Category Archives: Traditional Publishing

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Novel


I was 40 years old before I became an overnight success,
and I’d been publishing for 20 years.

Mary Karr
The Liars’ Club

When my first novel was accepted by HarperCollins — the HarperCollins, formerly Harper & Row, publisher of so many authors whom I adored — I thought that all my days of rejection were over. When my book began to be sold to foreign publishers via Harper’s Foreign Rights division, earning out the HarperCollins Advance within 6 months of acceptance, i.e., earning out its Advance before the book was published, I thought I was on the road to full-time writing. When the pre-publication and publication reviews for the first novel started pouring in — all good, and some absolutely stellar — I thought that all my years of hard work and ceaseless rejection had finally earned me a somewhat easier writing life.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The subsequent rejections started almost immediately.

With my editor.

Despite all her claims of loving my work, of wanting to be my editor for the remainder of my writing career, of wanting to publish all my books, etc etc etc, my editor did an abrupt about-face when I submitted my second novel to her.

Though my first novel was on the Holocaust, my editor found the second, on serial killers, “too violent.” She rejected it based on the violence.

If you know my work, you know I don’t do graphic violence. I was briefly hurt, and I wondered where all the “love” for my work had gone, but resolved, on my agent’s advice, not to take the rejection personally.

Despite the fact that my agent loved the second book and didn’t understand the editor’s rejection, we couldn’t take the book anywhere else because Harper had an “Option” on my next book, meaning that they had the right of first refusal. Further, if they rejected the book and another publisher accepted it, Harper had the right to match the other publisher’s offer on the book.

I’d thought the Option clause was a guarantee of future publication by Harper, but it was really just the publisher’s hedge against the ever-unknown-and-unknowable market. If the book did well financially, the publisher would have its own guarantee of publishing my next book. If the book didn’t do well in sales, the publisher could simply reject it and be legally free of any future obligation to me and my work.

Oh, the things you don’t know when you’re new to traditional publishing.

Because my agent loved my second book (though not the title), I assumed that she would simply sell it to another publisher. Granted, it might become my third book published instead of my second, but that didn’t bother me. I was already working on my third novel, so it didn’t matter to me which order the books were published in. I asked my agent where she would be sending the second novel.

“Nowhere,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Harper has the Option.”

Publishers don’t usually want books under an option clause with someone else, she informed me, because no matter how much the new editor wants the book, if he makes an offer, it’s likely to be “taken back” by the publisher that has the option. Though the first editor didn’t like the manuscript originally, most have a tendency to change their minds the moment another publisher makes an offer.

The Option clause in practice seems to work something like this: Editor 1, who is at the first Publishing House and who bought the rights to publish your previous novel, doesn’t think the next book you’re offering will sell, so Editor 1 rejects the manuscript. Editor 2, from the second House,  thinks the book will sell, and he makes an offer on your new book. Editor 1 now thinks that Editor 2 sees something she missed. Editor 1 then “re-evaluates” the book by simply buying it — for whatever price Editor 2 offered — hoping that Editor 2 was right about the book’s potential market.

Does that mean the book ends up with an editor who doesn’t really like the book?
That’s exactly what it means.
So why does the editor who originally rejected the book then accept it?

As in, the money the editor believes the book might earn despite the fact that she didn’t like it enough to buy it originally but which the second editor did think the book might earn.

What a convoluted process, and what a headache for the author.

My agent didn’t want to “shop the second novel around” because of the Option clause, but she had yet another reason not to shop the second book around: my first novel hadn’t even been published yet, so we had no sales figures. Further, no reviews had come in, not even pre-publication reviews.

That’s how early we were in the publishing process when this rigmarole was happening. The first novel had just been sent to the printer (about 3 months after acceptance, since the printing took about 6 months in those days) and no galley copies were available to send out to reviewers, who usually want the books about 6 months before the book’s publication date. We had no reviews or sales figures. My agent suggested we wait and see how the first book did before we shopped the second novel around. She suggested that I continue work on my third novel, which I did, erroneously assuming that the second novel would soon find a home.

Meanwhile, HarperCollins still had the Option clause on my “next” novel.
I was floored.
Hadn’t they just rejected my second novel?
Why was the Option clause still in effect?

“Because we don’t want to hurt the editor’s feelings,” said my agent. “If she doesn’t get a chance to publish the next novel you write that she’s madly in love with, she’ll be hurt, then angry. We don’t want an angry editor.”

I wasn’t happy about putting my second novel in Limbo, but what could I do? In traditional publishing, authors are not the ones with any power. Only bestselling authors have any power, and they only have it as long as they remain bestsellers.

It’s the traditional publishers who have all the money for Advances, so their editors have all the power. The agents earn their livelihood by pleasing the editors and bringing them books that they want to publish. No one in the traditional publishing system is going to buck the system.

Especially not 25 years ago where there were no other viable options for writers who wanted to become authors.

I returned to work on my third novel, assuming that, since it was not about serial killers, my editor would once again “love my work.”

She didn’t.
She liked the book.
Or, rather, she liked the idea of the book.
She thought the book itself needed some work.

“What kind of work?” I said, since she was talking directly to me about it, rather than through my agent.

“I found Claudia’s childhood scenes somewhat unnecessary,” said the editor. “Can you cut all of them out?”

I didn’t think Claudia’s childhood scenes were unnecessary, which is industry jargon for “boring.” I thought the childhood scenes were an important part of her character, her interaction with her husband, etc. I talked to my agent, who agreed with me about those scenes, but suggested I delete them anyway, to make the editor happy.

“After all,” said my agent, “she likes the book, which is more than we can say about the other novel.”

I agreed to the revisions without a contract.

What did I know?

Though I’d been published in prestigious literary journals and University magazines, I’d never had a book published. And lest you think that there were a great many options in those days, let me make it clear that there were no other options for writers to become authors 25 years ago.

There weren’t even any viable options as recently as 10 years ago. My last traditional publishing contract was issued in 2007, for my collection of short stories, which won the Grand Prize in an international writing contest, and that contract had no “electronic book” clause because ebooks hadn’t been invented yet, and without ebooks and portable e-readers, there was no way to self-publish and get your books in front of an audience. Period.

So, I spent another year revising my third novel, taking out all the childhood scenes involving the protagonist. My agent liked the new version of the book. She told me that she missed the protagonist’s childhood scenes but said that if she’d never read them in the first place, she might not have noticed that the book seemed “a bit less good than the original version.” She happily sent it to the editor, anticipating an offer.

My first novel had been published by then, and been out of stock for 6 of the first 8 weeks it was in print due to unanticipated demand. Editors were the ones who decided print-runs in those days before print-on-demand publishing, which means “print the books on demand” when the bookstores or consumers want them rather than trying to anticipate how many books need to be printed and warehousing the printed books until the bookstores order them.

After sending my newest version of the novel to my editor, my agent was happily preparing her negotiating stance, anticipating getting at least the same Advance for the second novel as she’d gotten for the first.

The editor promised to get back to my agent by Friday of the week she received the novel. Since the acceptance for my first novel had happened relatively late in the day, I waited all Friday to hear from my agent. When I called her around seven in the evening, she said she hadn’t been able to reach my editor all day.

“Not to worry,” said my agent. “I’ll get her first thing on Monday morning.”

Then, on Saturday afternoon, I got the letter from my editor.
Rejecting the second, substantially revised version of my third novel.

“I was wondering if you could do a bit more revision,” she wrote, “and put in something about Claudia’s childhood.”

“WTH?” I said, although that phrase wasn’t widely abbreviated at the time.

First thing Monday morning, I called my editor, certain that she didn’t mean what she’d written.

She did.

I reminded her that she’d been the one who’d asked me to delete all those scenes. I read her the letter that she’d sent to my agent, rejecting the novel the first time I’d submitted it to her. She told me that she remembered not liking the childhood scenes but that, upon reading the new version, she found herself “wondering what Claudia’s childhood had been like” and realized that she “missed those scenes and wanted them back.”

