how do I get better at self-editing prose?

There’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do in a revision, whether you’re making large developmental changes or smaller in-line ones. Personally, I still struggle with the big stuff; it’s just hard for me to spot where something is flagging in my own plot or world without a lot of effort. But something I tend to feel really confident on is prose revision, aka, making your individual sentences and paragraphs shine.

Take a look at how you begin sentences. Do you shake things up every now and again? Or are you starting a lot of sentences the same way?

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. He dried the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates. He leaned on the counter. He was the only housemate awake before noon. He was so tired.

Subject-verb-object. It’s repetitive and while there’s nothing technically wrong with it, it’s also just kind of boring. We recognize the pattern here. Instead, let’s try rewriting it just by shaking up the order:

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. Drying the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates, he leaned on the counter. Once again, he was the only housemate awake before noon. And he was so tired.

It’s not a lot that changes, but it does make the paragraph feel a little fresher.

Seek and destroy. What words do you lean on more than others? Are characters always tentatively doing things? Does everyone sigh? How many things get described as impossible or immeasurable?

Especially if the word is more uncommon (like milieu, for example), your reader will notice if it comes up multiple times in close succession. Therefore, head that problem off at the pass by doing a quick search for your most common crutch words in your manuscript. Even if it’s just making sure that the two times you use “ethereal” aren’t in the same chapter of your book, it makes a difference.

This is also something that builds and you get better at the more you know what words you default to when writing.

Calm down the wild punctuation. Or, at least, challenge yourself to use less of it if you find yourself popping ellipses in every other line. My personal weakness is dashes. I will interrupt myself or other characters or just like, whatever, throw them in for spice when a normal period will do.

Challenge yourself to see if you can pull off the same effects without overloading on nonstandard punctuation. That’s not to say never use it, but notice how much you’re breaking the rules and, if it’s happening pretty frequently, ask yourself if it’s really that needed.

Like, if you find yourself trailing off and dot-dot-dotting every other page, then see if you can pare it down to once per chapter. Again, you don’t have to never use it, but try to make it more like a treat versus like a regular weeknight meal, if that makes sense.

Change the font or print it out and read pages out of order. I realize this might drive some people up a wall, but I personally really like this.

Change the font, then do a random number generator, go to that page, and read through it. Obviously, you should also read through and edit in order so that you get the emotional weight of the book, but this is fun and helps spice things up when you’re tired as heck of editing sometimes.

Plus, if you’re finding that you have pages that just…aren’t very interesting or are just plain boring to read, it’s an opportunity for you to ask “what could I do to make this part more fun?”

Because, let’s face it, you can’t have dinosaurs exploding on every page. But there are other ways to make things fun for the reader– maybe someone does a pun! Maybe there’s a really well-crafted line of dialogue or a beautiful succinct description. It doesn’t have to be a big, grand thing to still have an impact.

Can you identify speakers without dialogue tags? To cover my butt here: yes, you definitely still need and should include dialogue tags! We run a pro-dialogue tag establishment here. What I’m saying is that characters have a way of speaking. And it’s not just giving everyone weird accents or misspelling words on purpose to denote that it’s just ~that one character’s way of speaking~, it’s more that there are some word choices that jive with who characters are.

For example, your ragamuffin street urchin isn’t likely to talk about “the secret adoration of the night sky” but your poetic courtier might. Who uses slang and who doesn’t? Is one character more likely to contract words than others (“do not hit me with that again, you knave” versus “don’t hit me again, idiot”)?

Make your descriptions earn it. Whenever we slow down for a description, we’re doing exactly that– we’re taking a breather from the action to spend time looking at something. If the description is just telling us the same thing over and over in different words, then we’re going to get bored and wish we were back when the story was moving, versus hanging out and looking at a wall or whatever.

I’ve probably repeated this trick in other places, but the system I use for this is the three-point-touchstone rule: if I’m doing a description, I’ll maybe limit myself to talking about three or four important things about the object and then that’s it, show’s over. The other part of this is to make sure that each piece of description you add tells the reader something new and isn’t just the same information rephrased for beauty points.

