Revision Techniques

I love revision. My first drafts tend to be real ugly ducklings. If there’s a swan inside, it only emerges after multiple revisions.

In this post, I’m giving you two things: first, my ten-point global revision technique; and second, my detail checklist. The detail checklist is especially helpful for getting rid of those pesky errors introduced through laziness. I hope these help!

Ten-point revision checklist:

  1. Reread entire manuscript in one sitting, making margin notes and keeping track of details (i.e., character eye color, dates, place names) for consistency.
  2. Confirm that tone, POV, and voice are working.
  3. Identify large-scale plot weaknesses. Use Martha Alderson, aka, The Plot Whisperer or James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle to locate plot turning points and confirm that tension is increasing appropriately.
  4. Make a scene or chapter chart, as per Martha Alderson or Darcy Pattison (Novel Metamorphosis).
  5. Try Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript” technique.
  6. Identify your characters’ arcs. Make sure you have a “story-worthy problem” (the true underlying problem your character must resolve – see HOOKED by Les Edgerton) and a resonant theme. Make sure that the story-worthy problem is discovered by both reader and protagonist late in the story, ideally around the climax.
  7. Use Cheryl Klein’s plot checklist worksheet to further clarify theme and emotional arcs.
  8. Rewrite/type entire manuscript from a hard copy. Read entire manuscript out loud.
  9. Use a checklist for minor issues or run through Darcy Pattison’s exercises.
  10. Do exercises in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.


    My compilation plot paradigm, which includes elements from Martha Alderson and James Scott Bell.

Detail revision checklist:

In addition to smoothing all those plot inconsistencies, adding twists and turns, and working on character-deepening, there are a few things I “checklist” as I revise.

  • Find all the “ly” words (i.e., adverbs) by using the Word search feature and eliminating most.
  • Search for “it is/was” and “there is/was”. It’s almost always stronger to use different phrasing. (Or…Phrases are almost always stronger without “it’s”.)
  • Search for places where my character “felt,” “thought,” “saw,” “looked,” “noticed,” “remembered,” etc. When I’m really inside my character, those phrases aren’t necessary.
  • Search for sentence “flow.” In particular, I look sentence by sentence for stronger first and last words.
  • Search for passive voice and other indicators of “telling.”
  • Try to make sure there’s tension on every page.
  • Remove dialogue tags wherever possible. Even “said” can get in the way when only two people are talking.
  • Make sure gesture substitutes for internal thoughts wherever possible.
  • Look for those things that popped up in my subconscious and may be amplified – recurring metaphors or images.
  • Watch for repetition.
  • “Voice” – either jargon, dialect, or manner of speaking as appropriate
  • Remove “just” “so” or other personal hiccups
  • Remove linking verbs
  • Remove “then,” “when”
  • Add physical gestures/personal tics
  • Check five senses

If you have any revision checklist ideas to add, please do!

The “Magic of Verse” in BLUE BIRDS

As a lover of historical fiction, I’m always on the hunt for excellent reads, and I’m thrilled that BLUE BIRDS, Caroline Starr Rose’s second novel (following her highly acclaimed debut MAY B.), is available now!

Here’s a synopsis of BLUE BIRDS: “It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.

“Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.”Blue Birds cover high res

Caroline has written a guest post on the crafting of BLUE BIRDS, and in particular, the alternating voices of the novel:

There are always a few things that lead me to a book, but I’m not fully aware of them at the beginning. I was drawn to the Lost Colony story while teaching fifth-grade social studies in 2008. I hadn’t thought about those 117 missing people and their mysterious last message, CROATOAN, since my own school days. Coincidentally, our Scholastic book order had several books about the Lost Colony available at the same time. I ordered them and shared what I was learning with my students. This is where the seeds of BLUE BIRDS story began.

But I can look further back and see that Alis and Kimi’s friendship came from my own girlhood relationships. I relied a lot on those feelings of belonging, the intensity and sincerity of those early bonds to tell the girls’ story.

When I first started drafting BLUE BIRDS, the story came from only Alis’s perspective. But the more I wrote, the more I realized the story hinged on Alis and Kimi’s forbidden friendship, and to most truthfully tell it, I needed both girls’ voices. This was kind of terrifying. I worried how others might feel about a non-Native author speaking for a Native girl. I wondered if I even had permission to try. But I kept returning to the things I had in common with both girls — feeling understood by another person, the way identity is often formed out of young friendship. This gave me enough courage to keep moving forward with the writing.Carolyn Starr Rose, author of Blue Birds

As strange as it sounds, verse has become my default. I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly.

