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Monday, October 23, 2017

How to get a Job as an Editor

Anonymous said: Hi September, do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to get into the field of editing but currently has a full-time job (in a not-related field) and can't drop it to take up an internship? Are there other ways to build up experience in hopes of getting a paid editing job? Thank you!

Sure, I have some ideas!

So, I’ve said before, the tricky thing about the writing industry is that there are pretty much never set paths to do something--which can be great, because it means there are many ways to get there, but it can also be bad, because it’s hard to figure out what will work. Also, keep in mind that because there are so many different paths, a different person in the industry may have very different opinions than me, but I speak from my own perspective and experiences of course.

I’m not sure how involved you are in the writing community, but I’d start with getting active in the writing community outside of your work time obviously. Often you can find writing groups or events in your area, but you can also join online groups. I realize this is a question about editing--but who are you going to be doing editing work for? Other writers. You can also look at going to conferences and conventions.

Like most things in the writing world, a lot of the education is something you need to take the initiative to do yourself. I don’t know where you are at in the area, but definitely start learning about writing and storytelling (I’m assuming you want to do fiction editing). There are different types of editing, but the two big ones are content editing and line editing. I’d suggest working at learning how to do both. There is also proofreading, which is one of the last edits, if not the last edit, where the editor goes through and fixes typos, dropped words, misspellings, punctuation errors, things like that. Learn what makes a good story, how to fix a broken one, and learn all the grammar and punctuation rules too.

To get better at editing, probably the best thing to do is to start reading unpublished fiction (in addition to the published fiction you've read). Joining a good writing or critique group would be great for this. Maybe you don’t participate by writing, but you participate by reading and giving feedback. Obviously the more you do this, the better you’ll get at developing an eye for what works and what doesn’t.

Being involved in the writing community is also helpful because it helps you network. I hate thinking about the concept of “networking,” but really, in the writing industry, it’s not that hard. Just start meeting and interacting with people in the writing community and industry. You don’t need to be desperate, just friends. Networking/friendships can lead to other opportunities, and other people telling others about you.

As you start learning and growing and gaining experience and getting better at critiquing and editing, you might want to ask for a few testimonials or endorsements from people you have worked with, or make a list of solid references.

From there, you have two paths. You can start looking for editing positions at publishers, and try for those, or you can try doing freelance editing. You can even try for both. Thank heavens for the internet, because it’s revolutionized the freelancing world. Build a nice freelance website--and you can look at other editors’ sites to see how they did theirs. If this is your first job in the industry, you might want to start at like $10-15 per hour, and then work on getting some clients. As you get better and better and your business grows, you can increase what you charge. Unless you are a celebrity in the writing world, the top editors hit their ceiling at $60 per hour. I’m sure like any business, this takes a lot of work, because it’s all on you to find your clients, market yourself, etc.

You do not need an English degree to become an editor--but you need to have a lot of same expertise that someone with an English degree has. You can take the initiative to learn that on your own, or you can consider taking a journey through an English program at a University, and maybe getting a degree. I have an English degree, and I know other editors who have degrees also.

On a final note, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who helped my with my Thunderclap campaign! With your help, I was able to reach my goal, and I have had plenty of visits to my new editing website at  If you haven't shared it yet, I'd appreciate it if you did. If you haven't looked at it yet, click here and check it out. Thank you!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Working with Teasers

About a year ago I went to the bookstore and started pulling books off the shelf to see how many of them had prologues, then I grabbed about a dozen books with prologues, sat down, and started reading them.

A lot of people in the writing world say prologues are horrible and that you should never ever ever ever ever write one.

I've always had mixed feelings about that advice.

Especially since all growing up, I liked prologues. Still do.

As I started reading all these prologues, I realized not only did the books do a no-no by having a prologue in the first place, but so many of the prologues broke dozens of writing rules. It would be enough to make any aspiring author want to rip out her hair. How come everyone who is teaching me to write stories tells me not to do these things, but then a quarter of the books on shelves are doing them in the very opening?

But I realized when reading through prologues that day, that most of them were teasers. A teaser functions different than other parts of the story, and if you don't know how to discern them or understand them, it can mess up your writing. Not enough people talk about teasers, which is why I'm doing this post.

Teasers inherently break a lot of writing rules, so it's unfair to compare them to everything else. They have a different purpose and function in storytelling. Teasers function off emotional promises to the audience.

Let's start with where the general public has heard the term--in reference to movie trailers. There are two main types of movie trailers: theatrical trailers and teaser trailers. A theatrical trailer is longer than a teaser trailer. It conveys the basic plot of the story. It communicates what the story is about.

Since I'm getting excited for the second season of Stranger Things to come out this month, let's look at their trailers for examples.

Here is the Stranger Things theatrical trailer.

Notice how the trailer guides us through the plot's set-up. It conveys to the audience that the story starts with a boy who has gone missing, having met some kind of ill fate, and his mom and others are looking for him. Eventually, his friends meet a girl who might know where he is.

Now, most theatrical trailers will have some kind of voice over or text on the screen to guide the viewers, and tell them what the story is about.

A teaser trailer is different. They're short. They usually don't really guide the audience through the plot's set-up, but instead show flashes of what kinds of emotional appeals the story is making to the audience.

Watch this Stranger Things season 2 teaser.

While there is text on the screen, it doesn't actually tell us about the plot of the story. But what it does do is make promises to the audience about what kind of emotional appeals it has.

- We get the retro 80's feel from the very beginning, which appeals to that feeling of nostalgia.

- We get yelling and then heavy breathing, which appeals to the feeling of fear.

- We see friends together, which appeals to the feeling of camaraderie--buddy stories.

- We see hints of a government conspiracy, which appeals to a feeling of wonder and horror and stirs the intellect.

- Finally, we get the feeling of wonder and horror when we see a dark creature outside.

Teasers don't tell us a whole lot about what the plot is about--just glimpses of it. They don't give us much, if any, context. They promise the emotional journey that will be delivered if you watch this show.

However, what else teasers promise, is that if the audience watches, they'll get the context.

One of the most important things about teasers is that they are short. If you want to do some research, look up theatrical trailers and teaser trailers for the same movies. The teaser is always shorter.

This is because an audience will sit through a lack of context for only so long. If it goes on too long, especially in the opening of the story (prologue usually), they'll get antsy. They need meaning. They need to be able to interpret what they are viewing or reading on their own, in order to become invested in the story, in order to care. They have to be able to participate, not just be dazzled with camera shots of creepy creatures. Maybe once that would have been enough to hold an audience back in day, but not today where so much entertainment is so accessible.

The less context a teaser has, the shorter it needs to be.

If it has a little more context, it can be a little longer.

If it has a little more context than that, it can be a little longer than that.

But one of the defining qualities of a teaser is the lack of context. If you give full context, it's not a teaser. You might have a theatrical trailer prologue, which is perfectly acceptable, but it's not a teaser.

So how do you handle a teaser? You appeal to emotional promises and beats. Luckily, you do not have to appeal to all your book's emotional beats in a teaser prologue. This is why often after teaser prologues, you get a chapter one that appeals to different emotional beats, and hopefully having dual openings gives your reader a sense of what kind of emotions this story is going to sate overall. And again, not everything needs to be in the opening, just the promises for what kinds of things will be in the story.

If you watch multiple teaser trailers for the same movie, sometimes you'll see that each teaser focuses on certain types of emotional beats. For example, in the Harry Potter movies, you may see how some may focus on the slice-of-life stuff at Hogwarts, while others focus on the dangerous Voldemort stuff. Usually, you'll see appeals to both, but if the movie has a big marketing campaign, you might get emotion-targeted teasers.

