Tighten Up Your Story: Dealing With Filler

One of the problems with amateur writers is that they tend to overwrite their narratives. Some of the bigger and more obvious examples are involving new characters who are undeveloped and don’t serve much of a purpose, a side arc that is introduced, but never resolved, unnecessary scenes, and purple prose used for mundane scenes. Those are the big problems. The small ones are using words that carry little to no meaning to the overall prose or narration of the story. Certain words can be filler too. In today’s post, we will discuss filler words. Note: this is in regards to the narrative, not dialogue. If your characters speak using the standard sentence structure of 21st Century English, it’s perfectly okay for your character to say, “Next thing I knew, this guy suddenly slaps me in the face!” But I show you how this is boring in the narrative.

Why get rid of filler words when it’s just a word here and there?

Simple. Imagine your reader enjoying one of your action scenes of a pivotal battle between a knight and the renegade king’s guards. You write this:

Suddenly, the knight let out a scream as the guard’s blade struck out, driving deeply. He gritted his teeth as he saw three more men unsheathed steel, joining in the battle. The knight countered and the guard let out a dying scream as the magical sword punched through the man’s armor.

Abruptly, the knight heard the sound of boots thundering down the hall toward him, the battle far from over.

Bad Adverbs of Instant Action

Suddenly, immediately, abruptly, slowly, and quickly are adverbs of instant action. And they are useless. Pathetically, unequivocally useless. In the above example, There is a battle being waged. Of course, everything will move as fast as possible. So the words “suddenly” and “abruptly” are pointless. Get rid of them.

Verb + out = filler

Cry out, let out, screamed out, shouted out, are examples frequently used by amateur writers and even some experienced ones.

“…the knight let out a scream…” Why use this? Why not, “The knight screamed as the guard’s blade struck”

“…the guard let out a dying scream…” Let’s replace with “…the guard howled his death throes as…”

I saw, I heard, I knew, I kicked butt

The words “saw” (and all its variants and synonyms), “heard,” and “knew” are useless words in about 99% of all cases.

“….the knight gritted his teeth as he saw three more men…” Replace with, “…three more men…”

“…the knight heard the sound of boots…” Let’s rewrite it to “The sound of boots thundered down the hall…”

Here are some more examples:

“Jack saw the man draw his gun.” Go with, “The man drew his gun.”

“Margaret heard a moan in the closet.” Go with, “Someone within the closet moaned.”

Let’s clean up our original example, shall we?

The knight screamed as the guard’s blade struck, driving deeply. He gritted his teeth as three more men unsheathed steel, joining in the battle. He countered, the guard howling his death throes as the magical sword punched through the man’s armor.

The sound of boots thundered down the hall toward him, the battle far from over.  

Happy Writing!

How to Critique & Edit Your Own Work

First off, understand that the first draft of what you are going to write is most definitely going to cause you to cringe and want to burn it on sight. I would not recommend this since editing it is fairly easy, and there’s no reason to give your neighbors a heart attack with squealing smoke alarms. You will have times when your writing flows as easily as a beautiful river. You will face times when you have to force the writing out. There will be filler words such as “that,” grammar issues, lack of descriptive imagery, characters so shallow you want to cry.

The first step is to just breathe. Once your first draft is completely finished, set it aside. Lock it away if you have to. Don’t look at it for at least a couple of weeks. Give yourself time to catch up on reading, watching movies, and schedule that spa day. You can work on another project, even if it’s the sequel to the first draft you just finished. Whatever you do, do not look at the first draft until two weeks has passed. That’s fourteen days for those that are stubborn. You know who you are.

The second step is to read your draft as though you were someone else. It should be fairly easy now that you’ve set it aside for the past two weeks. Be brutal. Reading from another perspective gives you the opportunity to find the plot holes more easily, the shallow characters who were never mentioned again, and more. Take your time reading it over.

The third step is the grammar. Make sure there are no run-on sentences (average long sentence length should not exceed 25 words), your homonyms(to/too/two) are correctly used, etc. Grammar is essential to making your story readable and enjoyable to readers.

The fourth step is checking the tense throughout the story. This means the past tense, present tense, future tense. If your wording is off, it will be difficult to read and will give readers different ideas than what you’re portraying.

