I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers


I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work. Sometimes I just roll over in my bed and there it is, a manuscript by a new writer, haunting me like a vengeful incubus.

I would very much like to yell at you.

Now, listen, before I begin the part where I scream myself hoarse about the things you’re doing wrong, I want you to understand that we’ve all been there. We’ve all done it poorly. Doing it poorly is the first step to, well, not doing it poorly. I have written my fair share of HOT PUKE, and it’s just one of those things you have to purge from your system.

(Though here we also enter into another caveat: HOT PUKE is not actually a delicacy. You do that shit over in the corner, barfing it up in the potted plant so nobody sees until morning. You don’t yak up today’s lunch in the middle of the living room and then do jazz-hands over it: “Ta-da! The Aristocrats!” What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.)

Here, then, are some things I have noticed in drafts by new or untested writers, and these are I think standard errors — and they’re ones also that tested authors sometimes stumble into, so peruse this list, see if you have stropped up against any of these sins like a randy tomcat, and then fix your business. Get it? Got it? Good?

Let the yelling commence.

Telegraphing Every Goddamn Thing

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character. See, the problem is, when you telegraph all these movements — when you describe in detail every minute micro-expression and irritable bowel movement, you fill up the page with a laundry list of Incredibly Uninteresting Nonsense. Which leads me to —

Not Everything Is Interesting

At a rough guess, I’d say 90% of All Things Ever are uninteresting. Dull as drawing with white crayons on white paper. Things are boring. Life is boring. Details are mostly boring.

Storytelling, though, is the opposite of that. We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know, and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling. This isn’t a video game where you get points for painting every aspect of the environment with total authenticity. Skip it. Tell us the stuff that is unexpected. The things that shatter our notions: if one leaf has blood on it? Then we need to know that. We want to know that.

Cut the boring stuff.

Write the interesting stuff.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!

Which leads me to…

Going On Tooooooo Loooooooooong

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Get To The Fucking Story, Already

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

Dialogue Works A Certain Way

Writing has rules.

Storytelling has fewer rules, and certainly more flexible ones.

But actual writing has legit rules.

It’s not math, not exactly — but things do add up a certain way and we are beholden to either apply the rules to our work or break the rules to create a specific effect.

You don’t just break the rules because it’s fun, or worse, because you don’t know them. That latter is where a lot of new writers fall. They simply don’t know that things work a certain way, and when you write in contravention to These Certain Ways, we can all smell it. It’s stinky. Your prose gains the vinegar stink of flopsweat as you gallumph about on the stage of the page, not knowing how to actually do this thing you promised us that you can do.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked. The basic gist of dialogue is:

“Comment,” Dave said.

Right? Quotes, with a comment in the middle, the whole thing broken out with a comma tucked inside the quotes, and then a very simple dialogue tag.

“Comment.” Dave said.

That’s wrong. You need the comma.

“Comment”, Dave said.

That is also wrong. That comma wants to be warm and safe inside the quotes. Where bad writing will never hurt it ever again.

You can, of course, get fancier.

“I’m starting this sentence,” Dave said, “and now I’m going to finish it.”

Or:

“I want to start a new sentence,” Dave said. “Sentences are really cool.”

Note the difference between those two methods. The period versus the comma. The two complete sentences versus the dialogue tag interrupting a continuing sentence.

You cannot mix and match this.

“I want to say some more stuff,” Dave said. “so please let me say stuff.”

No! No. No. Stop that right now.

Sometimes you don’t even need the dialogue tag if you feel like orchestrating action in the appropriate arrangement around the quotes:

Dave adjusted his crotch. “My crotch is itchy ever since I let it become infected with ants.”

We don’t need to know that Dave said that because it’s pretty fucking clear Dave said it.

Certainly you can use other dialogue tag verbs other than said, but usually, you shouldn’t. Dave exclaimed, protested, shouted, screamed, shrieked, ejaculated, harrumphed, blathered, babbled, gabbled. Use those sparingly. And make sure they’re actual dialogue verbs. Don’t say:

“I don’t know which testicle is my favorite,” Dave shrugged.

Shrugging isn’t the proper verb there. You feel like because it’s a communicative verb it counts.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. You can’t shrug a word. Communicative gestures are not the same thing as proper dialogue verbs. No matter how hard you want them to be.

Once you get going with two characters, you can eschew dialogue tags entirely.

“I punched a fucking cat,” Dave said.

Eduardo winced. “You shouldn’t punch cats. That’s not nice.”

“I will fucking punch a cat when I fucking want to punch a cat. I’ll even fuck a cat.”

“Oh, Dave. You’re so funny!”

Also, watch your adverbs.

Adverbs get a bad rap in fiction, which is silly because adverbs are everywhere. In fact, the word ‘everywhere’ in that sentence? It’s an adverb! Holy shit!