Like, if you’re describing a love interest, don’t blow two of your description points on the eyes (unless, I dunno, they have really bananas glowy eyes or something deeply nonstandard)– tell us about how they move, the pitch of their voice, their scent, the little crinkle by the side of their mouth just before they unleash the punchline of a joke. Bonus points if you’re using the other four senses besides the just visual to perceive them.

And that’s that! Give it a try, and see what stands out to you the next time you’re polishing up your prose.

Any favorite tricks for making prose tighter before sending your work off? Let me know in the comments! I love learning new things.

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what’s the beef with sit-down dinners or scenes where characters eat?

Here’s the world’s biggest non-secret: I love to eat. Food culture in fiction? Cannot get enough of it. And probably, if you ask most other living people, you’ll find that this isn’t uncommon. Food is good, books are good, combine it and you should get something good.

So why are scenes in which characters eat delicious food, described in loving detail, usually kind of boring? Or why do people give you advice about not having sit-down meals in your manuscript? Is this something to be avoided entirely (like the dread First Chapter Mirror Moment) or can you get away with feasts, breakfasts, and family meals if you’re careful?

Here’s what I came up with.

Stakes Before Steaks. What’s the end goal of every chapter? To move the story forward and convince you to keep reading. What do we need for that? Conflict. A story is not built on things going well. And as great as eating with other people is, it’s also not typically a conflict-ridden situation– people tend to be more invested in eating rather than fighting.

It also points to a possible antidote for a dull meal scene: add a dash of tension! If your society gala or royal feast is all small talk and no political legerdemain, then chances are we’re not going to be particularly invested in whether or not everyone has a good time. It’s also hard to advance a we-need-to-save-the-world plot at the table, but you might find that you can drive a little more on emotional or internal arcs during these scenes.

For example, in one of C.S. Pacat’s CAPTIVE PRINCE books, Damen and Laurent share a meal at an inn while concealing their identities. That scene isn’t driving the main plot as aggressively as others (Damen isn’t trying to escape back to Akelios or kill Laurent), but no one would say it fails to increase tension between the two characters (it’s arguably one of the first times Laurent shows weakness around Damen) and is an important moment in their romance arc.

What’s often missing when meals feel boring is a sense of what matters in that scene/what we have to lose. Probably the main character’s food isn’t going to be snatched from them, so what else are they worrying about in that moment? Is their meal poisoned? Are they going to learn something about one of their tablemates that harms one of their relationships?

A Sit-down Kind of Place. Part of why meal scenes are difficult to make compelling are because there’s often just not a lot to do besides eat. If everyone is sitting, then they’re probably mostly communicating with their faces, which is going to feel repetitive and a little boring the fourth time someone communicates disappointment with a sigh.

One possible way out of this is to have your characters use physical cues that aren’t facial expressions to communicate their feelings. And certainly you can get characters to engage with their environment more by getting lunch to go, walking and eating, or having ice cream cones by an interesting spot like the ocean.

But there are also many ways to make sitting down at a table dramatic– just watch any Regency TV show. Hone in on those tiny ways we communicate with our actions while dining: a fork pausing after a tasteless comment, someone spilling a glass, griping a cup too hard, eating to avoid having to answer, the habits of careless eaters, careful eaters, engulfing food versus savoring it, etc. You can clue us into a character by how they eat.

Ripe for Info-Dumping. Meal scenes often struggle because, being a lull in the action, it’s really tempting to work in overly ambitious amounts of worldbuilding while people take a breather and savor their food. How many fantasy cookfires have you sat around where the main character(s) know they’re safe and there’s pages of exposition on how magic works or why the ~great cataclysm~ happened?

