InboxWednesday – What Characters Think

It’s Wednesday. Better caffeinate, hydrate, and other -ate, because I don’t know how else we’re going to get through this week. Is it just me, or are these early summer days sloth-crawling along?

In sifting through the inbox looking for a juicy question, I found several questions asking about how to handle expressing to the audience what a character is thinking. Questions like this:

* How do I show what a character is thinking in the third-person when they’re not the POV character?
* Do I italicize every thought the character has in first person?
* How do I show and not tell what a character is thinking?
* How much do I tell the reader what the character is thinking if I want it to be a surprise to the reader later?
* How do you format character thinking from the rest of the exposition?

There’s about a dozen total questions including those above, so I’m going to break them into chunks and do some today and have the rest on Friday. This way, you don’t have to sit through what could have very easily been 8000 words about the nature of thought and how to express it.

Here we go …

For characters in first-person
First-person has the most direct exposure to thoughts, because those thoughts become part of the narration of the story. “I couldn’t let her pull the trigger” is the same as “Bill didn’t let Hannah pull the trigger” in third person. The nice thing about first person is that you can go directly to the thoughts via verb choice, like I “think/thought”, and thanks to other tools of first-person the narration requires that those thoughts be woven together so that we see and experience the “complete” story through the character’s ideas, actions, beliefs, and emotions.

For characters in third-person
This is where the waters can get muddy when people misunderstand show versus tell, and/or when they want to try and tell the “complete” story (not in that E True Hollywood Story way, but in that I’m-going-to-give-you-ever-bit-of-info-so-that-you-can-“get it”-way).

Here’s the thing, a “complete” story doesn’t mean there are no spaces where the reader can’t, doesn’t, or hasn’t filled in some gaps on their own using whatever imagination they may have. A complete story is the story that’s got all its necessary moving parts installed and working as smoothly as an Imperial battle station blowing up a planet of people with intermittent British accents.

The most common way the distinction between action and thinking is through italics. I’m not sure where we learned this, I can’t find a unified theory that says one book was its genesis, but I have read plenty of manuscripts by all different authors all over the world who use italics as a way to indicate what is or isn’t a thought.

And that’s not bad. It’s not wrong. Anything can be done well if done consistently and in moderation (see the -ates we started off this blogpost with), it comes down to setting your own system up and doing it that same way throughout the book.

Or does it?

Because yes, I’m always going to tell the author to be internally consistent, but there’s a level past token consistency that we need to address as we close this blogpost – and that level is part of psychic distance.

Psychic distance, if you’ve never heard me talk about it before, is how close the reader is to the characters and the actions they’re reading. You treat the text as though it were a film camera, and the story as though it were a movie. Are you zoomed in, reading description and seeing well-defined objects, or are you pulled way out, so that you get a sense of the scope of worldbuilding or as a setup to what comes next?

When you italicize, because you’re changing the nature of the text, you’re creating distance between reader and story. It might be a teensy little amount of it, less than millionths of a space between thought atoms, but it’s still a space. It’s still a division. We’re going to break this down in more detail on Friday, but I’m going to wrap today with a pretty straightforward idea:

You can use italicized thoughts and thought-tags (thought, wondered. etc) to create distance between the owner of the thought, what the thought is, and what its context is:

I can’t believe it, he thought, it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can eliminate the thought-tag to go even closer to the thought owner and thought context.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can skip the italics AND the tags, so that the thought is indistinguishable from exposition.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

The more you call out the fact that someone’s having a thought, and the more you call out what that thought is, you’re making the reader more and more a detached observer, like they’re seeing the story from eight rows back or from the bleachers.

We’re going to talk the nuance and development of this stuff in Part 2. See you Friday. Happy writing.

Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 1

Did you enjoy Monday’s Batman v Superman rewrite? Ready for more words on blog action? I hope so because we’re taking Inbox Wednesday and stretching it out over the next few blogposts (also I’m trying for shorter posts, because some of you said that 3k per post was kinda tough to read), because there’s a whole mass of questions all about the same sort of thing. So for the six people who have roughly asked all the same stuff, here are the questions getting answered over the next few posts:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

Today, we’re doing the first 3, and we’ll do the back 3 on Friday.

i. What defines a paragraph?
This is a construction question. We learn in school that a paragraph is about a single idea and has at least one sentence in it, and while that definition works when we’re talking second graders making first forays into story, it doesn’t cover the idea that a single word as a paragraph can be impactful for the story (like Rosebud in Citizen Kane). This means we need a new definition to suit our needs.

A paragraph is a delivery system for an idea, and the sentence(s) in that paragraph develop pieces of the idea. Now maybe that’s one-word paragraph (Rosebud), maybe it’s multiple sentences describing how Harry lives in a cupboard, maybe that’s a giant block of text as a suicidal Dane figures out what he must do.

This leads us straight to question 2 pretty nicely:

ii. How long should a paragraph be?
It should be as long as it needs to be to develop the idea with whatever details, nuance, connective tissue, facets or shading necessary. Sometimes that’s going to be short, sometimes not. But the length is going to be secondary, and even overlooked, if the details in it are more of a red flag. Too many details, both in number (do you really need some many adjectives to convey that the table is set for dinner?) and digression (do we really need to know so much about the table when the point of the moment is that people are going to sit and talk?) fatten and ultimately bloat a paragraph, reducing its readability and slowing down the reader’s eye – which is not a great idea.

No, this is a not where I say swing that pendulum the other way and write particularly lean and spartan (unless that’s what you like, but you’re not forced to write that way. You’re free to build paragraphs as long as you need, provided they get the idea across.

But what do I mean when I say “idea”? Let’s look at a scene, because a scene is composed of many ideas all cooperating. If we have a dinner scene, we’re going to have some basic ideas – the table, the room, the people sitting, what they’re eating and talking about. Each of those are ideas under the umbrella idea of “dinner scene”, but I wouldn’t expect to see all that information in one paragraph, unless it was less important or just something to get through before you get to the really interesting stuff you want me to focus on.

These constituent pieces warrant their own paragraphs, because if you’re laying a foundation, if we’re building towards something as part of beat structure, then the details in those paragraphs helps me as a reader to picture things.

iii. Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
Positioning, whether we’re talking about opening chapter or climax or resolution or the ninth paragraph of the seventh chapter, has more to do about the pacing and story momentum than manuscript geography. If the short punchy single sentence paragraph helps convey the idea in chapter 4, awesome. If chapter 9 really calls for slower and more descriptive text, great. Whatever you write has to serve the story, so while you can make a case that an intense fight scene benefits from a lot of short sentences and fragments, that’s not an inflexible maxim.

