Ten Things to Avoid in Your First Chapter Unless You Want to Look Like a Rookie*

*Disclaimer 1- There are exceptions to every rule. Plenty of them. Each of the following could be used well in a story. But usually it will be by someone who knows what they are doing, does it on purpose, and didn’t just assume off the bat that they were the exception to the rule. (Successful instances may also often result from subverting a trope or making fun of a cliché.)  Also, these aren’t “rules”. They are more a general set of guidelines. Ultimately,  there is really only one rule you can’t break as a writer, and that is to bore the reader or lose their trust. If your reader is staying engaged and entertained, just keep doing what you’re doing.*

*Disclaimer 2- When writing your first draft, don’t stress about any of these “rules.” Write whatever comes out naturally. Rough drafts are meant to be rookie drafts by nature. Once written, they can be edited and polished using tips from lists like these, and made to contend in the big leagues.*

Enough disclaimers, let’s get to that list already.

  1. Dream Sequences

You want to have a dream sequence somewhere in your story? Fine. But please don’t start your story that way. It’s a let-down for readers. We don’t know your world or your characters yet. We trust you as an author to introduce us to them from the get go, so we believe what ever you’ve told us is real. When it’s revealed that it was all just a dream, and here is the real reality, we feel cheated. It feels like you hooked us with a lie, and it was a cheap shot. So don’t do it.

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  1. Rise and Shine

Don’t start your story with your character waking up. Honestly, it’s probably best avoided all together for the beginning of any chapter. The reasoning behind it is that we want to cut straight to the action. Reading that someone woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast, chatted with their family, got stuck in traffic, and then showed up late to work is boring. If showing up late to work is where the action starts, (because if they’re late one more time, they’re fired), then start right before the action. Start in the middle of traffic, and what the character is going to do to try and get rid of their late-to-work/about-to-be-fired problem.

  1. No Clearly Defined Goals

Watching a character go throughout their day, just for the sake of showing us a typical day in their life, is boring. Yes, your first chapter should establish the status quo for your main character, but think about your own life. You still have goals and objectives for each day, right? Get your work done early so you can beat rush hour traffic? Flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop because you’re pretty sure he likes you and just needs some encouragement? Reading as many writing blogs as possible because you really want to publish your novel? They don’t have to be massive save-the-world goals, but every character, in every scene and every chapter, needs to have some kind of a goal. Even your first chapter. No, especially your first chapter. Characters without purpose bore us; they confuse us. When something happens to them, we don’t always know if it was good or bad, if they wanted it to happen or not, because we don’t know if it helps or hurts their goal, because we don’t know what their goal was.

  1. Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

One of the most cliché mistakes you can make is to have your character look at their reflection in a mirror and describe themselves.  It screams, “I want to you know what my character looks like but don’t want to weave it into the story naturally, so I’m just going to put them in front of the mirror and list it all off for you real quick.” When was the last time you looked at your own reflection and mentally listed off your own height, weight, body type, hair color, eye color, distinguishing birth marks or tattoos, etc. You might notice a new pimple, or bags under your eyes, or your roots starting to show, but that’s about it. Don’t have your character list off their physical attributes while staring in a mirror (or just staring down at their own outfit for that matter). Not in the first chapter. Not anywhere else. Just don’t do it.

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  1. Meet Mary Sue

Another cliché you want to avoid are Mary Sue characters. (Or for male characters, Gary Stu). The cliché goes like this: the character is practically perfect, and if they have any “flaws,” they never face the consequences of them. Everybody is attracted to this character, wants to be this character, and things just inexplicably always turn out alright for this character. Never fired a gun before? That’s okay. Mary Sue just so happens to be a sharp shooter with less than five minutes practice. Work long hours in the office and spend every spare moment writing his novel leaving no time for exercise? That’s okay. Middle-aged Gary Stu still has the same surfer body he had back in high school.

These characters are unrealistic, difficult to relate to, and usually lack any meaningful character arc. If you want to see if your character counts as a Mary Sue or Gary Stu, check out this litmus test here:

  1. Flashbacks

This one kind of goes with dream sequences. There may be room in your story for a flash back later, but don’t put one in your first chapter. If you need to get that backstory in, find a way to weave it in naturally through dialogue with other characters or internal dialogue. Just make sure it makes sense for the characters to be talking about that event or thinking about that thing at that moment.

That’s not to say that your story has to be strictly linear in nature. There are plenty of good books that jump around their time line. I just finished reading “All The Light We Can Not See” by Anthony Doerr, and he bounces back and forth through time masterfully. But none of those time jumps comes across as flashbacks.

  1. Death, loss, and other massive tragedies**

The advice is always to start your story with a hook, to start with the action, to really pull your reader in. All too often, however, new writers will take that advice too far, and throw in a car accident where the best friend dies, or start with the character coming home from the funeral of their grandmother, completely distraught. The problem with putting such massive moments in your first chapter, however, is that we as the reader never knew the best friend or the grandmother. Heck, we barely know the main character. We know we probably should feel bad for the main character because they’re going through something horrific, but we don’t really feel it deep down. How could we? We haven’t had a chance to learn about and care for these characters yet. Having the main character feel these huge emotions that we don’t connect with makes us feel like outsiders. Save the big tragedies for later in the story once we can feel that loss right along with the character.

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**Please note that for crime or mystery genres, starting a story out with a tragedy or murder is often expected. But in those cases, the death itself isn’t expected to carry any emotional weight to it. It is merely the stepping stone of the plot, the thing that sets the game afoot so to speak.

