Emotional Extremes & You (Us, actually. All of us.)

Happy Friday, writers! As the Christmas season rolls in, time seems to creep along in preparation for what’s just over the horizon. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you have my sincerest wishes that it went well–if you met your word count, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Speaking of overused phrases used to address emotions, that’s what this week’s post is about; I’d like to briefly discuss the fine line between truly conveying the subtle way any specific emotion overtakes a character, and the flipside, what happens when you smear it on thick as molasses in winter. (Forgive me, I just finished reading Saving Wonder by Mary Knight and the beautiful idioms are feeding my chicken-fried heart. The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead. Brilliant.)

For my own NaNoWriMo novel, the interpersonal and internal conflict for the protagonist is very emotion-heavy, and the story is told in first-person present tense–a self-imposed reckoning of my own abilities, since evidently I hate myself. We’re talking long-term conflict that’s carried with the MC over the course of the novel, issues that are looming and essential to the story. No one tells you exactly how hard it is to write present tense emotions like that without sounding like you’re giving stage notes for an actor:

Anger boils inside of me. I dig my nails into my palms, biting back the things I want to say, but shouldn’t.

Chills run up my back and arms. The unknown is what frightens me–too easily can I envision those beady eyes in the darkness, watching my every move.

Moments like these… aren’t very good. Or, at least, they translate from the page weaker than we’d like them to, and I’m not happy with the way these moments continually unfold in my first draft. Not for a narrative running over 50k words. It’s undeniably difficult to restrain from using phrases that we tend to see assigned in third person stories–it makes my hair stand on end–but no one, realistically, speaks like that. Given, it would sound more casual if it were owned by the narrator, for example that gives me chills, but even then, the sentiment is tired by stating the emotion in first-person.

After taking reading and writing seriously over the past few years–as a craft to be consumed and regurgitated–I’ve found a pattern in first-person books that handle emotion really well. My favorite example of how sustained extreme emotional turmoil can see a story through from beginning to end is, without contest, Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It’s a nightmare-come-true story about a young man named Carver Briggs who loses all three of his best friends due to a car accident he may have inadvertently caused via texting.

(If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s my favorite YA novel and offers a visceral, cathartic experience. But I’m easy to make cry, so take that last bit with a grain of salt.)

In a flashback scene, Carver relives the moment in middle school when he met one of his now-deceased friends, Blake. As the heartfelt dip into the past ends, Zentner gives us this:

We go and eat lunch. He shows me his YouTube page. I tell him about my stories. We laugh.
We laugh a lot, actually.

And that, right there, is just one minuscule example of how Zentner manages to show Carver’s mourning, regret, longing, indescribable grief–deftly, through a freaking flashback. The accident has already happened, his friends are already dead, yet he’s remembering their good times through the lens of someone who already knows how that story ends. It’s brilliant, and seems effortless when read, but is difficult (for myself, at least) to put into practice.

That’s part of why Goodbye Days so successfully manages to marry the emotions of the story’s events to the character: being human isn’t an experience that happens to you, it is you. When you feel mad, or guilty, or happy, it affects every other part of your life–you take on life as a series of reactions, viewing everything that happens to you through that lens. Overwhelming emotions aren’t typically something you slip into for one scene, and then from which you become a blank slate the next minute.

I’m guilty of this. It’s hard to remedy, easier to take those throes in the moment and let it fluctuate like a roller coaster. But if we can keep that tapestry woven–let every. single. action. of our characters reflect their headspace and serve as gentle reminders of where they came from, and where they’re going…? Well. I find it hard to believe our stories wouldn’t be stronger.

I worked one of Zentner’s signings for the release of this book, before I even read it. Was just then trying to become a writer. He signed, Tell a good story.

How to Write a Sensitive Book Review

If you’ve ever been to Goodreads–or, failing that, Amazon–to check out reviews for a book, you already know how hyperbolic and cruel some of the so-called “feedback” can be. Here, let me go to a book and pull some excerpts (if you think I need to make this part up, hi! Welcome to the world of online reviews):

“This has to be the worst pile of crap I’ve EVER had the displeasure of reading. I honestly don’t know how this shit even got bought by a publisher!”

“Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

“This was an absolute trainwreck. Not even fun, just… bad.”

No, I’m not going to tell you which book they’re talking about, because that’s not the point.

Now, it would be a lie to say that I’ve loved every book I’ve ever read, or even that I haven’t had thoughts like these about stories I’ve read. But if there’s one thing that’s true about the anonymity keyboards grant you, it’s that you lose empathy for those whom your words affect. I know that most of these people leaving these comments, if they were actually acquainted with the author, would not say these things to their face. The cult of online bullying and bandwagoning doesn’t stop in gradeschool–it just takes on a different name.

black and white hands mask bussinesman
“How DARE you try your hardest and breach 70k and get an agent and get published and EXPOSE ME TO THAT SHIT.”

Good or bad, novels are artistic expression, and acknowledging that I’m not referring to books that are bigoted or problematic in one way or another, I think book review etiquette needs to take a good, hard look at itself. It’s easy to attack someone’s efforts if you think poorly of their work–but that effort came from someone, and that person might not be in the best headspace when they happen to read a review that says “Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

However! Reviews are incredibly necessary and valuable in our industry. Some authors genuinely want constructive feedback about their work from readers, and will understand their pitfalls in stride. That’s why I’ve created an easy 3-step guide for critically reviewing ANY book, regardless of how much you enjoyed it.

How to Write a Sensitive Review

  1. State what the author did well. Acknowledgments are incredibly important to start with–the author needs to know what their strong points were. Perhaps the dialogue was pretty punchy? Maybe the imagery shined, or the pacing was really good? If you make it clear that you’re being reasonable and fair in your feedback, people will take the rest of your review to heart, including the author. This is a great way to slip in compliments and gush about stuff that resonated with you. 
  2. State what needed work, or what bothered you. Once you’ve pointed out the things that were done well, now you can mention things that didn’t meet your expectations. This is where you can mention that you thought that one subplot was unnecessary, or that you didn’t like the way the story seemed to spoon-feed the reader things that they’d already found out 50 pages ago. Be honest with your criticisms, but also be kind. How would you want someone to say this to you if it were about your work?
  3. Re-state the positives, and potentially mention who should read this book while keeping in mind your criticisms. I usually end my reviews on recommendations, and it’s perfectly fine to add qualifiers like “if you aren’t bothered by [criticism], this is for you!” Because everyone is different, and someone out there will enjoy it.

“But Verb,” you say, scoffing, “who made you the monarch of critique etiquette?”
I DID. BY GOING THROUGH FIVE YEARS OF ART SCHOOL WITH NEAR-DAILY IN-PERSON CLASS CRITIQUES. There’s a pattern to this–there’s a way to say what you need to without harming the person behind the work, and I think everyone who likes to review should try it.

“Fuck you Verb,” I hope none of you say, flipping me off, “I just really enjoy being abrasive and blunt! The author got paid one way or another, so I’m just being honest–it’s fun!”
Oh, cool then! Thanks for reading, Regina George.

Dialogue #2 — Why Is My Dialogue Awkward?

This week in the “holy shit I’m going to pull my hair out” section of writing frustrations: dealing with dialogue that is on the same level of awkward as watching a straight person introduce their friend’s girlfriend via “and this is Lily’s… roommate.”

As I said in my last dialogue installment (which was uhhh four months ago hahahahaha let’s not talk about that), I really love writing dialogue, so it’s infuriating to me when I try to write it and it’s just not working. Everything feels stilted, jolting along like a malfunctioning steam engine. To counter that, I’ve come up with some questions that help me, and will hopefully help you too.