Teasers don't only appear in prologues. They may also appear as short scenes in the story, usually in the first half of the story. When you are working with a story where the threat is at a distance until the midpoint, you might get short teasers about what that threat is doing or planning to do, to remind the audience of their presence, promise again that trouble is coming, or sate the audience's emotional need. The movie I am Number Four, is a good example of this. The Twilight movie also does it.

Again, these teasers function the same way. They are short. Have less context. They make emotional promises.

Teasers that take place in the story, as opposed to the prologue or opening, don't have to necessarily promise trouble. They can speak to other things. For example, in a fantasy where your protagonist hasn't yet discovered a magic system, you may show a teaser of the mentor character using it in a fascinating way, with the promise that we will learn more about it in the future.

There are obviously differences between movie trailers and books. For example, movie teasers will often show short clips, quick shots, that inherently appeal to certain emotions. So for romance, there might be a quick shot of two people kissing, then a shot of a couple holding hands. These shots might come from two entirely different scenes from different ends of the movie. We can't and shouldn't write our teasers like that (usually). As a teaser in a story, especially a written one, you're more working with a teaser scene. The audience already lacks some context. Trying to jump between multiple scenes is just going to be more confusing. As a rule of thumb, don't intermingle and jump around scenes like that in your teaser passage. You can probably get away with sequential teaser scenes, as long as the teaser passage doesn't go on too long.

On a micro-level, some teasers aren't scenes, but lines in a scene--a sentence here or there that has that emotional buzz attached. And some of those bleed into this post on the Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrents.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Boom! Bang! Pow! Using Onomatopoeias Well

Today's article is going to be rather short, because that's all it needs to be for this particular lesson. But first, a couple of announcements: 1) I was recently in the news for one of my Comic Con panels. You can see and read that here. 2) I only have about 4 days left of my Fawkes Editing Thunderclap campaign, and I only need 7 more people to reach my goal. It's completely free to pledge! So please help me get the last 7. Go here. Thanks!

An onomatopoeia is a word that expresses a direct sound. You learned about them when you were a toddler: meow, oink, woof, moo. Then there are also the other sounds: ka-ching, sizzle, squawk, whoosh, zoom, and onward.

In creative writing, we are taught to appeal to all senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. That's when onomatopoeias become relevant. However, there are good ideas and not-so-good ideas on how to use them.


I went out into the backyard. My neighbors next door had a thing for raising pigs to compete in fairs. 

"Oink! Oink! Oink!"

I hoped I'd be able to ignore them as I practiced my lines for my next audition.

"Oink, oink, oink, oink."

I hoped.

Many new writers will approach onomatopoeias this way. I think by default, we are taught about them in this way, as toddlers. But when you use them like this, unless you are writing a children's story or maybe even middle grade, it usually cheapens the story. We aren't toddlers anymore.

Another exception to this is comic books, manga, graphic novels, and maybe even visual novels--stories where pictures convey much of the story, usually in panels, and the classic onomatopoeia usage is naturally tied to the medium.

Personally, I think this is largely because these mediums are more visual than a typical novel, with little narration (usually) so that's naturally how to convey sound, similar to how in a movie, you would simply hear the sound effect. I could be wrong; I'm not an expert on these mediums by any means, but that's the vibe I get.


I went out into the backyard. My neighbors next door had a thing for raising pigs to compete in fairs. I closed my eyes in a moment of annoyance as they oinked to unprecedented volumes.

I hoped I'd be able to ignore them as I practiced my lines for my next audition.

The oinks reached a new obnoxious pitch.

I hoped.

For typical fiction writing, you handle onomatopoeias by turning them into verbs or nouns or adjectives. "They oinked," "The oinks," and its work with other words.

Seagulls cawed along the shore.

Bacon sizzled in the pan.

The scooter zoomed down the street.

The child's screech could have made us deaf.

He had a barking tone.

This way you convey sound in a way that's natural to narration, without it drawing too much attention to itself.

There are some exceptions, particularly with dialogue. Sound words that actually are naturally said are usually fine. For example, "Oof!" is a sound that people actually make. However, pigs don't actually sound like "Oink!" Oink is just a way us humans invented to describe and convey the sound. This is why in different languages, you may have different sounds. In America, cats say "meow." In Japan, they say "nyan."

So the following are often going to read fine, and you'll see them in fiction sometimes:

"Uugh, that was the worst meeting I've ever sat through," Sandra said.

"Uh, is that . . . a spider?" Jeffrey asked.

"Oof--what was that for?" Mitch rubbed his head. "That hurt."

"Pfft, like that would ever happen." 

"Ahem, are you listening?"

However, some words do sound a little strange, unless you are using them jokingly.

"Boo-hoo!" Sally cried.

No one I know actually makes that sound when crying.

There are some cases where the classic Boom! does work, but almost never ever. Other than a few of those common dialogue words, like "um," "er," and "uh," you almost always want to turn the onomatopoeia into a verb, noun, or adjective.

Monday, October 2, 2017

On-Page or Off-Page? Discerning Significant Scenes

Like a lot of writers, you've probably, at some time, been at a point in your story where you wondered if an event needed to be a scene or not. Could it happen off-page and be referred to? Does it need its very own scene? Can it be shuffled into the beginning, end, or middle of another scene? Or you may have found yourself writing scenes about events that you later realized didn't really merit a scene.

Once in a while when editing, I come across stories where an important event of a viewpoint character happens off-page. Sometimes this is done simply to try to surprise the audience as to a character's decision. It might create false suspense. Other times it might be done to shorten a story. Some writers might do it because they don't want to write the scene or don't know how to.

In contrast, some writers may include every event of their viewpoint character on-page, which may lead to drawn-out pacing and inflated storytelling (and readers wondering, do I really need to know this?)

Of course, like all writing rules, what does and does not merit a scene can be somewhat subjective. That's why they are more like guidelines rather than rules. For organic stories, this may be even more true. In formulaic stories, especially if you are following a beat sheet, it's clearer what should have a scene and what shouldn't. In any case, there is some leeway, and of course, it depends on the story you are telling and effect you want on the reader.

Generally speaking, however, significant events in the story should happen on-page, in a scene. The exception to this is backstory. We don't need a flashback scene for all of your character's backstory. But in most stories, from the moment the story begins to its ending, significant events should happen on-page. The more significant the event, the more likely it should happen on-page. This means that if one of your plot lines deals with romance, and someone confesses they are in love with your protagonist, it should probably happen on-page. If the Grinch's heart grows two sizes, it should probably happen in a scene. If your protagonist battles an enemy, it should probably be on-page.

The less significant the event, the less likely it needs to be on-page. What your character ate for supper each night probably doesn't need to be in its own scenes (unless your story deals with cooking or worldbuilding, or magical creatures that eat a lot like Peregrin Took). A full-blown scene on the drive to work probably doesn't need to be in your manuscript.

But trying to explain all this is like trying to hold water in your palms. There are a lot of different stories, so what might merit a scene in one story might not merit one in another story. It's not black and white. For example, in a story that has a rich fantasy world, like Harry Potter, a scene about what Harry had for dinner during the sorting ceremony might be completely appropriate, as one of the main draws of the books is to transport the reader to Hogwarts.

So another important factor is why the audience is picking up the book. If you have an adventure story, you darn better include the biggest adventure moments of your character on-page. If you are writing fantasy, the moments that have the highest amount of wonder that your viewpoint character experiences, should probably be on-page. In a horror, the scariest moment of your protagonist should be on-page.

Moments that significantly affect your protagonist personally or moments that influence their character arc or alter their motives should probably be in a scene.

