My writing tips organized by topic.
Read about me
Don't have time to read? Listen on Youtube.
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, August 14, 2017

5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue

As an editor, I've been thinking about how I need to do a post on some of the most common mistakes I see in dialogue. Many are a matter of fine-tuning, moving from a great writer, to a professional one.

Dialogue Tags Don't Match the Dialogue

As I've mentioned before, I'm not wholly against alternative dialogue tags ("groaned," "cried," "yelled," "lamented," etc.), and I think they can be particularly effective when the dialogue and the context of the story can't portray the way that it's said. For example:

"That's great," Melody groaned

But sometimes the dialogue tag honestly doesn't fit the way it's said. It's hard to give an example of this in a blog post, because often whether or not the tag fits the dialogue depends on the context of the story. But look at this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined

The direct dialogue doesn't sound like whining. The content doesn't sound like something to whine about, and the structure doesn't sound like whining. But that is the chosen dialogue tag. It doesn't fit.

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo said matter-of-factly.

But sometimes you get weird combos like this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined matter-of-factly.

I don't know about you, but "whined matter-of-factly" sounds like something that's pretty difficult to pull off.

Here are some more examples:

"I need to lose weight," Taz wondered.

"Can I check into my hotel room now?" Kelly raged.

"Want to pick up the groceries?" Katie exclaimed.

Sure, grammatically, they are fine, but other than very rare occasions, the tags aren't appropriate for the direct dialogue. Make sure what you write matches.

Modifiers Don't Match the Dialogue

Some people really love using modifying phrases (participial phrases) with their dialogue tags. Again, I'm not against this, but like anything, it can be overused, and more than that, it needs to make sense. A modifying phrase after a dialogue tag is adding information to the dialogue tag.  It works as an adjective. Here is a fine example.

"Do you ever sunburn?" Manny asked, squeezing sunscreen into his palm

"Squeezing sunscreen into his palm" is a modifying phrase--it adds information to "Manny asked." Because it functions similar to an adjective, it's also saying that Manny squeezed the sunscreen into his palm at the same time he asked "Do you ever sunburn." Not after. The same time.

Here is a problem example:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

You cannot yell and hold your breath at the same time. So this is a problem. But you can easily fix it:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, then held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled. I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


 "Grab the gun!" I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

Other times, the participial phrase doesn't match because it doesn't fit with the dialogue (usually it doesn't logically match in length).

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress, socks, and pajamas in a suitcase and then the luggage on the floor.

You can't tell me she put her dress, socks, AND pajamas in a suitcase AND then put the luggage on the floor the same time she said "Yes."  Unless she's Quicksilver from X-Men, it's not possible to do all those things during a one-syllable word.

You can fix it like this:

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress in the suitcase. She added her socks and pajamas, and then placed the luggage on the floor.

Some writers say you should try to leave out participial phrases like this altogether, since cognitively it is difficult for the reader to imagine both things happening at once. I'm personally okay with it and don't think it's a big deal. They just need to make sense.

Improper Punctuation

I think probably every writer struggles at some point with figuring out how to punctuate dialogue. Let's be honest, to a beginner, it's not that clear-cut, and if you don't know the rules, it might seem somewhat random. For example, all of these sentences are punctuated properly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said, "was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said. "It was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

Here are the same sentences handled improperly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said. "Was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said, "it was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this," Arnie said! "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "you wrecked my car?"

"I do love squirrels," Daisy asked, "was it a squirrel?"

For a complete rundown of how to punctuate dialogue, you can follow this link. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

"All I was wondering," [part of a sentence] Jill said, [dialogue tag] "was if you would like to go to the movies. [rest of the sentence]"

- When the dialogue tag interrupts a sentences, separate it by commas.

"I caught a fish once, [complete sentence]" Heber said. [dialogue tag] "It was a big fat trout." [a separate complete sentence]

- When the dialogue tag comes at the end of a complete sentence, use a comma inside the end quotes and then a period after the tag. If there is more dialogue, capitalize the next letter as you would the start of a sentence.

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

- When the dialogue tag follows an exclamation point or question mark, you simply add the dialogue tag with a period. You don't need an extra comma ("I can't believe this!," Arnie said--no)

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

- In this example, the dialogue tag is technically preceding the dialogue "You wrecked my car?" so you can put a comma.

Notice how these actually read differently:

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. / "You wrecked my car?"


"I can't believe this!" / Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

The slash denotes that extra bit of silence. The way the dialogue tag is placed and punctuated tells us how the beat goes.

Now, some people say you should never start with a dialogue tag: Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?" I'd argue that it's the best choice in some scenarios. Also, some say you should never flip the speaker and tag: "You wrecked my car?" said Arnie.

I personally don't have a problem with it as long as it's used sparingly and not the go-to choice. When you are describing who is speaking, because we don't know the name, it's often a great choice: "You wrecked my car?" said a man with a long beard and a silver umbrella.

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

- Same explanation as my exclamation point one. If you end on a question, put the question mark before the end quotes, add the dialogue tag, and put a period. Notice how this example is wrong:

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."


"Was it a squirrel?" / Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."

Daisy is not asking "I do love squirrels." So again, the tag does not match the dialogue.

Making Actions into Dialogue Tags

I could have probably put this in the last section, but it happens so much that it really needs its own category.

Sometimes writers make the dialogue tag a physical action:

"Let's go to the store," Amy smiled.

"I do love pudding," Luna scooped some pudding on her plate, "When is the next match?"

"The last thing I need," Mom yanked the car into reverse, "is for you to back talk me!"

Dialogue is something audible. You can't smile audible language. You can smile while you say it, but you can't smile it.

"Let's go to the store," Amy said, smiling.


"Let's go to the store." Amy smiled.

