What the Fiction Editor Looks For – Part 2

Yesterday we focused on the characters in your novel. Here are a few more things editors look for when reading your novel, this time, about the story itself.

The premise needs to be strong enough (as well as interesting enough) to support the entire book.

Every book needs suspense…the page-turning factor…a burning story question that the reader wants answered. An identifiable conflict.

Believability is key. Make sure everything in your story fits into the reality you’ve created in your story. Don’t stretch the reader’s ability or desire to believe.

Incorporate a strong sense of place, culture or environment, and treat it as an important character. Firmly establish setting and time period. Use sights, sounds, textures, and smells to evoke the feel of the fictional world.

Write in SCENES. A scene has three necessary elements: a location in time and space; action; and dialogue. Make sure the end of each scene drives the reader into the next scene.

Keep the “fictional dream” alive. If anything boots the reader out of that dream, they might put the book down. Things that boot us out of the dream are unrealistic events, characters being out of character, unbelievable dialogue, confusion on plot, and anything else that calls attention to the writing but detracts from the story.

Engage the reader from the very first scene—with compelling characters, setting, conflict, or action.

Craft your pacing carefully. Keep the reader turning pages but give them occasional breathers. Do this with a scene-and-sequel structure and by interspersing action with narrative.

Avoid overwriting—telling us more than we need to know, or being redundant. Convey information (especially backstory) on an as-needed basis. (RUE = resist the urge to explain.)

Watch for inconsistencies in your story. Things need to make sense.

Ruthlessly excise cliché phrases.  ‘Nuf said.

Don’t overuse metaphors. And watch for mixed metaphors.

Watch for bunny trails that are either misplaced or completely unnecessary. These are tangents the writer finds interesting but don’t enhance the story or move it forward.

Make sure you have a story structure that works, something like: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.

To convey action and a fast-paced scene, shorten your sentences.

Utilize foreshadowing carefully. Handled correctly, it can add layers of tension. If overdone, it can diminish the story.

Show how emotion plays out through action. Try to avoid telling about the emotion.

Keep readers informed. Make sure we know what we need to know about what’s happening but don’t overdo it. It’s a balance. Not enough information = confusion for the reader. Too much information = boredom.

Be careful in how you handle time. Some stories jump around in time, but you need to avoid confusing the reader. Be sure to have plenty of time cues. Things like holidays, school starting, and weather patterns can help a reader stay oriented to how time is passing in your story.

The ending of your story should be emotionally satisfying. Make sure you end it with your protagonist front and center, not in the background!

→ Of course, this is by no means exhaustive! Again, if something’s not working in your novel, assess whether any of these principles might help.

Q4U: Is there anything here you don’t understand? Anything you’d like me to expand on in a future post?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. » Editing Rachael Dahl on January 6, 2015 at 12:33 PM

    […] Rachelle Gardner’s post from March 28, 2011 is still my number one go to site. […]

  2. Red Haircrow on January 28, 2013 at 5:25 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for keep it simple and to the point, but it was very powerful and needs to be read by all authors, not just those beginning. We can always use refreshers, and this was truly refreshing. Great focus.

  3. jurassicpork on April 1, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    >If you sycophants think this commonsense, Creative Writing 101 advice is "brilliant" and informative, then you obviously shouldn't be looking for a literary agent, someone who will only wind up holding back your career, but a writing teacher.

    The thing she's not telling you is, you can have all these bases covered, as I have, and they'll still send you a form rejection letter unless you're a "name" (typically Palin, Bush, Rove, Cheney, etc.).

    Listen to the hoarse voice of wisdom, people: You do not need a literary agent regardless of what they tell you. They'll tell you you have zero chance of getting your work seen by publishers w/o an agent because they have 15% at stake but that's simply not true.

    I'm living proof of that. When I gave up on agents and got fed up with their ignorant form rejection letters, silences and disrespect I went directly to publishers.

    Now I have one of my novels in the hands of three editors at Doubleday, Simon & Schuster and Random House looking at my work (Judith Curr, VP and Publisher S&S, in fact, requested the entire ms then passed it along to another editor for consensus before going before the board). If I'd done what I was told, I'd still be getting form rejection letters from people like the proprietor of this blog and my work would never get near these publishers.

