Episode 99

Straightforward Writing Tips (Clip Show #10)

Thank you to everyone who filled out the Listener Feedback Survey. I am in the process of reviewing and revising the show’s format accordingly, but there is still a little bit of time to complete our survey and tell me what to do. Check the show notes for a link to the survey, and remember that all responses are anonymous and highly appreciated. For now, it’s review time again.

Music licensed from Storyblocks

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

Thank you to everyone who filled out the listener feedback survey. I am in the process of reviewing and revising the show’s format accordingly, but there is still a little bit of time to complete our survey and tell me what to do. Check the show notes for a link to the survey, and remember that all responses are anonymous and highly appreciated. For now, it’s review time again.

Let’s settle in at the Writing Break cafe and get started on a review of the last seven episodes’ worth of writing tips.

From Episode 92: Writing Advice from Neil Gaiman

In a post that has since been taken down, author and book writing coach Elizabeth Lyons posted a Thread giving the following writing advice to authors:

“The tone of your book must match the real you. When someone reads your book and then meets you in person (or sees you on TV or in a live social media post) they should NOT be surprised by the way you present yourself.” This bit of advice did not go over well with authors.

Author and medical doctor Karen Tang replied by saying “This isn’t even true for nonfiction. I wrote a book about gynecologic problems, and it covers issues like infertility, gender identity, incontinence. In real life I'm a goofball with a messy house who likes Jane Austen but my readers probably don't need/want that tone when they're reading the facts about miscarriage."

Fiction author Neil Gaiman responded with “So is the real me the person who wrote Stardust or American Gods, Sandman or Fortunately the Milk, Chu’s Day at the Beach or Good Omens? They none of them have the same tone, no more do I. You aren't your books.”

Lyons removed the post, claiming she was being bullied, but the conversation continued among authors on other accounts. As for me, I think writing can be a form of self-expression and a space for pure imagination. Consistency in a character’s tone, consistency in your book’s tone, those things are important to examine, but consistency with the author? No way. Books are static creations by dynamic creatures. A writer with 20 years of experience is not the same person they were when they began writing. Similarly, a reader can read the same book twice and gain something completely different from it each time. Feel free to experiment with your writing voice, and understand that it can differ from book to book.

From Episode 93: Dramatic Irony in First-Person POV

One of my talented clients sent me a question from deep within the pages of his latest work in progress. It's about dramatic irony, which, in short, is when the reader knows something the characters don’t know. Fun fact: It’s not called dramatic irony because it’s exaggerated but because it originated in ancient Greek drama.

Not only do I have his permission to share this Q&A with you, but it was he who suggested I do so. First, his question:

“I'm working on a first-person novel and would appreciate your insight into best practices for developing suspense through dramatic irony considering the limitations of that POV. My protagonist believes he is a partner in a criminal enterprise when he is really being set up as the fall guy. I need the audience to know things he doesn't but if I make the clues too obvious then I'm risking making him look stupid, and if they're not obvious enough then I'll have no suspense. I'm trying to avoid the heavy hand of retrospective regret (if I knew then what I know now etc). Considering present tense which would eliminate that method anyway.”

Great question, and while I haven’t read any of this manuscript . . . yet . . . I did my best to answer. I provided 4 suggestions, not all of which were focused on dramatic irony, and if you’re up for a thrill, why not pause here and see if you can come up with 4 or more suggestions before listening to mine? OK, here was my answer:

There should be a reason he is confident, or perhaps overconfident, in his position within the criminal enterprise (e.g., special skills or connections, did a big favor for them once, nepotism).

The protagonist should have a character flaw that supports his confidence (e.g., arrogance, sycophant, delusions of grandeur). He is not stupid, but his flaw skews his perception in certain situations. Rather than retrospective regret, he could have a character arc that removes this flaw and possibly even swings the pendulum in the other direction (for additional chaos).

Other characters could call out his flaw via dialogue.

There should be anecdotes about eliminating other people within the organization that makes the reader wonder if the protagonist is really safe.

