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Monday, February 19, 2018

The Benefits of a To-Do List

Today is a really special day for a couple of reasons. 1 - This is my 300th blog post, which is pretty crazy. 2 - Back when I was sophomore in college, I took my first class from an instructor who actually understood the publishing process and in that class I had my first ever legit publication. While my end goal was fiction, the class was focused on writing columns and articles and reviews for magazines. It was the first class where I began learning how to actually be a professional writer. Prior, I was looking for resources--whatever I could find online--and was frankly feeling a little lost. Writing Excuses was just getting started, so I didn't have that, and the blogging boom in the industry hadn't hit yet.

One of the books that was part of the curriculum for that college class was Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Allen. I loved the book enough that I kept it and have even referred to it several times since graduating.

Last month I got a an email informing me of a new book release, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (third edition)--I immediately recognized the title--and asking if I'd be interested in hosting the author on my blog.

It only seemed right that she be here for my 300th blog post.

So if you are interested in learning how to be a professional writer, definitely check out her book. In any case, she's here to give us our writing tip for the week.

The Benefits of a To-Do List

I’m a huge fan of to-do lists. They’re one of the handiest tools to help you become a more organized, efficient writer. You can use them to help you:

1. Prioritize. When you’re juggling half-a-dozen tasks in your head, it’s difficult to decide which comes first. Writing tasks down helps you view them from a different perspective. On paper, it’s easier to see that A is more important than C, while D should move to second place, F has been dragging on far too long, and B could certainly wait for another day.

Prioritizing can involve many factors. One is deadlines. If a task is due in two weeks, it’s likely to move to the top. However, deadlines aren’t the only priority. If you’ve been meaning to research a query for a high-paying market, it may have no deadline, but every week you wait is another week away from an important career move. To-do lists also help identify tasks you’ve been procrastinating over.

2. Organize. My list doesn’t just include business tasks; it also covers the rest of my life. If I’m planning a family get-together, that ensures I don’t load up that week with a bunch of writing tasks that won’t get done.

Lists also help you assign time values to your tasks. Once you’ve written your list, you’ll immediately notice tasks that require a lot of time, versus tasks that can be done in a snap. Moving quick-response tasks to the top of my list encourages me to get them done, adding to my accomplishments without cutting into my schedule.

That doesn’t mean you should always go for the shortest job first. Don’t focus on trivial tasks to the exclusion of more important jobs!

3. Identify problems. When you maintain a list from week to week, you’ll soon notice tasks that keep “sliding” from one week to the next. You may need to take a closer look at why you’re procrastinating.

It could be that the task isn’t actually important to you. It might seem like something you should do, but it never reaches top priority. If that’s why it keeps sliding, drop it from the list entirely, or postpone it to a later time.

Conversely, you may keep postponing a project because it is important. Often, the tasks we put off the longest are those most important to us—and also the most intimidating. If you feel unready to tackle something significant, it will keep sliding until you’ve identified and dealt with your fears or concerns,

4. Recognize achievements. To me, the best part of a to-do list is turning it into a “done” list. A list helps you identify exactly what you have done with your time. It helps you identify achievements instead of berating yourself over things you haven’t done.

Some folks laugh at the idea of writing something on your list simply to cross it off. I find, however, that making a note of something I’ve done, even if it wasn’t on the original list, helps me track achievements and identify where my time was spent. Then, if I’m not able to cross off all the original items, seeing the new entry helps me understand why—and perhaps recognize that I achieved something more important than I had originally planned.

To achieve these benefits, it's important to manage a to-do list effectively. Here are some tips that can be applied to nearly any type of list:

1. It must be reasonable. A list that reads, “write my novel, clean the garage, develop lesson-plans to home-school my daughter, achieve world peace” won’t help you accomplish anything. It will simply lead to frustration. Your list should include only tasks you can hope to achieve within the timeframe.

This means distinguishing between “tasks” and “projects.” A “project” is the big picture. Writing a novel is a project; writing a chapter is a task. Some projects (“clean my desk”) are small enough to count as standalone tasks. Others need to be broken into smaller chunks. For example, writing a 2,000-word article may need to be broken into smaller tasks, such as interviews, research, outlining, writing the first draft, editing, and so on. Each task should be a separate list item.

2. It must be in line with your goals. Creating a to-do list works best when combined with your long-term vision. For example, let’s say you have a goal of setting up a website. This involves a number of steps, some of which must be done sequentially, some that can be done simultaneously. By adding those tasks to your list, you remain aware of where you are in the project and what needs to be done next, which keeps you on track toward your long-term goal while keeping specific tasks manageable.