    I repeat: You do not need a literary agent.

  4. Traci on March 30, 2011 at 11:06 PM

    >Brilliant post. Truly. I teach Creative Writing and found myself nodding and nodding as I read these. You've pretty much summed up my entire fiction unit with these tips. Thanks for a great post!!

  5. Peace, Lena and Happiness on March 30, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    >It surprises me that so many people have problems with foreshadowing. If you know roughly how your novel will end, there should be plenty of foreshadowing built in naturally. I've never put something in a novel thinking 'this is a good piece of foreshadowing.' That seems heavy-handed to me. Yet when I read over what I've written, the entire novel is threaded with foreshadowing, even the very first (embarrassingly awful) novel I wrote. I think if you go back and look for foreshadowing, you will find more than enough in any novel that has been carefully plotted. IMHO 🙂

  6. Dustan on March 30, 2011 at 5:21 AM

    >I really appreciate this list. Thanks!

  7. Marcia Richards on March 29, 2011 at 11:50 PM

    >The way you present your tips is so clearcut and easy to grasp! Thank for another helpful post. I would love to see a post on 'showing how emotion plays out through action', and thanks for the link on foreshadowing…that was my other hang up. I truly appreciate the time an effort you put into writing these posts.

  8. Farmer*swife a/k/a Glass_Half_Full on March 29, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    >Thank you for this. I'm going to print and then apply to my secret little WIP project.

  9. Lee Rogers on March 29, 2011 at 8:18 PM

    >Using cliches intelligently is not necessarily bad writing. Cliches form because they become recognized and familiar, which increases reader understanding and comfort.

    Your characters might use cliches in their dialogue as an element of their character. (See Gwen Stewart and response.)

    The problem occurs when cliches are overdone and out of context, especially really obvious and somewhat outrageous ones. (Too many to mention, see clichesite.com.)

    I've also seen deliberate hacking of cliches to avoid the well-worn advice (yes, that's a joke) not to use cliches. It doesn't work.

  10. Mark Browning on March 29, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    >Suspense: I'm with you for the most part. I wouldn't want to write a piece of fiction that didn't have a burning question to answer, but what do we make of somebody like David Foster Wallace who, in _Infinite Jest_, doesn't seem to have much suspense beyond "What the heck is going on here?" He did pretty well–at least until his suicide.

  11. Pia Newman on March 29, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    >Yikes! I can see now how mixed metaphors are just way too much… Thank you for the explanation, Rachelle!

  12. Jackie on March 29, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    >A great checklist – thank-you.
    I've just finished reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and was really struck by the way he showed emotion by all the things he left unsaid. Often understatement is the most effective. When it comes to conveying emotion, it's all too easy to over-write.

  13. Kathleen@so much to say on March 29, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    >Oh dear! Forty comments already! Here's what I would like addressed: all the experts talk about conflict, identifiable conflict, external conflict. That seems to make "character-driven" fiction an un-sellable point. Sometimes the internal IS the external. Certainly in my own writing…or else I'm fooling myself by thinking I'll ever get published, and I can't accept that. 🙂 Any thoughts on how to reconcile those two seemingly divergine paths would be much appreciated!

  14. Carol Riggs on March 29, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    >Oooh, lotsa great stuff here. Such a fine balance on some, like overwriting (how much to inform the reader) and foreshadowing (enough w/o diminishing the story). Great point about ending with the MC front and center, too.

    The only point that made a crop of question marks spring up in my brain was the writing in scenes one. Do all scenes have to have dialogue? I can see the time and space, but sometimes can a scene be action and narrative (internal thoughts) w/o any dialogue? Just curious. I like to balance my narrative with dialogue, but I'm wondering if EVERY scene must have dialogue. Hmm…

  15. David A. Todd on March 29, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    >Rachelle: I'm wondering about the "characters being out of character" as a negative the boots the reader out of the fictional dream. On principle I agree, but wouldn't the intentional character arc supersede that? As events cause characters to change, they must come out of character. The timid must do something bold. The coward must show a little bravery. The hesitant must act quickly. The irresponsible must show a little responsibility—all leading to where the character is meant to be by the end of the story.