Adverbs, though, become a problem when staple-gunned to all your dialogue tags. “I am made of bees,” Shirene said indubitably. “I like cake,” Roger exclaimed excitedly. “Porn is amazing,” Darrell ejaculated orgasmically. When you say those aloud, they sound terrible. Childish. They also do a very good job at telling and a very bad job at showing. If Roger in his love for cake tells us about how much he likes cake while grabbing us and shaking his violently, we can get a pretty good sense he’s pretty jacked up about some motherfucking cake. Even better, he doesn’t need to tell us. He just needs to stick a shiv between our ribs and steal our cake and then eat it greedily over our bleeding, mewling body. After that, we will possess little doubt how greatly he approves of the cake-eating experience.

Let Them Talk And Then Shut Them Up

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

I Don’t Know Who Your Characters Are Or What They Want

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them. Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Too Many Characters Bumping Into Each Other

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time. Let them have a little oxygen. Let them have their time in the light so we can see the above task performed: they can use that stage time to tell us who they are, what they want, why they want it, what they’ll do to get it, and so on and so forth.

But jumping in with too many characters is a soup with all the ingredients.

It’s just a mushy, flavor-bombed mess.

It’s a thing I see in the work of new writers.

And it rarely works well unless you’ve developed the skill of working your characters the way a conductor commands all the musicians and instruments in a symphony.

Every Character Sounds The Same

Builds off what I was saying earlier about every character being her own shining beacon, separate from one another. And I think it’s pretty clear: if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s what you write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces.

Trying To Show Off

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out. If I am in any way confused about what’s happening on the page? I’ll fuck right off and watch TV or check Twitter or fondle myself. Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

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189 responses to “I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers”

  1. I’m regularly baffled by how many new writers think they need to delay the plot until at least the third or fourth chapter, so they can spend the preceding chapters establishing characters and/or back-story. It makes me question how many books these new writers have actually read.

    Even when I first started writing, and I was still at the HOT PUKE stage, I knew that the plot started when the story did – on the first page. None of my early novels – no matter how horrific they were – waffled for a few chapters before getting down to the meat of the story.

    • I gotta say, this is the crime I see most in big bestsellers and especially in movies, TV, and anime. Video games even get in on it. I lose interest after about half a page/one minute, so I have a hard time finding new content.

      I try to start with a bang. It’s tough, has to be part of your planning.

      • Do you really see it in big bestsellers? That surprises me. I’ve read nearly 200 books this year and most of them got going from the first page. On the other hand, I think a lot of people misunderstand starting with something happening. They think they have to start with action so they literally start their novel in the middle of a gunfight/swordfight/terrorist attack etc But sometimes that doesn’t work either because the reader doesn’t care about these characters yet so they don’t care what’s happening to them.

        As long as the opening page catches my attention, that’s all that matters. The opening line to Orwell’s 1984 is a prime example. It doesn’t open with action, but it makes the reader ask questions and that’s what’s important 🙂

    • These are probably folks who write like they are used to seeing movies. Many movies spend 3/4 (or more) of screen time building characters, creating little backstories, setting up tensions, etc. before ever actually getting to the plot. Disaster movies from the 40s – 60s were especially bad about that. Watch the original Titanic. Nothing happens, and I mean NOTHING happens until 5/6 through the movie. Then the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. We’re supposed to care by then because they spent so much time showing us how much Lucy loves Desi and is jealous of Ethel.

      • This is exactly it, IMO. This generation of storytellers grew up watching TV, so they’re reporting what they’re seeing in their head as opposed to transporting us to BEING these characters.

    • A lot of aspiring fantasy writers seem to start with a setting viewed from without, as if it were a movie, or with the birth of the protagonist (mom usually dies in childbirth or screams ineffectually as the baby is torn from her arms and taken away from super secret training), or a dry prologue that reads like a history or theology text: “In the beginning, the great god Hornybastard lusted after his mother the goddess Hardtoget and ejaculated across the cosmos…

      25 pages later, we get to the first chapter and meet an actual character. It’s just awful, because unless these gods and the way they made the universe are actually going to be a concrete part of the story, it’s just boring filler that takes all the fun and mystery out of the world and its cultures. I want to discover (and guess at) the world with the characters who occupy it, not have some omniscient bore tell me the overarching Truth about how everything in it came to be. I don’t even know that about my own “real” world, FFS.

      • Lol, to be fair, if a book actually started with ‘In the beginning, the the great god Hornybastard…’ I would want to read the rest of that book 😀

        On a serious note though, a lot of aspiring fantasy writers do seem to think they need to open with a prologue that establishes their world and all the rules of it. There are successful fantasy authors who have employed this technique, but I just don’t think it works any more. I’ve been part of various critique sites and writing forums for years and there are probably four types of openings that crop up most commonly.

        1. A fantasy that starts with the textbook prologue, putting the reader to sleep before they’ve even met the main character.

        2. A fantasy that starts bang in the middle of a battle. and usually a poorly written, poorly thought-out battle.

        3. In any other type of fiction, the most common opening is the alarm-clock opening. A character is woken by his/her alarm, then a parent – usually the mother- yells that if they don’t hurry they’ll be late for school. The reader is then treated to a blow-by-account of what the character is planning to wear to school that day.