For this book in particular, verse also became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak” their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!

Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, MAY B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English, and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. Visit her at

Tension On Every Page

A year plus ago I had the good fortune to attend a conference featuring three greats: Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass. I already had books by each one of them, and I carried my copies along for their signatures. One of these is my well-used copy of Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. He signed it, “Tension on every page!”

In my previous posts I’ve talked about tension and conflict at the most general levels of plot. Maass takes this position: there can’t be too much tension in a novel. As a result, he’s a firm believer in adding tension in every chapter, to every scene, on every page.


Donald says: tension!

To do this he suggests that you randomly turn to any page of your manuscript, select any line at random, and heighten the tension in that line.

Do this on every page of your manuscript until you’ve got the kind of tension that results in a can’t-put-down read. Hard work? You bet.

But let’s look at, first, how little one needs to do, and, second, how hugely it pays off.

I opened THE HUNGER GAMES to a random page, and here’s what I read: “My eyes squint as they try to penetrate the tree next to me, but I can’t make out Rue. Since she tipped me off, it seems only fair to warn her. Besides, if I’m going to die today, it’s Rue I want to win.”

What does Collins do, in this tiny snippet, that is immediately riveting? Let’s look at the verbs: squint, penetrate, tipped, warn, die, win. Each one calculated to be extreme, and to suggest that Katniss is on the edge, unable to fully view the outcome. In addition, Collins doesn’t let up on the physical death stakes: “…I’m going to die today…”

Just to round things out, this paragraph concludes: “Even if it means a little extra food for my family, the idea of Peeta being crowned victor is unbearable.”

Unbearable! Even if her family would get something out of it Katniss is utterly unwilling to tolerate the success of her friend turned ally turned enemy. With extreme internal thoughts and pointed external behaviors in every sentence, Collins does not let her readers off the hook for a second.

If you still doubt the importance of this, take any page of your manuscript right now, and change nothing but the vocabulary. If you have called someone “charming”, change him to “irresistible.” If your character “asks” for something, have them “demand” it. Heighten just the vocabulary and after one paragraph I guarantee you’ll finish the page and then the scene.

Do the same with internal emotional responses, and you’ll be on your way. Yes, it will take time, but you’ll be delighted – no, thrilled – with the results.

Creating Conflict

Last week I posted about tension and “death stakes”. This week I’ll broaden the conversation to discuss conflict, in the most general terms.

Once again, I’ll also invoke one of my favorite writers, James Scott Bell, and his craft book CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE. He states that a successful novel is “the emotionally satisfying account of how a character deals with imminent death.”

Even Dorothy suffered conflict and death stakes.

Even Dorothy suffered conflict and death stakes.

You’ve got a super idea for a story, and identified the death stakes (right?) Once you’ve taken this step, your job is to build the landscape in which you immerse your reader in conflict. How that character deals with the constant threat of death (whether physical, psychological, or professional) creates the emotional connection with your reader.

Bell identifies four basic components of conflict (you can remember it by the acronym LOCK) as…

  1. a Lead worth following. That is, a protagonist who is, if not likable, at the very least relatable. Someone to root for, someone to care about, someone you want to spend a lot of time with. Even in plot-driven fiction, your protagonist must be dimensional and heroic (think Dirty Harry, or Katniss Everdeen).
  2. an Objective. What does your protagonist care about most in the world? What is worth dying for – worth changing for? Because your protagonist must change. The arc of your novel is the arc of your character’s change and growth (Harry Potter from boy orphan to powerful wizard, from alone to part of a community). She must find some deep belief that drives her not only through the novel but through life, and she must be willing to give up her very soul to achieve it (Harry, willing to die in combat with Voldemort).
  3. a Confrontation. Now, antagonists can take on many shades. Scarlett O’Hara faces the loss of her way of life. In THE BOOK THIEF, Liesel faces Nazism. In the movie Cast Away, Chuck Nolan faces nature. Katniss faces an entire society. But most of the time, an antagonist is another human, who must be as three-dimensional as your protagonist. Voldemort is a classic example – we know his backstory, and why he became such a horror, and even feel (a bit) sorry for him.
  4. a Knockout ending. You have to resolve the main character’s arc, satisfy his objective, end right after your protagonist has suffered the highest stakes, you must be unpredictable – even surprising – in your outcome. Luke Skywalker’s father makes the ultimate sacrifice. Liesel finds Max and lives out her life after the war. Frodo makes for the west, right when he should be enjoying success. All heart-wrenching, satisfying, unexpected and yet totally believable endings.