  1. It was a dark and stormy night…

Back in the old days, authors often opened their stories with lengthy descriptions of the setting and the weather in order to set the stage. It worked back then. There was no video streaming onto everyone’s phone, flooding them with instant images at all hours of the day. Today’s readers aren’t as patient. They will get bored.

Even short descriptions of the location or weather can be troublesome though, if there is no character reaction to, or involvement with, the description. So by all means, set the stage for us; we need to know where we are, so describe the setting and the environment. But do it through the lens of the character, and use that description as a tool to convey the character’s emotions about his setting and environment. (For more information on this, see my blog post:

  1. The Clown-Car Approach

Sometimes new writers feel like they have to introduce every character, even the minor ones, right from the get-go. The result is a first chapter that feels like a clown car—the doors open and more and more characters keep spilling out, leaving the reader confused as they struggle to keep track of them all. Generally, characters we meet in the first chapter are ones we assume are going to be the most important. Help your reader keep track of who is a main character and who is a minor one by saving minor characters and sub plots for later in the book. Now, obviously, if it makes sense according to the story for your main character to interact with a minor character in the first chapter, go for it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t put any minor characters in the first chapter. Just don’t try and cram them all in. Not everything has to be planted in the first chapter.

  1. Info-dumping

This is probably the most universal mistake of all new writers, or even seasoned writers cranking out a first draft, and is something that should be avoided throughout your whole manuscript, not just the first chapter.

An info dump is any piece of information tucked into the narration or dialogue that doesn’t make sense to be there. For example, a girl telling her best friend, “My boyfriend Johnny who plays drums in a band asked me to be his groupie.” If it really is her best friend, she would already know the boyfriend’s name is Johnny and that he plays the drums. How the line would have gone is, “Johnny asked me to be his groupie.” Adding in that extra information wasn’t natural for the characters, it was only for the reader’s benefit, and thus pulls the reader out of the story by making them aware of the author and how the author is trying to spoon-feed them this information.

The mark of a seasoned writer is one who can weave in the extra information somewhere that feels natural. That’s the key. It has to come across as natural for the characters and the situation.

Example: Two siblings close in age are walking along to school. The younger one starts thinking about how they aren’t close anymore like they used to be, and wondering if it will ever be the same.

The internal dialogue of the younger one will feel like an info dump if it is presented out of the blue like that. It won’t feel natural. But if they are walking to school and there’s a moment of silence, the younger one breaks it by trying to spark up a game of “I spy” and the older one ignores them and runs up ahead to walk with his friends instead, now it feels natural for the younger sibling to think about how they aren’t close like they used to be and wonder if it will ever be the same as before.

If there is background information about the world, the culture, the character, or anything else, give your characters a motivation in the current action of the scene to talk or think about that back story. If you’re having a hard time fitting that information into a scene, there’s a good chance the reader doesn’t need that information yet. Just like you don’t have to introduce all the characters at once, you don’t have to give the reader all the details of the world or back story of the characters in one go. Let that information build naturally and gradually.


So there you have it. Ten things that are often red flags for editors and agents, signaling you as a rookie writer. There are plenty more, but that’s a good start. If you have others you’d like to add to the list, feel free to drop them in the comments below. And if you have any of these in your first chapter and find yourself saying, “But, Whitney,..” go back and read disclaimer #1. Happy Writing!

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Write Write Baby (A Parody Music Video)

I love writing all different kinds of things, but my favorite quirky addiction is parody song lyrics. I don’t know what it is about changing lyrics to a song, but it sucks me in more than any other writing I do. I don’t do it that often, because it just seems silly, but sometimes you need silly in your life. So when my favorite writing conference (Storymakers Conference in Provo, UT) announced a video contest for a chance to win free admission to two days of the conference, I decided to brush off this crazy little hobby of mine and make a video. Here’s a link to the video on YouTube:

Many of the lyrics refer to different inside jokes or references only people who have been to the Storymakers conference might understand, but I think there are plenty others that you might get if you’ve been to any writing conference. And if nothing else, you’ll get to see James Dashner and Brandon Sanderson in the video and laugh at my attempt of homestyle, white-girl rapping.  The cinematography isn’t winning me any awards at Sundance anytime soon, but it was fun to make and hopefully brings a smile to your face. And who knows, maybe it will convince you to register for Storymakers. If you do, let me know. I’d love to see you there!

Flash Fiction and Short Stories – My recent (winning) entries

In my last post, I told you a number of reasons why I really enjoy writing flash fiction and short stories. Now, I thought I’d share three stories with you that I’ve recently entered into various contests, two of which have been selected as winners. Yes, there’s already a few things I might change about each of them, but I figured I would just include them here exactly as I submitted them, flaws and all, so you can see what a first runner up or silver placed entry might look like for some of these competitions. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Sponsoring Organization: League of Utah Writers (Fall Conference)
Theme:  “Something about a Dream”
Word Limit: 100 words or less
My Word Count: 100 words
My Title: Spilled Milk
Award: First Runner-up

Breathe. She’d waited five years. What was another three minutes?


Kelly washed her hands and opened the bathroom door. Donovan’s utterly soaked shirt clung to his chest, dripping white onto the floor.

“I spilled the milk.”

She grabbed a large bath towel and headed for the kitchen.

“I was showing Nick my dream, how I zoomed—“

She dropped the towel onto the flooded tile. “Remember, Nick—”

“He said he’s coming to live with us!”