This time, I was furious.

I didn’t care how important an editor she was or that she was in line to become a VP at HarperCollins. I called my agent and told her about the rejection letter and the phone call with the editor. My agent was stunned: she hadn’t even heard from the editor though she’d called several times that morning (apparently, while I was on the phone with the editor myself).

My agent insisted that I fax her a copy of the third rejection letter: I don’t know if she was more upset about the rejection or about the fact that the editor had written to me directly instead of telling my agent that she didn’t want the book.  All I know is that my agent was livid.

My agent also wanted me to send her copies of the first two rejection letters from the editor: the one for the serial killer novel, which mentioned the book and its characters by name, and the letter for the first version of the third novel, which mentioned the characters by name and asked me to delete the protagonist’s childhood scenes. The newest rejection letter again mentioned the characters of the third novel by name and suggested that I put all the deleted childhood scenes back in.

My agent was going to break the Option clause.

“Now we have three rejections, in writing, of three different manuscripts,” said the agent. “That’s the end of HarperCollins for you.”

And, unfortunately, it was.

Though HarperCollins had put my first novel into its HarperPerennial line, the book was taken out of print shortly afterward.

“Apparently, Harper doesn’t understand the definition of ‘perennial’,” my agent said.

I always thought my first novel was taken out of print because my agent revoked the Option clause.

And the first novel was taken out of print about a month before Patrick Stewart optioned the novel for film.*

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

It was another three years before my third-written-but-second-published novel was accepted, in part because my first agent had her first child (at age 49) and took an extended maternity leave: when she returned, she would no longer be representing literary fiction. Instead, she was going to “concentrate on nonfiction only” because she could get Advances for her authors based on proposals (novels typically have to be completely finished before traditional publishers make a decision).

My second agent, who was recommended to me by my first, sold my next novel (with the protagonist Claudia who, by then, had all of her childhood scenes restored along with a new title for the book) and then proceeded to attempt to sell that publisher my serial killer novel.

The second publisher insisted on an Option clause on my next book…

But that’s another story, for another post, though the story is almost the same as this one except for the fact that the younger, less politically powerful editors loved the serial killer novel and wanted the publisher to buy it, but the older, more politically powerful editors, though they were “awake all night reading the novel,” felt it was “too scary” to publish “because nobody would read it” (despite the fact that they themselves had been unable to put the book down), and the younger editors who loved the novel didn’t have the political influence necessary to push the novel through the negotiations…

Oy, vey…

Nevertheless, I did learn some important things from all these torturous negotiations and editorial submissions and rejections of my second novel, and I want to share them with you (please don’t think that you have to learn these same lessons from my experiences).

  • There’s no end to rejection in a writer’s life, even after he becomes an author.
  • I don’t want Option clauses. (Even Amazon’s traditional publishing imprints include Option clauses in their contracts.)
  • I won’t substantively revise any novel unless it is already under contract. (Most publishers won’t even offer a contract if the editor wants substantive revisions.)
  • “Moles” operate at both traditional publishers and agents offices: moles surreptitiously pass manuscripts on to Hollywood and get paid for sending them those “stolen” manuscripts. (That’s how my serial killer novel, which was rejected by the HC editor, got pirated, including entire plot, scenes, characters, etc, by a very famous director/screenwriter and made into a film that so closely resembled my book that I found out about the theft of my novel from my friends who saw the movie and said, “OMG, that’s Alexandria’s novel…” My serial killer novel also got stolen by at least two others who made it into less “artsy” film versions of the exact same story, even including some of the actors who’d appeared in the art version, forcing me to revise my own novel so that Hollywood couldn’t say I stole it from them… but that’s another blog… and a seriously angry rant, lemme tellya.)
  • Having a book copyrighted, even with a registered copyright, doesn’t stop piracy of Intellectual Property, and it costs an unbelievable amount of money to hire an IP attorney and get a Cease & Desist against publishers or others who have pirated your work.
  • Traditional publishing, though it depends entirely on writers for its existence, doesn’t give a fig for writers or even for previously published authors because there are so many writers out there who’d literally give their books away to traditional publishers just to see the books in print.
  • Authors should never, ever give up.

Of course, now that authors have the option of publishing their own books at very little cost, as opposed to the previously very expensive and career-killing option of self-publishing, I don’t even think I would want to return to a traditional publisher.

Okay, maybe I’d try traditional publishing again if I was offered a big Advance, but it would have to include a humongous Advance since I never made any money in traditional publishing beyond the initial Advances. Until that happens, I’m happy putting all my out-of-print books back into print myself and doing my new books through the small publishing House I started after I retired from University (originally intended only to help other literary authors get published, not to put my own books back out into the market).

The main thing I learned from all the rejections by HarperCollins after it had accepted and published my first novel is that rejection never ends. Ever.

So get used to rejection, concentrate on writing your books, and never, ever give up.

Because, really, who would have predicted ebooks and the way they transformed the entire monolithic publishing industry?

Related Posts


Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View


How to Pitch Your Book


* Though the film was fully funded, it never got made… sigh… and authors only get paid when the film gets made… more sighs… (back to post)



Filed under Agents, Authors, Books, Indie Authors, Memoir, Real Life of a Writer, Traditional Publishing

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two


If you haven’t read “Urgency in Fiction, Part One,” I’d suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that one, won’t make much sense. Part One was about the types of Urgency and putting it into the actual fiction you are writing.

Though these posts are aimed at fiction writers — since they are excerpts from the upcoming Mastering Fiction & Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 14th Anniversary Edition of the original 2001 Mastering Point of View, published by Story Press — the concept of Urgency applies to all types of writing, from non-fiction to poetry, from screenplays to memoir. Because the first edition of the book was aimed at fiction writers, the revised version is, too.

This post is about how editors in the Traditional Publishing Land of New York use it in titles as marketing tools — which is their job — and how you can learn to do it, too. There are plenty of examples from Indie and self-published authors here. If they can do it, so can you.

And by the way, no one taught me about Urgency when I began to write fiction. Another writer I knew who was accepted into a prestigious MFA program read one of her stories in class — a story that I’d read and liked a lot — and was blasted by the professor in front of the entire class. The writer was told that she needed to put something in her story that would make it “a lot more urgent.” When she asked the professor what he meant, he said, “You’ll have to figure that out yourself.”

Since she knew that I’d borrowed $18K at 17 7/8% interest from the bank to take a year off work, without pay, to write my first novel, she passed that “message” along to me via a mutual friend. So I had to figure out exactly what the professor meant by making fiction “a lot more urgent.” It took me a while, but eventually I figured it out, coined “Urgency” as its name, wrote my first article on it at the request of editor Sylvia Burack (for The Writer, in 1997) and have been passing it on to writers ever since.

The original article has also been anthologized in many books and other magazines, including those published by Writer’s Digest Press, so you may have seen shorter version of it there, or on my website, under Mastering Point of View since a shortened version appeared in the first edition of that book.

Urgency in Titles

In traditional publishing, the contracts give the editors the final say on the title of an author’s book — because the title is part of marketing, and that is the editor’s job. All authors can learn to put Urgency into their own titles, however, so that they do not get changed by the publishing house.

Urgency in titles is also vitally important if the author is Indie publishing since he’ll have no editor helping him make his book more marketable by making the title have Urgency.

Here are some examples of titles which have Urgency, randomly chosen from a variety of genres, including short fiction, novels, plays, memoir, and non-fiction since all titles must have Urgency to get readers’ attention.

  • My Date With Satan (Stacy Richter)
  • Church of Dead Girls (Stephen Dobyns)
  • The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson)
  • I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich)
  • Waiting to Exhale (Terry McMillan)
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy (Alice Walker)
  • The Killing Gift (Bari Wood)
  • Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)
  • Cracking India (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  • As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)

A trip to your local bookstore or library — or a scan online — will reveal an exciting array of titles.  Some are good; some aren’t. Unless the authors are already bestsellers, however, only the titles with Urgency are likely to attract readers.

