IWSG: Writing Rules

InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. Read and support writers by clicking here, and if you’re a writer you can also join!

Last year I had two books and one short story published. This year I plan to publish at least one book, and I hope to finish a couple other manuscripts. I’m feeling hopeful about that.

Last year I attended two conferences. This year I’m not sure if I’ll be able to attend any (unless invited as a guest). I feel a little sad about that.

How are you feeling going into the new year?

Question of the Month: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

All of them?

I think too much advice hobbles the writer, stems the natural flow. Or, rather, I think too many rules at the wrong time do. Rules are important. Rules of grammar, and then also how to handle character and plot and pacing and description. But if a writer goes in worried about all the rules, he or she can become paralyzed, afraid to do anything because it might be “wrong.” And there’s no wrong way to write. At least not at first.

So here is MY rule: Write. Don’t look at advice or how-to or anything else until you’ve written it. THEN go back and figure out what needs to be fixed. I go into more detail about this and the writing/submission process in this guest post. I hope you’ll give it a read.

Show Don’t Tell

My daughter’s teacher asked me to come talk to the kids (third graders) about writing, specifically “show don’t tell.” As a writer, I know when I’m being told rather than shown something. But how do you teach that?

“Tell me a story.” Well, no. We don’t really want to be told stories, we want to be shown them. When I write a play or film script, I don’t have to worry so much about the showing versus telling because I know the end result will be a “show” of some kind. The actors and director will do the showing. But when writing a story or novel, I have no actors, directors, wardrobe people. I have to take a picture that is in my head and put it in someone else’s head using only words. (Well, and hopefully a great cover artist.)

Here is what I told the kids: “We have five senses. And we need to use them all in our writing. We need for the reader to not only know in his or her head, but in his or her heart too. They need to be connected to the main character and the story and feel like they are right there with them.”

Then I gave them this story that I’d written the night before:

Emilie lives on the planet Rigel with her mother, father, brother, and dog. One morning she woke up late and had to rush to get ready for school. She ate her breakfast on the way to school. When she got to school, she realized she had forgotten her science homework. Her teacher made her redo it during recess. Emilie didn’t get to play. After school she went to ballet class and realized she had also forgotten her shoes. She had to sit and watch the other students practice, and her teacher lectured her in front of everyone about being more responsible. By the time Emilie got home, she was ready for the day to be over. She ate dinner, did her homework, and went to bed early so she would not be late again.

It’s all tell. There’s probably a perfectly good story in there, but we don’t know anything about Emilie. How old is she? We only know she goes to school. For someone living on another planet, her world seems an awful lot like ours. We can feel sorry for Emilie in a way, but we don’t feel sorry for Emilie because we aren’t connected to her or her frustration or disappointment or any other emotion she might have due to all this happening to her.

The kids went to town. We talked about the sounds and smells that could be added as details. “Let’s hear the alarm clock and smell the breakfast,” I suggested. “Let’s hear the other kids playing and see the sunlight coming through the window of the classroom where Emilie is stuck working.” We talked about dialogue that might give us a better feeling of how Emilie is feeling. “The way a person talks tells us a lot about them. Instead of just knowing there was a lecture, what if we heard it as dialogue?” The kids mentioned wanting to see more action, use more verbs and adjectives. We diverted into world building for a bit and discussed how to show that Emilie lives on another planet (“Is she human or an alien?” one kid asked, a valid question)—or maybe the writer should just change the setting to Earth if it’s going to be so much like Earth anyway. The kids had lots of great ideas and comments, and I was glad they were so engaged in the activity.

“Show don’t tell” is something we hear a lot, and we all sort of know when a writer is telling rather than showing, but it’s helpful—even to someone like me who has been writing forever—to be reminded, and to boil it down a bit.

  • Remember that writing means taking a picture in your head and putting it in someone else’s
  • Use all five senses when writing
  • Use dialogue to help show character
  • Use active verbs
  • Use adjectives
  • Provide details so readers feel like they can see and be there

Sure, there’s such thing as too much detail, but it’s always easier to take stuff out than go add it back in.

