Archive for the 'Generic Writing Guide' Category

Mar 14 2008

Learning to Write by Retyping

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

A writing professor at my university suggested that one way to study written rhythm and cadences is to type out someone else’s novel. He says that doing so will help you gain a better sense of style and flow. Maybe. I think you can do better with this technique, though. Instead of retyping someone else’s work, try retyping yours. I think that this will help the aspiring novelist uncover several tricky problems.

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Jan 01 2008

9 Easy-to-Fix Dialogue Mistakes

This article will help you write better dialogue in novels.

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Dec 11 2007

Writing Without Scenes

This article will discuss some benefits and drawbacks of writing a chapter without scenes and some common problems of sceneless chapters.

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Dec 10 2007

Preliminary Search Engine Optimization Results

10 days ago, I changed the title of one of my most popular articles from “Helping Girls Write Guys” toWriting Male Characters(I explained my reasoning here). I think that it’ll take 20 or so more days until I have conclusive information, but so far the article has tripled in unique hits over the past ~9.5 days compared to the 10 days before the change. I had anticipated some change, because my target audience is much more likely to use words like male/writing/characters than helping/girls/guys, but the magnitude of the leap surprised me.

Additionally, the article has become more effective. I suspect that the new title retains readers that click the Google link more effectively. “Writing Male Characters” is very straight-forward and serious; “Helping Girls Write Guys” doesn’t sound nearly as helpful.

  1. Before, the article bounced an unacceptably high ~60% of readers. That has dropped to 35%. My preliminary conclusion is that strong titles are critical to retaining readers.
  2. Including readers that bounce after a very short amount of time, the average time spent on the article has increased from two minutes to three. Excluding relatively unpopular articles that are skewed by a few devoted readers (three people spent an average of 30 minutes on one of mine), only my review of Soon I Will Be Invincible and my article on naming characters retain readers longer. And my SIWBI review is 4000 words long.
  3. With the exception of the main site at, more readers enter my site through this article than any other.


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Dec 04 2007


I hate little writing guides. I read one this morning that offered only ~300 words on writing characters, all of which could be summarized as “write authentic characters,” which was incidentally the chapter heading. Write authentic characters. Thanks!

Hopefully, this article will prove more useful to you. As you craft and introduce a character, you have many tools at your disposal. I’ll offer some tips for the following aspects and tools of character creation.

  1. Character genesis: what kind of character do you need?
  2. Introducing your character
  3. Making your characters memorable/sticky
  4. Three dimensional characters
  5. Character problems

Character Genesis: what kind of character do you need?

Virtually every well-designed character has each of the following:

  1. Purpose
    1. This is the role he plays in your story. If your character does not play a unique and useful role in the plot, you need to rewrite or remove him. Characters are unique if their role can’t be performed by the story’s other characters. A character is useful he cannot be removed without dramatically weakening the story. That’s subjective, but often your beta readers agree which characters are productive and/or interesting and which aren’t. If you have beta readers, ask questions like “what role did John play in this chapter?” or “which character contributed the least?”—those are pretty direct ways of getting reader impressions on the material. If you don’t have beta readers, go to; it’s a very professional and free online writing workshop.
    2. Purpose comes first because everything else you put into your character hinges on the role you need him to play. Purpose should drive development. For example, if you want a character to add comic quips, he should be witty. Readers will notice if a supposedly slow character is verbally quick.
    3. Your audience and world often reach the same conclusions about a character. But, if you intend your readers not to agree with what your characters think about another character, make it clear why there’s a distinction. (Failing to do so will make your characters feel flat or unbelievable). NOTE: this should be done as sparingly as possible. Discrepancies tend to disconnect readers from the story.
  1. Goals
    1. Real people have goals. Your characters should, too! Goals add plot coherence. If your plot moves from one characters attempting to achieve his goal to another thwarting him by pursuing his own agenda and then back to the first character trying again, it tends to flow nicely.
    2. Goals make characters deep and believable. Did Neville Longbottom go to Hogwarts just so Snape could pound on him? Hell no! He wants to be a man, which drives him to (hilariously) confront Harry Potter towards the end of the first book. Goals are essential to making your characters more than just props. Even your minor characters should have them.
  2. Problems
    1. Real people have problems, too. Problems are a great way to develop your characters. In fact, sometimes the problems are more memorable than the characters themselves (how long could you talk about Luke Skywalker before saying “Darth Vader?”)
    2. Sometimes you reach for your goal and fail. Failure adds drama! Someone who succeeds the first time, every time is not really interesting. The higher the barriers are, the more your readers will enjoy watching the leap. Failure also helps develop characters. Adversity brings out resourcefulness, ingenuity and strength.
    3. Problems also help you mix up the plot. If your character tries shouldering open a locked door but fails, it wouldn’t be very dramatic if he just kept hitting it until it opened. This gives you an opportunity to show that your character is able to do more than solve all of his problems one way—action writers often tend to focus on violent or confrontational solutions. If you feel you have that problem, try mixing it up by placing your hero in a position where he’s hopelessly outpowered, ideally in a social setting. You can’t punch your boss…
    4. Are you using a broad set of problems? Here are a few to consider. 1) Nature/natural phenomena 2)Violent antagonists 3) Iagos (diplomatically savvy antagonists) 4) The hero’s shortcomings 5) The hero’s goals conflict 6) Conflicting heroes
  3. Flaws
    1. Authors sometimes mistakenly confuse problems with flaws. Problems are obstacles or failures. Flaws are attributes that the audience won’t find endearing.
    2. Many authors tend to subconsciously write characters as reflections of themselves. That’s fine, as long as you don’t idealize yourself. Realistic characters virtually require flaws. “But I want my audience to sympathize with my hero!” That’s a good point, but keep in mind that flaws can accentuate positive traits. For example, an idealistic character might be depressed because the world doesn’t meet his expectations. His depression will remind us that he lives by his ideals.
    3. On the other hand, villains often have too many flaws. Sympathetic villains—with agendas we can relate to, even if we don’t want them to succeed— are often the most memorable and feel the most realistic (Darth Vader).
    4. Flaws tend to be more memorable. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Temeraire has an interesting set of characteristics. Let’s see… he’s a dragon, enthusiastic about geometry, he is very affectionate towards his Captain/partner, is strongly anti-slavery and wants sweeping reforms to make British society more dragon-friendly (like tearing up London buildings to make the streets widers). But what is most salient about Temeraire—and characterizes him the best—is that he’s politically radical and doesn’t care about what society deems acceptable.
    5. Flaws tend to add plot coherence. Temeraire [SPOILER] goes rogue and refuses to carry out a plot to poison French dragons. [/SPOILER] That flows naturally from his deeply held views about the dignity of dragons. It doesn’t feel like the author randomly decided to have Temeraire rebel to spice the plot up. Plots driven by flaws tend to be more coherent and feel less arbitrary, partially because flaw-driven foreshadowing is more noticeable and memorable.

Memorable/Sticky Characters

You want your characters to be memorable, I’m sure. More precisely, your characters should be sticky—something about them needs to stick long and hard with your readers.

Readers will often miss minor details, especially one introduced only once or twice. The essence of stickiness is giving each character one or two defining characteristics that provide memory cues to everything else about the character. If you bring attention to those defining characteristics a few times, readers will gradually make a lasting impression and they will easily remember the character.

Here’s an example from my own work: one of Agent Orange’s defining characteristics is that he’s an (reptilian) alien. I assumed that readers would remember that unusual detail. WRONG! Not only had the majority forgotten that he was the alien, many more had gotten confused about the species of some human characters. To help cue my readers, I had Agent Orange say “mammals*” whenever he’s exasperated, faces a political obstacle, has to explain something about himself or is otherwise perplexed by American culture.


ORANGE: Do you smell that?

LASH: That you smell like an ashtray?

ORANGE: The squid. He’s a mile off.

LASH: How the hell could I smell a squid a mile away?

ORANGE: Mammals.


Agent BLACK: I’ll stick with the experience and Darwin factors.

Agent ORANGE: (Mammals). When Freakshow is melting your neural synapses together, let me know how much inspiration and comfort those give you.

BLACK: I will try to remember to do that, sir.

ORANGE: (Wiseass).

This recurring remark has benefits beyond reminding readers that Orange isn’t human. Sometimes I’ll ask my reviewers questions like “do you remember a passage that shows how Agent Orange (or nonhumans generally) get along with humans?” They almost always pick a “mammals” passage. I think the word “mammals” is a pretty good cue that the reader is supposed to make associations there.

Since I’ve introduced the “mammals” lines, readers have fared much better on open-ended questions like “how would you characterize human-nonhuman relationships in Superhero Nation? I’m looking for words like “awkward,” “well-intentioned,” “strange” and “friendly”—at least, that’s what I meant to convey. Before I used mammal lines, most readers had no clue and the rest mentioned discrimination. That was certainly puzzling, given that the only recurring nonhuman character is a ranking government official that’s friendly with his co-workers.

Now, I see a lot more answers that use words like “strained,” “symbiotic,” different perspectives, etc.

Big picture, “mammals” helps characterize Orange. It reminds us that he’s not a human and that his relations with humans are mostly positive but kind of outsider-looking-in (I like “symbiotic”).

