Category Archives: Advice

I’ve Finished 2 Novels. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

With the release of Harbingers, the story I began working on in 2009 with the hazy goal of finishing a single novel has now materialized into 2 published books. Hooray!

But something looks a little off there. 8 years to finish 2 books? Lots of authors publish novels on a yearly basis.

I’ll tell you right now: I’m not “lots of authors.” I haven’t distilled novel-writing down to a crank-’em-out science. But, I also don’t think it’ll take 4 years to outline, draft, and finish Sword and Starship Book 3. Here are some factors that should aid my turnaround time.

1. I’m more disciplined about writing now. This is the big one. From 2009 to 2014, I was only writing once a week or less, flying by the seat of my pants with no outline. Quitting my day-job allowed me to make writing my full-time focus. Once I got connected with an editor who could guide me in the ways of book-planning, things really started falling into place.

All planning and good intentions aside, the book only gets written if I sit down to write it. I’m blessed to be able to do that every single day. (Though I do take breaks on weekends. Breaks are necessary.)

2. I’m more informed about the novel-writing process. Novels are a LOT more complicated than short stories, which I was more accustomed to prior to starting this project. My first draft of Blood’s Force (which was later expanded into Blood’s Force and Harbingers) was only about 80K words, and performed a breakneck speed-run through the plot without pausing to build up suspense, relationships, or other really important stuff.

A ton of prep work has to happen before any writing starts: figuring out character goals, constructing an outline, mapping character arcs and relationships. They won’t be set in stone—while drafting, surprises always happen that force you to change course—but working in the mid-draft revelation is much better than petering out after 80 pages because you have no idea what happens next.

3. I know to finish the first draft before doing any editing. Long before a first draft of Blood’s Force was done, I was taking chapters to critique groups, obsessing over word choices, etc. This is a HUGE waste of time. Surprises happen constantly while you’re drafting. You don’t want to know how many really polished scenes I ended up cutting as my outline changed, and how much I was tempted not to cut only because I’d spent so much time on it. This time around, I know not to start rewriting or soliciting critique in earnest until I have a complete story done.

4. I’m letting myself be OK with imperfection. This is hard, because it goes against the grain of my upbringing. “Make all As!” “Always give 110%!” The demands of perfectionism are like a harsh spotlight blaring over everything I do. When writing, I pause constantly in search of the right word or turn of phrase. A voice in my skull tells me I need to be funnier, more clever, more profound. Get it right, or else!

Then a whole morning passes, and I only have three sentences written.

It helps to remember that the writing process isn’t a one-time orchestral performance in front of a huge audience. It’s more like sculpting alone in a studio. I can start rough where no one will see, then chisel out something more beautiful while editing.

Eventually, though, I have to stop chiseling and release my work into the world as-is. There are always parts I think are still unacceptably weak, but they’re probably not as bad as I fear.

5. I’ve learned to prize clarity and simplicity. As a younger writer, I wanted my prose to be profound and complex and thought-provoking. Now, I just want to communicate clearly, which should make drafting easier. I don’t need the fancy $10 thesaurus word when the first word off the top of my head will do—especially in a first-person narrative where the main character is talking informally to her audience.

6. I know how to leverage the strengths of my reviewers. I’ve learned my husband is great for taking a pitch and improving it. “Why don’t you do X instead?” where X is something so much cooler than what I thought of. What he’s not so good at is at challenging me on the weak points in my writing—pointing out awkward phrases, noting where I could include more emotion and reflection, etc. My editor is much better at this. So I’ll keep these things in mind when seeking critique.

All that said, I’m now outlining what I’d like to have happen in future Sword and Starship books! Wish me luck! :)

Polish Your Manuscript With One Final Sanity Read

sanity_catWhat? This picture SCREAMS sanity.

Last time, I talked about the editing and revision “groove” I got into and rather enjoyed. As you read there, it involved

  • a defined but flexible schedule,
  • a good heaping helping of self-compassion,
  • a blend of making edits directly on my computer and typing in edits made on paper.

