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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Weight of Words

When you are writing fiction, words carry a kind of weight. They work a bit like a camera lens, guiding the audience what to view and what to focus on. What subject you choose to spend words on in the scene shapes the audience's perception of the story.

However, there are some subjects in your story that deserve a heavier weight of words than others. For example, if your story is about a young girl trying to become a professional soccer player, and you spend a whole chapter talking about an old willow tree that grew in her childhood home's backyard (which carries no symbolic or ulterior value other than it's just an old willow tree she likes), you've spent more words on the subject than it was worth. The reader may not always be able to pinpoint what is wrong, but they'll feel like the story got uninteresting. They don't care about the tree. It's not important.

More often though, this sort of thing happens on a much smaller scale in a scene. Let's say that you have a scene where your protagonist goes to a religious event, and the purpose of the scene is that she needs to get specific information or help from a religious leader. If the narrator spends three paragraphs describing what the bathroom in the church looks like, the pacing is going to drag. The bathroom doesn't merit having that many words describing it. The bathroom doesn't deserve that much focus. It's not important to the story.

The more important a subject or idea is to the scene, the more words it's worth. The moment where the protagonist gets the needed information from the religious leader, is the point of the scene, so that moment merits more words than the bathroom does. This concept relates to my post a few months ago about discerning what should happen on-page from what should happen off-page. Part of learning how to write professionally, is learning how to gauge what subject merits what amount of words.

If you use a lot of words on a subject that isn't actually that significant to the scene or overall story, the text becomes unbalanced. That subject carries more weight than it's worth, and the text is leaning in that direction, when it should be leaning in a different direction.

This sort of thing can apply to almost all parts of a story. It relates to setting description. If your character is traveling to Idaho to view the total solar eclipse, but during the viewing, you spend more words describing a stranger's shoes than you do the actual solar eclipse, it's probably a problem. The story should be focusing, leaning toward the solar eclipse, but instead, it's leaning toward a random person's shoes. It's unbalanced.

It can happen with characters. If Lavender Brown gets more words and characterization about her than Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, we have a problem. Textually, Lavender Brown is getting more weight and focus. It's unbalanced. That plot line is supposed to be about Ron.

It can happen with theme. If we spent a whole chapter describing, pondering, and creating a whole history about the old willow in the protagonist's backyard, the audience will think it's going to be significant to the story, most likely in a thematic way. But if it isn't, and it has nothing to do with the story, than it has far more words than it merits. If the theme of your story is supposed to relate to love, but the text actually spends more focus and weight and pondering on the meaning of independence, your story is leaning in the wrong direction.

And of course, it can happen with plot. If you spend more weight on a tertiary plot than you do the primary plot, guess what? Either the tertiary plot became the primary--which often doesn't work, because the subject matter isn't as important--or the story is unbalanced.

Now, there is a reason I use the word "spend." It might sound weird to some of you when I say "spend weight." But spending is often exactly how it functions. Like money, you have a finite amount of words to spend writing your story. I'm not saying you can't write a big, fat, full novel. Your book is like a purchase. There are pots you need to purchase and there are houses you may need to purchase. A house needs more money to own. Some stories are like pots. Some stories are like houses. So the amount of words your story merits depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If words were like money, you wouldn't want to spend a whole chapter on an insignificant willow tree. You just way overpaid for that willow tree. The reader doesn't want all that money put into creating an amazing willow tree. They want you to spend it elsewhere. You spent too many words, too much weight, too much focus on that tree that the reader doesn't care about.

The pacing slows. The reader gets bored. You begin losing their attention.

Perhaps no words are more valuable than the words at the very beginning of the story. You have to win over the reader's care. You have to try to get them to be invested in the story. But if you spend your first chapter's words unwisely--spending two solid paragraphs describing an insignificant rock--the reader is going to be subconsciously tempted to put the book down. You. Are. Trying. To. Win. Them. Over. Don't spend the precious weight of the story describing a random rock.

In the beginning of the narrative, because the reader hasn't been won over yet, and you haven't gotten far into the story, every possible subject in the scene carries an equal weight--or perhaps it would be better to say, no weight. This means every word you start writing, begins to shape the story's, or scene's focus.

Because the reader isn't invested in the story yet, it's very important that you don't overspend your words on any subject. Create the scene, but do it on a tight budget. Spend enough words on the subjects to create them in the reader's mind, but not so much that it becomes overwrought and uninteresting.

As the reader becomes more invested as the story progresses, they will begin to care more about stuff that is more "expensive." They'll sit through longer descriptions. They'll sit through two solid paragraphs about the concept of independence. If the willow tree is thematic, and therefore significant to the story, they may even sit through a whole chapter on it.

But that's the catch. To merit a more expensive price tag, it needs to be more significant than other subjects.