*I experimented with him saying “humans” but that came off much more sinister and lacked the whimsy and exasperation I was looking for. Reviewers overwhelmingly agreed that “mammals” was friendlier. One said that “humans rings with contempt. It sounds like a slur.” Another agreed that mammals was less threatening because it paralleled racism less. By using “mammals” instead of “humans,” Orange implicitly contrasts himself as a reptile rather than a dragon. “I don’t think he’s suggesting reptiles are categorically superior to mammals, but I think using ‘humans’ does suggest a categorical assertion about the superiority of his species [dragons].”

I’m only done with part 1 of this, but it’s pretty late here. I’ll complete this later.

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Nov 18 2007

Don’t mess with the Marines on this one

A Marine typist vs. the Chicago Manual of Style:

MARINE:  About two spaces after a period.  As a U.S. Marine, i know that what’s right is right and you are wrong.  I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period.

CHICAGO MANUAL:  As a U.S. Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this. [sic]Status quo. [sic]

I think XHTML turns properly formatted periods (with two spaces after) into single-spaced periods.  That looks HIDEOUS, which is especially problematic for writers that upload large blocks of text, like novel chapters and lengthy reviews.  Whenever I edit a Word Press post, I have to go back and make sure that I’ve replaced the double-spaces so that it’s readable.

I think it’s pretty funny that we don’t put any spaces after periods in abbreviations.  Something like “he’s a U.  S.  M.  C.  drill instructor” would be painful.

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Nov 16 2007

New Sidebar Category: Writing Case Studies

Hello. In addition to my normal articles on writing, I now have Writing Case Studies.  Each entry will review a book and then describe what writers should take away from what worked and what didn’t from the book.

This makes it a bit easier to describe problems/successes in characterization and plotting that might otherwise be abstract.

So far I have:

I’d really appreciate if you’d like to suggest any novels, particularly ones with superheroes or high fantasy generally.  I focus on those kinds of novels because they often have the same challenges and audience expectations as Superhero Nation.

  • Creating a world more or less by scratch
  • Making a fantastic world serious enough that people won’t hear your premise and groan
  • Combining action and non-action components into a workable whole.

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Oct 24 2007

Pun Explanations

Hello.  A few of my readers asked me about the chapter titles.  Did I mean ____ as a pun on ____? The answer is probably yes.  I’ll go through a few…

Gotta Kill ‘Em All! is a dark play on Pokemon’s slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.”  The popular children’s cartoon series, Hegemon, plays a prominent role in this chapter.  A related pun…  in politics, a hegemon is a completely dominant nation.  Since the end of the Cold War, “the hegemon” has always referred to the United States.  After all, what story about superheroes could be complete without a superpower?

How Many F’s are there in Katastrofy? (Win a Pulitzer in 20 Minutes a Day!) is a play on the latest Superman movie, where a supposedly Pulitzer-calibre journalist (Lois Lane) wonders how many F’s are in “catastrophe.”  Katastrophy is the name of the Hegemon that’s clearly based on Mewtwo (he’s in the header).  For reasons that I will hopefully be able to reveal by the end of 2007, the real-world incarnation of said character decides to go by “Catastrophe” because you’d have to be a complete idiot to spell it “Katastrofy.”

National Catastrophe is a phrase.  In a book that already has a character named Catastrophe and Nation in the title, how could I resist?

Dr.  Berkeley’s name is actually a reference to George Berkeley, an 18th century philosopher who claimed that anything we perceive is necessarily real.  (Mirages and The Matrix are both perceivable things that probably aren’t real).  The more obvious Berkeley association features a certain university in California, but that wasn’t my main objective.

What Do We Do About Berkeley? This time the reference actually IS to the university.  Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA) had been advised by his gubernatorial staff not to hit on the counterculture of UC-Berkeley.  Reagan responded: “Look, I don’t care if I’m [campaigning] in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of this state, the first question [I get is]: ‘What are you going to do about Berkeley?’ And each time the question itself would get applause.”  I amended the phrase to “What do we do…”  rather than “What are you going to do…”  because the title is already a bit long.

Forget Who’s Watching the Watch-Man…  Don’t Leave Yourself Alone with Him is a play on the phrase “but who watches the watchman,” and of course the comic book series The Watchmen, but most prominently Syler from Heroes.  You definitely wouldn’t want to find yourself alone with THAT watch-man.

The Empire State Strikes Back is an obvious play on Star Wars…  not too tricky.

Gods and Supermen at Yale is a reference to God and Man at Yale, conservative William Buckley’s seminal work on the relationship between faith and scholarship.  In the context of Superhero Nation, the “Gods” are researchers…  well, I shouldn’t spoil a chapter I haven’t written, right?

The Crisis of Infinite OSIs is a play on DC Comic’s seminal series, The Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Really, really devoted students of US government might know there is a separate Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Air Force, and the legislative Government Accountability Office.