        4. The other opening I’ve seen most commonly is the scary dream opening. Aspiring authors think that an easy way to start with something happening is to open the book with their character having a random nightmare. This is just a variant on the alarm-clock opening though, as after a couple of paragraphs of scary-dream-time, the alarm goes off and wakes them and then the whole scenario above is played out.

        When you’ve read that a hundred times it starts making you want to pull your own eyes out! :/

  2. Because of the way I write, I tend to write action/dialogue heavy in the first draft and sometimes it sounds like a script that’s not properly formatted. I have to force myself to add setting on rewrites to create a picture.
    And agree about getting to the point. I’ve read so many stories in writing classes that spend half the ten pages setting up the /thing/. Even when I read novels now, and I read about a novel a day when I’m not writing, if you don’t get moving in the first couple pages, I’m returning your book to the library. This is why I still use the library so much, because too few writers know how to get to the point and I toss back about fifty percent of what I start. I never used to do this, but there are too many books and not enough time. I’m almost fifty now. My to-read list is longer than the life I have left. Suck me in and keep me going, that does not mean you have to blow something up on page one, but get some sort of conflict started right away.

  3. Thank you for this! I’m a telegrapher of uninteresting things. It’s how I see it in my head while I’m throwing the words onto the page, and I often skip over these problem area while editing because I’m focusing on other issues. My current project is going to get butchered on the chopping block when it’s time for editing, but hopefully the final product is one worth reading.

  4. I want to hear more about Dave and his testicles. I have to know which one is his favorite! And how he got the ants!

  5. I love this. Thank you. Please send that bit about too much extraneous detail to Robin Cook – he writes such great stories but oooohhhhh sheeeittt, I canNOT read them.

    Also: “The sentence isn’t over until it’s over.” He said.

    • Number one punctuation problem I see in manuscripts. Like anyone in real life would announce, “He said” and walk away from the sentence right there. I don’t give you a pass on this one even if you are among the Great Uninformed population. It’s a prerequisite to Punctuation 101.

  6. Could you join my online writing group? It’s full of happy-to-read-this-crap supportive people who don’t give a lick of actual advice for getting a writer’s story to a publishable step.

    I know you don’t have time for that, of course. But writing groups all over the world need you.

    • Drop the link right on in there friend and step back for the fireworks. Then remind them that getting upset about it means they know that he’s talking about them. Sometimes, we all need some hard truths.

  7. Only if you’re writing British English the comma doesn’t need to be tucked inside the speech marks, cos our commas are tough, independent chaps who aren’t afraid to get out there and face the world.

      • Sorry, I should qualify the above comment. Punctuation only goes outside of the quotation mark if it is not part of the quote. This usually only happens when you have a part quote in text. I didn’t see any examples in the post that would be done differently in UK English – correct me if I’m wrong.

        • In dialog, UK and US styles are the same. The rules are different when quoting a source in running text.

          US style: Louise said she would “qualify the above comment,” but kissed her cat instead.
          UK style: Louise said she would “qualify the above comment”, but kissed her cat instead.

          In general the British style makes more sense. The comma would only be in the quoteation markes if it were actually part of what was being quoted. But I’m in the US, and stuck with what we’ve got.

          • Exactly, that’s what I was trying to say. I wouldn’t kiss a cat though – I’d be too worried about Toxoplasma gondii burrowing into my brain and making me post weird stuff on people’s blogs.

    • This is true for certain languages othet than English. If writing dialogue in Swedish, the comma comes after the quotation mark. Something I hadn’t really thought about until a snooty creative writing teacher told me off for having it inside the quotes, because that’s how it’s done in the UK, and despite using a Swedish dictionary in Word, the grammar checks were still UK English or something.

  8. Oooh, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do the thing. You know, that thing.

    That thing where you disagree with CHUCK MOTHERFUCKING WENDIG.

    Sometimes–just sometimes, to quote the Crow–it’s okay to use a non-speaking verb in dialogue. “‘I don’t know which testicle is my favorite,’ Dave shrugged.” You say that’s not okay. I say hogwash. HOGWASH, good man! Yes, it must be done sparingly, in all ways the exception rather than the rule. But on occasion? As a purely stylistic choice, to make an impact or to be deliberately amusing, it’s absolutely acceptable.

    That’s the thing about the rules of dialogue–and the rules of writing in general. When you break them because you don’t know them? That’s bad, it looks bad, it reads bad, and you should feel bad. But there are few if any of them you can’t break on occasion, deliberately, for stylistic purposes.

    (I’m talking about content here. Actual structure? Comma inside quotes, that sort of thing? Those aren’t negotiable, and I will chew your fingers off for breaking them.)

    Go ahead, Chuck. Fight me on this. *activates lightsaber*

    • Careful, they gave me an actual lightsaber as part of my deal. 🙂

      Anyway —

      Dave shrugged. “I don’t know which testicle is my favorite.”

      That works. So does flipping the two sentences.

      “I don’t know which testicle is my favorite.”
      Dave shrugged.

      Or, “I don’t know blah blah blah,” Dave said with a shrug. (Or Dave said, shrugging.)

      But when I see using a gesture as a dialogue tag, I consider that poor writing and I put the book down. It’s no different from:

      “I love donkeys,” he nodded.