With all that said, though, in some cases, it is possible to break that rule and open a story with two fat paragraphs pondering the concept of independence, but it needs to be good, clever, and either entertain the mind or the feelings. Don't spend $100 on a cliche. If you are going to open that way, you've got to bring something new to the table, and talk about the concept of independence in a way the reader hasn't seen before.

Now back to the very beginning, where the reader isn't yet invested in the story. Subconsciously, when they begin reading your book, they're trying to decide if they care about it. So what you spend your words on is important. Luckily, depending on your genre, you should know what your reader picked up the book for. If they picked up romance, they want romance. If they picked up adventure, they want adventure. If they picked up something humorous, they want to laugh. Usually the real romantic moments and real adventure happens later in the story, which is why you need to promise the reader with hooks that if they keep reading it, they'll get to it. In a romance, this might mean in the starting scene, you spend a few words on your progatonist's loneliness. In adventure, this might mean in the opening, your character mentions his desire to find aztec treasure. This is one of the reasons so many people in the writing industry say you should start your story with your character having a goal of some kind--it often makes it easier to make promises to the reader. It's only one reason, but it's a reason.

One final point I need to make so that everyone reading this doesn't go off and way overwrite the truly significant subjects of their story. There is another well-known writing rule: less is more. Often this is true with significant subjects. Promises, teases, hooks, subtext, are bigger than what's on the page, and naturally carry more weight because of that--the "rest of the words" happen in the reader. They don't need to be overwrought. Often those things are best short and powerful. This is because carefully choosing specific words--words that mean more than what's actually on the page--carry more impact than an overwrought passage. Less is more. But that's veering into a different topic too big for this post.

Suffice it to say that insignificant subjects should not unbalance your story because you've spent more words on them than they merited. And don't shortchange the more important parts that deserve more words--more weight, more focus.

Last of all, don't forget, though, that in key moments, sometimes less is more, because what's being said is bigger than what's in the text. 

Blog Birthday Giveaway

In case you missed it last week, I'm doing a giveaway to celebrate my five years of blogging! You can enter to win a 10-page edit from me, right here! You do not to be a serious writer. Hobbyist writers are welcome to submit.

For full editing needs, you can visit my editing website,!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Giveaway--10-page Edit + 5th Blog Birthday!

This week is a special week, because my blog turns five years old. Five!

What's funny is that a year prior to starting this blog, I hated blogs.

I felt that they were egocentric, often a poor use of time, and that most of them would fade out in a matter of years. I mean, I really never thought that I would want to start one. Sure, I thought about it, because I wanted to work in the writing industry and 6+ years ago, they were all the craze--I actually jumped on the bandwagon pretty late.

But something happened about six years ago. A desire fell over me to start a blog. I managed to resist the desire for almost a whole year, but in the end, I gave in. And I'm so glad I did.

To quote Dumbledore:

"Which goes to show that the best of us must sometimes eat our words."
When I started this blog, I looked at other blogs and many of them were five years old; I admit I was a little envious of their backlog, their audience, their comments, their length--five years seemed unimaginably far away! (In the end, I also admit I largely started this blog for myself, to keep track of my own ideas about writing.) So five years is particularly special to me.


To celebrate my blog birthday, I'm doing a giveaway: the winner gets a 10-page edit from me.

What can you possibly learn in a 10-page edit? 

Well, you might be surprised! You will not only receive specific feedback for those 10 pages, but you will also receive insight on your strengths as a writer and suggestions on how to take your writing to the next level. I've said before that usually I can discern what level a writer is at within the first five pages of a manuscript. To some people, that sounds crazy, but to those who've worked in the industry for several years, it's completely believable.

Who is doing the editing?

In case you are a newcomer, here is a little about myself:

Mentored by a creative writing university professor, an award-winning international best-selling author, and a full-time professional freelance editor, I have worked in the fiction-writing industry for over five years. I have edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors and have worked on manuscripts written for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers. I hold an English degree with honors and served as a fiction editor and managing editor for the literary journal The Southern Quill. When not editing, I'm penning my own stories and running a writing tip blog. I also serve as a writing coach on

What can I send as my 10 pages?

You can send 10 pages from a novel or a short story, or anything in between. Heck, I'll even look at fanfiction.

How to Enter

Celebrate with me by entering to win (you know I do this because it's fun to give you guys stuff, right?) It's easy to enter:

    Share this giveaway post off my Facebook profile.

    Reblog the giveaway post off my Tumblr.

    Retweet the giveaway tweet on my Twitter.

    Comment on this post.

That means you can enter a total of four times. 

The winner will be selected December 18th! (Winner is selected randomly through

You must be a friend or follower of me to win. (Please note that if you "share," you must share publicly so that I can see it, otherwise I can't tell who shared)

For full editing needs, you can visit my editing website,


Blogging Milestones and Expansions

December 2012--Published my first two blog posts here and here

January 2013--Published my first writing tip post.

