Becoming a better writer through purging “thought” verbs.

Chuck Palahniuck (writer of Fight Club, the book) had this great advice up on Lit Reactor that I thought I’d share. His argument is an old one (“show, don’t tell”) that every writer learns towards the beginning of their career, but he explains it very well in a way I haven’t seen before. The whole article is worth a read, but this first excerpt has the core of his argument.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

via Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs | LitReactor.

The New World of Publishing: How to Keep Your Writing Going for All of 2014

Dean Wesley Smith has written a great article about keeping your writing going that everyone who wants to be a writer should take the time out and read today. Like most things, succeeding at writing is about planning, hard work and perseverance, and the start of a new year is the start of a new chance at making it work!

Some basics to start:

Any business and production plan you decide to set up for yourself is made up of goals that can be attained with work.

The focus of the goals you set is to attain a dream.

A dream is what you work toward with a series of goals.

via The New World of Publishing: How to Keep Your Writing Going for All of 2014 |.

Year in Review- Most Popular Posts of 2013

So, what did people read on my blog in 2013? Here’s the list of the twenty most read posts. (my own thoughts follow)

Keys to Writing a Good Story 841
Naruto creator has gay ending planned? 834
Korean Period Dramas I Love 581
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss Have a Throwdown about Manned vs Unmanned Space Exploration 435
Thoughts on Narration 411
How To Use A Samurai Sword Properly ~ 353
New Three Kingdoms e-Book 331
Novelty – Visual novel maker 315
Facial Reconstriction 272
Samurai Horses 266
Korean Drama: Ghost (aka Phantom) 232
Urban Sprawl- Mexico City Style 223
Writing for Audio Drama 218
In Defense of the Male Miniskirt- Thoughts on the First Season of Star Trek:TNG 183
A Neat Trick for Finding and Getting Rid of Passive Verbs in MS Word 181
Stop Certifying New Teachers in Ontario 171
The Save the Cat 10 (STC10) Story Writing Challenge! 165
The (Hunger) Shaky-Cam Games- A Spoiler Lite Review 155
Superman vs. Tony Stark 146

Naturally, since the blog is often focussed on writing, my Keys to Writing a Good Story was the top read post. What was more surprising was that Naruto’s possible homosexual ending also got a lot of attention, although given that this has truly been the year when gay culture reached new levels of acceptance in North America maybe that shouldn’t be such a shock. (Although in truth, I think Kishimoto is just playing the crowd with statements like that to keep his numbers up as he rockets toward the manga’s finale in 2014.)

Korean dramas are also very popular online right now, so people are always looking for good ones to watch and so they checked out my selections. Neil Degresse Tyson’s throwdown was also great watching, so it doesn’t surprise me that people found their way to it through my site.

As for the rest, it’s heartening to see so many people interested in Writing Audio Drama and the Three Kingdoms eBooks, since neither usually get much attention in popular culture. I’m also happy to see so many people found my “In Defense of the Male Miniskirt” essay interesting, although it didn’t garner much commentary.

I mostly do this blog for fun as the whim strikes me, but I’m glad to see some people find it interesting enough to visit and read about what goes through my head. (You poor, poor folk!) Seeing that people do read it inspires me, and I’ll try to post more interesting articles in 2014!

Happy New Year!

Robyn Paterson

Jokes for Friday

I half-read a headline this morning, and it inspired the following joke:

A Historian, a Philosopher and an Writer walk into a bar and find the bartender dead.


The Historian asks, “What happened?”


The Philosopher says, “Who can know for sure?”


The Artist answers, “I can make a guess.”

or, an alternate version…

A Historian, a Philosopher and an Writer walk into a bar and find the bartender dead.


The Historian asks, “What happened?”


The Philosopher says, “Who can know for sure?”

The Writer says, “Will you two be quiet? I’m taking notes!”

Getting your Readers over the Infodump Hump!