Remember, the goal is to tell the best story through the breadth of tools and creativity. Paragraph structure is one of those tools, but don’t lock in to too narrow a mindset about them.

See you guys on Friday for more. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Plots To Nowhere

Hey everyone, welcome to Wednesday. Hope you’re doing well. Let’s go jump into the inbox and see what’s up. Today’s question occurs 15 times in the inbox in various shapes and sizes, so I’m hoping this answer can serve as a proxy for all them.

My MS got rejected for a weak plot, I don’t know how to fix it, what do I do?

To start, we’re going to need to invent a plot. Let’s go with two, and we’ll make them dissimilar.

Our protagonist is a person with a past, and they’re trying to do everything they can to avoid trouble, but they get sucked into a giant-scale battle for the fate of all mankind with Galactic Overlord and douchenozzle Dale.


Our protagonist is a quiet, hardworking cubicle drone who is routinely taken advantage of for a variety of reasons, until one day when they’ve just had enough of co-worker Dale’s douchenozzlery.

I want to start off with a quick set up that plot is one of the three critical pieces of story structure (the other two being character and world), and it’s one of the most diverse parts of storytelling, because anything with a conflict can be a plot.

And we can take a step back to say that “conflict” is another word for “challenge”, since the actions of a plot do represent a challenge to the characters’ status quo. Whether that’s a galactic dictator or an office jerk, there’s something or someone that prevents the main character from achieving their goal, even if their goal is just to keep hanging out and having Cheetos.

When we talk challenge, we have to talk scale of the challenge, because disproportionate scale is a manuscript killer. A disproportionate scale is one where either the problem or the character it’s affecting is way too great or too small but not played for laughs – think about a kindergarten class trying to stop Godzilla, or Superman trying to keep a fly off his potato salad. So when we create a plot, you need to frame that scale relative to the world you’re building.

This is where I talk about world, and I don’t mean just the single literal planet. The world of a story is the stage it’s set on, whether that’s the office building or a galaxy or the local high school where dreamy Dylan is aloof and all Brenda wants him to do is share his feelings. The scale of the problem has to fit within the world, and it has to fit in the world as well as being significant to the characters who are going to be doing something about it.

So in our intergalactic Dale story, our world is actually several worlds, and our heroine is a captain on a ship. We’ll give her a crew for good measure and throw her smack into the middle of the battle between Dale’s forces and the scrappy revolutionaries, because if I call them rebels, I’m sure Mickey Mouse will show up to my office and break my legs or something.

In our cubicle coming of age story, we’ll make our heroine a data entry technician, and Dale can be the brownnoser who sits on the other side of the cubicle partition, the guy who always takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. The world is just the office, and maybe a local lunch spot so we can keep the story fluid, but we’re not going to fly across country or maybe even to the next county in order to make this heroine get her shit in gear and give Dale a beatdown.

Working with all that, we have the basis for story. We’ve got crude bozzettos we can fill in with other characters and some details where applicable so that we’re not just telling the A to B progression.

Which brings us to the other plot assassin: linear progression.

In simplest terms, linear progression is the simplicity and speed a character takes actions that resolve the plot. For instance, if our plot is to get across the room, then we have progress from our chair to walking across the room and getting to the other side. This is a short progression. Granted, it’s a really simple example, and we don’t need to fatten it with something like an earthquake or hostage negotiation unless the story is really supposed to be about those things.

Let’s look at both our Dale examples. We know that in the end the respective Dale is out of commission. The specifics don’t matter for this discussion, though we can assume they’re relative to their respective worlds. Office Dale isn’t likely to get disintegrated by a quantum rifle, and Intergalactic Dale isn’t going to lose his hold on the galaxy thank to his Powerpoint presentation being swapped for animated GIFs of clown porn. (Again, we’re not playing this for laughs, since comedy would allow us the stretch the seriousness of the plots.)

So long as we know the end results, we can reverse engineer the plot by asking, “How did that happen?” until we reach the starting point in Chapter 1. Like this:

Office Dale is fired, heroine is promoted
How did that happen?
Heroine swaps thumb drives with Dale when he isn’t looking
How did that happen? 
Heroine’s best friend gives Dale her number.
How did that happen?
Heroine and best friend conspire after nearly getting fired.

Etc etc.

In this way, we’re making a kind of outline from back to front, where all we need to do is keep in mind that whatever the plot, however we choose to answer these questions, we have to show the heroine as having changed from however she was at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t even need to be positive change, it can be negative – say she gets all vindictive, or our space captain loses her faith trying to do what she thinks is best. You don’t need to stretch either of those elements out into support structure for every beat unless you’re trying so show office culture to be inherently selfish, or space faith to be corrupt.

Wait, let me slow that down. It’s a big deal.

To show a character has changed, you have to take something you established at the beginning (a fear, a doubt, a talent, a skill, a lack of skill, something about the character) and demonstrate that because of the plot, that thing isn’t the way it used to be at the end of the story. A hopeful character being broken down, or a bitter character gaining faith are the obvious and extreme examples.

But it doesn’t need to be so extreme in order to be workable, it just needs to be believable, and the reader will believe whatever the context of the character and the world can support.

In our office story, so long as the heroine is shown to be quiet and not assertive, and that she doesn’t develop mutant powers in order to stop Dale from being a jiggling bag of crotch weasels, there’s plenty of credible ways to show she’s assertive, the most common being a scene where she stands up during the Johnson account presentation and delivers the performance of her career.

For our space tale, if our captain is not a fan of the no-win scenario, and a Vulcan isn’t handy to be killed off in the third act, then she’s going to have to come to terms with some kind of loss that may put her on a redemptive arc later in subsequent stories. Maybe she’s stripped of her command and has to become one of the pirates she always hated.

How long does that take? Don’t know. There’s no specific answer to give you, because there is no magic number. But I can tell you that if you collapse the progression, if you shorten it, the audience isn’t going to believe it’s a viable arc. It becomes too convenient, as if the character just walked over to the closet and found the box labeled “plot fixer.”

Stretch it too far, and you’ll lose the momentum and reader focus. I see this a lot in science fiction and fantasy, where the quest to go put the magic doo-dad in the special place (sounds super dirty, you’re welcome) gets spread out over all these planets and with these side characters that contribute really tiny value to the story, but they’re great evidence that the writer loves to show off how many different words they can puke and masturbate into existence.

