Write a Story Using These Five Narrative Modes

Is a scene not working? Are you failing to create intrigue, establish tone, or captivate an audience? Consider what narrative mode you’re using to tell your story. 

If words are the building blocks then narrative modes are the design of your story. Whichever ones you pick will yield a different construction, and therefore, a different experience for your readers. 

There are five narrative modes: description, dialogue, action, thought, and exposition. Today we will look at these five forms and how you can experiment while editing to determine which works best. 

To put it in context, we’ll explore how different authors use varying narrative modes to start their stories—but this approach works anywhere: beginning, middle, or end. If something isn’t working, change the narrative mode and see what happens. 

Let’s get into it! 

Description  

Descriptions are great for establishing a setting or character

It’s most effective if it’s an intriguing image. If you waste too many words describing something obvious or mundane, you won’t hook your audience or keep them turning the pages. To write effective descriptions, activate the senses: what do you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste? What’s unusual? 

Alternatively, you can use descriptions to establish context, for example, a before or after image. Take the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Amazon). He starts the story with a description of an average house before the chaos and destruction: 

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means — it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Dialogue

Starting a story with dialogue can grab the reader’s attention. It jumps right into the middle of a scene, introducing a character and building a connection. Hearing a character speak makes them more personable and is often more engaging than having the writer paraphrase what’s been said. When it’s well-written, dialogue can give a sense of who the character is, where they are, and what they want. 

However, bad dialogue can confuse readers because they don’t know who’s talking or why they should care. Don’t begin with your characters making small talk or a boring conversation that the reader may have in their own life. If you’re opening your story or maintaining narrative momentum, make sure the dialogue is compelling. If you want to hit your reader with something unexpected, dialogue is a great way to do it. Check out how Douglas Coupland opens his novel Jpod (Amazon):

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

“That asshole.”

“Who does he think he is?”

“Come on, guys, focus. We’ve got a major problem on our hands.”

– Jpod by Douglas Coupland 

Action

In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of action” and that’s what you should consider when writing an action scene. Start your scene in the middle of an event and create stakes, tension, and strong pacing that will hook your reader while still giving them relevant details like time and place. It doesn’t mean you begin at the climax or the most intense part. It means you place your readers at a link in the continual chain of cause and effect: Because this is happening, this is happening — and because that happened, this is now happening. 

In an energetic action sequence, use active voice and remove filter words, such as saw, felt, and thought. Writing a good action scene doesn’t need to include characters, although a goal or a conflict is necessary. Action is great, but always ask: Why should the readers care? 

Take a look at this opening to The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (Amazon). 

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were the sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying. – The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Thoughts

A story that opens with a thought, is a story that opens in the past, a reflection, a flashback. How is this effective? 

Thoughts allow the readers to understand a character. By seeing how they think or relive a significant memory, readers learn about their motivations and personalities. We view the conflict from their perspectives. Thoughts allow the author to convey the theme quickly. With thoughts, you can establish a pivotal scene, like a murder, a love loss, or an important lesson, and have that guide the character for the rest of the story. 

A great example of this is The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Amazon). The narrator, Nick Carraway’s thought has nothing to do with the plot directly, but it shows his principles. The opening gives him the integrity he needs to tell the story and for us to trust him.  

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ – The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Exposition

We are told that expositions should be avoided because they’re info dumps. Unskilled authors use them to give the readers all the information they need to understand some convoluted plot. Think of the opening crawl of any Star Wars movie where the floating text sets the stage for the galactic confrontation. Phantom Menace literally begins by explaining the details of space tax and trade routes. 

While exposition has a bad reputation for pushing the readers out of an emotional or visceral experience, it’s a reliable mode for explaining a character, a historical event, or a critical mission. With that said, here are a few notes to consider when using expositions for your story: 

  1. Make sure the details are intriguing: don’t share information that the reader can assume. 
  2. Create a sense of place: ground your story and connect it with a specific scenario. 
  3. Pay attention to the tone and mood: Just because it’s an info dump, doesn’t mean it should take the reader out of the story. When writing ask: how do the characters feel about these details? Is it dark and scary, or is it hopeful like at the beginning of The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Amazon)? 

This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time. – The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Whether you’re editing the beginning, middle, or end of your story consider the narrative mode. Remember, you are not tearing down your house, you’re redesigning it so that everything works better together. If you’re stuck and a section isn’t working, consider changing how you deliver the information. Switching the narrative modes can give strength to different aspects of the story; you change the pace, mood, and intensity. Practice each one, because you never know when a dialogue scene can work better as an exposition, or an action can become a thought.