3. It must have a defined time frame. I prefer weekly lists to trying to assign tasks to specific days. Others prefer daily lists, while others prefer to write lists for the month. Some even make lists for the year. Studies have actually shown that keeping a more flexible to-do list with a longer time frame (e.g., weekly or monthly rather than daily) can actually improve performance. Some people keep separate lists for tasks vs. projects. A monthly list might include “write travel article” and “organize photos,” while the weekly list includes “conduct interviews” and “obtain photos from travel bureau.” The key is identifying what you wish to achieve within a specific time frame.

4. It must be visible. My husband keeps his list on his computer. I keep mine on a pad of paper on my desk, where I can see it at a glance. If you can’t see your list, or never refer to it, it won’t help you.

5. It must be flexible. Your list is written on paper, not graven in stone. No matter how well you plan, something may come up that is more important or urgent than your list. When that happens, simply jot down the new priority, and don’t be surprised when older items must be postponed. This is one reason I prefer weekly rather than daily lists; if my goal is to complete Task X by the end of the week, having to postpone it by a day or two doesn’t necessarily affect my list as a whole.

It’s important to remember that a list is not a schedule. A list is simply that—a list of objectives within a particular time frame. Many of us feel stifled by schedules. A list tells you what you need to get done but leaves the management of your time up to you.

(Excerpt from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer)


Hope those tips help you be a more productive writer. I must admit, when my life is really crazy, I sometimes keep two to-do lists, and sometimes the same task is on each one--so I can feel really good crossing it off twice ;) 

Next week I'll be posting a tip about the most important part of writing a series, so I hope to see you then :)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How to Write Introspection Well (+updates)

Hi everyone! For this week's tip, I'm over coaching at and talking about introspection. You can read it here.

If you are into teasers, however, here is the beginning part of it:

Nothing can quite kill a story’s pacing like a big hunk of rambling introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character’s thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. And yet some stories have whole passages of introspection. So what gives?

Here are some tips to help you master introspection that makes your writing stronger, not weaker.

Less is More

Because beginning writers love character depth (who doesn’t?) and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close to their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character themselves—you don’t need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

To get your audience interested in your character’s interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character’s point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story’s opening.

Look Forward, Not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something—something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

Since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it’s often better to have your character think forward on something.

. . .You can read the rest here.


In other news, I'll be teaching at LDStorymakers this year in Provo, Utah! This has been my third time pitching to them, but since they get 300+ pitches a year and 400+ this year, competition can be a little tough, so I'm excited to finally be able to teach!

I'll be teaching about tone on Friday, May 4th.

If you haven't heard of LDStorymakers, it's perhaps my favorite writing conference, and I'd argue that it's the most professional one here in Utah, and the most professional one you can get at such a great price--which is probably why it sells out so fast. All the tickets are already gone (but you can join the wait list!).

I'll also have a vendor table for my editing work, which I'm pretty excited about, because it will be my first time. :)

Other than Storymakers, I now have a Facebook Page for Fawkes Editing, my editing business. I've resisted having a Facebook Page up to this point, but some features on Facebook you can only use if you have a page. So, if you are interested, you can like my page here.

See you guys next week for my next writing tip post. It's a special one because it's my 300th blog post!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: Don't Use Filter Words

In the writing world, filter words are often considered problematic, and for good reason. You may have been told to cut back on them in your story, or you may have been told to cut all of them. But sometimes filter words are actually the best choice. Today I'm going to talk about what filter words are, why people discourage them, and five reasons you should break the rule and use them.

What's the Rule?

"Filter words" are words that filter us through the character. They are phrases such as:

He looked

She felt

Julia smelled

Derek tasted

She saw

Chris touched

London stared

. . . and it goes onward.

While not as well known as some of the other writing rules ("Show, don't tell," "Don't use 'was'"), if you look around in the writing world, you'll see there is no shortage of sources that say we shouldn't use filter words.

The Rule:

Don't use filter words.

Why it's a Rule

At first glance, phrases like, "He looked," seem rather innocent.

But they are weak for a few reasons.

1. They put the character between the audience and the story. 

On my blog, I've talked several times about how it's important for the audience to experience the story for themselves, instead of just reading about the events that happened. Only when the audience is invested and experiencing the story will the story reach its full breadth of power. (There are some stories that are exceptions of course, but they are rare.)

Filter words distance the audience just a little bit. There is a degree between them and what's happening in the story.

When we want the audience to feel as if they are in the story, we want them to get as close and as invested in what's unfolding as possible.

2. They are unnecessary. 

Often filter words don't communicate anything new in the story and can just be cut.

For example:

Aiden saw a beetle climbing up the mulberry tree.

The phrase "Aiden saw" is taking up space and can simply be cut.

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.

Unless you are writing from what I call "guided omniscient" or "first-person omniscient," (and sometimes even then, depending on how the narrator handles it), the fact that the sentence is even on the page implies that at least the viewpoint character of that scene saw it, if not other characters.

