The smartest advice you’ll hear about showing and telling emotion in your writing

Cat Mind Blown

I love watching writing videos on YouTube. Often it’s information I already know, but listening always inspires me to get back to my own writing. (I’m almost done with the first draft of my third manuscript, guys! Eeee!)

That said, sometimes I stumble across a gem of insight. That happened to me yesterday when I watched novel editor Ellen Brock’s video on how to describe emotion in your novel without being melodramatic or cliché.

Why do I love her advice so much?

  1. Because soooo much writing advice gets our brains stuck on showing, never telling, when telling is a useful tool.
  2. Because there’s a ton of advice out there that only encourages writers to show emotion in cliché ways, like “her hands clenched into fists” to demonstrate anger.
  3. As Ellen points out, no one in real life is 100 percent transparent about their emotions at all times. We’re more often concealing what we’re really feeling.

The key is, as Ellen says, introspection.

“What your character thinks, how they interpret the world, how they interpret their emotions — that is a lot more important than what they feel,” she says.

“If you pull a gun on someone, pretty much everybody in the world is going to feel afraid in that situation. But that doesn’t tell the reader anything about your character. That’s not special, that’s not unique. That’s just the obvious reaction to that situation. What is special and unique is what your character thinks.”

Ellen also gives some examples of what this looks like in Stephen King’s novel Misery, including how he uses this technique in combination with showing or telling, so definitely give her video a watch!

I’ve always felt this way about describing emotion in my gut, but it’s so helpful to have someone else validate that idea and put it clearly into words.

What do you think is important about showing, telling, and describing emotion in a story?

4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story

Writing takes different muscles (and some magic)

Writing is connected. From tweets, emails, and status updates to novels, newspaper articles, and ads.

The world sees writing in four types — expository (to explain), descriptive (to paint a picture), persuasive (to convince), and narrative (to a story) — but I see a million types.

I see the journalist who’s also a poet.

The marketer who’s a blogger.

The novelist who’s a tweeter.

We’re wizards, casting words as spells, always inventing new ones — pithy, funny, sassy, heart-wrenching. We’ve got so many tricks.

We’re chameleons.

I’m part journalist, part storyteller, part social media engager, part email queen, part critical reviewer, part grammar stickler, part website copy slinger.

I started out as just blogger. I learned. I grew.

Every muscle, every skill feeds into another.

The clouds take on different shapes.

Writing is fucking magic.

You’re always discovering.

10 things writers wish that non-writers understood

OneDoesNotSimplyExplainTheBook

Being a writer is a profession nobody seems to understand. Do you sit around all day in your pajamas? Do you use a fancy pants typewriter? Are you just making elaborate fantasy maps all day?

The answer to all of these is “usually no.”

So what’s the deal? Well … let me clear up a few misconceptions.

Nobody has time to write

We make time. That’s how it happens. Magic, right?

Pretty much all of us have day jobs, social obligations, errands to run, and various other life responsibilities.

Writing the book is the easy part

You heard me. Writing the book is the easy part.

What’s hard is revising it multiple times based on feedback from critique partners and betas, perfecting your query, snagging an agent even after they request a partial or full manuscript, staying motivated / patient while you receive a lot of criticism and rejection or radio silence, getting a book sold to a publisher, etc. etc.

It takes more than an idea

Trust me, just because you have cool ideas and great life stories and your friends love them does not mean they will be golden when you sit down to write them out.

Telling a good story out loud and writing a good story are two very different tasks.

Sailor Moon Writing

We don’t do it to get rich

There’s very little money in writing. The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world are the 1 percent.

Nobody becomes an author to make millions. Most don’t even make enough to quit their day job. We write because we love it — because writing, though incredibly hard most of the time, gives us an incredibly genuine sense of fulfillment.

Mental illness is not a prerequisite

We all know the stereotype: Writers are loners, losers, drunks, cat ladies/guys, and all-around crazy people who stick their heads in ovens.

While many famous authors have suffered from mental illness, most research on the link between mental illness and creativity is lacking. Writers can be gorgeous, happy, social people. They can be short, tall, skinny, fat, gay, straight, white, black, and every shade in between. Yes, they can also have depression, anxiety, or any other number of mental health issues. And yes, there’s a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-loathing that accompanies the writing life.

But it’s important not to glamorize mental illness or position it as a prerequisite to being a legitimate creative person. A mentally ill person won’t “lose” their creativity if they get better. If anything, their illness is as much a detriment, if not more so, to their writing (and their life) as it is a factor in their success.

Asking us what we’re writing is a BIG question

Um, so, I don’t know if you realize this, but asking writers what our books are about is a question that FILLS US WITH DREAD.

Summarizing tens of thousands of words into a few sentences and making them sound cool is super hard. So hard that writers call that summary “the elevator pitch,” and it takes a lot of thinking and effort to make it good.

Of course, that means we need to actually create and memorize our elevator pitch before we can tell you it. So try to be understanding and kind if we’re not quite ready to share.

We work even when we’re not feeling inspired

Key word being “work.” Writers have deadlines. Yes, sometimes, if we’re un-agented, we set deadlines and goals for ourselves because otherwise we’d never finish our books — but rest assured, these are real deadlines and goals, and we appreciate when you respect them.

What we don’t do is write only when we’re feeling inspired or are on vacation or enjoying a perfect day or the kids are out. “This shit is easy,” said no writer ever. We write whenever we can, as often as we can, even when the words don’t want to flow and we’d rather be watching Netflix because writing is fucking difficult.

Writing is actual work. Legitimate work. Like, there’s business involved and stuff.

Being unpublished doesn’t mean we’ve failed

Probably one of my biggest fears — and I think a lot of writers’ fears — is that if we don’t have a big agent or a three-figure book deal and our books aren’t being made into movies (reality: 99 percent chance all that is not going to happen), then people will think we’re hacks and that we’re cute for trying but we should probably give up now and find a nice office job.

This is not a realistic measure of our success.

1) It takes years to write and revise a manuscript. Years. It’s a slow process.

2) Most writers’ debut books are not the first book they’ve ever written.

3) Sometimes, after you get an agent, your book goes on submission but then nothing happens.

4) Even if a publisher picks up your book, it takes years before it’s actually in print.

So if we don’t have “good news” or any real update for you and it’s been months since we last talked, please be patient. We have to be.

We really, really wish you’d buy our books

If we are lucky enough to get our book published, you buying it means more than you know. After all, as you just learned, we work on these things forever.

If you buy and read the book, extra points!

If you leave a review online — we’ll love you forever!

There are a lot of real, meaningful ways you can show your support beyond a simple congratulations.

What Real Writing Looks Like

What real writing looks like.

Writing is ‘boring’

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the writer’s life is kind of boring. It involves a lot of waiting. In fact, when we’re querying or our books are on submission, we refresh our inboxes a lot. Like, A LOT.

It’s certainly not glamorous like on TV. Most of us aren’t Richard Castle.

So please, please, please — don’t ask us when the movie is coming out.


If you have any questions about what it’s like to be a writer, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

How to make each character you write sound different

Jane Eyre

One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.

Easier said than done, right?

Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.

Jane SteeleYou could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:

  • The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
  • The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
  • Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
  • Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.

This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.