“No, he didn’t. Because he isn’t real.”

She finished mopping and headed back to the bathroom.

Where a little pink plus was waiting.



Sponsoring Organization: Prime Magazine
Theme:  “A Story About School”
Word Limit: Must be exactly 53 words
My Word Count: 53 words
My Title: Daddy’s Favorite Lesson

 Daddy taught me wants vs. needs. Now I want to teach, so I need this over-priced degree. But no one wants to pay teachers, so I need my graveyard shift to avoid loans. Just once, I want something other than ramen while I study, but no. Someone needs to pay for Daddy’s headstone.


Sponsoring Organization: Weber County Book Link
Theme/Prompt:  “You find magic or advanced technical powers in an ordinary, every-day object. How does it change your life?”
Word Limit: 5,000 words or less
My Word Count: 2,751
My Title: The Corner of Time
Award: Silver in the Adult Writing Competition

 Sorry, I was inflating balloons.

Yeah right. Like she could really show up late to the second week of work and give Mr. Cardon that excuse. On a scale of one to “you’re fired!” it was a solid eleven.

Jess licked her thumb and rubbed at some blue and pink flecks on her hand while carefully maneuvering the car through morning traffic. Maybe the hand-painted banners were a touch excessive, but come on. After three weeks, Troy finally came home from Dubai tonight, and you only get one shot to tell your new husband he’s gonna be a dad for the first time.

Rows of red tail lights flooded the street ahead, and she swerved at the next right. If it weren’t for the ridiculous workload that Mr. “I-don’t-hire-slackers” assigned on her first week, or this semester’s impossible reading lists, she could’ve decorated their apartment sooner and driven leisurely to work today. Instead, she was driving on three hours of sleep, an empty stomach, and a hopeful side-street shortcut, because it was 8:57, and she was still eight minutes away.

Up ahead, a simple wooden sign painted with a croissant and steaming coffee mug caught her eye.

Sorry, I was getting you breakfast.

Now that was a decent excuse.

As she parked, the radio started playing that annoying new Crenessa song, and she gratefully killed the engine.

Odd. The tiny store was barely wider than the door itself. And there were no windows, no name, not even any words—anywhere. Just a few feet of brick walls, a faded door, and that simple wooden sign.

Oh well. She didn’t have time to look for anything else.

She crossed the sidewalk and reached the cafe door just as some punk teen on his bike sped around the corner towards her.

“Sidewalks are for pedestrians!” she yelled.

He laughed and swerved around her, way too close to comfort.

“Hey! I said— ”

More laughter, almost maniacal, erupted behind her. Two more teens raced for her. It was all she could do to duck inside the shop just before they could hit her.

As the door shut, the outside world fell silent, replaced by an ambient soundtrack of wind chimes, rustling leaves, and a distant stream. Whatever anger she felt quickly diffused in the warm smells of coffee, vanilla, and something that smelled of Christmas. She couldn’t inhale deeply enough.

An empty, padded bench lined the wall clear to the back. Jess followed it past a few tiny bistro tables towards the counter just as a woman appeared from a back room wearing a badge with the name Samaya. She hesitated for a moment when she saw Jess, then broke into a smile and wiped her hands on her apron.

“Morning. What’ll it be?”

Everything looked and sounded promising, but Jess had no idea what Cardon liked. She ordered three different blends and a half dozen pastries to be safe. When the total rang up though, she nearly choked.

Samaya offered a sympathetic smile and gestured towards the bench. “You really should sit and enjoy your meal here. The experience is half of what you’re paying for.”

Jess surveyed the modest interior again and cocked an eyebrow at her. No amount of relaxing soundtracks or pleasant smells was worth that much.

Samaya shrugged. “You can walk away if the price is too steep.”

True, but the price of showing up late to work, empty-handed, was even steeper. With a forced smile, Jess thrust her card across the counter. After gathering her purchases, she headed for the door, pushing it open with her shoulder.


A tangle of wheels, limbs and scalding coffee littered the cement.

Jess glared at the teens that had slammed into her. It was the same pair from before.

“Are you just doing laps, trying to get someone killed?”

Without so much as an apology, they jerked their bikes up and scrambled away, leaving her with a soggy bag and brown-stained shirt. Perfect. Now she’d show up late, empty-handed and un-presentable. At least when Cardon fired her, she’d have plenty of time to go home and change before picking Troy up from the airport.

No. She couldn’t afford to lose this job and the health benefits it promised. She had to try and salvage things.

“Uh-oh,” Samaya said when Jess walked back in. “Bathroom’s over here.”

After two minutes of cold water and what felt like forever under the electric hand dryer, Jess emerged from the bathroom with her blouse hopefully presentable enough to not grab Cardon’s critical eye. She stole a glance at her watch. Crap. It was already a quarter after.

Samaya, bless her heart, offered a new tray of coffees and bag of pastries.

“On the house.”

“Thanks.” Jess didn’t have the time or money to argue. “This morning couldn’t have gone any worse.”

She started her car and groaned. That stupid Crenessa song again? As she changed the station, she noticed the time on the dash read 8:59. Great. Now the car clock was busted too.


Jess entered the office building clutching the pastry bag and her briefcase in one hand, and with the other, carried the coffees in front of her like a shield. Cardon came out of his office scowling, and she cringed. Just how late was she? Stealing a quick glance at the clock on the back wall, her heart jumped.


That couldn’t be right.

“Where are yesterday’s reports?”

