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Indie Publishing Interviews: Kristina Kugler, Freelance Editor

I have to gush about Kristy.  Meeting her was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.  We met at The Leading Edge magazine at BYU.  Not only is she my best friend from college, but she’s also the most gifted editor I have ever met.  She’s been reading my work for ten years now, and giving me fantastic critiques.  So when I needed to hire an editor for EVERYTHING’S FINE, it was a no-brainer.  I couldn’t imagine working with anyone but Kristy.

This may sound contradictory, but when you’re looking for a critique partner, a writing group, or an editor, I really believe what you’re looking for ideally is someone who will tell you the following (in order): I love it!  It’s brilliant!  You’re a genius!  But it’s not working at all.  Rewrite it.  That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not.  There’s nothing like taking criticism from someone who really gets what you’re trying to do, values it, and also can see what needs to be done to turn it into the work you meant to write and make it more attractive to your audience.   And here’s something wonderful about Kristy: she sees value in everyone, but she has a sharp eye for what could make writing better.  This makes her a fabulous editor.  If you’re in the market for one, you want to work with Kristy.

One more thing about EVERYTHING’S FINE: if you’ve read it, you know that there are interludes between the chapters that take place over the last few years of her life, when Haylee was still alive.  Those chapters are really important, because they’re the place that you get to get to know Haylee, but they were also a bit of a logistical nightmare when it came to remembering what events happened when.  Before I sent the book to Kristy for a second-round edit, I tried to make a calendar about how long ago everything was and what day all the events in the book were supposed to take place.  It turned into a big tangled knot, and I gave up, figuring I’d try again during copy edit.

So imagine my joy when Kristy sent the book back with not only a calendar, but a note beside every time reference in the book.  Actually, it’s Tuesday.  Actually, that was three days ago.  Actually, this should be eighteen months ago, instead of seventeen.  I could have cried.  Maybe I did.  The level of attention to detail that Kristy brings to a project.  It’s irreplaceable.

But I’ll shut up now and let her talk:

Seems obvious to me, but it has to be asked: do books need editors?  Why?  How would you explain the need for an editor to someone who has never worked with one before?

Yes, all books need editors!  Even best-selling authors who have been writing for decades need editors.  When you are writing, you are immersed in your world. Sometimes things you think are clear, because they are clear in your head, aren’t as clear in the text. A fresh set of qualified, expert eyes is invaluable to catch plot holes, or characters that don’t really function well in the story, or stylistic changes that detract from the story. A good editor’s job is to give you constructive feedback on what is and isn’t working in your writing so you can tell the story you really mean to tell in the way you want to tell it.

That last bit is the gift of a great editor.  Thank you for getting it!  So, what is the difference between professional editorial work and a critique from a friend or another writer?

A critique from a friend or another writer is great, because friends are going to be champions of your work and give you support.  They may be able to point out where things aren’t working, but in general, they’re probably not going to give your manuscript the same in-depth, experienced critique a professional editor will.

A professional editor’s job is to give you the feedback you need, especially regarding the places where the writing isn’t working or where things need to change to make a better book. For example, a professional editor has the training and experience to look for problems such as plot holes, side plots that fizzle out, pacing issues, or characters who aren’t pulling their weight or who suddenly start acting out of character without explanation.

What is your role in the creative process?

My role in the creative process is to support authors as they create and refine their books.  I point out issues I see, and may make suggestions on ways those problems can be fixed to help the author see the problem from a different point of view. I point out areas that are working, and highlight differences between the sections that are spot on and the ones that need a second, third, or fourth look to get them into shape. I ask the hard questions the author needs to think about to tighten and refine the story.

Basically, my role is to help you, as the author, to say what you are trying to convey in the most effective way possible. It’s your story; I just help you tell it the way you meant to from the very beginning.

I, for one, could not produce a finished product without that support.  What advice do you have for writers looking to hire an editor?  What questions should they ask?  What agreements should they make before they begin a working relationship?

First, I’d say to figure out what kind of editing you’d like. A substantive edit is going to deal with the big picture items—such as plot, characters, and pacing issues, and it won’t usually deal with word-level problems.