If these things don't happen on-page, the writer should have a valid reason for not including them. What you definitely don't want to do is leave your reader feeling cheated. If I pick up a romance story, I sure as heck better see the moment where the protagonist and love interest confess their love for one another and kiss.

Remember, the more significant the event, the more likely it needs to happen in scene.

Other times, you may have important events that the reader needs to know, but aren't significant enough for a scene. In these cases, you can put the information in summary. For example, if you are writing a story of an adventure, but there is a stretch of land where the characters have to get through a huge bog that is difficult (but rather boring) and only a couple of interesting things happen, then you would probably want to summarize the bog. Now some people may say you should replace the bog with something else or find a way to make it exciting. You can try that, but it depends on what your story is. My point is, in almost every story, there are parts that needs to be summarized.

I don't need to read full scenes about every one of Harry's Quidditch practices. I just need a summary to convey how hard the players are working, what their interactions are like, and the rivalries that are building up.

However, keep in mind, that summary still needs to be interesting, either in content, or in the way it's told (preferably both).

Almost all stories should have information or events that happen off-page. Why? Because it makes your story feel more real and authentic. It also makes the story "bigger than itself." Often this sort of thing best happens with backstory. Your characters don't exist in a void. They should feel like they were alive before the story began, even if it's in small ways, like your protagonist remembering in passing a time when she slept through church. Side characters should also have their own lives off the page, which should be alluded to.

In any case, here are some questions I've come up to help you discern if an event should happen on-page or off-page:

- How significant is this event?

- Does the event alter the storyline? How much?

- Does it alter an important character in a significant way? How much?

- Does it convey important information to the audience? How important?

- Is it a very thematic moment? (Often thematic scenes do not seem important, as they are often just two characters talking, but usually they are significant in conveying the theme, and should be included.)

- Does it feed the audience's emotional needs? (for example, in a story about a traveler, chronicling what happens each day fulfills what the audience picked up the book for.)

As for writing scenes, you can find a lot of great information online. Ideally, scenes accomplish multiple things at once. So for example, if your protagonist tells his mom he lost the love of his life, and later tells his best friend the same thing, you might want to see if you can set-up a scene where he tells both of them at the same time. When looking at your theme, you might want to ask yourself if there is another scene you can fit into.

Some scenes are better left simple. Deeply personal moments or vulnerable moments might happen better in mostly their own scene (though you can still convey other things about character). You don't want to stack things inappropriately. For example, in some classic romances, it might be inappropriate to have your character confess his love when his sinking ship is being attacked by the undead. HOWEVER in an adventure story, it might be entirely appropriate for them to get married in that moment, like in Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Almost all scenes should show a change. In rare cases, the point of the scene might be to show how things stay the same. But 9/10 times, the scene needs to convey change. It can be external and part of the plot at hand, or it can be internal, about how a character changes. Some changes are very small. Some are big. But scene should almost always change the story in some way.

And with this topic, we could try to get very nit-picky, but storytelling doesn't always work that way. Often what is significant or not significant depends on how the story is set-up to the reader, so don't give yourself a headache trying to nail all this down like science. Many writers have a good internal sense of what should happen on-page. What should only happen off-page may be harder to discern for people. Take this article as a guideline to help you consider when to do which, and don't feel like you have to adhere to everything perfectly. There may be special cases where something very significant is much better in summary than scene, or off-page than on.

Thunderclap - Thank you to everyone who has helped my with my Thunderclap campaign for my new editing website, We now have 70 people who have pledged on it. Yay! But I still need 30 more! So if you haven't helped out yet, I would really appreciate it if you did. You can learn more and help here

Monday, September 25, 2017

Meeting Elijah Wood (Frodo), Seeing Back to the Future Actors, Among Other Things

So over the weekend, this happened . . .

Now, I'm not saying I'm the coolest aunt, but . . .

That's Elijah Wood (Frodo in Lord of the Rings) showing us The Ring.

I've heard that one of the reasons they cast Elijah Wood as Frodo was because he has such big, bright, blue eyes.

They weren't kidding.

When I was standing this close to him and talking to him, his eyes were so big and bright and blue--it was like he had these two huge flashlights shining out of his sockets.

Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but they were so big and bright, like, not just in color, but happy-bright. And he just seemed so present and so happy, and energetic, but it was like, contained and controlled.

I get that he's an actor, and he was technically working at the time, but considering the fact he was meeting literally thousands of people, he was really present and happy. (But of course, after you've endured 16 months straight of filming, what's a convention?)

(More on Elijah Wood below)

Also last week, I had pit tickets to see Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars!

You probably aren't as big of a Muse fan as I am (who am I kidding? No one is.), but imagine being that close to your all-time-favorite band or musician, in a big pit full of the best audience you've ever been surrounded by in all your concerts throughout the years. Yeah. If you haven't experienced that, you need to.

The people I was next to in the pit were HUGE fans--so naturally I fit right in. We were freaking out the whole time Muse was on stage. One of the guys was jumping and dancing around almost the entire time.

30 Seconds to Mars said it was the best audience that they'd played for on this tour (and it was the last performance of the tour). When Muse was done, they said Salt Lake City was always their favorite audience in the U.S.A. Matt, their frontman, even broke his guitar, and chucked it in the air, and pieces were falling out before it hit the stage.

They are so dang talented. I would give anything to be as good at writing as Matt is at vocal range, guitar, piano, songwriting, and stage presence. 30 Seconds to Mars was really wonderful too! Definitely some of the best performers I've seen.

It was so fun being so close to my favorite band and being surrounded by so many people all rocking out and singing along too! If I could, I would turn around and buy that same ticket and experience it all over again.

Comic Con also had Christopher Lloyd ("Doc") and Tom Wilson ("Biff") from Back to the Future. And all I want to say is that Tom Wilson is hilarious! And super entertaining.

Fun fact: the word "Butthead" was invented by him, because he didn't want to say "a-hole" which was in the script. 😆 From there, he invented all the other off and wrong things Biff said.

Tom sang us two ridiculous songs that had everyone laughing, one included all the FAQs he gets about Back to the Future and their answers, so no one needed to ask him those questions. Oh and he sang us this dumb KFC biscuit jingle he still remembered from pre Back to the Future, when he did commercials. He was in the commercial that introduced the first ever KFC buttermilk biscuits.

They had the DeLorean there too. I wanted to get a picture with it, but every time I went by it, they were doing photo ops with the actors (which I hadn't bought) or I had other things going on. Oh well.

Of course, Comic Con always has tons of pop culture booths--like tons. I found this cool terrarium booth. It was amazing. And I totally fell in love with this one.

I did four panels this year.  My favorite was probably the one on Harry Potter characters. There was a really great energy between the panelists and the audience. Way fun. But something new I did this year was help out with the kid section. For the first time, Salt Lake Comic Con wanted to do panels for the kids, so they put me on the Pokemon one. GREAT turn out. All the seats were full and kids were sitting on the floor (mind you, the sitting area for the kid panels are much smaller than the others, but still). I brought Pokemon cards to give out to all the kids, and it was a hit. (Maybe too much so, because they got a little difficult to control after that). But it was so fun because they were so excited.

Salt Lake Comic Con is so amazing, because, like the concert, everyone is there having a great time, celebrating what they love, and everyone is so friendly and nonjudgmental, and you can strike up happy conversations with any stranger. 

This has definitely been the most fun I've had this year so far. I mean, it's pretty hard to beat those concert tickets AND meeting Elijah Wood. Everything was a blast. Everything. I didn't want to come home!

