Jen’s Editing Tips – Why, Why, Why

The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points it out to them.

Jen's Editing Tips

“What’s the point of this story?”

“Your plot feels aimless.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Why is that happening?”

“Why? Why? WHY?”

As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”

“Why am I writing this story?”

“Why does my protagonist exist?”

“Why will readers care?”

You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.

Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?

As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again,  “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.

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Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.

Characters

Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.

Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”

“Why does this character exist?”

“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”

“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”

Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.

Plots

Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.

Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:

“Why does this plot exist?”

“Why is this scene relevant?”

“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”

Words, Words, Words

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I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:

“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”

“Why did I use dialogue here?”

“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”

Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.

The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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NaNoWriMo Tips – It Isn’t About Winning. It’s About Writing.

NaNoWriMo is just about over (t-minus two days). At this point every year, I hear many participants say, “Why bother finishing? I’m not going to win.”

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Here’s my answer to anyone contemplating this question: NaNoWriMo isn’t about winning. It’s about writing.

Okay, I can see all of you competitive souls out there rolling your eyes and muttering under your breaths. I know, I get it. I’m competitive too and I despise it when I fail.

giphy-1 But, let me clarify something: NaNo is a writing challenge, not a writing competition. There are no judges or tangible prizes (besides those offered via third parties). And there’s definitely no waiting on pins and needles after November 30th to see if your slap dash, half-finished manuscript beats hundreds of thousands of other slap dash, half-finished manuscripts. If you want that, then you’ll need to sign up for an actual competition.

Okay, okay. Now I can hear all of you Mr./Ms. I Always Win’s saying, “It’s not about winning a prize. It’s about winning.”

Yep, I totally get it. But…let’s face it. We can’t succeed at everything we try. Failure is part of life, and failing to write 50K words in one month isn’t the end of the world. Not at all! It’s really just the beginning.

Here’s the truth about NaNoWriMo: If you sit down and start writing on November first, you’ve won. If you keep writing beyond November 30th, you’re a star. If you finish your manuscript, you’re a champion.

The whole point of NaNo is to write.

Period.

So, whether you’re currently at 1K words, 50K words, or 100K words, go ahead and declare yourself a winner (yes, even you, Mr./Ms. I Always Win). Go ahead and give yourself a trophy if you keep writing on December 1st. And give yourself a crown if you don’t stop until you finish your novel.

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I hope you take my words to heart and persevere no matter where you are on the word count scale. And I really hope you don’t shove your manuscript into a drawer on December 1st and say, “Cool, I’m done.”

You’re not done.

Keep going.

Keep writing!

Congrats to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo 2016. You’re all winners in my book!

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NaNoWriMo Tips – Tricks to Reach Your Goal

NaNoWriMo is rapidly coming to an end (where did November go?), and I’m sure by this point many of you are feeling the wear and tear.

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So, I thought I’d offer up some tips on how to push through the last chunk. Even if you’ve fallen behind or decided to completely start over, these tricks are sure to help you reach your goal (be that writing 50K words by November 30th, or finishing an entire novel by next November).

Writing Sprints

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This is, by far, my favorite strategy when it comes to getting work done. I set my watch for an allotted amount of time (one hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.) and then GO! During that time, I’m not allowed to do anything but write. No internet, no phone, no eating, no nothing! The only things I’m allowed to do is write, write, write. Once I hit my goal, I can take a break. Check my emails, skim Facebook, get another cup of coffee…Then I set my watch again and GO!

I recommend this strategy to all writers at all stages of the writing process (not just during NaNoWriMo). Even if you’re editing, you can use this method to get a lot of work done. It’s all about forcing you to focus.

Hermit Day

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My second favorite strategy is setting aside one whole day a week to write. I lock the doors, close the blinds, and commit my entire day to being a hermit. Chores get skipped, the gym gets ignored, and invitations get turned down.  I don’t even bother brushing my hair or getting out of my pajamas. For 12-hours, I put all of my focus into my story.

Again, I recommend this strategy to all writers, whether they’re NaNo’ing or not. However, I understand not all writers have the luxury to shut out the rest of the world for an entire day every week (let’s face it, being single and childless definitely has its advantages). But even if you can’t block out an entire day, hopefully you can block out a chunk of time (even a couple of hours) each week to focus 100% on your project. No distractions, no interruptions. Just you and your novel.

