S.C. Jensen is a writer and artist living in Middle-of-Nowhere, Saskatchewan, Canada. Please don't hold it against her.
She is currently writing a quarterly magazine for Northern Saskatchewan, called The Trailblazer. She also writes some short fiction in the speculative fiction and folk genres, and is working on her second sci-fi novel, The Children of Bathora.
Her short story "The Spirit of Settee Lake" was featured in the online publication, "Good Medicine Stories with Lee Maracle and Richard Van Camp".
Her first novel, "The Timekeepers' War," published by Bedlam Press, was released in 2014 and can be purchased at most online book retailers.
The results are in! Well, they’ve been in for a while, but I’m slow to update. As you probably know, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story and Flash Fiction Challenges for the past 2.5 years. I highly recommend them to any writer who wants to shake things up in their writing routine. The thrill of getting your assignment, having a tight deadline to complete it in, and receiving judges feedback on each round is well worth the entry fee.
I began the first round of the Short Story Challenge this January. It was my second attempt at the SSC. The first time, I didn’t make it past the first round. It’s pretty steep competition with the first round having more than 4500 participants and only the top 750 making it into round two.
This year, I not only made it into round two, I made it to the third and final round! From the original 4500+ writers, I made it into the top 90. That feat in itself was enough to put stars in my eyes. In April, we were given our final assignments. We had 24 hours to write a 1500 word story, open genre, subject: side effect(s), and character: a gravedigger. It was a whirlwind of writing and revisions, but I did it and I was pretty happy with my submission. I tried not to think about the final results too much over the next few months…
I am exceedingly proud to announce that my story “The Caulbearer” placed 12th overall in the final round! It wasn’t quite high enough to receive a cash prize (top 10 received anywhere from $5000 to $125 USD… that’s next years goal, haha). But I did score a new writing program, and the massive honour of being in the top 20 stories out of so many talented writers from around the world. The results are posted here if you are interested in checking it out. I will be posting my story with the judges feedback in the Story Laboratory for the benefit of other writers out there who want to see what NYC Midnight is all about, or who want to see what professional critique in a contest setting looks like. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!
I just completed round one of this years Flash Fiction contest last weekend. My assignment was Genre: Drama, Location: a submarine, Object: a dozen eggs. This is my third year participating in the FFC. I have made it to the third round the past two years, but never the forth and final round for flash fiction. So this year, that is my stretch goal! I’ll keep you updated when I receive my score and feedback on round one.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.
This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.
In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.
Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.
I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”
To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?
“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.
Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.
The Quick Fix: Past Continuous
Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.
Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class. b) Billie ran to his play writing class.
It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.
Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him. b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.
Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:
Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.
Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.
Next Step: Kill the Narrator
All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.
To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.
Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.
Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes. b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.
In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.
When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!
Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose. b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.
Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.
Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How
If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.
Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.
Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn. b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.
Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks. b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.
Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water. b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.
I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.
Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.
To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.
What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.
Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.
I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.
I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.
The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!
I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.
Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.
July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…
I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!
May is more than halfways gone and I haven’t done a single post! Sorry about that. I’ve started coaching soccer and t-ball, and I was away up north for an education outreach thing and somehow the month has slipped away from me.
I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on here. I found out last week that I placed 2nd in my heat for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with the dreaded “Romantic Comedy” genre. I complained about it HERE.
I’m incredibly excited to even be in the third and final round. The first round had over 4500 competitors, round two we were narrowed down to about 750, and now we’re down to only 90 people in round three. Before this year I hadn’t even made it to round two in the short story competition.
So I have 24 hours to complete a 1500 word story. The genre is open, the subject is “a side-effect”, and the character is “a grave digger.”
I decided to go with a ghost story. I’m done the first draft and am awaiting feedback from my faithful readers, those who are available at the very last minute, haha. There are just under 8 hours left now. So I hope I don’t have to make any major changes.
I will keep you update, and hopefully will be a little less busy after this and be able to post more frequently. Thanks for reading!
Well, this has been a great week for me in writing news! I just found out that my story “Cheese-Head” (Genre: Fairy Tale, Theme: Superhuman, Character: A Cheese Maker) placed second over all in the first heat for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, and I’m moving on to round two! Which means I’ll be glued to my computer for the better part of this weekend.
I have three days to complete my next challenge. The prompt is Genre: Romantic Comedy, Theme: Anxiety, Charcter: A Brewer.