In the second example, it is implied that Amy is the speaker, simply because of the structure of the line/paragraph. You can absolutely imply who is speaking. But notice that "Amy smiled" is not punctuated as a dialogue tag.

Here is how to fix the pudding one:

"I do love pudding." Luna scooped some pudding on her plate. "When is the next match?"

Keep the action separate from the dialogue--its own sentence.

The third wrong example is tricky. But is here is how you handle it:

"The last thing I need"--Mom yanked her car into reverse--"is for you to back talk me!"

Now, in some cases, I'm guilty of just doing the commas to set off the action, because I feel it suits the tone more than the dashes. If dashes don't suit the moment, you can also play around with the dialogue and find (correct) alternatives. Now, is it wrong if I stylistically choose to use commas? I'll leave that to my editor. ;)

Maid-and-Butler Dialogue

Sometimes an author is trying to get information to the reader through dialogue. And it's obvious. And feels contrived. Maid-and-butler dialogue is a term that originates from stories where the maid and butler would tell each other things they already both know. For example:

"Voldemort was a very dark wizard who killed Harry's parents," Dumbledore said to Snape.
"Voldemort was one of the most powerful wizards in history, as you know, and he went to school here, at Hogwarts," Snape replied.

Dumbledore and Snape both know these things probably better than anyone, but they're talking this way solely for the benefit of the audience. The reality is, as a writer, you often do need to convey information to the reader through dialogue. One way this is handled is by having a character speaking to another character who doesn't know this information.

" 'Arry, I dunno how t' tell ya this," Hagrid said, then paused. "Yer mum and dad didn' die in a car crash. It was a dark wizard who done it. You-Know-Who--one o' the darkest wizards in history."

(Yeah, I know, I can't get Hagrid's dialogue quite right without the book in front of me.)

But in this example, we have someone who knows telling someone who doesn't.

Sometimes though, you just can't work that into your story. In that case, the info itself should not be the sum of the dialogue, but often the subtext.

Here is a great example that would have worked fine (although, it of course works better in where it is actually placed)

(Major spoiler alert--since I know some of my followers haven't read or seen all of Harry Potter yet and they want to)

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"Lily and James put their faith in the wrong person, Severus, rather like you," Dumbledore said. "The boy survives."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, the boy will be in terrible danger," Dumbledore said. "He has her eyes."

And then as the scene goes on, you could subtly fill in more info the reader needs.

Straightforward Dialogue

Often the most powerful dialogue is indirect. In the spoilery example above, one of the many reasons it was so powerful was because of all that it implies--it's indirect. It has subtext. Notice how a very straightforward version takes out some of the power:

(Still spoilery )

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"I did my best to keep them safe. Voldemort killed Lily and James when they trusted Peter Pettigrew as their Secret Keeper. Their son survived Voldemort's attack. He will need protection."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, he'll want to kill the boy," Dumbledore said. "I know how much you loved Lily, so you must do all you can to keep the boy safe."

Sure, the dialogue is okay, but it's lost some of its power.

Other times, the straightforward is not so lucky:

"Jennifer, I love you! I love you so much! I love you more than the moon and the sun," Cole said.
"I didn't like you at first, but I guess over time I came to like you too," Jennifer said. "Maybe we can be friends for now though."

Straightforward dialogue releases tension. It has a place in storytelling for sure (like when it's time for the tension to be released). But most of your dialogue should not be so straightforward. In life, people often speak indirectly about things, and their words reveal more than what they are actually saying. Good dialogue does too. It says more than what's on the page.

For more on dialogue, check out my other tips:

Monday, August 7, 2017

Fixing the Mary Sue Character in Your Story

The term "Mary Sue" started in fanfiction, back when someone wrote a Star Trek story that had a character with that name, but a Mary Sue can pop up in original fiction too. Really, she can pop up anywhere. But she hardly ever pops up in published fiction or professional fiction--because she often bars those works from those markets. So if you've only ever read books you can buy off a bookshelf, you may have never meet her.

"Mary Sue" is a derogatory term for a particular (yet reoccurring) character type that many beginning writers write about. But she's a problematic and poor character for several reasons. A lot of people may have different definitions for what "Mary Sue" means, and there are different subcategories for different types.

Probably the most common Mary Sue is the one that is inexplicably talented at everything, falls in love with a hunky guy or is related to a significant person, gorgeous, and embodies pure wish fulfillment. This sort of Mary Sue is what usually crops up in fanfiction, because she's inserted into an existing universe that the author already knows and loves.

However, as someone who edits unpublished, original fiction, the Mary Sue I often run into is a different type.

Does your female character embody these?

Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

  • - Often she contributes almost nothing to the story or plot--and yet, everyone adores her. (Alternatively, she's insanely talented and every problem is ultimately solved easily by her--more common in fanfiction.)

  • - At some point, she might eventually be considered very valuable, by others or to the plot, but often it's a passive value. Something she just *is* instead of anything she does.

  • - She's probably clumsy. Sometimes ridiculously so, as in, she can't even walk down the sidewalk or go down a couple of stairs without worrying she's going to fall. Bonus Mary Sue points if a male (usually a love interest or family member) comments on how klutzy she is and has to have her hold onto him just to walk somewhere. Extra bonus Mary Sue points if she falls in front of a cute guy or the love interest or when it would be most embarrassing (which, of course, is in front of a cute guy). 

  • - She doesn't see herself as beautiful, but somehow the author finds a way to convey to the audience that she is drop dead gorgeous without even trying.

  • - She does nothing, but yet people feel sorry for her and her problems. These are often problems she makes little to no effort to fix, or problems she doesn't even consciously think about fixing or improving.