A copyedit refines the text, finding continuity errors, fixing grammar and punctuation problems, adding missing words—mainly fixing problems at the word and sentence level.

Some good questions to ask an editor before you start working with each other would be:

What kind of editing do you do? 

If you are looking for a substantive edit, and the editor only does a copyedit, you’re not going to get what you’re looking for.

Do you work in my genre/are you familiar with my genre?

An editor doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar with your particular genre to do a good job, but it can help, because then the editor is familiar with the common tropes and trends and can better help you refine your work to appeal to your desired audience.

What are your rates, and can you give me an estimate on how much you would charge to work on my project?

Pricing varies widely between editors. Some charge per word or page, some charge per project, and others charge by the hour. It’s good to know up front whether the editor will be in your price range, and whether you are satisfied with the potential cost.

How do you like to be paid/when do you require payment?

Some editors only accept checks, and others allow payments through systems such as Paypal. Also, some require a portion of the payment up front while others wait until the project is complete to charge the fee.

Do you have an estimated timeline for when you could fit in my project, and how long do you estimate the edit will take?

Life happens, and deadlines can be moved back, but it’s good to know up front how long you should need to wait for the work to be done, or whether the editor of your choice has time to complete the project within an acceptable timeframe for your plans.

Many editors will also edit a small amount of text (the amount varies depending on the type of edit and the editor) for free so you both can determine whether the project will be a good fit for the editor’s preference and skills, so it’s helpful to ask whether that option is available.

You should also find an editor who is excited about your project. A good working relationship is important; you should feel comfortable conversing/emailing with the editor.

It can help to create a written contract, but not all editors do so, beyond a verbal or emailed commitment. You should always be clear on the timeframe, level of editing, and a firm estimate on the price and timing of the payment before you begin, however.

What challenges do you encounter working with clients?  How do you handle those challenges?

Each project has its own challenges. However, it can be hard for a writer to hear that their hard work isn’t done yet. You pour all this time and effort and commitment into a novel, and then an editor comes along and tells you that entire sections aren’t working! I never want to discourage my clients—I always try to include all the things I love about the work, too, along with pointing out areas that can improve to make the book more readable and a tighter story.

Mostly, challenges can arise if there isn’t clear communication. I make sure to query anything I’m not sure about in the text, rather than just changing things willy-nilly. I also am upfront about what I offer and any potential costs before I begin a project.

What advice would you give to self-publishers about the editing process?  What does every self-publisher need to know about getting their book edited?

The editing process can take time, but it really is important. A fresh set of professionally trained eyes strengthens your writing and helps you to put forth the best possible piece of work. Also, needing an editor doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer. Even the most successful authors need an editor to put forth their best work.

The time, money, and effort it takes to get your book edited is worth it—it is hard for readers to want to finish a book or pick up another by an author with a book that still has plot holes, character problems, or even just grammar and spelling issues. A professional edit enhances your credibility as a polished, professional author.

What kind of books do you edit?  What kind of work are you looking for? 

I primarily edit middle grade and YA books.  My preferred genres are contemporary, science fiction, and fantasy.  I do both substantive edits, where I look at the big picture issues, and copyedits, where I help authors refine the prose and point out style, grammar, and punctuation problems.  Feel free to check out my website.

Seriously.  I can’t say this enough: if you’re looking for an editor for your work, you should check out Kristy.  You won’t find anybody better.

Thanks, Kristy!



Indie Publishing Interviews: Isaac Stewart, Book Designer

When I was getting ready to publish EVERYTHING’S FINE, I had print layout fear.  Enter my awesome friend Isaac, who walked me through how to do layout in Indesign.  (When you have an expert, it’s super easy.  When you don’t, I’m guessing not.)

Isaac has lots of book design experience, and currently designs for Brandon Sanderson.  (Does it make you want to buy my book knowing that the guts were designed by Brandon’s assistant?  No?  Ah, well.)  Today he’s here talking about book design as a whole, including cover design.  Welcome, Isaac.