Again, this isn’t the screaming of one editor that you don’t need to keep the pendulum either on anorexia or obesity, but hey, there’s a whole realm of story between all or nothing that you should totally go check out and mine and live in and do something with. (for the record THIS IS THE SCREAMING OF ONE EDITOR SO THAT YOU KEEP WRITING AND STOP GOING TO HUGE EXTREMES IN ORDER TO GET THE RECOGNITION THAT YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY GET WITHOUT THE TREND-CHASING OR SOCIO-POLITICAL SOAPBOXING)

Plot weakness is about the choices you make, because it’s not enough to just choose the specific words but also the idea you’re trying to develop via those words. Remember – Writing is the act of making decisions.

The value a plot point contributes doesn’t have to be equal sized, but we’re telling a story, not working on the brunoise of an onion. Be willing to challenge not just how complex the plot is (because complexity does not guarantee quality any more than bombastic line delivery guarantees acting, I’m looking at you later years Pacino) and take that further to challenge the specific contributions of each plot point and plot participant.

Oh, and if you have an office or intergalactic Dale in your life, don’t you dare let them stop you from creating.

See you on Friday. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.


So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Voice Development

Really, it’s Wednesday already? Wow. What happened to Tuesday? Wasn’t I just telling people about having a good Monday? This week is rocketing past.

Here we are again, ready for another blogpost. As we do on Wednesdays we head into the Scrooge McDuck money vault that is my inbox and pick one of the questions asked by you, the people reading my words in this little nook on the internet. And before we go onto the question today, I just want to say thank you – it really means a lot to me that you read this, and it means a lot to me that you keep coming back post after post. Thanks.

Today’s question comes from Erin, who’s writing her first fantasy novel. She asks: “John, I follow a lot of blogs, and many editors and agents talk about the importance of voice. They don’t really say what voice is, they just say that it’s important, as if I’m supposed to know what they mean. No one asks what they mean, and I feel like if I ask, people will think I’m stupid. So, what do they mean? What voice are they talking about? Is it important?

Erin, I’m sorry that the culture on some blogs leaves you feeling like you can’t ask a question without other people calling you stupid. You’re not stupid. And chances are other people have the question too, and they’re just as afraid of being called stupid as you are. So everyone’s waiting for someone else to go first. With that, with that silence, the author assumes everyone knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t stop to define it, and this whole cycle moves from writing topic to writing topic and way too many people are left discouraged and confused. It’s one of the parts of blogging about writing that really irritates me, so let me start off by defining voice.

There are a few types of voice, and they’re all different, but all under the umbrella of “voice” (The way this was taught to me was to think of bread. There are loads of different types of bread – pumpernickel, rye, sourdough – but they’re all breads). It’s a shame people aren’t more clear about which one they mean. I know I’m guilty of it, so I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible.

Narrative voice is how the narrator sounds, and this is a key element in first-person writing, since the exposition comes filtered through one character’s experience and thought. (The technical term is narration-as-thought, if you ever want to sound nerdy while sipping a pinot noir with someone wearing a jacket with elbow patches) A strong narrative voice requires a clear view of the character’s attitude and philosophy, as well as an understanding that first-person is not omnipresent or omniscient, and because of those limitations, you’re only seeing one particular side to a story, with everything expressed to us by a single channel.

One of the first questions I get asked about narrative voice is “what do I do if I’m writing in third person?” Well, there the narrator is invisible, and you don’t want to reveal there to be some disembodied being telling you the story, you just want the facts and ideas presented with omniscience. In that case, narrative voice becomes narrative-as-exposition (man, you are going to impress a lot of people if you go to douchey wine parties), so a clear third-person narrative voice is strong exposition. Strong exposition comes from sentence construction and decision making as to what’s actually in scene, collapsing the barrier between the reader’s imagined presence in the moment and the fact that they’re reading squiggles and symbols on a piece of paper.

You can build a strong narrative voice by working on your decision making skills. If you’re in first person, keep the character in mind. (Note: If you’re looking to build strong characters, check out the FiYoShiMo section on characters.) Put us over their shoulder and lens everything you can through the character’s interests, goals, plans, fears, and thoughts.

In third person, make clear decisions and good word choices. If you mean to say that there’s a rusty pitchfork stuck in Mrs Dickinson’s chest, then there sure as hell was a tragic peasant accident. There’s room for paralysis due to overthinking here, which is another way of saying people can start doubting whether what they’ve got on paper is good enough, so get all your thoughts down on paper and make sure they’re at least clear before you start derailing yourself into “good enough.” (Hint: It’s good enough.)

Authorial voice is how you (the person writing whatever you’re writing) build sentences, employ writing techniques (like frontloading and backloading), and apply grammar and punctuation, so that your work, regardless of genre or series, has a signature unique to you. Maybe you use a lot of metaphors. Maybe you love long radial sentences. Maybe you like every sixth sentence to be a pair of clauses hinged with a comma. Strong authorial voice is not necessarily mastery of sentence structure, so much as it is a decisive broadcast of your style. The voice comes through regardless of whether the text is expositive, narrative, or dialogue. Strong authorial voice is engaging and comforting to some degree, because a reader develops expectations and familiarity.

Building authorial voice is about first having some level of comfort with what you’re doing. For some people that’s going to include a few internal conversations that it’s okay to be a writer, it’s okay to spend time doing writing, and as we’ve talked about previously, it’s okay to tell people that you’re a writer. For other people it’s going to be a permission slip that you can keep with you so that you know the Word Police aren’t three seconds away from kicking down your door and taking away your keyboard. For some people, it’s going to be relief that it’s okay to enjoy doing this activity for themselves on some level, rather than always being the parent on duty or the partner on call. Without that comfort, creativity is sludge in old pipes and you’ll never reach that level of production and enjoyment you talk about wanting.

Once you give yourself permission, authorial voice is built with discipline. Consistent effort applied regularly. Writing frequently. Adding to word counts. More doing and less saying you’re going to do things. Word after word, sentence after sentence. Put your butt in the chair and make the words happen. Marathons are measured in miles, but are won a stride at a time.

You’re not going to master your voice during a first draft. It will take several drafts and likely several books to get truly comfortable and nuanced within your voice, and I encourage you to try out lots of different approaches in writing. More dialogue, less narration, more description, fewer similes, bigger hyperbole … figure out where you sound the most like you while telling the story you want to tell, and then build a sustainable environment by reading in and out of genre, build a support network, stop letting fear of other people dictate whether you’re a good or bad person for making stuff, etc etc.

It’s hard. It sounds hard. It can be frustrating that you’re not “getting it fast enough.” There isn’t a “fast enough.” This is not a drag strip, this is Le Mans. But you can get a handle on your voice and use it well. It just means you actually have to write.