April 2013--Got to be a guest on the Author's Think Tank Podcast

September 2013--Featured blogger on Glipho

Joined Tumblr (the reason Tumblr is significant is because it greatly grew my audience--in fact, I have more followers there than anywhere else.)

Became a regular blogger on Author's Think Tank

December 2013--First blog giveaway I participated in. 

2014--Had some posts really take off on Tumblr

Late 2014-Early 2015--Took on the name September C. Fawkes ;)

January 2015--Got my first piece of physical fan mail *heart eyes* (Thanks Jake!)

February 2015--Started writing more intensive writing tips, including some on breaking common writing rules. There is definitely a change here in my writing tips. I'd had a big growth spurt concerning writing in general that led to this.

August 2015--Started putting my writing tips on Youtube

September 2015--Was both a panelist and presenter at Salt Lake Comic Con (my first conference appearance as a guest), pulling from info on my blog.

September 2016--Got listed as a top writing tip blog on Writers Helping Writers *heart eyes*

October 2016--Got invited to be a resident writing coach at Writers Helping Writers.

July 2017--Added the Writing Tip Index to my blog and updated the appearance

September 2017--Opened Fawkes Editing--my freelance editing website.

October 2017--An editor from Penguin Books contacted me saying he liked my blog and sent me a copy of their latest writing book, Light the Dark!

December 2017--Five years of blogging!

December 2017--??? [some good news I'm waiting to be able to announce]

Most Popular Tips of All Time

#1--Writing Empathetically vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally

#2--15+ Tactics for Writing Humor

#3--How to Write What's Not Written (Subtext)

#4--6 Things I've Learned as a Professional Editor

#5--5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue

* Excluding Tumblr Posts

Hopefully it wasn't weird to post the milestones and stats, but I wanted to take a moment to remember them since the number five carries significance to me.

Looking forward to 2018! There will be at least a couple of new career adventures for me.

Thank you for your support!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a story, and I've found that perhaps some of the worst feedback to give and receive is that of unbelievability. There is a kind of stinging and feeling of foolishness that comes with the criticism. I've had it, and I've given it--multiple times each. Most often, this criticism is given to new writers.

Now when I say believeablitiy, I'm not saying your stories can't have any dragons or magic or advanced technology. Stranger Things Season 2 recently came out, and I've heard people complaining that KFC wasn't actually called KFC in 1984, or that no one had side parts until later years. Isn't it funny that we have no problems "believing" that there is a parallel world where monsters live and that a young girl can have psychokinetic abilities, but people can't believe that a character has a side part? What a funny life we live in our entertainment.

If you've been told that something in your story is unbelievable, there could be a few different reasons as to why. It might simply be that what you put in the story couldn't actually happen in the real world--if you are dealing with a real world setting. Or it could be because the mechanics of fiction is different than our reality. Here are the different reasons and routes unbelievable content manifests itself in fiction.

The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I recently read an article about a woman who got pregnant a second time, when she was already pregnant. It's weird right? That's not how nature works. However, this woman had a rare condition that allowed this to happen. Now, you can say this is a true story, because it is. But if you try to put this into your story, without proper explanation, or when you already have a lot of other unusual things happening in your story, it will probably ring false. Critics will say, "But what are the chances of that?"

This is because fiction works off rules of probability, not what actually happened. The less probable something is, the more likely your audience will be skeptical. It's even worse if you stack up multiple improbabilities into one piece. This is one of the reasons you may hear about the "one impossibility rule," which is the idea that audiences can only believe in one impossibility per book. Of course, there are ways to break this rule, and it is broken in many works, but generally speaking: one impossibility. And this works off the suspension of disbelief that audiences come to a story with, which is a topic all its own.

There are a few tricks to getting around the probability issue. One is validating the audience's skepticism, but it has to be done with care and not overused. Otherwise, it will still ring false.

But almost always,

Probability > Reality

Tension is More than Conflict and Spectacle

Another avenue unbelievability takes to get in, is through conflict and spectacle. This usually happens when the writer is trying hard to make the story "really good" by making it intense, skyscraping stakes, and putting in massive hooks. The story may start fine, but suddenly, conflicts are going crazy, and the writer is throwing in intense scenarios that don't actually fit the story or aren't portrayed with real-life consequences.

For example, you might feel that your romance story is getting a bit boring for the audience, so you throw in a serial killer. The protagonist knows about the serial killer, but has no problem walking home alone after midnight, or she encounters the serial killer, but decides (for no legitimate reason) not to contact the police, because that's not the direction, you, the writer, want to take the story. Or maybe your character gets accused of murdering someone (because crazy conflict is good, right?), but that's not actually what you want the story to be about, so you don't flesh that part out, and eventually get back to the main storyline.

These sorts of things happen because the writer thinks the crazier the conflict, the better. They might be afraid their story is too boring, and so they are trying to liven it up for the audience. What they don't realize is that tension is what keeps the reader reading, far more than conflict.