Race another writer to the finish line

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Last year during NaNoWriMo, I–inadvertently–got into a competition with a writing buddy. It happened a couple of weeks into NaNo. One night, my friend casually asked me what my word count was. The next day I casually asked him. Then, before we knew it, we tumbled into a race to the finish line. Every day we–good-naturedly–flaunted our word counts to each other. Somedays he’d outdo me, somedays I’d outdo him…To tell you the truth, I can’t remember who reached 50K words first. But, it doesn’t matter. The point was, we pushed each other to not only reach our goals, but exceed them.

This is a great method to use if: 1) you have at least one competitive bone in your body, and 2) you have a trustworthy friend to “compete” against. Don’t team up with a writer who will rub your face in it or taunt you for “losing.” Find someone who will positively push you to the finish line (even if they beat you to it first).

Treat Yo Self!

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Reaching our goals is great. Reaching our goals and getting a “treat” for it is even greater! As you hit a milestone, pat yourself on the back and give yourself something for all of your hard work. It could be glass of wine, a nice dinner, a day off, a new book, whatever. The choice is yours. For me, it’s a chocolate chip cookie dough sundae.

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This is what awaits me at the end of my designated writing day. It’s right there in my freezer, taunting me. Telling me, “Hey, if you reach your goal, you can have me. If not, too bad. Better luck next time.” So, even when I’m not in the mood to write, I’ll push through just so I can get my hands on some ice cream.

This is another strategy I recommend to all writers. Why not reward yourself for your hard work? Just stay honest with yourself. Personally, I like to publicly announce my goals via social media. That way, I feel like others are keeping me accountable. If I announce I’m going to try and write for nine hours, then I have to try and write for nine hours. And if I hit nine hours, then I get my delicious treat!

Whether you’re trying to finish NaNoWriMo on time, or finish a novel at any time, you need to find ways to keep yourself on track. And I hope one of the tips above help you do that.

What about you? What are some of your favorite tricks to reach your goals?

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NaNoWriMo Tips – How To Manage Your Time

The countdown is officially on. NaNoWriMo is just days away!

Okay, perhaps the idea of writing 50,000 words in one month doesn’t freak you out. But, for many of us (including those who’ve “won” NaNo before) the endeavor is terrifying. That’s a lot–a lot–of work in a small–a small–amount of time. And, no matter how prepared you feel, I can promise you one thing:

You won’t succeed if you don’t manage your time.

It only takes a few missed days during NaNoWriMo to fall behind schedule. And it only takes a few more missed days to make catching up near impossible. So, managing your time and keeping your focus is essential. Today, I’d like to share some tips on how to do this.

Not only have these time management methods helped me win NaNoWriMo twice, but they’ve also helped me whip out revised manuscripts for agents within three weeks, and submit stories for contests with deadlines as short as 24-hours. I’ll admit, most of these strategies aren’t fun or pretty, but if you want to meet a tight deadline, then I’d recommend trying one or all of them.

Chop Out Distractions

Duh, right?

But, as obvious as this one is, it’s the most important. It’s also the hardest. Although many distractions are unavoidable (working a full-time job, taking care of your family, paying bills, etc.), there are many you can avoid: Watching Netflix, playing Candy Crush, going out with friends, Tweeting, etcetera, etcetera. You have to chop out these activities when you’re on a deadline. It stinks, but if want to reach the finish line, then you need to dedicate all of your free time to writing.

And on that note…

Accept Your Loner Status

We’ve all heard writing is a lonely job. Well, it is.

Even if you’re writing in a coffee shop, a library, or a park, you’re separated from the rest of the world. People can’t see what you see, or feel what you feel. It can be isolating and, well, a little depressing. Thankfully, on a regular writing schedule, you’re able to take frequent breaks to reconnect with humanity and remind yourself you live here, not in the fictitious other world you’ve created.

However, when you’re on a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of time to constantly re-root yourself in reality. You have to stay connected to that lonely other world for longer periods of time. You can’t hop on Facebook every thirty minutes, or text your bestie every hour. You have to live and breathe your story for as long as possible. Keep writing until you forget who and where you are. Keep seeing and feeling everything your characters see and feel. Keep going until you fear you might be losing your mind!

Then stop and take a break. Go eat dinner. Call a friend. IM a writing buddy. Reconnect with the real world. Do NOT lose your mind.

…And then get back to work.

Commit One FULL Day EACH Week to Writing

4a8b505cd84f1d0bcd7db17f17b2a584Nearly everyone in my life knows Saturday is my writing day. AKA, “Don’t Talk to Jenna Day.” From sun up to sun down, I write. It’s intense and it’s not always fun, but it’s vital to my production output.

