Conflict is key to writing great stories. And while writers may categorize conflict differently, I categorize conflict into eight types:
Person vs. Self Person vs. Person Person vs. Nature Person vs. Society Person vs. God Person vs. Fate Person vs. the Supernatural Person vs. Technology
In today’s modern times, the Person vs. God conflict often gets left off lists or is combined with or even replaced by the Person vs. Fate conflict. But because fate conflicts don’t necessarily have gods, and god conflicts don’t necessarily include fate, I put them in separate categories.
Out of all the conflict types, Person vs. Fate is often the most misunderstood.
Many of us were introduced to the concept of person vs. fate through classic tragedies where the protagonist was foretold a future that led him to a dreadful end (like in Oedipus Rex or Macbeth). This has led some to proclaim that the person vs. fate conflict is unpopular or even outdated, and has also led some writers to shortchange this conflict type (if they even give it much thought). In reality, a fate conflict happens whenever a character is struggling with a destiny–something is predetermined or foreordained, and the character somehow opposes that. What is foretold need not always be tragic or lead to a dreadful end. Arguably, it need not always even be otherworldly.
In fantasy, fate often comes from a prophecy. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry struggles with the prophecy that neither he nor Voldemort can really live while the other survives. In horror, this may be a kind of curse. In Final Destination, the characters are trying to cheat their deaths–they are fated to die. It can even play into the concept of the universe having an order or law that must be upheld or fulfilled. In The Lion King, Simba must embrace his destiny as the one true king to bring order to the Circle of Life. And if we broaden the concept a little more, we can find foretold fates in the normal world; in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel is fated to die from terminal cancer.
Person vs. fate conflicts are very effective because they get the audience to anticipate a future outcome, which is exactly how we hook and reel the audience in. Readers will want to keep reading to see if what is expected to happen actually does happen, and they will want to know how it happens. So the person vs. fate conflict has some innate strengths.
Many fate conflicts are rendered as teasers. Some characters have premonitions in dreams or visions that only reveal a snippet of fate. Prophecies are often worded in ambiguous or metaphorical ways, giving rise to multiple interpretations. Teasers don’t tell readers specifics, but they promise that the specifics will come if the reader keeps reading. So, the reader keeps reading. This also introduces a sense of mystery. Some fate conflicts work as a riddle that the audience gets to participate in, which pulls them even deeper into the narrative.
Usually person vs. fate conflicts explore free will within strict limitations. While some writers choose to ultimately emphasize a lack of free will, others choose to emphasize the power of free will. In Oedipus Rex characters try to change fate and end up bringing it about. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry eventually realizes he has a choice to accept his role or not, and chooses to rise to the occasion. Characters destined to die, may have a moment where they decide how they will face that death.
How the character chooses to deal with the fate is often just as (if not more) interesting than the fate itself. The character may openly fight against fate like Oedipus Rex, or the character may have more of a personal struggle with accepting the fate and its costs, like Simba. The audience may be invited to consider whether it’s worth the cost. In Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil to gain all knowledge. Was gaining all knowledge worth a fate in hell?
We often think of fate conflicts coming from some force beyond the character’s power, but sometimes it’s interesting when the character makes a choice that leads to an inevitable fate, such as Dr. Faustus, or even Jack Sparrow, who makes a deal with Davy Jones in exchange for the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Fate conflicts traditionally come from the supernatural: prophecies, premonitions, curses, fortunes and predictions, a universal law, magical debts, or the will of otherworldly entities. But the concept can be broadened to include real-world fates: terminal illness, death row and other court sentences, forced marriage, being made a scapegoat, or forced labor. Admittedly, some conflict types can overlap with others, but looking at conflicts from a fate angle may open up your stories to new possibilities.
A few more examples of fate conflicts:
Curses, like in The Ring, where a video is promised to kill the viewer in seven days.
Deals, like in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack is in debt to Davy Jones and must join The Flying Dutchman or be taken by the Kraken
Fortunes and predictions, like in The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, where Blue is told that if she kisses her true love, he will die
Supernatural entities, like in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, where a ghost tells Scrooge of his coming death
What have you noticed about fate conflicts? Have you ever written, or do you plan to write about a fate conflict? What do you like about them?
Those of you who are familiar with me know that Angela Ackerman and I talk a lot about emotion. A LOT.
That’s because we believe that clearly conveying emotion—particularly that of the protagonist or viewpoint character—plays an important role in building reader empathy. If we can build a strong connection for the reader, they’ll become invested in the character and be more likely to keep reading.
The other reason character emotion is so important is that it draws the reader into the story. If we’re able to show emotion well, we heighten the reader’s experience; instead of them sitting back and being told about the character’s emotions, they’re feeling them as the story goes along. They’re invited to share in the journey.
That level of engagement is critical if we’re going to pull readers into our stories and keep them there.
Quick Recap: How to Show a Viewpoint Character’s Emotion
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and pushing around the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Maybe he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t gonna make it easy for him.
Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. The vinyl of JoAnne’s purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.
“JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”
JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed out of the office.
Through a combination of body language, thoughts, and reactions, we can see what JoAnne is feeling without her ever stating it outright. And because we’ve also learned something about who she is and where she’s coming from, our empathy is piqued. So showing emotion for our protagonist pays off in spades.
But How Do I Show Emotions for Other Characters?
That example may not be news to you, since the importance of showing emotion has been discussed quite a bit. What hasn’t been talked much about is how to convey the feelings of a non-viewpoint character (NVPC).
Unless you’re writing in omniscient viewpoint, you’ll need to stick closely to your main character’s point of view and won’t be able to share what’s happening internally for anyone else. So how do you convey the emotions of the other people in your story?
Technique #1: Outer Manifestations
When you’re in the main character’s head, you can’t access the thoughts and internal sensations of other cast members to show what they’re feeling. But you can use the outer manifestations of their emotions because the viewpoint character will be able to notice those.
In the example above, we can tell that Mr. Paxton is uncomfortable, maybe even nervous, about giving JoAnne the news. We know this because of what the viewpoint character is able to observe: the fiddling with knickknacks and his frequent clearing of the throat.
When we’re revealing the emotion of a NVPC, we can’t utilize all the same techniques that we could for the protagonist, but we can use the ones that are noticeable by others, such as:
changes in posture and personal space
Technique #2: The Viewpoint Character’s Response
Mr. Paxton’s fussing and throat clearing aren’t enough to show exactly what he’s feeling because they could represent numerous things, such as restlessness, excitement, or nervousness. But JoAnne’s response to these clues clarifies his state.
Through her thoughts, we learn that her boss is reluctant to give her the news; that information provides some much-needed context to help us understand what Mr. Paxton is feeling. Thoughts can work well to show the viewpoint character’s response; so can body language and the decisions they make during or following an interaction.
Technique #3: Dialogue and Vocal Cues
When we’re feeling emotional, one of the ways it comes through is in our speech patterns. Sometimes this can be shown through vocal cues (changes in pitch, tone, speed of speech, word usage, etc.), such as Mr. Paxton’s hesitations.