So, Isaac, tell us.  What is the role of a book designer?

In its purely distilled form, book design is the art of getting readers to pick up the books that will interest them. So, it’s a combination of market research, keeping track of design trends, and producing professional output.

On the technical end, the book designer is responsible for taking working with an author or publisher to create the design of the book. For e-books, that usually just means the front cover, but when you get into printing the book, you add more complexity the further you go, adding the spine and back cover design for a paperback to jacket and hardcase design for a hardcover. There are even more steps to adding embossing and print effects.

What tools do you use in book design?

Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. This is what I reach for first, but since I’ve got a background in animation, I sometimes reach for 3D programs like Max and Maya. Additionally I’ll use pen and paper to sketch thumbnails, use stock photo sites to see what’s available, browse Pinterest for researching similar books, and sometimes even schedule photo shoots and hire photographers when what’s already out there doesn’t meet the needs of the book.

What advice do you have for self-publishers? Should they hire a book designer or do it themselves?

Hire a Cover Designer/Artist. If the book looks professional, a reader is more likely to click on it.

Conversely, I believe that if you have enough drive and time, you can figure out book design for yourself, but like anything, your first attempts are probably going to be subpar. If you are as interested in book design as you are in writing, then by all means, take the years you need to figure out the trade. Then you can write books and design the covers and feel like an all-around awesome superperson.

But ideally, you want to be writing books, so almost universally I suggest that self-publishers hire a professional book designer. You want your book to grab the right audience and look professional. Too often, people try to do the cover themselves, using programs not meant to design covers. So they’ve hired a high school art student, or the neighbor’s artistic nephew–both of whom are great artists, probably, but they lack the experience and finesse of a professional. Same goes for typography. You really need to use the right tools for the job.

A designer is going to have access to the right tools and be able to help a self-publisher hit the market with a professional looking cover.

A Google search will turn up ebook cover designers, but make sure their work looks professional before you hire them. Some people think that they can make their own cover, but unless you’re a professional designer, I wouldn’t recommend it. Too many do-it-yourselfers think their books look good when they really don’t. If their work–or your own attempts–start looking like something from the Lousy Book Covers blog (, then you really ought to look into hiring someone.

What advice do you have for self-publishers who are designing their own books? What should they do/avoid?

Look at a lot of professionally-produced books whether online or at the bookstore. Find books that are similar to what you write, and try get your designer to emulate those covers. Graphic design is a whole other language of pictures that we’ve been taught our whole lives to unconsciously to read. You want to tap into that unconscious language and give the reader the right image that attracts them to the type of book you’ve written. Falsely advertising the book with the wrong kind of cover is only going to get you one-star reviews from people whose expectations aren’t met. Title, mood, tone, color: all this will build up the resonance of your book and help you find the readers already predisposed to like the kind of stories you’re telling.

An author friend of mine–John Brown (link here)–pointed out something that’s become one of my favorite principles when designing e-book covers. They’re basically movie posters. Good movie posters are designed to be seen and recognized at a distance. In the case of e-books, you want that thumbnail to really grab someone’s attention, so work with bold ideas. Pick a theme, and stick to that with only one or two elements on the cover. Look at movie posters, dissect what they’re doing to attract the right audiences, and see how you can use some of those same principles on the covers for your e-books. Take Janci’s latest book Everything’s Fine, for example. The big idea here is a well-photographed close up on a sad female. This draws your eye even in thumbnail. Next you see the title, which informs the reader that this is a YA book about coming to grips with strong emotions. Now, as a reader, you’ve been given all the information you need to know if it’s a book you’ll likely enjoy, which will motivate you to click the links and read the cover copy.

That’s what good book covers do. They look professional. They portray the mood and genre in a simple-to-read image. They draw a reader in, saying, “This is probably the type of book you would enjoy.”

Thanks, Isaac!  

Guest Post with John Brown

I also have a guest post up over at John Brown’s blog today, about my decision to indie publish.  This was a huge deal for me, because I looked at my other friends who do it all themselves, and couldn’t see how I could fit that much work into my life.  Want to hear about why I changed my mind?  Head on over to John’s blog, and read about it.