Overall, this trip reminded me how great life can be. Yes, there are low moments and difficulties, but life can be just so dang good sometimes. If you ever feel like it will always be doom and gloom, please know that there are wonderful moments and experiences to be had in the future. And never forget to make time to have fun! When you are having lots of fun, many, if not all, those things you worry about, were annoyed about, stressed about, melt away and feel small and insignificant--all that matters is that you are doing what you love.

Elijah Wood's panel highlights:

- His first film role was in Back to the Future 2, when he was 8 years old. (And the group who got a picture with him before us, actually had him hold a hoverboard haha)

- He actually did a lot of film as a child actor, and of course, his mom had to travel around and everything and be with him. (Imagine all the things his mom did to help him with his career and no one even  knows what she looks like or what her name is.)

- The Hobbit feet took a while to put on, and they had to glue them to their own feet. They were made of silicon, so their feet were all sweating like crazy.

- When he returned to the role of Frodo for The Hobbit, it was so easy to slip back into, that it was as if no time had gone by.

- "By the time The Hobbit was being filmed they had Hobbit feet boots." (Elijah Wood getting very animated) "The actors had it so easy. They had NO IDEA what it was like!"

- "They were still silicon though, so your feet still sweat like crazy! You'd take them off, and it was just like this huge river of sweat coming out!"

- "And the cast of The Hobbit, I mean, they have no idea what it was like." (Still animated and jokingly) "They have like layers and layers, and huge jackets, and boots, and everything. Meanwhile in the Lord of the Rings, we filmed in so many locations that were freezing, and we are in shorts and thin shirts, and we're progressively wearing less and less clothes and they are getting more and more raggedy."

- "And in Mordor, it was freezing! And it's supposed to be really hot and volcanic and we're supposed to be all sweaty. They didn't want to spray me with water, so they put baby oil all over my shirt like sweat. And it was freezing, and my costume was all tattered, and I was all sticky and smelled weird." (Everyone is laughing.)

- The most emotionally difficult scene for Elijah to film was near the end of the series, before Frodo collapses and Sam carries him. And having to keep getting into that emotional state for each shot was something.

- Someone asked him to say his favorite Frodo line, and he had a hard time picking one, and then said he was getting really nervous and was afraid he'd remember it wrong in front of everyone, and that he was afraid he wouldn't be able to do Frodo's accent anymore. (And I'm thinking, Frodo had an accent? . . . I guess a little.) So he did this one:

Monday, September 18, 2017

Comic Con Schedule + Why You Shouldn't Use Adverbs

Hey everyone! I'm busy getting ready for Salt Lake Comic Con happening this week. Also . . . I got pit tickets to see Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars 😍 . I'm pretty obsessed with Muse if you haven't noticed . . . here . . . or here. . . . It's gonna be amazing. The concert is Wednesday night and Comic Con starts on Thursday afternoon (so I should be able to get some sleep . . . if I'm not too excited.)

Here is my schedule in case anyone else is going to be there and would like to see me!

Harry Potter is My Bible: Fandom as Faith :: 251A
Thursday September 21, 2017 :: 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm

People turn to fandoms for more than just entertainment. We find comfort and inspiration, guidance and even spirituality, in the art we consume. Drawing on the example from the podcast "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" this panel will discuss the deeper ways fandom can help us in life.

Harry Potter and the Cast of Unforgettable Characters :: 151D
Thursday September 21, 2017 :: 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm

Every book in the Harry Potter series may bear Harry’s name, but each fan knows that Harry is only the beginning when it comes to the series’ well-developed characters. Join us as we discuss who our favorites are, who we hated, who we most related to, who we wished were our best friends and family members, and more. We’ll also discuss what makes the cast of Harry Potter so rich, universal, and timeless

(For kids)

All Things Pokemon
Saturday September 23, 2017 3:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Kid Con - 155

We will be talking about everything Pokemon--games, shows, cards, whatever--and invited the kids there to do the same.

Searching for the Sorcerer's Stone: 20 Years of Harry Potter :: 151D
Saturday September 23, 2017 :: 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm

From the publication of the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997 to the home release of Fantastic Beasts in 2017, the Harry Potter universe is now 20 years old. Join us as we discuss Harry Potter then and Harry Potter now, stroll down our favorite wizarding memories, and consider how Harry Potter has changed the world. Later we’ll open it up for you to share some of your own favorite moments with us. Will Harry Potter still be here in 20 more years? We certainly hope so!

I'm also excited to meet Elijah Wood, who played Frodo in Lord of the Rings. 😍

It's gonna be a good week.

Other than all this, I still need help with my Thunderclap campaign going on. If you missed last week's post, I'm launching a freelance editing website at, and I'd love to get some help spreading the word. If you aren't familiar with Thunderclap, it's a service where people vow to share a link on social media on a specific day (ours is Oct. 13). I need at least 100 people to vow to do this, and you need to do it through my Thunderclap.

Thanks to everyone who has already joined my Thunderclap.

And since I'd hate to leave you guys without a writing tip this week, I'm linking to my latest tip on Youtube, where I discuss the writing rule that you should not use adverbs and should only use adjectives sparingly.

In my follow-up video, I'll explain when and how to break this rule.

Monday, September 11, 2017

6 Things I've Learned as a Professional Editor

I usually talk about the writing process on my blog, but today I wanted to talk about the editing side of my life. I also have a little surprise at the bottom of this post, but if you feel like you can't read through my points to get there, I guess you can scroll down and come back.

I love editing because I love helping writers grow and take their stories to the next level. In middle school and high school, whenever we had to write down our career plans, my plan A was always writing, and my plan B was editing. For over five years, I've gotten to live both my plan A and my plan B every day. 😍

I thought it would be helpful for other writers to hear my thoughts as an editor and important points I've learned (or that have been validated to me) from that perspective.

1. It's Your Story, Not Mine

As you probably know, I work for a best-selling author, but he also teaches and does editing too. One of the things I've heard him say is that ultimately, it's the writer who puts in the real work. It's the writer who came up with the vision for the story. It's the writer who puts in the hours. It's the writer who put something on the page. Sure, everyone else in the process may hold a little claim to the development of the project, but it's small in comparison. A fraction. And while there are editors and other professionals in the industry who may request changes, ultimately it's the writer's story.

Your story should reflect your vision, not mine.

I work in freelance editing, not for a publishing company, so my perspective may be a little different than editors of New York, but in my case, I strongly believe that the suggestions I make on a manuscript are just that: editorial suggestions. They may be educated suggestions and experienced suggestions, but they are suggestions nonetheless. It's up to the writer to decide how he or she shapes the story. My job is to help them see how to make the story better. How to nail their vision for the story and the audience's experience of it.

But they should write true to themselves, not true to me.

It's your story. Not mine.

2. Writing can be Learned

If you peruse things other writers have said, especially older famous writers, you won't go far until you meet the concept that being a good writer is something innate and can't be learned, let alone taught. This is elitism at its finest. I've also seen quotes from writers who portray that no writer (or anyone for that matter) really knows what he or she is doing and why it works.

Both of these ideas are completely ridiculous.

People who say writing can't be learned, don't know how to teach it. People who say they don't know how to do what they do are people who don't know how to explain it--because for them it's subconscious and intuitive.

Both these concepts are thwarted daily--by people who do know how to teach writing and by writers, like Brandon Sanderson, who know exactly how to explain what they are doing.

Writing is a tricky topic to teach and a tricky talent to gain because almost everything about it is intangible. But writing can be learned just as anything else. If you want to write a better story, and you have the capacity to read and understand this post, you can become a better writer. Don't believe any other crap you hear.