Now, Rom-Com is pretty close to as far from my comfort zone as I can get aside from full on Romance. I’m not super comfortable with Comedy, either, but my comedy flash fiction piece “Pi in the Sky” placed third in its heat last year, and “Cheese-Head” is as much comedy as a fairy tale, so I think that part might go okay. Romance though… ugh.
Wish me luck!
I have to submit this piece by midnight on Sunday. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, if you head over to the Story Laboratory and read the above-linked comedy piece, you can let me know what works and doesn’t work with my previous attempts at humour. I need all the help I can get!
Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”
The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.
In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.
What is Telling?
“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.
Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.
When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.
Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.
The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.
Good Telling vs Bad Telling
Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.
a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.
In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”
Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!
Let’s look at another example of telling with style.
a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.
Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.
Adverbs: Telling in Disguise
Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.
a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.
Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:
a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.
But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”
Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:
a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.
Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.
What is Showing?
If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.
There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.
Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.
The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.
Good Showing vs Bad Showing
Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…
a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.
Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.
d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.
Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.
When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.
Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.
Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.
In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.
Choose wisely, and show with caution.
Finding Your Balance
How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.
But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.
Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.
What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.
So I’m a little embarrassed to share this next piece of news with you.
That horrible, no good, very bad story I was writing? Well, all of the figurative blood, sweat, and literal tears paid off. I won second place in The Arcanist’sMagical Short Story Contest! You can see the announcement HERE.
This is all extremely exciting to me. I’ve never won a real writing contest before. I have yet to sell one of my short stories in a semi-pro or pro market (but I’m working on that!).
And second place came with a $250 USD cash prize which, I’m pretty sure, is more than my book made in the first year. This is officially my most successful piece of fiction writing!
Better yet, the winning stories and the runners up, will be published in a collection called Magic, Mayhem & Monsters coming out later this week!
I’ll post a link as soon as I have one.
The absolute best thing about this whole experience, though, is how validating it is to be recognized after I worked so hard on this story. I say it all the time: if you keep working, keep failing, and keep trying again, eventually you will succeed. That is all you have to do. And sometimes it sucks (just see my rant). Sometimes I feel like I’m just telling myself this fairy tale to drive off the swirling void of depression. But it’s proven true once again.
Fail. Learn from it. Fail again. Keep trying. Your next attempt will be a little bit better. Eventually you’ll get it right!
I’m newly motivated to keep working on my short story submissions this year. And as my editor friend has assured me, it won’t always be this hard. The more you fall down, the easier it gets to pick yourself up again. You start to notice those cracks in the sidewalk before you catch your toe. Practice makes progress.
Now I need to send a huge shout out to my readers during this whole process. Some of these benevolent spirits read every single draft! That’s a lot of work in a very short time. And even those who were only able to read one version all gave me valuable insight into what was working and what wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it without you guys! I should get them to write the next installment of Critique Mystique.
Thank you to everyone who reads this, and comments, and offers support on my bad days. I’m so glad you’re here to celebrate my successes with, too!
If you have ever received a story critique from me (you lucky dog, you) I’ve probably harped on and on about filler and filter words. It comes up in 90% of the stories I read.
I just made that statistic up out of thin air, but it’s how I feel, and that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?
Filler words get talked about on a lot of writing blogs. We’ve all read, and probably ignored, countless articles about how they weaken our writing and felt that it doesn’t really apply to us. (Really. See what I did there? My own blog pieces are full of the bastards.) Filter words are trickier, and they aren’t discussed as often, but I’m going to shine a light on the ugly blighters today and hopefully scare them out of your writing.
If simultaneity is the death by a thousand cuts, slowly draining your story’s momentum, then fillers and filters are equally dangerous. If I had to stretch this metaphor–and of course I have to–filler words are death by suffocation on Peeps marshmallow chicks and filters are death by toe-suspension. Or something.
Okay, let me explain what I mean by Filler and Filter words before you decide if those ridiculously nefarious images make any sense.
Filler Words: Put your story on a diet
Cut the fluff. Trim the fat. Tighten your prose. It’s time to put your writing on a word diet.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from studying short story crafting over the past couple of years is the power of brevity. If you are writing a 1000 word flash fiction piece, you must make every word count. You cannot afford to waste precious words on fluff.