Say that Aiden is our viewpoint character for this scene. The fact that a beetle is mentioned at all automatically suggests that Aiden saw it, because the audience knows (if only subconsciously) that we are experiencing the story from Aiden's view.

So to say that Aiden saw the beetle is redundant and unnecessary.

If Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, but someone with the viewpoint character, we can still imply that he also saw it. Here is one way:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree. 

"Woah!" Aiden said, drawing closer to the trunk. "Come look!" 

Dani didn't budge. The last thing I'm going to do is get close to a bug, she thought. 

In this example, Dani is the viewpoint character, but we can clearly tell Aiden saw the beetle too.

However, I should explain that since here Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, those phrases probably aren't technically filter words, because we are seeing the scene from Dani's viewpoint, so we can't be filtering through Aiden. So if I wrote this:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.

Aiden stared at it.

Dani didn't budge. Where do those bugs keep coming from? she wondered. 

I'm not sure I could agree we are "filtering" through Aiden, but it's still a phrase you might get some flack for, even though here it's communicating that Dani saw that Aiden was staring. So some people might still have a problems with it and argue against it on your manuscript.

3. They are weak verbs

Filter phrases can kill your writing quick if you use them all the time, mainly because they are weak verbs.

For example:

Marley went out back and saw the forest. He saw it was right up close to the hotel. He looked deep into the trees and saw a squirrel. He could hear a bird singing. He felt a cool breeze on his neck. A strange noise sounded to his left, and he looked to find a man sitting on a stump. Marley wondered how long he'd been there.

Do you see all those filter words? All those verbs are pretty bland and weak. You should use stronger verbs to make the story come alive.

(Hopefully you also see that all those filter words actually distance the audience, at least a little bit.)

Sometimes filter words can simply be cut, like I showed with Aiden. Other times getting rid of them takes more effort.

When you're a beginner, it's a lot harder to write without them, because, darn it, "saw," "looked," "smelled," "touched," are all verbs! And if you don't use those, well, crap, you have to find a way to get a different verb in that sentence to make it complete!

I feel your pain.

This is usually the part where the more experienced writer comes in and explains how the beginning writer needs to use more "strong verbs"--verbs that are more specific and powerful. Filter words are considered to be "weak verbs."

I still remember the first assignment back in college where I committed myself to stretching and reaching and using only strong verbs.

I was soooo slow. I looked up so many words. It was so hard. And even after that assignment, I was still at a snail's pace. I started to think it would always be like that. 

But it gets better.

And it was worth it.

When to Break it

- Establish and remind the audience who the viewpoint character is (third-person with multiple viewpoints)

Some people will probably disagree with me on this, but sometimes a nicely placed filter phrase is the best way to tell or remind the audience who the viewpoint character is. It's simple and straightforward.

If you are writing in third-person and have multiple viewpoint characters, when you start a new scene with a new viewpoint character, you've got to alert the audience to it quick.

Usually the first viewpoint character name to show up in the scene is the one the reader first assumes is the viewpoint.

Sure, there are a few ways you can do this.

For example, you could do it with an action:

Tiffany slammed her bedroom door.

But for some scene openings, the focus isn't what the character is doing, it's what the character is witnessing or feeling--that's what's important.

In the novel I'm perpetually working on, I open a scene with the viewpoint watching someone else. If I'm not using filter words, I'm going to be describing what someone--who is not the viewpoint character--is doing, and the reader is either going to get confused, assuming that person is the viewpoint character, or they are going to feel "ungrounded" and unsure how to view or interpret what they are reading.

In one of my scenes like this, I avoided using filter words, cause I mean, they are sorta bad, right?

But when I got feedback on it, a comment I got was something like, "say 'Mark looked.'" I had mixed feelings about it, but later realized it was exactly what needed to be done. It simply, quickly established whose viewpoint we were in.

See, imagine that Mark is witnessing a classmate sabotage someone else's test. And maybe because that's going to be my hook for the scene, I want to open with that in the first and second sentences.

I could just open the scene describing what that person is doing (in other words, no filter words).

Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leafed through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.

Now, sure, if Mark is a regular viewpoint character prior to this, the audience may assume he's our viewpoint character here. But if this is the first time that he's the viewpoint character or if Mark and Amber are regularly viewpoint characters, this opening might be confusing.

You can try reworking it and maybe finding other ways to communicate that Mark is the viewpoint, but maybe at this point in the story, the most powerful opening image is Amber sabotaging this test. You can appease both goals with a simple filter word.

Mark watched Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leaf through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.

When you are working in a scene that has several of your viewpoint characters in it, then in some scenes, particularly ones where the viewpoint isn't always obvious (the team of characters are working together to accomplish a physical goal, so you have a lot of physical blocking, often focusing on the group overall), then it might be helpful to your readers to occasionally remind them who the viewpoint character is through filter words.

