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Leave Your Cave

Amazing Breakthrough Resources You Should Know About

Editor’s Nightstand Series

Originally posted at


In Plato’s Republic—

Yes, we’re getting a little literary here, but what kind of editor doesn’t occasionally call upon the “the cannon” (dun-dun-dun-duh) in order to sound smart? C’mon, let us pontificate for a minute. So, in his Republic, Plato tells the allegory of the cave in which a group of people are held immobile in a cave where a fire is behind them and casts shadows from the outside world. The cave people believe the shadows are the reality; but one day one of them is released and leaves the cave, where he sees the source of the shadows and realizes the world is made up of colors and light. He then returns to share his newfound knowledge with his fellow cave dwellers.

This allegory was intended to show the philosopher’s place in the world: to leave the cave, see reality, and communicate it to others. Similarly, an editor’s place is to illuminate writers.

As the title of this post promises, our series, Editor’s Nightstand, will be about cluing you in to the best breakthrough resources we know of. What does that mean? It means these are books we read—as editors with years of experience in reading and publishing—and said “Whoa … that is brilliant.” When we have recommended them to budding writers, we’ve consequently watched their books go from blah to bling. Salivating?

Why Nightstand?

Among the five editors (and dozens of surveyees) who contribute to this series, there are a LOT of great books sitting on nightstands (and e-readers) out there. We want to offer you an overview of some of the resources that make up part of an editor’s arsenal and that successfully guide hundreds of writers to greater heights—both in craft advancement and book sales.

How do your favorite authors do it? What magic do they spin to create such amazing stories? This series gives you insight into their processes, so that instead of trying to interpret shadows on a wall, you will see the colors and light that make up a good book’s reality.

So, here’s a taste. While in future articles we’ll be discussing in depth how to use some of the ideas and principles noted in the books below, the following list includes just a brief synopsis of vital reading for narrative writers (fiction, memoir, etc.). These are useful books for any genre fitting into that category. But worry not—we will get very specific in future Editor’s Nightstands, reviewing books and articles geared toward individual genres or specific types of scenes and execution issues (fight scenes, romantic tension, etc.).

The Books

One of the top areas you need to understand first is good beginnings, because they’re often the makers and breakers of your potential literary career—right out of the gate. For many readers, how quickly you draw them into the story is critical to their purchasing your book (or for reading further if they gambled on your first book, say, for Amazon-pricing reasons).

The opening pages are even more important if you’re trying to get an agent or traditional publisher. Ask any editor who’s worked in house at a publisher, and we’ll tell you that an editor could get lost forever under the mountain of submissions. After a few months of trying to give every book the benefit of the doubt, if editors want to see their families, sleep, brush their teeth, etc., they have to shift their paradigm from author-friendly to sanity-friendly.

That means both editors and agents are looking for reasons to reject a manuscript as quickly as possible. So if the opening doesn’t stop their breath, or if the telltale red flags of amateur prose cry out to them, the form-rejection goes out and they move on.


Our first book spotlight is Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton (writer and editor). From his book, you’ll discover how much there is to learn about a heart-stopping opening—how many well-considered “beginnings” you’re going to lay down: “The opening line, the opening paragraph, the opening scene, the opening page, and the opening chapter itself” (p. 7).

All of these beginnings combine to accomplish four critical goals: “(1) To successfully introduce the story-worthy problem; (2) to hook the readers; (3) to establish the rules of the story; and (4) to forecast the ending of the story” (p. 36). Oooohh … foreshadowing …

What is the “story-worthy” problem and why are you sunk without one? (It’s not the plot, if that’s what you’re thinking.) Do raging fans and fainting agents mean anything to you? If you want to turn away the paparazzi, you’ll want to get your hands on Edgerton’s 10-part secret to that knockout beginning.

The First Five Pages

Once you understand how to construct a great story beginning, you’ll want to get a handle on how to execute those awesome story ideas through prose. Stepping into the light comes The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pileby Noah Lukeman (literary agent).

As Lukeman writes: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great.” However, as he also points out, while “there are no rules to assure great writing … there are ways to avoid bad writing” (p. 1).

While good writing tends to be unique, bad writing tends to come in the form of the exact same problems across the globe. Correcting this problem for you, dear reader, is the goal of his book. Nineteen key principles of poor execution—and how to avoid it—fill this neat little tome. As editors we all agree with Lukeman’s observation that while “the art of writing cannot be taught … the craft of writing can. … There is no such thing as a great writer; there are only great re-writers” (p. 15).

Scene and Structure

Once you’ve nailed your beginning and have a handle on understanding decent prose, you’ll have to convince the now-intrigued reader that you can deliver on the promises you’ve made and keep them turning pages. Thus, to help with plot, enter Elements of Fiction Writing—Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham.