It can also be shown through the words themselves—say, if a character is ranting about the events leading up to his current emotional state. The reader will be able to combine this verbal context with the nonverbal body language to figure out what emotion is being felt.
Technique #4: Avoidances
If a NVPC’s emotions are uncomfortable ones, this can lead them to avoid certain things associated with them: a person, a place, a situation, specific questions, or a topic of conversation.
One of the clues to Mr. Paxton’s emotional state is his procrastination—how he’s putting off the difficult job of letting JoAnne go. She’s been sitting there a while, long enough to get pretty worked up as she watches him dither. His avoidance of the conversation itself shows a high level of discomfort, putting his emotional state into perspective for the reader.
Technique #5: Fight, Flight, or Freeze Reactions
When a character feels threatened, certain emotions will come into play. In these situations, a character may get confrontational, beat a hasty exit, or turn into the proverbial deer in the headlights.
Then, when something happens that impacts their emotions, they’ll deviate from that norm, and readers will notice the shift. Changes in the voice, speech patterns, body language, how the character interacts with or responds to others, new avoidances—anything that alters their typical behavior can become a red flag for readers, letting them know that emotions are in flux.
As you can see, you have a lot of resources when it comes to writing the emotions of non-viewpoint characters. Some of them can work in isolation, but many of them should be used in tandem to help clarify things for the reader.
Use some visible body language while also noting the viewpoint character’s response to it. Show the character’s avoidance along with a persistent vocal cue to make the emotion clear. Use a flight response to a seemingly unthreatening situation along with a bit of dialogue to shed some light on what’s happening.
With a combination of these techniques, you’ll be able to paint a complete picture of any non-viewpoint character’s emotions without hopping heads and pulling readers out of the story.
Every once in a while, I think about my early days, and how I got to where I am now. I find it gives me perspective, especially when things aren’t going well, or I feel in over my head. Looking back helps me see the ups and downs I’ve navigated and leaves me feeling more capable of handling the road ahead.
We all had a ‘first step’ in our writing journey. In my case, I signed up for a mail-in writing course (yes, “mail-in.” This was a long time ago.). They paired me with a mentor; I would turn in assignments to him, and he’d offer suggestions for improvement and words of encouragement.
When I completed the course and got my certificate, I was SURE my author career was about to launch. All I had to do was find out how to submit these ‘wonderful’ stories I’d written during the course…how hard could it be?
Since I knew nothing about publishing, I joined a few writing forums. I discovered publishing was competitive, and many writers would use critique partners to help them get their stories as strong as they could be before submitting. So, I joined the Critique Circle. Soon after, I met Becca – we clicked right away, and worked to help each other improve. We decided to study writing craft together and as you know, eventually went on to publish the Emotion Thesaurus.
But between joining the Critique Circle and creating one of the most-loved guides out there, I almost quit.
It was the learning curve. It seemed like no matter how much I knew, it was never enough. There was always more.
Joining the Critique Circle showed me I had a long way to go. And that was okay; I was ready to put the work in. I did, too – studying, critiquing others, and writing more stories. I grew my skills over time.
Eventually I queried, got an agent, left them after a time, got another, went to acquisitions. And repeat, repeat, repeat. I became stuck in a close-but-not-quite loop, and it did a number on my head. I started to doubt myself. I felt like despite all my hard work to become a stronger writer, something was wrong with me–I wasn’t smart enough, or creative enough. Maybe this writing thing wasn’t meant to be.
(I’m guessing some of you can relate to my story.)
Thankfully, today the landscape is different. We have more than one path to publishing, and a successful career is more in the hands of the writer than gatekeepers. But one thing that remains the same then to now is the learning curve. A compelling story has a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to know. It’s easy to get frustrated when we hit a gap after gap in our knowledge.
At some point, the weight of what we’re trying to do hits us, and it can be soul crushing to realize just how much we DON’T know about storytelling. At that point in the learning curve, some writers flirt with giving up. Others do.
But the rest? They soldier on, because they can see the forest for the trees.
Storytelling is an art. It takes time to be good at it.
All careers have a learning curve. No one expects to walk out of med school after a year ready to do brain surgery. Yet as writers, our expectations are sky-high. We irrationally can feel like if we don’t master everything quickly and see success, something is wrong, and we’re the problem. No wonder rejections can hit so hard.
This mindset, that we’re only worthy if we succeed quickly, master the curve quickly, etc. can do a lot of damage, and it’s why I almost quit. I hadn’t yet learned the most important lesson: writing, like all creative careers, means ongoing education. There will always be more to learn, new ways to grow our insight and skills. And that’s a GOOD THING. It means we’ll never peak. We’ll always have a better story ahead. And that’s pretty exciting, don’t you think?
What’s the best shortcut for the learning curve?
So…there are no shortcuts. We must all learn what we need to, and it will take as long as it takes. However, there are ways to “shorten” the learning curve! Investing in the right help and seeking out the best sources of information can keep us focused and on task. Thankfully there are many great books, resources, mentors, tools, and more out there. One of the best all-round places to start would be this page.
I mentioned earlier that shortly after we met, Becca and I began studying writing craft together. We actually took a year off from writing fiction to tandem study the best writing guides out there, and it gave us a terrific foundation of knowledge. Since then, we’ve continued to be students of the craft, reading and experimenting. We’ve also taught and mentored, passing on the best lessons we’ve learned to others.
Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.
The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.
Description: Not best friends or acquaintances, friends fall somewhere in between. These people interact socially; they may somewhat know each another or know one another within a wider group of friends. Because of the nature of this relationship, it can give rise to themes of journeys, trust, and growth.
RelationshipDynamics Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.