Jess smiled weakly, handing him the coffee tray and fumbling a stack of folders out of her brief case. She handed the files to Cardon, who took a coffee before passing back the tray. Taking a sip, his eyes widened in surprise. He lowered the cup, eyed it briefly, then drew another long sip.

The panic gripping Jess’s heart slowly started to release. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t scowling anymore either.

“Terrific brew.” He motioned with his cup toward her bag. “Any bear claws?”

“Yes, sir.” Jess opened the bag, and he pulled out two pastries with a satisfied grin.

“You’re a good addition to the team,” he said, lifting his cup towards her like a toast before sipping again. “Just don’t be late again. Today’s reports are on your desk.”

His office door closed again before she could respond.

“Hey, Jones,” a familiar voice from a cubicle called out. “Any more to share?”

“Yeah.” Jess set the bag on Valerie’s desk to peruse. “What time do you have?”

“Eight after. Why?” Val peeled back the paper lining from a muffin.

Jess checked her watch. 9:25. “Oh, I just think my watch is broken.”

She headed to her desk. A stack of papers towered next to her chair. They’d take all day at the office and all night at home to finish. Looked like the only time she’d have to spend with Troy would be in the car. She sat down and braced herself for another long day.

But report after report, she couldn’t stop thinking about her watch. If the battery died, or if coffee got in it during the bike collision, wouldn’t it be frozen? Or at least running behind? How could it be seventeen minutes ahead? It just didn’t make sense.

And that collision. It was like those kids were in the exact spot they had been in when she entered the shop. Could they really have gone around the whole block in the time it took her to order and pay?

All day, there was an incessant scratching at the back of her mind, a stray thought begging to be let in, begging to be considered. What if time had—

No. That was crazy. It couldn’t possibly be true.

Jess buried herself in her reports.

But what about the song? Sure, top forty stations repeat hit songs on their playlists, but twice in twenty minutes?

By lunch, she couldn’t take it. She filled her empty coffee cup with water and drove back to the shop.

Once parked, she made sure there was no one on the street to watch her. If anyone saw what she was about to do, they’d think she was crazy. She probably was crazy. There had to be some other explanation, some logical reason for the morning’s strange events that she would think of eventually. But until then, she just had to prove to her silly, pregnant brain that the insane idea it had bounced around all morning was wrong. She had to put this craziness to rest once and for all or she’d never be able to focus on her reports and make it through the day.

Pulling the cup of water from the console, Jess approached the shop, opened the door, and slipped halfway in. Taking a deep breath, she tossed the cup as high into the air over the sidewalk as she could before slamming the door shut behind her.

“What are you doing?”

Jess froze as Samaya stared her down from the counter.


Jess’s mind fumbled for something to fill the seconds of silence that seemed eternal. But there wasn’t exactly a sane way of explaining she thought she’d found a magic coffee shop that made time stand still.

Samaya studied her for a moment. Then her stern glare dropped as if it had been a mask, and a smile suddenly danced behind her eyes.

“I was right. You’re the new one, aren’t you?”

The new one? What was she talking about?

“I wondered when it would pick someone else. Thought it might be you this morning, but I never know until they come back a few times. But you, you’re quick. Takes most people a few visits.” She laughed at Jess’s bewildered face and nodded towards the door. “Well, go on. Check.”

Jess’s breath caught in her chest. There had been no splashing noise—though she couldn’t really hear anything outside at all. But the way Samaya was talking and smiling—it couldn’t be. Could it?

Still holding her breath, Jess pulled on the door.

The moment it cracked open, her cup and water fell, splashing at her feet.

She whipped around. Samaya slid a freshly poured mug across the counter.

“Like I said, it’s best enjoyed here.”


“Going to school?”

Jess looked up from her textbook as the ultrasound technician entered the small exam room reading a file.

“Online master’s,” Jess said, closing the book and adjusting herself on the table. Sixty days working at Cardon’s had felt like forever, especially with her frequent cafe visits, but her benefits had finally kicked in and not a moment too soon. Jess lifted her shirt at the gesture of the technician.

“Says here you’ve got an employer, too. Both full-time?”

Jess nodded. She was also now a full-time novelist, had finished three scrapbooks, and learned how to crochet, but it didn’t seem polite to brag.

“Wow.” The technician squirted cold jelly on Jess’s stomach. “Where do you find the time?”

Jess grinned. “I drink a lot of decaf.”

“Are you sleeping enough?”

“Definitely.” Eight hours every night at home next to Troy, not to mention another eight hours between projects on what was a surprisingly comfortable cafe bench. Not only was she well-rested, but for the first time in her life, she was on top of everything. The praise and awe from others over her newfound togetherness wasn’t a bad perk either. The only down side was she couldn’t share it with Troy. That was the only thing Samaya ever explained—that the shop only chose one person at a time, and she was the current one. But if keeping one secret from Troy meant she could feel better than she ever had before in her life, it was worth it.

The technician placed the wand on Jess’s belly, and the screen swirled with black and white shapes.

Then there it was—a perfect little body with perfect kicking feet.

The technician held the wand steady. “Look at your little girl go. Maybe she’ll be a dancer.”

A girl! Jess’s heart swelled. She tried to memorize every amazing detail as the technician clicked on the computer, measuring different parts of her baby—no, her daughter!

“I didn’t think we’d be finding out the gender so soon,” Jess said. Not that she was complaining. Wait until Troy found out. He’d be wrapped around that perfect, tiny pinky. Maybe she would stop by the cafe on the way home and come up with a really special gender reveal for him.