I’m looking at you, filler words.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Filler words like: just, that, very, really, literally, totally, quite, perhaps, actually, almost, slightly, simply, absolutely; Filler phrases like: in order to, due to the fact that, etc.
Seeing these filler words in a list, they seem totally innocuous. These are common, every day words that slip naturally into our writing because we use them in our speech. First person narratives tend to be the worst offenders for this reason, but fillers can slip into any POV. The trouble is, in written language, these words do nothing but drag us down.
I get a lot of push back when I point out filler words, for some reason. A lot of writers seem to think that they create a conversational voice and add authenticity to their stories. And in some, exceedingly rare cases, this can be argued if one is writing in a particularly deep POV for a particular kind of character.
For the moment, though, please humour me and lets assume that you are not that special case and your filler words are unnecessary dead weights dragging your story into the depths of the oceans of despair.
Examples: How to cut Filler Words
Ex. 1. a) Breanne really wished that she could just disappear. (8 words) b) Breanne wished she could disappear. (5 words)
Ex. 2. a) The wind was quite cold and the trees almost bent double. (11 words) b) The trees bent double in the cold wind. (8 words)
Ex. 3. a) Josie popped into the shop in order to grab a coffee before work. (13 words) b) Josie popped into the shop to grab a coffee before work. (11 words)
Yes. I know. You’re already rolling your eyes at me. Surely saving two or three words here and there isn’t going to make or break your story? Spoken like someone who has never tried to write flash fiction!
But do you see how much cleaner the above sentences sound, simply by removing the filler words? It’s a subtle different that adds up if you apply it throughout your story.
Now, I dare you to search your latest manuscript for the words: very, really, that, and just.
It’s not just a few words here and there is it?
Depending on the length of your story or novel, I’m betting you have hundreds if not thousands of filler words waiting to be culled. I know I do. I’m getting better at not writing them in the first place, but my drafts are still full of them.
I actually love going through my first draft, cutting the fluff, and then deciding where to spend my newly freed-up words. Particularly when I’m confined to a tight word count.
The fact is, filler words give your writing a diluted, wishy-washy feel. Write with conviction, commit to your images, tell the reader exactly what is going on and don’t be afraid to be specific. Cutting the fluff will give an automatic boost to the pace of your story and make your meaning clearer to the reader. It’s probably the only foolproof diet plan in existence.
Filter words, on the other hand, are trickier.
Filter Words: Strip down and get intimate
Now that your story is sporting a trim new silhouette, it’s time to show off. Filter words are all about how close you allow your POV to get to the characters thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. You want to eliminate words that filter your characters experience unnecessarily.
I like to think of POV as a movie camera. How your reader experiences your story has a lot to do with where you place this imaginary camera. Panning across a scene from far above shows a breadth of detail with little depth. The closer you bring the camera in, the less the reader will know about the big picture, but the more they will get to see of your character’s actual experience in the world.
I, personally, like an intimate POV. It allows for greater emotional investment and deeper immersion in the story. Of course there are times when a narrative requires a little distance, and I’m not going to argue about that. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you want your readers to BE your characters while they are reading. Culling filter words is how you will do this.
Filter words can be broken into two main categories. Sensing and Thinking. Sensing filters are verbs like: to see, to watch, to smell, to feel, to hear, to taste, etc. Thinking filters are verbs like: to know, to wonder, to realize, to think, to seem, etc.
And the worst offender of all, which probably deserves its own post, is the verb “to be”
Again, these words are ubiquitous. They seem harmless. But they are not. They hold your reader at an emotional distance from your POV character, effectively preventing them from fully immersing themselves in your story. That’s bad.
Filter words unnecessarily filter your story through the characters perceptions when, in a tight first or third person POV, the reader should actually be the character. Filter words are a constant reminder that the reader is reading and not experiencing your story first hand. That’s very bad.