In my forthcoming middle grade novel, CHATELAINE, my protagonist is Kat, a 12-year old girl caught in the early days of World War 2 (my Lead). She has to be both mother and father to her siblings when they’re sent to a creepy castle in Scotland, while their father goes missing on the Continent (my Objective). She faces a sinister series of events (my Confrontation) before discovering the twist that will give her power over her adversaries (my Knockout ending, and my resolved death stakes.)

This is conflict at the grandest strokes of craft. Coming up: conflict at the page and scene level.


Tension is essential in stories that will resonate with readers. As a reader, you know the feeling – staying up way past your bedtime because you can’t put that book down. This post is a short introduction to crafting tension that will have your readers hanging on every word.

Rule number 1: story is conflict.

This is the only rule.

Conflict pits your main character against any number of obstacles, whether human (classic antagonist), natural (think earthquake or tornado), emotional (boy loses girl), or other (society, science fiction element, etc.). Conflict is generated moment by moment, scene by scene.

Conflict creates tension, and results from the stakes. Your protagonist’s stakes must appear in your opening pages. High stakes create high tension.

Without tension in story your reader will yawn, put your book down, and watch some mind-numbing reality TV show instead of reading. Please don’t subject your readers to mind-numbing reality shows.

To create tension you must create conflict ON EVERY PAGE, because your ultimate goal is “to create a satisfying emotional experience for the reader” (James Scott Bell, Conflict and Suspense.)

Hamlet, creating tension

Alas, poor Yorick!

Bell – one of my favorite craft authors, by the way – takes this one step further, and suggests that in any emotionally satisfying novel the stakes have to be death. The genre doesn’t matter; whether it’s comedy or tragedy doesn’t matter. The stakes are death.

According to Bell, there are 3 kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological.

  1. Physical death. Win or die. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones…thrillers, murder mysteries, much scifi and fantasy, etc. Those are the stories that explore physical death.
  1. Professional death. The death of the dream. The death of future dreams. For teens this can also mean death of the young self to be replaced by…? Think Because of Winn-Dixie, and Holes. Think of novels in which the teen is a failure in school or with peers and turning a corner into adulthood. What kind of adult will this kid become?
  1. Psychological death. Dying on the inside. Romances, angsty teen novels, comedies all contain psychological death. Catcher in the Rye, every teen romance are examples.

Obviously, you can also combine these: Twilight is some combination of all three (which may be one reason for its success?).

Exercise: take your favorite can’t-put-down novel and try to identify the death stakes. Check out the level of conflict on every page. Share here, if you like!

I’ll have more on conflict in an upcoming post.

Guest Post: Anna Staniszewski On Wrapping Up a Series

Today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome my friend and fellow EMLA author Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and eating far too much chocolate. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, the Dirt Diary series, and the forthcoming Switched at First Kiss series, all published by Sourcebooks, as well as the picture book Power Down, Little Robot, coming from Henry Holt in March.

With all of her accumulated wisdom on series writing, she has some terrific thoughts on how to close out a book series without going crazy.Anna Staniszewski

Here’s Anna – but you can also find her at

The phrase “wrapping up a series” makes me picture a neat little bundle of books all tied up with a bow. A series feels so pretty and orderly when it’s all finished, but getting it to that point usually takes a good bit of ugly chaos. Since The Gossip File, the final book in my second series, came out last month, I thought I’d share a few techniques that I’ve found helpful in taming the chaos.

  • Plan ahead.

I used to be a die-hard pantser, but writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t work very well when you have to write several books that all need to tie together and come to a satisfying conclusion. These days, I write a synopsis for each book that I’m working on, and when it comes to sequels, I make sure that the synopsis for each follow-up book builds on what came before. There’s still a lot of adjusting and rethinking that happens along the way, but at least having that plan in place early on helps keep me pointed in the right direction.

  • Give each book its own journey.

If each book in a series is about the character facing the same challenges, the series is going to feel boring. I make sure to send the character on a distinct emotional and physical journey in every book, each one bringing out a different part of her character so that she’s forced to change and grow in new ways. If she’s battling her fear of failure in every installment, for example, readers are going to start to get a little bored.gossip file cover small

  • Have your characters evolve.