Linda felt sick. She watched Brad and Joe climb over the wall and into shadows.

(Linda is our viewpoint character. "felt" is important in particular, because we know we can only know what the viewpoint character feels.)


Brad and Joe climbed over the wall and into shadows. 

(No filter words.)

This can also be really important when the viewpoint character knows what another person is thinking and feeling (out of being familiar with that person).

-When a viewpoint character knows another character's thoughts, emotions, or knowledge, and you need to signal to the reader that you didn't hop heads.

Imagine reading this when Linda is supposed to be our viewpoint character:

Brad held back panic and curse words.

You might think for a second that we are somehow now in Brad's viewpoint, or that it's a viewpoint error. But actually, what it is, is that Linda knows Brad so well that she can tell what he is feeling and thinking. 

So we might want to use a filter to help. 

Linda knew Brad held back panic and curse words.


Linda felt sick as she looked at Brad. He held back panic and curse words.

Assuming that it's been established that Linda knows Brad and his expressions very well, that would work. Other times you just get characters who are good at reading people, their body language and expressions, to know what they are thinking and feeling, even if they don't know the person personally.

Here, Linda's filter words remind and validate to the reader that we are in Linda's viewpoint, even though there is a line about what Brad is feeling and thinking. The author didn't suddenly hop heads.

Here is another example:

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie considered ways he'd want it done. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

In this example, Natalie comes to a conclusion about what "He" wants.

Notice how that might get confusing without Natalie's filter.

He wanted Sharon dead. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

Depending on the scene--for example, if this line happens when Natalie is thinking back on a conversation with "him," and "he" is no longer present--you may not need filter words.

But if it is happening during a conversation with him, you should probably consider using filter words.

And again, there may be ways around these things in your particular story.

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie bit her tongue. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

If her mouth is closed, we can assume that Natalie would be the only one to know she bit her tongue, so she must be the viewpoint character.

It should be noted that context plays a big role. What may work in one instance may not work in others. It really depends on the context you've given the reader.

- Emphasize an action over what is perceived or experienced

Remember how I touched on the idea that filter phrases contain verbs?

Sometimes the fact that a character sees something is more important than what she actually sees.

I'll give a stark example, and then get more into the details.

Imagine your viewpoint character has been temporarily blind. When his eyesight comes back, the fact he can see is maybe more important than what he sees.

I could simply write what he sees:

Bright yellow paint coated the wall.

But if he's just barely gotten back his eyesight, that might actually sound like a viewpoint error (for the average reader, we need to communicate that he sees it).

Besides, walls are kind of boring. But maybe that is the setting that he's in.

What's interesting is the fact he can see. And it's more important.

Eddy saw the bright yellow paint on the wall.

And also as I touched on, if we refuse to use filter words, we might accidentally not give the reader enough context to understand that his vision is back. They might think that our description of the wall color is actually a viewpoint error, since last they knew, Eddy was blind. In some scenes you can reword things and get around that, but in some scenes you just can't.

You may even want to use the phrase "Eddy saw" a few times to emphasize the fact he can see (stylistic choice).

Then there are sentences during conversations that read like this:

Miranda looked at Lily.

Major filter sentence, right? According to the rule, you should just skip the filter and describe what Miranda sees, which in this case would mean describing Lily's face.

But sometimes the fact Miranda looked at Lily in that moment, is more important than Lily's face. The point isn't what Miranda saw. It's that action. You know what I mean, when you are sitting and talking with people, and you say something, and someone suddenly looks at you. It's the action of looking that carries meaning.

Sometimes the fact the character sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, wonders, thinks, or feels something is more important than what the thing is.

- When you need a simple, bland, low-key beat, and don't want it to take attention away from something else.

In a few places on my blog, I've talked about naughty phrases and words like "There are" and "was" and even passive voice--filler words that don't actually communicate anything. In fact, they can be viewed as a method that actually lacks communication.

But that doesn't mean they are worthless.

We get so focused on making every word count, that we sometimes forget about the sounds and beats of our words.

Sometimes we just need that dang beat in our scene, a low-key beat that doesn't draw attention to itself--that doesn't take away attention from our real focus of the scene--it's that pause before the delivery of an important line, that part of silence during an important conversation, that preparation before a killer descriptive paragraph, that bland component that balances out complicated ideas we're trying to communicate.

Using a filter phrase can help with all those.

Sometimes it's because they communicate very little that they are perfect to use. They exist, they are there, they give us that beat, but they don't compete with what else is on the page for the reader's attention.

Sometimes "She thought for a moment," is exactly what you need. 

- Describing smells (I know it sounds random, but it's true)

When it comes to smell, at least in the English language, the verb word pool is really small. Like, seriously. What are your verb options that you can use that aren't filter words without getting weird?