  16. Wendy Paine Miller on March 29, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    >Thanks for the foreshadowing link. Went back and read it. Fascinating, the difference between telegraphing and foreshadowing and how the line is easy to cross.

    Need to check this in my MS.
    ~ Wendy

  17. Michael Offutt on March 29, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    >The poor pen in the picture you've chosen for this blog entry is bleeding all over the place. I didn't want to say, "bleeding like a stuck pig" because that would be metaphorical. :))

  18. Orlando on March 29, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    >Awesome stuff, I loved that you made available all this information for us to learn from. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will make notes for my own use. Thank you.

  19. mirrorsandwindowsnow on March 29, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    >Great lists! Thank you, thank you, Rachelle! Your posts have really helped me become my own editor.

    I especially love, will henceforth use, the Rachelle Rule (main character allowed to break down and cry ONE time only) alongside the believability rule. I have mine crying THREE times! You know, I felt it was “off” when I read through, but since the scene was significant, calling for tears, I thought, “What else can she do?” Fainting seemed out of the question 😉 Unfortunately my ms is already with a few publishers (sigh). So, we’ll see what happens. I’ll be changing it up either way!

    Thanks for the writing check-up!

  20. PatriciaW on March 29, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    >Premise that will support an entire book. How do you know when your story idea is nice, but not strong enough for a full-length book?

  21. Rachelle on March 29, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    >Pia Newman: A mixed metaphor is when you combine two or more unrelated comparisons. They're usually both cliche also.
    "Step up to the plate and take the bull by the horns."
    "I smell a rat. Let's nip it in the bud."

    Gwen Stewart: Yes, characters can use cliches in their speech, but make sure it's intentional and carefully done. I've read a lot of manuscripts where several characters speak in the same cliche-laden voice, which is laziness on the part of the writer, not paying attention to dialogue like the should.

    About foreshadowing: I wrote a post about it

    Sarah Thomas: I think your novel can cover whatever period of time you want. You just have to make sure the reader can keep up with you and not get confused.

    Shelly Goodman Wright: I've discussed this before and it's taught in most good fiction writing books. The way to handle backstory is to dole it out little by little thru the story, like dropping breadcrumbs, on an as-needed basis. What you said was key: the reader will always forget details if they are dumped up front. So why even bother including them?

    error7zero: I haven't read your work, but there can't be any emotional impact in the "meals" if none of those minor characters matter to the reader.

    Jaime Wright: This is ALL about the skill of a writer. Great romances throughout history have featured couples falling in love in minutes… or over decades.

    Laila Knight: All your questions will be answered within the context of your book. Does it work? Can readers make it through the info-dumping without falling asleep? Can readers remember who your characters are 100 pages later and can they distinguish between you characters? If so, great. If not, then it's not working and you have the answers to your questions.

  22. Laila Knight on March 29, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    >Great post again.

    I feel that writing fantasy does involve a lot of information dumping. The readers have to get to know your world. A way I've found smooths this is by adding dialogue.

    I also use body motion and facial expressions to convey emotion. (Clenching fists, beads of sweat, lump in throat, palpitating heart…)

    As for shorter sentences, are adverbs really so frowned upon?

    Is there a thing as having too many characters? If their names are silly, does that ruin your chances? Isn't that negotiable?


  23. Nadia on March 29, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    >Thanks for posting these tips – they're really useful. :o)

  24. Casey on March 29, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    >Awe, sigh. Metaphors are my downfall. I never understood them for the longest time (they're still fuzzy) and turns out I have WAY too many of them. My own version of overwriting. Snip, snip, DELETE!

    LOL, have to remember that key is my friend. 🙂

    Thank you for the very helpful lists the last two days!