This is related to the previous point: If your character is the exact same person at the beginning of Book 1 as she is at the end of Book 3, that’s a problem (unless the point of the story is that your character doesn’t change). Readers want your characters to be flawed, but they probably don’t want to be yelling “don’t go into that closet!” over and over again. At some point, the character needs to start acting like a better version of herself so that we know she’ll be okay after the series is over.

  • Avoid bows that are too neat.

I started off by talking about wrapping series up in a pretty bow, but I must admit that I prefer stories that don’t tie up absolutely everything. Of course, all the big threads that have been introduced throughout the series should be addressed in some way by the end, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be picture perfect. Throughout the Dirt Diary series, for example, Rachel struggles with her parents’ divorce. In the third book, I wanted to give that situation some closure, but I also wanted to keep it realistic. Ultimately, I created some hope for the future, but I also tried to make it clear to the reader that because Rachel has evolved as a character, she’ll be okay no matter what happens next.

Newest Catchphrase: Write Up!

I spent the past weekend at the New York SCBWI conference and, as always, it was enlightening and energizing. But what struck me was a message that I heard repeated a number of times from various speakers – editors, agents, and authors – and it was “write up!”

“Write up” means writing up for children, not down. It means writing complex stories with rich vocabulary. It means challenging readers to read and think critically. It means leaving plenty of room for the reader to interpret and interpolate.imgres

The fact that so many people were using the same catchphrase intrigues me. I’m sure it wasn’t planned. I’m also struck that we’re being encouraged to “write up” at the same time that I’m hearing more and more stories in the general media about how children’s literature isn’t “real” literature, and adults who read young adult novels are in some fashion deficient and immature.

Clearly those in the publishing business don’t want us to dumb down our writing, and in fact they and readers won’t buy our work if we do. I find it insulting (to put it mildly) when I hear disparaging remarks about children’s and young adult literature because the authors who are finding an audience are “writing up” already. Take the example of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this year’s Newbery choice. Or Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, this year’s Printz winner. Both highly complex, moving, and evocative stories.imgres-1

So fellow authors, we are writing for an audience that needs all our smarts. This is an audience that must learn to think critically in a complex world. To heck with those who don’t want to read our challenging stories. Write up, my friends.

Write up!

Attending A Conference? Dos and Don’ts

I’m about to head off to New York for SCBWI’s 2015 Winter Conference. I remember my early conference-attending years. My anticipation was keen, but I recall not knowing what to expect as I went about the business of mingling with editors, agents, and published authors – all of whom walked on water as far as I was concerned. Whether you’ll be in New York or plan on attending a regional conference, whether SCBWI or another, here are some “dos and don’ts” to keep in (1)


  • Sign up for critiques and/or pitches if at all possible. My first few were cringe-worthy, but they were learning experiences, and I grew a lot as I learned what worked and what didn’t.
  • Get to know your peers, whether you are starting out or have some experience. The people you meet at a conference could become your lifelong writing buddies.
  • Attend as many sessions as you can – especially craft sessions. Listen. Learn.
  • Be open. You’ll find inspiration in strange places. Some of my best ideas have grown out of margin notes (“what if…”) while listening to a great speaker.
  • Pay attention to “news”. The publishing industry is constantly changing, and those sessions on industry can help you navigate the tides. And social media is always in flux.
  • Wear comfortable but professional clothing. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and especially if you are being critiqued by a pro, you want them to remember you in a positive



  • Try to be trendy. Don’t change your writing focus to match what editors or agents say they want. What they really want is great writing.
  • Be pushy. Don’t fling yourself at editors, agents, or published authors. See my comments on this in my logline post. No handing out business cards (unless asked) or manuscripts. Be respectful.
  • See this as a sales meeting. Don’t even take your work with you unless you have signed up for a critique or a pitch. You’re there to learn.
  • Exhaust yourself. Try to eat sensibly and get some rest. Big conferences can be jam-packed.

Conferences are a terrific way to learn if you’re a newbie, and they are a wonderful place to grow your connections if you’re further along. I’ve never been to a conference I didn’t like and didn’t learn from, and always come away recharged and ready to get back to my work.

If you’re in New York next weekend, come find me!

