A cool writing technique from Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Let’s talk about Margaret Atwood.

I recently read her for the first time — The Handmaid’s Tale, which is now one of my favorite books (here’s my review on Goodreads if you’re curious). So I only just discovered that she’s the bomb.

She made a style choice near the end of the book that I thought was particularly clever. (Atwood does a lot of clever things, a lot of the time.) Take a look (no spoilers):

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door there. He opens it himself, who else was I expecting? There’s a lamp on, only one but enough light to make me blink. I look past him, not wanting to meet his eyes. It’s a single room, with a fold-out bed, made up, and a kitchenette counter at the far end, and another door that must lead to the bathroom. This room is stripped down, military, minimal.  No pictures on the walls, no plants. He’s camping out. The blanket on the bed is gray and says U.S.

He steps back and aside to let me pass. He’s in his shirt sleeves, and is holding a cigarette, lit. I smell the smoke on him, in the warm air of the room, all over. I’d like to take off my clothes, bathe in it, rub it over my skin.

No preliminaries; he knows why I’m here. He doesn’t even say anything, why fool around, it’s an assignment. He moves away from me, turns off the lamp. Outside, like punctuation, there’s a flash of lightning; almost no pause and then the thunder. He’s undoing my dress, a man made of darkness, I can’t see his face, and I can hardly breathe, hardly stand, and I’m not standing. His mouth is on me, his hands, I can’t wait and he’s moving, already, love, it’s been so long, I’m alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.

Now look at how the narrator retells the scene:

I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door. He opens it himself. There’s a lamp on; I blink. I look past his eyes, it’s a single room, the bed’s made up, stripped down, military. No pictures but the blanket says U.S. He’s in his shirt sleeves, he’s holding a cigarette.

“Here,” he says to me, “have a drag.” No preliminaries, he knows why I’m here. To get knocked up, to get in trouble, up the pole, those were all names for it once. I take the cigarette from him, draw deeply in, hand it back. Our fingers hardly touch. Even that much smoke makes me dizzy.

The scene continues from here, but can you see the difference? Atwood begins by rewriting the scene in the same way, only with less emotion — less romance, less sexiness, less intimacy. We can assume this is the more accurate version of events. She drops a lot of details, which makes the experience seem less personal.

The next time you’re writing a scene, you can change how the reader perceives it by looking at the difference between Atwood’s two versions. A scene that’s supposed to be special and memorable has more detail, more emotion, and longer sentences. But a scene that’s almost businesslike or routine, that’s almost uncomfortable? Short sentences, few details, and impersonal qualities (“Our fingers hardly touch. Even that much smoke makes me dizzy.”).

Has an author ever introduced you to a new writing technique that you enjoyed?

The feels you get when writing a novel


Writing a novel is a weird, violently emotional undertaking. You’d think the hard part would be actually writing the thing, but if this isn’t your first rodeo, you know that the real work happens when you’re revising — working with critique partners and beta readers to get feedback and make your story better.

The first draft is a lot easier to finish than your second, third, fourth — however many drafts you need to get your novel in shape for publishing.

Here are some of the many feels you may experience during the whole wonderful and agonizing process:

Getting pumped because your story is new and awesome and original

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Wondering when you’re going to finish because this shit is taking forever

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Celebrating because that first draft is done and it’s The Best Thing

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Panicking because you asked people to look at it

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Crying inside because they have “comments” for you

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Raging inside because these comments are stupid

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Crying again because they’re true and you have a lot of revisions to make

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Hunkering down because you’re going to destroy these stupid edits

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Screwing around for thirty minutes as you try to get your brain to work

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Writing the best new sentences EVER and blowing your own mind

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Dancing because you crushed it

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Trying not to think about how you have to do this 50 more times

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Two mobile apps that are perfect for writers

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In the last few months, I realized I needed to get my shit together as a creative writer.

Meaning it was time to get super-duper organized so I could get things done.

Part of that involved making a lot of docs and things, but that’s a topic for another time. Today I want to talk about the two (totes free) apps I’ve been using on my phone to make sure I stay focused and hit my goals.