What’s the fix? Maybe some of that information does get conveyed over a meal– especially when you’re working in a world that takes a long amount of time to build, sometimes you do need to slow down and just tell people what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be pulse-pounding action-action-action all the time, but see what other arcs you can tug on while you’re layering that information in. Maybe the wizard’s familiar is pulling on the ranger’s hair while they’re trying to explain what happened to their village, maybe someone’s overcooked the stew and one of the party members walks out in a huff mid-prep to catch a fish that they can cook properly this time, or whatever.

Maybe there’s another solution entirely where you don’t have to use an eating scene to explain it! Maybe we see the village being destroyed on the page, or maybe there’s a battle and the characters demonstrate their powers and abilities that way.

If you’re relying on a dinner scene to give us a breather from the action and also to explain things, chances are there’s probably an opportunity to show rather than tell earlier in the manuscript. Your instincts are probably still right about the reader needing a release of tension, though, so you might need to find another way to accomplish that, with or without food.

This falls under the Yuschik School of “it pulls double or treble its weight or it gets the yeet.” If you’re feeding them because you need downtime to explain stuff, you’re taking up valuable page real estate with a scene that’s doing only one thing.

Above All, Savor the Meal. If showcasing the food and dishes important to the cultures of your characters isn’t important to you, then ask yourself: must this be a food scene?

Specifically, what I’m saying is: you have a very limited amount of space in a book. It doesn’t seem that way when you’re writing it all the time, but what you choose to include says a lot about the feeling of the setting and how we imagine it. In THE SCORPIO RACES, food isn’t central to the plot at all, but we know what people on Thisby eat and how meals look different when you have money or you don’t. It’s part of the beauty of Maggie Stiefvater’s worldbuilding that we instantly think Malvern’s a weirdo and kind of gross, all from the way he adds butter in his tea.

There’s apple cake, meat for water horses, and all this is before we even get to the famous November cakes. It’s the small touches that give us an idea of what daily life is like on the island and builds the world.

How many feast scenes have you read where all these kings and noble dudes are just waving nondescript turkey legs around (and enjoying, presumably, whatever else pairs well with turkey legs)? Contrast that with the specificity above– we’re not in Anyshire, Fantasy Realm or even Anytown, UK: this is a place with its own distinct flavor.

(Sorry, I had to do it.)

So in short, my feelings are: there’s nothing wrong with a scene where people are eating as long as it’s not being used as a crutch. Done well, banquet scenes can be the most fascinating in a book (I’m looking at Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, which all open with a different POV character’s perspective on a seminal, disastrous feast).

What are some of your favorite feasts in fiction? Least favorite? Drop ’em in the comments– I’m always up for new recs.

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why don’t we like dreams in fiction?

One of the things I love about reading is that it makes me ask a lot of questions: why do I love this? Why do I hate that? What makes this archetype attractive to me and this other one less so? The more I thought about the kind of craft posts I wanted to write, the more I realized it’d be most natural to just write this stuff the way I think about it, which is asking myself questions and then answering them.

So, welcome to my latest reincarnation of craft talks, in which I ask myself questions about why I like or don’t like stuff in fiction and then answer them.

Today’s question du jour is: how do you write a dream that your reader is invested in and doesn’t skip or get frustrated by? More specifically: what makes an effective dream and what makes a frustrating one? Is including dreams in fiction worth it?

Some positives to dreams are that they’re a compact little scene where you can play around in a different world beyond the waking one. Maybe dreams are part of your magic system, or maybe your character has a mysterious dream that plagues them that they can’t figure out. Certainly for us as real people, dreams are something we want to have meaning or, at least, we either ascribe meaning to or at the very least, dreams invite us to ask questions. They blur the boundary between the subconscious and the conscious minds. They’re just plain neat!

But a lot of times with dreams it’s easy to make the reader feel frustrated or pulled out of the story. Personally, there are very few dreams in fiction that I have enjoyed reading, because most of the ones that I encounter don’t have much of a purpose.

Let’s dig in a little more.

The big question I have in mind here is: what’s the dream’s endgame? If it’s a cheap scare– oh my god, someone I love is dead! everyone is naked! aliens are invading! worst case scenarios!– then as soon as the reader cottons on to their being in a dream, it’s game over for your emotional stakes.

