The Beauty of Things Unsaid (Advice for the 2nd Draft)

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

~Anton Chekhov

Words are a writer’s currency. But too many words – or the wrong ones – will devalue a written work faster than an oil spill devalues an oil company’s stock.

This isn’t news to you. You know all too well the struggle to find the right words to tell your story. (Put down the thesaurus. That’s not what I mean. Have you even been reading this blog?) And so you write. And write. And write some more. And you finally finish your first draft.

And yet when you go back to read what you’ve written, it just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s not like you’re missing any key ingredients. The characters are believable. The plot is moving along just fine. There’s plenty of lovely description to set the scene.

But something’s wrong.

Now, it could just be that your writing sucks. (This is where you look around the room to see who else I might be talking to, because surely it isn’t you. I mean, your crit partners loved your short story about the fruit fly that preferred vegetables. “It’s a work of literary genius,” “a powerful metaphor about love and loss,” “like Animal Farm, but with insects,” they told you. Well, their actual words were, “it didn’t make me want to vomit,” but that’s essentially the same thing, right?)

Or it could be that you’re simply saying too much.

There are lots of ways “too many words” can steal the power from a story. Here are the three most common that I run into:

The Telling

I love the Chekhov quote at the top of this post. I haven’t found a better one to describe the difference between “telling” and “showing.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You already know why showing is generally better than telling. So why, then, do you have an entire paragraph dedicated to telling us what the protagonist is anticipating immediately preceding paragraphs that so beautifully show us exactly what happens?

There’s nothing wrong with some internal thoughts here and there. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional telling. But there’s rarely a need to have both the telling and the showing. I bet you can find at least a dozen places in your first draft where you do this. Yes, showing usually takes more words than telling (not always). But the showing words aren’t the problem. Trim the redundant telling. Your readers will thank you. (In their hearts.)

The Describing

There are very few writers who can do detailed description well. I’m talking about the sort of detail that reveals every shadow and wrinkle on a bruised white rose lit by twilight, or the font (and foundry it came from) that graces the title page of the book buried beneath a pile of similarly dust-deviled tomes that the protagonist reaches for with paint-stained fingers (Sherwin-Williams Rookwood Amber). (See? I’m not one of those writers. I’m okay with that.)

But just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean we don’t attempt it. What happens, though, is we end up with wordy descriptions that tell us stuff we don’t really care to know (or need to know). For example, if you simply tell me that a bowling ball rolls off the top shelf and lands on your hero’s head, that paints a clear enough picture for me to see it happen. Do I need to know that it was a 15 pound red and black Brunswick Evil Siege bowling ball? Well, maybe I do. Does the specific brand/weight/color play into the story elsewhere? Or are you being intentionally over-descriptive because it makes the scene funnier? In those cases, fine. But otherwise? I’ll paint the bowling ball black (or green if I actually owned one of my own that happened to be green) and assume it’s heavy enough to do the necessary damage.

I know what you’re thinking. All those writing books tell you to be specific. Hell, I’ll tell you that right here, too. Be specific. But…learn when to leave the rest of the picture to the reader’s imagination. If it’s not critical to the story (or the writer’s voice) that the character uses a Rachael Ray blue porcelain 10-inch skillet to kill the spider, just let the character use a plain ol’ skillet.

The Dialoging

I love this one. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write (and edit). Let’s start here: Take a minute to listen to real-life dialogue. Now, imagine transcribing that verbatim. It doesn’t quite look right, does it. One reason for this is the fact that you can’t actually layer multiple conversations on top of each other. If two people are talking at the same time, you can say so in your novel, but you’ll still have to run their words one sentence after another because you can’t stamp them on top of each other. (Well, you could, but that would look like a printer error.) Because of this, if you include every actual spoken word, dialogue that only takes a moment to speak in real time can stretch on for pages when written. Think of your written dialogue as spoken dialogue that’s been edited not only for content, but also for clarity and rhythm.