3. Everyone Starts at the Beginning

Remember that concept that writers must be born, not made? I hope so, because it was just in the last section. One thing I have learned and know to be true, is that however "naturally" talented you are, we start at the beginning. Everyone needs to learn the basics. And while, I do believe some of us are more "natural" at things than others, even Michelangelo had to learn his colors.

However great of a writer you feel are destined to be, or however horrible you think you are at writing, everyone--everyone--starts at the beginning. And everyone can make progress. Sure, some people may pick up on things intuitively or faster than others, but we all start at the beginning.

If you aren't a natural, you can still learn how stories work, just as you learned how to do anything else that didn't come naturally to you. If you are a natural, you should still learn how stories work and function, so that you can write them more intentionally.

The difference between a "natural" and someone who is not, is that the former learns and picks up on things more subconsciously and intuitively while the other learns more consciously and intentionally. In the end, both need to learn and use the mechanics to reach their full potential.

I've done editing for all different kinds of people--some with jaw-dropping professions. Trust me when I say we all must learn the basics to become better.

4. The Importance of Positive Feedback

Contrary to some popular beliefs, positive feedback isn't really a matter of self-esteem or ego-stroking. Can it do those things? Absolutely. But every writer needs positive feedback.

It is just as important for a writer to know what is working as it is to know what's not working.

Some of the things that are working well in the story may be things the writer did subconsciously. They could be things the author isn't even fully aware of. These things need to be pointed out so that the author can become aware of them and learn to gain conscious control over them, so they can intentionally use them in future stories, use them to better effect, and take them to the next level.

And even if the author did do them very intentionally, it's important that they know it had the effect they intended.

5. Rules are Really More Like Guidelines

Every once in a while (haha, who am I kidding? Every ten times in a while . . . ) you may come across someone who adheres to writing rules more than they adhere to the commandments of God.

There are a lot of great reasons to learn and adhere to the rules (remember how I said everyone starts with the basics?), but as an editor, I've seen times where adhering to rules actually hurt the story and writing rather than benefited it. Often the rules that get the ultimate devotion are rules that relate to style. Sorry, not sorry, but style is not the end-all and be-all, of storytelling. It has a place in storytelling, absolutely, but it is not the sum of a good story. It's only one element. You do not need to sacrifice all the other elements every time to it as if it were a god. You do not need to sacrifice tone in order to please the no-passive-voice rule. There are places where passive voice is exactly what you need.

Same thing can be true of content rules. Some stories really do need that character sitting and doing nothing but thinking for the opening pages (gasp!). Some stories actually do need that flashback desperately. Some stories do need that much telling. Some stories do need that vague passage.

95% of stories don't.

But some do.

This is why rules are really more like guidelines.

6. Not all Stories are Edited Equally

You would think that the more editing time a story requires the "worse" the submitted story is. And while the quality of the story is absolutely a main, if not leading, factor, this is not always the case.

Some stories are simply more complex than others. They may have a complex, intricate story structure. They may be full of meaningful subtext and undercurrents that need to be perfected. The author may have a grand vision for the story that requires stark precision and specificity to accomplish. Some stories inherently take longer to edit than others.

Likewise, I've done editing work for really amazing writers that take far longer than beginning writers--because what the former writers need to hear from me is much more advanced and therefore requires more specificity to explain and teach; it's not the sort of thing you are going to have pop up in a Google search with 1k results that lead you to everything you want to hear. Because it is advanced and intricate and sometimes personalized to that particular writer or story, I need to be more precise and exact in diagnosing and explaining it.

How long or short of an edit a story needs is not necessarily how "good" or "bad" a story or writer is. A complex story is not automatically better than a simple story. They are just different. They belong in different places. They have different needs and goals.

Not all stories are edited equally.

Fawkes Editing

For years I've occasionally been doing some editing for additional projects on the side of my regular work, but now I'm happy to say I have my own website specifically for my freelance editing services. 😍 And I'd love to get some help, if you are willing.

(It's so shiny!)

You can visit or link to my website at

But even if you are not interested in my editing, what I do need help with is spreading the word. I've put together this Thunderclap campaign, which, if you aren't familiar with Thunderclap, is a service where people vow to share a link on social media on a specific day.

In order for the campaign to work, I need at least 100 people to vow to share. Thunderclap releases the shares all on the same day (ours is Oct. 13th), like a big social media bomb. But if I don't get at least 100 people, Thunderclap will not release the shares.

You can also share the website any other time, but I need at least 100 people to help me through Thunderclap.

If everyone reading this post vowed to share, we'd be at the goal in a matter of hours, so please consider it.

Over the years I haven't asked for much, if really anything, from my followers. I don't even have products to sell on my website here at for you guys to patronize me ;) Everything I've done on this site, I've done for free, for almost five years. Actually, I even put some of my own money into it.

All in all, thank you for being a part of my writing and editing journey with me.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader

I recently got a question from a follower about how to write a story where a very valuable piece of information about the protagonist is kept hidden from the reader until much later in the story, probably at the climax for a nice twist or reveal.

Surprisingly this sort of question comes up somewhat often (especially by new writers), which is why I decided to talk about it in its own post (and in order to do that, this post will be quite long). The writer may want to write a murder mystery where it turns out that the protagonist is the murderer. Or perhaps they go through the whole story believing that the protagonist is human, but then at the end, it's revealed he's another creature pertinent to the story. Or maybe at the end, it's revealed that he's actually dead.

I love those sorts of reveals. Some of my all-time favorite shows use them.

But they are extremely difficult, if not impossible to do in a written story.

In fact, many writers will tell you that they can't be done at all. In reading, the audience gets very close to the main character. Because we almost always are experiencing the story from their viewpoint, it's like we put on their mind and body. We are connected to their senses--what they see, smell, taste, touch, hear--because good writing (almost always) must appeal to the senses powerfully. Furthermore, if your protagonist is intentionally leaving something important out from the reader, the reader usually notices and feel cheated--like he's being played. Another problem is that it keeps the reader from identifying closely and bonding with the protagonist--another element usually needed to write a good story.

I, myself, have spent a good amount of time thinking about this question, as I've had it before too, have heard others ask it enough, and have witnessed other professionals address it.

Can you hide something important about your protagonist from the audience?

Many people will tell you that you cannot. You cannot do that and write a successful story. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Of course, I'm skeptical whenever someone in the writing world says something can never be done. "You can't teach writing." "Writers are born, and if you don't have IT, you can't become one." "You can't write anything that hasn't already been thought of." "You can't use passive voice." "You can't use alternative dialogue tags." "You can't use to-be verbs." "You can't use adverbs." "You can't apply point of view penetration to first-person." "You can't learn how to write humor."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Those who say something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

And the moment we believe something can't be done, we put a ceiling and a limitation on ourselves and the writing world at large.

Can you write a book where the protagonist keeps something important from the audience until much later? Yes.

Do people know how to do it successfully AND how to teach others to do it successfully?

No one that I know of.

But that doesn't mean it can't be done.

I'm going to take a stab on some of my own theories on the subject that I've been developing, but keep in mind, this is an ongoing thing I haven't completely nailed down yet. Here are some ways to deal with this, but first I'll address the answer I usually hear.

Easy Out: Change Your Viewpoint Character (But it Changes the Story)

Often when I hear this question posed, I hear professional writers answer by having the person consider changing who their main character or viewpoint character is.

This doesn't tell you how to hide important info from the audience, but it does give you an alternative that is much easier to deal with.

Instead of writing about a main character keeping a secret, you can write about someone else who knows the person and then have them discover the secret. This probably means changing who your protagonist is to the character's friend, neighbor, love interest, coworker, or whatever.