For some reason our language has a lot of words that relate to stinky smells:

Funked up

But I mean, there are only so many stinky smells in the world, and yet the English language is hugely lacking when it comes to finding other strong verbs for other smells. I've probably used "wafted," "filled" and "permeated" hundreds of times, but I don't want to overuse them either, so really, my other option, other than to try to get so fancy it turns weird, is to use "smell" or "sniff"--filter words.

Frankly, I don't know how you can get through a whole novel regularly appealing to the sense of smell without using those filter words. Our language lacks dreadfully in that category.

Avoid getting too weird trying to coin strong verbs for smells.

Say "She smelled . . . "

Other Rule-breaking Posts
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Adverbs, Adjectives"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"
Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader

Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Handle Blocking

Hopefully by now you know that in most of your scenes you need to have a character in a setting with tension, but there is an area of writing where I don't feel like we spend enough time talking about, which is blocking. And I'm not talking about writer's block.

The term "blocking" is borrowed from play performances. Blocking is just about anything an actor does that isn't dialogue: where they stand, where they look, how they interact with the setting, how they move across the stage, how close they are to what, how they interact with props. Often audiences pay little attention to blocking, or rather they don't think about it enough to appreciate it.

But if a play has little to no blocking, well, that's a tough play to sit through as an audience. They may not always have an eye for great blocking, but they'll notice if it's not there.

Blocking is just as important in fiction writing. And like with plays, it's likely the reader won't appreciate great blocking, but they'll get antsy and annoyed if there is no blocking, and they'll get confused if there is poor blocking.

If you don't use blocking, not only does it make it difficult for the audience to imagine where your characters are relative to the setting, but you're selling your story short by not using it to your advantage.

As an editor, I see blocking problems crop up from time to time, usually in dialogue scenes. The writer will tell me where the characters are (for example, cooking in the kitchen), but then as I read the scene, I get no sense of specifically where each character is in the room, what each one is doing, if they are standing at an island or sitting at the table, chopping lettuce for a salad, or loading the dish washer. Next thing I know, not only are they done cooking, but they are done eating and are outside getting in the suburban.

Sure, some scenes don't require much, if any, blocking. But in most scenes, you need some sense of blocking.

Likewise, you can over-block a scene--putting so much blocking in, that it becomes unnecessary, sucks up the scene's focus, and slows the pacing.

A great narrative hand knows how much to guide the reader and when to back off.

So let's get to some tips about blocking:

Watch out for:

 - Continuity Errors. One of the main problems I see with blocking in unpublished fiction is continuity errors. In one line, a character is sitting on a couch in the living room, and a few lines later, she's sitting on her bed, in the same scene with no sense of motion. Often it can happen with objects characters are holding. Misty is knitting a scarf, but then a few lines later, it says she's knitting a blanket. It can happen with food. Zack has a cup of orange juice, but later it talks about how he's enjoying the taste of coffee.

Watch out for when characters' hands are full or when you have them doing something they aren't capable of. For example, say it's been recently established that Sandra glued back together two broken figurines and she's holding one each hand. While she's waiting for them to dry, she doesn't dare put them down , and then suddenly she's buttoning up the jacket of her little boy. What happened to the figurines?

In some cases, motions can be assumed--but make sure they can be, or that you imply them somehow, so that it doesn't read like a continuity error.

Watch out for having characters sit down, who were already sitting, or characters standing up who were already standing. Characters who put on their shoes twice, or turn off the fan twice.

- Spatial Vagueness. I'm trying to decide if I see this one more than continuity errors . . . and I have to say probably. Another one of the most common problems with blocking, is vagueness. This usually happens because the setting, objects, or characters' distances from one another or other things haven't been properly established. I might get a line that says, "Joey walked down the street"--and as the scene goes on, I get no sense of what street, what city, what it looks like, what season it is, or where or why he is walking in the first place. Sometimes I don't get any sense of setting and only conversations and body language, and next I know, I read the line "Tiff walked inside." What? They were outside that whole conversation? And what did she walk into?

When blocking is vague, the audience has to fill in the blanks, which can be a problem if it's not what the author actually pictures. As an editor, this often happens to me. I'll be picturing the characters sitting in opposite places in a living room, and then suddenly I'm reading how one put her arm around the other. In my head, they weren't close enough to each other to do that.


- Specificity. Being specific isn't necessarily the same as being detailed. Details can help make something be specific, but they aren't the same thing. And with blocking, in some cases, the more detailed it is, the more it hurts the story because it slows the pacing and changes the story's focus. In my example above, "Joey walked down the street," the sentence can be more specific by adding and changing a few words. "Joey walked down Mulberry Street, autumn leaves crunching under his feet."

In certain kinds of action scenes, it can be very important to be specific in word choice, and not in details. "Joey leapt for the fire escape." "Margaret hit Lolly in the jaw." But if you try to put too much detail into action, it can slow the moment way down.