Spending time together regularly, but not with the closeness of best friends Knowing one another well enough to ask for help if needed Getting together occasionally or within a larger group of friends Participating only in surface-level conversation; not knowing one another intimately A friendship that only exists online (through social media, a chat app, on a discussion board for a shared interest, etc.) Only feeling comfortable with each other when a mutual friend is present Only interacting when necessary–such as at work or in specific social functions One person being more invested in the friendship than the other Not having contact except when it is an absolute must
Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo A mutual friend becoming jealous of the friendship A new friend entering the picture and taking up more of one party’s social time One party entering a new stage of life that doesn’t include the other person (getting married, having a child, achieving professional success, etc.) One party changing their circle of friends One party becoming romantically involved with the friend’s ex An unfortunate event that results in one party requiring a lot of help (the death of a spouse, losing their home or job, etc.) One person in a mutual group of friends throwing a party and not inviting the character One person not agreeing with the other party’s choices (regarding parenting, dating, addictions, etc.) One person crossing personal boundaries (in regard to communication, physical touch, etc.) One party claiming they know the other person better than they do Conflict between the friends’ children One friend hearing or spreading a rumor about the other A drastic change in one person’s religious or political ideology The parties being pressured to take sides in a spat between mutual friends One friend unknowingly discussing a topic that is a trigger for the other person One party starting a business that competes with the friend’s One person’s drama bleeding into the relationship One party breaking trust and revealing privately shared information about the friend Their adult children becoming romantically involved, and either party not approving of the relationship
Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the RelationshipOne person wanting to spend more or less time together than the other person One person wanting to control the other person One person wanting to be more than friends One person wanting to keep a secret that the other person wants to reveal One friend wanting the other friend to lie for them One party wanting to discuss unpleasant or difficult topics that the other would rather avoid One friend wanting financial or career help that the other person is reluctant to offer for free One friend wanting a deeply personal favor from the other friend One party infiltrating an area of the other’s life (activity, hobby, church, workplace, etc.) while the other person wants that area for him or herself One friend wanting to know more about the other person than they’re willing to share
Clashing Personality Trait Combinations Cautious and Reckless, Adventurous and Timid, Extroverted and Introverted, Generous and Greedy, Independent and Needy, Optimistic and Pessimistic, Persuasive and Weak-Willed, Loyal and Gossipy
Negative Outcomes of FrictionOne person distancing themselves from the other Decreased trust One person having increasingly negative thoughts about the other A mutual friend becoming a wedge between the twoOne person becoming more and more afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing The friendship becoming imbalanced, with one person being more loyal, generous, or forgiving than the other Negative experiences in this friendship impacting future relationships Feeling left out or less important Having to lie to avoid the other person Resentment building because one person feels obligated to help the friend or nurture the relationship One friend morally corrupting the other Not intervening when one should because of a lack of intimacy
FictionalScenarios That Could Turn These Characters into AlliesDiscovering a shared trauma that deepens the emotional connection between them One person helping the other with finances, child care, medical support, etc. Finding a common bond in a hobby or interest Going through something traumatic together Pursuing a joint business venture Having to protect the same secret One friend having a skill or talent that can help the other Coming together to help a third party The children of the parties becoming friends
Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive ChangeLearning to let someone new into one’s life Widening one’s social circle through mutual contacts and new activities Expanding one’s knowledge of different backgrounds Being exposed to new things Mutual respect making both parties more open to each other’s ideas One party becoming more like the other party (in a good way) Finding purpose in helping a friend through a difficult time
Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship Alienation, Beginnings, Betrayal, Deception, Endings, Family, Friendship, Hope, Instability, Isolation, Journeys, Loss, Love, Passage of time, Refuge, Stagnation, Teamwork, Transformation, Unity, Vulnerability
As writers, fusing our protagonist with the reader creates the ultimate reading experience. Teacher and writer John Gardener referred to this as “the fictional dream.” It’s a state the reader reaches whereby they feel as though they are inside the story, inside the character’s skin, going through events themselves. Achieving this dream-like state is difficult, while undermining it is surprisingly easy to do. But there are three simple tricks you can utilize that increase the odds of drawing your reader into a literary dream from which they won’t want to wake up.
Remove Filter Verbs
If our goal as writers is to allow the reader to experience our stories as though they ARE our characters, then filter verbs are the enemy. Filter verbs (sometimes called distancing verbs) are sensory verbs like look, smell, hear, taste, feel, think. (Note: variations on these words also count, such as see, listen, notice, wonder, etc.).
They look harmless, right? But these words subtly remind the reader that the character’s eyes are doing the seeing, or their brain is doing the thinking, or their heart is doing the feeling. They subtly tell the reader, psst, this isn’t actually your story. Take a look at the following examples, paying attention to the underlined filter verbs and how they can be removed:
Example: He smelled maple syrup and thought of the last time Dad took him to breakfast. Instead, try: The sweetness of maple syrup took him back to that booth at the diner, sitting across from Dad.
Example: She peered into her boss’ empty office and wondered why he was gone so much lately. Instead, try: Her boss’ office was empty yet again.
See the difference? We are inside the characters’ senses in a far more bold and confident way. And yes, the latter examples are harder to write. They require intention. But we must trust the reader to understand that the filter verbs are implied and bring them into the character’s viewpoint.
Note: those examples are both in third-person POV, which is harder to imbue with immediacy and intimacy. But as you can see, it’s worth the effort. There’s room for your reader to feel as though they are in the moment, behind the character’s senses and inside their brain and heart.
Eliminate Time Words
Another way we often gently sabotage ourselves and say, “Hey reader, the narrator is talking to you,” is by using time words. Yes, it’s important to orient your reader with passage-of-time phrases, particularly when there’s a gap in time to account for (the next day, later that evening, the following week, etc.). But in terms of time movement within an active scene, consider cutting words like then, next, after that, finally, and when. Time words are often implied because sentences are linearly structured. They add unnecessary clunk and they subtly send the message the narrator is telling the reader what happened and in what order. Just like the previous examples, time words are underlined below:
Example: When they climb into the car, their face is scrunched up in anger. Instead, try: They climb into the car with their face scrunched up in anger.
Example: As soon as I walk into the house, I jog upstairs and then answer my phone. Instead, try: I walk into the house, jog upstairs, and answer my phone.
Minimize Internal Dialogue
Notice how I said minimize—not cut—internal dialogue. Novels can and should include internal dialogue. There are times where, without it, the reader would be lost. Confused. Dying to understand how a character is feeling. Or desperate to know what the character is thinking. Internal dialogue oftentimes is the window that affords the crucial meaning of how the character is making sense of what’s happening around them.
But it’s important to imagine your scenes like a coil that you are working to tighten, word by word. Each time we step away from dialogue or external action, that coil threatens to lose tension. Working with editing clients, I often see internal dialogue sending a subtle signal that says, “Here, let me do the thinking and analyzing and feeling for you, dear reader.”
Some questions to ask as you reevaluate your own usage of internal dialogue:
*It is otherwise impossible to show what’s been told via action and/or dialogue?
*Does it let us know feelings or thoughts the character is hiding from everyone else?
*Is it brief?
That last one is crucial. The longer internal dialogue goes, the more that coil you work to tighten starts to unwind. Author Tim Wynne Jones has referred to long swaths of internal dialogue as Pause Button Violations. Within an active scene, it’s as though the author hits the pause button on all action and dialogue to allow for the internal dialogue. The pause is unnaturally long given the fact that it sits inside an active scene, and can oftentimes be done in a far shorter way or be done using dialogue and action on the page instead.
Consider combing your manuscript in search of these three fictional dream killers. Once you pull them out, you’ll have a far better chance of reeling your reader in.
Do you struggle to finish writing your book, or really anything you start? If you said yes, you’re not alone. In a poll we conducted (with real people!), seventy-two percent gave us the same answer.
Finishing writing projects can be tough! That doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Here’s an important truth: you don’t have to be the next Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King in order to finish writing a book. It’s possible for you to find the writing time you need. But before you tackle your creative project, it’s worth examining why you haven’t been able to finish your story idea in the past.
In this article, I’m going to share three giant reasons most writers don’t finish writing their books—and how you can carve out everything you need to complete your current project.
Yes, Writing a Book Is Really Hard
I’ve been coaching small groups of writers as they finish their books. At the beginning of each new group, I tell them, “Writing a book is hard. It’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.”
“You were right,” they always tell me a few weeks later when they’re deep into their first drafts. “I didn’t really believe you before, but this is really hard!”