Interview: Stephanie Pitman and Her Debut HONORABLE DISGRACE

Today I’m delighted to introduce fellow Montana author Stephanie Pitman, and her debut YA novel HONORABLE DISGRACE, just out. It’s a deeply personal account of a traumatic experience, which I believe is important to discuss. Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK and Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, Pitman recounts the story of a girl experiencing rape and carrying the shadows of guilt and self-loathing.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Angie Adams joins the powerlifting team her junior year, but she has more in mind than just toning up—like getting closer to her crush, football star Cory Jacob, who, as luck would have it, is assigned as her spotting partner. When Angie’s feelings are unexpectedly returned, her life is suddenly filled with the giddy electricity of first love. But why, then, does Angie get a little flutter when her older and very hot boss, Brad, looks at her?

Angie seems to have everything going her way, until her world is torn apart by her sister’s betrayal which leads to a brutal rape. Heartbroken and reeling in the aftermath, Angie has to find an internal strength to rival her record-breaking power lifts if she ever wants to feel worthy of love again.”

Congratulations, Stephanie, on the publication of your novel, HONORABLE DISGRACE. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?HD Front Cover

Thanks, Janet. I am very excited.

Well, I never intended to write Honorable Disgrace and that is mainly due to the fact it is based on an experience I had as a teen, one I felt very ashamed of. When I was sixteen, some poor choices from my older sister put me in a situation where I was raped. I personally felt it was my fault, that I had sent signals to my sister or to the guy, who was someone I had met before, to make them think I wanted that type of attention. The burden of that I kept to myself along with the deep feelings of betrayal. I never told my sister what had happened and only ever shared what happened with a couple friends and later my husband. As life moved on, I really felt I had gotten over the ordeal. But about six years ago I began having nightmares. I was already a writer, so I turned to writing for therapy and it evolved to what it is now. Angie, the main character in Honorable Disgrace, faced similar burdens but she faced them how I wished I’d had the courage to face them, and she realized much sooner than I did, that she was still of worth to others and in return worthy of receiving love.

Wow. Such a compelling story, and how brave of you to step forward and write it. I imagine that bringing this to the page was a huge leap. How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I began writing for children the year after my oldest son was born, so I’ve been at it about 12 years. After my first attempt at a picture book (which I still have plans to revise and get published) I found my true passion was writing for young adults. Like I mentioned, I do have a PB book completed, or so I thought it was at the time, and I have several other works in progress. But Honorable Disgrace is my first published work.

Can you describe your path to the publication of HONORABLE DISGRACE?

I touched on it in my earlier comment, but my path with Honorable Disgrace began when I realized my journal writing had the potential to be more than just therapy for me, that it could help others dealing with a similar tragedy, and that even if I only helped one person through my efforts, the time and struggle to get my book written and published would be worth it. It helped me to deal with my feelings and inspired me to forgive my sister for her part in my rape. She would have never knowingly put me in that situation.My Author Photo

It took me about 6 months to write, but there have been many revisions along the way. I’ve had a lot of wonderful ladies read it and give great critiques. Fantastic editing help by Jayne Pilimer. She’s awesome. Through SCBWI conferences I met many great agents and editors, Jayne was one, and though I did receive rejections from some of them, it only inspired me to make Honorable Disgrace better. Overall the whole process of writing and getting to publication took about 5 years. I do not plan on it taking that long for my next book.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Take action.

Most people have a story to tell, but only those willing to do the work will ever be published, so set goals for yourself, find ways to stay inspired and make the time to write. If you want to be a writer, write. The only thing that is second to that is to read.

That’s terrific advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I am a mother of two boys and wife to a great man. They inspire me in so many ways. They make me want to be a better mom and a better wife, so that much said, I guess you could say one of my goals is to find ways to do that. Listen more, talk less, set my time aside for them more and make memories, instill in my boys a passion for life and pursuing their dreams. And I want to grow old with my husband.

I also love to challenge myself and have done a lot of running races, relays and a few triathlons in the past few years. My son, Patterson, and I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to run at least one race each month this year and one of those races we plan to do a half marathon. It will be my second, but his first and they are tough. I also plan to do another relay race which consists of 12 people on a team, running a 180 mile course in as little time as possible and once you start, you don’t stop. There is someone running all day and all night and well into the next day. It’s amazing. I could go on forever about my goals for challenging myself physically, but I’ll end with my crazy dream. So far all the triathlons I’ve done have been sprints for beginners. 1000 yard swim, 12 mile bike, and 5K run, but I’d really like to do a full Olympic distance, which is usually double the sprint and maybe someday, long down the road, I’d love to do the Kona Ironman.