From Episode 94: Innovations in Publishing and Selecting a Subtitle

As an author, you feel that your book is classic, timeless, for the ages, and as your editor, I agree with you. However, we are living in the here and now, and you need money to pay for food, shelter, and other essentials today, which is why I cautiously, reluctantly bring up trends in books. I want you to be proud of the published version of your book, but I also want you to eat. So if that means your books should have a certain kind of book cover or title, I will bring it to your attention. You, of course, can do as you wish in the end.

Trends exist in book covers and titles for fiction and nonfiction alike. Actor Tajja Isen recently wrote a piece about finding the right subtitle for her collection of essays, called Some of My Best Friends.

The subtitle, Isen explains, is a chance to market your book. When Some of My Best Friends was published in hardcover, the subtitle was Essays on Lip Service. As the publisher was getting ready to release the paperback version, Isen’s publishing team started to feel that the subtitle was too vague. It didn’t have the humor that the rest of the book had. The word ‘essays’ gave “bad vibes”, and the term ‘lip service’ was deemed too academic. After weeks of brainstorming, it was a friend and fellow writer who offered Isen a suggestion over dinner that put her near the bullseye. The new full title reads Some of My Best Friends: And Other White Lies I’ve Been Told.

It’s clear, it’s punny, it’s trendy, and, most importantly, it gives the reader a good idea of what to expect when they read that particular collection of essays. If the idea of changing your book’s title or subtitle for marketing purposes makes you feel icky, you are not alone. I’ve worked with many authors who prefer to be true to their artistic creativity than worry about marketing. I’m not here to make you compromise your ideals or hide your brilliance. I’m just here to tell you what’s going on in publishing. However, if you are open to modern advice from a fellow author, check the show notes for a link to Isen’s article.

From Episode 95: How to Write Better than AI (Part 1)

Today we are starting a four-part writing series aimed to help you write better than AI. I haven’t figured out what to call this series yet, but maybe you have some ideas you can send to me. This series will review several writing techniques writers must implement in order to be masters of their craft. These are things that humans do well but ChatGPT does not, at least not yet.

To start, you already know the age-old advice of “Show, don’t tell.” But this is something many writers struggle to do successfully. One reason they struggle is that they don’t know how to make sure the reader has vital information without just… well, telling them, especially when it’s about things that happened before the book began. One way to do this is to incorporate it into the dialogue. Using dialogue to reveal information keeps the reader engaged and makes sure that you’re not revealing too much at once.

For nonfiction writers, there is a little more wiggle room to tell things as needed, but where things can go wrong for nonfiction writers . . . for fiction writers too, actually . . . where things can go wrong is when the author overstates something. Sometimes the author is unsure of their own writing ability, and sometimes they don’t trust the audience to pick up on things, which can lead to the author repeating details and facts they feel are important. This drags down the writing and bores the reader.

Cliches also drag down good writing. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, using your own words will always result in better writing than if you were to use cliches. Leave the cliches with ChatGPT.

Another thing to leave with AI is the use of dead metaphors. While unique metaphors can be impactful if done right, dead metaphors (dead as a doornail, for example) do absolutely nothing for your writing except make it feel stale. So, yes to unique, new, and fresh metaphors, no to dead metaphors.

That is all we have time for this writing break. Join me again in two weeks for part two. Until then, thank you so much for listening, and remember, you deserved this break.

You still here? One more thing. Surprise the reader. That’s something that Chat GPT becomes memorable for because of the errors which are so surprising you can’t forget them. But if you surprise the reader, or the listener in this case, or the viewer if you’re screenwriting, you become what you truly are, which is unforgettable.

From Episode 96: How to Write Better than AI (Part 2)

Continuing on from last week, I have several more tips today on how to write better than AI. One thing I expanded on last week was the concept of “show, don’t tell” in order to provide the reader with necessary background information in an engaging way. Another aspect to the “show, don’t tell” concept that is often overlooked is showing emotions. This could mean showing a character’s emotion in fiction or guiding a reader’s emotion in nonfiction. It is easy to write “she was distraught” or “I was fuming”, but that doesn’t make it good writing. What does being distraught look like for your character in particular? A distraught lion in The Wizard of Oz looks very different from a distraught Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Showing us what these emotions look like in your characters will make your story more memorable.