It Takes a Child to Raze a Village  the original is liberal Hillary Clinton’s quote, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  I can’t say any more without hopelessly spoiling the chapter.  Suffice it to say that I hope you won’t miss Greenwich.  (Heh.  A red herring, I assure you).

The First Draft of History is a reference to the quote that “journalism is the first draft of history.” 

Hegemonic Instability Theory.  Maybe you’ve heard of “hegemonic stability theory,” the theory that particularly strong nations contribute to world peace.  Well, mental instability appears to be more relevant to the plot (and creation) of this novel, so I thought that was more appropriate.   It’s also a play on the Hegemon angle, if you’ve been paying attention.   (Additionally, Orson Scott Card wrote a book called “Shadow of the Hegemon,” which  I might turn into something like “Shadowing the Hegemon”)

The Last Oorah.  Oorah” is a Marine concept…  hell, a way of life! Its origin probably derives from “heard, understood and acknowledged” (HUA), a general expression of enthusiasm (ahem…  anything and everything but no“).  At one point, I had the chapter called The Last Huah because I wasn’t sure whether the character that dies is a Marine or an [Army] soldier.

The pun is that there’s a novel called The Last Hurrah, which is also a stage in Star Fox 64.  (Wow, I am such a nerd).

A few of the chapters (Agents of Change, Agents of Destruction, etc.) play on the double meaning of “agent” as a federal employee (IRS agent, OSI agent) and a causative factor.  The Free Agent plays on a sports-term for someone who currently has no employer.

Yep, that’s most of it.  I should add– well, it should be obvious that– a title that has to be explained is probably not working.  So hopefully titles like A Free Agent or What Are We Going to do about Berkeley? work even if the reader isn’t familiar with the inside joke.  If they don’t, then the author has needlessly alienated a lot of his readers.  I think the titles would be effective even if the reader didn’t know.

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Sep 25 2007

Novel Writing Strategies: Keeping Readers Interested


  • Summary of past novel-writing problems
  • Solutions to improve reader longevity
  • Improving chapter length
  • Marketing!  Marketing!  Marketing!

This is mostly aimed at anyone trying to write a novel, particularly an online novel, but Superhero Nation fans might be interested to see what my writing process is like.


  • My first chapter attracted readers but didn’t keep them. 
  • Of the first 100 readers that started reading, 30 lasted over half a minute and 15 spent enough time that I could reasonably assume they finished the chapter. 
  • None started reading the second chapter. 


  • My short-term retention was a problem.  70% of the readers decided right off the bat that the novel didn’t work for them.
    • The novel’s opening was not working
  • Medium-term retention was pleasantly high.  Half of the readers that read past the first few paragraphs made it through 9000 words.
    • The middle was considerably better-written than the beginning
  • Long-term retention was zero.  15 readers read 9000 words, but none started the second chapter.
    • The first chapter was incredibly long, 30 double-spaced pages.  Readers that finished that lacked the time/energy to proceed.     

Fixing the Introduction

It’s hard to describe how bad my first five pages were.  But I’ll give you the first 75 words, along with parenthetical comments from a dangerously perceptive reviewer. 

Courtney had problems. 

One.  His name was Courtney.   He hated it but knowing  that he vastly outsmarted the gigglers comforted him.  (This opening does not grab me. Who are these gigglers?)

Two.  He was an ex-superhero, the once and present Lash, the best nonpowered hero New York had never heard of.   He had showed Gigas, the head of the Social Justice League, up when a supervillain struck.  Gigas had him fired and, more humiliatingly, violated the first rule of superheroics by x-raying Lash’s face. (Very un-superhero like) But they couldn’t take his name.  (do you even need this?)

It would take me hours to fully explain why the first 5 pages were so bad, but let me summarize. 

  • Melodramatic
  • Anticipation problems.  A good opening makes readers think “Sweet Jesus, I want to see where this is going.”  This opening probably makes people wonder whether the story would interest them.  (Who’s Courtney?  Why should we care about people laughing at his name?)
  • Passive narration (‘telling’ a story rather than ‘showing’ it).  High on backstory, short on action.
  • There’s no scene.  
  • Hard to understand (maybe not these first few paragraphs, but certainly the rest of the five pages). 

It took me three months to turn my deservedly savage reviews into a rewrite.  You can see the rewritten chapter here, but I’ll analyze the first two paragraphs. 

[start] The tree was critical.  The blueprints for the Governor’s mansion clearly showed that the tree’s branches came intriguingly close to a second-floor window.  It was less obvious that the window led to the room of a servant scheduled to work during tonight’s fundraiser.  Most importantly, the Governor’s security detail only sent a guard past the tree every forty-five seconds, plus or minus fifteen.  The superhero had spent an hour counting.  Lash had estimated that the leap through the open window would be four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.  Being an unpowered hero was always interesting. 