Some of the edits were rather substantial, basically drafting whole new, fresh paragraphs (or pages). Then there was the matter of all that typing. Data entry inevitably opens the door to finger-mistakes. How could I be sure all this new material fit in well, and as flawlessly as possible?

For sanity’s sake, once I finished my final editing/revision pass on Blood’s Force, I completed one last read-through of the entire manuscript. This was not just to look for dumb mistakes. During my prior editing, I’d been deeply focused on one chapter at a time. This was a time to consider the book as a whole, and how all the parts worked together.

Once again, I started at the beginning with a blank mind and moved forward chronologically. I tried to read at the same pace as a regular reader, but was a little slower at times with my attention on typos. Still, this went a lot quicker than an editing/revision pass. I was able to review around 15k words a day on average; you might be able to handle more or less.

On my sanity pass, these were the specific things I paid attention to. Hopefully, you find them useful as well!

(1) Spelling, grammar, punctuation, omitted words, repeated words. In your word processor, try reading your work at different zoom levels. Low zoom gives you a better chance of catching words that have been accidentally repeated across paragraphs and pages. Reading at a high magnification lets you identify typos easier. So can switching fonts, especially to something monospace, so the font you normally use doesn’t trick you into thinking you spelled something right. Speaking of fonts, make sure to pick a good one for the final product.

megaflicksOh, kerning, you bitch.

(2) Continuity. Verifying consistency in character traits, inventories, events, details, spellings, and actions.

(3) Flow from chapter to chapter. Does the story progress the way you intended? Are your chapter transitions strong enough to allow someone to put the book down for a while, then ease back in with minimal difficulty? (I’ll likely have more to say on this later, as it was a weak point in my earlier drafts.)

(4) Huh? sentences. If at any time you pause and sit on a sentence, not quite sure what you meant to convey, that’s likely to be a spot where your reader will stop and go “Huh?” too. Edit or remove it.

This is not just about quality and making sure you correctly changed what you intended to change. You’re also minimizing the chances of your reader being jarred by unintentional goofs. The more attention you put into this now, the less likely you’ll have to correct things after the book is published. Given how tedious it is to make these corrections, post them, and wait for the fixes to become available to customers, you want to avoid this whenever possible!

I’ll probably have more to say about my first experience with the self-publishing process as well. There was a lot that I DIY-ed, and I’d be happy to talk about it for anyone else who wants to minimize their publishing expense without sacrificing quality.

If there are any questions I can answer for you about anything, feel free to ask in the comments!

Finding My Editing And Revising Groove

curved_arrow“OK, now I gotta go back over it from the beginning!” When you’re editing a novel, you’ll say this at least 37 times.

I was on a blogging hiatus for a while there! Sorry about that. Two major things kept me from blogging for the past while:

(1) Both of my cats passing away in August, less than a week apart.

(2) My final editing passes on Blood’s Force. Which is a real book now. Holy crap. :D

With (1), I’m still not quite ready to go into detail. Maybe I’ll have more to say about my babies later—they certainly deserve a fine tribute—but right now I’m not up for it.

The work on (2) has helped me keep my head. I found myself with 22 chapters to revise, reread, and hunt through for those insidious errors like accidental repetition, words left out, or two letters displaced (“complaint” vs. “compliant,” for example. I did that in a Daily WTF article once).

I accomplished this in two major passes. One was a thorough editing and revision pass, the second a “sanity” pass for cleanup purposes.

I’ll talk about the editing/revision pass first (sanity pass will be another article). For the first time ever, I fell into a really good groove with this process that I’d like to repeat later. I’ll lay out here what I did, and more specifically, why it worked for me. Everyone has different preferences and approaches. It’s all about finding what works best for you.

Here’s the naked process—or algorithm, if you will (gotta put that CompSci degree to good use now and then):

(1) Started at Chapter 1 with a “blank” mind and advanced in chronological order, tackling one chapter at a time for as long as necessary.

(2) I did an initial read-through of the chapter on my computer, making whatever changes I wanted. I already mostly knew what to fix based on my editor’s suggestions, but I’d also find typos, plot/character inconsistencies, and other things to iron out.