However, sometimes you can simply change the viewpoint character. As I've mention before, the protagonist is not necessarily the viewpoint character, thought almost always they are the same person. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of this. Watson is the viewpoint characters. Holmes is the protagonist.

By changing your viewpoint character, you maneuver your way out of this problem.

Keep What's Hidden Away From the Main Focus and/or Main Plot

If you are trying to keep something hidden from the audiences, and that something is very relevant to the main plot or focus of the story, most likely your audience is going to notice and be annoyed. This is one of the most common problems I see with new writers trying to include a mystery. In the structure of their sentences and scene, they focus on what's being withheld, or the fact that something is being withheld. For example, there might be a whole paragraph about dads, with the protagonist thinking about her dad, and a sentence like "She never wanted to remember what her dad had done to her 15 years ago."

Now, the sentence itself might actually work in a different structure, but the problem is, since we spent a whole paragraph talking about dads and her dad, dads became the main focus of the story, so when information about what Dad did 15 years ago is withheld, it's annoying and noticeable.

 I talked about this in my post Please Don't Write this Sentence in Your Opening:

One of the problems . . . is that you are drawing attention to the fact that you are withholding important, possibly traumatic, information about your protagonist, and alerting to the reader that "Hey, this is going to be an important backstory that's kind of mysterious and I'm going to tell you about it later."

It feels a lot less mysterious when the writer is advertising the mystery.

The best mysteries are ones where the audience is a participator. And the audience notices themselves that there is something off, or strange, or mysterious in what is going on, not when the narrator advertises it to them.

This can be a problem with just about any mystery, but it tends to be an even more common problem if the protagonist is the one not divulging information.

To pull this sort of thing off, you need to make sure that whatever the protagonist is hiding is not the main focus of the story--that it stays on the sidelines until the perfect moment. It doesn't mean that the info isn't pertinent to the main plot. It's just that when the main focus is something else, this information can be passed over.

I recently edited a story where the writer handled this masterfully in the opening chapter. In fact, it was jaw-dropping. The protagonist manages to keep important information from the reader--and the reader even becomes aware that this is happening--for the whole first chapter, but to be honest, if the story was structured differently, it could have been kept from us until the climax.

How did this person do it? By making something else the focus of the story. And better yet, making something happening in the here and now that demands immediate attention, that demands focus. We notice we are missing important information, or that something is off, but the task at hand is so much more important and demands present action.

For example, say that your main character is a dragon, but the kind that can have a human form (if you've seen those in stories.) It can manifest itself and live as a human, but is really a dragon in disguise. Say we want to keep the fact the protagonist is a dragon hidden until later. The first chapter opens up with a fire in a building, and the protagonist is involved, maybe as a firefighter (beautiful irony to play with there and opportunity for character complexity and depth) or as a passing citizen, or a renter of the an apartment in the building. Maybe he is trying to rescue a child he knows personally trapped on an upper floor.

This is a set-up that demands present action--it demands the story's main focus.

So, we have this protagonist focused on trying to save this child--that's the surface of the story. However, in the process, because the protagonist is our viewpoint character, we notice that in passing he thinks a few unusual things about fire. Nothing way out there or that gives his true nature away, just something slightly unique or off. Maybe he thinks about a personal relationship he has with fire, but doesn't go on to explain what.

It's very important these thoughts are not bunched together. None of them make a full paragraph length. They are very brief and spread apart, sprinkled in here and there. When they are long and bunched together, they became a main focus, which we don't want.

Now, how you word those thoughts depends on what kind of effect you are going for. As I mentioned in my post The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrent, you can have a conscious mystery, a subconscious mystery, or a full undercurrent ("I didn't see that coming"). If you want a conscious mystery, you make the fact that those thoughts seem slightly off, a tad more obvious. If you want a subconscious mystery, you make it less. If you want it as a full undercurrent, you word those thoughts in a way that gives them a double meaning--they make sense in the moment, but they'll have a double meaning and make more sense when we have the context that he is a dragon.

So in this dragon story, the fact he is a dragon may be pertinent, but it doesn't become a main focus until near the time you reveal he's actually a dragon. Then, if you want, you can let it become the main focus--having longer dragon-related thoughts, having more of those thoughts closer together. Or you can just reveal it and let those pieces fall in place in the reader's mind. Depends on your own story and how it's handled up to that point.

Make it Unimportant to the Story at Hand

This may seem similar to the last section, but it's different. See, in our dragon example, our protagonist was working with fire, so for a dragon, that's directly relevant to what we are hiding from the audience.

In this method, what is kept hidden does not seem relevant to the main story hardly at all. Therefore, the protagonist never naturally brings it up, or if she does (indirectly), it doesn't seem connected at all to what is happening in the story.

The reality is, we can't tell our readers every-thing about our protagonist--it's just not relevant to the story. For example, I don't know exactly what Harry Potter's 6th birthday was like, I don't know what Frodo's favorite color is, and I don't if Katniss aced a language arts exam in school. And I don't need to know, because it's not important.

So in this method, the information that the protagonist keeps hidden is simply kept hidden because it seemed irrelevant.

In college, I got this idea for a middle grade fantasy story I wanted to write, that played with the "Chosen One" trope. In it, a young boy is collected by a magical guardian and taken to a fantasy world, where in the story, it's revealed he's the "Chosen One." However, in that pivotal moment in the climax where the Chosen One does his amazing thing, it doesn't work. The guardian and another mentor character can't figure out why it's not working--they are retracing their steps and thought processes. They are saying it doesn't make sense because the protagonist is part of this special bloodline, and they tracked down his parents to find him, and so it should all work.

The protagonist reveals he's adopted.

The other two characters are shocked. Since he's not of that bloodline, he's not the Chosen One.

Then the next installment would include them trying to find out if his parents had any other unknown children, and the protagonist (still deeply involved in other ways) would be looking for the real Chosen One.

So, the fact he is adopted is kept hidden through the whole story. The protagonist knew the whole time he was adopted, he just didn't bring it up because he didn't think it was relevant.

That's another way you can handle this sort of thing you can try.

Mess with Your Character's Memory

I know some people read that section heading and probably groaned, because they've seen this handled in poor ways or in cliche ways. But just keep reading. You'll learn something new probably.

Many a new writer will deal with this sort of thing by starting with a character who has some form of amnesia--she doesn't remember who she is, where she is, or what she did. Therefore, the reader can't know either. So as the protagonist works on getting this information, the audience is also part of the mystery. This opening is used so much, that people automatically think it's bad or disregard it. But the reality is, the concept can be handled in many ways, and you can deal with your character's memory in other ways than just amnesia.

One of the reasons this technique gets groaned at is because of the way it's often introduced in a story's opening. But it's entirely possible to start a story years after your character got his amnesia, have him established in a new life with new conflicts and focused on other things. You can reveal he has minor amnesia much later, maybe even in passing. You don't make the fact he has amnesia the central focus of the story, but keep it on the sidelines. A 90's show I grew up on Trigun, does this sort of thing (in addition to the first technique I outlined). We don't know until several episodes in that the protagonist doesn't remember anything that happened during an important event. To top it off, he's a character who struggles with facing legitimate problems directly, so he doesn't necessarily want to go digging to find out what happened. He just wants to live a new and obscure life.

But you can do more than play with legit amnesia. You can play with false memories, blocked memories, or inaccurate memories. The character may truly know these things, but she just doesn't remember them very well or very much or in the same way. And let's be honest, amnesia is a bit of an indirect way of answering this question--because you aren't hiding what the protagonist knows, but what the protagonist had known at some point.