Character voice is how a character sounds or acts or thinks, ideally distinct from other characters due to not just manner of speaking, but also word choice, and content. If you have a character from the backwoods, they’ll sound differently than the upper crust European barony. Character voice is making each character specific and their own. And it’s not just about what they say, it’s also how they act or react to whatever goes on around them. Strong character voice makes character A wholly different and distinguishable from characters B and C.

Developing character voice comes out of really knowing your characters, and really being able to say clearly what makes one character different than another. That might mean something intrinsic like beliefs or fears, or something developed like speaking patterns or vocabulary, but you should be able to distinguish one character from another beyond name and physical description. Removing any one character from a story (assuming they’re not some bit player in the background) should leave an impact on the story you’re telling, and character voice is what’s absent once the character is 86’d.

So why are all these voices important? Because in their own way, they demonstrate the skill of the writer, which in a bigger picture means sales and audience building. I’ve always found it a bit of a pressure-stretch to say that your word choice on page 2, paragraph 4 of your second draft is going to directly influence your sales, and that it can easily freeze people up in anxiety, but there is a point to be made between how clearly and passionately you get your ideas out into the world and how people can therefore enjoy them by handing you money.

We enjoy a strong narrative voice because the story moves along and holds our interest.

We enjoy a strong authorial voice because we like each story and series and the styles therein.

We enjoy a strong character voice because we can project and imagine these adventures and these people having them.

Erin, this all boils down to write more. Write more words. Write more often. Your voice(s) will get developed through consistent disciplined effort. They’re important but not so critical you need to hyperthink your ideas to perfection before you put them on the page. You can be imperfectly perfect and successful and happy on your own terms. Truly.

Just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys at the end of the week. Have a great middle of your week, and happy writing.


InboxWednesday – Sentence Length and Grammar

Good morning everyone, hope the Wednesday you’re facing down the barrel of isn’t too terrible.

Like we do every Wednesday, let’s reach into the inbox and pull out a question about writing or publishing. Remember, if you have a question and want it answered, write me an email. Even if I don’t answer your question on the blog, I will write you back and answer your question. I promise.

Today’s question comes from Pete, who asks:

John, you’ve talked before about how important it is to vary your sentences. I get that, but what about grammar. How do you make that work? How long is too long? How many long sentences can I get away with? Should my action scenes have fewer long sentences because they’re supposed to be quick? What do I do?

Okay Pete, you’ve asked a lot of great questions. I want to start though not at the top of the list, but in the middle, if you’ll let me.

Whenever I see “can I get away with” when we’re talking writing, I think about the idea of something being transgressive, like we’re sneaking a file inside a cake or we’re telling the substitute teacher that we’re encouraged not to pay attention – that there are established rules and we have to keep our rule-breaking a secret, so that someone else doesn’t find out what we’re up to.

But there isn’t a “someone else” here Pete, unless you mean that you’re afraid of the collective “other people” judge you for writing a thing they’re reading … or are you saying that if you write too many long sentences people will give up on your book, that they’ve already paid for, and you’ll lose their potential future sales on other books you read?

Okay, Pete, that’s a pretty ambitious fear. First it assumes you’re going to get published (which you totally should pursue), then it assumes you’re going to publish multiple things (which you totally should do), then it assumes that your developed audience (something you should have) will abandon you at the first sign of a long sentence. That last part doesn’t speak too highly of how you think about this audience – that they will turn on you just as soon as praise you, and that’s not really accurate. It’s not over sentence length that an author loses the reader, it’s a combination of factors … but that discussion comes later. Right now, that manuscript isn’t finished, so let’s steer back on course.

You don’t abandon grammar entirely. You don’t abandon the sentence’s job of delivering ideas into the reader’s head. You do however experiment with how the sentence does its job. A fragment, although a no-no in some grammar contexts, can accurately convey information. Really. (see what just happened there?) Whereas a long sentence, full of clauses that twist and turn, carrying the reader towards a seemingly tremendous end can be a revelation as a break from short, punchy, almost yelling-at-you text.

I can expand on these ideas further with a sports analogy if you’ll indulge me. In hockey, for instance, players try to score goals while the opposing team’s defenders and goalie try and stop them. The player on offense has many ways to attempt to score points, so long as they hit the puck with a stick, and the puck goes into the net. They can do this with a slapshot, a wrist shot, a quick tap-in, a deflection, even an errant pass that takes a lucky turn or bounce.

Likewise, as a writer, you have many tools at your disposal to deliver your ideas (get your puck in the net). You can use long sentences (slap shots), short sentences (wrist shots), fragments (tap-ins), a variety of clauses (deflections and bouncing pucks). You are not without options, and each of those options has its roots in the principles of good grammar.

Recall too that “good” is not synonymous with “perfect” (or so my therapist reminds me), so grammar doesn’t have to be flawless to be accurate, understandable or enjoyed. The maxim in writing is: When you understand the rule, you can break the rule.

This supposes though that you know the rule. And “know” in this context refers to the ability to demonstrate following it. Write some really strong sentences, throw in a fragment and see what happens. In this way, the rules become guidelines, templates, and assumptions available for your use to educe your own voice and idea.

Sentence length is one tool for developing ideas. How many you use is going to vary, but overuse slows momentum, as the reader will take longer to get through the sentence, particularly when the word choice or punctuation make the lines dense and difficult to parse.

A different problem bubbles up when the long sentence is dialogue, as it can seem very jarring and almost monologue-y to have someone speaking in great paragraphs during a scene where perhaps long conversation does not make sense (the building is blowing up all around her, yet she wants to discourse about the state of the produce cartel.)

But there are cases when long sentences are useful. Establishing scenes, laying out detailed descriptions, anywhere you can take similar information and spread it out as a setup for things to come, all are fertile for longer sentences.

Of course, this means we’ve all agreed on how long “long” is. And there’s no answer to that. If we agree that long sentences have multiple clauses, then we have to try and come to a consensus on how many clauses we’re talking about. And if we pick a number like 4, are we saying that sentences with 3 dependent clauses aren’t long? It’s a rabbit hole of overthinking.

And Pete, that’s the heart of this issue. Overthinking the delivery system of ideas in order to ensure “the best success” is a great way to end up with a very weak delivery system at all, because everything ends up critiqued and examined and questioned rather than trusted and tested. (This is the same sort of argument I make when we talk about editing while you work.)