Also, real conversation has lots of non-words and repeated-ad-nauseum words in it, things like ums and ers and likes and plenty of unintelligible grunts and groans. Put all of them on the page and your readers will wonder what sorts of drugs you abuse.

But I still haven’t gotten to the biggest wordiness problem with dialogue: hijacking the character to deliver information readers should get elsewhere. You’ll recognize this dialogue by the way your character suddenly appears to be a puppet for the plot rather than a real human being.

“Is the sword shaped like a cross with a sharp dagger end that’s dangling over your head making you nervous, Edward?”

“No, Jacob. But you should be scared because I’m baring my fangs right now and they’re really menacing because they’re sharp and I’m smiling at the same time which is ironic and therefore underscores my obvious lack of fear.”

Please. Don’t. Go. There.

Instead, establish the scene so we know Edward is standing under the cross with the sharp dagger end. Then all you have to write is this:


Edward looks up at the cross then back to Jacob. He smiles, then bares his fangs.

“Not even a little.”

I know, my example is over the top. I did that on purpose. But you get the idea. If you need to deliver information to the reader about something in a scene, only use dialogue if it’s the sort of information the character would organically include in the course of the conversation.

Well, that’s all the questionable wisdom I have for you today, friends. Now get back to that second draft and start chopping.

Stuck In the Middle

For some, it happens around the 30,000th word. The lucky ones make it to 40 or 50K before they start to wade through it. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, the dreaded Middle of Uncertainty. (Okay, no one really calls it that. I just made it up because it sounds imposing).

Just what is the Middle of Uncertainty? Well, it’s a lot of things, but in the simplest of terms, it’s that place where you start to lose hope/interest/momentum in this novel that you were certain was going to be a beautiful saga of love, loss, redemption and werewolves.

It’s the place where you’re suddenly stymied. Stuck. Or perhaps worst of all, beginning to fear that the rest of the book won’t live up to the first pages. Oh, and sometimes? You don’t realize you have a Middle of Uncertainty until the whole damn book is written and you’re starting work on your second draft.

Not every writer struggles with the Middle of Uncertainty. Some feel practically giddy when they hit the midpoint, then frolic to the finish line without the least bit of gastric or career distress. (We hates them, we does.) But most writers I know struggle here.

There are two main reasons for this struggle, and it’s important to know which is your root cause before you try to fix it.

The first? Writer fatigue. This is all about you. You’ll know this is the root cause when you start to write metaphors and similes that are as weak as other things that are weak. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. And you don’t notice even after reading and re-reading the paragraph six times. Sometimes this happens when you sit too long in the same place. Sometimes it happens when you try to write after a long, long, long, long day. Sometimes it happens when you’re feeling the pressure of a deadline.

The solution to writer fatigue is simple: take a break. I mean it. Stop writing. Writer fatigue isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block. After all, you do have an amazing plot worked out for the story, right? Of course you do. That’s why writer fatigue is so frustrating. You know exactly where you’re going, but you just can’t get there from here.

Here’s the best way to fix it: do something that doesn’t involve writing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. Bake cookies. (Preferably thick, cake-like chocolate chip cookies.) Mail those cookies to your favorite noveldoctor. Run a marathon. Borrow your son’s Legos and build a scale model replica of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

Just leave the laptop alone for a while. I don’t mean ten minutes. I mean a day. Or two. (Yes, even if that deadline is looming. Your editor doesn’t want a crappy book on time. She wants a great book. On time. Or maybe two days late if you call and ask really nicely.) Then, just before you sit down to write again, think about the critical plot points that are yet to come. If they don’t shout at you and command your pen to paper so you can get there and then onto the big finale, well, you might need a longer break. Or…you might be suffering from the other reason for the middling struggle:

The broken story.

This is all about the work. It’s quite possible your book has no middle. Or no good one anyway. The beginning? You’ve got that down. And the ending is so perfect, anyone who invested six years in “Lost” will weep with joy when they read it. But that middle-to-end stuff? You don’t know what to write. Or maybe what you already wrote just isn’t working.