      Or:

      “Fuck the machine,” he shook his fist.

      Or:

      “CTHULHU RISES,” he vibrated shittingly.

      You may feel its a stylistic choice, and you are of course free to write your books as you see fit. To me it’s a violation I can’t look past. Then again, I violate all kinds of rules on purpose and I’m sure some folks bristle when I do it, too.

    • No editor worth their salt will let that slide, speaking as an Aussie editor who edits books of different regions in that style. And if they do, you might need to reconsider working with them. Plus, any editor seeing it in say, a submission, will very quickly realise that the work is not up to scratch.

    • Yeah, this is a DNF moment for me too–either that or switching to hate-reading to see how much more awful it gets, which on reflection I should probably do less often.

    • Huh. It never occurred to me that authors might be using gesture verbs in dialogue tags as a stylistic choice. That use has always struck me as poor writing, because the dialogue and the gesture are two separate actions.

      I feel like normally I can tell when an author has broken a rule for stylistic choice, because of the effect it has upon me, e.g., sentence fragments to emphasize an action, description, etc.; run-ons to imply the inability to stop and process something, etc. I have never experienced an effect or impact from gestures-as-dialogue other than “oh, that’s wrong.” And if it happens more than once, I’ve felt it’s either the writer is inexperienced or they had a poor editor.

  9. The way I go about worldbuilding is that I, personally, need a foundation in order to tell the story. Act 1 of my current work is 10k words long, and it is just that: world building, introducing the hook for the story, etc. But after reading this, I will cut Act 1 entirely and split it into flashbacks that I will insert into the latter parts of the story, or not at all, and see how it turns out.

    As always, great advice Chuck!

    • One thing about world building to keep in mind is that the reader only needs to see something like 10% of what you’ve actually come up with. It hurts to give up the idea of telling your audience exactly how everything works (it’s my biggest problem too – I tend to get trapped in coming up with complex worlds rather than figuring out what’s happening in them). The thing is, a lot of this information is only important to someone who’s writing in that universe. So unless it’s Star Wars or the Forgotten Realms, that’s pretty much just you.

      One example: the Song of Ice and Fire has a very strange solar system, in order to generate its long and variable summer and winter cycles. Martin has said that he knows what it is, and that it’s indeed scientifically possible. But we don’t see it. It’s irrelevant to the story. We see maesters – the learned men in those books – are capable of predicting the end of Summer and deliver official notification when certain criteria are met that Winter has formally begun. Martin knows what the maesters are observing in order to make this possible, but the only relevant thing in the books is that Winter means no more food production and the maesters can deliver warnings of this in advance to let people know it’s time to start hoarding their last crops.

      Another example: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Right from square one, he’s known about the 16 allomantic metals (plus the two god metals). However, over the course of the main trilogy, we go from knowing about 10 metals to knowing about 14 (if I count correctly). It’s only in Alloy of Law, several centuries after the original trilogy, that the full set of metals is made clear (and even that only in an appendix written specifically for the people who appreciate worldbuilding.)

      Feel free to keep the world building elements written…just try stripping the pure worldbuilding segment out entirely. If you have an alpha reader, have them look at it and see what they got confused about. (With no worldbuilding, they probably are going to get confused, but you don’t need to explain nuclear physics to explain how a nuclear power plant works (reactor heats water into steam, steam turns turbine just like a coal plant).)

  10. I’d like to add something to keep in mind though, when describing action in a scene. Yes, you don’t want to tell every single boring detail, but you do need to keep some basic continuity. If your character puts the kettle on, she needs to make tea, not leave the house with the kettle still on the fire. If your thief takes his shoes off to sneak by a guard, at some point those shoes need to get back on his feet. Otherwise, in the chase scene that follows, that poor thief is going to be running over asphalt and concrete without shoes.

    Readers will notice when actions like that aren’t given the proper closure, because they’ll foreshadow something that is never delivered. Like the kettle should explode. Or the thief should end up in hospital because his feet need stitches.

    Just additional food for thought.

    • Oh, so true. I recently read a book where the main character rolled down the window of his car. Fine. Except that shortly thereafter, he rolled down the window of his car. And then a bit further on, he rolled down the motherfucking window of his car. I went back and read the whole sequence out loud, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating or hadn’t missed him rolling that damned window back up. I wasn’t and I hadn’t. This wasn’t some self-published god-why-did-I-buy-this book, either, but one put out by Roc (Penguin). Apparently, all the editors were out drunk that day.

    • Yes! I’d also add time management to this.

      As in, please try to keep in mind what freaking time it is in the story.
      I recently read a book (I won’t crap on the author), where the teenage heroine went home to a friend’s house after school. When she gets there, they have a conversation that couldn’t have lasted longer than five minutes even if they spoke sloooooooooowwwwwwllllyyyyyyyy.

      She turns around and the sun is setting and it’s 8 pm.

      WHAT? This wasn’t some sort of lost-time, supernatural occurrence, either. I re-read it. Did the girl take a nap or something? Nope. Five hours just vanished… That was enough for me to put the book down.