What are your rules for showing rather than telling? And if you’re not a writer, have you ever run into a book that you felt was too tell-y? That talked at you rather than involving you in the story? On the other hand, what books have you read that pulled you in?

WDC16 #11

Last one for Saturday. You can see why I was so exhausted by the end of this conference! My last session for the day was From Storytelling Mire to Page-Turning Momentum: Three Common Plotting Mistakes that Keep Writers Frustrated, Unpublished and at the Bottom of the Slush Pile. Whew, quite a mouthful, isn’t it? It was run by Annalisa Parent.

Parent began by stating the obvious: Agents want quality writing. Then she mentioned three things that aren’t quality:

  1. Too Much Backstory
  2. Lack of Conflict
  3. Not Pacing the Tension

1. The writer needs to know the backstory. However, the reader may not need to know it. Parent put it this way: “The first time you tell the story, you tell yourself. Every time after that, you’re telling the reader.” This means after that first draft, you cut out anything that doesn’t move the story forward or doesn’t directly deal with the central conflict. If you give too much backstory, instead of caring more, the reader starts to care less. Only tell thing that have a payoff in the end.

2. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. It’s just a character study or a vignette. It’s a day-in-the-life, a portrait. Keep in mind the forms of conflict:

  • Person versus Person (external struggle)
  • Person versus Self (internal struggle)
  • Person versus Environment (external struggle)
  • Person versus Supernatural (external struggle)

I’ll admit, the last one was new to me. I’d probably just lump it into Person versus Person, or I guess we could collectively call it Person versus Entity, but whatever. You get the idea. A good story might even have more than one of these going on at any given time.

In a story, everyone wants something. (Parent used The Wizard of Oz as an example: wanting to go home, wanting a heart, wanting courage, wanting a brain…) Motivations also help define character, which keeps things interesting.

Triangles, Parent said, are the strongest structure. That’s why we see so many of them in books. (Manifesting Destiny is a series of interlocking triangles.) Parent had a diagram of a triangle with these labels at each point: Story Tension, Scene Tension, Character Conflict. She said the question to keep asking as you write is: “How is what is at stake for each character relate to the overarching story?” Every scene has to earn its place, after all. There needs to be tension in each, and it needs to be showing and developing character as well.

3. Things have to get worse before they can get better. This isn’t a formula so much as a method. The story begins with Situation Normal. Then something changes. Obstacles arise. What does the character do? That’s your story. Every time an obstacle is dealt with, there is a result and a consequence. Often, early on, the result/consequence is yet another obstacle or conflict. The stakes rise and continue to rise. There are peaks and valleys. Peaks are high tension. Valleys are respite, moments of hope. You have to pace the reader so that it isn’t just one mountain after another. At the same time, you can’t have valleys that are too wide or the conflict and tension go away and the reader gets bored.

Meanwhile, keep in mind—and be familiar with—your genre. Each genre is like a different kind of music says Parent. Literary fiction is Classical music, for example. It may move a little more slowly and have many layered instruments. YA may be more like pop music, something with a beat.

Speaking of music, why not stop by Liz Josette’s site and see what I listen to? For the next few hours after this posting, you still have a chance to win an Amazon gift card!

Never Look Back

I’m going to admit that, aside from needing to check a quote or make sure of details when writing a sequel, I almost never go back and read my old work.

Maybe (probably?) a lot of writers are this way. For me, it’s about not tangling my brain up with wishing I’d written something differently or mentally hanging myself over mistakes. I figure if I think it’s good, it probably isn’t as good as I remember, so re-reading it will only shatter my illusions. And if I already know it’s not very good, why go back and chew my heart out over it? Better to just keep moving forward.

I’m the same with watching myself on screen. I have videos . . . somewhere . . . of my stage work, but I’ve never watched them.

Jackson Browne has a line in his song “These Days”: Don’t confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them. And so I don’t confront myself any more than I’d want others to. Maybe that’s cowardly. But hopefully I’ll have learned from previous mistakes* and my writing will get better as I go along.