Why? Say it’s the night before the final battle and the new chapter begins with the protagonist watching their friends die as the antagonist laughs. Sounds plausible, yeah? You’re no stranger to making your reader squirm: you’re killing people after you’ve made us care about them (as you should), you’re not making it completely out of the blue (it’s happening before a battle), and it’s a very possible thing that could happen. We might confuse it with reality.

Here’s how I’m going to feel when I figure out it’s a dream, though: bored. I’m going to be suspicious that all these important characters (and they should be important if you want their deaths to mean something to the reader) are dying either off-screen or with little fanfare, and then once I figure out that we’re in a bad dream, I’m not going to take any of the action that happens after that realization seriously. It’s going to be tedious to wait for the dreamer to figure that out and deal with the melodrama in the meantime.

One of my big tenets in writing is to trust the reader. This can also be read as: be wary of your reader’s intelligence when you’re trying to play tricks on them. Your audience is smart. Respect that. Maybe some people won’t realize they’re in a dream, but assume some do, even when you’ve revised and you know the dream is at its best. Does the scene still hold up? Or are you relying on jump scares for your effect?

So my question is: why are you putting this dream here? Is it to remind the reader of what’s at stake if the protagonist fails? Chances are, you have that built into the story in other ways (if not, there’s a great starting point for revision). Is it for fun/your own enjoyment? I might be biased as an affirmed dream-hater, but for me, if it goes in the manuscript it’s got to be pulling at least double its weight.

Here are two hard truths:

1) Everything that ends up in the final/people-safe draft should be something you enjoy (no, you do not have to enjoy getting there).

2) The book isn’t for you.

If you’re just popping in a dream because you need to fluff up a word count (we’ve all been there), got tired of playing in the world you normally hang out in, or just felt mentally exhausted and wanted to show the characters from other angles, then cool. The dream is a writing exercise; it doesn’t belong in the final. Cut it.

And sidenote: in general, if you’re hating a scene, ask yourself why! You’re the one in charge here, you can change it to be anything you like. What I’m trying to say is that, there are better ways you can sneak in the information you’re using the dream to communicate, and you might be doing them already.

Also, if you know you’re going to make your readers mad at you, the writer, for including a dream and literally toying with their emotions or boring them when they realize it’s not real and they don’t have to care, then…why do that? The book isn’t for you. You get to write it (and that’s awesome), but ultimately, you’re not the one the end product is meant for. What your reader wants is important. The goal is to help them put the pieces together, not hit them over the head with emotional wrecking balls and then say “jk! it was all a dream!” That just damages your credibility with your audience.

And okay, obvious disclaimer: if you’re writing stuff just for yourself, then do whatever. Rock and roll, buddy– your audience is you. But if you’re looking at making stuff and sharing it with other people, then I’d suggest, you know, thinking about what those other people are like and what they want.

And answers vary! I write for and about smart people who build things to fight monsters. That’s it, that’s my whole entire brand. It’s general, because I like a lot of different genres, but it’s also pretty specific: I write stuff for readers who like tricky, intricate puzzles and who want a strong emotional arc, in whatever form those things manifest. It’s not a specific demographic, but it’s enough that I can tell you what my audience is and isn’t going to dig.

And I know the emotional below-the-belt punch is not going to fly. My reader would expect something more satisfying than that.

It begs the question: what makes a satisfying dream?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few scenarios where I could see dreaming being useful: if your magic system or world or what-have-you relies on dreams as a mode of communication (think: SHADOW OF THE FOX by Julie Kagawa, aasimar and their deva guides, if you’re doing an Endymion retelling and it’s literally in the OG myth, etc), or if the dream is a reflection of the dreamer’s id or subconscious in an interesting and unexpected way and also conveys something important that the reader may not be able to understand or grasp the significance of (the prophecy/foreshadowing angle).