Indie Publishing Interviews: Melody Fender, Cover Designer

One of the most fabulous things about indie publishing EVERYTHING’S FINE was getting to work with my brilliant friends. Indulge me for a moment while I tell you about Melody. Melody was one of my two best friends in high school, and we’ve never lost touch. There may even be a little of that high school friendship in Kira and Haylee’s story. (Though, if there is, she’s Kira, and I’m Haylee.) When I was driving her home from school and crashing on the floor of her room and sneaking into city parks after dark with her at sixteen years old, I never thought some day we’d be publishing a book together. But one thing has always been true about Mel–she makes everything beautiful. From doodles to wrapped gifts to decorating, Melody adds an extra bit of detail and attention to everything she does. So sixteen (seriously?) years later, when I needed a book cover, Melody came to mind. Why? Because now Melody is a graphic designer. It’s pretty much her job to make things look pretty, and she’s good at it.

Melody was gracious enough to answer some questions about the process. If you’re in need of a designer, I highly recommend contacting Melody. (But I don’t need to tell you that. See for yourself.)


So, Melody. What is your role as a cover designer?

The role of a cover designer is to make you think the book is awesome before you’ve even read a page! The designer does that by (hopefully) making a very aesthetically pleasing book cover that will appeal to everyone, but particularly the target audience. Also, since Everything’s Fine was going to be e-published, we needed a cover that would look equally amazing when in itty bitty thumbnail form or when full size.

What was the process like when designing the cover for Everything’s Fine?

Designing the cover for Everything’s Fine was like attempting to kill three birds with one stone. It was my first time designing a cover (bird one). We were trying to find a “look” for Janci’s book covers (bird two) because you will be seeing more of her books in the future—hopefully near future. And we wanted something that really represented the feel of Everything’s Fine (bird three) because as you may have noted, everything is not fine in the book.

Fortunately, once I started to get to the other side of the learning curve, finding things that worked for the cover became really fun. Janci was so great to work with. I gave her a lot of options because we really wanted to be sure of our final decision (it’s sad to think of all the great work that you won’t get to see). Janci did a great job of picking some images that would give me an idea of what she had in her head. I would absolutely say that the process was rewarding and I’m looking forward to doing it again!

I’m still sad about some of those covers we didn’t choose. But, in the end, we had to narrow it down to one. So, when considering stock art for cover design, what are you looking for?

It so depends on what you want to do for a specific piece. For example, for the pen on the back of the book, I wanted something that looked like a teenager would use it, but not so immature that it would start to make the piece appear tacky (like an advertisement for Papermate). Also, I wanted a pen that could have its color edited fairly easily—the color you see on the pen is not the color of the original stock image.

Let’s give everyone a look at the back of the book, so they can see the cute pen that you’re talking about.


When looking at potential cover images for Everything’s Fine, we looked at quite a few images with girls who could portray Kira. A lot of these images had other elements in them. If you choose an image where multiple elements are about the same size, the viewer’s eye tends to skim and move on. You want an element to grab the viewer and keep them interested.

Besides stock art, some really important essentials to designing a cover are font choice, element balance, and tints/shading. Fonts are so important. They can really speak for the feel of a piece. I chose a handwritten font for “Everything’s” because of the informal way Kira uses this phase in the story. And I chose a distressed, all-caps font for “Fine” because it clearly illustrates the irony of the statement. In order to make the titling stand out adequately from the image, I used shading around the type. Without that shading, the cover would look flat. Sometimes the smallest details are what give that professional polish to a piece.

Element balance is a little more difficult to explain in writing (this is where I need Janci’s way with words), but you have to be careful in choosing how to arrange your elements on a page. We wanted Kira’s face to grab you. I didn’t want the titling to distract from the face but certainly it needed to be clearly visible and identifiable. I didn’t want Janci’s name to get muddled with the rest of the text, so we took it up. I added a distressed glow behind the titling to add some depth. I made “Fine” pink for some contrast and attention. It also balances out the more muted colors of the cover. And I kept the little promotion for the book in a simple font, relatively small but certainly still legible (because it doesn’t need to grab you, it’s meant to keep you if you already got sucked in by the awesome picture and ironic title).

