"You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." - Jodi Picoult
When you send out 50+ queries and only get manuscript requests from two, it is time to take a second look at your novel. Something is putting agents off. It might be the plot. It might be the characters. And it could be your worldbuilding.
It could be your grammar. Your word choice. Your rhythm.
If you are anything like me, you won't know what you are doing wrong. I didn't get any feedback from agents. I never went to college for writing. So when I got rejection after rejection, I had to find another way to look at my novel.
Like any reader might, I turned to books. And in their solace, I found exactly what I needed.
There are two types of writing aid books the way I see it:
Books that tell you what to do and how to do it. Most of the time, these are arranged in chapters. They might cover characters, plot creation, and worldbuilding. Or they could highlight the importance of dialogue, beats, and more specific techniques. Whatever they teach you, they do so in paragraph format. You might look back to them as you edit but you are more likely to read through them once, twice, three times (or as many times as it takes to absorb their concepts).
Thesauruses, lexicons, and other list-type books. These are extremely helpful in the editing process. Whatever the list includes (setting pieces, actions, descriptions, etc.) you will be able to look back at it for help when you need replacements for your overused words.
I've found help from both types of books. The first is generally most helpful for identifying the problems in my novel. The second is more helpful for fixing them. I have looked mostly for books to help me at my stage of writing so there aren't any on this list that helps with plotting a novel, character development, or worldbuilding though there are many books like that out there.
Best Overall Writing-Aid Book
The Writer's Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann
Overview: The Writer's Lexicon is what it say's it is: a lexicon. But it is also more. The lexicon has tips and tools to overcome your book's worst problems whether that be overusing "said," "turned" and laughed or putting curse words where they shouldn't be. Steinemann advises the reader on the dos and don'ts of writing a novel and then proceeds to give solutions for the problems one might face. Everything is concise, well organized, and very, very, true.
Why I Like It: The Writer's Lexicon was one of the first writing aid books I read. I picked it up hoping that it would give me some lists of words to insert into my novel. It did and in that way it was helpful. However, the book does so much more too. The Writer's Lexicon is the only reason I was able to edit my book to be as close to perfection as I can imagine it getting. From Steinemann, I learned about the words I was overusing and the words I should never (or rarely) use. If I wasn't convinced that my book needed an edit from the lack of agents coming after it, Steinemann's words convinced me. It was after her book that I not only began work on editing my novel but also felt confident I could do it right (or "write!")
How I Use It: I use this book for a lot of things. When I first read it, I learned a lot from it. The second time through, I was making a list of things that I needed to change in my novel. Once I began editing, I used it to replace the words I was overusing and be inspired to insert new words and phrases. This book is so helpful for every stage of the writer's process.
One Thing it Taught Me: Before this book, there were a lot of phrases I was overusing. There were some I knew I shouldn't be overusing (deep down) and the book reminded me to fix those. But there were two I didn't consider before reading the book: "watched" and "turned." I previously had my characters turn (usually to face someone) all the time and I didn't even realize it. Most of the time, it is an unnecessary word. I also constantly had one character or another "watch" while the other did something. Almost all (if not all) of these cases were changed from "I watched him do this" to "he did this."
Other Books By the Author: The Writer's Body Lexicon; The Writer's Lexicon Volume 2; Suppose: Drabbles, Flash Fiction, and Short Stories
How-To Writing Aid Books
Best How-To Writing Aid: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Overview: Written by two editors, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a writing aid that you can trust. The book is chock full of information about how you should and shouldn't write and how to edit out the mistakes. Unlike many other writing aid books, Self-Editing is written by people who (for sure) know what they are writing about. Don't get me wrong, The Writer's Lexicon and Noble's Book of Writing Blunders are great books but their authors don't have many (or any) good quality novels published. Renni Browne and Dave King know editing like the back of their hands because they are editors and have been for quite some time. They can tell you what will immediately put agents or editors off your novel, and in this book, that's exactly what they do. This is also the best writing aid book I've read so far for dialogue help.
Why I Like It: There was some really good-quality information in this book that I plan to return to again and again. I actually read this book after most of the other informational writing books on this list but Self-Editing for Fiction Writers taught me a lot of new facts that I hadn't yet learned from the others. A lot of writing books give the same tips over and over again, regurgitated in a new way. For those books, you must simply choose the one with the writing style you find most interesting. This book teaches a lot of different things (perhaps in part because it is written from a different point of view).
One Thing It Taught Me: There are a lot of things this book taught me. How to narrow it down to one?!? These editors taught me that I was starting some of my sentences entirely wrong. They pointed out I was a novice writer! According to Browne and King, sentences like the following should be changed.
