In addition to any specific requests for feedback, I consider the following inspection points. All of this helps me draw your attention to areas where your writing shines and areas that are likely to create friction and frustration for the reader.
Having precise definitions for terms and using a shared language is critical for understanding and maximizing the value of our author-editor relationship. To help you better understand the points below, I've included a glossary of key words and phrases below the inspection points for each category.
arc—the change represented in the book as a reader moves from beginning, middle, to end; how the people involved, including your reader move from one way of thinking, being, and feeling to a new way of thinking, being, and feeling (from old status quo to new status quo)
areas of friction—anything about the writing that unnecessarily slows a reader down, thwarting their effort to move from the reason they picked up your book to the solution they’re seeking
areas of frustration—an element of friction but directly related to anything that causes confusion, e.g., missing details, shifting definitions, using different words as stand-ins for the same definition, etc.
audience (potential)—As opposed to your ideal reader (see definition below), your potential audience represents the full scope of people interested in the topic or type of story you’re writing about. They may happen to be avid readers, but they may also prefer to consume information in other forms—videos, podcasts, live lectures, etc. And they may or may not be actively looking for what you have to offer.
backstory—the life history of a person and how it has impacts their beliefs, values, and preferences (see definitions below) as it relates to the situation they find themselves in as you tell their (or your) story, or as Robert McKee puts it: “Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in [a person or character’s] past that the writer can use to build his story’s progressions.” (McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principals of Screenwriting. p. 183) (see exposition below)
beliefs—Different from preferences and values (see definitions below), a belief is an accepted truth or firm opinion based on a person’s intellectual- and experience-based evaluation of an idea. Beliefs are the foundation of a person’s character (see character below). beliefsàvaluesàpreferences
book proposal—a 30-60 page business plan for standard nonfiction and memoir pitched to literary agents and publishers; a strategically developed document that must demonstrate a market for the author’s idea (a real need of a clearly defined group of readers—see ideal reader below); the author’s authority, unique selling proposition (USP), platform, and commitment to marketing and promotion; the core idea and scope of the book; and the author’s ability to communicate in a clear and compelling way (see query letter below)
character—1. a multi-faceted individual that serves a specific function in a narrative; 2. character as “revealed by the choices an individual makes under pressure: the greater that pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the individual’s essential nature” (McKee, p. 101)
cliché—an unoriginal phrase, theme, characterization, or situation
conflict—not drama but a meaningful problem directly related to the narrative; conflict should be directly related to what’s at stake (see definition below); “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles” (source link)
dialog—verbal action that reveals character and/or moves the story forward; everything else is just talking—boring filler chit chat
diction—choice of words and phrases used when speaking or writing (e.g. you vs. y’all; preoccupied vs. distracted; dim vs. obtuse)
effect—the overall intellectual and emotional result or impact of every choice made during the manuscript/book production process as experienced by the reader
emotional truth—measured by a nonfiction author’s (especially memoirists) willingness to share not only the highest highs but the lowest lows, demonstrating vulnerability and character (see definition above) or demonstrated by a novelist’s ability to plum the depths of and artfully communicate the true nature of a character (particularly their protagonist)
empathy—“1. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also the capacity for this; 2. the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it” (source link)
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates [their] time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give [them] something worthy of [their] gift to you. When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy.” (Pressfield, Steven. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: And Other Tough-Love Truths to Make You a Better Writer. p. 5)
exposition—critical information about time, place, conflict, and relationships that the reader must know to understand the importance of what is happening in any given scene; Exposition should be artfully distributed throughout the narrative arc to avoid “info dumping,” which unnecessarily interfering with the pace of the story and slowing the momentum.
genres—"types of stories, with predetermined characters, themes, worlds, symbols, and plots...Each genre has predetermined plot beats [points/critical scenes] that you must include, or your audience will be disappointed” (Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. pp. 265 & 319)
goal—the personal and professional reasons for writing this book (the ROI you want to see from the time, energy, and money you’re investing in this work)
ideal reader—a specific demographic that needs, wants, and is actively looking for the information or story you have to share and that are book buyers and readers; Remember that a book is a specific type of media that’s consumed in a specific way. Audio books expand the definition of reader but in a still limited way.