As for nonfiction, let’s say you’re writing a memoir; you could simply say “I was fuming”, or you could bring the reader into your lived reality by describing how that anger felt in your body. Regardless of genre, work to make the story you’re telling feel real, and do not summarize the interesting parts. That is something I see authors do often, and if you’re not sure what the interesting parts of your story are, ask a writing buddy or your beta readers. For more information about working with beta readers, check out episode 10 and episode 78.

Another way to show and not tell is to avoid analysis. Let the readers come to their own conclusions. This is a hard one because some authors want readers to feel and think exactly what they are feeling and thinking. That is not something that you can control because we are all different people with different values and life experiences. Once you understand that you cannot control exactly what your readers will think or feel, you can start having fun by just telling your story well and hoping that there is enough reality and humanity in your words to elicit true feelings and deep thoughts in your readers, whatever those feelings and thoughts may be. Whether you’re writing a mystery or a manifesto, you want readers to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions before getting to the ending. What makes reading fun is the meeting of two minds, that of the writer and the reader.

I also encourage keeping sentence structure simple. Some writers enjoy writing flowery, complex sentences, but few readers enjoy reading them. How do you like your sentence structure: simple or complex?

From Episode 97: How to Write Better than AI (Part 3)

For today’s third installment of How to Write Better than AI, I’ll start with a writing tip that rankles some writers, which is, avoid passive voice. Active voice is where it’s at, and even AI is good at active voice. Don’t trail behind the bots for this one. However, it is a matter of what you are writing. For example, journalists and researchers often write in passive voice, but if you’re not just reporting but also engaging the readers and bringing them into your story, be it fact or fiction, you’re going to want to use active voice.

There are limitless active vs passive voice examples online, and but a simple one would be, You listened to this podcast rather than the podcast was being listened to by you. We usually use active voice when we are speaking, but it can be easy to mix up when you’re writing. Remember to describe action in real time. If you see the words are, was, were, or had in your manuscript, check that sentence for passive voice.

Similarly, check for the words "see" and "hear". Those words are mostly dead weight in first person point of view stories. For example, I heard thunder can be changed to thunder rolled. If your character is the narrator, then we know any sights and sounds mentioned were heard and seen by your character. Does that make sense? If not, email me and let me know.

And the final tip for today is to harness the power of suggestion. Suggest subtle things to your reader. This can be done in the narration or the dialogue. It can also be done using a theme or a color or even a symbol. Be creative, always, and be subtle often.

From Episode 98: How to Write Better than AI (Finale)

As we’ve discussed recently, AI is currently a tell-don’t-show hinterland. If you can write without the excess verbiage that AI generates and show your story, you’re already ahead of the game. If you really want to tighten up your writing, minimize adverbs whenever possible. For example, he ran quickly could be changed to he sprinted.

Also, remember that adjectives are tools, not decorations. Use them with purpose. For example, a sea breeze might indeed be cool, salty, and refreshing all at once, but what is the important description for your story? Don’t we all know that a sea breeze is cool, salty, and refreshing? Perhaps for your scene the important part is that the sea breeze carries the smell of sunscreen, which focuses attention on the fact that the beach is crowded.

As AI-generated books continue to be released, there are several tell-tale signs that a book was not written or edited by a human, such as switching incorrectly between current and past tense, mixing up character pronouns, constantly moving between first- and third-person point of view, continuity errors, and erroneous punctuation. The list goes on, of course, and for now, AI writing does not read well at all. However, the technology is improving. Pair that with humans who are reading less, and we might be headed into a dark future where no one cares that the writing is bad. A new dark age in writing might be upon us, but I think we can rage against the dying of the light by doing one thing AI will never be able to do, which is care.

AI is fast writing, but it is not careful writing. And we humans, all humans, must insist on careful writing.

I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode. In a couple of weeks we’ll begin a new season with a revised format of the show based on the feedback I received from the recent listener feedback survey. Tune in for more writing tips for both fiction and nonfiction and the latest publishing news and book trends.

Thank you so much for listening, and remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.