"Picking up her walking stick, she trod across the room."
"As he yelled at her, she searched for some food."
"He sat down, having said enough."
"She picked up her walking stick and trod across the room."
"He yelled at her. His words were pointless so she searched for some food instead of listening.
"He sat down. There was nothing left to say."
I had begun to change some of my sentences and phrases beginning with "-ing" words and "as" but the book highlighted the problem for me and I began to fix it with renewed vigor.
Other Books By the Author: NA (they're editors, not writers)
Noble's Book of Writing Blunders by William Noble
Overview: Noble's Book of Writing Blunders is a collection of short chapters detailing the "blunders" that authors often forget about in their writing. The book's subtitle suggests that the book teaches you how to fix these blunders though I didn't find that to be the case. However, the book is a helpful (and cute!) resource for learning about the mistakes you didn't realize you were making.
Why I Like It: First of all, the book is cute and I'm a sucker for cute little books (not that I own this one). The book has a simple but well-executed cover as well as beautiful designs at the beginning of each chapter. If you own it, it will be one of the cutest books on your shelf. The book also has nice short chapters that are easy to read. I also enjoyed the writer's style which pulled me into his book. Unlike other writing aid authors, he does note that for every rule, there are exceptions because this is art!
One Thing It Taught Me: A lot of the "blunders" in this book were ones I had read about in other books. I was incredibly encouraged by Noble's statements about exceptions. It felt like being validated. As a poet, I like to (on occasion) take liberties with my writing. I once had my mother look at my book to give feedback. There were places she would offer criticism to which I would sometimes respond, "I actually like it that way. It adds to the book/chapter/paragraph in this way." I don't always do that (I actually changed 90% of the places where she offered criticism) but on occasion, the "rules" should be up to the author, not the general public. While this validated me, the biggest thing I learned from the book was that there should be a rhythm to one's book even when it is prose. I think, there was some part of me that knew this as, for the most part, my book did display this rhythm, however, the chapter on rhythm stood out to me as one that answered questions (for example: "why doesn't this word work here?" which I often asked myself when a perfectly good word felt out of place).
Other Books By the Author: The Parents' Book of Ballet; Bookbanning in America; Show, Don't Tell
Description by Monica Wood
Overview: Description is a part of a series of books teaching people how to write fiction. That being said, the book is more like a really short school textbook than your average writing aid book. It's a different style (more informative, less showy) but still can be helpful. With its textbook style, it is more difficult to read but it has a lot more information stuffed into it than some of the others. Description talks about what you might think it does: description.
Why I Like It: I wouldn't call this book my favorite writing aid book, however, it was incredibly informative with plenty of advice on how to write a book. Monica Wood points out that just about everything in the book (scenes, people, actions, etc.) involves description meaning your description must be spot on or you'll have some problems. I struggled to enjoy reading the book but it was short enough that it wasn't a problem, the examples were helpful and there was a ton of advice stuffed into the short book.
One Thing It Taught Me: Description clarified for me what is "showing" and what is "telling" and, more importantly, described how to use the two. Some writing aid books may tell you to only ever "show" things but showing all the time gets old fast. A good book will have a mix of the two and a good author knows when to use each of them.
Other Books By the Author: Ernie's Ark; A Woman in a Million; When We Were the Kennedys
List-Type Writing Aid Books
Best List-Type Writing Aid: The Writer's Body Lexicon
The Writer's Body Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann
Overview: The Writer's Body Lexicon is essentially the same as The Writer's Lexicon but for body parts and actions. I advise having both on your shelf (The Writer's Lexicon for learning the words you overuse and replacing them and The Writer's Body Lexicon for describing people and giving them a plethora of actions to complete). This book is near as organized as The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Similarly to 1,000 Character Reactions from Head to Toe, the book is organized by body part. For each body part, descriptions are listed as well as actions and even some similes. For example, under "hair" you will find actions organized by the emotion they reveal, adjectives for hair organized alphabetically, similes for hair, colors for hair organized by general color (blond, brunette, etc.), PLUS scents, styles/cuts, props for hair, transitive verbs, nouns, and cliches/idioms.
Why I Like It: This book is EXTREMELY extensive. There is just about every body part you might think of using within these pages with descriptive words and actions for them all. It has a helpful list of hair colors and skin colors (which can both be difficult to conquer at times) plus so many actions divided by the emotion they reveal. It is unbelievably helpful. I bought it (at a full price of $20!) to get some help with describing body parts. I was struggling, in particular, with skin colors and hair colors. This book was so much more than I was hoping for. I stopped using "golden" as a descriptor for everything (after all, it is extremely cliche in a goldilocks twist) and managed to find great replacements for everything.