Tension doesn't necessarily need outlandish conflict. It doesn't need a spectacle to be interesting. Tension can happen in a conversation between a father and daughter. It can be present when a protagonist is deciding who to invite to a concert when she only has four tickets and six friends. Tension can be there in a job interview, where the characters are trying to appear cool and collected and professional, but inside are not.

Tension > Conflict

You don't need to throw in crazy conflicts to make your story interesting. You just need to learn how to take advantage of tension.

Now, if you want to throw in crazy conflicts, fine, but the consequences, facets, and ramifications of such things must be spoken to, to be realistic. Some things you just cannot turn a blind eye to. And don't forget to incorporate the probability aspect.

You can read more about tension vs. conflict here.

 Writing What You Don't Know

Sometimes something is unbelievable just because the writer didn't do their research. For example, if you were writing about the Mormon church at a part in your story, and you told me that Mormons worship Joseph Smith and have a golden Bible, as a Mormon, I'm going to giggle.

Look, the research part of writing is perhaps my least favorite part of writing (others say it's their favorite), so I understand that it can be annoying, especially when you just want to write the story. But sometimes you've got to do the research. And honestly, research has never been easier to do than it is to do today. You can find much of what you need online or in books. If you can't find that, you can find knowledgeable people to talk to or ask. Try not to feel stupid about asking questions. Most people you will talk to will probably want to tell you more than you want to know. And of course, make sure you are choosing reliable sources to get your information.

The other facet of this problem is inexperience, and in some ways, I feel that inexperience is its own topic.

Maybe you want to write about what it's like being a Chinese woman in the West, but you are a Caucasian teenage boy in a small town in the South. Maybe you want to write about an astronaut on Mars, but the furthest you got into your science career was high school chemistry and biology. Maybe you want to write a story about how a Christian helped convert an atheist--but you've never spent sincere time speaking with atheists about their genuine perspective and end up writing a two-dimensional caricature that turns a blind eye to the intricacies and complexities of the argument, "Is there a God?"

Really, inexperience can crop up in any number of things.

All of us are inexperienced in some way.

Does that mean you should only write about what you have lived? Of course not. That's ridiculous. You think everyone who has written a female character has been a female? Do you think only straight actors portray straight character? We're writers--we are imagining things we haven't lived all the time. It's likely we'll all write something wrong from our inexperience at some point.

In some situations, you can go out and gain the experience you need. If you've never been to the beach, maybe you can go to the beach. But if you've never been a Chinese woman, then maybe you need to speak and spend some time with one. And don't do anything stupid that compromises your moral standards just to gain firsthand experience.

Even if we don't have personal experience of something, we can sometimes draw from past experiences that may be similar or relate to said experience, and go from there. In some cases, for very specific set-ups or information, we can bluff it as writers, but it takes practice to make such bluffs believable. If you have access to someone who may have experience with whatever you are writing, you can ask them to read over your passage.

Convenient Human Behavior

One area in particular that audiences don't have a lot of patience for when it come to unbelievability, is human behavior. We will read about aliens and superheroes and not blink an eye, but when a character doesn't act human (or within the realms of whatever species he is, if you are writing speculative fiction), we won't believe it. In some beginners' stories, it may manifest itself in characters not having logical or probable reactions to certain things.

For example, if your protagonist's child dies unexpectedly, and then the next scene shows us the protagonist still moving forward preparing a holiday party with no sign of grief or distress, the audience is going to be skeptical (unless your protagonist is villainous and was the one who killed the child). This sort of problem usually relates to the tension/conflict problem. The writer throws something big into the story to make it more interesting, but then doesn't want to actually include the ramification of such a thing, so out of convenience, they continue the story without showing the character grieving. It's convenient human (or "inhuman") behavior.

Other times this happens because the writer simply doesn't know how to write a character who is in that particular emotional state. In my example, the writer may not know how to write a parent grieving for a child, and so, they don't. They continue on with the rest of the story. In that way, this problem can relate to the research and inexperience section too.

In some cases, it's not so much about a character not acting logically human as it is a character acting out of character--out of the boundaries the writer has already set. If your protagonist is a huge pacifist that believes in the sanctity of all human life and then goes and shoots an innocent bystander, without explanation or development, the audience isn't going to buy that. Maybe it was convenient for the plot, but it doesn't fit the character.

In general, problems in this area stem from the above three sections. However, unbelievability in human behavior can be so damning and so common, that I've put it as its own section.

Now go forth and write believable fiction!

Monday, November 20, 2017

How to Write When You Don't Have Time

I might be losing my mind a little bit, but I swear someone asked me how to write when they don't have time, but now I can't locate the question in my inboxes or messages, but I thought I'd address it just in case someone actually did ask me this question.