Bickham reminds the writer that, psychologically, readers turn pages because:

  1. They are fascinated and threatened by significant changes;
  2. They want the story to start with such a change;
  3. They want to have a story question to worry about;
  4. They want the story question answered in the story ending;
  5. They will quickly lose patience with everything but material that relates to the story question (p. 7).

And he provides clear, step-by-step direction for how to construct a scene and chapter in order to keep readers where they want to be.

Sign up below for our newsletter, and you’ll have instant access to future Editor’s Nightstands. In our next installment, we review some resources to improve execution (prose) and nail that befuddling point of view.

Here’s your chance to chime in. Want to throw another title into the ring and defend it as awesome enough for other writers to pick up? Tell us your favorite meta-writing books—or other resources—for breakthrough insights on narrative writing skills. Leave those comments below!

Awesome “Museum” Posters

Just wanted to share some fun posters one of my friends mentioned on her Facebook page. They were a student portfolio project that had the Smithsonian logo and looked awesome, but since the’ve gained such popularity the museum said the creators needed to remove their logo. I understand but it does lessen the impact slightly. Oh well. Enjoy!

Why the New FDA Cigarette Labels Won’t Work

Here’s a link to copies of the new, “approved” images that will be on the top half of every pack of cigarette:

If we want the rate of smoking-related deaths to decrease I think it’s a given that we have to prevent anyone from beginning to smoke. That’s the idea behind the new labels. The FDA wants to make people who smoke face the potential consequences of their decision every time they pull out a pack. Let’s hope people don’t start investing in cigarette cases. (They are pretty sleek, even if you do have to keep refilling them, which does force you to look at one of 9 “anti-smoking” images, but far less often than the 7,000 times a year or so a pack-a-day habit would normally do.)

Another of the purported goals of this new labeling is to reduce the number of children and teens who start smoking. And FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, interviewed on PBS Newshour, admitted that most people who smoke start before they are 18. So the FDA hopes that looking at these images will discourage teens and younger from trying the first however many cigarettes it takes to make smoking a habit.

Here’s the problem I see.

According to the FDA’s press release, “The FDA selected nine images from the originally proposed 36 after reviewing the relevant scientific literature, analyzing the results from an 18,000 person study and considering more than 1,700 comments from a variety of groups, including the tobacco industry, retailers, health professionals, public health and other advocacy groups, academics, state and local public health agencies, medical organizations and individual consumers.”

Did you notice that they consulted with the tobacco industry on which images would best deter potential smokers? Did you notice that no mention was made of working with teens, smoking or non, as individuals or as part of advocacy groups to find out what types of images would most effectively discourage these same children from beginning to smoke? Dr. Hamburg mentioned a few times that these labels are based on what’s been done in other countries, but why not mention what has worked with U.S. teens in the past?

This image warns that cigarettes are addictive. But how are teens expected to think it applies to them when this man is obviously older and less attractive than teens perceive–or hope–themselves to be? And how many teens have children of their own? The mother in this image is obviously older.

Why is this image a cartoon? It makes the infant’s distress less real, and not even graphic novel fans would identify it with the consequences of smoking without the words. Babies cry all the time, after all, especially when they’re in the NICU.

How many of the following situations are real for teens, who believe they can smoke while its cool and quit whenever they want? How many teens suffer from these consequences?

Even the “quitter” is significantly older than teens. Teens want to be like their peers, not their parents.

Then there’s the dead smoker. Why doesn’t his autopsy incision match the Y-incision on all the crime shows? Even if it’s more realistic, it’s not what teens perceive as real.

And how is a sobbing older woman going to drive home to teens the consequences of secondhand smoke?

Another danger: Will teens rebel against this effort as they have in the past and start collecting the labels? Will they identify themselves with one of the images and insist on purchasing only that label?

Finally, where are the statistics that prove this type of campaign works for teens? Why is the FDA launching a campaign that potentially infringes on the right of Big Tobacco to label a legal product without the proof that it will actually influence real teens who are being tempted to smoke their first cigarettes? Big Tobacco is putting up a fight (the suit was filed in 2009), but if they had input in the development of these labels how are we sure they won’t find a way around them, a loophole that they influenced?

This last point is less important than what will actually work for teens, and as the truth campaigns that started in Florida proved, health risks don’t give teens a reason to not smoke or to stop smoking: peer pressure does and believing Big Tobacco is manipulating consumers does. An excellent read on this very phenomenon, Join the Club by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tina Rosenberg (the link is not intended to promote purchases; please feel free to check it out of your library).