Long sentences are not some rare power held by a few while the rest of the writing peasantry has to make due with word scraps to get their ideas out. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, use it as you think you need to. And if you think you’re not using it correctly, ask for help. In time you’ll figure out what works best for you, and it’ll be better than some pat answer, because it will be tailored to you, which is ideal.

Thanks for your question Pete, it was a good one.

See you all later this week for more blogging goodness. Happy writing.



InboxWednesday – The New Writer Starter Kit

It’s Wednesday, so let’s check out the inbox. Here’s a pretty awesome message from Megan:

John, I’m graduating from [UNIVERSITY REMOVED BUT IT’S A WARM STATE] in a little less than a month, and I don’t know if I should go get an MFA or if I should take a job interning somewhere or if I should just go write. I’m not trying to write “The Next Great American Novel”, I just don’t want to write something that sucks … but I want to be a writer. Like [BEST-SELLING AUTHOR NAMES HERE]. How do I do this?

Hi Megan. Congratulations on graduating.

I want to have as clear a discussion as possible here, and I want to do it without my own biases leaking all up and through what we’re talking about – because I am biased, because I had some experiences that made me bitter as all get out when I was your age and just starting out, and you deserve better than a crusty Gen-Xer yelling at one more millenial trying to do something.

To start this off, we have to separate the MFA as a piece of paper from the MFA as a representation. We can do the same thing for the degree in English you’re about to receive.

The piece of paper isn’t going to do the writing for you. It’s not going to magically arrange interviews and finish queries, or scare off student debt phone calls. It’s a piece of paper, and so many people glamorize it. It’s an accomplishment, but so many things in life are accomplishments that the old-fashioned idea that it automatically gets more priority than most I find laughable. Having on the wall can fill you with pride, but the days of it being the permission slip and testament to your quality as a human are over. And we should all be thankful.

The piece of paper does represent something – you did a ton of work. You had good days and bad days and worked hard and maybe even occasionally enjoyed yourself. It’s like the photos you take from the top of a mountain on a hike. You did a thing!

What gets overlooked is that while you were doing the work so that you can receive huge debt and a piece of paper, is that you maybe, somewhat hopefully, built a network of people you can consult, commiserate, cajole, and collude with. Whether they’re your friends, or good faculty, or that weird lady who guarded the photocopier like it was sacred oath, the network you build is always going to trump papers on the wall. Remember that when you dash out into the real world and it seems like people care more for papers and talent (because some people do, and I make faces at them).

An MFA program can do wonders for your technique. It can get you writing, it can galvanize your discipline, and show you all manner of new crafty bits. It can connect you to other writers (see network comment above), and it can be a great experience.

But it is expensive, and that means more debt possibly. And it does take time, and that means changing priorities if you’ve got other commitments or distractions. If you’re comfortable with the finances and have the time, it’s not a bad idea.


Those authors you want to be like? None of them have an MFA. Two of them didn’t finish college. One of them is dead, and an MFA wasn’t a thing while they were alive.

Megan, you can’t be like those authors. You can be Megan. You are Megan. That’s the writer within you.

The pieces of paper on the wall aren’t your permission slip to start writing. They’re not the gateway to a writing career. Words on the page are the gateway to a career. Whether you have an MFA, a BA, BS, an AA, a Cub Scout merit badge, a frequent shopper card, or an autographed Post-it note, words go on the page.

It was shocking to me, back in the 90s, when I went out into the world, that people wanted to look at my portfolio ahead of my CV. Granted, I was a little lean in the portfolio back then, so we cut straight to the CV after 3 essays and a sample chapter with edits got skimmed, but you’re going to find that the backbone of writing is still the words on the page, ahead of the degree. Call it a one-two punch. And when you do, remember that you can score that knockout with a single punch as well.

To build a “new writer” kit, here’s what I tell people at seminars (and in coaching):

1. Build a writing schedule. How do you do that? Start here. Build a schedule that’s workable, and can be regularly maintained, without distraction. Aim for disciplined consistency. And don’t buy into those voices that say you’re not doing enough. It’s not about “enough”, it’s whether you’re doing it or not. One step, one word at a time.

2. Acquire some books. These . are      all                  excellent              books to put on your shelf. Read them, poke sticks at them, see how they differ, digest it all. Yes, every word in that sentence is a link a different book.

3. Sit your ass down in a chair and get writing. Nope, doesn’t matter what chair. Doesn’t matter if you’re on a Mac or PC, or writing long hand, or using semaphore, or using software X or Y. Just go be writing.

4. Read books. Read books in your genre. Read books that aren’t in your genre. Read books that your friends recommend. Read books that interest you. Read books that you want to, not the ones that some Buzzfeed article says you need to read in order to fit into whatever superficial trendshit they’re blathering on about.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 while living a life that makes you happy and excited and enthusiastic more than it makes you frustrating and believing that it’s always going to be a suckfest 9000 and that it’s always supposed to be hard because a chunk of your life was already all-you-can-eat at the shit buffet. You’re in charge of your life. You make the choices. You can do extraordinary things. You are good enough. It will be hard, you might have to grow up a little, change some assumptions, thicken some skin, get your heart broken, lose some bad habits, take risks, lose, win, eat nachos, learn to love something or someone new, stop talking to this person or that person, or even (gasp!) have to cry sometimes. But this is your life, and writing is how you can express your experience regardless of the genre or style. Put Megan out there.

Megan, I can’t tell you if you should or must do X in order to pursue writing. If you want to write, put the words on the page. You can do that while going to school. You can do that without going to school. But the piece of paper on the wall doesn’t (and won’t) make you more legit or more “real” than the people who didn’t go to school.

Do your best. Write your guts out. Don’t give up. It’ll be hard, but you can find tools and skills to help. You’ll suck sometimes, you’ll kick ass sometimes. Other people will bitch, piss, and moan. Other people will cheer for you. You’ll find stuff you love, you’ll find stuff you hate. You’ll wonder how this or that person does it. And above all else, JUST WRITE.


Inbox Wednesday is a chance to get your question answered, all you need to do is send me an email and ask anything – no question is too big, too small, or stupid.

I’ll see you guys Friday with another post.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Dialogue Construction

Hello and welcome to InboxWednesday, where I use the carnival claw machine on my inbox to pull out a question and answer it for public consumption. If you have a question you’d like to see answered (I should point out that if you submit a question, you also get an answer in email, I don’t just leave you hanging), you can email me.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

Hey John, got a question for you. I’m writing a lot of dialogue, and don’t want to keep saying, “Bob says,” before every quoted thing. What are some things I can do, and how can I keep it interesting, not just for the reader, but for me as I keep writing?