(3) Once the chapter was in a readable state, I printed it out double-spaced, in a different font.

(4) With the printout, I waited until at least the next day to re-read the chapter on paper. From there, I made further notes and revisions in pen. Waste of paper? Au contraire! My eye catches different things in different media. When the font is different, it tricks my brain into thinking I’ve never seen this stuff before, and makes me feel like I’m critiquing someone else’s work. Don’t worry, tree lovers, my city has a lovely recycling program.

(5) Typed in my revisions.

(6) Moved on to the next chapter!

The following factors made the above process work for me:

Flexible deadlines. Every week, I’d schedule day by day what tasks I hoped to complete. I aimed for 2-3 chapters edited per week. Sometimes I worked on the weekends, sometimes I didn’t. The scheduling was important for providing a clear idea of what I needed to do to feel “done” each day. But if I fell behind, I allowed that to happen and adjusted things accordingly. (See the point on compassion below.)

A set work time every day. Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM – 12:00PM were my working hours. Some days there were exceptions, like for doctor’s appointments or really bad surprises (emergency vet trips, sigh). No worries. The point is that as long as I devoted those hours to the book, I felt like I’d done my job. The rest of the day, I could spend however I wanted without feeling guilty. Sometimes I did do extra work on the book, but not terribly often. The time away was always valuable for refreshing my brain.

Compassion toward myself. When I fell behind my schedule or got frustrated with a bit of editing that just wouldn’t edit, I didn’t give myself shit for it. Since leaving the 9-5 rat race, I’ve worked hard to cultivate a compassionate inner voice, a “boss” who doesn’t fret or put me down when things don’t go perfectly. This has seriously cut down on the amount of anxiety and stress I feel overall.

Chronological sequence. Once you’ve written a whole book full of crap, and have another book full of all the crap you cut from the book, you’ll reach the point where you constantly ask yourself, “Wait, is that [scene/character/etc.] still in the book?” Starting fresh on page 1 and editing forward from there will let you experience what the reader is going to learn and when. If it doesn’t work, this is the time to fix it.

And for your sanity’s sake, please please PLEASE don’t edit until you’re done drafting! :)

If you have your own tried-and-true editing method, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Blow Off Some Steam With Side-Writing


For most of the time I was drafting Blood’s Force, I was solely focused on that project. All of my brainstorming and creative energy were attuned to where that story was going next, and how it was going to get there.

An impressive feat of focus and discipline, but after a while, all that squinting in one direction strained my creative vision. It took me a while to realize the value of increased sanity breaks away from writing – usually for reading, drawing, and video games. (Oh, and fireflies.)

But then I gradually sneaked writing into my off-time as well – writing that had nothing to do with my main project. My husband and I play a story-building game together, similar to a forum RPG. We keep shared files on Google Docs. He’ll write out his character’s actions, I’ll append my character’s actions, then it’s his turn again. There’s no obligation at all. It’s just fun.

It’s amazing how fast that writing pours out of my head. On my “serious” projects, 1000 new words is a really good day. With my playtime writing, I can churn out 1000 words in the space of an hour or two. I don’t have to think about it, it just happens. The voice that’s normally third-guessing each word goes on vacation. I get a lot of opportunity to flex my creativity muscles, working with a different set of characters, constraints, and problems to solve.

It seems like energy wasted. All that effort for prose that only two people will ever see? But seriously, it’s a really good break from my main project, especially when I’m stuck on something there and need time away from it. The shift to a different genre and set of characters lets my brain go places it wouldn’t normally go if it had to remain in the “main” thought-space. That divergent thinking really helps refresh me upon returning to the main project.

The other benefit to side projects is that they often help me get going on days when I feel like I can’t get anything done. I have the aforementioned story-writing with my husband; I also have this very blog, and articles for The Daily WTF. If I’m feeling too brain-dead to launch straight into my main project, I’ll take 30-60 minutes to draft a blog post or article. One crappy sentence becomes two, then three… who cares, right? It’s drafting. By the time I’m done, I feel a sense of accomplishment, and greater confidence that I’ll achieve something constructive on my main project.