And I bet it would be vital to yours as well.

By dedicating a full day to writing each week, you’ll not only give yourself a major word count boost, but you’ll give yourself a major motivation boost. It won’t matter how tired or busy you get during the rest of the week, you’ll want to keep your story moving along. You’ll want to finish that last chapter, or start the next one, or rewrite an old one to match the new one you wrote on your writing day, or…The list goes on and on.

There’s No Crying in Writing

Okay, okay. There’s lots of crying in writing. And trust me, when you’re writing under deadline, you’ll probably cry even more. But you know what? You gotta suck it up and push through the emotional breakdowns. Go grab a piece of chocolate, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, and listen to Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Then get back to work.

Go. Do. It. Now!

…That was my version of tough love. Did it help? No? Whatever. Go eat some more chocolate. GO!

Don’t Be Miss Congeniality

Confession: I have a horrible time saying no to people. Horrible! Whether it’s babysitting for a friend, making a hundred cupcakes for a birthday party, or editing someone else’s story, I always say yes.

However, when I’m on a deadline, I have to stifle my Miss Congeniality urge and say no. No, no, NO!

And if you’re a “yes” person like me, then you need to do the same thing. It’s terrible, but you have to be selfish when you’re trying to reach a deadline. You have to put yourself first. You have to!

To help ease your guilt, give your acquaintances, friends, and family members a heads up. Tell them you’re going to be crazy busy for the next month and you can’t help them a ton. If they know and respect you, they’ll leave you alone.

Even When You’re Not Chugging, Keep Chugging

Okay, fine. Maybe you can’t be a complete self-serving hermit during NaNoWriMo. You’ve got work, the gym, the kids, hundreds of errands, special events…

It’s okay!

If you can’t physically sit down to write, you can still keep chugging along. For example: During my hour-long spin class at the gym, I’ll close my eyes and think about my story. I’ll strategize my next scene, or create a new character, or discover a plot hole. That way when I’m finally able to sit down and write, I’m ready to go.

Of course, carrying a small notepad with you is a smart idea. That way if you come up with an idea, you can jot it down so you won’t forget it. And if you don’t have a notebook, use your phone. Most have apps now that allow you to take notes.

Just Keep Swimming

Just keep swimming. Just keep working. Just keep writing!

Swim, swim, swim. Work, work, work. Write, write, write!

Don’t. Give. Up!

Writing on a deadline is like running a marathon. It’s exhausting, difficult, and seemingly endless. But it will come to an end. Trust me. All you have to do is remember to keep your eyes on the finish line, breathe, and focus. If you do, you’ll make it. And you’ll make it on time!

So, there you go! Those are my tips for managing your time during NaNoWriMo (or with whatever project you might be working on with a tight deadline). I hope one or all of them help you meet your goals.

Good luck, everyone! If you’d like to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo site, my username is jenspenden.

What about you? What are some of your time management strategies?

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10 Tips For NaNoWriMo

Every year, I debate whether or not I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo. It always depends on what project I’m currently working on and what stage of that project I’m in.

This year, I’m not participating.

I really am sad, because I love NaNo! But I’m knee deep in the sixth (er, seventh?) draft of my novel at the moment, so it’s just not the right time to sit down at my computer and word vomit all over the place. However, if you’re looking to word vomit (er, whip out a draft of a new or old project), then NaNo’s perfect for you!

50,000 words in one month…Are you up for it?

Yes? Great! As difficult as it is, NaNoWriMo is an awesome experience. In fact, I think every writer should give it a shot at least once in their career.

To help those brave souls who’ve decided to take on the daunting task of writing a novel (well, a big chunk of a novel) in a month,  check out my top ten tips for surviving NaNoWriMo.

Jen’s Top 10 NaNoWriMo Tips

1. Decide Why You’re Participating

 “I dunno, I signed up just because.”

No, no, no! Don’t say this when people ask you why you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Give a valid, reliable, motivating reason to participate:

“I’ve been slacking lately and need a kick in the butt.”

“I have a great idea for a novel.”

“People say NaNo’s impossible. I’m gonna prove them wrong!”

Whatever your personal motive, make sure you have one. Don’t sign up for NaNoWriMo “just because.” If you do, you’ll likely fail. You’ll inevitably hit a rough patch and think, “Ugh, why am I even doing this? Forget it. I’m done.”