There’s actually a name for this issue, and it’s constructed repetition. Normally it’s a speaking concept where a person references the same phrase to establish it as a buzzword or theme for their discussion. Partner that with a physical gesture, and you’re looking at one of the tenets of neurolinguistic programming.

But since Mark isn’t asking me for a recipe on how to rally loads of people into action or organize disparate minds into a frenzy, we’ll just look at the constructed repetition that causes boredom.

To get into this, we’re going to have to first talk abstractly about what it means to read. I’ll spare you the load of science I know, and condense this down to one idea — reading is about pattern recognition, where the patterns are shapes and lines that have a sound associated with them. We call them letters, and groups of letters are called words. We see the same words over and over again, and we intuit and then understand their meaning.

This is how we know that a “dog” refers to a domesticated pet, and not that thing with a peel you eat as part of a balanced breakfast. This collective understanding is called context.

Pattern recognition works because our input system (eyes, braille, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, etc) processes the same symbols over and over again, and we derive meaning from them. (We call this reading.)

The tricky bit about reading is that it’s also about sameness in those patterns. We see the same letters forming the same words repeatedly, and we get lulled into less careful processing. We realize that all the paragraphs are going to start with “So”, and then we skip that word, because we’re used to seeing it, and we’ve built this momentary expectation that it’s going to be there, so skip ahead and get to the new bits.

When we get to dialogue, we need to focus, because not only can that dialogue convey new information (I mean stuff we didn’t already know, not specifically plot-stuff), it’s an opportunity for us get insight or access to the character doing the talking.

The two words Bob says are called a dialogue tag, because they tell us who is expressing themselves and how. The who is most often a proper noun, though it can be a pronoun, and the how is a combination of the verb, but also any adverbs hanging out nearby. Remember that verb choice carries with it an expectation and a context, so that we can distinguish saying and yelling by different volumes, for instance.

Dialogue tags can be found in three places: pre-line, mid-line, and post-line. Let’s take a look at each of them. And it’s important to think about a dialogue tag as two+ words functioning as one item. It’s not just the “said” or “Bob”, it’s their combination that we’re talking about here.

Bob opined, “Why can’t anyone pay attention?”

The sentence opens with a tag, using the comma to indicate a pause, and the quotation marks to trigger a switch from exposition/narration to character. All dialogue tags mark and make obvious this transition.

By setting this on its own line, as you should always be doing, you’re making a paragraph.

Giving Bob two more things to say, we can create this example:

Bob opined, “Why am I an example?”
Here is a sentence about something happening in the room.
Bob huffed, “I’m not sure I like being this example.”
Something else happened in the room.
Bob spoke, “I’m glad this example is over.”

Remember that Brady Bunch complaint about “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” ? That’s what you get with a proper noun + verb dialog tag as a sentence or paragraph starter. It sounds whiny. It reads monotonously. It’s not striking visually. It seems safe and simple.

Is it wrong? No. It’s sort of like setting the cruise control at one mile under the limit then sticking to the center lane – you won’t get a ticket, but you’ll only aggravate the people around you.

There are uses for it, sure, but to have it dominate the text is to get a bit formulaic. Here’s another point about pre-line tags – where do you want me to focus. You’ve name-checked Bob, but to what idea within this line of letters am I supposed to be rapt? Should I care who’s talking and how they’re doing it, or am I supposed to care about what they’re saying?

“This,” Bob said, “isn’t much better.”

Don’t let the ‘mid’ fool you, the tag doesn’t need to be precisely 50% of the way in the line to have the effect I’m about to describe. It could be one word (most common is one to three), it could be a whole sentence, then a tag, then another heap of words. So what’s wrong with this?

First, it makes the text look like a pair of bubbles or wings, with the tag between them. My second writing professor referred to them as “swimmies on a toddler”, meaning those blood pressure cuff inflatable pontoons you lash to a kid’s biceps before putting them in water.

Second, and more critical to me, you’re breaking up the line of dialogue just to tell me who said it. It’s a sometimes unnecessary pause. If the context is clear enough, I should be able to figure out who’s saying what, particularly if you’ve only got the two characters and they’re going back and forth. Bob, then Alice, then back to Bob … even if you don’t name check a character with a “Holy dicksnot, Alice” or “By Zeke’s flowing beard, Bob!” So long as each line of dialogue gets its own line, trust me to be smart enough to know who’s saying what to whom.

Again, this has its uses, particularly if your swimmies run long and technical (I’m looking at you, SF/F manuscripts redolent with technocrunch), or if you adding a bit of weight to the moment the dialogue speaking creates. As in:

Now,” Bob loaded the shotgun, “this is where I stop being your monkey.”

“I think I really love Janice from the examples in the draft,” Bob said.

Here the dialogue tag is hanging out at the end of whatever’s been said, and that’s often vestigial. Again, context should help the reader figure out, so sometimes we don’t need any tags.

The tag at the end can render the whole line in a kind of decay, where all the good stuff happens (long) before the period, which means I don’t need to be paying complete attention at the end of the sentence, since I’m only there to see what the character says and move on.

So What’s The Fix?

The fix is pretty straightforward – mix and match. A combo of pre-and mid-. Throw in a few post-. And stop relying on the same verb. There’s nothing wrong with “said” but there’s nothing wrong with changing up the word while still being specific as to what’s happening.


Loads of words exist, and use them. Place tags where you like and need to, but also be willing to not have any. Remember, you’ve got revisions and editing and beta readers to tell you if something does or doesn’t need a tag.

Break the repetition. Make a conscious effort to try and not go with that first instinct with “said.” You might just surprise yourself.


Mark, I hope that answers your question. It’s a kinda crunchy one, and I’m hoping the examples streamlined it a bit. Let me know how it goes.

I’ll see you all back here Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Reach, Platform, and Audience

Hello again everyone, I hope you’re doing well. How am I? Oh, not too bad thanks for asking. I spent the weekend recuperating and generally enjoying myself, and have taken advantage of the warmer temperatures to break out the lighter bathrobes. Because jobs have uniforms. #becomfortablewhileworking

So it’s Inbox Wednesday, and that means I reach into the inbox and answer questions. If you’ve got a question, and would like to see it answered on the blog, send it to me.

Today’s question is from Mike, who has actually a pile of questions all tossed together. Here I’ll just let you read it:

John, I don’t know what to do. I got my Writer’s Market, I’ve been putting out queries and getting rejected. I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts that say I need to develop my reach and use my platform to build a community and not just a consumer base. When people talk about platform, do they mean social media? Isn’t it enough that I’m blogging 4 times a week and doing videos? What exactly is a community, and how is that different than an audience? What do I do? – Mike

I will disclaim that I edited that paragraph to insert some punctuation and capitalization.