Lash lay behind the courtyard fountain as the hapless guard wandered past the tree again, his heels clicking against the cobble-stone path.  The beam of the guard’s flashlight soon faded around the near corner.  Forty-five seconds. [end]

The most obvious change is that this is a scene: a character attempts to break into the Governor’s mansion.  After the first three sentences, he seems like he’s a criminal, probably an assassin.  Then I off-handedly refer to him as “the superhero,” even before we know his name or what he looks like.  A traditional individual-focused story would probably start with the character and then describe the mission, but I start with the mission and hardly describe the character at all, besides how physically inept and meticulous he is. 

Up to the word “superhero,” this could very well be a police procedural or a Mission Impossible-style spyfest.  Then the story gets ridiculous, particularly in “…four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.”  My first opening was melodramatic, but I think this comes off as comically melodramatic and patently ridiculous.  (Four feet?  The ‘superhero’ can’t jump four feet?) 

I think that my readers have been cued to expect a somewhat strange story about superheroes.  (In case that weren’t obvious enough, Lash’s main weapon in the first chapter is a fire extinguisher).  I think that reader anticipation has shifted much more to “I’d like to see where this is going” from “this sounds boring.”

Is my new opening effective?
I’m inclined to say yes.  Remember, before I had…

  • 100 readers started chapter 1
  • 30 made it past thirty seconds
  • 15 made it to the end of chapter 1
  • 0 started chapter 2

I rewrote my opening two weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve had…

  • 37 readers started chapter 1
  • ?? readers finished chapter 1
  • 10 readers started chapter 2 (so I’d assume that at least 10 readers survived to the end of chapter 1).
  • 9 readers started chapter 3
  • 64 readers started chapter 4 (I bet you’re asking what the hell!?! I’ll explain this in just a second). 

These numbers are drastically better.  My first-to-second chapter conversion rate is more than 25% and the people that start the second chapter appear to be dedicated readers.  My survey sample is pretty small (only over the last two weeks), but it seems that the first three chapters are generally successful enough that this story might be publishable.  But publishing is a distant concern and right now I’d like to worry about 1) posting the best chapters I can write to the website and 2) getting as many readers as possible to those chapters.


Remember that 64 readers started chapter 4?  That probably seemed pretty weird, given that only 9 readers started chapter 3.  My brother linked to my site in a discussion on sympathetic villains at The Volokh Conspiracy.  Since then, ~55 Volokh Conspirators have started chapter 4.  So even a comment can generate a significant amount of traffic.  I suspect that a link from, say, one of the writers at Volokh would generate enough traffic to be commercially significant.  But TVC is mainly a legal blog; I can’t imagine why it would be disproportionately loaded with comic book fans. 

I suspect that my demographics will be better represented at Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs link.  Speaking of LGF, it actually inspired the conservative-lizard and liberal-frog demographics of Superhero Nation. 


The original version of my first chapter—the terrible version—was 9000 words long (30 pages).  9000 words is a hell of a commitment, probably several hours.  Who wants to spend several hours at a single site? 

I’ve since split up the first 9000 words into 3 chapters, but chapter 3 is still ridiculously long.  I have to cut it down more.  (Everybody Dies is also too long).

One thing I’ve learned is that chapter length really matters. Shorter chapters—no more than 2000 words—work much better. Each chapter’s end is an opportunity to leave your reader on a cliffhanger and make him feel that he’s accomplished something.  Each chapter’s start is a chance to rehook your reader or at least give him a chance to recuperate and return. Additionally, each chapter allows you to subtly shift the focus of the reader’s attention and focus by using a new chapter title.

I’ve mentioned before that chapter titles are really important to selling a novel. They’re also important for the reading experience. You can use the title to create a sense of anticipation, foreboding or establish the mood. Right now, the chapter titles I’m going with are:

  1. Life, Death and the Manhattan Mangler [~1000 words]
  2. The Empire State Strikes Back [~1500]
  3. The Best Investigator in the World [~7000 words]
  4. Everybody Dies [~8000 words]
    • Unless I also want my readers to die, I should probably break this up into many chapters.  Possible chapter titles include “The Human Condition,” “Only Human,” “Grim Prognosis,” “Reach for the Skyline,” and “Two Girls for Every Guy.”
  5. The Human Resources Promise [~1500 words]
  6. Stockbroker to the Slaughter [~2000 words]

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Sep 13 2007

How to Write Concisely

This article addresses how to write concisely by revising or eliminating individual sentences.

Revising Individual Sentences

Let’s examine the needlessly long sentence “Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work but because it makes the work more readable.” This sentence has many problems.

“…it makes the work more readable.” This phrase is too wordy. Consider the alternative “it improves readability.” Tweaking word forms can often make a sentence more efficient.

“Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work…” Generally, explicitly saying that something matters is an unnecessary waste of space.  If you lay out the reasons it matters, readers will reach their own conclusion.

The original sentence was 15 words long. Consider this revision: “conciseness improves readability.” That distills what matters into an 80% cheaper product.

How to Eliminate Sentences Well

Question: I’ve looked at my sentences and can’t tighten any further. What now?

Let’s pretend that your individual sentences are perfectly concise. You need to find sentences that can be removed entirely or merged into other sentences.

But all my sentences are doing something important.

They’re probably not. However, when you look at individual sentences, it usually seems like each is productive. Consider the sentence “it’s raining.” It’s a short sentence and could be useful. But consider the sentence’s context. What if the paragraph were:

“Thunder crashed. John drew his umbrella. It’s raining.”

“It’s raining” is obviously unnecessary here, but that might not have been clear just looking at the sentence itself. To identify which sentences should be removed, we usually have to look at longer passages.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend examining sequences of ten sentences—that’s usually two or three paragraphs. Of the ten sentences, generally at least one can be eliminated.

Let me demonstrate this theory with the work of an authorial friend. This passage is an interesting description of a cop that’s investigating rumors of corporate shenanigans, but it isn’t as concise as it could be.

Harland ordered dinner, and settled into reading through the information gathered by the avatar. He called up Epp’s skills profile first, looking for justification for TeleComm’s offer of a senior contract. Epp had an outstanding background in both biomedical and software fields, a profile that Harland usually associated with companies and feeder universities in the instant transport field, rather than TeleComm’s data and communications segment. He remembered the scheduled takeover battle at Distance Instant Transport. Was TeleComm planning to take advantage of DIT’s management being distracted to make a push into instant transport? That would start a significantly wider corporate battle and active monitoring by WorldPol. He made a note to notify the Economic Management Group if things started looking more serious, and went down to the canteen to eat.

This is my rewrite.

Harland started sifting through the information his avatar had gathered on TeleComm’s new hire. Epp had outstanding biomedical and software skills, a profile more typical for the instant transport sector than TeleComm’s data and communications work. Epp’s hiring and the contested takeover at DIT suggested that TeleComm might be planning to push into instant transport when its competitor was in turmoil. He notified the Economic Management Council that a significantly broader corporate battle might be brewing.

The word count has dropped about about 150 to 100, but I don’t feel that the substance has changed considerably.

Avoiding Mistakes When Tightening

Although conciseness helps, it is possible to improperly tighten. Cutting out information may make it hard to follow the story or may make the plotline a lot more jagged. Cutting may also remove flavor. Compare “she unloaded a clip into his face” to “she shot him repeatedly.”

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Jul 22 2006

Style Checklist

1) Try not to begin sentences with the words there, it, so, and then.

A. There and it create passive sentences. For example, “there are only three cities with many supervillains” can be rewritten as “only three cities have many supervillains.”

B. So usually connects an action awkwardly to a previous statement, like “I hate Italian food, so I’m not a fan of lasagna.” Phrases that begin with so are often obvious and unneeded.

C. Then is problematic when it indicates that a string of actions is continuing. “I went to the door and then I knocked.” Usually, then suggests that the action is individually insignificant. Sentences with then frequently feel like laundry lists of actions that don’t need to be spelled out. “I hit the up button. Then the elevator came. Then I stepped inside and got out on the ninth floor” could be revised to “I took the elevator to the ninth floor.” Unless something interesting happens on the elevator, there’s no reason to draw it out.

2) Passive voice lacks punch and verve. Is passive voice in your piece? Does your piece use passive voice?

3) Have you weeded out unnecessary and unproductive sentences and phrases? Writers don’t stumble upon coherent, compact stories any more than a sculptor accidentally turns a stone into a face. Good writing relies on editing and deletion as much as creation/addition. If a scene, chapter or character adds little to the work as a whole, you’ve got to have the guts to remove or revise it.

A. One common objection is “but I’ve already got 60,000 words! If I cut anything, I won’t have a manuscript long enough to submit.” OK, but if you don’t cut anything, you probably won’t have a manuscript good enough to get accepted anywhere. Wise editing and deletion will increase the publishability of the whole.

B. How does one edit wisely? Well, here are some suggestions. List your chapters and then write a 1-2 sentence synopsis of your book’s plot. Which chapters are tangential to your synopsis? For example, Harry Potter’s Quidditch scenes are useful and enjoyable, but not really related to the main plot. Compared to the rest of the book, how long are your tangential chapters? As a rule, tangents shouldn’t make up more than 10-15% of the book.

C. Deleting scenes and chapters can be emotionally hard. Instead of deleting them, try cutting and pasting them into a separate file. In a few days, if you feel that you really need that scene, then you can retrieve it.