It’s no secret writing a book is hard. And yet the busiest person can finish writing their project if they understand why their book fell off course, and how they can get their book on track.
Here are three popular reasons you can’t finish writing your book: for fiction writers and those completing a nonfiction book.
3 Reasons You Can’t Finish Writing Your Book
There are many things many people fail to do that make finishing their books much more difficult. It is likely that what is holding you back has to do with one of these three reasons:
1. You don’t have a plan.
A story idea isn’t enough, even a great idea, a ground breaking idea, an idea that will change literature forever.
You have to have a a plan. “A great idea does not a book make. Learn three reasons writers don’t finish their writing projects (and how to overcome them).
Many writers resist this idea of having any type of outline before they start writing their book. They want to see where the stories go, they say. They’re free spirits, “artistic types.”
And yet, writers who finish projects, even anti-outlining pantsers, have some kind of plan. It may not be written down, and it might not be very good, but they have one.
How can you develop a plan that will bring purpose to your writing sessions?
The bare minimum plan for your book is a premise. A premise is the main idea of a book. In fiction—and especially screenwriting—the premise is also called a logline, a one-sentence summary of the protagonist, main conflict, and setting. In non-fiction, the premise is the central argument you’re making in the book.
If you’re uncomfortable with planning. You don’t have to write your premise down. You can even change your premise as you write your story (although, I wouldn’t be wary of that). In other words:
A plan is a starting point, not a commitment.
As general Eisenhower said,
[P]lans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
If you want to take planning to the next step, here are three planning methods for novelists:
Snowflake Method. A system invented by author Randy Ingram where you begin with a simple one sentence story (i.e. a premise) and expand it over several steps into fully-fledged novel.
Story Grid. A writing and editing system developed by veteran editor Shawn Coyne that uses the Foolscap Method and its six questions, including focuses like point of view and major moments and conventions in certain genres.
The Write Structure. My new book is written by a writer for writers. In it I offer common-sense principles that drive bestselling novels. I also offer practical advice on how to use these principles in your own writing, making it an invaluable resource for authors that can help them better understand what makes great story structure, and how to become a better storyteller themself.
You can learn more about how to apply writing structure by joining one of our programs passionate about helping you commit and finish a book: 100 Day Book or one of our yearly Mastermind groups, One Year to Publish.
2. You don’t have a team.
No writer is an island.
If you think you can write a book relying solely on your own willpower and without the support of others, you’re kidding yourself.
As I’ve studied the lives of great writers, one thing has stood out to me: great writers were friends with other great writers. Because of this, they were able to develop a consistent time that eventually lead to the completion of their awesome books. They had the support they ne
How do you get a team? Here are three things you can work on today:
Get buy in from your family and friends. The people closest to you will have a huge impact on your writing success.
In my own life, I noticed a shift in my self-confidence and productivity when my father stopped criticizing me and started praising my writing. He went from being skeptical of my writing to my biggest fan, and it made a huge difference in my output.
I would never have succeeded at starting The Write Practice and keeping it going those first, lonely years without my wife. I can remember having nervous breakdowns nearly every week, but she believed in me throughout, kept me focused, and helped me keep going.
If you want to finish your book, get your family and friends on your side. They’ll believe in you even when you stop believing in yourself. This is priceless.
Create relationships with other writers. There’s no greater motivation to get writing than hearing that one of your friends just finished their book, or got a publishing contract, or hit a bestseller list.
If you don’t have relationships with other writers, make them. Go to a writing conference (this one should be fun, use our code wicon2015twp for $50 off). Join an online writing community. Do something, because friendships with other good writers are as valuable as gold.
Share your struggles. It’s okay to not have your book figured out. It’s normal to hit a period of writer’s block. You’re not a bad writer if your book gets into trouble.
But failing to share what you’re struggling with is foolish.
This is the whole reason to have a team, so you can get help when you need it. Be vulnerable. And come up with strategies to write through struggling times.
3. You don’t have a rhythm.
Several years ago, I began writing every day. I didn’t always write a lot. It was just important that I wrote. Every day.
Sometimes I missed a day. Inevitably, the next day it would be twice as hard to write.
Then, about six months into my daily writing habit, I missed three days in a row. It was devastating. I didn’t write again for months. “You have to find your writing rhythm (and that rhythm probably looks like writing every day)
Young readers want to be scared, but parents don’t want to be alarmed. Alex Woolf – veteran young adult (YA) horror author of titles such as Soul Shadows, which was shortlisted for the RED Book Award, and Aldo Moon and the Ghost at Gravewood Hall – looks at how to write horror fiction aimed at young people on the cusp of maturity.
We’re exposed to horror stories from an early age: a ravenous wolf dressed as a grandmother, a witch that fattens up a little boy in a cage, a gorgon with a face that is literally petrifying. Children have always loved being unsettled, scared, shocked and terrified, but there are, of course, limits. All who write horror for the young must be aware of these and tread sensitively.
Achieving this balancing act can be particularly tricky, since young adults aren’t going to be satisfied with the genteel fantasy horror of goblins and monsters under the bed. On the other hand, anything too brutal or gory may not be appropriate either – at least in the eyes of their teachers, librarians and parents. Besides scariness, there are several other aspects of YA horror that have to be pitched right if it’s going to succeed in a crowded market. Here are a few tips for making yours reach out and grab the right readers.
Give Your Topic a Twist
Young adults may no longer be captivated by the simple fairy tales of early childhood, but that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy stories featuring similar supernatural beings. Ghosts, witches, vampires, zombies and werewolves have all been repurposed successfully in YA horror – the trick to find a new and exciting twist.
One way might be to make the monsters teenagers themselves, with all the usual human problems like dating and acne being complicated by a thirst for human blood or a tendency to turn hairy and howl at the moon. If this is your preferred route, remember not to rely too much on laughs. Horror stories must, first and foremost, be scary. When choosing a topic, try casting your mind back to when you were a teenager and ask yourself, “Would this have scared me then?”
Go Easy on the Gothic
Setting is one of the aspects that really marks out YA horror from spooky stories aimed at middle grade or younger audiences. Gone are the eerie forests and gothic castles of fairy tales, and along with them the comforting sense that this is a fantasy world with bad things that can’t really happen to us. YA horror is often set disconcertingly close to home, and usually in modern times.
Common settings include schools, friends’ houses, pizza joints, shopping malls, bowling alleys, and other teen hangouts. That doesn’t mean protagonists enjoy much personal autonomy. The Dead House (Dawn Kurtagich) is partially set in a hospital for the mentally ill, where freedoms are severely curtailed. In Michael Grant’s Gone series, an invisible barrier cuts a town off from the outside world.
There are no absolute rules, though. Many great modern YA horror tales have a distinctly old world or otherworldly backdrop. The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan) and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs) are just two examples of YA horror novels with fantastical settings.
Empower Your Protagonists
The typical protagonist of a YA horror novel is a teenager with a troubled past, absent or dysfunctional parents, and/or an almost insane willingness to venture towards a suspicious noise in the middle of the night armed with nothing but a torch. The most important thing to remember about YA horror is that teen characters have agency. They are the powerful, brave and clever ones in the story.