      • I’ve had so much trouble with this in my own writing. The book you’re talking about may just have been careless and/or lazy, but for me there’s an actual logistical question here.

        Dialogue isn’t speech, so you take out the “Hi, how are you’s” and the boring repetitive bits–so far so good. BUT, that means when two characters have the sort of argument that for real-world people will take two hours because they take a while to get into it and then repeat the same arguments over and over again, you cut all that, and it ends up being only five minutes on the page. You can’t do what the author you read did and claim it was several hours, because the reader sees everything that was said, and there’s no way it took that long. At the same time, your characters have become preternaturally efficient beings who do things in like an eighth the time real people do, and that makes it harder to track time or realistically portray how much can get done in a limited time frame.

        Obviously you can summarize some of the time–if there’s a repetitive, tearful, two-hour argument that spends ages going nowhere, you can give a few snippets of dialogue for flavor, then explain the going-nowhere-ness, tell the reader how repetitive it felt and how somebody left the room at some point, etc, and convey the two hours that way.

        But for arguments that need to make actual points that the reader needs to see? I’m genuinely baffled by how to convey the length of them in story-time.

        • In Laura’s example, I’d have to ask what the purpose was in the girl going to her friend’s house. Did she go only to have the conversation, or did she have a reason to be there?

          If your story requires that she be at the friend’s house for an afternoon while, say, her entire family is being murdered at her home and she needs an alibi and a place to be so that she’s not murdered … well, obviously no one wants to read five hours of teenage dialog. On the other hand, what she actually did at the friend’s house may not add to the plot as such – although it should help to build the character and create context for the action. So you use a few lines to sketch in some action – they’re hanging out doing each other’s nails / engaging in sexual experimentation / practicing their ninja moves – whatever. You don’t need more than a few sentences to account for the passage of time – but you need at least to hint at what the characters are doing.

      • Oh yeah, and time passage within action/combat sequences, too. That gets me every time. When the hero has time to deliver three or four lines of dialogue before the monster (which is already IN MIDAIR) lands on him.

        Combat is fast, people. Melee fights are over in seconds. Minutes at most.

    • I read a good one that involved some people going into some building on the moon, and they entered an airlock. They took off their space suits, then went upstairs to another room. They then left the building without any mention of them putting their suits back on.

  11. THIS kind of really detailed, specific advice is what brought me to the blog in the first place (“unfuck my novel” was the Google search in question, IIRC) and got me to buy the bundle of writing books, and keeps me coming back and referring to those books on a very nearly daily basis.

    My reaction to this post is 90% “People… do that? And then submit it? For other people to read? Oh, okay. I guess I’m not doing so badly then.” I mean, I’ve never met a fragment sentence I didn’t love or a trope I didn’t want to lampshade, but basic rules of grammar and structure are there for reasons. The architecture creates a space in which to play.

    The 10% is in the telegraphing section, which I’m staring at sideways and flipping back and forth between the post and my manuscript trying to decide if I am doing that thing. I don’t think so, but it’s got me thinking.

  12. You’re a clever bastard, Chuck Wendig. I got this post in an email and read it thinking it was just a post. Little did I know it was from your book! Now I have to go buy the damn book! Curse you!

  13. I want to take Roger and a couple dozen cupcakes to WalMart with me the day after Thanksgiving. I’ll get every single thing on my list, and checkout will be a breeze because the customers will be hiding, and the cashiers will be at their stations because they’ll get fired otherwise, even with a raving cake maniac on the loose.

  14. Ok, question for the UK/Australian writers/editors:
    I understood that punctuation within Speech: Commas and periods/full stops differs by country – inside in the US (as indicated by Chuck), outside in the UK.

    Is this correct?

    • No, it’s commas and full stops inside the quotes for the UK too. I think there’s a difference with the quotes though – *apparently* it’s standard practice in the UK to use single quotes for dialogue rather than the double quotes used in the USA.

      (I say apparently because I HATE the idea – I LIKE my double quotes, thank you very much and I’m not having some Oxbridge professor-type taking them away from me just ’cause I live on the wrong side of the pond!)

      • Hm… I think there’s actually something else too, though. My understanding is that periods and commas in the US are ALWAYS inside the quotation marks, whereas exclamation marks and question marks go inside or outside depending on whether the question or exclamation was a quote within the sentence or the sentence itself.

        In the UK, as I understand it, all punctuation works the way !’s and ?’s do here: which side of the quotes it’s on varies by the context.

        I’m American, though, so feel free to correct me, anybody who knows!

        • I’m Canadian, so my schooling is probably in line with the British side of things. When it comes to quoting stuff, punctuation goes in the quote marks when it’s part of the quote:

          The bible starts, “In the beginning”. (Or I think it does. I’m an atheist, so I don’t have anything memorized)

          According to Wikipedia, the US’s federal debt began due to costs in the revolutionary war, “after its foundation in 1989.”

          Yes, this is an absurd place to use a quote; it illustrates the point, nothing more.

          The difference is that the former quote is not the end of the sentence – thus the period is attached to the sentence that includes the quote, while the latter quote is the end of the sentence, thus the period is indeed a part of the quote.