In some cases, it's helpful to establish the setting before the characters start interacting with it. This makes the setting or "stage" more specific in the reader's mind. They know there is a pool table and pinball machine in the room, so when one character slams the other into the pool table, it makes sense. Be specific, not vague. How much detail you include depends on pacing and the focus of the scene.

- Blocking to contribute to or emphasize points. This is especially true for conversations. As an argument gets more intense, a character may invade the other's personal space. If one character suddenly says something that makes the other uncomfortable, the latter may take a step back. If one character is vulnerable, whether the second draws closer or steps away can convey a lot.

Of course, you can use setting and props to do the same thing. As an argument gets intense, one character throws something at the other. If someone is uncomfortable, she might put something (an island, a couch, a car, a teeter-totter) between them. If she's feeling vulnerable, she might "hide" or "block" herself by getting a blanket, picking up a book to look at, or turning away from the speaker to pretend interest in a rose bush.

When Sherlock gets frustrated, what does he do? He stabs the mantle. He puts a bullet in the wall.

This is blocking that emphasizes and contributes to the situation or point at hand.

Even in a scene where blocking is the primary focus (building an invention, competing in America Ninja Warrior, forging a sword, hunting), how the character interacts with the setting and objects can emphasize points--how tightly he holds a screwdriver, how sweaty her hands are against a climbing wall, the way he beats the metal, how many shots she shoots.

You can also use blocking to heighten tension. "He picked up a knife and concealed it under the table," immediately adds tension and anticipation to a scene.

- Blocking to Convey Character. Similar, yet different from, the last section, you can use blocking to convey character, rather than just the moment at hand. The fact that Sherlock stabs the mantle whenever he gets frustrated is something specific to his character. It helps establish who he is. And actually, that fact becomes specifically important in season four--when we understand that he, someone who is supposedly not driven by emotion, sometimes manifests more raw emotion than any one else.

A character who sees litter at a park and picks it up is much different than one who adds to it. A character who comforts a crying stranger is different than one who ignores them. A character who always makes sure she's near an exit is different than one who could care less. Blocking is great to show character and their feelings, rather than tell them.

- Blocking to give motion to still or stagnant scenes. You may sometimes have scenes where all that really matters is the conversation between two of your characters, or maybe you need to have your character delve into a moment of introspection to solve a mystery. It might not matter even where this moment takes place. A lot of beginning writers will open a story with a character sitting and thinking. One of the reasons this is a problem is because there is no motion, there is nothing happening in the present moment.

Use blocking to add motion. Instead of having your character sit and think, maybe you can have her catching insects for her bug collection while she thinks. Not only does this create more motion and interest, but also gives you material for the two bullet points before this one, so that it can actually add to the introspection and characterization. The fact she just caught a monarch butterfly might not be important to the main plot, but it tells us more about her, and in fact, you can even use that event and butterfly as a type or symbol of whatever she's thinking about for added emphasis and tone.

With that said, some conversations are very important, interesting, have high tension, or natural draws--they may have incorporeal motion--and already carry the audience, and sometimes when you put in blocking, it actually takes away from that, instead of contributing to it, by drawing away the audience's attention. Their attention to the conversation is competing with the blocking. So watch for that.

- Blocking for natural pauses, lulls in conversations, and for beats in dialogue. On the topic of dialogue exchanges, when there is a natural pause in dialogue or a lull in conversation, instead of saying "There was a moment of quiet," you can put in a bit of blocking to convey that.

"Forget it," Fred said. "I didn't want your help anyway."

Nancy looked down at the scarf she was crocheting and realized her hands had stopped moving. She put the scarf down on the coffee table, and flattened it out as she tried to find her words.

"You like her, don't you?" she asked.

You can also use blocking for beats in dialogue. Rather than always using dialogue tags, you can use a beat to imply who is speaking what line.

"Cedric Diggory was murdered," Harry said.

"Whatever you've been told," Professor Umbridge said, "that. Is. A. Lie."

Harry shot up out of his desk. "It's not a lie!"


Watch this short scene between Umbridge and McGonagall for a good example of how blocking conveys character, emphasizes points, adds motion to the scene, and how it's weaved in with dialogue. In addition to the two professors, notice the blocking in regards to the students and what it conveys.


Intermediate Tip:

Try to have your blocking accomplish more than one thing.

Maybe it can hike up tension and convey character.

Maybe it can emphasize a point and help us follow a fight scene.

Maybe it can replace a dialogue tag and convey something important about the setting.

And remember, in some scenes blocking is more important than in other scenes.

If you would like to learn more about blocking, Writing Excuses has a podcast episode on it.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Secret of a Successful Mystery: Making the Reader a Participator

A lot of great stories have a mystery in them. The mystery may not be the primary focus; it might be the secondary, or the mystery might be so minor it lasts only a few chapters. But whatever the case, it should draw readers into your story and keep them turning the pages. That only happens, though, if it’s done right.

