John Corey Whaley

This is a terrific young adult novel that treats its subject matter with dignity and great attention to detail, and features three-dimensional teenage characters with necessary flaws and dreams for the future. This is the third young adult novel Whaley has written, and he infuses his work with a genuine YA voice and engaging, realistic teen dialogue. The author shows in detail what the main character Solomon’s illness does to him both physically and mentally, proving that breaking free from the agoraphobia will be a major challenge. But if his intense fears weren’t enough, Solomon is also gay, and this LGBTQ element brings even more depth and emotion to this riveting novel.

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

What a treat this book is, spending time with these characters, following their joys and their pains, and then getting to see the film, which is a beautiful companion to the book. I guess I needed to be more well-read, or more willing to get in touch with my emotional side, because for some reason this book didn’t hit me as hard when I read it by chance one weekend during high school. But the second read, and all the reads since then, of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which features a memorable LGBTQ character of his time, have brought me nothing but joy.
Posted in Books, Writing

Why You Need to Ask Big Questions When Reading Your First Draft

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

During the reading [of the first draft], the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns. Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What’s it all about, Stevie, in other words, and what I can do to make those underlying concerns even clearer.

Yesterday I wrote about the great thrill it is to read through the first draft of your novel in one sitting, long after you’ve let the manuscript sit for four weeks or longer.

I made it clear that for the most part you’re not taking hundreds of little notes along the way. You’re reading the novel to read it. To experience the book like a reader. To see so clearly what’s working and what’s not.

Yes, you should be jotting down notes here and there if you notice something and don’t want to forget about it later. But for the most part, you’re reading for the experience itself.


While reading your first draft, pay attention to story problems, to confused character motivations.

There are two parts to reading through your first draft, and this initial step is important for sure, an important aspect that can’t be ignored.

When a character is acting one way in chapter five and then a different way in chapter six for no apparent reason, make a note of that. If there’s a huge story inconsistency at the middle of the book, write down what it is. If there’s a plot hole you find at the end, by all means take a minute and jot it on a pad.

If you finish your first draft on a Friday and then start reading through it the following Monday, many of these problems and inconsistencies you won’t even notice. You’re still too close to your story, your characters. You can’t see the forest from the trees.

Something might be so obvious and glaring you don’t even need to write it down, but if you think you might forget it, then yes, take a few notes, but remember to keep reading and not stop every third paragraph to write something down.

If it’s taking you all night to get through a chapter, there’s a problem. You’re focusing on too much minutia. You should focus on story, on character, on the top elements of a writer’s toolbox.


And you should also be focused on the Big Questions of your novel, most especially theme.

The second part of reading through your first draft is moving beyond concerns of story and character and focusing on the bigger picture. Focusing on theme. What your book is really about. What lies at its heart and what you want the reader to take away when he or she closes the final page.

Theme is so important to a great novel. In some ways theme is the reason for writing the book in the first place. It’s where the characters and setting and story often stem from.

Revision of a novel is helpful in so many areas, but one area it’s extremely helpful in is highlighting and enhancing the theme of your story. It’s taking elements that are already there in your first draft and bringing them out even more and making them clearer to your reader.

Now keep this in mind that you don’t want to beat your reader over the head with your themes and larger issues. If the reader gets distracted from the story because you’re shoving the theme in his or her face, that’s a mistake. You want to enhance the theme considerably when you revise, but not to the extent that it become too obvious. There’s a balance you want to find.


Ultimately your read of the first draft will make your novel better in the long run.

The last five novels I’ve written going back to 2015 are better than anything else I’ve written for a few reasons. One, I was attending an MFA in Creative Writing program that helped me considerably in my writing skills. Two, I reached out to more beta readers during that time, signed with a literary agent during that time, and have been able to strengthen my novels through lots of feedback from others.

And three? I took the necessary time to let each first draft rest for awhile, preferably six weeks or longer, then I took each novel out of the drawer and read through the entire manuscript in one single sitting. Before I even started the second draft, I was able in that sitting to catch so much of what was working thus far and what problems were so entirely obvious.

Those problems don’t always come to light when you revise a chapter a day. But they do make themselves clear when you read it all through at once.

So take the time to read your first drafts quickly and carefully — in one sitting if at all possible. Look at story and character problems that might arise, but also take the time to ask yourself the Big Questions too, especially when it comes to theme. Your novel will be all the better for it!