The fifth step is to read the entire story out loud. This can be tiresome, but if you can’t get through the entire draft in a breeze, neither can your readers. If the sentences feel awkward to say, this means they are awkward to read. Definitely go through this step repeatedly until all of those errors are fixed. Normally it’s something that can be resolved by switching a couple of words around or deleting a word.

The sixth step is to read the entire draft with all of the steps above in mind. Fix any lingering issues you see. Make sure to use the spell checker in whatever program you are using to write in.

Hopefully by this time, you have found and edited everything. A word of warning: just when you think everything is perfect and you hit publish, you’ll find errors you overlooked. Don’t panic, don’t pull the book off the shelves in horror. Calmly document all of the errors, update the document, and upload the updated version. There may be a limitless amount of times you have to do this, so just accept your fate.

In conclusion, that is at least five times you need to read your first draft in order to edit it. If you just exclaimed negatively over that fact, this line of work is not for you. If you don’t want to take the time to read over your own work several times, why would anyone else want to take the time to read it?

The Good Short Story Tips and Tricks: Hook and Pacing

DSP typically plans and produces six to twelve anthologies a year with a short story word count ranging from 5k to 15k words. Technically, there is no sole right way to write a short story, but there are a lot of wrong ways. However, we’ll focus on a couple of methods used to entice your reader and get them hooked on your story for the next twenty to forty pages.

Let’s assume you know the components for proper characterization, tension, theme, POV, etc. For a good short story, you only need to place heavy emphasis on two aspects of your story; a good hook and your scenes moving at a face pace toward the climax.

The Hook

The hook is the opening line or scene to ensnare your reader. It’s a statement that makes them develop an interest in your story right off the bat. For a short story, you want them vested in your tale from the very beginning because you don’t have a lot of words to develop your character or theme. There are several easy ways to write a hook that will have your reader jump into your story; in media res, mystery, and disturbing.

In medias res means, “in the middle of the action”. Instead of starting out those teenagers having sex by the lake and then getting killed one-by-one by the psychopath in a hockey mask, you start the story with one of them running for his life while being chased by the psychopath. In my story, Malicyne’s Puzzle, the hook took place with a battle between a pirate ship and a naval frigate. Thela’s Angel started with poor Thela getting beaten to a pulp by her husband in the inn. Daughter of Darkness starts the story with the holy knight, Rhain, landing a killing blow through a demon lord’s heart in the temple of night elves dedicated to the worship of the Tri-Headed Queen.

Mystery is a very common mechanism. You start out with a profound statement or an enigma for your story. In my book, Fallen From the Stars, it opens with the following:

“Come with me.”

A gunshot rang out, followed by a woman’s scream and the world turned to utter darkness. That’s all I can remember.

Was the main character shot? What happened? Who said, “Come with me?” Readers don’t find out until Chapter 12 Bad Memories, but in a short story, you reveal the mystery of the hook usually at the climax or at the end.

Disturbing is a less common one but is great for grimdark fantasy, horror, or something in which you’re going for shock value. It makes your reader shout, “WTF did I just read?!?” and then they are compelled to read on just to figure out why you wrote that. The Disturbing method will typically contain triggers (again, for shock value).

A word of warning about using the Disturbing method – know your audience. If you’re a fantasy writer who typically writes YA epic fantasy and you want to try your hand at grimdark fantasy, your loyal fans are in for a rude awakening. Secondly, a lot of publishers have a “no graphic [anything]” rule (or rules on certain triggers in general), so don’t violate submission guidelines by writing something that will make people wonder if you’re sane or turn your editor off to you.

Pacing

After you’ve written your hook, all your scenes following should be paced as if racing toward the climax. You’re not walking or building up to the climax, you’re running to it. A perfect example of how you should pace your story is by watching the promo trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. Here’s the link (Warning: Violence and Blood):

What did you see here if this was a story? An intrepid band of adventurers on a quest in monster-infested mountains filled with ice, snow, and death. There is the brief pause by the main character, a weapon is thrown from the ice and then boom, we are running through the action building up to the climax of the sorceress Morrigan casting a powerful lightning bolt that lays low the dragon. Did you note how fast the action moved and how it flowed from one character to the next? This is how your short story should flow from one scene to the next, and then building up to the climactic battle with the dragon at the end.

Master this and you’ll sweep your reader up for an intense ride with only a few thousand words.

Happy writing!