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Urgency in Classic Opening Lines

Most stories and books, no matter when they were written, contain Urgency. And they have it in the very first sentence, despite what some neophyte writers believe. Look at the wonderful Urgency in these classic opening lines, in various Points of View.

  • I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. (Isaac Asimov, I, Robot)
  • It must have been a little after three o’clock in the afternoon that it happened. (Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot)
  • Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. (Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ( Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • They found me in the gutter. (Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters)
  • Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith. (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Though the concept of Urgency may have been called different things in the past, or may not have even been called anything at all by the earliest storytellers, it’s always existed, and it exists to keep the readers (or the listening audience, when storytelling was oral, before books were readily available) attached to the story to find out what happens.

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Urgency in Contemporary Opening Sentences

Most fiction, whether contemporary or classic, starts with Urgency. That means in the very first sentence. Some authors call it a “hook,” and some call it the “attention-grabber,” but it’s all Urgency by other names. It gets the reader’s attention and makes him want to continue reading. Look at the opening sentences of some contemporary novels, and you’ll find wonderful examples of Urgency.

  • When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. (Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)
  • When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent. (Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy)
  • Throughout the long summer before my mother’s trial began, and they during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county — her character lynched, her wisdom impugned — I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked. (Chris Bohjalian, Midwives)
  • Stupid me — I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. (Peter Straub, Mr. X)
  • Red is the color of violent death. Red is the color of strong feelings — love, passion, greed, anger, hatred. (Tami Hoag, A Think Dark Line)
  • Through the doorway which led from her receptionist-secretary’s office into her own, Catherine Morris Perry instantly noticed the box on her desk. (Tony Hillerman, Talking God)
  • I was late, and I don’t mean the kind of late where I spent too much time doing my hair and was now stuck in traffic. (Gemma Halliday, Spying in High Heels)
  • People disappear all the time. (Diana Gabaldon, Outlander)

images-11 copyUrgency in the Opening Sentences of Indie Authors

When the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View was published by Story Press in 2001 (it had been researched and written in 2000), e-books did not exist. Neither did the concept of Indie authors. Only traditionally published authors and self-published authors got their books into print, and only the former had a chance of getting their work into bookstores.

Print-on-demand (POD), which allowed publishers to print books only when they were ordered by bookstores rather than to do print-runs of thousands of copies in advance — necessitating warehousing of any un-shipped copies — revolutionized the printed book industry. Furthermore, the creation of e-books and portable, functional e-book readers allowed more authors without traditional representation in the New York publishing conglomerate to get their books out to potential readers. Since those markets didn’t even exist in 2000, none of those authors were included in the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View.

Since its initial publication, however, with the advent of POD and e-books, more Indie authors have been able to get their fine, well-written books out to the public via online bookstores. Many of these authors have become best-sellers, and all of the Indie authors cited in this book, many of whose work will be found excerpted throughout, are excellent authors who deserve special recognition for their courage in choosing Indie publication as well as for their mastery of fiction fundamentals and Point of View. All these authors, writing in many different genres, have Urgency in their opening sentences.

  • I have a way of becoming invisible. (Cecily Anne Paterson, Invisible)
  • This is the way the world ends — not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door. (Amanda Hocking, Hollowland, Book 1, The Hollows)
  • His movements were slow, his roots ripping free of the earth and then replanting with every step. (Emma Kathryn, “Tidal,” Puppets & Dolls)
  • From the first moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I was going to murder him. (Peter Dawes, Rebirth of the Seer, Book 1, The Vampire Flynn)
  • The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker was finding one to pick up. (Blake Crouch & Jack Kilborn [J. A. Konrath], Serial)
  • Sarah Sawacki checked her watch against the clock on the dash and returned to her vigil. (John Potter, Chasing Innocence)
  • Killing someone is a lot harder than you’d imagine. (L. T. Vargus, Casting Shadows Everywhere)
  • The planet recedes rapidly in the viewport as I gaze upon it. (Drew Wagar, “Metal,” Fusion)
  • It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. (Seumas Gallacher, Vengeance Wears Black)
  • Boone Sumner sat in his pickup truck, gnawing the same thumbnail that he always gnawed when his nerves went a-jitter. (Aaron Saylor, Sewerville)
  • Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening. (John Dolan, Everyone Burns, Book 1, Time, Blood, and Karma)
  • The ship hung above the earth that had created it like a giant, old style compass needle, pointing towards the stars and potential salvation. (John Hoggard, “Baby Babble,” Fusion)

Don’t take any chances on not grabbing your reader’s attention from the very moment they pick up your book or look at a sample of your work. Put Urgency in your first sentence.

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Urgency must be maintained throughout the piece of fiction to be effective. Chapter 2 of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, for example, begins with this line: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” That’s fantastic Urgency and it’s in Unlimited Point of View.

Though it may seem artificial for you to continually have to be aware of Urgency as you’re writing the novel, it will not be artificial to your audience. On the contrary, even when an experienced writer reads other books with Urgency, the writer is still turning the pages as rapidly as he can to figure out what’s going to happen, just as any other readers would. As you make the Urgency integral to the plot, character development, or Voice, you can write in any Point of View and effectively maintain your readers’ interest.

Successful authors in all genres maintain Urgency. Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Outlander demonstrates consistently maintained Urgency in First Person Point of View: her female protagonist, Claire, while on her second honeymoon in Scotland, is transported from 1945 back to the past in the early 1740s. While there, Claire constantly worries about getting back to her own time, even as she agrees to a marriage of “convenience” with a young Scottish clansman whom she finds physically and sexually attractive. Gabaldon maintains Urgency through plot (conflict) and character development.

In Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, author J. R. R. Tolkien ends virtually every small section within each chapter with Urgency. So each time there is additional white space — when a scene is changing — Tolkien puts in Urgency. He also puts it at the end of each chapter, but, surprisingly, that Urgency is not always as compelling as the Urgency at the end of each section. In any event, he consistently includes it — in plot (conflict), dialogue, character development, or Voice — to keep the story moving steadily forward and to keep his readers engaged.

George R. R. Martin does the same thing in his Song of Ice and Fire [Game of Thrones] series, which is written in Unlimited Point of View. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and the chapter is titled with the name of that character. (Martin calls them “viewpoint” characters, but I’m not sure what that means; what I do know is that while most of the events in each individual chapter are related from said-title-character’s perspective, the entire series is written in Unlimited Point of View.) At the end of each character’s chapter, Martin ends with Urgency, usually in plot (conflict).

Chris Bohjalian, author of several best-selling books, including Midwives and The Law of Similars, is an absolute master of Urgency in plot (conflict), character development, and Voice. Many of his books use First Person Point of View, often presenting different perspectives. No matter the perspective, the Point of View, or the subject matter, Bohjalian consistently maintains Urgency throughout all of his works. As a fellow author, I can see perfectly well when he is putting Urgency in, but that doesn’t stop me from staying awake all night to keep turning the pages and discover what happens to his characters.

Maintaining Urgency, in any form, will keep your readers interested in your work, even if it is a series of books, running into thousands of pages. Without Urgency, readers will quickly lose interest in the fiction, so you need to master it before you attempt to master anything else.

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Since Urgency in achieved through plot, character development, and Voice, it can be maintained in any Point of View. Voice may be easier to develop in First Person Point of View, and so, the more fascinating the Voice of a narrator, the greater the Urgency would be. There are many examples of novels in First Person Point of View that have Urgency in plot and Voice, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there are many other books which develop and maintain Urgency in various Points of View, including Second Person (Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), Unlimited (C. L. Bevill’s Bubba and the Dead Woman), and Outer Limited (Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy).