Good god, is Evernote my friend. Right now I have a few clutch “notebooks” in my Evernote account: one pertaining to my WIP, another for any good writing tips, a third for editing/revising advice, and a final notebook for publishing/agents. This has made my life infinitely better.

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Anytime I find good information on writing, revising, or publishing/querying, I save it to my Evernote using the plug-in on my desktop browser or “share” feature on my phone’s browser so I won’t lose it. I love that Evernote “clips” the article so I can see a nice preview in my Evernote and read the whole thing in the app without having to revisit the webpage.

This is really crucial for keeping all my stuff together and proving to myself that I did my research. Which is going to be super important for me this spring when I hunker down and do some serious reading about publishing and agents.

That’s actually one of my quarterly goals for this spring: read all about publishers and agents. I got the idea for quarterly goals from author Jenna Moreci, who released her first book, Eve: The Awakening, last year. In one of her YouTube videos, she talks about how essential setting quarterly goals has been to keeping herself on track. And they’ve made a big difference for me, too.

The idea of quarterly plans is that you make a list of 10-20 tangible goals and try to accomplish as many of them as you can over a three-month period. It’s an ideal system because the deadline isn’t too tight or too open-ended, so you end up with the right level of incentive to get to work. For me last fall, my quarterly plan included tasks like “finish revising Act I of my WIP” and “organize my chapters into a spreadsheet.” I can say with confidence that I would have never completed those goals within that time frame had I not set them as quarterly goals.

Now I use Evernote for everything from typing random notes on edits I want to make in a chapter to brainstorming ideas on how I want to build my author platform for once I’m published. Anything that comes to mind, I Evernote it.


Any.do is my newest obsession. I wanted a hyper-minimal app that I could use to create a simple to-do list. I have to-do lists in Evernote (for my quarterly goals), but I wanted something that I didn’t have to dig through every day — something that was going to show me what I need to do, when I need to do it, and then wave it around in my face (in a manner of speaking).

It turns out Any.do is great for this. I can create a task for “today,” “tomorrow,” or “upcoming” (meaning in the future), and I can set the time I want to complete it. The whole process takes like three seconds. Any.do’s got a nice feature where you can just select “morning,” “afternoon,” or “evening,” which is a lot easier than when I was trying to use Google Calendar and fussing around with its ridiculously specific notification times.

I use Any.do for very short-term writing goals. For example, today’s was “fix this issue in Chapter 5 that I’ve been meaning to fix in forever” and “write a blog post.” Done and done.

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Any.do is also perfect for me because it’s like a nagging little do-gooder. In the morning, it chirps out a few pleasant sing-songy notes and asks me to “plan my day” — it wants to remind me of the tasks I set. And every few hours, if I ignore a task, it just keeps popping up as if to say, “Hey, lazy, do you think you’re going to get away with not doing your goals today? Get off Netflix and write.”

Sure, I could turn off the notifications if I wanted, but then who would annoy me until I got my ass in gear?

What apps do you use to get your writing done?

Why I’m rethinking how I buy books in 2016


Every book lover wishes they had beautiful, wall-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with glossy hardcovers and pristine paperbacks. Another book haul from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, another five or six novels for the shelf.

I’ve not any different, especially when I watch my favorite Booktubers and wonder, “How the heck can they afford this many books?”

Like most people, I’m on a budget. That’s why last year, when my boyfriend and I moved to a new house conveniently located a few blocks from a library, we both invested in library cards. This means I can request books on my phone and then walk five minutes to pick them up once they arrive. This was probably the best decision I made in 2015 financially. (Total, I read 39 books in 2015, and a lot of those I obtained through my local library.)

Borrowing books means I save a lot of money. That also means that I don’t need to scrimp by purchasing books on Amazon for super cheap instead of better institutions, like neighborhood bookstores or other, less dominant online retailers — which tend to sell books for twice the cost but are better alternatives. I don’t have to buy books at all if I don’t want to (although every now and then I cave and pick up a couple, especially when I trek out to Half Price Books).