  • - She needs a lot of saving--either from these problems, or because she's a helpless [insert character trait (hint: probably has to do with being a klutz)]

  • - Often other characters (usually male) go out of their way to help her with her problems--and sometimes really out of their way, like they might miss the most important meeting of their career, a prestigious performance opportunity, their mom's birthday party, or work. Whatever they miss, one thing often holds true--it was more important than whatever the female character needed help with. It might be an injury she got while being clumsy or maybe she's just sad about school and how "hard" (hint: she has one of the easiest lives of all the characters) her life is, or maybe it's just that perennial problem that she has and has made zero effort to try to solve and/or would not have even been in to begin with if she weren't so darn passive. Whatever it is, people (friends, males, family, males (whoops, did I say "males" twice?)) inexplicably bend over backwards for her. Usually people--plural, not singular.

  • - She probably cries more than any other character, even though many of the other characters have more significant things they could cry about. She cries sometimes over day-to-day challenges that the average person faces anyway. It might be over a problem she hasn't tried to fix or that she puts herself in (though the author never points those things out). For example, she might cry repeatedly over a school club she's a part of but hasn't bothered to leave. She probably cries on the behalf of other people too--people who don't even cry about their own problems.

  • - She'll likely trip in the first 50 pages, but in a way that highlights and exaggerates her beauty.

  • - If you took her out of the context of the story, you might realize she's actually kind of pathetic and passive, and yet, inexplicably, everyone STILL adores her.

  • - Often she feels stupid or foolish, but the hottest guys fight over her (heaven knows why).

  • - She's more romantically or sexually inexperienced than the love interest and worries about not knowing what she's doing and what he'll think. (Bonus points if she somehow ends up being the best thing he's ever had regardless.)

  • - All in all, she just attracts a lot of male attention, whether it's romantic or brotherly or just male strangers in the street.

  • - A lot of the time she's a wish-fulfillment character (traditionally, the author's wish fulfillment). This is why she's adored and hailed as the most important person in other people's lives and considered very special, even though she feels stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless; this is why she's actually gorgeous when she feels ugly; this is why people drop the most important moments of their personal lives to save or nurse her back to health.

  • - The flaws she has are meant to be endearing and don't actually contribute to the main problems of the plot. They may exist, but are unimportant beyond the very surface of the story

  • - She tends to be in "parent-child" relationships. This relationship can be exaggerated with her parents, but it often crops up in other relationships--whether it's from the best friend, love interest, or brother. Whatever the case, she's usually the "child" while the other person is her "parent" in the relationship. The "parent" is taking care of her, warning her, helping her, praising her, directing her--even though she's 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, or 23 years old. Whether or not she obeys, she listens to them and maintains her role of "child" in that relationship. In fact, she often seems utterly accepting of her "child" role.

Bonus Round (yes, there is more) 

  • - She has a unique hair or eye color (in a story with fantasy or sci-fi elements, the colors may change or be unnatural compared to ordinary humans) and it's described in "I'm-trying-to-be-poetic" language (a.k.a. "purple prose"). Extra, extra bonus points if it takes at least five words to describe.

  • - She has an unusual or rare name.

  • - She's a stand-in for the author (an extended version of wish fulfillment), so that the author can live in this fictive universe. This is especially true for fanfiction. ("I wish I could go to Hogwarts and be in a relationship with Draco Malfoy")

  • - She's a half-breed of some sort. Half-blood, half witch, half alien, half elf, half animal, were-dragon, (again, this is something that makes her special based on what she *is* and not what she does).

  • - She discovers she has a familial bond with another character or discovers a family secret. Extra points if there is a tragic (often cliche) backstory.

  • - While she might be uncoordinated or pathetic, in other versions she's unusually and unrealistically talented at just about everything--more things to further extents than anyone could realistically be that good at.

  • - In the opening of the story, she's late to somewhere important. Extra points if it's her own fault, negligence, or because she slept in.

  • - She may have over emotional reactions to things that don't merit such an emotional reaction. For example, she might yell at someone who is trying to help her or cry because her (ordinary) school day is "hard."

If you are sweating it out now, don't. I'm going to give you some tips that will help.

First off, an important point. Can a male character be a Mary Sue? Yes, but they are called a "Marty Stu" or a "Gary Stu." They may be a little different than a Mary Sue, particularly in the fact that they don't necessarily need a ton of female attention or a romantic plot line (though it's not uncommon to have a million girls falling all over him either). Just as a version of Mary Sue is that she is good at everything and that her flaws are meant to be endearing rather than real flaws, Marty Stu is often insanely good at everything too, and any flaws he might have might actually be cool or tough or likeable (like being overly arrogant). Marty Stu is not as common as Mary Sue though, and he's usually more tolerated in today's society, as his attributes are still often praised as the epitome of male-ness, while today's society finds many of the traits of Mary Sue to be offensive to women.

Not all of the Mary Sue Traits are Terrible

There are reasons this character type reappears over and over and over again--hundreds or thousands of times a year (most of them don't make it to the bookshelf or big screen, though both Bella from Twilight and Rey from The Force Awakens have been accused of each being a Mary Sue). It's because there are people who are attracted to those character traits. Not all the Mary Sue traits are bad, but together, they cause problems. Look at what kind of person those outlined features created. And yet everyone and their dog adores them? Love interests fight over them? It doesn't make sense. Look at how unrealistic that person is.

Many of these traits would be fine added to a more realistic, rounded character:

  • - She's beautiful, but doesn't know it.
  • - She has innate or inborn value
  • - She's half human
  • - She discovers a family secret
  • - She's inexperienced
  • - She's clumsy

None of these are inherently bad (though most of them are overused--especially the first and last in the list).

Wish fulfillment isn't innately bad either. There are loads of successful wish fulfillment characters and wish fulfillment stories. In fact, most if not all successful stories feed into some sort of wish fulfillment (that's usually why people pick up the book).

The Problems of the Mary Sue

One of the main and common problems with the Mary Sue is that the relationship between her traits and how others treat and react to her, don't make a lot of sense.