2. Just Write! 

 NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or finish the first draft of a novel, or to completely rewrite an old one. It’s not a great way to revise or edit a novel. And it’s definitely not a great way to write a masterpiece that’s ready to be published on December 1st. Nope, sorry!

So, stop stressing about making things perfect, resist the temptation to edit or revise along the way, and don’t get upset about a watered down plot or 2D characters.

JUST WRITE!

Close your eyes, open your mind, and tap, tap, tap your fingers against your keyboard. And, remember, this is a rough draft. You won’t be showing it off to many (if any) people. So, let the words flow and don’t stop to question them. If you do, you’ll never make it to 50K by November 30th.

3. Don’t Skip Days

The first time I participated in NaNo, I missed the first three days because I was in a writing contest. And after that, I missed a few more days because, well, I missed them. Life happened. I didn’t feel like writing. I was tired. I had better things to do. Etc., etc.

Bad idea.

Missing one day is okay. Not good, but not horrible. But after one day, the word count deficit starts to pile up–fast! Within one week of my first NaNo, I was behind schedule by 10,000 words, and the only way I was going to catch back up was to increase my daily word count–ack!

Do yourself a favor and spit out those words every day, even if you don’t feel like it.

4. Be Proactive

Don’t live on the edge if you don’t have to. Give yourself a word count cushion.

After I climbed out of the deep, dark word count abyss I’d fallen into, I decided to take the bull by the horns and get ahead of schedule. On days I had extra time, energy, and motivation, I blasted past my daily goal and kept writing. Why not? Who knew how I’d feel the next day, or if my life would blow up and I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write?

Because of this “get ahead” strategy, I was able to finish almost a week early.

5. Find an Idea You Love

When you hit those “ugh” moments, or you’re just flat out tired, it’ll be your passion and excitement for a story that gets you through. So, make sure choose one you love. Find a plot you want to explore and a cast of characters you want to know better. They should have the power to enthrall and entice you, and keep you motivated on a daily basis.

I promise, if you feel “meh” about your story before you start it, you’ll feel “meh” about it the whole time. And, sooner or later, you’ll throw in the towel.

6. Evolve With Your Idea

There is a very good chance the story you set out to write won’t be the story you end up writing. This is especially true for those of us who are “pantsters” rather than “plotters.” We assume we’re going to take a left at the fork, but end up taking a right instead. That’s okay.

Remember: JUST WRITE!

Don’t add constraints or limit yourself because the story “was supposed to go this way.” Go with the flow and see where things take you. After all, this isn’t a final draft. It’s an exploration of the story you will–hopefully–continue pursuing long after the November 30th deadline.

7. Embrace a Love-Hate Relationship

 Even if you’re infatuated with your story, you’ll probably become infuriated with it at some point. You’ll have moments when you question your concept, or realize you despise a certain character, or fear you chose the wrong path back in chapter five.

It’s okay! First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect or 100% lovable. They’re ugly, troublesome, and, more often than not, a total nightmare.

So, accept the inevitable love-hate relationship you’ll have with your story, remind yourself you’ll be able to revise those despicable spots in the future, and keep chugging along.

8. Lean On Other Writers for Support

I often tell people, “Writers have their own language.” And, it’s true. We do. We naturally understand each other and are able to relate to each other’s woes. So, why not befriend a few? Trust me, you’ll need their cheers, pep talks, and internet hugs to survive the NaNoWriMo roller coaster.

If you aren’t sure where to find potential writing pals, here are a few suggestions:

  1. NaNoWriMo’s website. It allows you to network and make solid connections. If you’d like to add me as a buddy, my username is jenspenden.
  2. Twitter. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met there and have created genuine, supportive friendships with. Be sure to check out hashtags like #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoWriMo2016, #NaNoPrep. And, of course, feel free to follow me (@jenspenden). I’ll happily follow you in return!
  3. Writing Blogs. Follow them, read them, and leave genuine comments on posts. If you do, you’ll naturally connect with other writers.
  4. Writing Contests. This one might sound strange, but some of my best writing friends have come from participating in writing contests, especially those that allow you to interact with other competitors (ex: NYC Midnight).

Whatever your method, I highly recommend you befriend other writers. Life becomes so much better once you do.

9. Have Fun! 


I mean it. Enjoy the experience. Yes, NaNo is stressful, insane, and a lot–a lot–of work. But nobody is forcing you to do it (well, I hope not). So, why not have fun with it?