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Writing the Sequel While Editing the First Book 

My writing project is big. Too big. And it’s all my fault. Whatever writing advice told me to start small: start with short stories, master the fundamentals, and then move to bigger projects, I didn’t listen. 

In one of my previous updates, I mentioned that I’m working on a novel. Guess what, it’s going to be more than a one-off. It’s at least two books, but probably going to be three. A trilogy. Maybe more. I’ve committed to a long game. I wanted a project that could pull me out of the Covid world and drop me on the other side. And I found it. Regardless of what this trilogy becomes, it’s going to be a significant part of my life. For that I’m lucky. 

But what I want to talk about today is my awkward process. I’m currently editing the fourth draft of book one, while I’m writing the first draft of book two. It’s awkward because I feel like I’m looking into the future to write and I’m traveling back in time to edit. Unconventional as it may be, I do find it productive. At this very moment, where the world is in chaos and motivation is hard to come by, it’s easier to maintain productivity if I’m active in two separate phases: writing and editing. 

When I’m writing, I’m using a different creative muscle from editing. I’m a pantser or a discovery writer, so I don’t do many outlines. My first draft is the outline and I just let it flow. 

However, editing is a slog. I don’t take a lot of pleasure in editing. It’s the act of cleaning up the mess that the pantser-writer-me made, and in this project, it’s a big mess. In order to ensure I fully develop the world, understand my characters, and build out the story arc, I’m writing beyond my first book to gain clarity on what I should focus on while editing it. 

Writing sequel editing first book

I also want to keep the structure of my books the same and there was a fortuitous period of the process where I was writing the first and second acts of the sequel while editing the first and second acts of book one. This allowed me to see critical turning points in the stories from both books at the same time and try to spot and create parallels. 

Ideally, I’d like this series to resemble each other in form even though the story changes as it goes. I want to be consistent where I can while letting my characters roam free and explore. This process also allowed me to go back and check on all the motivations and scenarios in the first book and make sure they support what the character will do in the second. I can even sneak some foreshadows or other storytelling devices in and hint at the events to come. 

Now, I don’t recommend this as writing advice, it really does depend on your goals. For me, this writing while editing is most helpful for my editing process. I am still trying to strengthen the story in the first book and by writing beyond, I gain a better understanding of the world and characters. I can also discover whether or not the characters will achieve their goals so that I can set the tone properly. For example, if my character will face greater hardship in the second book, maybe I can lighten up in the first. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I want the lessons in the first to come into play in the second. These are all still options. 

By starting my sequel before I finalize my first, I give myself room to experiment. Since I’m not an established author who has an impending deadline, this is a luxury. By doing this, with a bit of editing in the first book, I can ensure I won’t write myself into a trap I can’t escape from. Little by little, I’ll eventually bring my whole story to a close. 

I will probably use this same process to complete the whole trilogy. It sickens me to think how much more I have to do, but getting started on the second book makes me feel like I’m happily invested. It proves to me that I enjoy writing this story. It makes me hopeful that I can reach the end if I just keep moving forward. At the very least I’d have it all written. Once it’s all written, then who knows… but that will be a while from now. After all, this is a big project and I’m in it for the long term. 

There you have it. If you’re stuck editing your first book, try writing a sequel. Even if you don’t plan on publishing a sequel, it can help you flush out your story more. And hey, who knows, maybe you’ll discover a better ending. Maybe you’ll discover that the sequel is actually the story that matters. 

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4 Punctuation Principles You Must Master

The comma is the most complicated punctuation mark in the English language. Not only does it have many uses, but it also has many misuses. In The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White (Amazon), four punctuation principles were deemed most important and that “they should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.” 

Now,  if you’re ready, grab a pen and notebook, strap yourself in because we are going to quickly go through these 4 important punctuation rules:  

1.  Enclose parenthetical expressions with commas 

Take this example:

The dog that ran away came back with a cat. 

The fact that the dog ran away is extra information. But this information is also essential to the sentence.

It’s this essentialness, or restrictiveness, that determines the role commas play.

A parenthetical expression is a word or phrase that adds to the sentence to give extra information. 

If the information is essential such as in: 

The dog that ran away came back with a cat. 

You may omit the commas. 

However, you can add commas to separate, if the information is nonessential, such as in: 

The dog, hungry for treats, came back with a cat. 

So remember it this way, if the information is essential you may omit the commas, but if the information can be removed without influencing the meaning of the sentence then you should add the commas. 

Another way to put it is to recognize nonrestrictive terms and clauses, as they will often require commas. In the middle of a sentence these nonrestrictive clauses are often preceded by “Which”, “When”, and “Where”: Such as:

The car, which was illegally parked, got towed. 

Nonrestrictive clauses may also appear at the beginning of a sentence:

Parking the car illegally, the man hurried into the store. 