Try these second-half ideas:

  • Raise the stakes. Make the protagonist’s journey more dangerous. Don’t make it easy for the protagonist to get to the ending you know is coming. If the path is too clearly laid out, the reader will finish the book long before the final page.
  • Set a major obstacle in front of your protagonist. Kill his hopes. Kill his career. Kill his dog if you have to.
  • Stretch your protagonist. Push him to places he hasn’t yet gone, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • Send your protagonist on a quest that seems to pull him in the opposite direction from his goal.
  • Give the subplots their due. Remember when you locked uncle Sal in the insane asylum back in chapter three? Maybe it’s time he escapes. Or gets a visit from the protagonist.
  • Check your pacing. Does the action slow to a crawl in the second half after a blistering first half? Maybe you need to mix that up a bit more. Vary the rhythm to keep the readers’ interest.
  • Reveal more secrets. If everything is out in the open by the midpoint, readers won’t have anything left to discover along the road to the ending. Everyone has one more secret. Your character just hasn’t told you about it. Yet.

And heed these warnings:

  • Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. Readers have good memories. Stop rehashing the fact that Becky is a loner with a drinking problem. We know this. Give her something new to do.
  • Don’t introduce a new plot element that goes against the story’s logic or “rules” just to mix things up. Readers will stop trusting you. Then they’ll stop reading.
  • Similarly, don’t introduce a new character late in the story who suddenly has a key plot role. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but readers will find it hard to swallow when a mysterious woman in black lands on the page just in time to save the hero, then disappears again because that was her only reason to be there.
  • Don’t fill the space with flashbacks. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but the second half of your book has to do more than maintain interest, it has to propel readers to the end with purpose. A bunch of “remember when” content will usually drag the story to a halt. Keep the tension high.

Of course, you could just read a good book on plot and structure like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and do what he says. That would work, too.

Here’s the bottom line, writer-friends: The middle of your novel can’t be the boring part. Know which part can be the boring part? None of it. Sorry, there’s no “coasting” in a good novel. And there’s definitely no place for filler.

No one ever said writing was easy. Actually, someone probably did say that. But he was being sarcastic.

Write well.

A Compelling Reason

Why do you write?

Wait, don’t answer that. Not yet. Let me play psychic. (Don’t try this at home. At least not with the aid of an Ouija board. You might get sucked into the underworld – and I don’t mean the good one where Kate Beckinsale wears leather. Or you could become possessed by demons. Or – yikes – you might be inspired to make a low-budget paranormal horror film that will turn you into a millionaire!)

First, I will place a few of your worst possible answers on the table so I can sweep them into the trash bin.

Because I want to be rich.

Because I want to be famous.

Because I’m a brilliant writer and apparently it’s up to me to stem the tide of crappy novels.

Because everyone else is doing it.

If you’re in this to become rich and famous, um, really? I mean, if that happens because of your writing, terrific. Wear sunglasses at night and snort Beluga caviar for breakfast. But if this is the reason you write ? Um…really?

Are you a brilliant writer? Says who? Okay, let’s assume you are brilliant. If your goal is to make people forget about crappy books, you’ve already failed. There will always be people who love what you refer to as crappy books. And – get this – there will always be people who think your books are crappy.

If you’re writing because everyone else is doing it, may I introduce you to this herd of lemmings and that cliff?

Sweep. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Okay. Now, let’s look at another possible answer.

Because it’s fun. I like writing. It makes me feel good. And it keeps me off the streets. It was either this or a drug habit. You don’t want me doing drugs, do you? DO YOU?

No, of course we don’t want you doing drugs. If writing’s fun for you and that’s all you want out of it, then party with your participles until you’re [adjective] in the [noun] and you can’t [verb] anymore. But if you’re hoping to be published someday, you can’t use this as your primary answer. Sorry. It just won’t do.

I know what you’re thinking so I’ll just go ahead and write the words here:

Because I can’t not write.

[And the crowd goes wild! Except the crowd is wrong.] That’s not an answer. Not a satisfying one, anyway. I know where you’re going with it. You’re comparing writing to breathing. Or a beating heart. Or choosing the slowest possible line in the grocery store. Every. Single. Time.