What’s different? If you’re communicating in the dream world or if your character knows that they’re dreaming and this lucidity doesn’t defeat the stakes, then awesome– the events in the dream are influencing what happens in the real world (e.g. Endymion meets the Moon, falls in love, and decides to spend the rest of his life asleep) and this moves the story forward.

If physical woes carry over from dream state to waking state (e.g. protagonist is a magical girl saving a city in her dream world, she’s awesome and a hero, but all her cuts and bruises from defeating monsters carry over into her waking life) or if the emotional stress of the dream/fantasy state influences the real world (e.g. a group of friends play a TTRPG, one of their characters dies, and the person playing the dead character gets steamed af at the other players who let their character just die), then we don’t see the same disruption in stakes as we would with a garden variety dream because what happens in the dream state matters. You can’t cut the dream out, because the dream has become what moves the story forward. Maybe that’s my litmus test for “do we keep the dream or not?”

Notice also that in these cases it doesn’t particularly matter anymore if the reader figures out that we’re dreaming– we’re in another world/state of being, sure, but actions still have consequences. Maybe they’re not always physical ones, but sometimes the emotional fallout is worse. I’ve probably said this a million times, but if it costs you something (goodwill between friends, physical wellbeing, magic) it tends to be compelling.

Last, let’s talk about dreams as foreshadowing. This is the other thing that I see a lot of in fiction, beyond a false reality scenario. And prophetic dreams can be really cool! My question here is more: how do you still keep this fun for the reader? If we’re getting dreams of this wholesome peasant girl dancing around in ballgowns and being crowed empress of all Russia, then it’s not really going to shock us to learn later that she’s Anastasia.

For this, take cues from what your own dreams (the ones you, as a person, have when you are sleeping) are like. Make your reader work to figure out what dreams mean, if they mean anything at all! Maybe the dream is communicating something is about to happen, but maybe it’s done so weirdly that the dreamer only gets a feeling and not an in-depth meteorological forecast of the future.

Like: you stumble into a kitchen. You don’t know why you’ve been running, but it’s important that you are hidden. There’s a young man working some dough in a bowl, a careless streak of flour down his cheek and tousled hair. He’s also kinda confused why you’re here, but the oven is heating up, there’s herbs growing on the window sill as it rains outside, and the dark wood cupboards give the room a cozy look. He gives you a look and motions for you to hide under the table with its long white tablecloth. You do so, thanking him, and he puts a finger to his lips. There’s the sound of measuring cups, then the people who were chasing you surge into the kitchen, sounding very important and questioning the young man about you. He’s annoyed that he’s being bothered in the middle of his work and gives them wrong directions. When they’ve left, he gives you the all-clear, then sends you on your way with a thumbs-up and a croissant from the basket on the table. It tastes melt-in-your-mouth good as you run through lavender fields outside the cottage and into the mists. You wake up, surprisingly grateful, and get back to work on the project you’ve been stressing about.

It’s that kind of subtlety that I think you’re looking for. You could sneak more foreshadowing into that (maybe the dreamer has the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, or meets someone with a birthmark under their eye and feels kindly toward them), but we’re not watching the dream to know what happens next– we’re watching it to know how the character feels. Maybe a more ruthless character is a little more inclined toward kindness after a dream like that and it influences the way the they treat the people around them.

Because, again, your reader is smart. They’ve seen a ton of dreams too, and chances are they know the same narrative tricks you do. If you want to give them something to think about, then kick it up a level.

And those are my thoughts on dreams: ease off the worst-case gotcha! moments and lean more into the weird emotional angles and the stuff that carries over into the waking world and creates change there. At the end of the day, you are playing the stakes game: how can I manipulate the reader’s emotions in way that’s going to be most satisfying long-term?

If you liked this and want to cajole me into making more craft posts via monetary encouragement, behold, I have a Ko-fi! If these Uncertain Times™ are not ~finding you well~ then nbd fam, I’m just glad you’re here.

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Now get out there and make stuff.