To summarize:

You won’t need commas for a sentence like: The boy is a criminal.  

But you will need one for: My son, Billy, stole my car. 

How are we doing? A little confusing, eh? You’re not alone. This rule for me is one of the most challenging in the entire language because sometimes the importance of the information can feel subjective. 

But don’t feel bogged down by all the commas, Strunk and White give you permission to omit them if the interruption is short. 

If you are to remove the commas, however, don’t remove one but not the other. 

If you are to remove the commas, however don’t remove one but not the other. 

Personally, I always use commas to break up “however”, as well as dates: Saturday, June 4, 2022

Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash

2. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. 

A conjunction is a word that connects two separate elements or sentences. Common examples include FANBOYS:

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So

And also:

  • As (used in relation to Because)
  • While (used in relation to events happening at the same time) 

When a conjunction comes before an independent clause (which can serve as a single sentence in itself), a comma is required in front of it. 

The traffic was bad, but the robbers were going to escape no matter what. 

Or

The police chased on foot, for the roads were gridlocked. 

However, with a dependent clause, it gets a little tricky. 

According to Strunk and White: If the clauses in the sentence share the same subject, the subject is only expressed once, and the conjunction is “but” then adding a comma will be useful. 

The robbers found a hiding spot, but forgot to take the money. 

However, if the conjunction is “and” then omitting the comma will be okay as the two interlinking thoughts are closely related. 

The police found the money in the car and decided to keep it for themselves. 

3. Do not join independent clauses with a comma. 

If you have two complete and separate thoughts with their own subject and verb, such as:

WRONG: The monster emerged from the swamp, the terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

Do Not place a comma between them. 

To correct it, you have a few options: 

The first option is breaking it into two sentences and using a period — or an exclamation mark — while capitalizing the first letter of the following sentence: 

The monster emerged from the swap. The terrified campers climbed up the tree.

The monster emerged from the swap! The terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

Alternatively, you can combine the sentences by using a semi-colon or adding a comma and conjunction. 

The monster emerged from the swap; the terrified campers climbed up the tree.

The monster emerged from the swap, so the terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

As you can tell, changing the punctuation mark changes the relationship between the two statements. The better you understand this principle, the better control you’ll have of your writing style. Personally, I’m a comma/conjunction type of guy, but let me know which one you prefer in the comment below. 

4. Do not break sentences in two. 

Simply put, commas cannot replace periods and periods cannot replace commas. A period’s primary function is to separate complete sentences, so when you use it instead of commas, you’ll likely end up with sentence fragments. For example: 

He was a wealthy man. Having earned all his money through buying and trading crypto. 

It should be: 

He was a wealthy man, having earned all his money through buying and trading crypto. 

A complete sentence has a subject and verb, and while the first part can stand as an independent clause, the second half of that sentence is missing the subject. 

An exception to this principle, which I’d recommend using sparingly, is to break the sentence when you want to emphasize a specific word. Such as: 

He punched the wall. Hard. 

There you have it! Those are four of the most important punctuation principles according to Strunk and White. Once you get a hang of them, you will be well on your way to being a proficient writer and editor with another tool in your tool belt. 

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How Tim Ferriss Asks For Writing Feedback

Tim Ferriss, the author and podcaster, is all about optimizing his performance in every way. His books The 4 Hour Chef (Amazon) and Tools of Titans (Amazon) have helped me tremendously, and when he spoke about his process of acquiring feedback, I knew his approach was tried and true. 

In episode 538 of the Tim Ferriss Show, in a casual conversation with author Chris Hutchins, Tim explained how he gathered effective feedback, especially at the early stages of a project. 

If you’ve ever asked a friend to read your work and give feedback, you know how stressful, time-consuming, and unproductive that process can be. This is especially true if all you’ve given them is the manuscript and vague instructions like “give me feedback” or “let me know what you think.” Such an experience could cause unnecessary tension between friends. 

To avoid that scenario, allow me to share with you Tim’s method for getting clear, succinct, and useful feedback for his writing and interviews. 

Break Chapters Into “Self-Sufficient” Pieces That Stand Alone

When writing, Tim makes sure that each of his chapters can stand on its own as a “kind of modular” like a “feature magazine article.” 

If you’re writing non-fiction, each of your chapters can be treated like a blog post. If you’re writing fiction, each of your chapters could have a story arc and could be published as a short story. 

With each chapter as an individual piece, Tim’s friends and editors only need to read one chapter, instead of a whole book, to have the context necessary to give useful feedback. 

