Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book Review: “Wired for Story,” by Lisa Cron

I never was much of a student in science. That was one of the reasons I became a journalism major and a writer. If you’re like me in that respect, don’t be turned off by the title of Lisa Cron’s outstanding craft of fiction book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

Craft of fiction books come and go, but this one’s a keeper. Cron’s premise (backed by neuroscience) is that human beings are hard-wired to read and appreciate stories. She doesn’t stop with that valuable insight, though. She digs deeper to explore the significance of emotion in giving the story meaning. She then shows the reader how to develop protagonists who have deep inner goals. Then she covers story development, stressing that specific details bring a story alive.

Following the chapters about developing protagonists and stories, Cron introduces the subject of conflict, the “agent of change.” Then she covers cause-and-effect. She explains the path from the set up to the payoff and follows that with a chapter on how to weave in back story and flashbacks. The book ends with a chapter about the lengthy amount of time it takes a writer to hone writing skills before she reaches the cognitive unconscious area of the brain.

The chapters begin with a cognitive secret and a story secret that set up the subject matter to follow. For example, Chapter 3, entitled, “I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling,” begins:

Cognitive Secret-Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

Story Secret-All story is emotion-based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Each chapter ends with a handy checklist that summarizes the major lessons.

In a July 30, 2012 interview on the popular blog Writer Unboxed, Cron discussed why the brain craves stories. “Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency, that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling, that seduces us into leaving the real world and surrendering to the world of story.”

The bottom-line is that writers should focus on story. It’s the story that will get the attention of an agent or a publisher. And story, Cron concludes, is how what happens affects the protagonists.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book that I could not begin to list them. It is written for writers at all levels, from beginner to seasoned pro. I highly recommend this book.


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What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

Novice writers often ask what is the ideal word count for a manuscript? Is 100,000 words too many? What about 150,000? It’s best to aim lower—much lower.

Let’s say a writer is pitching a first novel. He has a sure-fire Pulitzer Prize winner on his hands, but the manuscript is a weighty 250,000 words. Does he dare mention the word count in his query letter? Not only should he not mention the word count, but he needs to go back immediately and trim that manuscript. Cut it in half or divide it into two books and pitch it as the first part of a sequel. Why? In addition to the reality that most first-time writers probably over-write, it’s a matter of simple economics. More words mean more paper, and printing and shipping costs. A publisher is simply not going to spend the extra money publishing a tome by a first-time author. Agents know this.

When I finished my first novel, Small Change, it was 126,000 words. I mentioned the word count in my query letter. Meeting with an agent once at a writer’s conference, the agent took one look at the word count and shook her head. Get it down to less than 100,000 words, she said. A word count of 80,000 would be a good target, she advised. I eventually trimmed it to 103,000 words and I self-published Small Change.

The best essay I’ve read on word counts was written by Colleen Lindsay, a former agent. Read the post.

Lindsay noted that beginning writers often see fat science fiction books on the shelves of bookstores and believe they have to write a book of similar heft. “Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers,” Lindsay wrote.

She met with several fiction writers and compiled a comprehensive list of target word counts for each genre.

Here are some of the word counts listed by Lindsay for various genres, based on feedback she received from editors:

  • Middle grade: 25,000 to 40,000 words, with an average of 35,000.
  • Young Adult: 45,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Paranormal romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Category romance: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Cozy mysteries: 65,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Westerns: 80,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Mystery/thriller/crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy: this encompasses a wide range of genre, but generally the word counts fall between 90,000 and 100,000.

As a general rule of thumb for new novels, I believe 80,000 words is the right target, regardless of genre. Of course, there are examples of excellent novels with much shorter word counts. Ian McEwen’s brilliant short novel, On Chesil Beach, comes to mind. The novel is only 40,000 words, but it is exceptionally crafted and packed with meaning.

For another perspective on word counts, check out this article published in Writer’s Digest by agent Chuck Sambuchino.

What are your thoughts on word counts?



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Book Review: Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh

Disney World is a place where dreams come true, but for the Sampson family in Heather Walsh’s short novel, Dented Cans, it’s a place of comic mishaps and strange, dark secrets.