“Twenty weeks is pretty standard for seeing gender.”

Jess pulled her eyes from the screen. She must have heard wrong.

“I’m only fourteen weeks.” She stared at the technician for confirmation, but the technician just chuckled.

“Not by my measurements.” She looked at Jess’s wide eyes. “Don’t worry. It’s common for some women to confuse implantation bleeding for the start of a menstrual cycle.”

Jess stared at the date on the screen in horror. “That can’t be right.”

“Well, it’s not an exact science,” the technician offered. “We could be off by a few days.”

Jess shook her head. “But we didn’t get married until August 1st.”

“Oh.” The technician paused her typing. “Well, nowadays I doubt anyone’ll judge you guys for—”

“No, you don’t get it. My husband’s religious. He insisted we wait.” She locked eyes with the technician. “We did.”

The technician’s smile disappeared. There was a long, cold moment of silence before she cleared her throat. “Look, no one here will say anything. It’s up to you to tell him or not.”


Jess drove home, staring at the incriminating envelope on the seat next to her, filled with its little pictures and giant lies. This was ludicrous! Troy was the father. There was no way she was twenty weeks pregnant. But what could she say? That the ultrasound machine was broken and the tech was incompetent and it only seemed like she cheated on him before their wedding? No, she’d have to hide the photos. She’d have to lie and tell him a different date. A week or two he might chalk up to error. But six weeks? How could they be off by six weeks?

A cold idea bit the edges of her mind, and her chest tightened as she tried to breath.

No. Oh no.

She pulled a U-turn at the next light and sped back through the streets as she did the math.

Ten hours of working.

Eight hours of sleeping.

Seven days a week.

Eight weeks.

Her knuckles whitened as she clung to the steering wheel. It added up to six full weeks in the coffee shop.

A few broken speed limits, a crooked parking job, and some thunderous steps later, Jess barged into the patron-less cafe. Samaya stood drying a mug.

“You lied!” Jess pointed her most menacing finger at her. “I wasn’t getting extra time.”

Samaya raised a challenging eyebrow at Jess’s finger and continued drying. “There’s no such thing as extra time. I never said there was.”

How could she just stand there, drying, not realizing what a huge problem she’d created? Jess slapped the counter with her palm. Samaya didn’t flinch.

“But all this time I’ve been in here working, day after day, week after week, and you never told me I was still aging. That my baby was still aging. You never told me I was stealing from our future!”

Samaya set the mug down firmly and leaned across the counter. “You’re right. I only ever said you can walk away if the price is too steep. Just know that if you do, it’ll choose someone else.”

Jess took a step back, looking to the familiar bench and tables as the weight of Samaya’s words crashed down on her. True, the cafe might already have cost her marriage. And yes, every moment she stayed would cost her future. But could she really walk away? Without the shop, she’d never finish her degree or novel, let alone keep up with work and sleep. Cardon would never give her that promotion once her productivity dropped. Troy would be upset she was failing classes they didn’t have the money for her to retake. How could she walk away from the most miraculous thing she’d ever had?

“You gonna order or not?”

Jess looked up at Samaya, then back at the tables and bench. She felt a kick inside her stomach. There was really only one choice.

“Yeah. I’ll take a decaf.”

Samaya raised an eyebrow.

Jess sighed. “To go.”

The Long and the Short of Flash Fiction

I’ve been experimenting with flash fiction lately, and I gotta say, it’s fun. It’s challenging, but fun.

What is flash fiction, you ask? It’s a subcategory of short stories.  There is a lot of overlap in categories, and the exact word count definitions vary by whoever is calling the shots for that contest or publication, but the following are some general break downs of word counts for various categories under the short story umbrella:

Short Story <7,500 words
Flash Fiction <1,000 words
Micro Fiction <100 words

The terms “short-short” and “sudden fiction” also apply to flash fiction.

Being able to tell a story in so few words is a real art. You have to learn how to get rid of extraneous characters, subplots, descriptions, etc and just hone in on the main character and their story. One of the most famous examples of a micro fiction is a six-word story (often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but there is no concrete source to verify that attribution) which goes like this:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

It tells a whole, heart-wrenching story in just six words. Amazing, huh?

Notice that it didn’t try and tell how the baby died, or if the baby really did die or just grew too quickly they never got around to wearing the new shoes. Short stories, especially flash and micro ones, don’t try and answer every possible question about the story. They often leave things a little open-ended.

As I have been trying my hand at flash fiction, I’ve grown to love it, and here’s just a few reasons why:

1) The end is in sight from the very beginning.

When you start a novel, there are often months of planning, months (or years!) of drafting, and then you have to start on edits. Even the most speedy and seasoned of writers will still need a couple of months from start to finish, while the rest of us may need a year or more.  But with short stories and flash fiction, you can start and finish in a week or less, sometimes in just a day or an hour. It feels good to say you’ve finished something, and you can actually start submitting your writing for publication long before your beta readers have ever finished reading your novel. It is a satisfying feeling to start and finish a project in a brief period of time. When you are in between projects, or even just needing to step away from your novel for a bit, flash fiction can be just what you need to get the juices flowing again without committing to a larger project like a second novel.

2) Your editing skills are instantly refined.

In flash and micro fiction, every word counts. You should really make every word count in your longer fiction too, but with more word count wiggle room, there is often a few fluff words that sneak in. With a tight word count limit though, you have no choice but to trim the fat. You get really good and ditching adverbs and long descriptions and finding a better verb or more concise phrase to put in their place.