*Provided I don’t keep making the same mistakes again and again. Continuing to write is not enough; progress comes through change, not through doing more of the same.

It Means A Lot

. . . when I hear from readers who want a sequel to something. Readers may think they don’t have much influence on writers, but (at least in my case) they do. While I do have other commitments to consider, I can rearrange my project list based on encouragement from readers.

Point in fact: last week a reader requested a sequel to The K-Pro. In fact, I’ve noticed more sales of The K-Pro just lately, which I thought was interesting. I had started a second book a while back but when the first didn’t do so well I backburnered it. Now, however, I’m inclined to possibly dust it off. I need to finish Brynnde and the second Changers book, but now the K-Pro sequel (titled Ms. Fortune) rounds out my top three writing priorities.

Anyway, I love hearing from you guys. Especially when it’s about a book you loved. (I value criticism too, just ask that you try to be nice about it.)

By the way, I finished a second round of edits on Changers, which means we’re getting ever closer to you being able to read it! Can’t wait to share this one with you!


Editing, for me, is so much harder than writing—and writing doesn’t come easily to me either, which tells you how difficult I find editing.

Yesterday I received the first round of edits on Changers, and my stomach is in knots over it. I’m only on page 10. It’s like I have to come up for air frequently because this stage practically gives me panic attacks.

I keep reminding myself of the good things. Edits = progress = closer to publication. And of course I want my book in the hands of readers!

Still, there’s something about the editing process that I find chastising. A lot of it is subjective, and still more of it has to do with individual publishers’ styles. Compromise is required. I try to see it as a learning experience, but sometimes I can’t help but think, This is why I self-publish so much of my work.

Which is not a dig at my publishers, I promise! Every writer should learn to compromise and negotiate their words. I think most of us want to dig in our heels and be stubborn about it, but it really is important to learn to take criticism and critique.

Just having an editor and a publisher is a blessing. It means the work has value. As a writer, I need to remind myself that a little tweaking isn’t a condemnation. But I still have to tackle it in bite-size pieces. They’ve given me two weeks.

Deep breath.

I’m going back under.


My home office almost perpetually smells of incense. And no, I’m not smoking pot and burning incense to cover up the smell. Truth is, I used to burn candles all the time, but they were leaving soot stains on the ceiling (still need to clean/repaint there). Then a friend and I were out for a day in “the City” and I came across a cool incense burner. I’d never burned incense before, but the shop owner showed me how. The burner is in the shape of a dragon—very appropriate as I was writing Changers at the time—and so the dragon blows smoke from his mouth when you burn a cone of incense in the burner. I fell in love with it instantly.

But then later I discovered there were so many more scent choices if I’d burn the sticks instead of the cones. So I found a burner for those, too.

I’m not sure what it is that drives me to . . . make my office smell while I work? I can’t listen to music while writing because I find that distracting. But I really enjoy having candles or incense burning, possibly in part because I hate the smell of food cooking. That’s weird, right? I love food but can’t stand for my office to smell like it. So I feel compelled to mask the scent. And now, even when nothing is cooking, I find I generally want some incense going anyway. My brain has forged some connection between writing and the scents of nag champa or sandalwood (among many others).

Sometimes I worry that I’m going to die of some lung disease after years of candles and incense. Does that happen?

Right now the slow cooker is on in the kitchen, and the tri-tip does smell good . . . I just don’t want to be able to smell it in my office. Count it as one of my weird hang-ups. But now I’m off to burn some patchouli.

The Slump

Every time I finish a major writing project, I feel like I go into a slump. I know part of it is just the exhaustion. Though writing is not physically active, it is mentally taxing. Also, it takes time to come out of the world of the story. At least for me it does. I can’t jump from one world to another without some liminal space in between.

The bigger the project, the deeper the slump. After writing a Sherlock Holmes story, for example, I only need a couple days before I’m ready to move on to the next thing. After a novel it might be a week or more.

Thing is, I really hate these down times. I can’t seem to write, but I’m simultaneously bored and restless. I want to write, but I just can’t. I honestly should probably schedule getaways and vacations for after I finish a project so at least I have something to do while I’m “off work.”