Examples: How to cut Filter Words
Ex. 1. a) Sarah felt a stab of panic in her heart. She heard a scratching sound on the other side of the door. She wondered if maybe she’d forgotten to let the cat back in. But then she noticed something she couldn’t ignore. She smelled damp earth and rotting meat. Sarah knew that Rob was back from the grave. (57 words) b) Panic stabbed Sarah’s heart. Something scratched outside the door. Had she forgotten to let Mittens back in? No. It couldn’t be the cat. The smell of damp earth and rotting meat oozed in through an open window. Sarah backed away slowly. Rob, fresh from the grave, called out softly, “I know you’re in there, Sarah.” (55 words)
Ex. 2. a) I was walking down the garden path when I smelled the sweetest scent. I looked down and saw bright purple flowers at my feet. It seemed like they were growing out of the cobblestones themselves. I wondered who had planted them there? I heard birds chirping in the trees and felt the warmth of the sun upon my face, and I realized that I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (70 words) b) I meandered down the garden path when the sweetest scent tickled my nose. Bright purple flowers waved at me from the cobblestones at my feet. Who could have planted them? Birds chirped gaily in the trees and warm sun kissed my cheeks. I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (49 words)
I hope I’ve illustrated how much more you can show a reader, in equal or fewer words, when you eliminate filters. Again, as with any of the examples I come up with off the top of my head, these are not brilliantly shining beacons of literary genius. But, in the first example I was able to add detail to the scene without adding extra words. In the second example, I conveyed the exact same information, using stronger language, in far fewer words. All I had to do is get rid of the filters.
The thing is, if you tell a reader that “joy bubbled in Ali’s heart, like fizzy cream soda” we know that Ali is the one feeling this. To say “Ali felt joy bubbling in his heart like fizzy cream soda” is redundant, and it only serves as a reminder to the reader than he is not there with Ali, experiencing this joy with him, but a mere observer.
To Be or Not To Be…
Definitely not. “To be” verbs, like was, is, am, were, and all of their various tenses can almost always be eliminated to create a stronger image or sentence.
Bob was looking around the corner. –> Bob looked around the corner.
Sheila was wearing a bright green hat that was drooping on one side. –> Sheila wore a bright green hat that drooped on one side.
I was sad. –> Grief crushed me.
Eliminating “to be” verbs simplifies your sentences and, in some cases, forces you to show an image or emotion rather than telling the reader about it.
Now Forget Everything I Just Told You
At least for the first draft, try not to worry about any of this too much. It’s the kind of fussing that really slows down the writing process. My advice is to save fillers and filters for later on in the editing process. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, and all of these rules can bog even the most experience writers down.
But I would like you to try applying this to one of your own stories and see what you think! Let me know how it goes.
What do you think about fillers and filters? Were you aware of these terms before? Have you read about them and ignored them repeatedly, like I did for years? Tell me all about it in the comments!
So, I decided to participate in a Fantasy short story competition this month. Fantasy story up to 5000 words, sounds easy enough, right? Well, folks. I think I discovered one of my hard limits. Writing fantasy as short fiction is painfully difficult. Not the good pain.
I love fantasy. It was probably the first genre I really got into as a young reader, and it carried me through into adulthood before I reached my saturation point and gave up on it for a while. At the time, I felt like there was nothing much new happening in the genre and I wanted to branch into different things. Like James Joyce.
I may never recover.
Anyway, I still like fantasy. I have never been a fantasy writer, though. I use a lot of fantastical elements. I almost never write general fiction. Bizarro details sneak in when I’m not expecting it. It is a gift and a curse. But full on fantasy in a different world with different rules… Never.
A short fantasy story seemed like a nice easy way to get acquainted with the genre as a writer. Even typing that sentence now has me giggling manically and pulling out my hair.
HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS THING WHERE THEY CRAM A WHOLE WORLD AND BACK STORY AND CULTURE AND EVERYTHING INTO ANYTHING LESS THAN A NOVELLA????
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.
But I need to vent. Let me tell you about my experience.
Draft #1 (secretly hoping “and only”)
My first draft went really well. I was riffing off of a 1200 word flash fiction piece I did for 12 Short Stories last year that was well received. The overwhelming feedback I’d gotten was that readers wished it had been longer. Convenient, right? I’d just flesh out the details to about 4000 words and voila, my competition piece would be born.
Well, luckily I have reader friends who set me straight on that front. It was a fine story. But I was info-dumping like I’d eaten a bad literary burrito. That’s a new thing for me. I do not info dump. I am usually accused of the opposite–withholding all the necessary details and forcing my readers to puzzle out the truth. But apparently, the info-dump is how one deals with all of that back story and world building and other crap that is supposed to appear in a good fantasy story.