If you knew a person in real life who cried regularly about her problems but did next to nothing about them, are you really going to miss your chance to break into a big acting career to go nurse her pathetic, fragile emotions? Probably not. (And if you are, aren't you just enabling that kind of mentality?)

If you knew someone who acted as the "child" in all her significant relationships, would you really look up to her?

If you were a love interest, would you really fight over a girl who is so passive she gives Bella Swan a run for her money?

If there was a girl who got scratched up from watching Aragon take on armies of orcs and Frodo almost die destroying the Ring, would we later compliment how brave she was?


Sometimes what's unrealistic are the character traits themselves. In some cases they may even be contradictory. For example, she's incredibly clumsy but later in the scene she wins an athletic competition. Everyone tells her how beautiful she is, and she acts like she's hearing it for the first time . . . . every time. All the guys in the story have crushes on her, but she's shocked when the hot guy actually asks her out, and we learn she has no experience with guys (even though she's always wanted a boyfriend and every guy in the story ogles her). The other characters have lived through more trauma, but she subconsciously expects or hopes that they will nurse her insignificant problems.

If she has any flaws, they are portrayed as endearing or acceptable. As a society, do we really want to portray passivity and incompetence and uncoordination and child-like dependence as endearing? Acceptable? Now, I'm not saying you can't have a character who has these traits, but it's important to watch how they are handled, and the ideas that have already been established and perpetuated in entertainment (especially outdated entertainment).

By the way, it's completely possible to make your character endearing through other traits. In Harry Potter, in Harry's viewpoint in the sixth book, Hermione is described as endearing in passing because of her loyalty and faith in libraries and books. Intelligence and tenacity can be endearing, not passivity. Endearing comes from other characters knowing and appreciating a character's traits or personality.

Nursing the Mary Sue Back to Reality

The Mary Sue character isn't some gross, obscene character that only the most incompetent people write. She has a name because so many passionate writers have written her at some point. If you have a Mary Sue character, you're probably normal.

In an effort to fix the Mary Sue, some writers try to take her traits (some or all) to the far opposite, creating what is called an "Anti-Sue," which really isn't much better. I talked about this similar thing happening in my post The "Twins as Clones" Writing Epidemic, where in an effort to differentiate twin characters, the author tries to make them extreme opposites. This can be just as cartoony and unrealistic.

If you really love your Mary Sue character and can't part with her, you are free to keep some of her traits and abilities. But in order to create a more rounded, likeable, believable character, you need to be her best friend, brother, love interest, or mysterious stranger that nurses her back to the real world--or at the least the real fiction world.

Some of these things may seem straightforward when you start looking at them. If she's crying a lot, cut the crying. Excessive crying often happens in stories when the author is trying too hard to create sympathy for the character, instead of empathy. But true empathetic emotional power often comes from focusing on and rendering what causes those feelings rather than only on the feelings themselves.

If everyone loves her inexplicably, change it. However, be careful not to make the only people who don't like her rude, unlikeable, and unsympathetic, which is another telltale of a Mary Sue in a story.

Cut the clumsiness and give her a flaw that is more unusual.

If she's passive, make her more active in the story and in solving problems. She can fail, fail, and fail again, but in her sphere of power, she should at least be trying, and if she's not, show us a clever reason why. For example, in M. Night Shyalaman's most recent movie, Split, the protagonist is a very passive, young female. But not only do we learn multiple reasons why she is so passive (and they're legitimate), but we see that in reality, she does have a plan, but it's quiet, subtle, and requires waiting for the perfect moment.

If everyone bends over backwards for her, give the secondary and side characters their own lives, and moments where they chose their own lives over hers.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the most effective way to nurse a Mary Sue is to brainstorm not broader, but deeper. Don't make her more broad by adding more and more things to her; instead, dig deeper and deeper into her psychologically and explore interesting inner thoughts, motivations, fears, and contradictions, and how those things manifest themselves outwardly and in the story. Brainstorm and brainstorm and brainstorm some more, because the cliches are always what come to mind first, and if there is one thing about nursing a Mary Sue to reality, it's moving beyond cliches.

Monday, July 31, 2017

New Looks, New Features, New News (sorta)

As you've probably already noticed, unless you are reading this from your email, there have been a few changes to my website . . .

Mainly the look.

Last Thursday and Friday, I worked really hard getting a new look up. I've been thinking about it for a while; my old layout was starting to look dated, and I figured I'd update it sometime toward the end of the year. But at the moment, I'm also looking at pitching to a conference and with Salt Lake Comic Con coming up, I decided to make the jump early, so I can look extra snazzy. ;)

To be honest, I'm really happy with how it turned out. I love the theme, colors, and it looks sleek and clean . . . and it's mobile friendly. (My last layout wasn't, so I actually had two different themes.)

You'll notice on the top header, there are some different buttons.



Social Media


I've got a nice little email subscribe spot near the top.

And I still have my blog post categories, but they are now on the right sidebar.

You can now see related blog posts at the bottom of each post.

Then remember that list of recommended writing books I posted a few weeks ago? You can get to the list through the menu.

But perhaps the best new feature on my site is an index of almost all my writing tips, organized by topic. I'll be honest, it took a few hours to compile and create all the links, but I'm pretty happy with it. So now you can look up whatever I've written on a specific topic.

You can get to the Writing Tip Index through the menu.

By the way, I'm still working on getting more writing tips on my Youtube channel. If you haven't subscribed yet, I'd appreciate it if you did.

I also have a different little profile picture. I just thought it went better with the look.

Anyway, so like I said above, I'm working on pitching to a conference and probably another down the road. I love sharing what I know about writing with others, and if I could get selected as a guest, it would be a really great opportunity for me, not only to share what I know, but to further grow in my career field.