But never buying books doesn’t sit well with me because then I’m not supporting my favorite authors. That’s why, in 2016 and on, I plan to change how I buy books altogether and how I fill my bookshelves. With the exception of books I can’t find in my local library, I’m only going to buy books on one of two conditions: 1) I already know I love the author and want to support them by purchasing their work, or 2) I’ve read the book previously and adored it.

This works especially well for me because, for one, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books, and I only own a couple of bookshelves anyway — so space is limited. This way, I can also give back to my favorite authors and cultivate a home library of my absolute favorites. I don’t re-read books very often, but I like to admire the ones on my shelves and maybe pass them on to my future kids for them to enjoy. A lot of books I tend to keep also possess sentimental importance to me, so there’s that, too.

How do you determine what books you buy? Are you making any changes to your purchasing habits this year?

There are two types of writers in the world

sculptorThe world contains two types of creative writers.

While writing my current WIP, it’s occurred to me that people are either overwriters or underwriters — they either go crazy with the word count, or they struggle to hit their target. I’m an underwriter. I have about 40 chapters in my WIP, and my word count for my first draft was somewhere around 60,000. That’s not a whole lot for a novel, which means I’m knee-deep in some serious story, character, and world development.

Overwriters, on the other hand, have the challenge of whittling down their manuscripts into something with more shape and texture. There’s a lot of fat to trim. But how do you “fix” being an overwriter or an underwriter? How do you get your story in working order when what you put on the page is a mess?

I like to think of overwriters as sculptors. All writing is sculpting, in a way. You start with a block of a whole lotta nothing, and you carve it into a story. Overwriters spend a lot of time doing this. Even after their first draft is complete, they need to keep shaving off the edges. But if you’re an overwriter, don’t worry: You’re not going to chisel out a perfect story right away. Keep refining your manuscript here and there, in small measures, and eventually you’ll attain the dimension you want.

Underwriters are a little different — they’re more like painters, and painters work in layers. You might start with a manuscript that’s very bare, so you need to direct your focus toward fleshing out the details — every scene, character, and setting is going to take a lot more effort and thinking. Your second draft is the time to add color, tidy up the brushstrokes, and really make the whole picture pop. After a while, you’ll see that the measly sketch you started with has become a rich, complete work.

Are you an overwriter or an underwriter — a sculptor or a painter? How do you approach revisions?

Happy writing, and have a great New Year’s! See you in 2016.

The pros and cons of joining a writers group

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Critique partners, writing buddies, torture pals. Whatever you call them, having some writer friends who can give you honest, constructive criticism on your work is necessary when revision time rolls around. We aren’t trustworthy when it comes to objectively reviewing our own creative writing.

This is why I joined a writers group earlier this year. Well, two reasons: 1) I wanted to force myself to share my WIP with other people, which means being vulnerable and brave. And 2), I knew that without a little feedback and direction, I was going to revise in circles because it’s impossible for me to know what’s good and bad. Your readers determine that stuff. We’re too biased and close to the writing to make those sorts of decisions.

So here are a few lessons I’ve learned these past months from attending a local writing group:

Knowing other writers helps keep you stable

Writing is a lonely occupation, and it’s damn hard. So when you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, or you’re excited about something you’ve accomplished, it’s good to reach out to other people who get it.

My writing group has been super supportive, and it’s nice to talk to other people who understand about word counts and character development and stupid stuff like that without them looking at me like I’m crazy.

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Not everyone will be at your skill level

My writing group consists of 10 or so members, and every one of them is at a different skill level and has different interests. So while they’re critiquing your work, you have to decide whose opinions and thought processes match yours and whose don’t.

If you can find even two people whose criticisms are spot on, then your writing is going to be in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Critiquing other people’s work helps you learn

Most likely, your writing group will consist of beginners, which means you’re going to critique a lot of bad writing. Before you judge, yours is probably bad, too.

The good news is that pointing out the problems and areas for improvement in other people’s writing can teach you a lot about the writing process and how to avoid those kinds of mistakes. Because when you can recognize what’s boring, clunky, or ineffective, you’ll get better at detecting those sorts of flaws in your work. So try to keep this in mind while you’re waiting for your turn, and keep the groaning to a reasonable minimum.