How I Use It: Like many of the other books, I use this for a lot. When I was editing my book, I used this to help find replacement words for descriptors I was overusing. I used it to help me describe a different body part (instead of eyes and hair every time). But it also came in handy when I had beats in need of a different action or long paragraphs of description needing an action to split them up.
Other Books By the Author: The Writer's Lexicon; The Writer's Lexicon Volume 2; Suppose: Drabbles, Flash Fiction, and Short Stories
The Rural Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Overview: The Rural Setting Thesaurus is a bit like The Writer's Lexicon in that it has a handy list of words you can use to describe your settings. It is organized by setting (canyon, ruins, forest, etc.) and each setting has words for each sense (smell, taste, feel, sight, sound) as well as a list of people who would be at that setting and conflict that occurs at the setting.
Why I Like It: This is perhaps the BEST organized writing aid book I've seen. No matter how helpful your book, if it is badly organized, I will never be able to find the information I need when I need it. But with The Rural Setting Thesaurus, I can always find the location I am looking for in the index and then find the words I'm looking for within that based o what sense I'm looking to describe. I also love the theory behind this book. WhenI was editing my novel, I discovered that just about every scene I set in the forest has my character tripping over, leaning against, or at least spotting a log. It seemed that the only thing I could think of as belonging in the forest (besides trees) was logs. I have since included many more smells, tastes, and feelings for my forest as well as other sights and sounds. The Rural Setting Thesaurus did not have the settings I was expecting it to have (forest, creek, canyon, mountain, etc.). Though these were present in the book, I expected the entire book (and not the final quarter) to include these settings and others entirely removed from society. Instead, there were more settings like "block party," "mansion" and "teenager's bedroom." I do think that the book (and the series it is a part of) are good but the title may be somewhat misleading.
How I Use It: As I mentioned, I use this book to include a wider range of setting details in my novel. I actually didn't find myself reaching for the book as often as one might think while I was editing. Many of the details I needed came to me quickly once I had begun to read the book and understood what I was looking for. For example, the first entry in the book is "attic." According to the authors, in an attic, one might see "animal scat" or "old rocking chairs;" they might hear "fabric crinkling" or "hail on the roof;" they may smell "damp wood" or "wet cardboard;" they could taste "ozone tang" or "dust" and might feel a rusty metal key twisting in a lock or "a lacy coverlet." (NOTE: there are plenty more items listed under each category than the ones I listed). After reading that, I had my character hear the "shing" of a sword being drawn. She saw the sword, the emerald glittering in the sunlight. She felt the tip of the blade pressing into her neck and could taste the iron tang of her blood in the air. The smell of the man standing across from her was strong enough to make her cringe.
Other Books By the Author: The Emotion Thesaurus, The Urban Setting Thesaurus, Etc.
1,000 Character Reactions from Head to Toe
1,000 Character Reactions from Head to Toe by Valerie Howard
Overview: This is a short but simple book you can buy on Amazon for a total of $5 (full-price). From what I can tell, the book is self-published by a Christian author (and pastor's wife) named Valerie Howard. Despite its seemingly simple origins, it has a good collection of actions in it divided by the body part they refer to. Many of the actions are a little less literal than those listed in The Writer's Body Lexicon. For example, the Lexicon might list things like "tapping a foot" or "covering ears with one's hands." In contrast, Character Reactions lists things like "head throbbing" and "heart fluttering" (note: quotation marks do not signify direct quotations but rather general ideas). If you were to get only one of the books, I would suggest the Lexicon if for no other reason than it provides a great deal more information and notes what emotions the actions display. However, the two books provide entirely different actions for the most part and it is helpful to have both.
Why I Like It: The book is so simple. Howard lists 1,000 actions, many of them ones that I hadn't yet thought of. Because of the length of the book, it is a quick read and one could read it over and over again until they have the actions in their head (practically memorized). The price is also great and the book (for the most part) doesn't lack quality despite being self-published.
How I Use It: Honestly, I use Character Reactions in a similar way to the Lexicon. I needed a great deal more actions for my book than "laugh," "smile," "turn," and the like. I had to replace a lot of "smiles" and "laughs" in the book and add in more actions where they were lacking. This (and the Lexicon) was how I did it. Most often, when I needed an action, I turned to the Lexicon first (especially if I knew the emotion and body part I wanted). If I didn't find it there (or didn't know what I wanted) I would then go to Character Reactions for inspiration. Character Reactions has such a different style of actions than the Lexicon that I used both throughout the editing process.
Other Books By the Author: 1,000 Strong Verbs; Our God Saves; Still Small Voice; Saving Faith; Picking Daisy