  25. Jillian Kent on March 29, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    The picture of that pen brings more to mind than red ink for me. Must be that writer imagination and too many Castle episodes.:) I'd love to hear more about managing time within the novel. I always start out with a time line for my novel but somewhere along the way I lose the day, week, or month I've got my characters living in within a scene or chapter.

    It seems like it should be a simple thing, but it's not for me.

    I also would like to learn more about adding layers of tension through foreshadowing. I think that is an awesome tool when done well.

    I've enjoyed these two posts a lot! Thank you.

  26. Loree Huebner on March 29, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    >Thank you!

  27. Andrew on March 29, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    >Two things I would add:

    First is the elimination of 'cutesy' elements, such as characters named after their profession (a mystery series out of the recent past was built around a writer named Quillman…ugh.).

    Second is the misuse of sexuality, in action or imagery. Most people can't write about it well, and it simply becomes titillation. (An analog comes from C.S. Lewis…the appearance of a 'restroom' sign can be an indescribably joyous thing under certain circumstances, but how do you write about it?)

  28. Jaime Wright on March 29, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    >Wow!! Last two posts were fantastic. You mentioned timing – I've always wondered even as a reader, about the timing in regards to the romance. In some novels, it seems the characters fall intensely in love within a matter of days (if the novel spans a short period of time). Or there isn't enough interaction on the deeply personal level to reflect a real-life falling in love. Where is the balance of timing in relation to have two characters fall in love believably? Am I making sense? It's something I've been bouncing around in my brain … which means there's probably a lot of space to bounce around 😉

  29. Jaime Wright on March 29, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    >Wow!! Last two posts were fantastic. You mentioned timing – I've always wondered even as a reader, about the timing in regards to the romance. In some novels, it seems the characters fall intensely in love within a matter of days (if the novel spans a short period of time). Or there isn't enough interaction on the deeply personal level to reflect a real-life falling in love. Where is the balance of timing in relation to have two characters fall in love believably? Am I making sense? It's something I've been bouncing around in my brain … which means there's probably a lot of space to bounce around 😉

  30. EEV on March 29, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    >Rachelle, I'm going to print it and pin it in the corkboard in front of my desk. These tips are the kind that should never be forgotten!

  31. Timothy Fish on March 29, 2011 at 9:01 AM


    You might want to rethink that. I don't think the fact that some of your characters eat people changes the basics of good storytelling in any way.

  32. error7zero on March 29, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    >Unfortunately, I am breaking several of these rules because I am currently working on a zombie novel.
    High concept indeed.
    I need a lot of minor characters, briefly sketched, to provide the meals.

  33. Shelly Goodman Wright on March 29, 2011 at 8:50 AM

    >I'd like more guidance on how to handle backstory or flashbacks without information 'dumping'. I find fantasy writers do it more, but I just get confused with so much details up front. Although with my own writing, I tend to do this when a scene changes or a new character comes into the story.


  34. Aimee Laine on March 29, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    >Oh, these have both been great lists! Thank you!

  35. Sarah Thomas on March 29, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    >Oh, those doggone, adorable bunnies! I excised two yesterday. I have to say it felt pretty good.

    On time, is it okay if the first chunk of the book moves along pretty steadily over say, six months, and then the second part goes by leaps and bounds to cover a couple of years? Or does that confuse readers?

  36. Olivia Newport on March 29, 2011 at 8:34 AM

    >I used to write more episodically than I do now, a nice tidy package from start to finish with each chapter. I would feel like I accomplished something in each writing session. Now I'm trying to accomplish something different—giving the reader no option but to turn the page at the end of the chapter. In the past my writing was more about me. Now it's about the reader.

  37. Cynthia Herron on March 29, 2011 at 7:43 AM

    >Goodness sake! Bunny trails and backstory…I do love them so! : )

    The tendency to overuse these I do have to quell from time to time. I'm still a WIP myself, but I am learning.

    As I've matured in my writing, it's been a bit easier to catch these before they overtake the story, and I'm so grateful for those along the way who've pointed out, that often, "less is more."

  38. Kristy K on March 29, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    >I've learned more in these last two posts than I did in my fiction writing classes in college! I've always had trouble how to portray events in a believable timeline, and your explanation helps so much!