It seems silly to ask someone experiencing writer’s block, “Have you tried writing?” But seriously, taking a break to work on something else might be a great way to power through it.

Travel Logs: The Handy Reference You May Be Overlooking


When I go on vacation, I have a rule of spending as little time on the computer as possible. This was especially true when I had a regular full-time job, but I don’t see things changing as a freelancer.  I paid good money to put myself in a different place for a while, to experience that place – so I might as well experience it. There will be ample email- and social media-fooling-around time when I get home.

I make two tiny exceptions. One: communication from my pet-sitters (I have two cats, and I’m never doing OK unless I know they’re doing OK). Two: at the end of each day, I spend 5-10 minutes chronicling the day’s events: where we went, what was good and bad, how it all looked and felt, what I learned about this new place and the people there.

I find this a really valuable practice for several reasons:

  • In case I decide to base a story, scene, or character off this information later. I can draw upon and leverage my authentic experiences. Living it yourself is seriously the best method of research possible!
  • It’s good writing practice when I’m away from my usual projects. I think it’s helpful to step away and write things that aren’t your main project from time to time. It helps you blow off steam, and lets your brain go in directions it won’t normally because it’s stuck in some particular genre, with a particular set of characters and circumstances.
  • To encourage myself to do and see more. I’m an introvert who needs regular kicks to the butt to get out and do things. I want to have lots to write down later!
  • If I decide to revisit this place someday, it’s a reference guide of lessons learned. Restaurants to revisit, for instance – or the valuable knowledge that you need at least 2 hours to get through US customs!
  • To relive an awesome trip as often as I like. The trips I’ve logged this way, I remember much better than the ones I didn’t. This makes it easy to recall sights/sounds/smells/quotes/etc. that might’ve slipped through the cracks otherwise. A few words in, and suddenly I’m re-enjoying that mocha in the museum cafe.

My journaling is really nothing special – just a rich text file – but I put as much of my own personality and humor into the descriptions as I can, and soon the thing has a life of its own. It’s not something I intend to share, but it easily could be a blog post or essay if I spruced it up.

If you haven’t logged your own travel this way, give it a shot and see what happens!

“Start As Close To The End As Possible”


Scattered across the Internet, you’ll find a set of “fiction” or “short story” rules (depending on the source) attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers. My own judgment is that they’re more useful for short fiction than long, because they’re mostly geared toward getting to the point and not wasting the reader’s time. Of course that’s important in any fiction, but for a short story, it’s crucial.

I happen to be plunking at a couple of short stories at the moment as I await feedback on the latest draft of Blood’s Force. Of Vonnegut’s 8 rules, number 5 helped me out a lot this week:

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

I intend for one of the short stories to be a prequel of Blood’s Force– but for the past few years, I’ve been in long-fiction mode. So as I outlined this thing, I made plenty of room in the front for a slow buildup, establishing world and character. I still had no good idea of a starting place or line, but figured that’d work itself as I drafted.

And then I sat down to draft… and I didn’t want to. I was dreading it.

Uh-oh, that was my spider-sense tingling! That meant something was wrong with my approach. But what? What could I change to make myself more interested in this thing?

It took a day or two of thought. Maybe if I have a really creative opening? OK, but what? I’m stuck there now. Hang on, is there any scene in this outline I do want to write? Otherwise, I should just scrap the darn thing and start over.

It turned out, yes, there was this scene near the middle that intrigued me.

Then, right before bed one night, it hit me: START THERE. Like Kurt said. Ditch the slow build and start one scene shy of the climax. Weave in establishing details as the action happens. Give a taste of the world, don’t try to explain it. That’s what the books are for.

This approach struck me as more intriguing, and more challenging. I’ll be trying it out and seeing what happens!

Just a quick example of my thought process when I get stuck. I hope it might help someone else. :)

Writing Realistic Fight Scenes: Advice From A Martial Artist

kriegIf you’re looking to add realism to a fight sequence, talk to someone who’s been in a few fights.