First off, let me start by saying, I may not be the best person to answer this. I'm not married, don't have kids, and I work in the writing industry. So if anyone reading this has their own expertise to add to this post, please leave a comment for others.

Before getting too far into this topic, I want to acknowledge that some people may be dealing with a lot of life challenges at the moment, with serious health problems, being a caretaker for a loved one, serious financial problems, and unforeseen life crises, and may be legitimately unable to work on their writing because they ran out of today's time yesterday and their physical and mental stamina ran out before they got out of bed this morning. If you find yourself in such a category, don't fret. Life happens. It won't be this crazy forever.

But for the average person who has at least half a grip on their crazy busy life but can't quite squeeze writing into said life, here are some ideas that might help.

1. Get more out of your schedule by living with more intention.

Some of us human beings struggle to live intentionally. We pull out our phones to check on something, and before we know it, we've lost an hour to the social media black hole. Or we sat down to take a break and suddenly Netflix is asking us if we are still watching Stranger Things.

I know what some of you are thinking: Isn't this post supposed to be about people who are too busy to write? Not about people who are just sitting around?

My point is, whether or not you actually spend hours unexpectedly watching Netflix, there are probably parts of your day you are living without intention, which usually means time is slipping through your fingers.

Not everyone wants to live every hour intentionally. Many cultures and lifestyles around the world don't; they just go with the flow and do whatever, like the beach lifestyle.

What I am saying is that if you are a busy person who doesn't have time to write, and you want to have time to write, this might be what you want to look at. Do you have behaviors and parts of the day where you are unintentionally losing time? Do you have the tendency to procrastinate things you don't want to do, for example?

Intentional living doesn't mean you never get breaks. It means that when you take a break, you take breaks you intended to take. It doesn't mean that you never have free time. It means that when you have free time, it's something you intended. Intentional living means making every hour count, and getting rid of moments where time doesn't. It means when you are doing something, you are doing something, not kind of doing it. If I'm cleaning my room, but sort of just leisurely cleaning it, I'm probably losing time. But if I decide to draw upon more intention, and clean my room more intentionally, I'll make an effort to do it in a more efficient manner and get done quicker.

So look at your lifestyle and see if you can free up more time by living more intentionally. And notice that I didn't say you had to live at max capacity intention. I said more intention.

2. Don't work harder. Work smarter.

There is a business show I love to watch called The Profit. In it, successful business man Marcus Lemonis goes into failing businesses and helps build them back up. One of the things Marcus says is that it's better to work smarter than it is to work harder.

And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Here is a simple example. Let's say I'm working really hard at doing the dishes. I'm working as hard as I can, but my methods are random. I hand-wash and put the dishes away one by one. I'm putting a lot of time and effort into getting this kitchen clean. But you know what's better than working harder at that method? Working smarter.

Instead of hand-washing everything, I put them in the dishwasher. Instead of putting items away one by one as I wash them, I put them into piles and take the whole stack of plates to the cupboard at once.

Working smarter is about looking for ways to work more efficiently. It's about finding ways to get more done in the time you have, and finding easier but still effective methods.

Pretty much everyone is doing something that could be done more efficiently. When you work smarter you can free up more time. Or, when you write smarter, you can get more done in the amount of time you have.

3. Stop using mental energy focusing on the fact you don't have enough time.

My dad is a really busy person. One thing he said to me several months ago has stuck in my mind. He said, it's amazing how much more you can get done when you stop thinking about how you can't get it done.

This is probably going to sound weird, but the way we think is also a usage of time--our mental time. The mental time we spend thinking about how we feel sorry for ourselves is mental time we could be putting to use in a different way. You might could even say we can try to think with more intention or to think smarter. Instead of thinking about how I don't have time to do something, I could be spending the "mental time" and "mental stamina," thinking about how I can do that thing more efficiently.

Feeling sorry for ourselves about not having time often leads to sluggish demeanors and attitudes, and only makes it that much more difficult to be productive. It's like we've dropped a boulder in our own path that we now have to push out of the way before we can continue.

The older I get, the more I realize, how we think about things is everything.

Unfortunately, though, when you make statements like that, you get a whole bunch of people going out and trying to micro-manage all their thoughts and feelings, and they actually end up just suppressing said thoughts and feelings.

It's not about suppressing--it's not about telling yourself you aren't allowed to think or feel that way, that breeds resentment toward self and unrealistic expectations. Instead, if you have a problem with the way you think, you acknowledge it and move on. Or, depending on how serious it is, you acknowledge it, work through it, and then move on. It takes time--maybe months or years--but eventually it won't be a tendency to think that way anymore. I am a strong believer that in most circumstances, we can eventually change how we think.

Anyway, my point is, stop using your "mental time" on thoughts that aren't helpful to you. You don't need them anymore. It's not helpful to focus on how little time you have. What is helpful is focusing on how to best manage the time or task you have been given. What is helpful is spending your mental stamina on how you'll build your better life, realistically.