Told in the first-person by the oldest child, the precocious Hannah, Dented Cans is a portrait of a dysfunctional family headed by passive parents who refuse to confront their secrets. Dad collects dented cans, especially ones without labels, which he can buy at a deep discount. Mom takes photos at every opportunity, but buries them in scrapbooks that never get opened.

When the reader meets young Hannah, she is saving her money to buy a second-hand car, her ticket out of the dull suburban life of North Prospect, Connecticut, which she shortens to, “No Prospect.” Her younger brother, Ryan, is a typical 14-year-old slacker, a sharp-tongued boy with no interest in academics. The youngest, Ben, is eight years old. He suffers from a severe disability that makes him prone to communicates by making sounds. Hannah is the only family member who makes any attempt to understand and engage Ben.

Walsh makes effective use of the dented cans and never-opened scrapbooks as symbols of what ails the Sampsons. The juxtaposition of Disney World and the delusional world of Hannah’s parents underscores the story’s theme.

The strongest aspect of Dented Cans is the voice of Hannah. A prescient, wise-cracking teen-ager, Hannah carries the story with witty, piercing observations about her odd family. She engages the reader right away and we root for her to get to the bottom of the reasons behind the family’s bizarre behavior. She is reminiscent of the unnamed teen-aged main character in JoAnn Beard’s brilliant debut novel, In Zanesville.

Despite the oddness of the Sampsons, Walsh draws them in a way that makes the reader sympathize with this family. Hannah yearns to break free of her family, but worries about what her departure would do to Ben.

Walsh writes with great insight into the dynamics of the family. One cannot help but think that there is a little bit of the Sampsons in each of our families.


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Constance Hale on the Power of Verbs

I came across an interview recently with Constance Hale published in The Writer magazine that re-enforced a core belief: strong verbs are the key to powerful writing. An author, grammar expert and teacher, Hale spoke about her latest book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. Verbs are the workhorses of fiction writing, or as Hale put it in the introduction to her book, “Verbs put action in scenes, show eccentricity in characters, and convey drama in plots.”

The right verb is the key to a making a sentence sing. “The verb determines the roles, or designated positions, of all the other words in the sentence…But verbs do more than just dominate sentences. Ask a cop whether he’d prefer to know the color of a suspect’s sweatshirt, or the way he walked and talked.”

In an April 6, 2012 interview published in The New York Times, Hale said, “Verbs kick-start sentences. Without them, words would simply cluster together in suspended animation. We often call them action words, but verbs can also carry sentiments (love, fear, lust, disgust), hint at cognition (realize, know, recognize), bind ideas together (falsify, prove, hypothesize), assert possession (own, have) and conjure existence itself (is, are).”

Hale breaks down verbs into two main categories: static (passive) and dynamic (active). “Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs—and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets, and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he can gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger, or sashay?”

Let’s compare these two sentences:

She impressed me. (dull)

She dazzled me. (better)

Or these sentences:

He moved rapidly toward the gunman.

He lunged at the gunman.

“Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forego adverbs. Many of those modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway,” Hale said.

Static verbs establish a relationship of equals between the subject of a sentence and its complement. Think of those verbs as quiet equal signs, holding the subject and predicate in delicate equilibrium.”

“Verbs can make or break your writing, so consider them carefully in every sentence you write. Do you want to sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it? Go ahead, use is. Do you want to plunge your subject into a little drama. Go dynamic. Whichever you select, give your readers language that makes them eager for the next sentence.”

Hale, author of two grammar books before her current release, said she was motivated to write her latest book when people asked her what was the one thing they could do to improve their writing. “Look at your verbs.” She said. “When you’re stopping to think about what word you’re using, and looking for a better word, your writing becomes more precise, more dramatic or visual. And if you are really focusing on the subject-verb relationship.”

I leave you with these four principles from The Writer article:

  • Understand subjects and predicates. “We need a subject (person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about) and a predicate (expressing the action, condition or effect on the subject).
  • Be precise. Ask yourself if you’ve chosen the best verb. “It’s about writing deep and striking with verve.”
  • Listen for music and rhythm.
  • Avoid loosey-goosey beginnings.

How do you select the best verbs?




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