So let's get to some of the other options. Season four of Sherlock is a good example of the alternatives. If you haven't watched it yet, skip the next paragraph.

Throughout the whole show, there have been references to Redbeard and also references to an East Wind.  Redbeard was a dog Sherlock had as a child, and East Wind is from a story Mycroft used to tell him. However, in season four, we discover that Redbeard wasn't actually a dog at all, but a pretend pirate name for Sherlock's best friend. And East Wind isn't the name of a destructive wind that destroys everything in its path, but what the name "Eurus" means, and Eurus is Sherlock's forgotten sister. And because of the tragic things that happened with these people, Sherlock developed inaccurate and false memories (with Mycroft's help of course; he worked to reprogram Sherlock's memories). So it's not so much that Sherlock has amnesia, it's just that his memories are wrong. He knows about Redbeard and the East Wind, but the way he remembers them is incorrect.

In the short story "The Armor Embrace" by Doug C. Souza, the protagonist is wired into a mech suit, and runs off from his military operation to see his daughter. This is so important to him, to see his daughter. But at the end of the story, we realize he isn't who we thinks he is. His memory has been captured or stored in the mech's computer, and the real him is actually dead.

So you can mess around with memories too, just be careful of not being too cliche.

Context Shifts

Similarly, you can also have a character who knows information pertaining to the big reveal, but just not in the right context.

In the short story "A Glamour in Black" by Sylvia Ann Hiven, the main character had to have a parasite put into her back years ago, in order to save her life. It's a parasite that gives her magical abilities. Her hope is to one day have enough money to safely have the parasite taken out again. However, after a few great plot twists and the parasite gets taken out, what our viewpoint character can see, hear, and experience (or the lack thereof) totally changes--it turns out, she was the parasite, and similar to "The Armor Embrace," she (or the real soul of the body) actually died in her accident, and the parasite has just been living in her body, having reanimated it.

While this example does relate to what I touched on in the last section, I'm convinced it can be pulled off on its own--the shift in context. The information itself the character knows and is a part of, but then something happens that puts it in a new perspective or context he didn't realize before.

For another example, I just finished a show that dealt with time travel and parallel worlds. The main character has the ability to detect when the timeline (a.k.a. world line) he's in shifts. He experienced it when ten years old, but he didn't have the context for what it was until he saw it through a certain perspective.

Now, in that example, the character experiences the context shift himself, but you could also do a context shift that only involves the reader, so that the viewpoint character always had the right context, but the reader didn't. This can overlap or relate with the next section in some ways.

The viewpoint character does not think she is hiding anything from the reader, isn't trying to hide anything intentionally (though maybe she is subconsciously), but information is relayed in a way that gives the reader inaccurate context, and therefore a slightly inaccurate conclusion or understanding about it.

Then, when the true context/info is revealed, it's not that the reader feels like it was fully hidden from him, but rather that he had misunderstood its meaning.

Finally, you can also play with context (or the lack thereof) in teasers. Usually this is done in a prologue, which I know people in the writing world hate, but I actually like them, and you can find them all over the bookshelves in stores today. Teasers work by giving us glimpses or flashes or snippets (for books, this is almost always a single scene, because it's much harder to do multiple scenes like this in the written word as opposed to visual storytelling), that make us feel a certain way or that make promises to us.

The thing that is always true about teasers though, is that they don't give us the full context. That's why they are teasers. We have to read the rest of the story or watch the movie to get the context of what we saw in it. It's possible to do a teaser that has the hidden information, but lacks the context for us to understand it. Then when we read the whole story, we can go back and realize we did have the information, or part of it, but we just didn't know what we were looking at.

In these cases, it's the context that's kept most hidden. When we finally have the full context for the content, we get the true meaning, the true information that was hidden.

Have the Viewpoint Character Think and Speak as If the Audience Already Knows the Secret

Another way to try to pull this off, is to have the story written in a way that the narrator has assumed that the reader already knows what's hidden. The novel I recently edited and mentioned earlier did this sort of thing. The viewpoint character kept bringing up something that happened in a fire, but never told us what exactly. But she referenced it and talked about it like it didn't need explaining.

Now, this is one of those approaches that can blow up in your face if you don't remember to present the clues as info or in passing, instead of something you are dangling in front of the reader, like a carrot on a stick. The way it's written should not try to draw attention to it. The writer just lets it be because it already naturally draws attention because it brings to mind questions, in the reader. It's just stated and the story moves on.

This sort of thing is done sometimes with what I'll call "Big Narrators"--these are the sorts of narrators that are loaded with personality. Lemony Snicket is a perfect example. Throughout the Series of Unfortunate Events, he makes reference to things that happened in the past with VFD, but not necessarily in a way that explains them, rather he talks as though the reader already knows about them, such as his references to the sugar bowl and the incident with it. Now, the series ended up shaping into something else, but if the writer had wanted to, the incident with the sugar bowl could have been a huge revelation pertinent to the plot.

You don't need to have a "Big Narrator" or colorful narrator to do this though. If you're clever, you can get away with it with a typical viewpoint character.

Use an Unreliable Narrator

If your narrator or viewpoint character is intentionally leaving things out from the reader, you're probably working with an unreliable narrator. These guys can be tricky sometimes, but if this hidden information is going to be really important to the story, you almost always want to establish that the narrator is unreliable from early on.

This is done by using subtext. It can be really hard and tricky, but the idea is to word things, and present ideas and conclusions that don't quite add up, or that seem a bit off to the reader. One thing I'd recommend if trying to craft an unreliable narrator is to get Ackerman and Puglisi's Emotion Thesaurus, which not only talks about how emotions are manifested, but also how suppressed emotions are manifested. Which is often essentially what you are dealing with. Your narrator is suppressing thoughts and emotions from the reader.

For this sort of set-up, this often means, that the narrator is suggesting (maybe subtly, maybe more strongly (but almost never heavy-handedly)) that the reader come to certain conclusions about things--what the narrator wants others/the audience to think about him or her and the events.

But again, there are some things that seem off or that don't quite add up to the reader, or maybe the reader picks up on the suppressed emotions.

Ready for it to get trickier?

The goal is to make the reader aware that the viewpoint character is somewhat unreliable, without giving away from the beginning exactly what the character is hiding. You can't have the audience be blindsided, having trusted the viewpoint character, and then feeling cheated they didn't know about this info, but you can't have it so obvious that they figure out the info long before the reveal.

Whew, no wonder this is so difficult.

Now, if the information is more in the background, and other things on the surface of the story demand present attention, then you can be vague.

But if the hidden information is more relevant to the story and what's at hand and close to the focus of the story, you need to be ambiguous--giving the reader multiple ways to interpret what's going on, until the reveal.

Have Readers Come to the Wrong Conclusion

This one relates both to context shifts and unreliable narrators in particular, and many other things as well, but I put it in its own category so that you can visualize it as its own thing, instead of one that must be attached to a specific method.

To do this method, you must have the clues and hints about the hidden information, but delve them out in the story in a way that leads the reader to misunderstand or misinterpret it and come to the wrong conclusion.

This is a significant method to include, because it's sometimes very much the route a certain story needs to take. Rather than have your audience wondering and wondering and wondering through a whole story, you let them come to a conclusion, and get a level of false closure, thinking they understand and have figured it out, when actually they don't.

When the true info and understanding is revealed, it still fits the clues and hints, but in a somewhat unforeseen way.

Closing Thoughts

Whew, that's a lot to think about and consider, and like I said, these are my thoughts and theories in progress. Regardless of them, I'm sure there are many people who will say that these things and methods are "cheating."

I loved in a podcast of Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson admits to keeping information his viewpoint character, Kelsier, knows from the audience in his novel Mistborn, and says "I cheated."