At the moment, I'm also waiting on Salt Lake Comic Con's schedule. I'm assuming I'll be a guest there again, since I've done it the last two years, but it kind of just depends on the programming they go with this year. I'm really looking forward to Salt Lake Comic Con. It's one of my favorite things I do all year. This year will be extra fun since my favorite band, Muse, will be playing in Salt Lake the night before, and I got pit tickets!

Also, I actually do have some other significant news that I thought I'd be sharing in this post, but I ran into some minor delays, so it will have to wait. But it will be another great step and building block in my career (and I might need your help spreading the word if you are so inclined), so stay tuned. :)

And of course, as always, I have more writing tip articles in the works, so come back next week! In the meantime, feel free to peruse the new site and find something interesting in the Writing Tip Index. Many of you did not discover my blog until years after I'd started it, so there might be an article in there you haven't seen.

Last, but not least, thank you to everyone who has been following my blog, whether you simply "ghost" it on occasion, or have come back regularly, commented, or shared it with others. Thank you to anyone who has ever shared my posts. I'm so grateful to know that there are people out there who find writing and storytelling as interesting as I do and actually like to read my thoughts on the topic.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Structuring Events in the Correct Sequence

Lately while editing, I've noticed several stories that are quite good, but are lacking in small areas here and there, one of them is slightly inaccurate structures of events that take place.

These most often manifest themselves in sentence structures. Grammatically, these sentences are fine, but they give the reader a slightly inaccurate experience of the story. For example, look at the following sentence.

Before I arrived at the grocery store, I brushed my teeth at the house.

Technically, this sentence is fine. It's a complete sentence. It's punctuated correctly. But do you see why it gives the reader a slightly inaccurate experience of the story?

Monday, July 17, 2017

How to Deal with People Who Don't Support Your Writing

Last week I outlined some reasons why people may not support your writing and promised that this week I'd have another writer tell us about how to deal with, work with, or communicate with those people. The writer asked to remain anonymous for reasons you'll understand in the post. And without further ado:

When somebody is critical and unsupportive of your writing, it’s important to open an appropriate channel of communication. Communication is NOT arguing your side of a disagreement, getting your point in, or making a home run comment that shuts down opposition. Communication must occur two ways. Real communication, and thus real results, won’t occur unless you speak and, more importantly, listen. Good communicators listen. Great communicators listen more than they talk.
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” –Epictetus

Ask yourself three questions:

1)    Do they matter?
2)    Are they addressing the real concerns they have with your writing?
3)    What is more important, your writing or your relationship with this person?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why Some People Don't Support Your Writing Goals

One of the weird things about writing is that to many outsiders, you look like you are doing nothing. Often, people don't see the results until months after the work has been completed. That, coupled with the fact that most of the population doesn't actually understand how complex and difficult it is to write fiction, let alone be successful at it, can lead to some negative encounters. Most people don't know how to value storytelling. So much of their experience of it is based on feeling and subconscious thoughts.

And of course, there is the tendency to measure things by income, and to some people, skills and work only have value if they can bring in the money. There is a realm for this kind of thinking, but it's not for everyone and every skill at every level. D. Todd Christofferson once taught, "All true work is sacred." Even those who have made a beautiful income off their writing were writing without it for a long time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

On Talent and Success

Over the last few months, I've been noticing something.

I've been seeing writers who are less talented than others find more success.

At the same time, I've become more aware of talented writers, smart writers, or passionate writers who sort of drift away.

Since I left high school, I've come in contact with a lot of people who dream of being writers. And over the years, I've seen many educated and intense aspiring authors . . . just stop pursuing. Sometimes these are people who have all the right personal qualities to succeed. They are sharp, driven, dedicated, passionate, and they have critical thinking skills. Sure, they may need more practice, but that comes with time. Perhaps, though, it is because they are so intense and critical, they stop believing they can succeed. They don't think they can actually "make it."

Monday, June 26, 2017

20 Years of Harry Potter: The Boy Who Changed Everything

“He’ll be famous—a legend—I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future—there will be a book written about Harry—every child in our world will know his name!”

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, penned these words thirteen pages into what would become a worldwide literary phenomenon.

Exactly 20 years ago, the first Harry Potter book was published, June 26th, 1997.

Whether or not you are a Harry Potter fan, J.K. Rowling's series about a boy wizard changed the world--especially the reading and writing industries. Just the other day I was editing a really well written story that was obviously inspired (directly, or indirectly) by Harry Potter

So today, let's talk about the Boy Who Lived. And if you would like to answer any of these questions, feel free to put them in the comments, social media, or your own blog. I'd love to hear your stories. Mine got rather lengthy (unsurprisingly), so feel free to skim.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Coming up with a Plot (from scratch)

Anonymous said: I often have ideas for a scene or a character but there is no plot. How can I expand these ideas into stories? I just don't know what to do with my ideas to get a story out of them. Most plotting tips require that I know at least the beginning and the end of my story. But I don't even have that.

Hi Anonymous,

I've heard of other writers having this same problem, so you are not alone! Here are some ideas that come to mind when I think about this.

First off, you have ideas for characters or scenes, and that's a starting point, and you probably (I'm assuming, because it wasn't that long ago) saw my post What to Outline When Starting a Story, which can give some guidance on what to consider. However, if you have no idea where to even come up with a concept for your plot that post can only be so much help.

Monday, June 12, 2017

How Many of These Writing Books Have You Read?

As I've talked about on my blog several times, an important part of growing as a writer is learning about writing. For years I've wanted to compile a list of writing books I've read, liked, and recommend. Today I'm happy to say I now have that list to add to my blog (perfect timing for anyone who likes summer reading). I'm sure over time, this list will be added to.

Many writers I've talked to have read quite a few of these books. How many have you read? And is there one I need to look into? (You can comment at the bottom).