“A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down- in the most delightful way.”- Mary Poppins

In some of the writing forums I frequent, a very common situation comes up. A new (usually young) writer will come on, and ask if people will look at the first couple chapters of their new science fiction or fantasy novel and tell them if those chapters are any good.

Nine times out of ten (and I’m being generous with that statistic), the answer is that the chapters in question are complete crap. One of the more common reasons for this (especially with Sci-fi and Fantasy stories) is that usually the writers are usually so in love with their “unique and special” setting that they can’t wait to tell the reader all about it. So, inevitably the first couple chapters of what they write are basically all about the setting: sometimes pages and pages of setting/background material that go on and on in excruciating detail.

Sometimes, if they’re feeling clever, they’ll try to make it more interesting by framing it in a conversation, or have a storytelling character relating it to others, or maybe structure it as a briefing of some kind. But, while this can (rarely) work, it still has a fundamental flaw in it- the writer is still first and foremost dumping setting information on the reader.

I know where this comes from- video games. Video games, which don’t have a lot of time for build-up and want to get the player into the action ASAP, love to have a detailed history/setting description at the beginning of the game to set the scene before the action starts. And in games, it generally works fine, so young writers often make the mistake of thinking it will work in a novel too.

It doesn’t, and there’s a good reason why.

In a video game, we sit through (or click through) the background/setting information because we know we’ll be rewarded for it. We know that once this is done, we’ll get some cool cut-scenes, and then be immersed in interactively battling enemy hordes until  4am. That’s the promise that a video game comes with, and it’s a clear reward waiting for us once we’re done learning about the setting and situations. (Keeping in mind that most video games are about setting and situations, not character to begin with!)

But, what about a novel?

What reward does the reader know is waiting for them after they get through all this setting and background information? A video game says, “read this, and I’ll let you kill aliens”. Which is a pretty good motivation! What does a novel say to its reader? What guarantees can a novel (especially one by a new writer) give that there is actually something worth reading here once this infodump is finished?

The answer is- none.

When I read the first chapters of a novel, unless I’ve had previous reviewers reassure me that it’ll be worth it, I have no idea whether or not this journey is one I want to take. I have no evidence that I’ll like it, or a reason to keep reading. So, when I hit a pile of boring information that I don’t care about, or find interesting, I put the book back on the shelf (or delete the sample) and I go looking for something else that can hold my attention better. As a reader, my time is limited, and I’m not going to spend it reading crap.

So, how do experienced writers get readers to not only read background/setting information, but actually love it and want more? How do you get people to consume chapter after chapter of detail about Middle Earth, or the list of all the Stark Bannermen in Westeros for twenty pages?

Just like in video games- you need to offer the reader a reward.

The reward in video games is time spent “in action”, and in books it’s pretty much the same- what the reader wants is interesting characters doing interesting things. Once a reader is hooked on the characters and events of a story, they will read through huge amounts of extra material just to get more of that reward they crave.

If you want to see a perfect example, go read a Dan Brown novel like the The Davinci Code, or Angels and Demons. Brown’s books sell millions of copies, and each chapter of one of Brown’s meticulously researched books follows the same formula- 1 to 3 pages of character action, then 5-7 pages of information about some piece of geography, history or art, and then 1 or 2 pages of character action ending on a cliff-hanger to make you want to read the next chapter.

Now, Brown’s case is pretty extreme (he’s writing textbooks wrapped in a plot), but if you pay attention you’ll see that almost every successful writer is doing this. They’re alternating interesting dialogue and character action with less interesting (but necessary) background and setting information as a way to keep the reader motivated to read and keep reading even the slow stuff. The reader knows that if they can just get through the exposition, they’ll be rewarded with more of what they really want.

This is where most beginning writers fall flat when they start writing.

They put the less interesting stuff first, and then expect it to somehow hook readers. It’s a bit like giving someone something sour before you give them something tasty, and still expecting them to keep eating.  Does that make any sense? No. And that’s why it doesn’t work.