As an editor, I see a lot of unpublished work. One of the most common problems I see when an author includes a mystery is that the whole mystery seems to happen on the page. The author plants “clues” of course, but then focuses too much on them, making sure the reader “gets it,” or she has her character wonder for paragraphs upon paragraphs, with speculation that is often vague, uninteresting, or leads to conclusions that are far too predictable.

In cases like this, the reader becomes a spectator. But just as emotion is more powerful when the reader experiences it himself, mysteries are more powerful when the reader is a participator.

The narrator (which in some cases is the viewpoint character) is the readers’ guide. The narrator draws focus to certain aspects of the story, and leaves others in the background. The narrator offers an emotional tone that helps the reader interpret a scene. The narrator suggests themes and ideas and judgments on the story and characters.

In manuscripts where the mystery all happens on the page, the narrator is trying too hard to guide the reader. But the best mysteries leave enough room for the audience to interpret and hypothesize. If every aspect of your mystery is on the page and the reader is being guided through it with a heavy hand, she won’t be intellectually invested.

If you want to write a powerful mystery, you have to let the reader participate, not spectate. To do that, you need to exercise full control and skill in several areas:

Subtext – Subtext is what’s not on the page, but what is implied. When you have conscious control over subtext, your story (and mystery) immediately becomes more powerful. Because subtext is what isn’t on the page, it instantly invites the reader to become a participator. They are automatically invested in the story and contemplative about it–because they are trying to interpret the subtext. How to write (or “not write”) subtext would take far too long to explain here, but I have an article that will give you all the tools to make it happen: How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)

Subtlety – One of the problems with the mysteries that happen on the page is that they aren’t subtle enough. Usually the author is so worried about the reader “getting it,” that the mystery and its “clues” are too heavy-handed. They should be suggested, inviting and drawing the reader in, not egocentric, forcing the reader to focus on them. Even children know that being forced to do something is annoying. If you try to force your reader to notice the elements of your mystery, they are more likely to be annoyed than anything. The real power comes when readers pick up on elements themselves, and realizations and connections happen in them not on the page. For actual techniques on how to plant “clues” subtly, find that section in this article: The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries

Suggesting Connections – I touched on this already, but it’s sort of its own thing. There is a difference between planting subtle clues and suggesting connections. Maybe you want your reader to connect two different aspects of your story (or mystery) in a significant way. Maybe you want them to realize that Susan wasn’t actually getting her car washed like she said, but attending that secret meeting we heard about earlier in the story. The realization doesn’t happen on the page, so you have to learn how to suggest (not force) a connection. You can get ideas on how to do that by studying the two articles mentioned above.

Context Shifts – Basically a context shift happens when new information enters the story that changes the way we viewed things before. A great example of this comes from the movie Interstellar. The protagonist sets out on a journey in space, hoping to save the human population, but at the midpoint, new information enters that changes the context. In reality, this trip wasn’t about saving the human race. The protagonist learns that he unwittingly left everyone on Earth to their deaths.

To create context shifts, you introduce information that offers a new perspective. You may or may not connect the dots (depending on the mystery and situation), but once again, context shifts are powerful because it allows the realization to happen in the reader instead of just on the page.

Writing a great mystery involves writing a great undercurrent. You can learn more about how to write a killer undercurrent here

Monday, January 15, 2018

Can You Write to a Theme?

When it comes to talking about theme in the writing world, there is some advice that I find questionable: You should never write to a theme.

The argument is that when you write to a theme, it shows in your story. It becomes mechanical and "preachy." The story feels forced and mechanical.

But is it really true? Should you never write to a theme?

Recently I read an article where a well-known author argued that not only should you not start a story with a theme in mind, you should never ever make any attempts to put a theme in. He argued that writers should never care two cents about themes, and should just write the darn story.

Not only am I skeptical of this kind of advice, but I strongly disagree with it.

So many writers preach that writing to a theme never works and makes a story mechanical--but how can they prove this? Do they know the way every single writer has approached every single work in existence? So why would they argue this?

Because the only time they notice when a writer has written to a theme is when it's done poorly. When it draws attention to itself. When it is preachy. But if the theme is handled well in a story, people don't bother to wonder how the writer approached the theme. For all we know, they could have written the story with that theme in mind.

It can be very difficult to write to a theme--because it does run the danger of making a story feel more mechanical or preachy--but that doesn't mean it can never be done.

And it certainly doesn't mean you should never consider theme when composing your work.

My argument is that if you can truly understand writing and how the pieces fit together, you'll know how to handle theme without it being preachy. You'll know how to incorporate it without making your story feel mechanical.

When people say you can't write to a theme, what they're really saying is that it's difficult to write to a theme.