Share the Single Chapter with 3-4 Writer or Lawyer Friends 

When picking who he would share his work with, Tim usually chooses friends who are writers or lawyers or those who have attended law school. He picks these people because they have the proper training in reviewing text and spotting ambiguity. These professionals also have a keen eye for superfluous details that should be cut. 

While you might not have any writer or lawyer friends, who you choose to share your work with still matters. If your friend is not an avid reader or has no interest in your topic or genre, they can’t really help you. Understanding your network and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual is essential because you don’t want to waste time and get frustrated when the person sharing feedback isn’t qualified. In a scenario like that, it might be better to have no feedback at all. 

Sharp, observant, and capable of proofreading are qualities you look for in beta readers — and writers and lawyers tend to have those traits

However, getting a diverse sample of feedback is also important. That is why Tim doesn’t only share it with one person, but with four. 

Love It Or Hate It, It Can’t Be Confusing

Once Tim has a team of reviewers, he approaches them with one or two asks. For the first, Tim requests:

“Please read this. And if anything is confusing, please note that. You can love it. You can hate it. I’m fine with either of those, but if it’s confusing, it’s no good for anyone. So if anything’s confusing, please note. If your mind starts to wander, please note where that is.” 

Whether with audio or text, the goal of the piece is to inform and captivate. If the reader or listener gets bored, distracted, or confused by a certain part, it’s important for Tim to know where that is so he could modify or remove it.

The point is not to get a rave review. The personal taste of the reader doesn’t matter at this point. The goal is to figure out whether it’s useful to anyone, and if it’s unclear or dull, it’s useless. 

Ask: Which 20% Should I Cut? 

His second and preferred request is to ask: “If I had to cut 20 percent, which 20 percent would I cut?” 

Knowing what’s the core and what’s excess is important. This gives you an idea of where you should focus your attention when you’re editing. How concise and succinct can you make it? This forces you to take a closer look at the remaining 80% and examine the substance of your piece. 

The thing is, when you ask four people, not all four will have the same opinion. So when a situation like that occurs, Tim has a firm rule. 

If 1 Out Of 4 Love It, Keep It

If three people tell Tim to cut out a section, while one person says that they love that section, he will keep it. He does this because something that resonated so strongly with one person is a good enough reason to keep it. If he cut it, it might’ve saved some room, but it would have potentially failed to impact one out of every four people, which is a big percentage. 

To cut a part out for the sake of the majority is not how Tim approaches his editing.

You cannot serve everyone, but when you know you can serve someone, serve them!

Don’t Ask For Feedback If You Don’t Plan On Taking It

Lastly, perhaps what I found to be the most important piece of advice, is to not ask for feedback if you don’t plan on using it in some way. If you know you’re not willing to make changes, then why bother taking up someone else’s time? 

When Tim received his writer or lawyer friend’s feedback, and the suggestions are valid, he would apply it to his work and improve it. 

If you’ve picked the right beta readers, respect their opinions, and trust that they have your best interest, why wouldn’t you keep an open mind? When receiving feedback we need to lose the ego, otherwise, it might be better not to ask for their thoughts at all. 

When asking people for feedback, we’re requesting their time and energy. They’re doing us a favor and as such, we should be grateful. That is why I think Tim Ferriss’s process is solid because first, he makes the request digestible. Then he chooses those that are qualified for the job and ensures what he needs is clear. Finally, he prepares for how the feedback will be used so he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to provide captivating and valuable content to the largest group of people possible. 

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Word Counts Don’t Count When You Should Be Editing

I used to joke that the worst thing in my life was that George RR Martin still hadn’t published The Winds of Winter. I have this theory that the last two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series are all finished and he’s holding back the releases because the expectations would kill him. He’d rather spend the rest of his life editing, and he certainly could, because editing is an infinite process, and theoretically the longer you spend editing the better the piece will get. Writing a great book, especially when you have enormous distractions like wealth and fame, or a regular full-time job, takes a long time. 

Some lucky writers churn out books after books, series after series like it’s an annual event, while other writers struggle to get one great short story published in their lifetime. This makes me wonder: what’s happening? Isn’t writing consistently the key? The higher your word count, the more books you’ll write, right? Getting the word count up may be easy for some and hard for others, but regardless of how challenging it is to get the words on the paper, the next part — editing — will be twice as challenging.

When we think of writers, we often think of them in the act of typing, creating the words. But what writers are as well are editors. They need to take what they’ve written, all the words they’ve typed, and polish them up so all together it becomes a cohesive story worth reading. Depending on the project this could mean more research or it could mean rewriting the whole story from a different perspective or it could mean restructuring the plot so it’s no longer in a linear timeline. Whatever editing requirements are necessary — and there always are some — this is where the work truly begins. 