Urgency takes a little practice at first, but once an author understands the concept of Urgency as “the thing which keeps the reader turning pages” through plot, character development, Voice, or any combination of the three, then Urgency can be present in all Points of View.

Also, this is where your beta-readers (called “family and friends” when I was first publishing) will be most helpful in giving you feedback: to determine if your work has lost Urgency, simply ask your beta-readers, whether they be friends, family members, or paid professionals, to indicate any points in the work where they lost interest, put the work down to do something else that was not an emergency, or wanted to read some other book. If all your readers mark the same places, then you know you need to work on Urgency in those areas of your book.

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1. Go to the bookstore and spend an hour or so reading the opening lines of novels. How many of them impart Urgency? How many of them keep you turning pages, right there in the bookstore? How many of them do you buy so that you can finish reading? If a book can’t pass the Urgency test, it isn’t very likely to have either a large or an enthusiastic audience.

2. Write the first sentence of your novel and make sure it has Urgency, whether in plot, character development, or in Voice. The point of view doesn’t matter, so long as there’s Urgency. Pretend this is the only sentence your audience will read, that they’ll buy the book based on how intriguing or interesting they find this first sentence. Make it the best piece of writing you can. Now, show it to as many other people as you can and ask them the following questions:

  • Would they want to continue reading based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you do have Urgency. If not, you need to work on it.
  • Would they want to buy the book — as an e-book — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have good Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in paperback — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have better Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have excellent Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover or paperback — and every other book you’ve written, based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have fantastic Urgency, and you’ve definitely mastered this concept.

3. Write the first paragraph to the first sentence you wrote for exercise 1. Make sure you periodically include Urgency in the paragraph and that you end with Urgency. Show this paragraph to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “the first paragraph” for “the first sentence.”

4. Write the title for your novel and make sure it has Urgency. Show this title to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “title” for “the first sentence.” (Don’t get too attached to your titles, however, since editors and publishing houses have the contractual right to change the title: a title is for marketing purposes, and there are many stories of famous authors who say they simply never got used to the title of their published book, which was chosen by the editor. However, after my first book, none of my titles have ever been changed, so you can learn to put Urgency in your titles — marketable Urgency — and keep the titles you like: just think of the title as a marketing tool.)

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View


Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
Continue reading

Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
Continue reading
images-4 copy 2

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
Continue reading
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
Continue reading

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader ...
Continue reading

Writing Effective Dialogue

Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The ...
Continue reading

from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.


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Filed under Authors, Books, Creative Writing, Editors, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Indie Authors, Point of View, Self-Published Authors, Traditional Publishing, Writing, Writing & Revising, Writing Exercises

Urgency in Fiction, Part One


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If I hadn’t fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but the first sentence of this paragraph is an example of the most important element of fiction today — even more important to master than Point of View, which is writers seem to worry most about. Urgency. Writers need Urgency in their fiction in order to have vibrant, intriguing, publishable fiction that will keep readers buying their books.


Urgency is what keeps the reader reading. It’s that simple. Urgency is whatever elements in the fiction make the reader want to continue turning the pages.

Do All Books Have Urgency?

Sometimes at writing conferences, students or new writers claim that many published or classic authors do not have Urgency in their works. To prove their point, they cite authors — some of them classics, some of them bestsellers — who do not have Urgency in their writing. Thus, their argument goes, they themselves should not be required to have Urgency.

It’s true that many writers do not have Urgency. But many of the classic writers they mention — Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare — do, indeed, have Urgency in their literary works. As for any authors from previous centuries who do not have the kind of Urgency that fiction has now, those authors would have an extremely difficult, if not impossible, time getting published now.

Many of the contemporary, well-established authors cited in this argument about authors who do not have Urgency are relying on their already established audiences and bestseller status to get them published. Apparently, as long as they continue to make money for their publishers, these authors no longer have to worry about Urgency.

(At a conference, a famous author once told the audience that when he was a beginning writer, he had to have Urgency — he called it “Intrigue” — from the very first sentence and had to write much shorter books; after several of his books became bestsellers in Europe, however, he said he could “dispense” with Urgency in the first sentence — he neglected to tell us when he did put Urgency into his work — and write books as long as he wanted them to be: many of his later books were 1,500+ pages long and were very slow reads.)

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How the Change in the Publishing Industry
Made Urgency More Important

Very few authors are lucky enough to have readers waiting in line for their next book to be published, and those authors are usually already bestsellers. Writing and publishing is an extremely competitive business. Writers are competing for readers. Writers compete with television, videos, movies, as well as with countless other authors for their audience, as well as with readers’ families, jobs, and other outside obligations for valuable reading time.

In the traditional publishing model, writers send their work to agents, who attempt to determine whether they can sell those manuscripts to editors. At the publishing houses, which have become huge conglomerates, editors look at the manuscripts and try to determine if there is a reading market for those books which will make a profit for the publishing house. Thus, there is a system in place in traditional publishing for attempting to determine which books might sell. Traditional publishing does not exist to validate a book’s merit or literary quality. Neither of the latter things are concerns of traditional publishing.

Marketing potential and profit drive the business of traditional publishing. Agents want to sell writers’ manuscripts to editors, who want to convince their editorial board at the publishing house that the book will sell on the open market. These are the things that determine whether books are accepted by agents and, in turn, by traditional publishing houses. Even if the manuscripts are accepted, if the published books do not earn an adequate amount of money for the House in a requisite time (all of which is variable and arbitrary), the book will be taken out-of-print (OP).

Now, with Print-on-Demand (POD) paper books — where books are only printed as they are ordered rather than in predetermined print-runs and warehoused until ordered by bookstores — the ubiquity of e-books, and relatively inexpensive and accessible e-readers, formerly traditionally published authors can put their OP books back out on the market themselves, without having to get an agent or another publisher. More critical in this business environment is the fact that writers who have never been through the traditional publishing system can now self-publish relatively cheaply, and they no longer have to invest huge amounts of money to print books (then store them somewhere) or persuade local bookstores to stock their titles.

Unfortunately, this equal opportunity POD and e-book publishing world now forces individual readers to wade through a great deal of bad writing in order to find the good writing. While it is true that many poorly written books are published by traditional Houses, and some of them become bestsellers, it is also true that the traditional publishing establishment does nothing to advertise any of its books. Most books rely on reviews or, more frequently, on “word of mouth” for their sales. Even before brick-and-mortar bookstores were slowly replaced by e-book and online books sales, traditional bookstores had very limited shelf-space so there was no way that any individual bookstore could even have one copy of every published book available in its store.

Given all these marketing considerations and restrictions, as well as the absolute deluge of self-published writers who do not know how to write well or to tell good stories yet are still able to put their books on the market, contemporary writers have a more challenging task than any of their predecessors ever did. Writers must master Urgency in order to tell a good story and to have a competitive chance at reaching their reading audience.images-10 copy

Urgency Must be Integral

Urgency should not be “pasted on” or simply attached to the piece of writing. It must be an integral part of it, inseparable from the plot’s conflict, character development, or Voice (characters’ or author’s). This Urgency will keep the readers clamoring for more, so it must be honest Urgency, that is, it must naturally evolve from the characters, the plot, the conflict, and the circumstances of the fiction you are writing, no matter its genre.

Urgency Is Not a New Concept

Though various authors have different names for it — suspense, mystery, or intrigue — Urgency is present is most of the enduring literary works, no matter how long ago they were written. Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with the guards discussing a ghost who looks like Hamlet’s dead father and who appears even as the guards are talking about him, while Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with witches chanting spells concerning the titular protagonist. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins with a mother desperately trying to arrange marriages for her five daughters, preferably with wealthy men. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground opens with the First Person narrator relating, “I am sick.” Urgency has always been present in the best literature, no matter its Point of View or genre. Though some bestselling, traditionally published authors may “relax” once they have established audiences and no longer include Urgency as often, most writers cannot afford to do so, no matter their work’s Point of View or genre. In any event, the best writers always consistently include Urgency in order not to lose the audience they already have acquired.