  39. Julie Jarnagin on March 29, 2011 at 6:46 AM

    >Learning how to show emotion through action instead of telling about it was a huge turning point in my writing, and I'm always eager to learn more about it.

  40. Wendy Paine Miller on March 29, 2011 at 6:42 AM

    >I woke up this morning thinking of a bunny trail I need to cut from my WIP.

    I'm curious to read more about foreshadowing.

    These posts have been excellent!
    ~ Wendy

  41. Timothy Fish on March 29, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    >"To convey action and a fast-paced scene, shorten your sentences."

    I would think that comes naturally to most of us. When you're sitting there typing a scene, as the action gets more exiting, you type faster. You drop a lot of the extra stuff. It's hard to tie long strings of words together. But when the action slows down, you type more slowly, you take more time to observe all the little details around the characters–you see the dog barking on the other side of the lake and hear the birds in the trees–and your sentences automatically become longer.

  42. Gwen Stewart on March 29, 2011 at 6:02 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    About the cliche advice: I agree that the authorial voice should avoid cliche. But since real people often use them, is it acceptable for characters to speak in cliches occasionally?

    I've been jarred out a story by a characters who seem to "refuse" to speak in cliche (at least that's how it seems to me). Worse is when the author obviously tries to spin or twist a cliche in a way that's not natural to the character. That seems to leap off the page, IMO.

    Perhaps it's better to focus on creating unique characters who would naturally avoid cliches, so non-cliched dialogue seems authentic. Would love your input.

    Thanks for the great input on fiction these past two days!

  43. Catherine West on March 29, 2011 at 5:33 AM

    >I'm still looking at that awesome picture…

  44. Jessica Nelson on March 29, 2011 at 5:30 AM

    >Great stuff, Rachelle! This is really helpful for me to remember.

  45. Lucky Press, LLC on March 29, 2011 at 4:40 AM

    >This is such a helpful list! I'll be sharing a link with our authors and other writers. Thank you for your wonderful insights into writing and publishing.

    Janice Phelps Williams

  46. Pia Newman on March 29, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    >Wow. These are great checklists that will definitely be printed out and pinned to the wall behind my desk.
    Thank you!

    Though I do have one question: What are mixed metaphors?

  47. Gail Crane on March 29, 2011 at 4:00 AM

    >Thanks so much for this and yesterdays, Rachelle. They make a great check list and I am printing them out to keep.
    Hope there's more to come!

  48. Rosemary Gemmell on March 29, 2011 at 3:21 AM

    >More great tips, thank you! I like the bit about writing in scenes. I found it quite daunting to move on to novels after writing short stories for so long. The sheer length scared me and I wondered if I could ever manage to write a full length work.

    Writing in scenes was one piece of advice a more experienced author passed on to me and it really helped. Just had to make sure each scene moved seemlessly to the next when rewriting!

  49. Melissa on March 29, 2011 at 2:59 AM

    >"To convey action and a fast-paced scene, shorten your sentences."

    This is the one rule I keep forgetting — thank you for the reminder. I can never get enough of these.

    It's been a long time since my last creative writing class at university. Monday and Tuesday's blogs have been excellent refresher courses. Bookmark with future intent to share. 🙂

  50. David Ferretti III on March 29, 2011 at 1:59 AM

    >Ms. Gardner,

    It is nice to read these two posts and gain an agent incite. I have made copies and will use it as a checklist for my future (and unpublished manuscripts).

    Edwin D Ferretti III

  51. Nancy Thompson on March 29, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    >Helpful, indeed! This post and your last will work as a sort of roadmap for my next story. Please, feel free to keep imparting your generous wisdom on us mere mortals! Much gratitude!!

  52. Choices on March 29, 2011 at 1:42 AM

    >Thank you. This is very helpful.

  53. Nicole Sheldrake on March 29, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    >I would like to see examples of this point: Show how emotion plays out through action. Try to avoid telling about the emotion.

    I understand what you mean but it would be useful to see real examples from novels, perhaps in a compare and contrast style.

    These post are really helpful and informative. Thank you!