4. Stop procrastinating and implement the 20-minute rule.

Learn to start doing something you don't want to do, when you should do it. Don't watch an episode first. Don't play Candy Crush first. Sit down and start working. Remember, it's okay if you really, really, really don't want to do something. You are allowed to feel that way. But what matters is that you do it despite it.

My brother and I have a method for when we don't feel like working on something. It's what I think of as the 20-minute rule. Now, I don't know psychologically why this works, but it works for both of us almost every single time. And I've seen it work for many others.

When you don't want to work on something, you sit down and work on it anyway, telling yourself you only need to do it for 20 minutes. Now, you need to actually do the work intentionally--actually put in effort, not just sit there--and I don't know why, but almost always, by 20 minutes in, you realize it's not that bad. It's like my dad always says, "Nothing is as bad as you think it's going to be." After 20 minutes, it's easier to work longer, and I just keep working anyway.

You can try this with anything you don't want to do, in order to get it done quicker so you can free up writing time. But you can also do this with writing, when you finally have freed up a few minutes to write and don't feel like writing. Just give yourself 20 minutes. I bet 9/10 times you'll want to keep writing after the 20 minutes.

5. Use the percolation approach to writing.

There are discovery writers, people who like to just sit down and start writing and "discover" the story as they go; and there are outliners, people who like to outline the story before they start writing. But there is also another writing approach that's very common that we don't talk about much, which is the percolation approach.

Percolation is when you get ideas for a story, and you let them sit in your mind for a while until you are ready to write them. If you don't have a lot of time to write, or time to set aside to consistently write, the percolation method is a good one for you. You probably have ideas of what kind of stories you want to write. Let them sit in your mind. Let your subconscious take a stab at them. Think about them when falling asleep at night, or in the morning before you get out of bed.

When you feel ready to write the scene and have a few minutes, you're all ready to go.

I think most writers use a little bit of all three methods. The tricky part about percolation is you might hit an area that doesn't eventually come together on its own, so you do need to sit down and work it out. But, heck, you can even use the percolation method scene-by-scene. When one scene is ready to write, you write it. Then you let more ideas percolate, and then you write that scene. You don't have to write chronologically either. Write the scenes you want, and before you know it, you might have half the book in your head done.

6. Take advantage of mental writing

There are some tasks in life that don't require much brainpower, like folding laundry or pulling weeds or waiting in line to pick up your prescriptions. If you are trying to squeeze more writing into your life, these are places where you can spend "mental time" thinking about what story you want to write. Go ahead and daydream a little. Think about that scene you really want to get started on. Ponder how to solve that plot problem. Figure out that character. Let your mind wander on the subject in helpful ways. Or, if you have a specific writing element in mind focus on what you'll do about it. Jot ideas down in your phone--if you are like the rest of America, it's always near you.

7. Play to when and how you write best

If you haven't been writing long, you might not know how or when you do your best writing. But over time, writers figure out what works for them. Most writers I've talked to do their best work in the morning or at night. I've heard that this is partly because those are the times when the creative side of the brain is awake--after dreaming, or just before dreaming. I've heard that the creative side of the brain goes to "sleep" in the afternoon. Even if you are short on time, see if you can free up some time at the part of the day you write best. Can you wake up a half hour or more earlier? Can you stay up a little later? When you play to your best writing time, you are more productive during that time.

Do you write better with music? Or without? Do you like to be sitting? Or reclining? Do you like to eat one Oreo before you start? These are little things, but figuring out what you like and seeing if you can play to it consistently, will help signal to your brain that it's time to switch to writing mode, meaning less time trying to reach that mode and better use of your writing minutes. The more consistent you can be in your "pre-writing rituals" the more likely they are to be effective.

8. Use downtime activities to benefit your writing.

There is a scripture that I like: "See that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize."

In your efforts to fit writing into your life, don't forever sacrifice the downtime needed to rest and re-energize. There may be periods where you have next to no downtime in life, but you can't last forever like that. Ideally, you give yourself downtime every day, if only for 20 minutes.

But not all downtime is created equally. You can utilize that time by doing activities that energize you faster. I recently read a post about a writer who watched television on her downtime, but realized it didn't actually make her feel rested or re-energized, and instead, running did. That's her personal experience. Maybe television does make you feel rested. Whatever the case, evaluate what activities actually do lead to you having more energy, and what activities don't.

During downtime, you can watch or read fiction, which will help you with your writing. You can do something that requires your imagination. Or go for a walk and allow your mind to meditate on writerly things.


If you can find a balanced schedule that works consistently for you, maintain that stable schedule as long as you can.

Every time you have to try to switch to a new normal, you lose time and energy. Find the most effective schedule you can realistically maintain and keep it for as long as you can manage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Light the Dark: What Inspires You?