There are days where you will stare at the screen and debate whether you should cut a word or the whole sentence. There are days where you won’t add to your word count. There are days where you’ll be losing words. There are days where you’ll feel as though you are undoing all you’ve created, reversing the time and effort you spent writing. There are many phases where a story can die and from the first to second draft is a common place for a work-in-progress to remain in that status forever. You’ve written yourself into a place where it is futile to even edit. Quitting is the natural solution. 

How do you get yourself out of this hell, save your project, and salvage all the work you’ve done? There is no simple answer to this question. A lot of it will depend on you, but be sure of this, the likelihood of you starting a new project and getting it past this phase is unlikely if you can’t get past this phase this time. Yes, it might be a whole new project and you might be able to write yourself clear of any plot holes, but how can you steer clear of these hazards if you can’t identify and resolve them this time? 

Starting a new project and tracking your growing word count is enticing, especially after you’ve been trapped in your current story, and you’re not seeing any progress or movement. But the time you spend struggling to repair your work whether it be by conducting interviews or participating in a writing workshop or just staring at the screen, it doesn’t matter, these experiences are qualitative. It makes you a better writer by examination. The better you become at reviewing your work and not only composing, but you’ll also become a better storyteller all around. 

Counting words on a page may feel great. Seeing the giant document saved onto your hard drive is something to be proud of. However, your dedication to making it better. Your patience to sit in front of the words you’ve written and look at all of it objectively and not get overly emotional or discouraged will be the greatest power you wield going forward into your writing career. 

Are you failing to see any progress in your work? Check out this article about how to stay motivated.

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The Best Writers of All Time Competition — ProWritingAid Free Document Summary

This is not an official sponsorship for ProWritingAid. However, if you would like to try it, please use this affiliate link here.  

One of my favorite features of Pro Writing Aid is the document summary, which lets me know overall, how good my grammar, spelling, and style is in that particular piece of writing. It’s a great overhead view of where I can improve. 

Then I thought, hmmm… I wonder how the greatest writers perform in this scoring system, after all, writing can be so subjective. I figured I should do a playoff bracket pitting some of the greatest writers and their most recognizable pieces of work against each other. 

I picked 16 great writers in the English language and plotted them into a bracket. One paragraph each, they will compete with each other to see which has the best overall score on Pro Writing Aid. The winner will move onto the next round. The loser will be eliminated. 

I define a paragraph as a series of connected sentences with a central idea or topic. Therefore, if the first paragraph is of dialogue, for example, and is quite short (three to five words), I can add on until the sequence of ideas are complete. Therefore, a paragraph in this competition can have more than one paragraph breaks in this interpretation. 

Take the first part of The Great Gatsby for example: 

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

This will count as one paragraph, because it’s a complete sequence. 

Now let’s get into the competition: 

Introducing the contestants! 

The 16 Great Writers: 

Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and The Sea

JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye

F Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

George Orwell – 1984

Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice 

Stephen King – The Stand

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath 

JRR Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings

George RR Martin – Game of Thrones

JK Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughter House Five

Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Who will win? 

Watch the video here to find out. 

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Go Back and Read Your Past Work — Here’s How to Do It

I’ll admit it, in my short time on this planet, I have created a lot of content — content that I have little interest going back and enjoying. While one reason can be that I have way too much to do now: creating new material and reading, watching, and listening to other (more talented) people’s work; another more restraining reason is that I’m not convinced that it’ll be enjoyable. 

I believe that anything I create creatively, I make for myself, I’m the first audience member. That is how I pick my creative projects. I want my investment in time to pay off down the line. I create it with the intention that one day in the future I can enjoy it again as an audience member who has lost all connection with the initial creation process. 

While that is my encouragement to put in the time and effort — blood, sweat, and tears — I don’t know when it is safe to return to that piece of work. I worry that I’ll cringe. I worry that I’ll get critical. I’ll worry that I will see all the mistakes that I’ve made before and become unable to let go. Yet, I want to look back and see how far I’ve come. I am pulled and tugged by how I want to approach my corpus of old work. 

I start to wonder what successful creators and artists approach this aspect of their work, the revisiting phase. 

The Producer: Don’t Treat It Like A Job 

Perhaps the most famous incident of an artist claiming to have not seen his own work is Johnny Depp in an interview with David Letterman. 

Johnny Depp: In a way, once my job is done on the film it is really none of my business. […] I stay as far away as I possibly can. If I can I try to stay in a profoundest state of ignorant as possible. […] I just don’t like watching myself. I prefer the experience — I mean, making the film is great. The process is all fine, but then… he’s up there. You know what I mean?  