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

A common debate amongst authors is how long should a chapter be? James Patterson has chapters literally one page in length while J.R.R. Tolkien’s are dozens. Both are great authors. Both are infamous. But in the matter of chapter lengths, which one is right? The answer is they both are.

Let’s look at the definition of a chapter before going any further.

Chapter (Noun) – 1. A main division of a book, typically with a number or title. 2. A local branch of a society. 3. The governing body of a religious community, especially a cathedral or a knightly order. 4. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc.

We know it’s a main division of a book without even having to look at the definition, but look at the last example they give. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc. This is literally telling you, within the definition itself, that it does not matter how long the length of the chapter is as long as the scene within it is completed. You can still have a cliff-hanger at the end of the chapter, even if it is a page long.

Still not satisfied that the chapter can be any length? Let’s talk about lengthy chapters.

Do you remember seeing those fancy designs in between the text in some books? Those are called divider vectors. They are a visual ending of a scene for the reader. Vectors help to break up longer chapters so the reader is able to find a stopping point, because the reality is we always get interrupted by something while reading. It leaves an easier place to come back to.

Looking back at the definition of chapter again: A period of time or an episode in a person’s life. Your personal life is not cut into perfectly timed portions. An example — you only meant to stay at that Halloween party for two hours, but time whisked away and you found yourself there for five hours. The same goes with writing. One minute your character is behaving themselves and following the script. The next minute, they’re gallivanting across the countryside with a bunch of Dwarves and a wizard.

Do not restrict yourself or your characters on the fairytale ideals of perfect chapter lengths. Of course for young readers, you should make sure the chapters are easily comprehensible. But you still are not limited to a certain word count or a certain page-length for chapters. This is one of the steps that prevents many authors from simply writing.

So, sit down at the keyboard and just write.

Serving Real Life, But Make it Fantasy

Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” I love this quote because it’s so true, and given its truth, this is why I’m a fantasy writer and not a comic.

There are a lot of people out there that think fantasy is for children, or it’s just a made up world with weird names and magic. But in reality, the fantasy genre has so much more potential than that. Fantasy can actually be real life mirrored back at us but from another realm.

A few years ago when I was 25, I somehow managed to get accepted into the Creative Writing Program at Trinity College Dublin where I completed a Master’s in creative writing. Besides getting one of my best friends out of the year-long program, I also got a wealth of knowledge from my professors, as each one of them was a creative expert in their chosen medium. One of them wrote extensively on the problems facing modern Irish society, yet many of his novels are set in the past.

Why was that?

He had a very straightforward answer when confronted. He told the workshop, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have to bore you with facts. I’m a writer so my goal should be to entertain you, while helping you draw the parallels yourself.”

It was this bit of wisdom that encouraged me to write strictly fantasy. What he said that day about giving readers the tools to make the connections themselves really stuck with me. As writers we all want to think that our words make a difference to people, or that we’re somehow making a fresh impact on social issues by incorporating them into our work.

And while this is probably true, I have found that setting things either in the past or, better still, in a whole other realm is one of the best ways to drive home a particular point that you may want to make about society.

Especially in this heated political climate we live in, there is so much we can write about and draw inspiration for, for stories. But there are also plenty of opportunities to offend people and draw out the more comments should you choose to set a politically-charged story in modern days on top of making a point to give your direct opinion.

But you know where you can get away with all that? The past. Or better still, a whole new world. Think about big controversial topics like the environment, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, religion, etc. All these can cause a stir if you write about them directly. However, rather than write about them directly, if you create another world where you allude to similar parallels, you can actually have a much more impacting effect.

So, yes, fantasy can be a wonderful outlet if you want to get people to think about the modern world we live in. Some very beloved stories do just that. For example, Tolkien was heavily influenced by WWI and it shows throughout his series of Lord of the Rings where war and conflict and change are at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is another writer who has strong ties to modern problems in our society. The plight of the house elves and other problems facing the magical world all stem from her experiences working for Amnesty International. Suzanne Collins and her work for The Hunger Games was heavily influenced by the Iraq War, as well as her own father’s experiences in the military. These are probably some of the more famous examples, but you can see my point. These stories each carry powerful messages within them, but they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if the writers didn’t provide their point a little distance.

So, that is why I am definitely a proponent of fantasy as a walk of reflecting life back to society. Just keep writing and when in doubt, make it fantasy.