What advice do you have for authors looking for a cover designer? What questions should they ask? What agreements should they make beforehand? What should they do/not do when working with their designer?

I would look for someone who does something you like—something that speaks to you and the feel you want your books to have. Or just look for someone who has talent. Chances are if they did something great for another project, they could do something great for you. I was fortunate that Janci asked me to be a part of this project because, while I like to think I’m pretty talented, I had nil experience when it comes to book covers (except for that one project when I was in my design program which would not impress you…).

You should definitely have a contract with a designer beforehand—what you’re going to do, by when, cost, delivery (format of delivery), who owns the rights to what, etc. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with your best friend, there should be a contract! (It’ll probably help you stay best friends if that’s the case.)

In case our audience can’t tell, the first thing we did was sign a contract, and we’re still friends. 🙂 What about after that?

Authors should not assume that they know what works—that’s why they’re hiring a designer, designers have (or should have) an eye for what works artistically. That being said, if authors have something specific in mind, they should definitely share that with a potential designer because you’ll want to know if a designer can work with your idea and make it happen or if they have a better idea.

Authors also shouldn’t assume that just because the little sketch the designer shows you looks kind of sparce/flat/uninspiring that the final realization of that sketch will be the same. I’m grateful that Janci had some artistic vision and knew the potential of what I showed her at each step, but not all clients have that vision.

What advice do you have for self-publishers trying to do it themselves? What should they do or avoid doing when designing their own covers?

They should avoid clip-art. Haha, no but really, get a designer. If you’re on a budget, search till you find someone who will work within your budget, but remember that your cover is what is going to get your book bought, opened, and read so don’t slap it together yourself unless you are just that talented.

Melody, obviously, is that talented, and has the training to back it up. I couldn’t be happier with the work she did on EVERYTHING’S FINE. Thanks, Mel!

Want Melody to design your cover? Here’s what to do to contact her:

Holler! She wants to work with you. (Yes, you!)

Release Day!

You guys…

EVERYTHING’S FINE is now available!

You can find  the e-book on Amazon, or check out the paperback there as well.

Here, one more time, is the cover copy:

Kira thought she knew everything about her best friend, Haylee.  But when Haylee commits suicide immediately after her first date with her longtime crush, Bradley Johansen, Kira is left with nothing but questions, and a gaping hole in her life where Haylee used to be. 

Kira is sure that the answers to her questions must be written in Haylee’s journal, but she’s not the only one searching for it.  The more Kira learns about Haylee’s past, the more certain she is that other people grieving for Haylee are keeping secrets—especially Bradley, and Haylee’s attractive older cousin Nick.  Kira is desperate to get to Haylee’s journal before anyone else finds it—to discover the truth about what happened to Haylee—

And to hide the things that Haylee wrote down about her. 


A note: at this time, the book is only available on Amazon.  I know people are mad at them, and with good reason, but the submission guidelines for e-books and such are many and varied, and since this is my first indie published book, I decided to start with one venue, and expand later.  It’s not a political statement–but Amazon right now is a huge share of the indie market, so I’ve focused my efforts there.  Sorry if that inconveniences you.  I’ll let you know when it’s out other places.

But back to the happy news.  Book release!  I’ll have a bunch of blog posts and things about the book up over the next few weeks, so if you want to hear more, stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can totally head over to Amazon and check out the sample chapters for free.  Or, if you’re a Prime member, you can borrow the book from the Kindle Owners Lending Library.  If you want to hear news about future books, sign up for my newsletter.  It’s spam free.

Most of all, I’d love it if you would spread the word: the biggest risk in any kind of publishing is obscurity.  I am so excited to share this book with you.  If you’re inclined, please tell your friends!


See this?


That would be my cover for Everything’s Fine, my novel that will be out next month.  NEXT MONTH.  I am so excited to show this to you.  IMHO, my cover designer, Melody Fender, did a truly beautiful job.