The truth is that readers don’t care about settings or history, or art, or any of that stuff, unless it’s directly connected to a character they DO care about. So, whenever you write, you always need to start with story and character, and then once you’ve got them hooked, you can start to introduce less interesting bits of information that they need to know, but will be reluctant to read. Even Dan Brown and George R.R. Martin spend many chapters setting up the characters and situations before they start their history lessons.

Final tips:

  • Generally wait at least 4-5 chapters before you try any kind of information dump on your readers of a new novel. Only tell the reader what they absolutely need to know to follow the story, and save the detailed information for later when they’re hooked and want to know what happens next.
  • The bigger/harder the information will be to digest, the bigger the reward you need to offer the reader to get through it. A few paragraphs about a mining colony your space adventurers are about to visit doesn’t require more than general interest in what will happen to our heroes when they get there. Three chapters about the history of the royal family of Exotia XVI and their love of rare Terisan Opera sung by space slugs will probably require a main character about to die to motivate a reader to get to the end.
  • Don’t be afraid to break big pieces of information down into little ones, and scatter them throughout the story. Tell the reader what’s needed, when it’s needed. Don’t overwhelm them without a good reason, and a good payoff.
  • Remember that what’s interesting to you as a writer isn’t always interesting to your readers. You might think the inner-working of the Magnos-Tsaichovski Stardrive and its effects on space warfare are fascinating, but your reader may think it’s the most boring thing ever unless it’s presented at a time when it’s relevant to the story.
  • Never forget that a reader is always asking the question- “Why should I keep reading this?” Make sure you always have a good answer.

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Fiction

On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, author EJ Patten discussed Middle Grade fiction writing, and put forth a fascinating comparison between Middle Grade (fiction for grade 4-6 students) and Young Adult (fiction for grades 7+ students).

He said that Middle Grade fiction is all about supporting or maintaining the establishment. The characters in these stories are trying to learn to become part of the world, both by learning its ways and finding a way to support the status quo in some way.

So, for example, in Harry Potter (the first book is Middle Grade, the rest quickly become YA), is about Harry learning his way around Hogwarts Magic School and the Wizarding World (learning the rules), and trying to find the Philosophers Stone to prevent Valdemort from returning and disrupting this world. (Maintaining the status quo.)

It makes sense when you think about it, young people that age are trying to figure out their place in society, so they respond to characters who are also trying to figure out their place in a society. Finding your place means becoming a part of that order, and taking a responsible role in maintaining that order.

Young Adult, fiction, on the other hands, EJ says is all about new beginnings. It’s about tearing apart the status quo and starting fresh in some way. The characters are trying to break out of their traditional world and start something new- disrupting or changing society in some way. (Pretty much the complete opposite of Middle Grade.)

So a YA novel like Hunger Games is about Katniss Everdeen living in her highly stratified and oppressive society and then tearing it apart. Even the Paranormal Romance novels that dominate YA are still about the young heroine breaking out of her traditional world (by hanging out with vampires/werewolves/etc) and starting something new (romance). In fact, one of the big differences between Middle Grade and YA is that Middle Grade has little to no Romance, while YA often has it as a major element of the story.

Of course, these are general patterns that these types of fiction tend to follow, and not the word of God on the subject, but they do make a lot of sense. I’d always wondered what the difference between the two was (beyond the age range) and this look into the psychology of writing them is fascinating.

Oh, one other thing the podcast (which I recommend giving a listen to) brought up was that for some reason around Grade Six, boys just stop reading Middle Grade/YA fiction and will tend to jump right to Adult (General Audience) works. They said this is why the YA market is mostly a girls market, because the boys literally aren’t interested in reading YA fiction for the most part.

This last point is something I would argue with a little bit. I would argue that the boys are indeed “reading” YA voraciously, but not in the form of prose. They’re consuming it in the form of comic books (mostly manga, these days) and anime, which still follow the patterns laid out above. You could even make a case that they’re also taking it in through video games, which tend to have the same stories of carving something new out of the world, but are more interactive.