memoir—Because memoirs are written in a style much closer to fiction and typically appeal to a specific type of nonfiction reader, I divide the general category of nonfiction into two distinct subcategories with memoir standing apart from what I call “standard nonfiction.”
mission—the value you want this book to provide readers, how you want them to benefit from the time, energy, and money they invest in reading this book
narrative arc—how the structure and intellectual and emotional components of your manuscript create an immersive, high-value experience for your reader
on the page/off the page—“On the page” action means that important plot points (events in a person or character’s life) are written in the form of a scene, characters acting and interacting. “Off the page” action is when an author summarizes for the reader events they do not show. One I often see comes up in memoir, an author writing a scene with two people talking, often them telling their therapist about their experiences and thoughts. Those scenes have their place, but talking about an event isn’t as interesting or impactful as experiencing it or watching it unfold. What’s better, listening to someone talk about their vacation, seeing pictures taken of things they experienced while on vacation, watching video of them doing and seeing things, or going with them on vacation? Readers can’t go with you on these adventures, so give them the next best thing—put the action on the page so they can watch it as it unfolds. Think like a screenwriter, and consider how boring a movie would be if it was just people sitting around talking scene after scene. The only way to make that compelling is with deep internal conflict and exceptionally well crafted dialog. (see show, don’t tell below)
plot—a series of scenes that when well organized constitute the full narrative arc of a story; or per Irwin R. Blacker: “a planned series of interrelated actions that take place because of the interplay of one force upon another through the struggle of the opposing forces to a climax and resolution” (Blacker, The Elements of Screenwriting: The Essential Guide to Creating Successful Film and Television Scripts—From the Initial Idea, Through Plot, Character and Dialogue Development, to the Finished Word. p. 5)
preferences—Different from beliefs and values (see definitions above and below), preferences grow from the soil of knowledge, experience, the scope of one’s physical abilities and disabilities, personality, and other influences. They are the ways of acting and interacting a person chooses when they have full control or can exercise influence or control on others. They are not beliefs or “red line” boundaries or demands; an individual can and will often trade their preferences for an immediate and/or greater reward. beliefsàvaluesàpreferences
premise—"as in assumption: something taken as being true or factual and used as a starting point for a course of action or reasoning” (source link)
protagonist—the main character in a novel or memoir (author/protagonist); the protagonist is an avatar for the reader, the character through which they experience the story; In standard nonfiction, it is still crucial that the author provide the reader with some kind of avatar, typically in the form of story examples. Stories with relatable characters breathe life into informational content and make it more memorable and actionable.
query letter—a one-page pitch document sent to literary agents and publishers used in the attempt to persuade them to request a full book proposal for a standard nonfiction and memoir project or sample pages or a full manuscript of a novel; A query letter is a strategically crafted document that should contain an overview of the book, the author’s platform and reach, a clearly defined ideal reader, and a compelling reason for that agent or publisher to consider investing in the author and book project.
scene—A scene is a unit of story with its own beginning, middle, and end consisting of characters doing and saying things that move the story forward. A scene is not the author telling the reader about something that happened “off the page” (see definition above).
“Each scene should advance the plot. If a scene can be removed without changing those that precede and follow it, something is wrong with the structure of the script [book]. Each scene should carry information about one or more of the characters that the viewer [reader] must be aware of in subsequent scenes … If a scene does not move the narrative forward, does not complicate the conflict by tightening it, or does not begin to resolve the conflict, it should probably be eliminated.” (Blacker, p. 22)
When in doubt, think like a screenwriter. Could actors act out what you’ve written? If the answer is yes, you’ve written a scene or a scene-like episode. (Remember that it only counts as a scene if it moves the story forward. Many events are scene-like but could be removed from the plot without impacting the narrative arc. What counts as a scene in one story/narrative arc is filler content in another.)
show, don’t tell—Telling requires little effort or imagination while showing takes the reader’s experience into consideration. Showing helps create an immersive experience and can often communicate far more in fewer words than telling does. It is an excellent way to feed exposition (see definition above) to readers without them realizing that you’re giving them information they need to know now and for the narrative to unfold in an artful, well-paced way. Consider these two ways of communicating something to a reader (written in third person but from my experience):
When Cristen was young, she loved going to see her maternal grandmother because her grandmother was always excited to see her and was all the things a child could ask for in a grandparent. The contrast between her grandmother and grandfather was stark.