Okay, Draft #2 then…
Second round. I cut out a bunch of the extra details, culled the back story to what I thought were the bare essentials, and tried to disperse it a little more evenly throughout the story. The result? Readers thought it was better. There was still a little too much exposition, but that’s to be expected with fantasy. Then one of my readers suggested working all of that backstory into the dialogue with an “As you know, blahblahblah” technique.
I balked at that, naturally. The only thing worse than an infodump, surely, is an infodump pretending to be natural conversation.
But I also wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reception of my second draft. And I’m a writer, dammit. I can figure out how to get my characters talking about their world, can’t I?
Third time’s the charm?
Draft three. Glowing praises from the readers. Yes, the pace was much better now, there’s no more info dumping. I’d killed all of the infodumps, there were none. It was glorious.
So I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. He’s not a writer, so he doesn’t get hung up on all those little writerly things we like to nit-pick about one anothers’ work. I figured it was going to be a slam dunk.
Not so. He had no idea what the hell my story was about. The only reason my other readers loved the new version was that they, unwittingly, were still benefiting from all the exposition I had cut. Just like me, they knew the story that was behind the scenes, and they couldn’t unknow it. I needed new readers.
I’m not going to lie, I cried.
Two more new readers gave me the same feedback. So, back to the drawing board again.
Draft #4. Bring it on home!
Draft Four now. An editor friend of mine suggested that I reverse engineer the story to discover the absolute bare minimum amount of back story necessary in order to make the story work. In order to do that I really had to focus on the little golden kernel at the heart of the story. Everything else was chaff. Cut, cut, cut, cut cut.
Okay. I revealed the key elements of my story. Now I had to drop those elements in earlier, without killing the pacing I’d just amped up. And make them more obvious, despite my overwhelming desire to hide them like easter eggs at random throughout the story (Why do I do that? We may never know.)
Result? Much better, much clearer. But…
But? What do you mean ‘but?’ I solved the problem. I fixed the story. It’s all good now, right?
Well, it’s just a little choppy is all. You did hack the whole thing apart with a meat cleaver. And now that these details aren’t here, these character reactions are completely unmotivated and seem overly dramatic.
Draft “Just-let-me-die” #5
Well. Draft #5 was it. Not because I have a masterpiece of fantasy writing on my hands but because today was the final deadline for the story contest. I managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and I think I’ve got a story that is worth reading, if not a home-run-slam-dunk winner. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell if it’s garbage or not anymore. I’m just exhausted. I only sent the final copy to a couple of my original readers, and I made them promise not to tell me if they notice anything I need to change. They can sit on it until I get my rejection.
But I’m coming back to it. Because I will make this story work, dammit. I will. I have put too many bloody hours into this thing not to see it published.
The Moral of the Story Is…
First of all, fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to write in short forms. I clearly underestimated the skills required to tackle a project like this. I also need to read more fantasy stories in the 5000 and under range to get a feel for how experienced writers go about crafting micro-fantasy worlds. Because now that I know how hard it is, of course I want to keep doing it. I’m a glutton for punishment.
Second of all, first drafts suck. Usually second and third drafts suck. If you come at writing expecting to do it right the first time around, from inspiration to finished project, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Or maybe you don’t see it, in which case you’re setting your readers up for disappointment. Either way it’s not good.
Now, I know this about my writing. I have come to terms with the fact that first drafts are beautiful in their potential and ugly in their execution. I also know that it is infinitely easier to work through the drafting process if you give yourself time between each kick at the can. What I didn’t realize was how mentally and emotionally exhausting drafting can be when you don’t give yourself that distance between drafts.
I did not have the luxury of time on my side and getting through these drafts nearly drove me insane. Do yourself a favour and plan to take your time. Your story and your mental health with thank you!
But I don’t regret the experience at all. Even if I don’t place, which I know I likely won’t, what I learned by doing this intense speed-drafting process was invaluable. I pushed through even when I didn’t want to, I tried things I didn’t want to try, I took advice I didn’t want to take, I stuck with it even when I wanted to throw my computer out the window. And the story I have now is so, so, so much better than my first draft.
And in a month or so, I’ll be ready to tackle Draft #6, 7, 8… however many it takes to get it right.
Writers, have you ever tried to cram massive revisions into a short time frame? How did you feel during and after?
Readers, did you have any idea how many different versions your favourite stories go through before they make it into your hot little hands?
Add your questions, comments, and moral support below.