Unlike in horror stories geared toward younger audiences, where parents are needed for money and car rides and to tell the kids to stop imagining things, YA horror parents are weirdly absent, and the role of adult characters is usually either to terrorize our intrepid young heroes and heroines, or to offer them assistance (unless they are the police, in which case they are almost invariably useless).
Don’t Hold Back on the Evil
Every successful YA horror tale requires an evil, yet also mysterious and fascinating villain at its heart. He, she or it can be either human or supernatural, but this assignation often marks it out from middle grade horror, where the villains tend to be magical entities. One popular subgenre of YA horror featuring human villains is the slasher, such as There’s Someone Inside Your House (Stephanie Perkins) or I Know What You Did Last Summer (Lois Duncan), where the killer is usually a mentally disturbed person stalking and killing young people because of some perceived wrong. These tend to be fairly formulaic and predictable, yet undeniably successful.
Modern YA horror features an imaginative array of supernatural villains, too, from the vengeful and gluttonous spectres of A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts (Ying Chang Compestine) to the reverse-aged Hollowgasts of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. But if you don’t feel up to creating your own evil entity, there are plenty of traditional monsters from which you can take your pick.
Of these, the undisputed titan of YA horror villains remains the vampire. The trouble is there’s such a glut of these books on the market today. You’ll need to work extra hard to make your undead antagonist stand out. You might wish to take inspiration from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Holly Black), which introduces the debonair bloodsucker Lucien Moreau with his trademark cream suit and white shirt (the better to show off the blood of his victims), or the mysterious Mr. Crepsley and his performing spider in Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak. And of course, one cannot ignore the beautiful sparkling vampires in Stephanie Meyer’s classic Twilight series.
Keep It Tight and Punchy
In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, the typical teen reader’s attention span is pretty short, so it’s best to structure your horror novel in tightly written, punchy action scenes with plenty of scares. These can be interspersed with quieter moments to explore character, establish mood, and build suspense.
It’s almost obligatory these days to open your novel in a moment of high-octane excitement to grab the reader’s attention and lure them in. Personally, I think this can be overdone, and I think a novel with a slow, yet intriguing or unsettling opening can be just as effective. Remember also to use plenty of sudden plot twists – teens love to be kept guessing about certain aspects of the story, such as who the next victim will be, and who is really the villain.
In terms of suspense, the same rules apply with YA as with all horror writing, only more so. So while an adult horror writer might be content to build suspense slowly with subtle hints of menace, the YA author likes to set the pulse racing early and keep that momentum going.
The easiest way to do this is to get inside the lead character’s head so the reader gets to share their apprehension about what might be lurking in the cellar, or what could emerge when the sun goes down. This is why a lot of YA horror is written in the first person present, creating a strong sense of immediacy, so that whatever is happening is happening right now.
Another fun way of building a menacing atmosphere is through imagery: a raven picking at the entrails of a rat, a fat centipede crawling out of a doll’s eye socket, a shadowy figure at the window of an abandoned house. YA readers adore this kind of thing.
How scary, exactly, are you allowed to be? The surprising and gratifying truth is that with YA horror, there are no set-in-stone limits. Be as scary as you can – you can always backtrack later if you feel you’ve overdone it. Fear is subjective and difficult to quantify. I’ve never found snakes scary, for example, but have a particular dread of scuttling creatures like spiders and beetles. And, as every horror writer ought to know, the fear comes from what you don’t mention, the things you hint at but are never seen or entirely understood.
Nothing fully described, however horrid, can ever be as scary as things imagined, and the teenage imagination is a wondrous and powerful thing. Readers will readily form their own mental images of the monstrous entities and dark deeds that haunt your book. What you should be very wary of in YA horror is focusing on gore, or describing violence in gruesome detail.
Some YA authors manage to pull this off, such as Rick Yancey in Monstrumologist. He writes his gory scenes with an almost cartoonish exuberance, with heads wrenched from necks and steaming geysers of blood. This takes quite a bit of skill, but can be fun if done well. On the other hand, a decent horror writer should be able to evoke plenty of terror without indulging in an all-out splatterfest.
Beware Happy Endings
Unlike younger readers, the YA audience does not hanker for a happy ending. In fact, they might be seriously disappointed by a conclusion where all the plot threads are neatly tied up, the villain vanquished, and the good guys riding off into the sunset.
Rather, they want to be left feeling unsettled and discombobulated, with everything they thought they knew thrown out the window. They want to know that the horror, though foiled for now, may come back, that the evil has spread, and that new unsuspecting victims are about to get the shock of their lives.
Have you ever started writing a book with a burst of energy and enthusiasm? Did you feel like your fingers were flying off the keyboards, and then somewhere in the manuscript…they stopped. Have you ever become a victim to writer’s burnout?
At some point in the writing process, every writer feels exhausted.
It’s hard work writing a book, let alone working full time, caring for children or pets, and any other additional responsibility you have in life.
Nothing is more frustrating than when, for one moment, you felt fully immersed in your story. The next day you’re tempted to give up on it altogether. You’re tired. You need a rest.
First, this is normal. Second, you can overcome it!
In this article, I share my personal experience with writer’s burnout. I also suggest six helpful ways to overcome burnout so you can get back to writing—and not regret the time you spend with your story.
Writer’s Burnout Strikes Again
Last year, about fifteen months ago, I made a promise to myself:
I was going to start treating writing like a job and take it seriously.
I set no expectations or goals, only that I was going to start working on some aspect of my author career for a set number of hours each week and see where it takes me.
At the time I was working a fairly laid back job and desperately looking for something to focus on so I didn’t lose myself in the chaos of the pandemic and homeschooling my children. Ten hours a week, I told myself.
As it turned out, when you treat something like a job, things happen.
Soon I was writing bi-weekly articles, working on multiple new books, sending countless inquiries, and signing a publishing contract. I committed to publishing a trilogy with six months in between each book, gave talks to other writers, and networked in any way I could during pandemic conditions.
In November, I also changed to a much more demanding job where I functioned as a one-person team. I worked my day job full time, my writing job on nights and weekends, and kept two children alive somewhere in between. I worked every evening, every weekend, every holiday, every chance I had. I worked on my birthday. I worked while visiting my in-laws.
I even sought out chances to network and promote my book while away on my friend’s bachelorette weekend.
Have you found yourself in similar situations?
I launched a book while writing another book, then immediately got to working on launching another—while writing yet another.
I forgot my birthday and my anniversary because I was, you guessed it, writing.
I don’t know how many hours I work right now as an author. I lost track a long time ago. I was getting great at my writing progress and thrilled that my writing career was finally going somewhere. I thought I could keep going forever.
And then, to no one’s surprise, I burned out.
Has this happened to you?
Looking back on it, everyone saw it coming but me.
My friends and family all told me at different times that I was doing too much and needed to slow down. “You can’t keep up this pace forever,” they’d say. I refused to believe them.
How could I get tired of doing something I loved?
I’d kept it up for over a year. Surely I could keep going.