“She marched angrily in the room” becomes “She stomped into the room”. One word gone.

“He ran as fast as he could” becomes “he charged.” Boom. Five words saved.

You learn how unnecessary dialogue tags often are, and how you really don’t need all the smiling, nodding and shrugging when those attitudes can be implied through the context of the scene.

You spot weak or passive writing and make it strong and active.

“She began to pace the room” becomes “She paced the room.”

“The room was filled with dozens of hanging lanterns” becomes “Dozens of hanging lanterns filled the room.”

In every case, you shave off one, two, maybe even five words. And it all adds up. I know from experience.  I wrote two flash fiction pieces for an anthology challenge issued by LDS Beta-Readers, one themed “Something Lost” and the other themed “Something Found.” In both cases, the word count was 1,000 words, and my rough drafts ended up with 1,557 and 1,936 words respectively. And yes, I managed to get both of them cut down to 1,000 words or less.

3) It’s great inspiration for future stories

Many competitions have prompts or themes that can give you the inspiration you need to come up with a new story. And sometimes, as you create a world and characters for that short story, you get ideas for how to expand them into something longer. Quite a few authors have novels born from short stories. (See this article for more details:


So there you have it. Three reasons why I have loved dabbling in short and flash fiction lately. And guess what? I’ve actually submitted four different short/flash/micro pieces in the last few months and they’ve done really well. One is about to be published in an anthology, and two others earned me the ranks of “Silver” and “First Runner Up” in their respective competitions. (I’ll do another post in the future so you can read the text of some of those stories.) But something pending publication and two awards to add to my resume, all from a few weeks of writing? Yeah. I’m a short story/flash fiction convert. You should really give it a try.


Narrative Distance: Filters and Opinions

Today’s topic discusses narrative distance, or how close the reader feels to the narrator/POV character. For some stories, you may want more distance in the narration. To achieve this, you can add in distancing filters, such as the words: saw, watched, heard, felt, noticed, thought, wondered, realized, decided, etc.  These filters add a layer of distance between the reader and the narrator/POV character.  With the filters, the reader is not experiencing the action along with the character, but rather being kept at arm’s distance, as if they were watching the world of a story through a window, instead of getting immersed in the story’s world themselves.
watching through a window 2
Here’s an example of what narration with those distancing filters might look like.

Ex 1:
 Rose saw Todd pass a note under his desk to Val and heard Val squeal.  Watching her reaction, Rose realized Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

Ex 1 (filters in bold)
 Rose saw Todd pass a note under his desk to Val and heard Val squeal.  Watching her reaction, Rose realized Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

See how that’s more like the reader watching the world of the story instead of being in the world? We are watching Rose watch somebody.

As was mentioned, some stories will want this narrative distance. For most stories, however, authors find themselves wanting to eliminate that distance, and pull the reader closer into the narrator/POV character’s head. They want the reader to emotionally connect to the character and feel like they are right there experiencing the action (and its emotional consequences) alongside the character, inside the character’s head even.  So to do that, the answer seems simple: Remove the filters.  Let’s take a look at how that would read.

Ex 1 (distancing filters removed)
Todd passed a note under his desk to Val, who squealed.  Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

There. The distancing filters have been removed, so that’s better, right? We feel closer to Rose, right?

Not really.

If anything, we almost feel further away because Rose has been taken out of the example all together. It’s only about Todd and Val now.  So how do we achieve that closeness with Rose without those distancing filters? We have to find another way to put her back into the example, and we do that through her opinions of the actions.

There are a variety of words that can help us insert Rose’s opinions into her observations, thus making them her observations, rather than some generic observation.  These personalizing opinion words fall into four categories:

  1. Adjectives. Adjectives are words that describe a noun. Some adjectives are more objective than others, specifically ones describing color, quantity or size. Think words like crimson, big, long, etc. While these words might be good for world building, they aren’t descriptors that tell us much about the observer’s opinions. They’re too generic, too universally accepted as facts, not opinions. We’re looking for more subjective adjectives, things that are much harder to quantify, things that others might not agree with if they have a different opinion. Subjective adjectives are words like: ridiculous, sloppy, perfect, hideous, etc. These are the ones that will insert your character back into the action by revealing their opinion.
    1. Ex 1.1 (subjective adjective added)
      Todd passed a coveted note under his desk to Val, who let out a pretentious squeal. Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

      By calling Val’s squeal pretentious, we know the narrator doesn’t like Val, thinks she’s a bit fake in flaunting her good fortune at being asked to Prom, pretending to be more excited than she really is, just rubbing it in to the rest of the class. Calling the note coveted implies the narrator is a bit jealous Val is getting it and not her.


  1. Evidential adverbs. These are words that express a degree of certainty or uncertainty based on the evidence at hand. These are words like: actually, apparently, certainly, clearly, evidently, naturally, obviously, of course, possibly, probably, undoubtedly, etc.   You can’t use one of these words without implying that someone (in our case, our narrator/POV character) is there observing these things and making a judgment about the degree of certainty the evidence implies. And that’s what we want—words that imply the presence of our character without having to use a distancing filter like “she saw” to state her presence.
    1. Ex 1.2 (evidential adverb added)
      Todd passed a note under his desk to Val who, of course, squealed. Todd was now obviously off the market as a potential Prom date.