D) Talk to your reviewers. Ask them to nominate scenes that could be reduced. Did they ever use phrases like “this dragged on”?

4) There are many stylistic tics that may cause readers to stumble.  Get out a set of markers and print out a copy of your work. Circle each of the following tics in a different color.

A) Modifiers (a lot, almost, very, extremely, roughly, approximately, quite, nearly, a bit, etc.)

B) Sentences that begin with nouns

C) Words that have 5+ syllables

D) Sentences that have 15+ words

E) Sentences that have 4+ commas and/or semi-colons

F) Sentences that have 3+ clauses

G) Lines of dialogue that are not attributed to a speaker

H) Capitalized words that are not the first word of the sentence. (Why might this be problematic? According to the article “Revision Checklist” by B. Mac and Jacob Mallow, 9 out of 10 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America agree that Over-Capitalization Syndrome can be visually disorientating).

I) Fragmented or grammatically incorrect sentences.

J) Paragraphs with 150+ words

K) Italicized words

It’s not a problem that you will have many circles on your page for some of these categories.  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional long sentence, for example.  But when each page has 10-15 long sentences, that might rub readers the wrong way.  Circling each of these items helps you get in the reader’s mindset.

4 responses so far

Jul 22 2006

How to Write Gripping Scenes

This article will focus on how to craft gripping scenes that immerse readers in the story. First, I will start with an absolutely awful scene, offer a revision, and then draw connections about how you can make your scenes more immersive.


My mini-scene


The elf hit the orc with his shield, giving him enough time to cast Fireball. It shot out of his land like a bullet.


This scene completely fails to immerse readers.


  1. “like a bullet” feels distinctly inappropriate for a conventional fantasy story (let’s assume that’s what it is).

  2. What’s the fireball like? This wasted a huge opportunity.

  3. The passage used weak and generic verbs (hit, cast and shot).

  4. We can’t really visualize the fight. What happens to the orc that lets the elf cast Fireball?

  5. What’s the elf like? Or the orc? We can’t really visualize either beyond the barest mental cliches.


A somewhat better version of my mini-scene


The orc swung wildly with its masher. The elf instinctively ducked. A cool breeze fanned the elf’s face as the hammer rushed by. The elf sprang up with his shield, smashing the orc’s face. It fell backwards, chains rattling as it crashed into the ground. The orc’s bloodyshot eyes fluttered, unfocused as though gazing at something miles away.


But it was alive.


“Spirits of fire…”


Mystical energy welled in the elf’s chest and smoke pooled in his lungs. The smoke. He lived for the smoke.


“I implore you…” he aimed his hand at the prone orc. Power surged from his heart, as though magma were rushing through him. Clumps of his skin charred and flaked away in the wind.




A geyser of fire hot enough to melt stone gushed out of his fingers. The orc’s top half disintegrated completely. And the bottom half… only he and the gods would know it had ever belonged to something alive.


The elf inspected the black gashes that ran up his heavily charred, heat-withered arm. Regrowing skin and bone was simple enough that any apprentice healer could have his arm functional within an hour. But the scars, the scars were permanent. In any case, they made for great bar stories.


Then he noticed that his fingernails had burnt away.




It took weeks for fingernails to grow back.


This story is better, but it still has many problems… “incendio”? Come on. More substantively, we have no impression of the physical setting, where the story is taking place. (Is this fight happening in… an open field? An Orcish coliseum? An astral plane? What’s the weather like? How does the terrain affect the duel? Who, if anyone, is watching? Is anyone else fighting? What time is it? How humid is it?)


In contrast, this scene does develop the cultural setting. We learn a lot about the elf here and his society. He spends as much time thinking about his burnt fingernails as he does about killing the orc.


The sensory imagery is occasionally solid– particularly the fire/smoke/imagery– but aside from that it was pretty bland…


Making Your Scenes More Immersive


  1. Sensory imagery is critical. “He cast a fireball” is too bland to captivate readers.

    1. Show us what the spell does to the victim, the caster, the terrain, etc. Give us the smoke!

    2. Try to engage as many senses as possible. Smell and touch are particularly immersive and visceral. Sight and hearing are obviously important but are usually more generic.

    3. Focus on the elements that separate your story from every other story we’ve read. A fight between elves and orcs on the beach should not focus on the seagulls. Likewise, a story with a dragon character (ie a dragon that actually has lines) had damn well better describe and use the dragon. Give us the dragon!

  2. You have to show readers where the scene is happening.

    1. The best way to develop the setting is to show your characters interacting with the scenery. For example, if the fight is in a tavern, bystanders might jeer or root for one combatant. The elf might use a chair or mug as a weapon. More generically, the elf might choke on the smoke that comes from the fireball or his eyes might water.