          I suspect the divergence between American and British in this instance is the simple fact that with commas and periods, the difference is rather academic. Both commas and periods say very little about tone – they’re almost entirely a writing construct designed to organize English more effectively. Exclamation marks, on the other hand, indicate emphasis, so having the exclamation mark tied to the quote or the entire sentence tells us if the sentence is being emphasized by the writer or if the writer is expressing something that was emphasized by the person being quoted. Even more important is the question mark, which indicates if the sentence or the quote is the question:

          She said “who’s on first?”

          She said “Who’s on first”?

          (Sorry, Abbot and Costello, it’s the easiest example to use). In the former case, she (whoever she is) is asking who’s on first base. In the latter, the speaker is asking if she said Who was on first base.

          All of this, however, has no bearing on the proper use of punctuation in dialogue quotes, which are as described in the blog post.

  15. Such an excellent post, Chuck. Informative and entertaining, which isn’t a combination you see very often.

    Well, I don’t anyway.

    I made the comma/dialogue mistake throughout my first novel, and it was only when my editor pointed it out that I found out it was wrong. Cue hours of poring over the entire thing and moving commas slightly to the left, which – surprisingly – isn’t actually that much fun.

    And let us know when we can pre-order the book featuring Dave and Eduardo. Sounds good.

  16. What are your thought on books that start slow, but then suddenly ramp up to the ‘inciting’ event and then the ball really gets rolling? I find I like both slow burns and books that start out running. There’s something to say for both, wouldn’t you say?

  17. “I smell your rockie moves new writer,” the voice said

    Addy turned around only to be confronted by the bearded one. His breath stunk of coffee, ink stained his fingers and madness gleamed brightly in his eyes.

    Addy froze, unable to move as the tresspasser emerged from the darkness. He whispering how to truely writing good prose and why introductions and explanation is boring. How a writer shows and never tells.

    Addy noticed the half empty bottle in his hand and the mans lack of pants. Bee’s crawled through his beard hair and the stench of old coffee mingled with that of whiskey. By the time the man was finished, he turned and fled back into the darkness.

    Addy stood there terrified.

    “th-thank you!” he called out to the shadows. Fearing the man would emerge once more.

    • Not trying to split hairs or anything, but since we’re here… “bees” is plural, no apostrophe. Also, the “man’s” lack of pants is a possessive, that man totally owns those not-pants, and so needs an apostrophe. the two sentences would read *clears throat*;
      ‘Addy noticed the half empty bottle in his hand and the man’s lack of pants. Bees crawled through his beard and the stench of old coffee mingled with that of whiskey.’
      I don’t have a handy dandy rhyming rule thingy for this, just remember, if it’s a plural there is no apostrophe, if anybody is owning anything, even a lack of something, THAT’S where you need the apostrophe.

      This is my special little grammatical pet peeve, so, yeah, couldn’t help myself. Some people have you’re/your, I have possessives vs plurals.

  18. Ohhh, I am SO guilty of number one on this list! So guilty I’ve even got a name for the edit sweep designed to eradicate them – my ‘Thunderbirds Puppet Pass’ (because that’s what they look like in my head when I read it back afterwards, with all the nodding and hand-waving and shrugging and frowning and turning to each other…) I also have a ‘Profanity Pass,’ a ‘Fell Down The Plothole Pass’ and a ‘For Crying Out Loud Make Them Stop Doing Stuff With Their Goddamn Eyes! Pass.’

    Thank you for this post, Chuck. At first I felt sad and a little bit of “Oh jeez, perhaps I should just give up on this whole idea of being a writer then…” But then I heard me say that and got all pissy with me and answered “the HELL you will, missus! Hear the Wendig wisdom and USE it – do not turn from the light!” Or something like that. It made me want to do better, anyway.

    • I’m exactly the same with all those editing sweeps. Lots of ‘Thunderbird Puppet Pass’ and ‘For Crying Out Loud Make Them Stop Doing Stuff With Their Goddamn Eyes! Pass’. I’m writing my first draft of my first hopefully publishable novel and I keep doing stuff like ‘he rolled his eyes’ and ‘he shrugged’. I predict many hours tearing my hair out and weeping whilst shrugging and rolling my eyes.

      I find Chuck’s advice oddly reassuring. His brand of tough talking is something I didn’t even know I needed until I bought one of his writing books and found myself chuckling insanely to myself at 3am in the morning. Wendig wisdom indeed.

  19. Wow, I feel like shit! That was less than encouraging to a hot puke stage writer. Kinda makes me want to delete everything I’ve ever written.

    • Don’t delete EVERYTHING, just the truly shit parts. Everything else is either readable or salvageable. I’m pretty sure this article was meant to make it easier for you to figure out which parts are shit and why they are shit, because if you know how and why something is terrible then it’s a LOT easier to fix. Fix the stuff you like, delete only the stuff you really, really don’t. That’s how you make your writing better. Deleting it will only make it impossible for those stories to improve.

      • TY, Ashley Jade… don’t worry, I’m still oppositional-defiant enough to no delete eben the crap, lol. Chuck just sent me into a memory loop of an old high school english yeacher moment. She was a bitch on wheels.