What Mike is worrying is separate from the manuscript’s completion, but isn’t necessarily contingent on the MS being done. Yes, I know, there are blogs out there that say you start building that audience after the MS is done and out the door, but I’ve always felt like doing that is like inviting people to dinner while you’re doing the dishes already.

Yes, you can’t build as strong or as large an audience mid-writing as you can post-writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be writing while building the audience. If you’ve had three or four or two or ten books out the door already, I’m assuming there’s some measure of audience already present, so to that portion of my readership, frame this in terms of expanding the audience. For the first-time crowd, we’re coming to this without the established elements.

The tough part in publishing, be it self-publishing or tradtional publishing (though this applies also to loads of things outside of writing and publishing) is navigating the jargon and buzzwords. People love them. They dress up everything with a term like it’s a hat on Derby day, as if that’s going to give the substance of their words, their content, more importance.

Buzzwords are not fairy dust. They will not allow us to sail over the streets off to Neverland with the creepy kid in green tights. If your content is clear, actionable, and engaging, then you shouldn’t need to trot out the buzzwords to validate credibility. Speak clearly, honestly, passionately, and you don’t need to crutch on anything.

Here’s where the gasps come in, when I start talking about clarity and people start questioning things like professionalism or tone. So now we move from one minefield about buzzwords to another about tone and assumptions.

A platform is whatever medium you use to communicate whatever ideas you have to whomever listens. On the internet, there’s a gap between you the speaker and the audience, built out of time and distance. It’s totally great that people in Guam and the Seychelles can read your blog at 4 in the morning, but 4 in the morning over there may be 2 in your afternoon, when you’re out walking the aisles of the grocery store trying to choose raisins. Likewise, any comment they leave for you on the blog, even if you get a notification message on your phone, still has a gap between them expressing it and you receiving it. These gaps are baked in, and we can easily take them for granted or rage about them as it suits our purpose.

It doesn’t matter if you blog about your teacup collection, or your love of bad dye jobs, or if you write blistering thinkpieces about how what kind of breakfast you eat reflects your political views. It doesn’t matter if it’s all tweets, all Facebook updates, Peach notes, Slack channels, or whatever. What matters to you is that you use your platform and that you’re comfortable with it.

Let’s look at the other side, put on your publishing professional hat. Mine has a pom pom on it. Traditional publishing is going to look favorably on people with a large audience or a large potential audience (that’s called “reach”), because there’s a chance/hope that audience will go buy products they sell.

There’s no guarantee that if you’ve been self-published and have a large audience already, that a traditional publisher will come along and acquire the book and put their machine behind you, catapulting you to even bigger heights. Remember, we’re still wearing our publisher hats, so we need to consider the expense of working with a self-published author versus acquiring a new author and giving them a bit of direction and grooming.

Take off the hat now. Your platform is more your tool than anything else, because you can put anything on it. But the more erratic your content, the more undisciplined (and that’s not the same as scheduled) stream of material you produce is going to make it hard for the audience to get a handle and become interested. Mike, it’s great that you’re posting so much, and keep at it if you’re digging it, but don’t think that throwing a ton of all-0ver-the-place content out there is going to keep people coming back. Find your message, find the core idea you burn hot for, and focus on it.

Because you’re not out there video after video, post after post, repeating a sales link over and over, right?

Be a person. Yes, you’re a person who’s making stuff, and would love for people to buy that stuff, but I don’t know many people who feel comfortable building relationships with sales robots.


Some robots have all the luck.

The “community” buzzword is as much a group of people who regularly enjoy your content, as well as being the group of people you could reach and “convert” (meaning they’d buy a book). The more sales-y these buzzwords, the more I slink away with a sneer.

Think of the community as the people who you want to communicate with regularly. Treat them well, because they’re people, even if you’ve never seen their faces since you do all the word-making and they do all the reading. You grow that community not by throwing sales links out over and again, but by bringing injections of reality into your platform.

Talk about the rough writing days. Talk about the days you’re taking off to go parasailing around Costa Rica. Talk about the book fair, conference, convention you’re going to, and how you’re totally going to go all gelatinous in the knees when you meet your writing heroine. Basically, Mike, be a person who writers, not just a writer who exists among people to produce pages and receive money for them.

This isn’t to say the money isn’t there, or that it’s a hostage negotiation to liberate the dollars from wallets, but you’re going to have a way easier time doing that when you treat the audience like they’re as much a person as you are. The money will be there. I’m assuming Mike, that your MS cashes the check your query and platform write.

Everything goes out the window if that MS doesn’t work. This is why I say over and over that the MS has to be in its best shape possible before you go query, and in addition to editing and beta reading, another form of shaping up that MS is holding yourself accountable to that platform. Say you’re going to do something, then do it. No, I’m not perfect at this at all. I suck quite a bit at doing this. I say I’m going to do a ton of things, and forget about half of them until I randomly look at my Dropbox and say. “Oh yeah, I was going to break down Jessica Jones, wasn’t I?”

Here’s a great way to think about reach – Do I come across as someone who has a passion/skill to produce something that people would want to buy?

Here’s a great way to think about platform – Do I comfortably (because if you hate doing something, you won’t be likely do it often, see: holiday resolutions) discuss and share my creativity and passion in ways that encourage other people to take an interest and communicate their own creativity and passion back to me?

Here’s a great way to think about conversion – If I keep doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it, will people want to exchange money for what I’m doing, or do I need to change the way I get the word about what I’m doing?

Here’s a great way to think about audience – They’re people. I’m people. I can’t control how each and every person will respond, so all I can control is how well I do my work and how openly I communicate and share it. I do me, they do them, we all get together and benefit over common intersections.


Mike, I hope that answered you question. Thanks so much for asking it. I’ll see you guys Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.


InboxWednesday -Racing, Reviews, and Respect

In case you missed it Monday, the survey (still free, still anonymous) about editing and coaching is up. If you could take a minute or two and fill it out, I’d really appreciate it. Check it out right here.

Welcome to the middle of your week. We’ve made it this far, I think we can get through. I don’t know why we’d want to put noses to grindstones, that seems like a great way to end up like Voldemort or Skeletor, so how about we instead jump into the inbox and answer some questions?