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There are three basic areas you can include Urgency in your fiction:

  • Plot, which must include conflict
  • Character Development
  • Voice

While it is possible to concentrate on Urgency in only one of these areas, you should develop Urgency in as many of these areas as possible to write a well-rounded piece of fiction that will have your readers discussing your work and its characters long after they have finished reading to see what happens.

shutterstock_243015139Urgency in Plot

Most readers initially read a book for its plot, that is, they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. The readers stay awake all night to find out how the woman handcuffed to the bed in a cabin in the wilderness will escape after her husband drops dead of a heart attack during a “sex game” (Gerald’s Game, Stephen King), or to see how the wife and her son will escape from the isolated, snow-bound hotel after her husband-caretaker has gone mad and attempted to murder them (The Shining, Stephen King). In fact, there are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers do this with Urgency in plot, and they have mastered Urgency in this area.

Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience may see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.

The earliest example we have of Urgency in storytelling in the English language is actually an epic poem in Old English written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author. Beowulf recounts the tale of the brave hero of the same name who comes to the aid of the king and his people in a neighboring kingdom who are under attack by the monster Grendel. Despite all the failures of the king and his best warriors to dispatch Grendel, no one but Beowulf succeeds.

Because we are not given any reasons for Beowulf’s success in destroying the monster Grendel, and, afterward, Grendel’s Mother, who comes seeking revenge, the character of Beowulf is not developed. Fifty years later, as a King himself in his own land, he fights and defeats a Dragon; in this fight, Beowulf is mortally wounded. Afterward, he is given a hero’s burial. Beowulf is presented as a successful hero from the beginning of the story, who comes to the aid of another kingdom in dire need, returns to his own land, where he becomes a king himself, and successfully defeats another monster, though he is mortally wounded in the process. A hero he begins, and a hero he remains.

It is the conflict in the plot that gives the story of Beowulf its Urgency, not its character development or Voice. Though Beowulf is considered a combination of historical characters and fictional heroic deeds, it is the plot Urgency which has kept the story interesting to subsequent generations, not its historical elements or character development.



It would seem, then, that Urgency in plot is essential to a writer’s success, and plot must have conflict. The traditional divisions of conflict have typically been divided into these categories:

  • man v man
  • man v himself
  • man v nature
  • man v supernatural

Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts at the same time. Moby-Dick, for example, not only pits Captain Ahab and his crew against the whale as well as the dangers of the sea itself (man v nature), but against each other, as when First Mate Starbuck argues that their “job” is to fill the hull with sperm whale oil, not seek the Captain’s vengeance (man v man); the novel also shows several instances of characters having doubts about their own behavior: Ahab, Starbuck, and the narrator Ishmael among them (man v himself).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has the young Prince Hamlet confronting the ghost of his father (man v supernatural) who claims he was murdered by his own brother, who married his widow — Hamlet’s mother — and became the king; he asks Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius (man v man); but Hamlet, though not doubting the existence of the ghost itself, wonders whether it has been sent to him from heaven or hell, and whether Hamlet himself will be damned for committing a murder — if the ghost is a demonic spirit — or be justified in seeking revenge for his father’s murder — if the ghost is, indeed, the spirit of his father. This last conflict, man v himself, is one of the strongest in the work since it constantly causes Hamlet to doubt himself and to doubt the “evidence” that points to his uncle’s guilt.

Some critics insist that the final division above — man v supernatural — is really just man v himself since supernatural beings do not exist. They claim that even if God is an actual character in the work of fiction, it is really about the character’s belief in God, so it is man v himself conflict. Some insist that man v supernatural is nothing more than a sub-division of man v nature, but others argue that including vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, or any other objects that do not actually exist in nature prevent its being a sub-division of man v nature. Further, some readers do believe in the existence of aliens, ghosts, and angels, while others do not. Where are these beings to be put in the traditional grouping of conflicts: in man v supernatural or in a sub-division of man v nature? I’ve chosen to include man v supernatural as a fourth category to include all possible conflict types. After all, it doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.

Plot Urgency is relatively similar no matter what Point of View you choose to write in: First Person, Inner Limited, Second Person, Unlimited — all Points of View easily encompass plot Urgency and conflict. To master Urgency in plot, you simply have to tell a good story, one whose conflicts will keep your readers’ attention. It is important to note, however, that if your readers are able to correctly guess how your story will turn out, then it loses Urgency. The story’s end must logically follow its action, of course, but readers should not be able to correctly determine the end early in the book.

No matter which Point of View you choose, you should increase the conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to create Urgency in Plot and to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc.” When I was studying literature — so many lifetimes ago — plot was visually represented something like a hook, or an upside-down checkmark.

The long left part of the hook was called the “rising action,” which simply meant that it was a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until the you arrived at the peak, which was called the “climax,” meaning it was the “ultimate conflict” of the work. The climax was supposed to be the conflict that all the previous conflicts had been leading up to. It was also supposed to be the final conflict in the book or story. No new conflicts were supposed to appear after that culminating conflict. Literally.

The short downward line was called the “falling action” or “the dénouement” — translation, “untying or unraveling the knot” — when all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.

Much of contemporary literature, especially in books written in series, no longer include a dénouement. For one thing, authors who write book-series typically end each book on Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.

Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to add a flat line before the long left hook of the “rising action,” calling the flat line the “back story.” Visually, the flat line of the back story was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The back story was the history of the characters before any conflict began. As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “back story” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of “back story” and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.

Final Words of Urgency in Plot

Plot and conflict can create Urgency in any Point of View, but Urgency in plot is absolutely essential in Outer Limited Point of View because the only thing the readers can know about the characters is their observable behavior and dialogue. Therefore, it is imperative that your characters do or say things to show the conflicts as well as the Urgency in plot that will keep the readers turning the pages. Since you, as the author, are limited to presenting only the external behaviors of your characters, you can master this Point of View more effectively with plot Urgency and conflict because you will have to create concrete actions, behaviors, and dialogue to present to your readers.

Note that the only conflict you cannot easily present in Outer Limited Point of View is man v himself, unless, of course, you present the character’s internal conflict in external ways. You cannot show a character arguing with himself, for example, unless he does it aloud. You cannot show any characters’ inner emotional or psychological life in Outer Limited Point of View, so you will have to work harder to show the inner conflict in an external manner. Read Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy for excellent examples of presenting plot urgency in Outer Limited Point of View.

If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts and the series itself has to have separate increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Make sure, also, that no plot holes remain in the series.rds092086

Urgency in Character Development

Urgency in character development can be integrally related to Point of View. Character development Urgency is most challenging in Unlimited Point of View since the author can provide the readers with any and all interpretations of the characters and their actions, thus leaving nothing for the readers to explore. Still, as I explained earlier, there is a difference between an author’s knowing everything and revealing everything about his characters in Unlimited Point of View. That means you can put sufficient character development Urgency in Unlimited Point of View by not revealing everything about the characters to the readers from the very beginning.

In First Person and Inner Limited Points of View, the readers are restricted to viewing the world from one character’s perspective. Since only this character’s emotions, thoughts, and motivations will be revealed to the readers, these Points of View automatically can set up Urgency in character development, both for the characters through whose perspective we view the action and for the other characters in the novel, all of whom are presented externally. Whatever the protagonist does not know about other characters in the novel in these Points of View, for instance, the readers cannot know. That creates character development Urgency.

Outer Limited Point of View creates the greatest opportunity for character development Urgency since the author is not revealing any interior or hidden motives. Because only the external life of all the characters is presented, readers are greatly involved in figuring out the causes for the characters’ behavior. Unless you present the character’s secret desires and ulterior motives in a spoken monologue, as is done in theater, for example, the readers will not know why the character is behaving in a certain way. That creates character development Urgency because the readers will want to continue reading the novel to understand the character.