      There are lots of things Todd’s note could say that wouldn’t merit a squeal from a girl. But by using the phrase “of course” we now know the POV character has made some judgment about Todd and Val. Whether its that Todd is a hunk and any girl would squeal to get a note from him, or that Val is the kind of girl who squeals and gets overly excited about everything, doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is, we feel the presence of a POV character making those judgments.  The fact that there are lots of things that note could have said other than asking Val to prom, reinforces the idea that the word “obviously” is a matter of opinion, not fact. Who’s opinion? The POV character’s.


  1. Modal verbs. According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:  “a modal verb changes the other verb’s meaning to something different from simple fact. Modals may express permission, ability, prediction, possibility, or necessity.”  That’s the key. By going away from stating simple facts and instead expressing some type of opinion on the necessity of, or prediction about the probability of certain actions or events, we are implying the presence of our narrator/POV because who else would be expressing that opinion?  The English language has nine main modal verbs. They are: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.  There are also things called modal phrases (or semi-modals) like “to have to”, “to be able to”, “to need to”, etc.
    1. Ex 1.3 (modal verb added)
      Todd passed a note under his desk to Val, who stifled a small squeal. Todd might be off the market now as a potential Prom date.

      Modal verbs and evidential adverbs achieve more or less the same affect when it comes to expressing degrees of certainty. But using “might be” instead of “was obviously”  changes the way we perceive the POV character. By not jumping to conclusions and labeling them as obvious, Rose now comes across as a little more uncertain, cautious, hopeful even. But regardless, she comes across, she makes her presence felt, and that’s what is most important to achieve a sense of narrative closeness.


  1. Metaphors, similes and other comparisons: Adding in comparisons is another way to express the subjective opinion of your POV character/narrator in order to make their presence felt. The key is to make the comparisons truly be in character. While someone from England might compare their love to a summer’s day, someone from Arizona who has spent their whole summer trapped inside an air-conditioned house might not.  You want to find a comparison that fits with your character, their personality and preferences, their world, etc.   You also want to stick to comparisons the reader will understand (because its universally understood or because you’ve added enough clarifying description) as having a certain positive or negative connotation.  You have to make sure not to overuse comparisons, however. They can bog down the story and the action if too lengthy or frequent.
    1. Ex 1.4a (comparison added)
      Todd passed a note under his desk like he was handing off the football to the star quarterback. Val accepted the note and squealed. Touchdown. Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

      The above example doesn’t create a lot of narrative closeness as is. Why? Because it’s still simply stating facts – Todd’s attempt was successful. Sure we know he’s being compared to a star athlete, but we don’t know what the POV character’s opinion is of athletes or whether she approves of or anticipated his success. But look what happens if we add a few extra words to our comparison for clarification.
    2. Ex 1.4b (comparison added with clarified opinion)
      Todd passed a note under his desk like he was handing off the football to the star quarterback. Val accepted the note and squealed. Touchdown. Figures. When it came to prom, Todd was off the playing field before anyone even had a chance to take a seat in the bleachers.

      See how much more opinion and judgment is loaded into that second example? We extended the football comparison (appropriate for a high schooler to make) through the whole thing and added an element that represents the narrators own spot in that comparison (watching from the bleachers). Before, the POV character didn’t have a place in the comparison, and the positive or negative connotation wasn’t clearly implied, so the first example didn’t promote narrative closeness the way the second example did.


Now, these aren’t the only ways to add the POV character back into narration once you’ve removed the distancing filter words of “he saw” or “she felt”.   Anything that inserts the subjective opinion about the events being narrated will serve to bring the reader closer to the narrator. Internal dialogue is another great tool to use (and many of the above examples could fall under the umbrella of internal dialogue). Here are a few more examples of how that scene could be rewritten to reveal Rose’s opinions about the events, without keeping the reader at arm’s length with filtering words like “she watched” or “she realized.”

Ex 1.5
Todd passed the note under his desk to Val who squealed.  It wasn’t fair. Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

Ex 1.6
Todd passed a note under his desk to Val, who squealed. No one needed to read the paper in her perfectly manicured hands. It was obvious. Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom date.

Ex 1.7
Todd passed a note under his desk to Val who, surprisingly, squealed.  Looks like Todd was off the market as a potential Prom date after all.

Ex 1.8
Todd passed a note under his desk to Val, who squealed.  Thankfully, Todd was now off the market as a potential Prom suitor.

Each one creates just a slightly different picture of who each of the characters, including the POV character, are. But most importantly, they all help maintain narrative closeness by eliminating distancing filters and adding in subjective opinions.
They take us from this:
watching through a window 2

To this:
watching in the world itself


If you want to learn more about the topic, check out Juliette Wade’s blogpost here:

To close here are some examples of different narration with distancing filters in them. Try your hand at removing the filters and adding in some subjective opinion words or other internal dialogue to create narrative closeness to the POV character, (with whatever personality and opinions you think they might have). Feel free to share your examples in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

I watched the men haul the couch through the front doors and listened as the truck drove off. Then I looked around the living room and realized I had just made a mistake.

She felt the hot steam on her face when she opened the door to the sauna. She looked through the foggy curtain at the figures against the far wall and when the air cleared enough to see their faces, she realized her suspicions were right.

Raef saw the way Morgan danced with Joey.  She kept her body close to his. Joey kept his steps synchronized with hers. Raef wondered what it would be like if he was the one dancing with her instead.




Being on the Verge

Song of the Sapien is currently just under 68,000 words (about 250 pages). I’m in the middle of writing chapter 22. There should be about 26 chapters I think, and the rest are already mapped out. Part of me wishes I could run away for a few days and just hammer the rest out without interruptions. It is so close I can taste it. I can see those delicious words “THE END” in my mind and I am salivating.