Writing’s not an autonomic function. It’s not something you can’t not do. It’s a choice.

“Hold on there buddy, boy,” you say. “I don’t agree. I really can’t help myself. I have to write. Something compels me to…”

Ah, stop right there. You said “something compels me.”


So dig a little deeper. What is this “something” that compels you? What could possibly be so compelling that you would be willing to give up precious sleep (among other precious things like children and spouses and the latest episode of “Modern Family”) in its pursuit? Want the answer now? Okay. Here:

You want to matter.

You might also know this by other names, such as:

You want to be remembered.

You want to make a difference.

You want to be seen as beautiful. Or worthy. Or smart. Or clever. Or funny.

Is it any wonder why rejection stings so much? Oh, sure, we all buck up and say “I’m okay with rejection because I learn from it.” Yeah. But first it hurts. That’s what makes the learning stick.

So what difference does this make? Who cares why we write? I do. And so should you. Because if you recognize that your writing is more about you than the words on the page, you’ll take it seriously. You’ll give writing the respect it deserves. And you’ll get better at it.

Stephen King wrote, “you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

He’s absolutely right. But not just because words matter.

Because you do, too.

Thief of Something

I am a thief.

There, I said it. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using my blog as a confessional. I feel so much better now.

Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I feel about the same as before. Except maybe a little guilty about pretending those four words assuaged some deep-seated guilt. Trust me, my guilt is almost always seated near the surface, like algae.

Also? This blogpost isn’t about stealing.

You probably shouldn’t trust anything I say from here forward.

Except, maybe, these lessons I’ve recently discovered (some for the hundredth time) in my role as a freelance editor of fiction:

  • Pet words and phrases that are used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again can make an author look far less skilled than she actually is. Please note: writers are often blind to these tendencies. Thus, editors.
  • “People who get all creative with dialogue attributions make me want to ban the thesaurus as a writing tool,” he burped. “Seriously, folks, ‘said’ is fine most of the time,” he hiccuped. “Sometimes you don’t need anything at all if it’s clear who’s speaking,” he reiterated with an annoyingly unnecessary attribution.
  • Christian fiction is allergic to the word “nipple” and it doesn’t matter if that nipple belongs to a woman or a man or, presumably, a pipe fitting.
  • Since publishers usually work with a tight schedule (and also because it’s the right thing to do, professionally), writers should never miss a deadline. However, no one will be celebrating if you meet that deadline with an unfinished, sub-par, plot-hole-filled manuscript. Obvious takeaway lesson here: Frequent, honest communication with your editor is critical to having a successful writing career.
  • You know those books you’ve read that have terribly unsatisfying endings? See note above.
  • If you can’t imagine how the protagonist of your novel would act after waiting in a long line at a packed Starbucks only to being informed by a surly barista, “we’re out of coffee,” then it’s quite possible you haven’t sufficiently developed your protagonist’s personality.
  • Showing vs. telling is still one of the greatest challenges for writers. But I’m finding that it’s equally challenging for writers to tell a story without resorting to flashbacks. I’m not a flashback hater. Sometimes a flashback is necessary. Sometimes a flashback works fine. It certainly is a convenient way to impart information. But is it the best way to tell that piece of the story? Before stamping a flashback scene with “It is finished,” consider other ways to reveal the critical info to readers.
  • A subplot that suddenly goes away is like a buffet that’s out of teriyaki chicken when you were just beginning to think how nicely that teriyaki chicken would complement your fourth helping of shrimp fried rice. Subplots that serve no purpose might as well not be on the buffet in the first place. (Just pretend the metaphor works, okay? Thanks.)
  • On a related note, subplots don’t need to be neatly tied up by the last page, but they ought to at least point toward appropriate resolutions.
  • If your monkey can’t fly on page 7, your novel demands that you develop a believable argument between pages 7 and 212 for why he can fly on page 213. For the record: “because that’s what the plot needs” isn’t good enough.