    2. Don’t overwhelm your audience with trivial details. For example, if they fight on a beach, describing the sounds of the waves hitting the beach probably won’t add much. But mentioning that the sand offers bad footing will help your readers visualize the scene.

  3. Explain the cultural setting. What are the people in your world like? How are their thought processes and cultures different from ours?

    1. Above, the elf is pretty messed up. He talks about his scars at taverns and cares more about his fingernails than burning an orc to death. If I had only described him as an elf, the audience would have assumed he was elegant, high-minded, nature-attuned, etc. What is this, Dungeons and Dragons?*

    2. Readers prefer unique settings.

  4. What is the focus (or purpose) of your scene?

    1. Originally, my fireball scene was an action scene, describing only the elf-orc fight. The rewrite was far more character-driven. I used the fight as a vehicle to portray the elf.

    2. Mixing up scenes is usually more effective. You can drown your readers in action (or dramatic dialogue). I tried to mix action and character development here and I think it was pretty effective.

21 responses so far

Jul 22 2006

Story Structure

In the opening…

Generally, it’s a good idea to show or at least foreshadow the main characters.

Most writing guides emphasize an audience’s emotional investment in the characters.  That’s certainly important, but I think it’s also important for fiction writers to get readers to emotionally invest in the world.   Both of these investments tie in to what’s at stake.  Why should the audience care

The opening should also establish the tone and mood of the piece.  People that buy/read your novel will probably do so on the basis of the first few chapters (maybe just the first few pages).  It’s important not to jilt your readers– if it starts out tragically, it shouldn’t be a light-hearted comedy.

In the body of the story…

If your story is your gun, scenes are your bullets.  Scenes, rather than blocks of exposition that occur in a vacuum, show the characters.  A character in a well-constructed scene will feel a lot more alive to your audience than, say, a character who is described like “Courtney was a middle-aged man that was kind of both proud and insecure.”

Show all the elements the conclusion needs.  For example, if the climax hinges on whether the hero can save the girl, we should see the girl, the hero, and the villain long before the final fight.

I really like plotting by problems.  Your characters have overarching goals and their attempts to reach their goals should create more problems and obstacles.  These problems should be varied, but it will probably be easier to read if the problems get progressively worse.  Save the perfect solutions for the “Happily Ever After.”

In the conclusion…

By the end, your characters should have made some hard-earned gains and your audience should care about whether your hero succeeds.  In the conclusion, show us that everything hinges on success now.

The conclusion, more so than the other parts, depends on how much your villain resonates with the readers. If the villain seems competent or devious or otherwise impressive, your hero will seem much more heroic as he vanquishes him.

Additionally, the villain should only be vanquished by the hero’s actions. For example, this plot would be utterly dissatisfying: the protagonist is held hostage in her home and is finally saved when the cops burst through the door. She isn’t really the hero here because she didn’t actually stop the villain. On the other hand, if she spent the better part of the book trying to carry out a plan to secretly call 911, then she has taken on an instrumental and dramatic role.

Children’s novels are especially vulnerable to the problem that the “protagonist” doesn’t really save the day. Many authors allow an adult step in and solve the problems. This deus ex parentis is a let-down, especially because the readers are kids to begin with.

Throughout the story…

Avoid randomness. One area of particular randomness is naming characters.  For example, one of my professors described a novel where the first character were Alex, Betty, Carl and Donna. Hopefully, you have a stronger reason for naming your characters than that the first letters of their names come in alphabetical order.

The strongest reason to pick a name is that it suggests something about the character.  At its most basic, you’d screw weaker characters with sissy names like “Percy” and “Neville Longbottom” and give stronger characters hard-sounding names like “Jack Ryan.”  For a more advanced look at the use of sounds in character names, please see this article.

Another area that trips up authors is tense changes.  It’s very easy to slip into a different tense, but your readers will probably notice that. I recommend slowly reading through each page immediately after you finish writing it.  This is more effective than finishing the piece and then looking for tense mistakes because your eyes will glaze over after a few pages.  One of my chapters had a lot of tense problems right at the very beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know when the events I described at the beginning occurred compared to the time the story itself was taking place.  I’m pretty sure my latest version has fixed these problems.

Another problem is maintaining a constant narration.  For example, in “Only Human,” the narrator focuses mostly on what Jacob Mallow sees.  But about halfway through, the narrator describes what’s happening across the city even though Jacob Mallow has no idea anything is wrong.  Another awkward narration shift in Only Human is towards the end, when Jacob leaves the greenhouse.  The perspective stays in the greenhouse with Agent Orange.  I knew that was really awkward at the time I was writing it, but I kind of had to show what Agent Orange was doing with his blood.

47 responses so far