Of course, I can’t run away. I have to work my writing into my daily schedule. And yet on a day like today when I have had some time, I haven’t written anything. I blame the kids needing my attention, or having to do other things, but truth is, I could have made time. I am avoiding it. Why? Why avoid doing something I’m excited about?

One of my avoidance techniques today has been reading. I’m reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And I think I found my answer on pg 87.

on the verge meme


Hard as this endeavor of mine is, this is an “easier” point in my career. I am mere chapters away from finishing my first first draft. The end is in sight. It will be so exciting to hit that goal.

But once I do, the easy part is over. Once I type “The End” the really hard work begins. I have to go back and rewrite the first half because I changed endings half way through and the draft won’t be coherent without key changes made to the beginning. Then I need to get feedback from beta readers. Then I need take all their critiques, and revise the whole manuscript again. And again. I might wind up having to change key plots points and the voice or the tense at some point. I will have to face the reality that all the work I’ve been doing thus far, while it might not be bad, it isn’t going to be good enough. I know that. That’s part of writing. It’s a daunting, nerve-wracking, unavoidable part of the process.

But I can’t stay on the verge forever.

So deep breaths, then full steam ahead. Or half steam. Or any steam at all, Just as long as I’m moving ahead. It isn’t a race. After all, the next thing Liesel realizes on pg 87?

“This would still take time.”

What Harry Potter Teaches about the “Rules” of Writing

Today (June 26th, though it might be the 27th by the time I finish this post!) marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.


Twitter, Facebook, and basically the whole internet have been all abuzz today sharing how the wizarding world of Harry Potter changed their lives. It’s been inspiring to see just how much one author’s words can really impact the world.

In honor of that anniversary, and in doing research for a presentation on how best selling books convey emotion, I have recently started re-reading that first Harry Potter book. But instead of getting lost in the magic like I did all those years ago when I approached it as a reader, when I go back to re-read it now with writer’s eyes, I have been surprised to see so many “rules” of writing being broken right and left.

First off, it starts out in an almost omniscient POV,  (offering adult POVs which is odd for a MG book), and then it switches POV to be 3rd person limited (to Harry’s POV) from Chapter 2 onward. Some might argue the first chapter is really more of a prologue, which is also something new writer’s are told to avoid like the plague. So whether you see this is as an inconsistent POV, or a prologue parading as a first chapter, the opening of the book goes against conventional writing “rules.”

There’s also lots of adverbs all over the place.

  • “said Harry furiously.”
  • “He eyed them angrily.”
  • “He cleared his throat nervously.”

We’re talking seven adverbs a page in some cases. There are almost more adverbs in this book than references to magic.  And if ever there was a writing “rule” written in stone, it would probably be: “Thou Shalt Not Write Adverbs.”

With that over use of adverbs is another rule Ms. Rowling breaks. In so many cases those adverbs tell, instead of show, emotion.  We are just flat out told a character is furious, angry or nervous instead of really being shown it.  (This is one of the reasons the rule against adverbs exists.)

Also, there is a “rule” out there these days that says not to use anything but “said” in your dialogue tags, as all other synonyms are distracting from what’s actually being spoken and the word “said” is more or less invisible to a reader. Yet in this book, in the first chapter alone, there’s all kinds of “said synonyms.”

  • “snapped Mrs. Dursley.”
  • “she pressed on”
  • “cried Professor McGonagal”
  • “repeated Professor McGonagall faintly.”
  • “hissed Professor McGonagall.”
  • “sobbed Hagrid.”

At first, seeing all these broken “rules” bugged me.  The struggling new writer in me wanted to stomp around on the playground screaming, “No fair! How come I have to play by the rules and she doesn’t!”

But then I realized, I wasn’t mad at J.K. Rowling. I wasn’t even mad at the rules themselves. I was really mad at myself for feeling so bound by the “rules” and not seeing them for what they truly were: suggestions, guidelines, and advice.

Once I recognized where my frustration was really coming from, I took another look at the “flaws” in this first Harry Potter book, and instead of bugging me, they comforted me. The presence of all those adverbs, said synonyms, and switching POVs sends a clear message to me now:

If your characters and world building are good enough,
all kinds of writing “sins” will be forgiven.

Whew! Isn’t that a relief to know? Think about it. Not only did some publisher take on The Sorcerer’s Stone with all those adverbs and told emotions and varied dialogue tags, but they didn’t make her edit them out before publication either. Because they worked. Because the story was magic. And all the readers and sold copies testified to it as well.

Does that mean I advocate for ignoring all the writing rules? No. I believe everyone’s writing is stronger without the adverbs and by following show don’t tell as a general rule. But in an effort to have “stronger” writing by obsessing over all these rules, I fear some writers (ahem, me) are missing out on developing their true strengths: characterization, world building, and conflict. I believe those three things will always carry a story further than any adherence to the “rules” of writing ever will.

So, by all means, know the “rules.” They will make you a better writer and help you not seem like an amateur author when your manuscript is pulled from the slushpile. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these “rules” are the end-all-be-all of writing. Your focus should always be on your characters, your world building, and your conflict. That’s your story. The “rules” are just a more polished way of presenting your story, but they will never make up for a lack in the story itself.  And if you struggle to follow all the “rules,” take heart. Your story could still be a success.

After all, it worked for J.K. Rowling.