A few weeks ago, something really cool happened! Penguin Books sent me one of their latest writing books, Light the Dark. In it, 46 of the most acclaimed authors in the industry answer the question, "What inspires you?" by beginning with a passage from literature that had a profound impact on them. I'd like to participate in the concept by answering that question myself and asking you to participate in the same way. You don't have to post your answer online if you don't want to, but how cool would it be to flood the online world with this?

While you can all probably guess that I would point to Harry Potter for mine, and while that did have a big impact on shaping my relationship with literature and my career, I'm sure you are all tired of me talking about Harry Potter. So I've picked something different:

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I encountered this poem in my creative writing poetry class in college. It comes across as more of a lighthearted, joyful poem. And while I don't know that it was necessarily a life-changing piece, I felt an immediate bond with it, because it captures exactly how I've often felt with storytelling. The idea being that, it's something I love so much, that I wish I could ingest it--live off it. Reading or watching a story isn't enough for me. I need to chew on it, swallow it, digest it, have it give nourishment to my brain, my heart, the marrow in my bones. And on difficult or monotonous days, the promise of a good story waiting for me once I've finished my responsibilities, has sometimes helped sustain me.

It's really the first stanza that speaks to me most:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. Reading, watching, and writing--especially writing--stories has given me a happiness like none else. On a good writing day, I could sing. The sky could fall down on me, and I'd still be happy. There is no happiness like mine. All I want to do is eat stories.

I like that the librarian doesn't understand. And she must be a lover of books or literature. But there is nothing as delicious as consuming literature--to the point that it is dogeared and bent and marked up--and none of the pristine things that a volume should look like an a library shelf. The dogs are great too. Not only are dogs known to eat things up, but they are known to love life and everything in it. (I'm sure we've all seen how happy dogs are when they get something delicious to eat.) That's how I feel when I have a good story. I love life and everything in it.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I am a new man. Literature changes people. And the impacts are joyful. Even as a young child, after a good story, I wanted to run outside and romp with joy. I wish I could eat literature.

These experiences and feelings have undoubtedly shaped me. So many of my life choices have been decided based on my relationship with literature and storytelling. Writing down a scene just right--it's like there is no better feeling in the world! I would give anything to be a master storyteller. And I'm willing to put up with a lot in order to make the journey--more than I ever would have, if I'd never tasted the full sweetness of literature.

And this is partly what Light the Dark is all about. In the preface, editor Joe Fassler discusses how literature can literally change us--"I read something, and wasn't the same afterward." And what I like about the book is that although every writer starts by talking about a passage or a life-changing line of literature, from there, they wander into topics about ethics, adversity, identity, or the craft of writing, and explore life experiences, wise revelations, significant career choices, and their relationship with their own literature. I could go on with mine, but I'd rather you take a look at what the masters have to say.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

A stunning masterclass on the creative process, the craft of writing, and the art of finding inspiration from Stephen King, Junot Díaz, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, and more of the most acclaimed writers at work today

What inspires you? That's the simple, but profound question posed to forty-six renowned authors in LIGHT THE DARK. Each writer begins with a favorite passage from a novel, a song, a poem—something that gets them started and keeps them going with the creative work they love. From there, incredible lessons and stories of life-changing encounters with art emerge, like how sneaking books into his job as a night security guard helped Khaled Hosseini learn that nothing he creates will ever be truly finished. Or how a college reading assignment taught Junot Díaz that great art can be a healing conversation, and an unexpected poet led Elizabeth Gilbert to embrace an unyielding optimism, even in the face of darkness. LIGHT THE DARK collects the best of The Atlantic's much-acclaimed "By Heart" series edited by Joe Fassler and adds brand new pieces, each one paired with a striking illustration. Here is a guide to creative living and writing in the vein of Daily Rituals, Bird by Bird, Draft No. 4, and Big Magic for anyone who wants to learn how great writers find inspiration—and to find some of your own.

CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Elizabeth Gilbert, Junot Díaz, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Angela Flournoy, Jonathan Franzen, Yiyun Li, Leslie Jamison, Claire Messud,  Edwidge Danticat, David Mitchell, Khaled Hosseini, Ayana Mathis, Kathryn Harrison, Azar Nafisi,  Hanya Yanagihara, Jane Smiley, Nell Zink, Emma Donoghue, Jeff Tweedy, Eileen Myles, Maggie Shipstead, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III, Billy Collins, Lev Grossman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Charles Simic, Jim Shepard,  T.C. Boyle, Tom Perrotta, Viet Thanh Nguyen, William Gibson, Mark Haddon, Ethan Canin, Jesse Ball, Jim Crace, and Walter Mosley.

You can learn more about Light the Dark or pick it up here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Answers to Backlogged Questions

Awhile ago I got a bunch of questions (and some anonymous comments), which I loved, but with everything going on, it's been difficult to get them up here. So, here are some of the smaller questions.

Anonymous said: What are your favourite YA and NA books? :) I love your post about creative writing!