The themes in Harry Potter were guided, not random.

Also, I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that a writer should never give a thought about theme. I don't buy that. My favorite stories have powerful themes that the writer--if not from the beginning, through the process of drafts--was conscious of. After all, no one can tell me that the themes of love and death "just happened" in the Harry Potter series. They were incorporated.

Furthermore, some stories beg that a theme be taken into account simply because of the subject matter. If you are dealing with dark or graphic content, then it's almost required you have a powerful theme to justify and balance that all out--otherwise it's just gratuitous, a grotesque spectacle. If you are to write about kids killing each other in a post-apocalyptic world, than you sure as heck need to have the story be about "more" than what's on the page.

You don't have to write with a theme in mind at all, and you can ignore it through all your drafts, but if you do that, you run into other risks. Your story may have a theme that is detrimental to society. Imagine you did write The Hunger Games with no concern for theme--what would that story actually be teaching audiences? There's a real possibility it would be promoting bloodlust and violence, instead of discouraging it. See how that might be dangerous?

Some stories require you consider theme beforehand to balance out dark material

But if you want to write to a theme right out of the gate, how can you do that without it being preachy, mechanical, and formulaic? Well, as I said earlier, you need to have a firm understanding of how story parts fit together. If you can't discern what works and what doesn't, and when to press on the gas or when step on the breaks, how will you be ably to successfully write to a theme? So it starts with studying theme.

Writing with a theme is very different than reading with a theme as an audience member, which is one of the reasons it's so tricky to write one intentionally. As readers, when we think of themes, we think of the "punch line," the end result, the message, the point, the moral. But as a writer, if you come out swinging the punch line all over the plot, it becomes preachy . . . and annoying.

The point should usually be the conclusion.

The conclusion to what?

Well, as another writing tip blogger, K.M. Weiland wisely states, when it comes to writing, themes are about asking questions.



I don't know about you, but that seems to go against everything my English teachers told me. I was told that theme is a statement--the message in the story. "Love conquers all" is a theme in Harry Potter. That's a conclusion. An answer.

(Side note: There is some argument over the use of the terms "theme," "moral," "message," or what have you, and what fits where, in the writing world, but what matters is you understand the concept of what people are teaching, more so than the terminology--which can ironically be ambiguous in the writing world.)

But remember, in order to have an answer, you need to have a question. Or better, more than one question.

Of course writing a story where you come out the gates swinging around a moral isn't going to work. Who the heck cares about or appreciates the answer before they have been faced with the question? Or, maybe in better words, the answer is more powerful after you've grappled with questions.

You'll find that, apart from the climax or denouement, often the most powerful thematic moments happen in scenes where the characters or story itself poses questions. Who am I? Can you be true to yourself and still be accepted by society? Can you show mercy and still suffice justice? Do the ends justify the means? Can innocence survive a wicked world?

Les Mis is a perfect example of an intentionally crafted theme that weighs real questions

Great thematic lines in stories don't swing the answer about, they get the audience to ponder, question, and consider. The more a theme is the focus in the story, the more it needs to pose questions.

Sure, you can put in advice and morals and answers here and there--pieces along the way or pieces of a bigger picture--but the main themes and the powerful themes pose questions before giving answers. And the questions aren't black-and-white either. The best questions are complex--that's when they feel real, when you as a writer and by extension, the audience, legitimately consider multiple, possible answers.

Stories often come off as preachy when they don't fairly consider all the answers--when what the author considers to be the opposing side is oversimplified, demonized, or stereotyped. It's not required that a good theme be overly sympathetic to all answers (though it can be), but it should at least be somewhat fair when considering them.

Like the plot line, the thematic line gains full power when it reaches the climatic conclusion--the answer: You do have value. You can be accepted. Mercy is more powerful than justice. Ends don't justify the means. Innocence can conquer wickedness. (The answers may be different, depending on what kind of truths you are telling.)

But similar to the plot line, your character needs to struggle to get there. He can't win on his first try. He can't have the answer before considering the questions. With both the plot, and the theme, there should be some level of struggle. The fear, the doubt, the questions.

So can you write to a theme? I think it can be done.

Does it mean you have to?

Heavens no.

You can easily discover and mold a theme as you go. It can even be a finishing touch.

But if you have a lesson, a moral, an answer, a theme you want to intentionally share to the world, you can also do that--just remember to ask and legitimately consider the questions it takes to get there.

It is my opinion, though, that most writers fit somewhere in the middle. They may have somewhat of an idea on what the theme will involve, simply because of the content of the story, but they discover parts of it through the writing process, and refine it to fit the finished piece.

The middle, in my opinion, is often the best balance. It's hard to start a story with a highly specific theme in mind, but it's also very hard to write a good theme when you ignore that part of storytelling altogether. Sometimes it's best to have an idea, and as you write, start asking questions.