Highlights

  • You need to be able to answer the question: “What sets your book apart?”
  • The most common problems an editor sees when reviewing a manuscript.
  • How to write a great first sentence of a book.

The overuse of “was/is” and “felt/feel” is the most concrete problem I see.

Welcome to the thirty ninth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.

In this episode, I chat with YA fantasy writer and editor Mica Scotti Kole.

Arthur: Your Twitter account indicates you once wrote 25k words in a day. Tell me more about this day. What did you write? How did you achieve this word count? How were you able to focus for so long? Was it one long writing session, or broken up throughout the day?

Mica: Oh, it was definitely not one straight session! I did this for the 3-Day Novel Contest, where you write a book over Labor Day Weekend. I had an outline, subsisted on Monster Energy and Spaghettios, and had to have someone else watch my cat for the day so she’d leave me alone. And I just tore through. The inspiration and momentum were there. By the end of the three-day weekend, I had over 50,000 words written and revised once. It was a wild ride. (This was the first draft of my first major publication attempt, the Adult Fantasy THE TOWER WITH NO WALLS.)

Arthur: Tell me about your journey into starting your own editing services. How did you learn the editing craft? Do you believe being a good editor also helps your writing?

Mica: It has partially been talent, partially education. I have only once in my life ever gotten less than a 4.0 in an English class (and that was for poor attendance… that class was SO BORING). I was always the best writer in every class; it came easily, in a variety of styles and genres; and then when I started working on other people’s work, and they started telling me I should do it for a living… well, I was short on money at that point, so I gave it a shot. And my clients had success. Turns out I’m good at helping others get good. (And the Bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University kicked off my list of solid qualifications.)

Characters without agency are the worst (the story happens to them).

Arthur: What are the most important things you’ve learned over your editing career? What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make?

Mica: So many little things, to be honest, that can be so crippling. On a prose level, I’d say the overuse of “was/is” and “felt/feel” is the most concrete problem I see (and it leads to a lot of Telling-not-Showing). On a structure level, characters without agency are the worst (where the story happens to them, rather than they themselves making it happen). And for people pursuing publication, it’s been the inability to answer the question “What sets your book apart?” You should have a convincing answer for this. Always.

Arthur: Do you have any techniques you employ to hone your writing and editing craft?

Mica: Taking constructive criticism and applying it to your revision. Rewriting equals learning, especially if you can take others’ comments without being what my mom would call a “whiner-butt” about it.

Rewriting equals learning.

Arthur: Tell me about your “free writing events” calendar. This is a fantastic idea and has many writers engaging with one another on Twitter. It has also created a great “testing ground” for our work each day where we can receive immediate feedback on our writing. How did you come up with the “free writing events” idea?

Mica: When I started Twitter, I chanced across #1linewed, a hashtag game. Weeks later I realized it had a theme which I had not been following—and also that there were other games each day. Then I found pitching contests like #PitMad, equally randomly. And no one really had these games or events anywhere accessible. I wanted that. So I made it happen. And it grew from there.

Arthur: How do you market your editing services and your writing? What methods have the biggest return on your investment?

Mica: I advertise through Free Writing Events only (Twitter, website, and newsletter). It took a ton of effort to build that enterprise, and now that effort pays off by saving me advertising cost. The rest comes from referrals. It only goes to show that if you work hard to fill a niche, you can build a platform to leap from.

If you work hard to fill a niche, you can build a platform to leap from.

Arthur: Do you have any writing techniques or exercises which help you improve your craft?

Mica: I just started taking my own short stories seriously this year, and what really helped me was entering two contests at once (any size contest, as long as it was free). This means two writing prompts and two word counts to squeeze into one draft—topped off with the genre limitation of writing only SFF. Putting myself in that box really made short stories easier to think up and compose. When paired with great CPs, the recipe saw me winning contests within months.

Arthur: As both and editor and a writer, what do you look for in the first sentence of a book? What makes a good first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter?

Mica: I’m so glad you asked this! Here’s what your first sentence needs:

  • A sense of character
  • A sense of situation
  • A sense of setting

Yes, this can vary, but you can build a scene so well by grounding the reader in a person, place, and event from the get-go. Side note: opening with dialogue does not tend to achieve this.

As for first paragraphs, that should keep giving us something to picture; we should not be hovering in Limbo. And first pages need to avoid info-dumping. Character actions—and connection—should be present in both.

 You can build a scene so well by grounding the reader in a person, place, and event from the get-go.

Arthur: What trends do you see emerging in the book market for 2019? How should writers adapt their stories to improve their sales?

Mica: First things first: never chase trends (unless you plan to self-publish within weeks). For most publishing types, your draft won’t be on shelves of any kind for two to five years… long past the life of today’s trends. Write your book, and write it well, and someone will want it. You may even start a trend. (But again, make sure you can answer the question “What sets my book apart?”)

That said, diverse books are big, but I hope that’s a total shift, and not a trend. We need diverse books for all eternity, not just right now. White writers don’t need to tackle this intensely—authenticity is so important—but still, the all-white cast, the character defined by being a skin color, or the assumption of a character’s whiteness without saying their skin color outright, is “out” right now, and for good reason. I’m also noticing that stuff is getting darker, more real—especially in YA, where sex and sexuality is getting a little more airtime.

Arthur: What do you find most engaging about a good book? The prose? The story? Tension? How does a writer improve their ability to create tension in a story?

Mica: Great characters are always the key. It can be a dead boring plot, and a character can carry it—someone who is flawed and motivated and interesting, with a captivating voice, who does things, who makes mistakes. As for tension—conflict. Always. Conflict should underline every scene—be it small things like a blizzard or an argument, or big things like choosing between a loved one or saving the world. The more conflict, the better. And we also need clear stakes, early on—something we care about losing.

Write YOUR book and write it WELL.

Thank you, Mica, not only for sharing your writing wisdom, but your editing wisdom as well. Be sure to check out her editorial services on her website. Thanks again for another incredible interview in our INTERVIEWS FROM THE VOID series