To me, there is a sense of freedom to that: to be able to create without the need to critique his work. As a copywriter, I can personally relate to that. I have a workman’s mentality to a lot of stuff I create. I don’t write a blog post to necessary go back and enjoy while sipping mai tai on a beach. I write it. I got paid for it. My obligation is done. Obligations are not enjoyments, and if you see your work as such… you might lack the fulfillment in your craft that can propel you forward. 

Perhaps that’s why some may think that Depp’s work today is derivative of his best from the past. If you start treating your creations as simply work, then yes, there is never a personal reason to go back and watch it. Then again, you should think about the work you are picking. 

The Fan: Make it for Yourself First 

Then on the other side of the spectrum is Samuel L. Jackson. There is a reason that Jackson is in so many fantastic movies, it’s because he has a brilliant philosophy for his work. 

In an interview with GQ magazines, Samuel L. Jackson said, “I like watching myself in movies….if I am channel surfing and I pass a movie that I’m in, I’m watching it no matter what. I have a drawer of nothing but my DVDs, so if nothing else, I can just go in and pull one out and put it in.”

When asked why some actors don’t enjoy watching themselves, he responded, “That’s bullshit! Actors that say, “I can’t stand to watch myself”, well if you can’t stand to watch yourself then why the f*** do you expect someone to pay $13.50 to watch you?”

Like chefs who cook food for others, that they would not eat themselves, an artist who is unable to enjoy their work should be viewed with slight suspicion. As if to say, “Oh, your work isn’t even good enough for you?” 

The Critic: Identify Errors

Sometimes you look back at your work and all you can see is the mistakes you’ve made. And in some pieces, the errors stand out more clearly than others. However, it’s sometimes better to bite the bullet, watch what you’ve made, and analyze why you dislike it. 

In a 2011 interview with Time Out, Lady Gaga speaks about her current relationship with her hit Telephone: “I hate ‘Telephone.’ Is that terrible to say? It’s the song I have the most difficult time listening to. I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much. Beyonce and I are great together, but there are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.”

Trust in your taste. If you don’t feel the way Samuel L. Jackson does when reading, watching, or listening to your own work, ask yourself what you dislike about it. If you are blatantly ignorant, you may never learn to improve. And if it is more than just a paycheque for you, like it clearly is for Lady Gaga, then you must analyze the errors and do better next time. 

The Exhausted: Take A Long Break From It 

If the idea of consuming your old work is causing you to cringe, it might simply be the fact that you haven’t had enough distance from it yet. 

Talking to Rolling Stone back in 1993, Kurt Cobain stated: “It’s almost an embarrassment to play [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”]. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains… I can barely, especially on a bad night, get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away.”

Like eating the same meal over and over again, creating content or performing can feel repetitive. As a filmmaker, after spending so many hours in the editing room watching the same scenes over and over again, getting it just right. Once it is completed, the last thing you would want to do is sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch the movie from beginning to end. The same goes with a writer writing and a singer singing. 

If you don’t take the time to put that piece aside, hide it in the dark, then you will feel fatigued from it. Your creation might be as delicious as chocolate, but if all you’ve been eating is chocolate for the past three months, maybe a piece of celery is what you need to cleanse the palate.   

The Historian: Treat Your Old Work As Snapshots of Your Life 

When you create something, you create in the present. You put your current emotional state into it. You choose words and form sentences in the way you currently know how. You tell stories and evoke emotions that relate to the person you are. When you look back on it, you are certain to see the changes, not only within the work but in yourself as an older writer. 

“It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed,” writer, George Saunders tells New York Times about revisiting his collection of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. “Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.” 

Like looking at an old photograph of yourself, for no other reason, revisiting your older work is a powerful way to understand the person you once were. The thing this exercise can achieve where simply looking at a picture of yourself can’t is that a picture can only show you what’s on the surface, but a piece of writing can show you want is underneath it all. 

At this time, I am debating with reading some of the work I have written, that I have worked so hard on: mainly those that I have published on Amazon. They haunt me in a way… but I think I might crack it open soon and see all the problems I made, my ability to entertain myself, and the younger man who was simply trying to express himself. 

If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

How to Write More And Improve: Make 3 Types of Content

I play hockey recreationally, which means whenever there is a game, I show up, warm up, and play. And if we are good enough, we make it to the playoffs within our tier and sometimes even win the championship.

We don’t have a coach and we rarely practice drills. All we have are 3 separate periods to improve.

  • We have our warm-up where mistakes don’t matter.
  • We have the game where each success can propel us forward to better opportunities.
  • Then there are playoff games or even championship games, this is where we show off what we really have.

I see writing in somewhat the same way. The more you write, just like the more games you play, the better you will be. The thing is, you won’t always get to practice on a championship stage. Not everything you write will have the same level of importance. Sometimes what you write will simply be warm up. Sometimes it’ll be an inconsequential game. You take everything you learn from those two levels and apply it to the final one: the championship.