Well, I really love Harry Potter and The Hunger Games! I know Harry Potter is shelved as middle grade, but as the series progresses, it eventually becomes YA. As for NA books, most of the ones I’ve read aren’t published as of yet–they are ones that I’ve edited. So I don’t have an NA to share. In fact, most of the books I read these days are just from editing O_o. It’s hard to come home and read some more after I’ve been doing it for hours already. But, hey, I’m not complaining, I get paid to read ^_^

Thank you! I love hearing that people like my blog! 

Anonymous said: Hi September, how are you doing? I'm looking forward to reading your YA series :) Have you finished the first book?

Hey Anon! I’m doing really great! I’m glad you are looking forward to it. So … I’m not sure who knows or who doesn’t but I’ve been working on rewriting that entire book because it wasn’t very good, and I’ve gotten so much better at writing. It was hard to make the decision, but honestly, it’s become one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it’s SO much better!! Anyway, I’ve rewritten all of the middle. Then I got stuck on the last chapters–not because I didn’t have any ideas, but because I had too many I couldn’t get to fit together. So then I worked back on the beginning, but was having trouble there too (the beginning is so hard to write well!) Now I’m back working on rewriting the last chapters, and I figured out what to do.

Anyway, some people may have noticed I’ve taken my description down of it on my blog. It’s not because I’ve given up on it or anything it’s just that as I’ve been rewriting it, the description gives the wrong first impression, and I haven’t wanted to worry about writing a new one yet.

Thanks for asking!

SteveJones313 said: If you had the attention of the entire world for just one small moment, what message would you want to give?

That is a great question. I’d probably prefer to give a few super short messages, and it should go without saying that nearly all things should be done in moderation. Anything taken to an extreme becomes a vice.

1. Love and accept everyone–doesn’t mean you have to like and accept everything they do, but over the years, I’ve become more aware of how powerful love and acceptance is. If you look and start *really* paying attention, you’ll see that it does amazing things in almost all aspects of life–it’s like a magic itself. It also broadens people’s vision and hearts.

2. Those who give up or stop trying are those who fail. Doesn’t mean you can’t let something go–which to me is different than quitting–but true failure only comes from giving up.

3. Nothing is a waste of time if you learn something from it.

4. “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.”

5. Don’t stunt your own progression and work on overcoming behaviors of self sabotage.

6. Dedication, real commitment with hard work, isn’t usually required, but more is always acquired by it.

7. When we are judgemental, we alienate our brothers and sisters.

8. Trials and tribulation facilitate transformation

9. Too much skepticism can narrow your vision. But if you are too open-minded, your brain will fall out.

10: To achieve great things, we don’t have to be perfect, just worthy.

11. The difference between confidence and arrogance is how you treat (and think) about other people. True confidence comes from accepting *all* that you are as you are.

12. How we cope with difficulties greatly impacts our quality of life.

13. Let others be themselves. Let people change, including yourself.

14. Spend more time paying forward than paying back. Often the person who lent you help doesn’t need that help back–they were able to give it to you in the first place–instead, pay forward to someone who needs it more.

15. There is nothing wrong with noticing and acknowledging others' weaknesses, but it is cruel to take advantage of weaknesses.

16. Take care of yourself. When you take time to take care of yourself, you are able to better take care of others.

17. Accept your talents, blessings, gifts, and opportunities–even if others try to make you feel bad for having them–you can always bless more lives with them than without them.

18. “Nothing is stupid to someone who takes it seriously.” –William Zinsser.

19. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Everyone deserves to be heard. But too often we take opinions that are contrary to ours as personal attacks. When we respond that way, we limit our ability to learn and understand.

20. It’s better to endure others’ derailing comments over and over again, than to endure a lifetime of unpursued dreams.

21. “Some of the greatest battles you will face will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul” - Ezra Taft Benson

Anonymous said: Are you LDS?


Anonymous said: Thank you so much for your post on talent and success. I was in a pretty awful mood. Been beating myself down. And ive been comparing myself to others non-stop for a while and seeing this really helped me. I still feel bad but I guess seeing a post like this just reminded me that struggling is fine. And as long as im moving forward, i'll be fine. Thank you so much i really needed this today. 

I’m glad it was helpful ^_^ I think all of us writers beat ourselves down from time to time. Uugh, yes, comparing–it can be so depressing sometimes, and worst of all, I think it’s human nature to want to compare others’ best to our worst. Often we compare our personal lives to someone else’s public life, or we compare our worst drafts to someone else’s polished and published stories. And struggling is fine. Lately I’ve been thinking about how what I feel about my writing at the time is not an accurate way to gauge. Sometimes when I feel that my writing is crap, it’s actually when I’m being most productive. Other times when I feel like my writing is amazing–I’m actually not getting really anything done, but just basking in my polished scenes. It’s weird. Hope things are getting better for you!