Hey- that’s me!

Okay, quick disclaimer: I don’t like fighting. I’m not good at it. But it’s something I’ve had to practice in my martial arts career, for good reason. For one thing, I know I won’t get totally wailed on in a real fight (because I’ve been in a real fight, and I wasn’t wailed on). For another, it teaches you the most important lesson: the desire to avoid fights altogether.

I’m the last person to tell you that I’m some kind of super badass. My modest credentials are as follows:

  • Second-degree brown belt in Kenpo, Jun Fan, Muay Thai, and Eskrima.
  • About five years’ experience with freestyle sparring, grappling, and kickboxing.
  • About the same amount of time playing with Kali sticks, machete, and bo staff. A wee bit of experience with sai and German longsword.
  • Experience with squaring off against all different kinds of people. Men and women, anywhere from my height/weight (5’5″ / 115 lbs) to a foot taller and two hundred pounds heavier.

That’s enough for me to tell you the following about what a fight is like:

Real fights are short.
Think- really think- about two people running at each other with razor-sharp weapons and the intent to kill. Do you believe they’d actually spend twenty minutes tirelessly exchanging blows in a beautiful, deadly ballet?

Hell no.

Want to know what a real sword-fight looks like? You can find plenty of examples on YouTube, but here’s the gist: two opponents will either charge right up to each other, or square up and test each other out until someone sees an opening. Once they close, they may exchange a few blows before (a) one or both go down with lethal wounds, or (b) one or both lose their weapons and switch to a grapple/melee.

A fist-fight typically doesn’t last long, either. Action movie heroes can shake off 37 punches and keep going, but you and I can potentially be killed by ONE lucky shot.

If a fight does run long, you’ll find yourself expending a lot of effort to whack the other person and dodge their hits. It wears you out. You’ll have trouble holding your arms up. You’ll gasp for air. You’ll get sloppy with form and defense- and that’s often when you or your opponent will make a terrible mistake.

Real fights are ugly.
A real fight is about survival, not about showing off fancy choreographed moves. With stakes and emotions running high, all one’s discipline and training may go right out the window- assuming one had any to begin with. Sometimes your single emotion is DIE. Sometimes it’s Please, deity of choice, let this end.

In a real fight, everything’s fair game. Hair-pulling, fingernail-raking, nut-shots- whatever gets the job done fastest.

Keeping your guard up is super important.
Especially if you’re a tiny little wisp like me. It’s way too easy for a bigger opponent to bop a smaller one in the head- if you leave your guard down. When you put up your dukes, they shouldn’t hover at chin or chest level. At least one fist should be held high to block head-shots (I tend to keep my lead fist above the crown of my head, and my rear fist around ear-height). When using a weapon, it should also be poised to protect your head as often as possible.

Again, it gets hard to do this as a fight drags on, and the muscles in your arms complain about holding your fists/weapons up that high. It’s something you have to train yourself not to be lax about.

Even if you “win,” you’ll probably get hurt.
Throwing punches hurts your knuckles- if you throw them properly. Hold your hand wrong, or hit with the wrong part of your hand, and you will break something. It’s also stupidly easy to break fingers in a sword-fight. A deflected blade can bounce onto your fingers, or someone might punish you for forgetting to tuck your thumbs in. After all, what’s the easiest way to disarm your opponent? Smack the shit out of their hands.

Head injuries are very common and insidious as well. Movies and books tend to make light of them. The truth is, if someone falls unconscious for any length of time after a head injury, they’ve sustained a serious concussion and may have issues later with memory, vomiting, and a slew of other things. Head gear should be worn whenever possible, and head injuries checked out by a doctor after the fact.

The best way to win is not to fight at all.
Someone who talks a lot of shit probably hasn’t seen much of it. Most people with actual fighting experience won’t want to pad that resume- they’ll run if given the chance.

My karate school always advocated fighting as one’s last resort. As the saying goes, “What’s the best block? A city block!” (As in, a city block’s distance between you and your opponent.)