If you haven't read any of them, cool. Now you have a list to chose from should you ever want to.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Writing Villains Who are Slightly Insane

luna-barry said: I love all of your super helpful and informative writing advice, and I was wondering if you have any tips on something I've been stuck on for a while now? I'm trying to write a villain who is insane, but not over-the-top (like the Joker, or Jim Moriarty etc.) Someone who feels more like they should be on medication, then a completely hopeless nut-Job. Any tips?

So I’ve been trying to think of how to answer this. To be honest, it might be a bit beyond me, as I don’t have much experience working with this specifically, also, I don’t struggle with insanity or other forms of mental illness.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Are Your Conflicts Significant?

Every once in a while, I hear writers talk about the importance of writing about significant conflicts. And they're right. Stories need to have significant conflicts to be interesting. Often the promise of significant conflicts is where tension comes from. Significant conflicts are particularly important in the opening page or pages of your story.

Significant conflict does not necessarily mean an extreme conflict, and this is where I see people get confused. We are often told that something extreme needs to happen in the opening to get the reader's attention, like a bomb going off. While stories can open this way, they don't have too. While those conflicts are significant, they aren't the only kinds of significant conflicts.

I have seen plenty of story openings with insignificant conflicts. This might be something like the protagonist being out of toothpaste or a cat being bored. Sure, there is a conflict of some sort, but it's insignificant. Who really wants to read ongoing paragraphs about a character being out of toothpaste and how inconvenient that is? It's little better than having no conflict.

Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Outline When Starting a Story

Last week I started talking about outlining, specifically focusing on story structure and what to outline. You can visit that post here.

Usually when people talk about outlining, they are either referring to what to outline or how to outline. So today, I'll be talking about different ideas on how to outline.

One thing that I probably should have mentioned last time that I'll mention today is that much of outlining stems from brainstorming, so if you are having a difficult time writing down an outline, it may be because you haven't brainstormed enough. Some writers brainstorm and do an outline simultaneously. So if you are having trouble, ask yourself if you have brainstormed enough.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What to Outline When Starting a Story

Anonymous asked: Hi, I visit your tumblr frequently. Creative writing is my passion and I am learning a lot reading your posts. I have also read books about screenplay (and the book by Lisa Cron about how our brain works). I love writing fantasy young adult novels but for me it's hard to outline. Could you give me some tips? :-) (Forgive me for my grammar errors. English is not my first. language) :-) Thank you so much. When you publish your novel, I will love to read it :D 

Hi anonymous,

Well, talking about outlining can be a little tricky because just as people write differently, people outline differently. For creative writing, there aren't a lot of rules for how you outline. Some writers don't outline at all. They simple start writing and find their story as they go. Personally, I'm a big outliner, but I also leave myself some room in case I come up with better idea along the way.

Now, for some, when they talk about outlining, they simply mean planning things out ahead of time, and how and what to plan, but others mean the actual physical process of outlining (physically writing down and organizing their outline), so I'll try to talk about both.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction

Hi everyone, this week I'm over at Writers Helping Writers, talking about how to make complex characters by giving them contradictions. Here is a preview:

You’ve likely seen countless posts and resources related to creating great characters, but almost all of them seem to be lacking in one aspect I’ve found to be perhaps the most powerful: giving your characters contradictions.

Some might read this and say, “Huh? Isn’t that inconsistent characterization? Or undefined characterization?”

The contradictions I’m talking about aren’t continuity errors or mistakes. They can relate to internal conflicts, but they are not internal conflicts. If you don’t like the term “contradiction,” many of the things I’m about to talk about also work as “contrasts.”

When writers are given methods to create characters, the approaches often include giving the character strengths and weaknesses, likeable attributes, a unique appearance, and a nice backstory, or a secret or fear. These are all wonderful and useful things. But how do you make your character more complex? More interesting?

The answer lies in giving them some sort of contradiction. Let’s look at some examples of characters and the contradiction or contrasts surrounding them.

Read the rest Writers Helping Writers

Monday, May 1, 2017

Why Being Boring is Awesome

In his advice book for creatives (Steal like an Artist), Austin Kleon has a chapter titled, "Be Boring."

"Be boring," Kleon says. "It's the only way anything gets done."

"I'm a boring guy," he goes on, "with a nine-to-five job in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and his dog."

Like Kleon, I'm a boring person. I do the exact same thing every day or every week. I haven't been on a trip that wasn't writing related in years. I almost never miss a day of work. Saturday mornings I work on my blog and every Sunday I go to church. It's a good thing I'm a Hufflepuff, because I have the tenacity of a rock.

But things get done. (And money gets saved.)

Once in a while, I get messages from people online that go something like this:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"

A common piece of writing advice is to avoid using "was" or any "to-be" word in your writing. But most professionals use them in their writing--so what gives? Over my years editing, I've seen stories that were crippled from the author's quest to avoid using "was," and I knew I needed to do a post on it. Here is the "was" rule, why it's a rule, and why you (probably) shouldn't follow it religiously--with some of the most common problems I see in avoiding it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Context vs. Subtext (Context Should Not Become Subtext)

Context First, Subtext Second

Subtext, especially good subtext, can be tricky to write. But in order to write good subtext, you need to have context first. And in order to do that, you need to understand the difference between them and where each one fits in storytelling.

Some writers make the mistake of trying to make the context into subtext. This is a problem for several reasons, one of the main being that it makes the story very vague. In vague writing, the audience can't really tell what is going on. Without proper context, they aren't sure how to interpret information and actions. Often, this sort of writing manifests when the writer is trying to follow the "show, don't tell" rule too religiously, which usually leads to writing that is too cinematic.

However, creating context does not necessarily mean you have to "tell" straight-out all the time. It can also come from taking advantage of connotations, words with specific feelings attached to them. With that said, though, it's impossible for most stories to have proper context without some telling.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Character Traits that Hike up Tension


Weeks ago, I did this post on the difference between tension and conflict. As a short recap, I mentioned that tension is not necessarily conflict, and I like to think of it as the promise of conflict, that anticipation and worry of what will happen.