Tell me, fellow writers, is it this way for you, too? Or am I the only one who slumps after a project?

Guest Post: Kimberly Emerson on Character

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This is the question everyone asks when they find out that I write. Truthfully? I have no idea. Snippets of conversation pop up in my head, and eventually the characters saying them step out of the shadows and introduce themselves. Where the snippets or the characters come from, I don’t know. I also can’t tell you why I can’t make a bat hit a baseball, or why I can hear a tune and make my vocal cords reproduce it accurately. That’s just the way it is.

I don’t know about the people asking the question, but I find this frustrating. Order and reason make me happy.

“No wonder you love writing,” people say, grinning in triumph. “You can make things happen the way you want.”

It should work that way, yes. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been writing since I was young. I remember doing a series in Mrs. Walden’s class, using the other fifth graders in the class as character models. Every time we had a creative writing exercise, Mrs. Walden got another chapter in the adventures of Cindy and her friends. Every story got a title—“Cindy and the Big Adventure,” “Cindy Stays Home Alone,” and so forth. I even had a signature way of writing Cindy’s name in the title, so that it took up about a third of the page. There was indeed an element of wish fulfillment in these. Everything always turned out right for Cindy. Her friends adored her, and I don’t think she ever got punished. Likewise, the people who made trouble for her always got their comeuppance by the time the two-page story wrapped up.

I gave Cindy up at the end of the fifth grade. The stories in sixth grade featured her daughter – Sandra, I think was her name. Fortunately for us all, I let the family end with Sandra, or we’d be up to her remote descendant by now, dozens of generations later, who grew up hearing fairy tales about an ancient witch ancestor Cindy who turned children into toads.

Eventually, I gave up the pretense and started writing stories with myself as the main character, surrounding myself with the perfect mate and a fifteen-bedroom mansion outside of London. If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right.

Interesting thing about those stories, though—things didn’t always go right. I wrote one about myself getting cast as the lead in a professional musical, and had myself fainting in front of the theater and being discovered there, lying unconscious, by the director. This is not the sort of thing I fantasize about. I fainted once when I was fifteen, and it was really, really unpleasant. I lost all illusions about romantic swooning. But I put it in the story because, well, it worked in the scene.

Yeah. I made something lousy happen to myself in a story, and my fictional self wasn’t thrilled.

In my thirties, I wrote my first actual book about characters I made up, Ben and Kelsey. (This book is in a drawer, and will stay in there until I have time to give it a lot of work.) Something bizarre happened. I didn’t want Ben and Kelsey to have a perfect happy ending. They got together, the loved each other, but their careers hit snags and Ben’s extended family would remain pretty messed up. I couldn’t make everything okay for them. Stranger still, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t relate to idyllic endings. My life didn’t work that way.

It didn’t occur to me till later that maybe other people felt the same way.

Even stranger, suddenly I couldn’t bring my villains to a completely sticky end, either. Backstories for them kept popping up in my head. This one experienced verbal abuse from her father. That one spent his entire life competing with his Olympic athlete older brother. They whispered reasons why they turned into the people that they did. Once you start listening to the explanations of people in your head, it becomes a lot harder not to look for reasons why the three-dimensional people in your life do the things they do.

Now, in my forties, I am incapable of forcing characters to do anything. Once they materialize in my head, they become as real as fictional characters can be. They don’t act in a vacuum. They do things for reasons, and have to deal with their own demons. (Don’t worry. I listen to them, but I stop short of knitting them scarves.)

I think the real magic of writing isn’t that you can create a world. It’s that writing helps you better understand the creation that is the world around you.

KimberlyEmersonKimberly Emerson is the author of three novels besides the one in the drawer, and is currently seeking representation for her latest mystery No Accounting for Destiny. You can find her most recent musings at www.kimberlyemerson.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/fbbykimberlyemerson/, and on Twitter @KimberlyEWriter. You might also run into her at random literary conferences, sipping chai lattes and discussing deep thoughts with her buddy M Pepper Langlinais.