Unfortunately, Outer Limited Point of View also has the greatest chance of alienating some readers for the very reason it can be most interesting to the author. Since readers must figure out everything about the characters’ inner lives for themselves, based on the author’s depiction of the characters’ external behavior, the readers may get frustrated or may misinterpret the characters’ behavior. Outer Limited Point of View is always extremely challenging to an author, but revealing character development Urgency in this Point of View is very demanding.

Final Words of Urgency in Character Development

All Points of View lend themselves to character development, of course, so the trick to learning Urgency in character development is to let your characters deal with the conflicts which confront them in the fiction in the way that the characters would do so, rather than the way you yourself might personally deal with such conflicts (or with how you think you would deal with them). This will help you not only develop your characters and increase Urgency, but will prevent you from writing the same story over and over.

If you are writing literary fiction or another type of book that stands alone, then all the character development Urgency must appear in that single work. If you are writing a series, then the character development can take place over several books in the series. To maintain Urgency, however, you should be careful to spread the character development out relatively evenly over the books: don’t save it all for the final book in the series or your readers will never make it there.

Be sure that you answer any questions about character relationships and development over the course of the series: sometimes authors set up fantastic Urgency in character development in the first book of a series, then seem to forget about it completely. This leaves “holes” in the relationships that can detract from Urgency since the readers will wonder about the characters and their development. Most specifically, readers will wonder why you didn’t tell them everything about the characters’ natures, relationships, histories, conflicts, etc. You need to be highly aware of those things when writing series so that the Urgency in character development is maintained over the entire group of books.


Urgency in Voice

A distinctive or unusual Voice, whether a narrator’s, protagonist’s, or an author’s, usually doesn’t appear until the author has mastered Point of View. However, you can understand the concept without being proficient at creating it. When the Voice in a piece of literature has Urgency, it is the Voice itself that makes the audience want to continue reading. Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is an example of wonderful Urgency in Voice, as is the opening of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Melville’s Moby Dick. The first two examples cited are in First Person Point of View; Moby-Dick is in multiple Points of View.

Urgency in Voice is directly related to Point of View, and many writers find it easier to have Urgency in voice when writing in First Person Point of View. This ease may be due to the intimate bond created when readers hear the narrator’s words. However, it is also possible to have voice Urgency in other Points of View, as Hemingway’s novels demonstrate and as the excerpts cited above demonstrate. In Unlimited Point of View, it is the protagonist’s or the author’s distinctive Voice that creates the Urgency rather than a narrator’s.

Urgency in Plot, Character Development, and Voice

Ideally, a great piece of fiction would manage to maintain Urgency in all three areas, keeping the reader turning pages not only because of the fast-moving plot with its increasing conflicts, as well as the interesting characters, but because of an intriguing Voice. Most works do maintain Urgency in plot and in character development. Because Voice is the most difficult to attain, in any Point of View, it is also the most challenging in which to maintain Urgency in a work of fiction.

Final Words of Urgency in Voice

While Urgency in Voice may be the most difficult to attain, no matter which Point of View you choose to write in, it can also be the most artistically rewarding, both for the authors and the readers. I encourage you to read works that have strong Voice, whether a narrator’s, a protagonist’s, or an author’s; to listen to different dialects, slang, and idiolects; and to learn how to reproduce different Voices in writing in various Points of View to master Voice. Remember, too, that Urgency in Voice does not have to be separate from Urgency in plot or character development. In fact, ideally, all three would be combined.

If you are writing a literary book, of course you do not have to repeat the same Voice in subsequent books. If you do, it will ultimately be considered as the author’s Voice rather than as a narrator’s or protagonist’s Voice if you use the same one in every book you write. If you are writing a series, however, then you should retain the same Voice throughout all the books in the series, as C. L. Bevill does in the Bubba Series. The Voice, in that instance, is one of the things that ties the books together.shutterstock_169955744


The most important thing to remember in creating urgency, no matter what Point of View you’re writing your novel in, is that any place you might lose the reader’s attention is a place you need to have urgency. Here are my suggestions for Urgency placement:

  • the first sentence
  • the last sentence of the first paragraph
  • at the beginning and end of each chapter
  • at the beginning and end of each section, if your novel is divided into sections
  • any time you change narrators or Points of View (these could be considered informal section divisions, so you should have urgency at the beginning and end of each, even if the section division is not formal)
  • periodically throughout the novel
  • the end of a novel if it is in a series, or if you want the ending to be ambiguous or open to various interpretations

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1. Imagine that you’re at a party and by chance you meet an agent or an editor. You’ve just finished your novel, and you’re dying to get an agent or editor to look at your work. Now, you don’t want to be too obnoxious, so you don’t hit the agent/editor with the fact that you’re an aspiring fiction writer right away. After all, it’s a party. But eventually the topic comes up, and since the agent/editor is so impressed that you didn’t try to shove your novel down his throat, he actually asks you want your novel is about. You have only one sentence with which to capture the agent’s/editor’s attention and make him beg you to send the novel. This is called The Pitch. Write the one sentence that gets him interested in your novel. Make sure it has Urgency. Show it to your readers. Ask them if they’d want to see the whole book based on that one sentence. If so, congratulations: you have Urgency. (You can also use this sentence after your novel gets published. Since it’s usually about a year to eighteen months from the time a book gets sold to the time it’s available at bookstores, you’ll have plenty of time to “sell” your novel by using this sentence.) If this Pitch works, memorize it and be able to give it quickly and smoothly whenever anyone asks you what your book is about.

2. Pretend you work for TV Guide, DirecTV, or Dish TV, where employees — many of whom are aspiring writers — have to watch movies and television episodes, then write a one-sentence Pitch that gets the viewer interested in watching it. I’m sure you’ve seen the ones where the writers thought the movies were stupid: they sound stupid in the description. Often, the endings are given away, as in “A small group of humans in an isolated Alaskan town fight a losing battle against marauding Zombies.” Since you know the humans lose, there’s no point in watching it. Pick any famous or well-known movie or television show and write the one-sentence description or Pitch for it, containing Urgency, which will make the viewers want to watch it, without giving away the ending.

3. Pick any fairy tale, folk tale, or otherwise well known story and write the one-sentence description-Pitch for it, making its potential audience want to read it; be sure to include Urgency without giving away the ending.

4. Pick any of the following opening sentences and write the first paragraph that follows. Be sure to maintain Urgency throughout the paragraph as well as in the final sentence. After you have completed it, show it to your readers for their suggestions and feedback.

  • The woman held the framed picture in her hand without looking at it.
  • The man with the shovel stood in the rain.
  • “You were there from the beginning,” s/he said, “so you can tell everyone the truth.”
  • “I wasn’t the one who started it.”
  • The man was in the alley, urinating against the wall. (Feel free to change the diction to fit your paragraph better)
  • The story starts with a man in an alley, urinating against the wall. (Feel free to change the diction to fit your paragraph better)
  • He was exactly as she thought he’d be. (Feel free to reverse genders.)
  • She had no choice but to do what her parents expected.

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View


Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
Continue reading

Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
Continue reading
images-4 copy 2

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
Continue reading
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
Continue reading

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader ...
Continue reading

Writing Effective Dialogue

Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The ...
Continue reading

from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Authors, Books, Creative Writing, Editors, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Indie Authors, Point of View, Self-Published Authors, Traditional Publishing, Writing, Writing & Revising, Writing Exercises

How to Write a Bestselling Romance


No matter your gender as a writer,  you probably want to hit the bestseller list, and to do that, you might like to try your hand at a good old-fashioned romance. I don’t mean old-fashioned in a negative way, but in the way that most women who read such books like them. A traditional romance. Here’s the basic formula, made simpler so you can be successful faster.

The Protagonists

The main characters in at least 90% of the bestselling romances are one woman and one man. They’re both protagonists, though they might act like protagonist & antagonist during most of the novel.