That’s okay, but it’s vague and gives you no clue about their actual interactions or a deeper understanding of the context in which this relationship existed. It might be best to write it out like this partial scene below:
Seven year old Cristen unbuckled her seatbelt as her father pulled the family car up the long driveway and around and under the carport of her maternal grandparent’s house whom she hasn’t seen in two years. The car had barely come to a stop before little Cristen hurled herself out of the vehicle.
The backdoor of the house was only 20 feet away, but before Cristen was even half-way there, it swung open like she knew it would. Her grandmother, “Honey” as her grandchildren called her, stood on the threshold, her left hand on the doorknob and her right hand on the upswing. Like all the Southern grandmothers Cristen had ever seen, Honey had bright white, Marilyn Monroe hair that got washed, dried, curled, teased, and locked with hairspray once a week. Honey’s was fresh. The Tennessee humidity hadn’t had time to force its will. Honey scooped the air as if to pull Cristen and the siblings in her wake into the house and chirped, “Well git yer bones in here!”
Just before the shock of the air conditioning took her breath away, the familiar, warm scent of Chanel No. 5 filled her nostrils and tingled its way all the way to the top of her head and the tips of her toes.
Her grandfather is nowhere in sight.
It’s forty-three years later. Cristen lives in Boise, Idaho and has grandchildren of her own. Her Honey is gone but Cristen adopted the white hair—not the style but the same sass, at least she hopes. She chose Oscar de la Renta over Chanel. But when her grandchildren are old enough to leap from their parents’ cars and run to her door, just across town from her critters, she will meet them there. And with the joy that comes from loving and being loved she will exclaim, “Well git yer bones in here!”
Their Jim Pop will be right there too. Or maybe waiting for them outside on the driveway.
Consider the emotional impact of both forms of communicating what is essentially the same information. Also consider how much information is baked into the partial scene above. Now consider how well I could split this up, using the first part in an early scene in a memoir and the forty-three years later part much later in the memoir. The later scene would make much more sense because of the early scene/set up. (This is also an example of selecting and organizing scenes to shape the arc of a story for maximum impact. But I digress.)
situation—“the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot” (Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. p.13)
stakes—why something matters, what a character has to gain or lose in a situation; To sustain reader interest over the course of a book, stakes must be high and relatable.
standard nonfiction—Because memoirs are written in a style much closer to fiction and typically appeal to a specific type of nonfiction reader, I divide the general category of nonfiction into two distinct subcategories with memoir standing apart from what I call “standard nonfiction.”
status quo—a way of thinking and behaving that works well enough to maintain until disrupted by a change outside the direct control of the person
story—“the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (Gornick, Vivian)
subtext—micro communication; mood, meaning, and intent not explicitly stated but subtly communicated or accidentally revealed by carefully constructed dialog, tone, and/or body language
thesis—“as in argument: an idea or opinion that is put forth in a discussion or debate” (source link)
trope—a common theme or literary devise; genre fiction often relies heavily on tropes, e.g., just a few of many mystery tropes are an absence of evidence, anonymous killer narrator, and closed circle (source link) Note: Tropes can become cliches (see definition above) when overused. For example, teen vampire romances have run their course and are now in cliché territory.
values—Different from beliefs and preferences (see definitions above), values are born from beliefs and are the basis for “red line” or uncompromised boundaries to a person’s behavior and dictate the types of people they choose to meaningfully engage with. Values also dictate how we allow ourselves to be treated by others (rules of engagement). beliefsàvaluesàpreferences
One example is my statement of values:
I am an inclusive businessperson. I do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, country of origin, age, marital status, disability, religious or political affiliation, gender identity, or sexual orientation in any of my activities or operations and will not contract with any author or vendor who demonstrates a disregard for the dignity, safety, and overall well-being of any other person or group.
These values are based on a set of beliefs I can clearly articulate but won’t here for the sake of space and to keep this glossary on point.
voice—the unique way an individual communicates in written form—a combination of their expertise, lived experience, observational skills, preferences for words and phrases (see definition for diction), and tone