Whenever I hit a low point during NaNo, I like to sit back in my chair and laugh at the absurdity of writing 50K words in one month. Who does that? Seriously? Or I like to take a deep breath and embrace my accomplishments. I figure every word I write deserves a round of applause, even if it wasn’t the best word in the world.

10. Worst Case Scenario

The worst thing that can happen? You don’t reach the 50K goal by November 30th.

Big. Deal.

Okay, maybe it is a big deal and you want to focus on that goal to keep you motivated. Great! However, in my opinion, the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to barf out 50,000 words for the sake of barfing out 50,000 words. It’s to help writers focus and kick-start a steady writing routine that carries them past the November 30th deadline.

So, if you’re approaching the deadline, and you’re nowhere near the 50K word finish line, who cares? Keep going. Keep writing! The only true failure in NaNoWriMo is giving up completely.

Well, there you go! I hope you found at least one of my tips for NaNoWriMo useful. Good luck, everyone! And remember:

JUST WRITE!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – How To Punctuate Dialogue Tags

During the past month, I’ve critiqued over 80 short stories.

…Yeah, I’m a little tired.

But, I’m also excited to share some new editing tips based on common errors, bad habits, and other hiccups I stumbled upon while evaluating those 80-plus stories.Jen's Editing Tips

“So, which tip should I start with?” Jen asked her good friend, Ms. Red Pen.

Ms. Red Pen shrugged. “I don’t know. What was the biggest problem you noticed while critiquing all those stories?”

“Hands down, dialogue punctuation,” Jen said and shuddered at the memory. “I saw commas where there should’ve been periods, and periods where there should’ve been commas. Missing quotation marks. Uppercased words that should’ve been lowercased, and lowercased words that should’ve been uppercased. The list goes on and on.”

“Yikes!” Miss Red Pen exclaimed. “But, well,” she sighed, “it makes sense. Dialogue punctuation can be really tough.”

Jen nodded. “I know. But, once you get it, it’s easy.”

Dialogue Tags

As complicated and intimidating as dialogue punctuation can seem, it’s not. I promise. All you have to do is remember these basic rules of thumb:

If Dialogue Is Spoken

If a character says, asks, yells, whispers, or speaks in any way, then you should use a comma and lowercase your pronoun. Question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill said.

I know, I heard you,” Amy responded.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” he asked. 

Because I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you,” she hissed. 

If Dialogue Is Followed By An Action

If a character smiles, scowls, walks, sprints, or acts  in any other way, then you should use a period and uppercase your pronoun. Obviously, question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill slammed his hand against the dining room table.

I know, I heard you.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched plate of food.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” His voice crackled with fury.

Because, I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.” Her fingers curled around her knife.

If An Ongoing Sentence Is Interrupted By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag within a sentence, then use a comma to pause the dialogue (inside the quotations marks), and then use another comma to resume the dialogue (outside the quotation marks). Also, be sure to lowercase the first word of the connecting sentence (unless it’s a proper noun, of course). For example:

Hey,” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table, “I’m talking to you.”

I know,” Amy responded, “I heard you.”

Then,” his voice crackled with fury, “why won’t you look at me? Why?”

Because,” her fingers curled around her knife, “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

If Two Sentences Are Separated By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag between two separate sentences (spoken by the same character, obviously), then use periods instead of commas, and uppercase the first word of the second sentence. For example:

Hey!” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table. “I’m talking to you.”

I know.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched dinner. I heard you.”

Then why won’t you look at me?” he asked. “Why?”

Because.” She took a deep breath and curled her fingers around her knife. “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

So, there you go. Those are the basics of dialogue punctuation. Yes, there are others I could go into (ellipses, em dashes, etc.), but to avoid overwhelming you, I’ll save those for a future post. If you are overwhelmed, it’s okay. Really! It took me ages to feel comfortable with dialogue punctuation.

One thing that always helps me simplify matters is to ask myself one question:

“Is my character speaking or acting their words?”

Once that’s determined, it’s easy to figure out which direction to take the dialogue punctuation:

Spoken = Comma, lowercased pronoun

Acted = Period, uppercased pronoun

If you’re still struggling, then I urge you to read. Read, read, read! And while you’re reading, study how authors punctuate their dialogue. That’s how I learned best when I didn’t know how to handle this annoying, but essential aspect of writing.