A Neat Trick for Finding and Getting Rid of Passive Verbs in MS Word

I was hunting for a good site today to give advice on Passive vs. Active verbs to another writer and came across this little nugget. The article it’s from is good, but this part is gold! Serious kudos to the author!

“MS-Word has a great and quick method to finding those “to Be” verbs.

The “Reading Highlight” feature is one of the most useful tools in the MS-Word arsenal, but the RH is an especially neat way to check your writing for passive voice use.

What Reading Highlight does is perform a search, but instead of taking you to the next instance of your search terms, it highlights all instances throughout the text.

To use Reading Highlight,

  1. –select a highlight color from the “Home” tab, then hit CTRL-F to bring up a search window.
  2. –Enter your search term or phrase, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Highlight All”.
  3. –Click “Close” and watch your highlights appear.
  4. –To remove the highlighting, re-open the search box, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Clear Highlighting”.
  5. –Again, click “Close” and the highlighting will be gone.

How do you use this to find passive sentences and those “Here is”, “There are”, and “It is” beginning phrases?

Well, we know most passive statements use the verb “to be” in some form or another. So we want to search for “be” in all its variants: is, was, are, am, were, etc.

Open the search dialog (CTRL-F),

  1. –type “be” as your search term, and click the “More” button.
  2. –Put a check in the box next to “Find all word forms”, click the “Reading Highlight” button and select “Highlight All”, and click “Close”.
  3. –Now, every permutation of “to be” will be highlighted.
  4. –Not all of them are going to be passive — or too passive, anyway — but many will.
  5. –Rewrite all those sentences to have more active verbs.

Using “to Be” verbs for anything other than linking verbs or helping verbs is a bad habit.

Any habit learned can be unlearned.”

via To Be, or Not To Be: Getting Rid of those Pesky “to Be” Verbs | Recipes for Writing.

I tried it myself on the work I’m editing. I had it hunt for “be” and “have” verbs (which also tend to be passive) and highlight each type it found. In a 91,000 word document I found roughly 2000 BE verbs and 1000 HAVE verbs. Not all of them are full words, though, and for the length of the document that isn’t bad.

Still, it’s a new tool in my editor’s toolbox I intend to make great use of!


Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writing Fast

Dean Wesley Smith wrote a good piece on his blog about writing speed, quality, and productivity. I definitely recommend reading it if you have the time.

Writing Slow Equals Writing Better is a complete myth, a nasty sacred cow of publishing that hurts and stops writers who believe it.

— The truth is that no two writers work the same and no book is the same as the previous book or the next book.

— The truth is that writing fast is nothing more than spending more time every day writing.

— The truth is that there should be no rule about speed relating to quality.

— The truth is there should be no rule that lumps all writers into one big class. There should only be your way of writing.

via Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writing Fast |.

My Advice to Aspiring Authors | Hugh Howey

Since some who read this blog are aspiring writers in the prose field, I thought I’d pass along this excellent blog article written by successful independent author Hugh Howey.

He really hits a lot of important points on being a writer in the new e-book focussed market. I also think he is spot-on about how the best thing a writer can do is write, get the product out, and keep writing, the marketing can come later.

For me the most interesting was the following:

“Know your gatekeepers. Appealing to readers is the endgame. They want story over prose, so concentrate on that aim for both, but concentrate on story. Agents and slush-pile readers are often the opposite, which is why they bemoan the absence of literary fiction hits and cringe at the sale of Twilight, Dan Brown, and 50 Shades. You are writing for the reader, who is your ultimate gatekeeper. Get your work in front of them, even if it’s one at a time, one reader a month or year.”

He really has an excellent point with this one. The truth is, if your core story is strong, then the average reader will forgive a lot in the area of style. Simple, clear prose without spelling or grammar mistakes is all most readers require to enjoy a story, and that isn’t all that difficult to achieve. It’s the characters and story that will bring them in and keep them reading, not the prose, as the authors he’s mentioned have proved.

Of course, the opposite is also true- you can polish a turd of a story all you want, and it will still be a turd!

via My Advice to Aspiring Authors | Hugh Howey.