John, I’ve been trying to finish this MS for 4 years, ever since my daughter went into school, and have days to myself when the house isn’t a wreck. I’m writing a little nearly every day, but it’s so discouraging seeing other people talking on social media about how they’re querying manuscripts they wrote and revised in half the time. What am I doing wrong? – Danielle

Danielle, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’ll say that again, you’re not doing anything wrong. Publishing (like so many other things in this world) isn’t a sprint with a gold medal on the line. There’s no bonus prize award for speed. There’s no achievement you unlock for writing a novel in less than thirty drafts. Writing is meritocratic, meaning the good work goes forward, and the duds don’t (even though all work teaches us stuff).

I know what you’re talking about. That sense of near-failure or struggle that you’re taking so long to do something that other people seem to do in the blinks of a few eyes, and then to top it off they talk about all the other good things going on in their lives and you start wondering if you’re doing anything right at all because you’re not done writing AND your kids just spilled juice on the rug AND your spouse forgot to get the eggs AND you’re supposed to be out of the house within the next 10 minutes. Yeah, it’s a maelstrom of suck, or at least you keep telling yourself it is, so long as you lens everything through whether or not that manuscript is complete.

But, Danielle, you are not your manuscript. You are not your rejection letters. You are not your to-be-done text file of ideas. You are not your Pinterest boards and daydreams.

You’re a whole person, and the only one driving you to compare your manuscript to someone else’s is … you. The reader over there? They don’t care how many drafts it took you. They’re not aware that you wrote chapter 23 while you were sick with flu and ran to the bathroom every six sentences. They just want the book. And since they’ve made it this far in life without your book, I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to wait for the thing they didn’t realize they would enjoy.

What I’m saying is this – make the  best manuscript you can Danielle. Be bold and fearless and take risks. Put your guts on the page. Write as best you can, when you can. Don’t fall prey to the comparisons about other writers. You’re not other writers, and they’re not you.

Write your story. Finish your story. Keep going.

Hi John! I just got my first book published last year, and the first months of reviews were positive. And for a while, I would run into people who read the book, and they really liked it. But now it’s been nearly a year, and the reviews have slowed down, and I started getting a few negative ones. What do I do? Is this normal? – C.

Hi C. Congratulations on getting your first book published, and I’m glad to hear the reviews have been positive. Yes, what you’re experiencing is typical. There’s a great surge up front, and then things cool off. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that initial surge probably had some promotion behind it. You were tweeting about it, you were blogging about it, you had friends talking about it when it first came out. It was a new experience, and there was a rush behind it. After a bit of time, it’s no longer as new.

Second, there’s something called “initial push and conversion” which is the immediate reach you have to audience, with a little bit of extension. What that means in English is this: how many people can you directly talk to about your book, and how many of those people will go pick up your book, read it, AND review it. I have 1520 Twitter followers, so while I can reach that many people, I can’t control all 1520 to read my blog, nor can I many all or any of them share what I post with their friends. That’s a lot of people who have the potential to read the blog, but I can’t go to each of their houses and make them not only read, but also comment. Past those 1520 people, my blog is just out there in the wild, so some element of the traffic is based on people googling stuff or just stumbling upon it.

Third, it’s always tough to get readers to leave reviews. That’s not the book’s fault, that’s a combination of factors like assuming someone else will do it so they don’t have to, the perceived amount of time it would take to do more than just click on a number of stars, and the amount of time it would take to sign into a website people may use all the time anyway. And while it’s great that Mary from Anchorage gave the book 5 stars, you’re hoping that Mary takes a few minutes to put some words down along with her 5 stars, so that people read the review and want to buy the book.

The funny part is where you may struggle to have people write lengthy praise, you may have no trouble getting them to bomb your book, especially if it somehow pisses in their cornflakes, upsets their apple cart, or challenges their previously held thoughts. Oh, how the heavens shall tremble when you make a character a race other than what they’re expecting. Oh, how the world shall fall asunder when two characters of the same gender decide they want to go hang out without pants on.

Yes, I should say here, I am a believer in the idea that even bad press is press, and you can use this to your advantage (without the horseshit of generating your own controversy so you can play the victim though, I have no patience for it, and if you want that, there are plenty of websites where you can go for that experience) with sharp marketing copy like “Come check out the book everyone says is ruining all of mankind because two ladies go out for latte.” or “Do you agree with X number of reviewers that anthropomorphic hot dog aliens are the worst thing ever since ‘we let the gays marry’?” But that’s just me, and maybe your preferred response to bookcritic4lyfe88 is to get your ice cream and beer on.

What you do is this – keep writing. Go make that next book, tell that next story, don’t lose yourself to tending the garden of reviews when you have so many other seeds to plant and watch bloom. Just keep going.

Hey John, love the blog. Glad to hear you’re recovering from surgery and I’m happy to see you posting again. I’m not sure you’re going to answer this email, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken the plunge and starting writing. I’m a SAHM, so I squeeze my writing in during irregular hours when I’m not being a chauffeur or referee between two kids. My husband has started working from home two days a week, but I’m having trouble convincing them that I’m seriously trying to write. Any tips? – Allison

Allison, thanks for the question. Yes, I have some tips.

First, one of the things that you need to look at are those “irregular” hours. Yeah, I know, kids can throw a wrench in a lot of routines sometimes, but that’s not always the norm is it? Sometimes, yes, there are just regular downtimes and a sort of unspoken schedule. Spend a few days really trying to figure out what that schedule is and write it down.

If your kids are both in bed and asleep by 8:30 (I’m making times up here), and your husband is happily content doing his own thing by then too, then you’ve got let’s say 8:30 to 10pm to yourself. Explain to your husband (always start with the adults) that you’re going to make a habit out of writing from 8:30 to 9:15 (again, I’m making up times Allison), and that during that time, you want to keep the distractions to a minimum. Now I don’t know what you consider a distraction, maybe you want him to yell at the Xbox a little less loudly, or when the kids pop up because of whatever reason, you send them to see your husband first before you. Yeah, there might be some grumbling, there always is when a status quo changes, but if you stick to it, people will come around.

You deserve the opportunity to have your time and interests respected. But the other people around you aren’t going to know what’s up without you putting down a boundary and enforcing it. Sure, some distractions are going to require your intervention, and that is going to cut into that writing schedule, but by and large, you can set up a schedule and stick to it, so long as you ride out that initial anxiety you have that people will freak out because you’re going to go be creative. It’s worth pointing out that you don’t know how they’re going to react until you start, so start, and trust the people around you to be supportive. You’re good enough to respect yourself and be respected by others.


If you have a question you want to see answered on #inboxwednesday, send me an email. Yes, I really do read them all.

Go create. We’ll talk Friday.