They are heterosexual (much smaller audience if they’re LBG or T — if you don’t even know what that means, you’re well on your way to writing a traditional romance) and the protagonists are extremely attracted to each other, though neither admits this at first, not even to themselves, or for a very long time in the book.

It’s very important that the woman and man keep their lips locked and the key thrown away on this very important sexual attraction fact till much later in the book. Otherwise, there won’t be any sexual tension conflict (sometimes termed emotional conflict).

Of course, the only way they can be instantly and totally sexually aroused by and attracted to each other requires more than just pheromones: it is necessary that each of them be unbelievably beyond-Hollywood/model standards beautiful. Be sure you describe the most attractive parts of their bodies in detail. No need to be offensively graphic. Make is sensual.

And don’t forget they each must have super nice hair. For running fingers through — later in the book.

In short, they should look something like this:

Notice gorgeous bodies in not too revealing clothes, and long lovely hair on both. Same jawline, too.

Notice gorgeous bodies in not too revealing clothes, and long lovely hair on both. Same jawline, too.

The Conflict

On the surface, beyond that ultimately irresistible unspoken sexual attraction, the woman and man do not get along, and this forms the plot conflict in any traditional romance novel.

There could be a lot of reasons for their not getting along despite the fact that they are physically drawn to each other. He might be a Highland Chief and she could be the kinswoman of his warring enemy-clan. She could be a Defense Attorney with an innocent client and he could be the District Attorney. He might be a member of the aristocracy while she is of humble but respectable birth, as well as quick-witted and intelligent, which he is not used to in a female’s personality. He might be a famous sushi chef, and she might be the head of the local PETA or Greenpeace chapter. The possibilities are endless.

Another highly popular trope in historical or period romances is the arranged marriage: the hero is usually the one who needs the money, and the heroine needs the protection that marriage to the hero can afford her. Or maybe their families arrange the marriage to end some long-standing feud, but the man and woman still don’t like each other. Conflict-despite-physical-attraction still trumps even if the marriage appears early in the book because it’s an arranged marriage and they don’t even share a bedroom.

Alternatively, she could be human and he could be a Vampire, Werewolf, Angel, or Shape-Shifter, but since most women don’t imagine themselves in love with or physically attracted to things that might hurt or kill them, or to things that they don’t even believe exist — at least not in the traditional romances they read — you’ll have a smaller audience if this is your conflict. (Unless the Paranormal and Human protagonists never do have any form of sexual contact and it’s a YA novel like Twilight, where her blood smells really good and he sparkles in the sunlight. Which has already been done.)

Now, you get the idea: Initially and throughout 95% of the novel, they are in conflict with each other, over something that neither can (or is willing to) change.

The Setting

While lots of romances have contemporary settings where the protagonists meet at work — hospital, courthouse, local diner or restaurant, whatever — the more popular and better-selling stories place them in some exotic locale, like Paris, the Scottish Highlands, a remote village in Ireland, the Outback in Australia, on safari in Africa. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance set in Podunk (last population count: 100) or in Springfield (insert State Name), for example.

In fact, Harlequin has very detailed and specific requirements if you try to use any US settings for its romances — like the American West where he’s a Cowboy with (initially unbeknownst to the heroine) an extensive, financially successful ranching operation, and she’s a city-girl executive type donning business suits with skirts and heels who thinks he’s a rube while she’s a total sophisticate — and those settings are permissible only in Harlequin’s smaller imprints.

Apparently Avon-imprint allows romances set in the American historical West, as long as the hero is a Native American body-builder.

Apparently Avon-imprint allows romances set in the American historical West, as long as the hero is a Native American body-builder.

So think of your readers: these women don’t want any of the men whom they see every day in their own lives. They want exciting, gorgeous, foreign men. Give them what they want, even if you have to make the heroine have a car accident or a fit or something and have her time-travel back to some more exciting time and place in the past.

This time-travel romance has the Viking from the past suddenly appearing in the contemporary female Professor's living room. Nice twist. Also, note appropriate bodies & long hair on protagonists, please.

This time-travel romance has the Viking from the past suddenly appearing in the contemporary female Professor’s living room. Nice twist. Also, note appropriate bodies & long hair on protagonists, please.

Basically, the setting of a good traditional romance is anywhere way more exciting than where your predominantly female readers currently find themselves (US & Canada excluded of course, unless the man is a real cowboy and the woman is a city-girl-executive — and Harlequin has guidelines for those).

The Dialogue

Lots of arguing, misunderstandings, etc through most of the novel because the protagonists are basically in conflict every time they are around each other. If they think nice thoughts about each other, they (1) never reveal it to the other person, (2) deny it to any other character who accuses them of being secretly attracted to the other person, (3) get upset with themselves for even thinking of the other one — due to the underlying conflict — in any way that is pleasant.

Toward the end, of course, the dialogue will change, but the book and the conflict will be almost over then. They can play well together when the novel’s almost over. Like, last chapter.

Erotic Scenes

In the past, there was no sexual activity in romances because that only happened after the couple was married and even that didn’t usually happen in the book, although marriage had to be imminent or agreed upon by the end of the book. In the arranged marriage scenarios, they’re about to exchange those separate bedrooms for a shared one at the conclusion.

Books that had straight out sex were pornography, and books with erotic scenes were lit-tra-chure.

That’s not what you’re writing: you’re writing a potentially bestselling traditional romance. Traditional romances eventually have some kissing and touching, like of the hair or exposed collarbones or well-toned arms, but no sex or erotica.

The bestselling status of the BDSM series 50 Shades of Gray is an anomaly that probably won’t happen again in our lifetime (and it’s not considered a romance: it’s categorized as erotica). Better to follow traditional romance guidelines for no explicit sexual encounters (and definitely no violent ones, like rape) if you want to be a bestseller now.

Romance? Erotica? BDSM? How to Dress for Success at a Fortune 500 Company? You decide based only on the cover.

Romance? Erotica? BDSM? How to Dress for Success at a Fortune 500 Company? You decide based only on the cover.


You’re not writing romantic comedies or chick-lit here, so ditch the humor. Unless it’s sarcasm in the dialogue and adds to the conflict. But one of the protagonists has to think that the other’s sarcasm is not funny in the least. And the reader can’t laugh aloud. That’s not traditional romance.

Point of View

Usually Unlimited is the Point of View of choice among traditional romance writers, though most of the focus is on the woman and her thoughts (women readers, remember). Unlimited allows you to occasionally dip into the man’s head and hear his thoughts about this irritating but ultimately irresistibly charming and beautiful woman to whom he is undeniably but unexpectedly attracted.

If you do choose to use First Person Point of View, the woman is the narrator. And you’re going to have a hard time showing the man’s interest in and attraction to her if you’re only in her head.

Of course, one first-time author, in an interview on Writers in the Storm, claimed that “everyone breaks the rules.”

Everyone breaks the rules.
Nora Roberts head-hops! Jennifer Crusie rewrites the same scene from two different points of view! Susan Elizabeth Phillips sits her heroine down on the roof of a car and has her Think About the Past for a surprisingly long period of time! But these women write damn fine books, and they earn well-deserved plaudits for them. There are no rules. There are only stories, told better and worse. Tell yours the way you need to, even if that requires some rule-breakage. (But always be prepared to revise.)

Notice she says “Everyone” but only gives us 3 examples. Then she says “There are no rules,” which, of course, contradicts her statement that “Everyone breaks the rules.” There either are no rules, or there are rules that you can break: it can’t be both ways since they are mutually exclusive. This debut author also cautions that you “always be prepared to revise,” which means, completely rewrite your book along traditional expectations and guidelines after the one you originally wrote gets rejected by the publishers, can’t obtain agent representation, or, after it’s self-published, you get bad reviews and few sales.

Why make it harder than you have to, or risk alienating your female readers: go with Unlimited POV and stick mostly to the woman’s perspective of events and other characters.