And, of course, write. Write, write, write. The more you write, the more you’ll grasp its technicalities and nuances.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations. From start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4. Single POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5. Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

Well, there you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work. And I hope they work for you, too!

How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Beta Reader Etiquette 101

Most of us know how important beta readers are. They’re the ones who catch major flaws, cliches, loopholes, and other problems in our work before the rest of the world sees it. That’s why it’s so important we treat them with the respect and courtesy they deserve.

Jen's Editing Tips

Respecting beta readers seems like an obvious thing, right? Well, not to everyone. Unfortunately. Although most don’t mean to do it (and most don’t even know they’re doing it), many writers offend, snub, and/or annoy their beta readers.

To help you maintain solid working relationships with your beta readers, here are some basic etiquette tips to consider:

Say Thank You

Duh, right? Well, believe it or not, there are writers who forget to thank their beta readers. They’ll email them a story, wait and wait, and then dig into the feedback the second it returns. And they’ll completely forget to say, “Thank you!”

This. Is. Not. Acceptable.

No matter what a beta tells you about your story, you need to thank them for taking the time to read and evaluate it. Because they took the time to read and evaluate it. They didn’t have to, but they did.

A great way to prevent this major faux pas is to thank a beta before you read their feedback. That way, you won’t get distracted and forget.

Tactfully Reject

Asking someone to be a beta reader is sort of like asking them out on a date. You won’t know until you sit down and review their feedback if there’s chemistry between you.

Sometimes there is. Sometimes there isn’t.

If there isn’t, that’s okay. Thank them for taking the time to read your story and then–quietly–set their feedback aside. You don’t need to use it. You also don’t need to ask that person to read your work again. In fact, unless a beta asks to stay involved (usually a friend or family member), it’s rude to request additional input from them.

Which leads to the next tip…

Don’t Waste a Beta Reader’s Time

Rejecting a beta reader’s feedback is perfectly okay.

Rejecting a beta reader’s feedback and then sending them another draft to review is not.

Beta readers have busy lives just like the rest of us. Jobs, families, chores, projects, etc. Why would you ask them to read multiple drafts of the same story if you’re not going to heed their advice? It’s a waste of their time and, let’s face it, inconsiderate.

So, before you send someone a draft, ask yourself, “Will I use this person’s feedback?” If the answer is “no” (or even a shaky “maybe”), then be kind and leave them alone.

Keep Track of Betas

Some writers like to only use one beta reader. Some writers like to use many. It all depends on your personal preference and goals.

For those of you who like to use multiple beta readers, it can be hard to keep track of each one. Lines get crossed. Emails get lost. Names get mixed up.

That’s why it’s a good idea to keep a spreadsheet (or some kind of list) to remind yourself who’s who and what’s what (story sent, feedback received, thank you sent, etc.) If you do that, then you’ll have a much better chance of keeping everything straight. And you’ll have a far less chance of offending someone.

Don’t Badger

“Can you read my eleventh draft?”

“Do you think I should change my character’s hair color from red to blond?”

“Should his name be Bob or Bobby?”

“Would this sentence sound better if I wrote it like this?”

“What about this sentence?”

“And this one?”

Poke, poke, poke! If you badger your beta readers with too many questions or requests, they’re going to get annoyed. Really annoyed. So annoyed, they might stop helping you. Let’s remember, beta readers have lives, too. And, if they’re writers, then they probably have their own projects to agonize over. So, be careful. Don’t drown them in questions and countless drafts. Be wise and pick your “battles.”

Bottom line: Whether it’s another writer, a friend, or a family member, you need to treat your beta readers with the respect and courtesy they deserve. After all, most of them are helping you out of the goodness of their hearts.

So, what about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Top 2015 Posts – Can You Write a Story in 150 Words

To end the year, I’ve decided to spotlight my top 10 favorite blog posts from 2015. Each of these made a special impact on me and readers, so I hope you enjoy them (again or for the first time). Today, I present to you my 9th favorite post from the past year:

Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

#9_1Writing stories under 1,500 words is tough. Writing stories under 150 words is insane! That’s why I liked this post. It offered a tough, but terrific challenge to writers (including myself). It also offered a lot of fun.

So, check out the details below and, if you haven’t already, consider entering one of Ad Hoc Fiction’s free contests!


A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story…Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.

*gulp*

Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.

Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!

“Crumb Layer”

by Jenna Willett

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.

I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.


To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.

Top 10 2015 Posts

10. Are You a Positive or Negative Writer

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