As writers, we should definitely take advantage at the elements in our plot, world, and (yes) our conflicts to create tension. But over the years I've noticed that some smart writers really hike up the tension of a book through the traits of their viewpoint characters.

You see, some traits are natural tension-hikers.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Writing What's Evil >:D (without Promoting it)

Last week, I did a post on why it's important that the world has fiction stories with dark content. You can read that post here. Today I'm going to talk about how to handle dark content--without promoting it.

Long ago, in my first year of blogging, I did a series of posts about the value of shock in writing, explaining that not all shock is bad. Today's topic overlaps with some of those ideas and is yet different from them.

Handling Dark Content Correctly

Before I get into how to deal with evil behavior, I want to explain why it's important we handle dark content correctly. In the writing world, you may have heard of "gratuitous" content. Gratuitous content is graphic violent, sexual (or any other dark subject matter) content that is thrown into a story for little to no purpose other than to shock the audience. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators want to be taken more seriously, which is, ironically, the equivalent of a middle-schooler throwing out cuss words because he wants to sound "mature." It might be thrown in just to get a PG-13 or R rating. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators think that it's what their audience wants.

There is a poor way of handling graphic or dark content and there is a right way.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Why We Need Stories about Dark Things

One of the things I get tired of from time to time is the perspective that if something shows evil behavior then that means the story, song, game, whatever, is inherently bad. But there is a difference between illustrating evil behavior and promoting it.

Not all appearances of bad behavior invite bad behavior.

While one purpose of storytelling is to entertain, another purpose is to teach or educate--a purpose that in today's world, most people seem to have forgotten.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tension vs. Conflict (Hint: They aren't the Same Thing)

I used to think tension and conflict were the same thing. I mean don't they go together?

Well, a lot of the time they do, but it's entirely possible to have one without the other. They often go hand-in-hand, but they aren't the same thing. Conflict doesn't necessarily equal tension, and tension doesn't equal conflict.

Lately I've been editing stories that seem to have so much conflict and no tension! I don't care about the conflicts. I don't care about the characters. Because there is no tension.

Tension isn't the conflict.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Writers' Most Frequently Asked Questions

Writers get asked a lot of questions. They have an uncommon job and an uncommon pursuit. So I decided to go through some of the most frequently asked questions and provide some general answers, sprinkling some of my own answers in, too.

Where do you get your ideas?

This is the most common question writers get asked, and often the answers aren't that amazing. Ideas come from everything--interesting facts, song lyrics, life experiences, people-watching, movies, other books. Sometimes I get ideas sitting in Sunday school class. I've gotten ideas listening to college lectures. A lot of the time I get them because I'm sitting down with a paper brainstorming; I force myself to come up with ideas. Some writers get them from dreams (I never have). Sometimes inspiration strikes out of the blue. Most of the time, for me, it comes because I'm working hard at coming up with them. A lot of times I think about what others have done in storytelling, and how I can twist or morph that in a way that's new or interesting or surprising. I might try to think of a way to top it.

Askers will almost always get a more interesting answer if they are a bit more specific, "Where did the idea for this book come from?" "How did you come up with this character?" "Such-and-such was my favorite part, how did you come up with the idea for that?"

Specific aspects are pretty interesting, but talking about ideas in general can be rather vague.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Long Road

The path to being an exceptional writer is long. The road is marked with goatheads and brambles, and other times there are small stretches of gold bricks. The long road is not necessarily measured in time, but it can be. It can be time. It can be effort. It can be in written words.

But in the end, it's a long road.

Lately I've been thinking of that long road. It's difficult to move from a beginning writer to a good writer, but the work is even greater and harder to move from a good writer to an exceptional one. It can take blood, sweat, tears, and more than that.

I do a lot of editing, and in the process, I find myself reflecting on the magnitude of such a feat. . . . so many writers who have worked hard to get where they are, and they still have a long way to go. I've edited manuscripts from military professionals, people who work for NASA, university professors, and employees in Hollywood, and do you want to know a secret?

We all start at the beginning.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"

You may have heard the writing rule that the only dialogue tag you should use is "said." And if not "said" then "asked." Sometimes even "stated" gets mentioned. In this post, I'll explain what that rule means, why it's in place, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

In writing, the dialogue tag is the bit of text that tells the reader who spoke what dialogue:

"Are you hungry?" Jimmy asked.
"Please don't suggest we have raw fish," Oscar said.
"You only hated it because the first piece you had wasn't fresh," Jimmy insisted.
"Or because it tasted like gym socks," Oscar complained.

There are dozens if not hundreds of dialogue tags--blurted, groaned, sighed, cried, shouted, yelled, griped, moaned, and the list goes on.

But there is a rule in the writing world that we should pretty much only use "said" and "asked."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing Relatable Descriptions to Power up Empathy

There is something that has been rattling around in my subconscious for a while, and it finally clicked into the forefront of my mind: relatable descriptions.

I have found unrelatable descriptions in my own writing.

I have found them in other people's writing.

It's not that the unrelatable is always bad or wrong. It's that, like everything, it has a place it should be and a place it shouldn't be.

And where it should not be is in empathetic writing--when you want the reader to feel, empathetically, what the character feels.

Let me give you an example to illustrate.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Drawing out the Dragons (Required Viewing for Creatives)

Hi everyone! A couple of weeks ago I attended the Superstars Writing Seminar in Colorado for the first time. And (apparently) every year author and illustrator James Artimus Owen (Here, There Be Dragons) does a talk called "Drawing out the Dragons." Now, I've heard the name of this talk tossed around a lot in the writing community--I know it gets presented at other workshops and in schools, and I've heard a lot of positive comments about it--but I admit I had no idea what it actually was. When I saw it on the schedule, I just knew it would be good.