But one day I sat in front of my computer and realized my mind was blank.
I couldn’t write. Inspiration had left me. I wanted to sleep all the time and had a difficult time concentrating on anything during the day. I had no patience for work or writing and no interest in things I used to like, and I even found myself annoyed at the people around me because I was physically and mentally tense.
Can you relate?
Most importantly, I found I didn’t enjoy the writing process anymore. Even typing a few words became a challenge.
About two months have passed since then.
I’m slowly coming out of the other end of the haze. It was something I never thought would happen to me—a writer’s burnout. The process wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy. But I’ve learned a few things about myself, most of which were very humbling.
Today I want to share with you six realizations that helped me overcome the low moments in my writer’s burnout. This way, hopefully if you find yourself in the same position, you’ll be less stubborn than me.
You’ll know what you need to do in order to successfully conquer a writer’s burnout. “ At one point in our writing process, we all suffer from writer’s burnout. Learn six helpful ways to avoid writer’s burnout in this article!
This sounds easy but is actually incredibly difficult.
No one likes to admit they’re at their limit. I certainly didn’t.
In fact, I still struggle with feeling like a failure for burning out at all. How can I be such a hypocrite? I’m the one who gives talks on productivity. I’m the one who writes entire novels in six to eight weeks and teaches other people how to do it. I can’t burnout. It goes against my whole brand!
Truth is, that’s ego talking.
We all burnout. We’re not machines that keep chugging, as much as we like to believe we are.
Burnout looks different for everyone. Some people become tired or depressed. Some people become anxious or jittery. For me, it took until I lost my passion for what I loved most to admit my tank was empty. If I had admitted it earlier, I might not have gotten to that point.
So if you feel tired, or bored, or frustrated, don’t ignore that feeling.
Take a moment and a deep breath and ask yourself if you might be doing a little too much. Be willing to recognize the signs of hitting your limit before you actually hit it.
You’ll be far better off for it.
2. Ask for help
As much as we hate admitting to our limitations, we hate asking for help even more.
When I finally admitted to being burned out, I took an honest look at what I had on my plate and decided to finally ask for help.
I asked a friend to help me read and review the last few indie books on my plate.
I requested two days off work and used it to build up a cushion of articles so I could relax my writing schedule a little.
I asked family members to watch the children for a few extra hours.
I requested extra time on my current book—time I desperately needed, and time necessary to make my book the best it can be without neglecting other authoring activities. (There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a little leeway.)
With a few things off my plate, I breathed easier and took time to get organized. I also kept myself from overloading the extra time with more tasks and instead allowed myself to spread out what I need to do over more time.
Asking for help is an important step you need to take to overcome burnout. Be honest with your loved ones that you need support.
Don’t be ashamed, be proud of yourself for doing this.
Self-care can be kind of a buzzword. If you google self-care, ninety percent of what comes up is bath bombs and scented candles. If all of our problems could be solved by those, then life would be a lot simpler. “ Writers need to commit to their writing time. They also need to sc
Real self-care is a little more complex. It involves honestly identifying what you need and what you can do to fulfill it. This may take a few tries, but once you figure it out, it’s absolutely worth it.
For me, I did a very simple thing: I learned how to nap.
I’ve never been a napper, but in the midst of burnout, I realized my energy reserves were terribly low, especially in the afternoon. Low energy led to tiring evenings when I’m supposed to be doing most of my writing.
So I decided I had nothing to lose if I gave napping a try. I had to learn how to power nap in a way that works for me: twenty minutes in the early afternoon with the lights on so I don’t fall into too deep a sleep.
Working from home in the corner of the bedroom was finally proving to be convenient for something!
This simple change has been lifesaving. I felt much more refreshed not just in the afternoons, but on a day-to-day basis.
The solution won’t be this fast and easy for everyone. And this new addition to my day certainly didn’t solve everything. But sometimes a minor change can have a major impact, and that can be the first step to getting yourself back on track.
A minor change can have a big impact. What can you change in your daily routine to give you more energy to write—and less likely to avoid writer’s burnout?
Switching things up can give your brain a much-needed reset.
Earlier this year, I made a conscious decision to set aside my other passion—art—in order to make more time for writing. However, as the year wore on, I found myself increasingly frustrated and tired by the drudgery of working and writing.
A few weeks ago, I dug up a sketchbook on a whim and spent a few minutes sketching and—surprise, surprise—it turned out to be a much needed release.
Since then I’ve made an effort to spend time drawing at least once a week, even only for fifteen minutes. The change of pace has been much needed, more than I was willing to admit at first.
If you need to change activities up, do it. You might find your writing inspiration racing back to you with a little distance.
5. Lower the bar
This one is hard, because it sounds an awful lot like I’m asking you to compromise the quality of your work.
The truth is, burnout often has to do with high expectations.
We push too hard because we expect too much of ourselves and end up expending more energy and time than we have. And yet, when we get to that point, rather than accepting we’ve reached our limit, we end up being disappointed in ourselves for not meeting an expectation that was probably not realistic in the first place.
Lowering the bar doesn’t necessarily mean lowering the quality of your work. Rather, it means setting more realistic expectations based on your current available resources. “ Lowering the bar is one way to overcome writer’s burnout. This doesn’t mean lowering the quality of your work.
Learn six helpful ways to overcome writer’s burnout in this article.
On my part, I realized that I was expecting too much out of the current draft of my next book.
I was writing a second draft and expected it to be near-perfect when done, like my previous two books had been. But in reality, this book is far more challenging and frankly, a beast to write.
When burnout began to set in, I had to be honest and recognize that I was expecting too much out of this draft, that a third draft would probably be needed and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just because my previous books didn’t need third drafts doesn’t mean I can’t write one for this book.
After admitting I needed a third draft, my stress level was much lower and I was able to focus on the overarching plot of the current draft rather than obsess over minute details.
6. Take a break
I can’t emphasize this enough: take a break.
A break is highly recommended when you suffer a burnout. And I fully admit that I put it off longer than I should. I didn’t want to stop writing, but a pause from the stress was becoming a necessity.
I have a full time job, limited vacation days, and a lot of deadlines. Taking a break from both my day job and writing is difficult, and my obsessive personality refuses to allow me to miss deadlines.
But the truth is, I didn’t realize how burned out I’d been until I lightened my load and took a break. It’s easy to get used to the feeling of being stressed and just live with it.
I hadn’t noticed how tense my body and chest were until I was finally able to relax. My physical and mental health were both suffering but it’s easy to ignore that when you’re wrapped up in the never-ending to-do list.
So rest. Relax. Cut yourself some slack. There’s more to life than word count.
And when you’re recovered, pick up your writing again.
Overcoming Burnout is Hard, And Possible
As I’ve said before, admitting to burnout is hard. If you are struggling with writer’s burnout, know that you aren’t alone.
The most important difference is that you can’t love writing if you don’t love the process. How could you? The process and writing come as one beautiful package.
At the end of the day, it’s important to know what’s best for you. Writing life isn’t easy. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting routines to alleviate the burden or asking for help. Being honest with yourself and knowing your needs and limits will make you a happier, healthier, and a better writer.