With all that being said, here are three types of writing (or any other sort of content creating) that I am consistently working on. This way, I am able to keep track of what I’ve made and see gradual improvements over time — much like looking at a scorecard after a game.

Content You Publish Right Away

This is my warm up content. This is me experimenting and practicing a new technique. This is my honing a specific skill. This is me making something, throwing it out into the world, and seeing how everyone — if anyone — response to it.

In this day and age, we might be wary of posting something unpolished, but let’s be honest, if it’s no good, the worst thing that can happen is that it will be ignored and be buried under a mountain of other content.

Obviously I try to do the best I can when creating, but when the horn sounds and warm up is over, I’ll publish it.

Find time daily or weekly to create something you will need to publish right away. No looking back. Make it and ship it within a given timeframe.

We all have a ton of ideas and this is a fantastic way for you to start executing it and see how it can start appearing on paper. Not every idea is genius, even though you may think it is. There is no point keeping it in your head. Make it and see what the world thinks.

Content You Edit and Publish

This is the regular season game. Each piece matters because they add up to the the corpus of work you have created throughout the year. Yet, your career is not going to be hinged on this. There will be another game coming up.

Here is where you create a piece of content and put a bit more attention in polishing it up. Perhaps editing it once or twice — maybe even letting a third party review it and offer feedback. These are content that matter to you. This is where you want to push yourself to improve in one specific area. You can apply some of the techniques you practiced during your warm up and see how it fits with the overall structure of your piece.

What makes this piece different from the last is that this one will have a deadline. These are creative writing contest, guest post submissions, a scheduled publishing date for your blog, etc. Like a regular season game, there is a set schedule for when you need to produce this content and when they need to be completed.

There needs to be something that will keep you accountable to keep producing. It needs to be good, but you also need to deliver.

Content You Refine Until You Are Satisfied

This is the championship project. This is the big one. This is what you’ve been working for your whole entire career. There isn’t really an urgency for you to finish this project, but you need to be hungry to get it out into the world. It needs to be the best representation of yourself.

Ideally, this is the project that will earn you credibility and perhaps even some money as a writer. Like a championship will solidify an athlete’s legitimacy, so will this content do for you.

Yes, even though you worked hard, you can never guarantee success in a playoff situation. You are competing against all the other content out there in your niche. However, unlike sports, it’s not a zero sum game. Just because another piece of content has done well, doesn’t mean yours can’t.

Take your time with this project. Take what you’ve learned from the previous two projects and slowly apply them here: adding what has worked and improving what hadn’t.

Continue creating content from the two previous steps, while working on this one.

This is how I approach content creation with the emphasis on creating more and learning as I go. Let me know what you think of this process and whether this philosophy has worked for you as well.

Want more writing tips and inspirations? Follow my writing journey on YouTube!

Writers, Are You Missing an Opportunity to Foreshadow?

One of the early stories I wrote, I had a character who received a family heirloom from his mother early in the story. Then in the remainder of the story, we never hear about this family heirloom ever again. Looking back now I wished I could have tied the family heirloom to an event later on in the story.

Your story might have many moments like this as well: where a character, item, or place is introduced only to be completely forgotten about in the succeeding chapters.

Those are missed opportunities for foreshadowing. The item didn’t create tension in any way, and if you want to write a page-turner, you’ll have to. Yes, maybe it lets the character know a bit about his mother, it was a vessel for backstory or even a flashback, but it’s not foreshadowing.

There is a term Chekhov’s Gun, a concept introduced by Anton Chekhov which says, if you show a gun in act one, the gun needs to go off by the last act. There needs to be a payoff. That is foreshadowing. It sets the stage and prepares the readers.

If an event at the end doesn’t have a setup (such as a foreshadow), it can be jarring. For example, if I did the opposite; if I wrote that the solution to all the character’s problem was to trade his family heirloom for a million dollars, but the heirloom was never introduced. Then the story doesn’t make sense.

An effective foreshadow links two events together like a joke. A setup and a punchline.

The thing is, a good foreshadowing isn’t obvious to the reader. While reading my story, the reader can assume that the heirloom was simply an inheritance that he will treasure. However, in the third act, the heirloom will return and saves the day.

Nevertheless here is what you need to do when incorporating foreshadowing into your story.

  1. Outline first, make it subtle, don’t force foreshadowing into a story that doesn’t need it
  2. Give some distance between introducing the subject of the foreshadowing and when it is revealed. You want the readers to be aware, but not have it close enough so that they can connect the dot themselves.
  3. There must be a payoff: If there is a gun in act one, it needs to go off at some point in the story…

Want more writing tips and inspirations? Follow my writing journey on YouTube! 