Hopefully this helps! If you have any questions or comments, let me know!

Ridiculously Simple Tricks For Reducing Word Count

scissorsChoose your weapon wisely!

Once you’ve got a fiction or nonfiction piece ready for prime-time, there may still be a word count limit you have to worry about. It may be a restriction imposed on you by the publisher, or you may want to get your piece as short and concise as possible- not just for simplicity’s sake, but also to reduce its overall file size. A smaller file size means a larger per-sale commission when you sell your work through sites like Amazon.

Reducing words while leaving meaning intact can be a real art form. Here are some tricks that aren’t so much “art” as “stupidly easy wins.” With any luck, they’ll trim your word count and make your prose stronger- and you won’t even break a sweat!

X of the Y -> the Y’s X or Y X

Holy crap, did I just go all math on you? No, I’m just referring to the very common of the structure for indicating possession. Common, but also wordier than necessary. Instead of “The branch of the tree,” for instance, you can say “The tree branch.” Instead of “The edge of the lake,” you can say “The lake’s edge.”

It’s really easy to perform a find operation in your word processor, look for occurrences of of the in the document, and see how many of these conversions make sense to do. Each time, you’re cutting out two words!

Was Xing, Started/Began/Try to X -> Xed

A lot of times, the construction of [subject] + [to be] + [verb]ing does nothing to add meaning to the sentence, and just pads it out unnecessarily. For instance, “I was poring through photo albums on Sunday” can easily become “I pored through photo albums on Sunday.”

Similarly, you don’t always have to announce when someone begins to perform an action. When they begin, they begin; it’s understood. And trying to do something is similarly redundant. Follow Yoda’s advice here: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Limit how often you use begin to, start to, try to, and similar constructions. When you eliminate these wishy-washy phrasings, your prose gets stronger and shorter.

Oh- but if you do use “try?” It’s always try to. There is no try “and.”

Not X -> UnX

If you can sub in un- instead of not, that gets rid of a word. “Not happy” to “unhappy,” for instance.

Adverb cutting

I discussed this recently, but simply axing unnecessary adverbs does a lot to lower word count and strengthen sentences. You’ll reap big wins for eliminating adverbs like really, quite, almost, somewhat, mostly, truly, very, etc.

Sometimes, a simple delete will do. Other times, you may want to look for a stronger verb or adjective to get the job done. For instance, you may change “very cold” to “frigid.”

Verb substitution

Be on the lookout for phrases that can be eliminated simply by using an equivalent, but shorter verb. For instance, “I turned to him” can become “I faced him.” Or “We got up to the counter” can become “We reached the counter.”

Unnecessary lead-in expressions

I don’t have a good name for these, but any time you start a sentence like “It’s a fact that…” or “I strongly believe that…” just cut that phrase out entirely. These words add nothing to the point you’re trying to make.

Extraneous “that”

There are a few cases where you can remove the word that and reduce your word count. If you can take that out and the sentence still makes sense, then do so. An example would be “He realized that he needed to do it.” This can easily become “He realized he needed to do it.”

Another example is “that” followed by a verb of some form. “The hands that restrained him,” for instance. You can take out that and tweak the verb to get “The hands restraining him,” which is shorter. Shorter still would be “The restraining hands,” but this construction may or may not make sense in context.


That’s it for now! When reducing word count, do be careful to preserve the meaning of your sentences. It’s easy to get so caught up in the number game that your prose suffers for it. When in doubt, err toward being CLEAR rather than CLEVER.

If you have any other dead-simple word count tricks, rattle ’em off in the comments below!

Killing (And Sparing) The Adverb

knifeAny tool can be used goodly or badly!

Why are adverbs “bad?”

Well, to be fair, they’re not. They’re quite simple and clear in their meaning, and are very common in ordinary speech.

However, some are severely overused in prose, making it plodding and tiresome to read. Some are extremely extraneous. And some tell what you can easily be showing instead.