This is my favorite part of writing novels–the part where they’re all pretty and finished.  This is my book that won the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition award for Best Young Adult Novel back in 2007 (under its working title, Haylee’s Journal), so it’s been in the works for a while.  I am so excited to finally get to show it to you.

Release dates are a little squirrely for indie books, but it’ll be out sometime next month.  If you’d like an email when it’s properly released, please sign up for my newsletter.  I promise no spam.  You’ll only hear from me about new books, and maybe sales.

Want more?

Here’s the back cover copy.

I really hope you’re as excited about this as I am.


Kira thought she knew everything about her best friend, Haylee.  But when Haylee commits suicide immediately after her first date with her longtime crush, Bradley Johansen, Kira is left with nothing but questions, and a gaping hole in her life where Haylee used to be. 

Kira is sure that the answers to her questions must be written in Haylee’s journal, but she’s not the only one searching for it.  The more Kira learns about Haylee’s past, the more certain she is that other people grieving for Haylee are keeping secrets—especially Bradley, and Haylee’s attractive older cousin Nick.  Kira is desperate to get to Haylee’s journal before anyone else finds it—to discover the truth about what happened to Haylee—

And to hide the things that Haylee wrote down about her. 



What’s Happening

This is another one of those rambling posts.  But it has information! in it!  so you might want to barrel through.  Maybe.

My life has become total chaos lately–the most wonderful sort of chaos where I know everything I’m doing is vitally important and irreplaceable and must! be! done! and I’m so so happy to do it except that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Love that.  Love when there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the wonderful things.  It’s my favorite.

Some of those things are boring or personal, like chasing my two year old around in circles (like this mommy! just like this!) or taking care of my (seriously needy) yard or the endless march of church responsibilities that called on me a couple months ago.

But some of it is writing stuff.  That stuff you get to hear about.

First, the imminent: I am reaching the very tail end of the task list for EVERYTHING’S FINE.  Layout is done.  My editor is doing one last pass.  The cover is basically done.  I believe that I will get to share it with you next week!  Spoiler: it’s gorgeous.  SO THE BOOK WILL BE OUT IN JUNE!  I’m way excited, if you couldn’t tell.

Second, the tedious: I’m doing a pass on a book that’s already been on submission once, because once I learned all that stuff about beats I discovered I need to revise basically everything I’ve ever written.  This book is no exception, and adding tons of beats to a 70,000 word manuscript is brain frying.   But I’m gaining new skills!  If there’s one thing you should never stop doing as a writer, it’s building new skills.  There are so many possible skills to have in your writing toolbox, your lifetime will not be enough to master them all.

Third, the endless: I’m also revising a book that my agent looked at last year.  It needed work.  In fact, I wrote the wrong book all together.  I am nearing the end of the rewrite now.  Have I written the right book this time?  I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, let me tell you.

Fourth, the new and shiny: I’ve started collaborating on a project with a writer friend of mine, who happens to be a freaking genius.  This may turn out to be a train wreck, but I hope not, because playing with this book is FUN.  I want it to be equally fun to read.  (We’re still in the outline stage.  If it turns into an actual, readable work, you will hear more.)

Fifth, the waiting: I also have a first draft of a YA romance just waiting for me to pause to breathe, so I can revise it into something readable.  I am so excited about that book.  I need to bump numbers one through three off my plate, and then I’ll be digging into this.  I.  Cannot.  Wait.

You guys.  I have not been this excited about writing…maybe ever.  You know why?

Because I’ve stopped caring about how any of it turns out.  I have so little control over what happens to my books.  Maybe they’ll sell to publishers.  Maybe I’ll put them out myself.  Maybe they’ll turn out to be train wrecks that take years to rewrite.  (Um, maybe, all three?  Yes.  I’m going to hope for all three.)

But the only piece I can control is whether or not I show up to work in the morning.

Here I am!  Working!  For the first time in years, I’m really pleased with the results.  I hope you’re excited about them too.

Reaching for Beats

I blogged a while ago about discovering a problem in my writing related to reaction beats.  Here’s my friend Heather’s recounting of the events.  Basically, my character’s reactions to story events weren’t coming through, because I was getting the mechanics of beats wrong.