What struck me in particular about this, is that Brandon Sanderson was aware that he'd done something other people considered "cheating," but he chose to do it anyway because he wanted to.

I'm going to do a post on that sort of thing someday in the future. In some cases, the pros of cheating just outweigh the cons, ultimately making a better story, if still an imperfect one.

And all in all, the reader's experience should take precedence over writers' "rules."

So can you write a story where something the main character knows is kept from the reader? Yes!

Can it be done well? Yes!

Does that mean it's easy? Definitely not.

This is super advanced craft and takes a lot of talent to pull off well. But let's stop teaching people it can't be done, so that we can actually get some great writers in the world who can do it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Everything has already been done before" -- Has it really?

You've probably heard the idea voiced in the writing world at some point that "Everything has already been done before." Is that true? Has everything really already been done before?

I'd argue no.

And I might even be a little passionate about arguing it.

Now, before I get further, I think it's important to acknowledge that there is a difference between saying "Everything has already been done before" and saying  "It's okay to do this again." Sometimes when I hear people say "Well, everything's already been done before," they're using it in a way to grant permission to do something again. But there is nothing wrong with doing something again, as long as you make it your own, bring something fresh to the table, and don't plagiarize (or base everything off the same source). Using the excuse that "Everything's already been done" though, causes a couple of problems.

For one, it's saying that in order for your work to have value, it must do something no one has even seen before. And that's just not true. Having something new in your story that people haven't seen before can definitely make your work stand out, but it is not the sum attribute of what makes a good story. Besides, you can have something fresh, new, and original that actually hurts your story or makes it worse . . . because it's not an appealing idea, it doesn't fit the story or genre, or it's too strange and bizarre for the intended audience.

The second problem is that when you use that logic, you limit yourself. When you say and believe "Everything's already been done before," you give yourself a ceiling, a limitation. If you don't believe there can be any new ideas in the world, then you can't really come up with new ideas, can you? And if you do, it will be by accident (which is very unlikely).

This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with someone. We'd gotten on the topic of spirituality or the spiritual realm and if it could ever be scientifically discovered. The person I talked to said, "But how can it be discovered if it can't be measured?" I replied, "How was anything ever discovered?" To which he replied, "You have a point."

Obviously my response was an exaggeration, but the point is, there have been things discovered in science that we previously thought could never be discovered. I mean, we can freaking tell the elements in star by looking at its light spectrum. We've discovered things that no human eye can see. We've "discovered" dark matter, which is still literally undetectable to us (we only see its effect on things). My point of this conversation is that, whether or not you believe a spiritual world or afterlife exists, when we accept the idea that if it did, it can never be discovered, we vastly limit our abilities of possibly discovering or measuring it.

But if you look at history, time and time again, new things were discovered--even crazy things that vastly changed human perspective, that led to persecution, to religions renouncing sciences, to powerful opinions and thinking, to shaming and banning--and we gained access to new sciences. Whenever we believe humankind has already discovered everything there is to discover, we largely curb our learning abilities.

Remember that once most of the human population believed the Earth was the center of the universe--and if anyone could say they could actually measure where and how it fit into the universe, they would have been laughed to scorn, and worse.

Imagine people back then saying, "Everything has already been discovered," or "Every school of science has already been invented," or "Everything that can be measured has already been measured."

When we learn of these things and attitudes in history, we laugh. But honestly, today, people are no different.

But my point is, if we choose to believe that everything we could write has already been written before, we vastly limit our abilities.

And it's not true.

Look at time machine stories.

How many time machine stories do you think exist? Probably tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But someone came up with the first one (The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell). Eventually someone came up with one that was so mind-blowing, it infiltrated far corners of the world. Now everyone knows what a time machine is, even if they don't exist.

If everything has already been done before, then how were genres like cyber punk and space opera started? And how are we able to trace back to their beginnings?

Sometimes such groundbreaking work does not happen on a huge scale. As a lot of you probably know, I'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar. When making the movie, they worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne, who gave them the most up-to-date information on black holes. No one had created a true black hole in television before. Not even Kip Thorne had seen a rendition of a true one, and he's spent his life in astrophysics. Interstellar was the first movie to accurately depict what a black hole would actually look like. Even Kip Thorne was stunned to see it.

It had never been done before.

Years ago I started reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I didn't have to get far into it to see why it was so popular and such a phenomenon. And while I've seen a few concepts that may overlap with it (and as I've mentioned before, some weirdly overlap with my own (and here I thought I'd been so clever)), it was vastly its own story--largely original. I'd never read anything like it before. And I've never read anything like it since. And it just wasn't in a few aspects here and there, it was all over. And it was clever. Philip Pullman created something that hadn't been done before.

There are many other examples I could go on about. Of course, there is Harry Potter and there is Lord of the Rings and there is Star Wars and there are many more.

Guys. Everything has NOT already been done before!

Some stories have completely new concepts--and yes, those are very rare--while other stories do something that's never been done, like Interstellar. Still, there are other stories that take something already done, and carry it out in a way that's never been done.

You can crisscross concepts in ways that haven't been done. You can play with tropes and outcomes to make something no one has seen before. You can push the limits and twist ideas into something that has never graced the bookshelves.

When Indiana Jones was still in its very early stages, during a brainstorming session, the filmmakers were talking about a chase scene. Chase scenes have been done a million times. But during the brainstorming, they come up with the idea of using a camel in the chase scene. They'd never seen a chase scene done with a camel. Horses, cars, and on foot--yes. But a camel? Never.

They took a common scene and tried to think of a way to put their stamp on it, to make it different. (Unfortunately I don't think that particular chase scene ended up in the film, but you get my point.)

You are different than other people in the world. You have different experiences, and a different perspective.

You can do something that has never been done before.

Is it difficult? Yes, it can be very difficult. But honestly, it can also be a skill developed like any other. You can work on it the same way you work on learning punctuation, style, plotting, or character. The problem is, we never teach how to do it, or try to do it, because,

"Everything has already been done before."

The. Ceiling.

The ceiling we've placed on others. The ceiling we place on ourselves.

Doomed to be borrowers and copycats.

Now, as I said at the beginning, stories don't have to be "new" to be good. And not everyone wants to write something completely revolutionary. That's 100% acceptable. Say, "It's okay to do this again." Don't say, "Well, everything has already been done before."

Whichever writer you want to be, though, I do recommend leaving something of yourself in every scene. We don't want to be complete copycats and plagiarizers. I also don't recommend repeatedly borrowing from the same sources--unless you are a writing hobbyist or fanfiction writer who is doing that intentionally for the sake of doing it (i.e. "What would it be like if my character went to Hogwarts when Harry did?")

But please, be good to yourself. And remember what I've said in posts past: People who teach that something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

Don't put ceilings on yourself. It's perhaps one of the most successful ways to sabotage yourself and keep yourself from reaching your potential.

If you truly want to learn how to create something that hasn't been done, you can. Learn to develop an eye for when others do it in books or movies . . . and when they don't. Go over to and study hundreds of story tropes--you usually need to know what's out there and how it works in order to make new combinations, alternatives, and concepts.

Here are some of my past posts that overlap and relate and may help too (particularly the first one):

Flipping Story Stuff
Writing Micro-concepts
Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles
Honestly, a lot of my Interstellar posts may help
Why Rowling Rocked the Briefcase Mix-up and How You can Rock Your Own Tired Tropes
Tips on Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts
Leaving Your Stamp on a Scene
Starting a Scene: Two Important Questions
Playing with Foils
The Real Key to Brainstorming: Restrictions