Guess what? If you’ve read this far, my opening line isn’t a lie after all. I stole some of your time.

And I’m not giving it back.

Have a nice day.


There is a chair.

It sits on a line that runs north and south. It spins, but does not roll.

Turn and face east. You’ll see that you’re in a room. It isn’t a particularly well-lit room, despite the efforts you’ve made to keep it from looking like a dungeon. Let’s call it your office.

In front of you is a desk. No, make it a table you found at a garage sale. It’s okay that it doesn’t match the rest of the furniture in your office. It’s yours and that’s what matters. Besides, it’s not really an “office” office. It’s a corner of your living room. Or your unfinished basement.

Scattered across the table are papers and books and a red stapler and bendy metal things that used to have a name but you’ve forgotten what they’re called. That’s because you’re focused on the thing that occupies the center of the card table: your computer. I’m going to make it a desktop computer, but you can picture your laptop if you want. In one corner of the screen is your novel-in-progress, but most of the real estate is filled with your web browser. There are at least a half dozen tabs open right now. One goes to Nathan Bransford’s blog. Another to Chip MacGregor’s site. And still another to Rants & Ramblings. There’s the Pandora link, of course. And one for You’re slightly embarrassed to admit that one takes you to And slightly less embarrassed to admit one leads to TheBloggess. (Jenny makes you laugh. That’s okay. She makes me laugh, too.)

Take a look at the stack of books next to your computer. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Stephen King’s On Writing. And a few novels you’ve started reading but haven’t finished yet. (Yes, I see that like-new copy of War and Peace you bought five years ago. Makes a great bookend.)


Yes, that’s what the bendy metal things are called. You feel damn good about yourself for remembering that, don’t you. Go ahead. Embrace this moment of successful recollection. Celebrate it. The room needs a little more cheer. Especially after reading that blogpost on the state of publishing and those two “pass” letters.

Bow down to me, paperclips, for I am your master!

Okay, let’s not overdo it. See that empty notebook? Grab it and a couple of pencils. Or pens, I don’t care. (But good luck finding one that works in that pick-up-sticks mess-of-miscellaneous bin.)

Now spin 180 degrees. Face west.

You’re not in your office anymore.

You’re on a grassy hill, watching two lovers say goodbye under a weeping willow. You’re hiding in a bunker, deafened by the sounds of war and trying not to retch from the smell of death. You’re huddled in a damp corner of a tiny room with a girl who can’t be more than five, watching as she methodically pulls the stuffing out of her well-loved bear, listening as she mimics angry words that have painted bruises on her skin and in her heart.

This is the place where stories live.

Yours is here somewhere. Follow a path or a parade or a rabbit or a trail of crumbs until you find it. When you do, step right smack dab into the middle of it. Listen. Watch. Smell. Touch. Test your own voice to learn its echo.

Then get out your notebook and write. Keep writing until you can write no more. Until your notebook is full. Or your pencils are stubs. Or your pens run out of ink. (Told you.) Or maybe until you’re so saturated with the truth that holds the story together you can’t take any more.

Go back to your chair and sit down. Take a deep breath.

Then spin.

Set your notebook on the desk. Sigh if you must. (You must.) Your office isn’t as much fun as the place where stories live. Words like “query” and “agent” and “rejection” and “revision” reside here, hovering like dark clouds above your computer. Sometimes they yell so loud at you they wake your napping children.

It’s not the prettiest place in the world, but it’s your place. Your office. And it’s the place where you piece together your publishing dreams.


Why, yes, I do know what you want to do right now. You want to spin again. Of course you do. But hold on just a second, okay? Take another look around your office. Notice anything different?

It’s brighter, isn’t it. The clouds above your computer aren’t so gray. The stack of books doesn’t look so menacing. The red stapler is practically orange. I’ll bet you know exactly where the light is coming from.

Yep. Your notebook. Your story.

Maybe you can work on that proposal today after all. You might want to organize all those notes first. You could use a…


Yes, a paperclip.

You are brilliant.