When you feel like you don’t want to admit to your burnout, keep in mind that you will do no one and nothing—including your own work—any good if you are not functioning as your best self.
I’m still navigating this road. I’ve learned a lot about letting go of expectations and caring for my author self. The writer’s road is truly paved with life lessons.
My biggest hope for other authors is that you will be more aware of your wellness, both mentally and physically, so you allow yourself a break before you burn out.
After all, you book deserves a healthy, happy author.
What about you? When did you suffer from writer’s burnout? How did you overcome it? Let us know in the comments.
Self-publishers: No one can truly edit their own work. Spare yourself the 1-star reviews, and have your novel edited professionally before you publish it. However, self-editing your book first helps cut down on rates. The more you do yourself, the better quote you’ll receive.
Submitters: Yes, you will likely be assigned an editor before publication. But in order to get there, you have to catch the publisher or agent’s attention. To that end, your manuscript has to be as clean as you can make it on your own.
Before we sit down to work, let’s go over the different types of editing a book might require.
Types of Editing
A lot of work falls under the word “editing” or “revising,” but it all comes down to three types: developmental editing, line editing (also known as copyediting), and proofreading.
It’s important to identify the types of editing your novel needs–and do them in the right order. Developmental editing, for example, will probably make you revise huge blocks of text. There’s no point proofreading before you do that, because all your effort and time will go to waste.
The correct order is as listed above: developmental editing first, then copyediting, and finally proofreading.
If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need all three. If you’re submitting your manuscript, all three should be provided to you at no cost by the publishing house.
Here’s what each of them means.
Developmental editors take a deep look at the novel structure. They look for plot holes, character development, pace and suspense, tight scenes, and other story-level details.
Self-editing on this level is almost impossible. It’s the Curse of Knowledge: you’re too close to the narrative, you know the facts too well, and you can’t imagine how new readers would perceive the story. Is it clear enough? Entertaining? Suspenseful? Engaging? You’re the wrong person to answer these questions.
You can find professional, hand-vetted developmental editors over at Reedsy.
If that option for editing your book is a bit too pricey for you, you can find developmental editors on non-vetted platforms such as Guru, Upwork, and Fiverr.
Either way, be careful to interview your candidates and make sure they are masters of your genre.
Developmental editing rates for fiction manuscripts run anywhere from $0.03/word to $0.90/word. Some editors quote by page. The standard page has 250 words, so costs are usually $7.50 to $22.50 per page.
For example, a YA Fantasy manuscript usually runs about 60,000 words. Be prepared to spend at least $1800 on developmental edits.
Pricey? Yes. Worth it? Oh yes. The right developmental editor can make or break your novel.
Line Editing / Copyediting
At this level of editing the manuscript, story is no longer an issue. Language is. But not usage and spelling issues. Copywriters look at your voice, word-choice, paragraph and sentence structure, readability, and so on.
This is something you can and should do on your own! Do it before you send your book to be professionally edited, and all the more before you submit your novel anywhere.
Expect to pay $0.012/word to $0.02/word. Per page, the cost will be $3 to $5.
For a 60,000-word manuscript, that’s about $1,020.
The last but not least editing pass will weed out grammar and spelling errors, typos, inconsistency in names, and the likes. It’s a language-only pass.
Expect to pay about $0.01/word to $0.015/word. That would be $2.50 to $3.75 per page.
The same 60,000-word manuscript would cost about $720.
Some professional editors will lump line editing and proofreading under the same service. This combined service should cost about $0.02/word to $0.03/word. That would be $5 to $7.5 per page.
Getting Ready to Edit a Novel
Four more steps before we tackle the checklists.
Let your manuscript breathe. Put it aside once you finish writing it (Stephen King recommends 6 weeks). This pause will let you come back to it with a clearer view. Instead of remembering what each word should say, you’ll be more able to see what each word actually says. Then you can judge if it works or not.
Arm your vision. Install Grammarly, ProWritingAid, or a similar piece of software to help you catch grammar and spelling issues. They’re not enough, but they’re absolutely a good beginning. (Both Grammarly and ProWritingAid have free versions, but ProWritingAid’s is more limited.)
Arm your ears. Install or bookmark a text-to-speech service to help you catch spelling errors, typos, repetitive sentence structure, overly long sentences, and so on. Natural Reader is a good free choice, for example.
Pace yourself. Don’t attempt to edit huge blocks of text every day. The more tired you are, the more issues you’ll miss. Then you’ll just have to re-edit your work on the next day. Take frequent breaks to stretch, close your eyes, or do some deep breathing. This will boost your efficiency.
Now that you’re ready, let’s get to editing!
Self-Editing Checklist for Line Editing (Copyediting)
In every scene, make sure the reader knows who the POV character is, what characters are present, and where the characters are situated in relation to each other. Don’t dump this information in bulk. Instead, sprinkle it over some dialog and action.
If you’re writing a limited POV (first person or third-person limited), stop after every sentence and ask yourself: Can my POV character know/hear/think/see these details? For example, a character cannot see the color of its own eyes or the expression on its own face. Edit out whatever your POV character can’t perceive.
When you write a description, make sure it plays on all five senses (unless your character can’t sense that way). Go for the unusual details: the smell of dust in the air of a construction site; the cool, dry air of a well-maintained library; the explosive taste of sun sugar tomatoes on a pizza.
For limited POV, ask yourself after every description: Would my POV character notice these details? Would my POV character care about these details? Edit out or downplay whatever your POV character won’t bother focusing on. For example, if your POV character is fashion-blind, he probably won’t notice someone’s blazer cut—he might not even know it’s a blazer rather than a jacket.
Also for limited POV, make sure you describe objects and places not the way they are, but the way your POV character would perceive them. For example, if someone at a café is working on a new laptop, a poor character wouldn’t describe its model and maker. She’d describe it as a sleek laptop she could never afford herself.
Make sure each paragraph has a single key idea. If there’s more than one idea in a paragraph, break it into as many paragraphs as needed.
Generally speaking, keep the page “airy” with white space. Huge blocks of text scare away readers. To avoid that, vary your paragraph length, and use large paragraphs sparingly.
In dialog, start a new paragraph whenever someone begins speaking. Different speakers should not be in the same paragraph unless they’re talking at the same time, kind of like this: “I know what you did,” Jeremy said at the same moment that Louisa said, “I don’t care.”
If your dialog runs long, break it up with action that reconnects the characters with their environment. Otherwise, you’ll get the “floating head” syndrome, where the reader loses all sense of the scene except for the dialog itself. Have your characters interact with objects around them as they talk. We humans rarely remain at complete rest during conversation.
Destroy all exclamation points outside of dialog. An exclamation point, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, is like laughing at your own joke.
Use varying sentence lengths. Keep most of your sentences short-to-medium, with only the occasional long, winding sentence in between.
Use varying grammatical structures. “He verbed” can only get you so far. But steer clear of the “Verbing, he verbed” structure (for example, “Sitting, he looked at…”). For one, it sounds amateurish. For another, if you use it a few times, it sounds conspicuously repetitive.