One good way to step up your writing is to strike and swap out adverbs- when it makes sense to do so. Here are some thoughts toward addressing adverbs in your prose:

1) Don’t worry about dialogue. People talk how people talk. You needn’t take an axe to the words that come out of a character’s mouth, unless their dialogue must conform to a specific pattern (for instance, Commander Data in Star Trek never used contractions, lending a stilted tone to his speech).

2) Consider the person/voice of your narration. A first-person narration, wherein a character is telling you his story, should read more like the character is speaking. In that case, narration can follow the same rules as spoken dialogue, and can be whatever it needs to be- so long as it’s in-character. Your raging illiterate barbarian probably won’t ever be pondering the verisimilitude of his targets, for instance.

However, a narrative voice that’s not attached to any particular character will have no particular personality associated with it, and can benefit from some adverb-trimming.

3) Some adverbs can almost always be removed without a problem. Very, mostly, quite, really, fairly, somewhat, basically, fundamentally– these don’t add much. Removing them often makes the sentence stronger.

4) Consider revising or removing “cliche” adverbs. Strikingly beautiful, frequently used… some adverb/adjective or adverb/verb pairs are glued at the hip, they’re so frequently used together. Using them is a bit of inadvertent laziness on our part. It’s what our brains fall back on. And that’s fine for a first draft… but couldn’t you later come up with some original, more revealing way of saying the same thing?

Example 1: “I don’t come here often,” he said nervously.

Alternative 1: “I don’t come here often.” The hand holding his shot glass quivered.

Alternative 2: He stuttered something out, too quiet for me to hear. “What’s that?” I prompted.

He gave a start. “I- I just don’t come here often is all.”

Again, this falls into “show don’t tell” territory. Use these opportunities to reveal how characters behave or interpret the world around them.

Suddenly is also a good cliche to hunt down and destroy where possible. It does nothing to add to the prose, and is just a lazy way of signaling, “Hey, something’s about to happen.” You can do better!

5) Consider reserving adverbs for “unexpected” uses. An original adverb pairing can be attention-grabbing, but it should still be used sparingly. Too many of these can be distracting.


Have any other ideas about adverbs? Share your thoughts in the comments!

The Subtle Art Of Tells

chatter_teethWe hear it all the time: show, don’t tell. And most of the time, that’s solid advice. But there are occasions where a tell is necessary, or just a better idea: for the sake of brevity, backstory, worldbuilding, your series theme song, that sort of thing.

The way to do tells is to weave them in as seamlessly and naturally as possible. They should be ninja, dropping information into your readers’ minds without anyone being the wiser.

Why? Because an obvious tell can feel forced, pedantic, and fake. A really bad one hits the brakes on the whole story, throwing the reader clear.

So, what are some ways of doing tells well?

  • Keep them brief and rare. Paragraphs and chapters full of tell are really bad. If you have a lot of worldbuilding to do, spread it out in dribs and drabs. Let those details pop up when it makes sense for them to do so.
  • Don’t hit the brakes on your narration in order to tell. Sometimes this is done as part of an intro– or a character may go to a library, and we’re privy to every single word he reads while there. This usually sucks, because it leaves the story hanging. Breaks like these are why I’ll never read Solaris again, even though I really liked the premise.
  • Do your best to integrate the tell into the story. An example: in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and others rebel pilots are briefed on the plan to blow up the Death Star. There’s a lot of “tell” there about the Death Star design that would’ve been way too hard to show with the visual effects of the time. This tell also advances the story, rather than calling timeout on it.
  • Be careful with tell done through dialogue. A good rule of thumb is to avoid dialogue that begins with “You know.” “You know, Bob, your sister’s an accomplished scientist in her own right.” If the other character already knows, then there’s no reason for the speaker to say it, except to provide backstory to the reader. It feels phony. Never have characters explain things to each other that they should already know!
  • Leave a little mystery if so inclined. The tell doesn’t have to be all-inclusive. If your tell raises more questions than it answers, then readers will want to keep reading for those answers. Just be sure to provide answers eventually, in a satisfying manner!

What are your favorite tricks for tells? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!