Women read these novels for the Happily-Ever-After ending so no matter the seemingly insurmountable conflict between your protagonists, eventually, all will be resolved so that the couple is together for the rest of their lives in total contentment, mutual respect, and simpatico-ness (which means they totally understand each other.) This is what Happily Ever After means, and don’t you forget it if you want to hit that bestseller list.

In fact, How to Write a Romance for Dummies lists the Cheat Sheet of expectations for a romance novel.

Reader Expectations for a Romance Novel
Writing a romance novel is a creative process and far from formulaic. But romance readers pick up each and every novel with certain expectations firmly in place. To write a winning romance, you have to meet these expectations each and every time:

  • A sympathetic heroine
  • A strong, irresistible hero
  • Emotional tension
  • An interesting, believable plot
  • A happy ending

Everywhere you look, advice on writing romance novels insists that the HEA is de rigeur. So the heroine and her hero must end up happily together. No adultery, no committing suicide — not by throwing oneself in front of a moving train or by swallowing arsenic — and  no committing murder. We’ll leave that to Anna, Emma, and Tess.

Finally, If You Self-Publish

If you decide to be totally independent and publish your fine romance novel yourself, and you can’t afford famous models like Fabio, you can put yourself on the cover of your own romance novel with a Romance Novel Cover Generator.

Like these folks did.


A self-generated romance novel cover, with author's photo as heroine. That's probably her boyfriend as the hero. Don't you just want to jump into your car and speed to the nearest bookstore or power up your e-reader and BUY THIS ROMANCE RIGHT NOW?

A self-generated romance novel cover, with author’s photo as heroine. That’s probably her boyfriend as the hero. Don’t you just want to jump into your car and speed to the nearest bookstore or power up your e-reader and BUY THIS ROMANCE RIGHT NOW?



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Traditional Publishing, Cry Me a River


I wanted to be a writer and a published author since I was 6 years old. For the better part of my life, the only way to be a respected writer was to get a New York agent, who would adore your work and want to represent you for the rest of your life, then sell it to a reputable New York publishing House, where the editor, too, would love you and your work, and promise to publish everything you ever wrote. You were my sun, you were my earth…

Oh, you had to pay your dues first: there was never any question about that. And pay, I did. Spending 12 grueling years full-time in college while working several jobs to support myself and pay for the outrageous tuition so I could earn a Ph.D. and teach university in order to have the summers off to write full-time. Getting all the poems in my dissertation published or accepted for publication in “recognizably acceptable and prestigious literary journals” before defending my dissertation. Doing all the classwork and 7 hours of oral comprehensive exams for “a real (read: traditional) Ph.D.” in World Literature since a “Creative Writing Ph.D. isn’t scholarly” (which is how I unintentionally, on the school’s part and mine, ended up with two Ph.D.’s — one in Creative Writing & one in English and Comparative Literatures). Spending hours whenever I wasn’t teaching and countless sums of money I needed to pay bills on agent queries instead (no email queries in those days) and on mailing manuscripts, hoping for that one agent who would love me and my work, and make a commitment to me. Writing, writing, revising, writing some more. You didn’t know all the ways I loved you, no…

Finally, at the age of 36, I found my first agent, from a well-established & reputable agency, with many years of experience. She promised to love me forever and represent my work for my entire career. She sold the novel to HarperCollins — a dream come true, to have your first novel sold to THE HarperCollins. That editor swore she was with me for the rest of my writing life as she slipped the ring on my finger. You told me you loved me…

Then came the “divorce.” My agent, who at 50 was having her first baby, was “releasing all her literary fiction clients forever” (that meant me) and would only take non-fiction clients after her child began pre-school or kindergarten. At least she told me over the phone while I sobbed, heartbroken. You told me you loved me; why did you leave me all alone?

My HarperCollins editor “just didn’t feel” my second novel, even after two rounds of her suggested revisions. She suggested I return to the first version, from three years earlier, and let her see that again. Unfortunately, she still “didn’t feel it” and wrote it in a letter instead of calling me and telling me in person (well, over the phone) as she’d promised. After 5 years of writing and substantive revisions, she still just “didn’t feel” the book. All of these things people told me keep messing with my head…

My next agent loved the book, promising that she never wanted children and so wouldn’t be “retiring” to have one, so planned to love and be committed to me forever. Then her mother died, leaving her enough money to travel the world, while the president of her agency kept insisting that she represent more commercial (genre) fiction and non-fiction, which brings in more money faster, than literary fiction. After he’d been harassing her for a year after her mother died, she decided to take her inheritance and travel Europe, perhaps never coming back. She’d always love me, she said, and the agency would always get the percentage of the two books she’d sold to two different NY publishers (neither of which was HarperCollins). “I’ll always be fond of you,” she told me, as I wept, “and I’ll always be in touch with you.” I never heard from her again. You don’t have to say what you did: I already know it…

How many times do you want to hear the same story? Because they’re all the same. I love your work and am committed to you and your professional career as an author for the rest of your life. From New York agents, from editors at the Big-5 publishers in NY, from editors at prestigious literary houses who claimed “the Big Houses only care about money: they don’t love you like we do.” You told me you loved me; why did you leave me?

From Hollywood agents who option your work to celebrity movie stars then forget your name after the option expires. From Hollywood celebs who trust and love you enough to give you their home & cell phone numbers and say, “Call me any time, Honey. We’re connected forever,” then tell their agent to ask your agent if you could please not call up “just to see how they’re doing or what projects they’re working on” since, after all, everything between you is over. Don’t it make you sad about it?

Now traditional publishing has become even more difficult to enter as traditional Houses chase the next, ever unpredictable trend in their quest for more money — please don’t ever mistake that anyone in NY cares about the quality of the writing or even the story, unless it makes tons of money. And don’t try re-inventing the vampire genre: haven’t you heard? It’s out. Now angels or sparkly werewolves or kids who can see demons and fight them with Ninja-deadliness or members of the inanely scripted Duck Dynasty fill the shelves of Wal-Marts and K-Marts with their books, T-shirts, and camo-backpacks. Now you tell me you need me when you call me on the phone…

Agents are becoming more obsolete because traditionally published authors — who’ve had their wonderfully written books with great stories and characters taken out-of-print (OP) for no discernible reason, and can’t get another agent to sell the OP titles again to another NY publisher because to NY, an OP title “lost money” whether or not it really did — are turning to e-books and POD to get their titles back out to their public. So what if they have to do the design work for the interior and cover themselves (or pay someone else to do it)? At least their books will be available for their public again. And, what’s this, the author will also be making money? Your bridges are burned, now it’s your turn to cry…

Now, New York agents, editors, publishing houses, and publicists alike are crying “foul” as they wring their handkerchiefs. They’re begging for another chance — giving Amanda Hocking a $5 million Advance on her next unwritten trilogy to prove they’re receptive to “new talent.” But Hocking only got that NY agent, Advance, and publishing contract because she already made $2 million with her previous series, published herself, without any help from NY, thank you very much. Cry me a river…

In case you didn’t know it, New York agents, editors, and publishers have always gone after self-published authors who did well financially. Not those who did well critically. Financially. Just ask the authors of the successful Self-Publishing Manual who got a contract with HarperCollins, then sued the company for “keeping a substantial amount of their royalties.” Which means, in short, that the authors made more money as self-published authors of a How to Get Happily Self-Published Manual than they made after a traditional NY publisher put it out. No chance for you and me… Don’t it make you sad about it?

Newspapers, blogs, magazines, even the traditional NY publishing Houses themselves love to advertise just how much money they’ve given to self-published authors who “took the risk” and successfully put their work out on their own. The authors themselves gush about their new publishers. You know that they say some things are better left unsaid…

Until the authors don’t get the money from or see the sales with the traditional publishers that they saw when they did everything on their own. The damage is done, so I guess I’ll be leavin’…

Cry me a River, Traditional NY Publishing…


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