I'm now convinced that it needs to be required viewing for any creative. I rarely use the phrase "any creative," because people are so different, and there are always exceptions. For example, there may be things you find yourself disagreeing with in the talk. That's okay. I still think every creative should watch/listen to it.

Luckily, they recorded the one at Superstars that I was at, so you can watch exactly what I did. So rather than give you my own writing tips for today, I really want to encourage all of you to listen to "Drawing out the Dragons." It does have some visual components (mainly at the beginning and the end), but if you are too busy to sit down and watch it, then listen to it when cleaning, cooking, exercising, or commuting. I promise that if you just take the time to listen to it, 99.99% of you won't regret it, and it will leave you feeling better about yourself and life than you did before. And even if you don't have time to listen to all of it, just listen to the first half hour, first 20 minutes, first whatever. It's worth it.

This was a live recording on Facebook, so I don't believe I'm able to embed it. This also means that you will need to skip to 49:50, as we had a countdown going on until that point, and that's where it really starts.

You can watch "Drawing out the Dragons" here.

Now go live life deliberately.

Next week I'll be back with my own writing tips ;)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Creating Stunning Side Characters (and Why They Matter)

Several years ago I attended a writing workshop at LDStorymakers that was focused entirely on creating side characters. One of the points made that struck me most was that when you create strong secondary characters, you make your novel feel authentic. You make it feel real.

This is because as an audience we don't feel as if all the side characters exist for the sake of the main character or the plot. They feel like real people with lives that extend beyond our protagonist. And yet sloppy side characters aren't uncommon. You've probably seen them before--the love interest that is only there to kiss the protagonist, the mentor that's only there to give the main character special skills, that poor geeky kid who's only there so that the main character can show off how kind and caring he is by sticking up for the weirdo, and of course, how can we forget the two-dimensional bully that every hero has these days?

Keep in mind that none of these character roles are bad or wrong per se. In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling gave Harry a bully, a mentor, and a bunch of geeky kids he stands up for, but Rowling is a master at creating real, authentic secondary characters, to the point that it's not uncommon for fans to point to one as their favorite (Luna Lovegood, Fred and George Weasley, Dobby, McGonagall).

The trick is to make your side character feels real, and in this post, I'll give you some tips on how to do that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Writing Realistic and Complex Dialogue

Anonymous asked: Hi! Congrats for your blog. I think your posts are very interesting :) How do yo write realistic and complex dialogues? Thank you!

Hi and thank you! ^_^

Great question. I used to be pretty clueless about what made good dialogue. I even bought two books on dialogue, and they were helpful, but didn’t give me the answers or depth I was looking for. They were more about the basics. I’ve tried to study dialogue over the years and I’ll share what I know. This is assuming you already know the basics. If not, or you need a refresher, here are some great articles:

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 1)
Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 2)

To be honest, I don’t agree with everything in those articles, but I agree with 99% of it and all of those points are what you will hear taught in the writing world. But here are more tips beyond that:

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sherlock Season 4 Thoughts (Spoilers)

I'm still dying from the awesomeness of Sherlock. I've been super busy the last couple of weeks, but I just had to take time to jot down something about the latest season. </3 Even if I don't have much time to polish it. It is what it is. ;)

Here are some of my raw Sherlock thoughts for season 4:

- This is still the best bromance of our day. The show does a great job of including high highs and low lows between Sherlock and John, which is just one of the reasons that their friendship is so powerful. It's the contrast of extreme emotions that give depth to their bond and strength to their personal understandings.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dealing with Identity

I've never been someone who has had an identity crisis. Or at least, I've never felt like I've had an identity crisis. While other kids and teenagers experimented with extremes and lifestyles to try to figure themselves out, I felt like I generally knew who I was and where I was going. It seemed I've always had a solid foundation in my identity. But it wasn't until several years ago that I realized that although I had a solid foundation, I had other junk in my identity cluttering up the space between me and my foundation.

I've met people who define themselves by their career. And frankly, it's hard not to in the society we live in. It starts at a young age, when people ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and as a people, we know that what they really mean is, "What do you want to do for work when you grow up?" And just that simple question shows that our society equates "being" with "work." In other words, from a young age, we are being taught that our identity and value is defined by the job we have.

I've met other people who are defined by relationships. Their identity is founded on who they are dating, and who they are is rooted in their relationship status. I've met people who define themselves by titles and medals and achievements. Others who have their identity founded in talents, hobbies, and abilities. I knew a girl who defined herself by her likes and dislikes.

But my identity issue did not come from standing on shaky foundations such as these. It came from not letting go of them.

See, I envision people's identity-foundation like a tower of blocks. Each block is something that is a part of us. Some "parts of us" don't give us a very stable foundation.

The examples I gave have foundations like this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Accepting that You'll Disappoint Readers


I've been having some good things happen to me on my writerly path the last six months, but as some of you may have noticed, I'm missing something: a published novel. I've published other pieces, but I'm still working on "The Book."

After sharing some good news with my brother, he asked me if I was worried about how my book would be received. After all the opportunities I've had, and the friends, connections, and followers I've gained, and the continued growth of my blog, would people have expectations that were too high and difficult to meet?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Selecting the Right Sentence Structure for the Right Emotion

Today's post builds off some other posts I've done:

Pros and Cons and Types of Third-Person
Point of View Penetration
Exactly How to Create and Control Tone
Writing Empathetically Vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally
Let Your Reader Do the Work
Raw vs. Subdued Emotion: Getting Them Right in Your Story

But you don't have to read them to get something out of this one.

It's just that today's topic relates to deep point of view (the deepest point, point 4), creating emotion in your reader (instead of on the page), and controlling tone.

Hopefully if you've been following my blog for very long, you understand the importance of getting your reader to feel powerful emotions as opposed to just writing about the emotions.