For writing, I plan to have another book near completion in a few months and getting ready for publication by the end of this year. And to get at least one book published each year until I run out of ideas. I’d really love to be a full time writer, but that may have to wait until I get a few more books under my belt.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I have quite a few. My current WIP is a standalone YA set in current day Paris. 17 year old Aubrey discovers a key which uncannily unlocks her past where she discovers her reincarnated self who she has to rescue to save her future. And of course along the way she finds intrigue, adventure, danger and love.

I also have a trilogy based on Mayan Gods in the mountains of Montana (I’m halfway through the first book), another fantasy about a fairy godmother with a completely new yet-to-be-done twist, my picture book revision and at least three more.

Wow! Such interesting projects! Do you have a website where readers can learn more about HONORABLE DISGRACE?

I do. It is

I feel honored for your time, Janet, and I thank you for the opportunity. I admire you as an author and am privileged to know you.

You are so sweet! I wish you all the best!

You can also find Stephanie on Facebook and Goodreads.

The Paper Chase: Advice For Writers Regarding SWAG

Sometime over the holidays I watched a great interview with Roz Chast about her National Book Award-winning memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? During the interview photos of her aging parents’ apartment popped up: cluttered pencil drawers with stub ends, desks piled with random papers, tottering bookshelves. Chast described her parents as hoarders by default of their age.

To be clear, I’m not a hoarder. I hate mess. But I do like eye candy in the form of color and assorted knick-knacks, and my husband and I have inherited lots of family treasures, some quite nice.


Some of the old SWAG I’m keeping “in case.” The rest is in the recycling bin.

Nevertheless, Chast’s photos gave me a bit of a chill, as I identified with drawers full of “stuff that might be useful some day” and “drawers containing things needing to be repaired”. I resolved to embark upon a January cleanup, inside and out.

SWAG bookmarks

That’s a lot of bookmarks.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, my office had become a repository for all the writerly things I’ve accumulated – bookmarks, post cards, outdated business cards, items I use at signings, items I use for giveaways. There was a lot of stuff, and most of it unnecessary.

Herewith, my advice for authors just starting out and thinking about what SWAG they might need:

  • In my experience, the most useful items for writers are business cards and bookmarks. I’ve tried postcards, but I suggest you only get them if you intend to mail them as invitations to a book signing or announcements to booksellers. People don’t like to pick them up at signings because they’re big and can’t be used for anything.
  • I’ve been to a couple of writers’ conferences with large swag bags full of giveaways. Some of the items were quite elaborate: printed velvet, door hang tags, key fobs, large pins. Hard items to toss, sure, but toss them I did, and I have never bought a book because I liked the SWAG. Never.
  • Don’t buy huge quantities of anything. 1000 bookmarks? That’s what I did. Then, six months later, my book made a list, and I wanted that kudo on a new set of bookmarks, so the 500 or so remaining first gen bookmarks were useless. Just one of the stacks I recently recycled…
  • Think carefully about layout and design. If you’re lucky, you might have an image that is significant and personal (I’ve branded around my name – Fox). You want the images you use to look fresh even several years down the road.
  • An image of your book cover is a great idea, until the book goes to paperback with a different cover. Hence the reminder to buy small quantities.
  • Business cards should look professional and feel nice in the hand. A good heavy card stock with a gloss finish on one side is ideal – the other side should be mostly blank for writing something personal if necessary. You won’t be handing out business cards to the general public. They’re for industry professionals – editors, agents, fellow writers, librarians, teachers. I’ve used Vistaprint, and MOO, and like them both, but there are many other companies.
  • Bookmarks, too, should be relatively sturdy cardstock, and gloss one one side – some kids collect signed bookmarks, so one matte side for signing is nice. Include the following information: cover image, publisher, ISBN, your name, website, a tag line, abbreviated nice review, awards/stars. Most of mine are 2 inches by 6 inches. I’ve used my local printer but Overnight Prints and  UPrinting are both recommended.
  • Don’t make the mistake I’ve made of missing vital information. In one round of business cards (a nice collection of 250), I forgot to add my email, probably my single most important contact point. Hence 250 useless cards. Double and triple check.

That’s my set of suggestions. Hopefully you can avoid having to fill the recycling bin with paper products that don’t carry their share of the load, and avoid a clutter mess to clean out next year.