  20. Yes to all of this! I teach creative writing at university and I love my students but MY DOG do they love to hold on tight to every little thing until–BAM!–they throw it at the reader and isn’t it so exciting and you didn’t see it coming and …
    No.
    They confuse holding back information with building suspense, believing that I am (or that anyone else is) going to read the story all the way to the end to find out just what the fuck it is actually *about*. They confuse writing a story with telling a joke. There is no punchline in a story.

    Their other sin: being, as you say, deliberately ambiguous. They’re new writers, so they have these artsy-fartsy ideas about letting the reader interpret everything. Rather than, yanno, telling the damn story. I call them out on it and say that they do this because THEY don’t know what the story is about.

    And the reason why I can get on their case about this shit? Because I have been guilty of the same, and still am at times. It’s a constant learning curve 🙂

    Thanks for being the voice of reason. I send my students to read “Uncle Chucky” quite often, and they’ve learned a lot from you!

  21. Agree with everything, but I think there’s another thing for me about beginnings that’s almost the opposite of this (though of course it isn’t): a writer needs to start in a hurry, but they can’t LOOK like they’re in a hurry.

    There’s nothing wrong–necessarily–with starting a book with a break-neck giraffe-chase through the desert and the super-competent narrator nearly dies but pulls it back at the last moment and figures it out… but it’s not the only way to start. It’s not always the best way to start. This is partly my taste (I’m not that into action-for-action’s-sake), but fearing for the character’s life off the bat doesn’t grab me on its own. An author with things to say about the world is what grabs me (but oh dear god, I don’t mean you should *say* those things in an awful Heinlein-esque lecture–I mean, an author who portrays the world in a way that opens up new thoughts for me WHILE things are happening, using the things that are happening–that’s what grabs me.) I have DNFed books on page 2 because the rollicking fight scene felt like the writer was trying too hard to keep me because they knew they had nothing to give besides actiony thrills.

    It may be that I am boring, but to my mind, a good author conveys an immediate sense of assuredness. I believe them that the pace at which things are presented is deliberate. The *things* that are presented are deliberate. It’s all part of the plan, it’s all saying something important, and I’m along for the ride, paying careful attention to all of it. It starts immediately, but it goes at it’s own pace. It doesn’t try to fulfill my expectations–it sets them.

    I just read the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and my God would I rather read about Offred sitting in an empty room than 99.99% of the gunfights and dragon fights that start most fantasy novels. Not because the writing was pretty (though it was) or because I’m a terribly boring person (I’ll leave that to others to decide), but because Offred sitting in an empty room is fucking *terrifying.* Margaret Atwood knew how to make me ask the questions that would keep me hooked, and she knew how to answer them and not answer them until I desperately needed to know–that’s what I mean by assuredness.

  22. Yes. Also, Google Maps is wonderful (and airplanemanager.com for that particular purpose). One thing that will pull me right out of a story is that thing where a bunch of action and travel happens in a physically impossibly short period of time. (Let’s drive from Denver to Albuquerque in three hours! NOPE.) You’d think that this was basic stuff, but no, I’ve seen it a lot in NYT bestselling novels.

    In the project I’ve got in revisions, there’s a lot of both road and small jet travel around the western US, with two groups moving around at the same time. I used a spreadsheet broken down into 15-minute increments, with columns for Pacific and Mountain times and columns for each story location, to plot out a particularly fraught 24-hour period. Departure times, arrival times, enroute stops, communications.

    Not only did this understructure work keep it internally consistent, it revealed plot and pacing connections I would not have otherwise discovered.(If you need to get a package into international same-day air in Vegas, it needs to be done by noon; when do you have to leave Edwards AFB, and will you beat sunrise and the FBI helicopters to the remote western Colorado farm where the standoff is going to be happening? 9:30am if you speed like a lunatic, and yes, but not by much.)

  23. Chuckie has hit the nail or, better yet, writer penis, on the head. Just read his Blackbird to get an idea of how to capture a reader’s interest. I haven’t been as enthused by a writer since I picked up Salinger’s work many moons ago. Rock on, Chuck!

    • That’s quotation, not dialogue. They are different, though dialogue iften doesn’t make it into style guides because proper (academic and business) writing doesn’t have dialogue.

  24. I’m a ROOKIE. I know I’m a ROOKIE and everyone else knows I’m a ROOKIE, but I truly believe I tried to avoid a lot of the points listed above. Oh, I’m sure I debased one or two of them but I really tried to not look like a f*#*%n ROOKIE.
    Now, if someone with clout, who doesn’t feel that ROOKIE stories are beneath them would only give it a try; they could Rock a Rookie’s world I’m sure.
    Good job Chuck.
    Now how do we get every ROOKIE to read this and take it to heart?

  25. Hello Chuck, howya doin’. I understand you and Peggy Wheeler are close personal friends, and that she has informed you of a conversation going on at Fiction Writers Group on FB (8K plus members) where some appreciate your message, but not so much your usage of colorful language. Would you give me permission to take this article, with attribution, of course, though your readers and followers may not recognize it without all the fucking language, and remove all the curse words then post it on FWG and see what the responses are? I’d like to find out how many would be able to GET the message without your special application of colorful language. Thanks, Earl Chessher, FWG admin.