Since then I’ve done quite a bit of research about beat structure.  What I’ve learned is basically summarized in this post on motivation-reaction units, which is brilliant.  I also like everything that is said about structure in this post.


Let me tell you, it is really hard to come up with beat after beat to show character reactions and emotion.  The character’s heart can only thud so many times before I want to crack my head on the desk.  As I’ve been fixing my motivation-reaction units, I’m having occasion to write (and re-write) literally hundreds of beats.  And mostly, I just want to claw my own skin off instead of writing one more way that my character can express that she’s upset.

So I did some research into how to come up with better beats, which is really the root of all of my problems.  I tend to leave the beats out, which makes it hard for the reader to connect with the character.  I do this because I can’t think of a good beat at the time, so I just kind of wander away and never come back.  Time to learn to write better beats, Janci.

A friend referred me to the work of Robert Olen Butler, whose thoughts on the subject are summarized here.  He suggests five types of beats; let me tell you, for the volume of beats I need to write, five was not enough.  So I did some more research, and some brainstorming, and this is what I’ve come up with.  Ahem.

A Non-Inclusive List of Physical Beat Ideas, for When You Want to Claw Out Your Eyes Rather Than Write About the Beating Heart

  1. If you have a magic system, use it.  In Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson gets a lot of beats out of people burning various metals; in Warbreaker, his main character’s hair turns color according to her emotions.  I’m working on a shape shifter book; my characters can show their emotions in the ways their bodies shift, but consciously and subconsciously.   If you’re lucky enough to have something like this, use it.  Your beats will be more unique and interesting when they’re derived from your world, and you’ll be enriching your world to boot.  Reciprocal relationships like that are the best.  Win/win!
  2. You do have a setting.  But it looks and feels different, depending on your character’s mood.  Let your character describe people, places and things in emotional language in the dialogue beats; then the reader can tell what they’re feeling through the same words you’re using to get across the blocking, or the setting.  Once again, win/win.
  3. This is Butler’s real contribution: you can use quick, one sentence visceral images from the past as a character remembers something, or from a feared or desired future when your character anticipates something.  Not a full flashback, just an image.  These can make really powerful beats, but they have to be pretty seamless in order to work right.
  4. I’d add, you can do the same with things the character fears/hopes are happening in the present, in other locations in your world.  If a character is worried about someone else, you don’t need to tell us they’re worried.  Give us a one sentence visceral image of what the fear looks like, and we’ll be worried, too.
  5. On the same note of Butler’s “little vivid bursts of waking dreams,” you can also go surreal.  If the character gives us an image of the floor swallowing her whole, we’ll get that she’s scared, or wants to hide.  Just make sure that the surreal images are clearly metaphorical, and avoid them in the first pages of fantasy novels.  Wouldn’t want your reader suddenly imagining carnivorous floors, unless you’re writing about them.  In which case you are awesome.
  6. Another good beat is a deliberate physical action that reveals what the character’s feeling.  Just make sure we’re really grounded in the character’s internal thoughts before she slaps someone.  If we are, it’s a great beat.  If we’re not, we’re confused.
  7. Then, there’s the oft used physical sensation beats, both the internal and the external.  The wind can blow across her face.  Her heart can pound.  She can grind her teeth.  These are powerful, but super easy to overuse.  I try to exhaust the rest of the list first, and I’m still using too many of these.  Time to cut, cut, cut.  And then replace.  With a better beat.  Dang it.
  8. And last, while I don’t glowingly recommend this, you can just tell us what the emotion is.  “He looked angry,” isn’t the most artful sentence ever, but hey, it’s better than leaving it blank.  And as I’ve been researching, I’ve been surprised about how often my favorite authors just tell me what the emotion is a lot of the time.  I put this at the very bottom of the list, because I think other ways are better ways, but if artistry fails you, just tell us what the character feels.  You can fix it later, or if you don’t, most readers will probably forgive you, especially if you don’t do it every time.
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.
Happy beats!