Spelling and Grammar Apps Review

Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, Expresso, and After the Deadline

Some may think that using a grammar or spelling app as a writing tool is akin to using auto-tune as a singer. In a way, you’re bypassing important skills and disciplines of writing, such as having a good handle on the tools and structure of the written language.

Yet, in this day and age, to not use any given tool available would be a foolish move. It can be debated that what is important is the ideas being communicated, and if there is a way to ensure the communication doesn’t get disrupted by spelling and grammar mistakes, shouldn’t we take advantage?

Personally, I’m a proponent of spelling and grammar apps.

First off, writing is not editing. The task of an editor is a complete shift in the creation process. In a short timeline, it’s sometimes hard for a writer to make that transition. As a writer, you would want to have another set of eyes — even robot eyes — to have a look at your work before you share with your company. Additionally, writers who don’t use these apps still have access to them. It’s like walking instead of taking the bus. Yes, walking is healthier for you and you might save a few dollars, but the bus is still an option. You are by no means a hero.

With all that off my chest, I would like to share 4 free online spelling and grammar tool with you. And as a bonus, I will give a little review of them, showing off what they are capable of.

A Paragraph with A Lot of Writing Errors

In order for me to evaluate the apps, I needed a sample with as many types of errors I can think of. Inspired by the city I live in, I wrote the most heinous paragraph ever. Which, it may come as a surprise was actually pretty hard to do. Give it a try, try to purposely write a paragraph with some spelling and grammar mistakes.  

This is what I came up with:

They’re is a lot to see in Vancouver. Lets explore what there is to do. If your traveling hear on a sunny day, I recommend you go to stanley park. This park is bigger and better. It’s a beautiful place. The sea wall is enjoyed by runners and joggers every day. In the park, you can find a nice field to relax and bring a picnic to have with a friend or you can even go to the aquarium or take the horse-drawn carriage and tour the whole park. There is a much more to do in Vancouver. A historic neighbourhood, you can go to is Gastown. On a busy day there are to many tourist but if you go during off season you don’t have to worry about that people. However don’t wander aimlessly too far east or you might end up in Downtown Eastside. I insure you, that it is not where you want to be.

This is the best (and the worst) I can do apparently. Let me know what you think and if I have missed any other notable errors.

4 Spelling and Grammar Apps

Now that I have a sample, I’m going to start plugging it into the apps and websites to see what results I get.

PolishMyWriting.com (After the Deadline)

I pasted the paragraph into the text box and clicked “Check Writing” and a bunch of squiggly lines appeared beneath some of the words and phrases.

As you can see, PolishMyWriting.com missed a lot of spelling errors and the run on sentences, but picked up on complex phrases and words that could be omitted. Sort of…

Overall, this app is good for final touch ups after a more thorough edit. It missed a lot of mistakes and definitely won’t save you from embarrassment if you are relying solely on it to fix your first draft.

Hemingway App

The first notable insight that the Hemingway app provided is the readability score. As you can see, my horrible paragraph would be accessible to a third grade audience.

This app did a good job catching all the extraneous words and run-on sentences, but missed all the spelling errors. This app is definitely not a spell check and should not be relied on as such.

If you are writing content for a wide audience and want your ideas to be communicated as clearly as possible, then the Hemingway App is a great product to help you achieve that.

Grammarly

Of all the apps I’m reviewing today, Grammarly is perhaps the most popular. It’s worth mentioning that I am not looking at any of the paid versions, I am only reviewing the free version.

And here is how I feel about it:

Grammarly did a good job catching most of the spelling errors and punctuation mistakes, but was not helpful in catching passive voice, run-on sentences or vague descriptions.

If what you want from a spelling and grammar app is to double check your work as you move quickly through your draft, then Grammarly is a fantastic choice and has been one of my favourite tools.

Expresso App

The Expresso App is an interesting product because it is not designed to help you correct errors but help you understand certain trends that might be appearing in your writing.

This app has a lot of details and can be a little confusing to use especially if you are not too confident with spelling or grammar in the first place. I recommend clicking into each category individually and understanding why this word or phrase is highlighted. Not every highlight is a suggestion to change, it’s more or less just telling you why it’s noted for you to consider.

Paste some of your writing in and see if you can spot any notable and you get to decide how you want to use that information. Good luck.

There you have it, those are 4 free spelling and grammar apps that can assist you as you write. My personal favourite is Grammarly because they offer a Chrome Plugin. What’s yours?

Are there other apps or tools that you are using? I’d love to check it out. Please share.

For more tips on editing your writing, check out this YouTube playlist: Editing Your Epic Novel