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There can be … drama (sigh)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers are neurotic people. And chances are any writing group you join will be a mixed bag of lovers and haters of different genres whose personalities are going to clash.

This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is try to stay out of the drama and set a good example. Especially if you’re younger than other people in your group, you’re going to wonder how adults can be so immature. So try to be as fair and accepting as you can, because most writers are weirdos with baggage, and that counts you.

Diversity also means valuable perspectives

In my opinion, the more diverse the group, the better. Not everyone in my group likes fantasy, my genre of choice. Or is anywhere in my age range. Or knows a whole lot about writing techniques and story structure. But that doesn’t devalue their opinions.

Why? Because first of all, your readers may not be educated about these things, either. But if they’re bored with your story or don’t like a character that you wanted them to like, these are still valid problems. So before you gripe about them not understanding the depth and subtlety of your dialogue, remember that every reader is worth listening to, whether you act on their feedback or not.

Secondly, I’ve found that every member of my writing group — despite their strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups — contributes at least one smart and valuable comment when they critique my work. Because they come from a different background and see the world another way than I do, they catch things I might not. And that’s the whole point of having critique partners in the first place.

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How do I tell my friend their novel sucks?

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Quick answer: You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t tell your friend their book stinks and then chat merrily about the weather or resume whatever else it was you were doing (celebrating their birthday, maybe — please don’t tell them this on their birthday). If someone you know is writing a novel, that means they still have time to improve it. If the novel’s already published, well, then I guess someone thought it was okay enough for other people to read, and you should probably shut up and congratulate your friend. The point is, if you’re friend is in the midst of writing, maybe they’re looking less for soul-crushing judgment and more for feedback on how they can make their story better. Here’s what’s actually helpful for them to hear: “Hey, I don’t like this particular thing, but I think you could make it awesome.” Not all critiquing is constructive. If your friend wrote a story about a dog and you hate dogs, then don’t say their novel sucks because of your personal preference. Plenty of other people like dogs and would read about them. Also, never utter the words “your novel sucks,” because that’s just petty. It will probably also make your friend do this:

Fillion Writing GIF Instead, try to figure out what you don’t like and why. Give them more reasoning than “it’s stupid” or “this is boring.” Maybe your friend needs to do more to endear the reader to their main character, or maybe they need to add more action and dialogue and lose some description. Find something concrete for them to work with. If you want, you can suggest ideas for how they might fix the problem, but keep in mind that the writer makes the final call. Readers are usually right when they feel something’s off, but that’s as far as their power extends. “This chapter needs work, but I loved this part.” Don’t just point out the bad things. Regardless of its quality, writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication, and hearing someone rattle off criticism after criticism can be demotivating. Keep your friend’s spirits high by either starting out with a compliment (“This is a great idea for a story” or “I loved this character!”) or by taking a break from the negative and pointing out something you did like. It can be as small as a sentence or a descriptive image. Your friend will appreciate the mention and feel happy that you liked it. Basically, it tells them that if they keep writing more of that — the thing you liked — they’ll be doing a good job. “Don’t give up.” This must-watch TED Talk teaches an amazing lesson: You are not your novel.

It’s easy for writers to believe that if their novel is bad, that’s because they’re bad writers. That’s not how it works. I’m a firm believer than you become a good writer by writing — and writing a lot of crap before you get good. Skill takes time to develop. No matter how much you read or how much writing advice you digest, everyone needs to put pencil to paper (or fingers to keys) and untangle the very scary and magical thing that is writing. Writing a novel takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. Whole years. Decades, even. People spend a tiny fraction of that time reading the damn thing once it’s finished, and they can destroy a writer’s confidence and hope in a mere few words. Be mindful: Writing is hard work. It takes courage to do it and an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. Whether your love your friend’s book or hate it, tell them the same thing at the end of the day: “Don’t give up.” “You can do this.” “You’ve got it.” Because those few words can go a long way.