    • Sorry, Earl, no such permission. I write what I write the way I want to write it, not the way people would prefer to read it. My special application of colorful language, as it were, is intentional, not accidental.

  26. I kept telling myself, I’d stop reading after I hit the Hot Puke part. But I couldn’t. The wording is a mite gritty but it’s real… Thanks for the slap upside the head 🙂

  27. Nice essay, but your grammar is wrong:

    “Adverbs get a bad rap in fiction, which is silly because adverbs are everywhere. In fact, the word ‘everywhere’ in that sentence? It’s an adverb! Holy shit!”

    “Everywhere” is not an adverb in that sentence. Adverbs modify verbs; hence, the name. In that sentence “everywhere” is telling us about “adverbs” (they’re everywhere), not modifying the verb. The term you are looking for is “noun complement.”

    • It’s still an adverb.

      A noun complement — aka, a subject complement — is not actually one of the basic parts of speech.

      The word “everywhere” in that sentence is, indeed, a noun/subject complement, but a noun/subject complement is still either an adjective, noun, pronoun, or adverb.

      HE WILL BE FINE.

      I AM SHE.

      DAN IS A DILDO SALESMAN.

      Etc.

      But, it also works as an adverbial —

      http://homepages.uwp.edu/canary/grammar_text/47-subcomp.html

      To quote from that link:

      ‘Predicate Adverbs. There remain some sentences with be as the main verb which have neither noun phrases or adjectives as complements:

      (11) The end is here.
      (12) The end is soon.
      In these sentences, the subject complements “here” and “soon” are adverbs and they are being used as predicate adverbials. Here is an adverb of place, also called a locative. Soon is an adverb of time. Those are the only kind of adverbs which can appear as subject complements–just as they are the only adverbs to serve as postmodifiers in noun phrases.’

      (more information on adverbs of place: http://www.gingersoftware.com/content/grammar-rules/adverb/adverbs-place/ )

      So, in that sentence, “Everywhere” remains an adverb despite also being a subject or noun complement.

      — c.

  28. Among all the grammar and other writerly discussions, I believe the most important element of this rant is being overlooked.

    John Q. Dicknoggin.

    If I don’t call someone that before I leave work today, I’ll consider it a waste.

  29. I completely disagree about the dialogue.

    “This sentence is complete,” He lied. (INCORRECT!)

    “This sentence is complete.” He stated correctly. (CORRECT!)

    Fuck the “rules”. You never end a sentence with a comma. Period. ESPECIALLY “just because it’s dialogue”. That’s the dumbest thing I was ever taught about writing, and I have spent my life purposefully breaking said “rule”. Anyone who ends a sentence with a comma is more amateurish than anyone who ends their sentences with proper punctuation, regardless of any number of other possible mistakes. The sentence is over. A comma means that there is more coming. And no, the “he said” isn’t part of the sentence. It’s a completely separate statement. (It’s a fragment, I’ll give you that, but it isn’t part of the dialogue.)

    • This is where it gets a little like math, because your disagreement actually means nothing compared to the power of Too Bad, It Actually Has Rules. Now, if enough people disagree and don’t care about the rules, it stops being a thing.

      For the record, in dialogue one is not ending a sentence with a comma, because the sentence isn’t ended until the period. That’s actually how it works. These are actually the rules. Sorry to disappoint, but reality intrudes.

      — c.

    • I… what? None of this is even slightly true.

      “This sentence is incomplete.” He lied.
      –This works perfectly fine if these are two separate statements: a character says something in the first sentence, and then the narrator is providing a second thought in the second sentence, not an attribution. It’s basically identical to:
      “This sentence is incomplete,” he said. He lied.

      As for:
      “This sentence is complete,” he said.
      –This is normal attribution, a full sentence that tells us what he said. You can’t just make up a rule and say it isn’t. It works essentially like this sentence:
      He said the sentence is complete.

      The only difference is that in the first one the dialogue is given precisely rather than paraphrased as it is in the second. Otherwise, they’re both the same kind of complete sentence. Quotes and commas are the way direct quotation is conveyed in most fiction written in English.

      …I really don’t understand what you’re debating.

    • Also, the correct way to present the first sentence is: “This sentence is incomplete,” he lied.

      Because you don’t put the tag in upper case unless it’s a proper name? Why not? Because the sentence isn’t complete until you get to the period at the end of “lied.” That’s part of the rule too.

  30. I agree with your ten points. What I don’t understand is how a sizeable minority of self-pubbed authors, who offend in many of the ways mentioned, are doing so well? Some are on the Amazon best-seller lists. What seems to draw in readers more than good writing are 1) professional, consistent, genre-reflecting covers, and 2) a lot of books in the series. Yes, there is the sample, but either readers don’t care it’s bad, or they don’t understand what good writing is. Like hip hop lovers thinking Fetty Wap is good because they don’t know any better.

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