If you do use “Verbing, he verbed,” only do it when the two actions are supposed to happen at the same time. That’s what this structure means. If one action is supposed to take place before the other, use a different structure.
In 99% of all cases, use the active voice: “I ate the cookies,” rather than, “the cookies were eaten.” Apply the Zombie Test if you’re not sure—try adding “by zombies!” after the action. If it sounds right (albeit hilarious), that’s the passive voice. Change it to the active.
Use a word frequency counter to weed out overused words. Readers will start noticing these after a while, and it will throw them off. You can use a free online counter such as Word Counter.
Weed out most adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs. If he talked loudly, he shouted or called out. If she walked quickly, she strode. If he ate fast, he gobbled down the food. In addition to manually catching adverbs, run a search for “ly” and double-check those words.
Weed out weak words such as very, almost, nearly, suddenly, started to, began to, really. They add little to the narrative.
Weed out weak sentence structures. Watch out especially for sentences that begin with “There was,” “There is,” “It was,” “It is,” etc. Use them sparingly.
Weed out filter words, such as “think,” “see,” “hear,” etc. when they are outside of dialog. Instead of “Johnny heard her scream,” use simply, “She screamed.” The fact that you mention it implies that Johnny is hearing it.
Weed out 99% of “that,” “things,” and “stuff.” Use precise words instead, unless you deliberately want to sound vague.
Watch out for “Saidism,” the excessive use of “said” synonyms. Use “said” or action tags most of the time. Only when the tone cannot be inferred from the words, consider using a different verb. For example, Nicky can say, “To hell with you!” There’s no need to shout it, because the exclamation mark is enough of a shout.
Self-Editing Checklist for Proofreading
Start by running your manuscript through Grammarly, ProWritingAid, or the like. Don’t automatically accept every suggestion, but do consider every suggestion to see what’s unclear about your phrasing.
Next, run your manuscript through the text-to-voice software of your choice. Listen to the narrator closely. If you find it hard to focus on sounds while you read, put away the manuscript and just listen. If there’s anything that sounds even a bit off, pause the narrator and check your manuscript. Keep an ear out for overly long sentences, too.
Search for known trouble-makers:
Their (belonging to them) / they’re (short for “they are”) / there (that way, in that location)
Farther (more distant) / further (more advanced)
Affect (a verb meaning “to influence”) / effect (a noun meaning “a result”)
Who (like “he”) / whom (like “him”) / whose (like “his”) / who’s (short for “who is”)
Its (belonging to it) / it’s (short for “it is”)
That (refers to inanimate objects) / who (refers to people)
Then (“at that time,” or “next”) / than (used for comparison)
Lose (the opposite of “to win”) / loose (the opposite of “tight”)
There are no such things as “alot” (it’s “a lot”) and “infact” (it’s “in fact”).
There are many more. If you’re unsure about any word in your manuscript, look it up in the context of a sentence example to make sure you get it right.
Search and replace all double spaces. They are relics of a publishing world long-gone. In your word-processing software, start a new “Search and Replace.” In the search phrase box, hit the spacebar twice. In the replace phrase box, hit the spacebar once. Select “Replace All.”
Print out the manuscript and read it carefully. Highlight errors and typos. Write comments on post-it notes and stick them directly onto the relevant page.
Keep your tenses consistent. If you’re writing the story in the past tense, present-tense verbs have no place in it.
Scene break? Use an extra empty line, or centered asterisks (* * *), or a single centered pound sign (#).
A Note on Editing a Book
Remember, no one can completely self-edit his or her own manuscript. You’re bound to miss things. That’s okay. Self-editing is not meant to replace professional editing by a fresh set of eyes. Its job is to increase your chances with traditional publishers–or to save money when hiring a professional editor for self-publishing.
And finally, learn to enjoy, or even love, editing. Think of it as a golden opportunity to squeeze the most juice out of every word you use in your novel, or to sharpen the arrow which you will fire into your readers’ hearts. Make the most of it, and it will make the most of your novel.
When you’re young, life is a blank slate to fill. So we fill it with heroic stories. We act them out with our friends. And we dream big dreams of what life will be like when we grow up.
Then we get older and pretending turns to jealousy.
“If I was like him, I’d be unstoppable.”
“If I had more money, I’d be happier.”
“If life was fair, I’d have everything I wanted.”
Well, you’re not him.
You can earn more money.
And life will never be fair.
The problem with imagination
When I was a kid, I always imagined I was someone else.
We do that because we don’t think we’re enough on our own. We need help. We need a superpower. We need something to make us more attractive than we are without that little something extra.
I was 23 years old before this truth hit me in the chest.
Zig Ziglar taught that if you’re not using what you have now, you wouldn’t use what you had if you were someone else. It’s not the power or the skill that matters. It’s what you do with it that counts.
I wasn’t a natural at basketball. I had to throw a lot of balls at the net before one went in. And I had to throw even more to hit the basket more than once a day.
It all began when I saw myself hitting the net—in my imagination. Like the Little Engine That Could, I thought I was able, so I did.
How would my life have been different if I had imagined myself as the superhero? What could I have accomplished if I acted as if I had the traits I wanted?
I can’t say for sure, but I know this: I’d have had more courage, more confidence, and a stronger imagination.
What does this have to do with writing?
We all know creative writers use their imaginations regularly.
But what about nonfiction writers?
And what if imagination didn’t have to stop with the stories we tell?
Imagination is the fountain that waters the dreams you’ve planted. Use it to write the story you’re living and the story you sell to others.
Why is this important?
Imagination is full of pictures. Vivid imagination has sounds, tastes, and feelings to go with it—but without pictures, it’s empty.
What do we use when we teach kids to read? Pictures. Lots of them. On every single page.
When you see it, you believe it.
No matter what you write, paint pictures. Facts without stories are dull. Data without connection is meaningless. Circumstances without a narrative are forgettable.
If you want to learn how to win people to your way of thinking, listen to a storyteller. Watch a TV program. Study that commercial that led you to buy that course, that car, or even that brand of toothpaste. What picture did they paint? What pictures did they draw in your imagination?
Learn that and you’ll have a power that amazes you and your readers.
Start painting word pictures now
Word pictures are easier to paint than you think.
Here are some we use regularly in conversation:
Most of the time we do this when we’re trying to make something complex easy to understand. We want the light to come on for our audience so they can say, “Oh, now that makes sense.” We do that by comparing the unfamiliar with something we know like the back of our hands.
Once they see, they can agree.
Then they can decide to act on what they know.
Want to add power to this technique? Decide before you write a word what you want your reader to feel when she reads them. Do that, and the words will flow out of you like water flows down the side of a mountain.
I’ll leave you with an exercise to try next time you write. If you’re tempted to tell your reader what you want them to know, show them instead. Just describe what you see so your reader can see it, too. Bonus points if you can evoke emotion with your picture.
Telling is as boring as listing your points on a PowerPoint slide. Would you tell people about your wedding without showing them pictures?
Imagination is a powerful thing. Use yours for good, and you’ll be an unforgettable writer.