  • What are they talking about? Dumb question, I know. But you’d be surprised how often you can write dialogue and later, realize it doesn’t really… mean anything? Or at least doesn’t add anything. To evaluate this problem, it can be good to assess the two levels of “what are we talking about?” First, there’s the surface level: two people are arguing over where to go to dinner, a group of people doing a project together need to decide how to go about it, etc. If it’s a necessary conversation, something you need to transition or to give the reader information about what’s going on, that’s fine, you don’t have to go any deeper than that. But there’s also the second level: two people are arguing over where to get dinner, and it gets way more heated than it needs to be, and the reader knows: this isn’t about dinner, it’s about the fact that they’re behind on their bills and she just lost her job and they can’t afford to go to dinner but they’re trying to pretend like everything’s fine. A group of people need to decide what to do their group project on, but the reason they can’t come to a final decision is because the one member who held them all together dropped the project, so they go around in circles, unable to confront the fact that they can’t get it done without that one member. In other words, it’s the difference between what’s being said and what’s being implied. When you find yourself asking the question “what are they talking about?” maybe follow the question up with “is there something bigger going on here?”
  • Does this conversation reveal something about the characters? Sometimes, you’re writing a scene that is very much about having to convey some basic information to the reader about, say, how this heist is going to go down. But that doesn’t mean it can double as something else. A lot of really good dialogue is revealing in a way that doesn’t matter in the moment, but is good to know for later. If Laurel, Tony, Michelle, and Andrea are planning a heist, and Michelle leaves in the middle to go pick up McDonald’s, we know that she perhaps doesn’t care much about it, or doesn’t take much of anything seriously, or just really likes McDonald’s. If Tony yells at her for it, we know he is taking this the most seriously, has the most explosive temper out of all the them, etc. Then let’s say Laurel defends Michelle, says they’ve all been working at this for awhile, maybe they should take a break, we know she’s the peacemaker. Maybe all Andrea this whole time is sit silently in the corner, but that alone is also very telling: she doesn’t get into petty arguments, she can’t be bothered, you get the idea. Maybe this isn’t important right in the moment, after all, the main thing you want from the scene is to explain to the reader how the heist is going to go down, but these elements are important for later; we need to know how they function as a team, and dialogue is a great way to convey that.
  • Are they talking to the right person? Maybe you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s essential, you know it’s revealing–that’s not the problem. It’s got some of that good juicy character backstory, or it’s that moment when the character finally snaps, but still, it’s not quite working. It doesn’t punch the way you want it to. Ask yourself: who is the character talking to, and why? Let’s say Gwen has been struggling with, hmmm, some deep moral questions in relation to their Catholicism (can you tell I’ve been watching the new season of Daredevil?). You as the writer think, oh, they should definitely be talking to their best friend about this, he can help. Or, they should go talk to their priest, right? Do some good old-fashioned confession. But maybe Gwen is feeling too closed off to go to their friend, is questioning their faith too much to go to their priest (I should really just tag this as Daredevil spoilers at this point). So they find themself in a old records store at 10pm, buy a Grateful Dead track, and they ask the clerk if she believes that God forgives everything. Maybe the clerk answers with something profound, maybe she tells Gwen to go the fuck home and sleep off their existentialism. The point is, Gwen couldn’t ask that question to the people who might come to your mind at first thought. Perhaps they couldn’t say it to anybody at all, and end up going home to their unreasonably cool looking loft for a broke-ass lawyer without a law firm in NYC and drink half a bottle of scotch and ask the stale air if God forgives. Wow, that got dark. ANYWAYS,


These are just a couple questions that might be important when writing dialogue that’s not working, maybe they’ll work for you, or maybe you’ll need to develop your own questions. Either way, I hope these were helpful for you. Join me in either two weeks or four months, who the fuck knows anymore, for my third installment in the dialogue series.

The Honorific “Writer”

Content warning: depression.

Writing doesn’t always wear the same hat.

Steaming mugs, sweaters, an open window with the scent of leaves, your pet warming a part of you. Coffee shops, libraries, bookstores. The sound of music–wordless, to help you focus–and the steady thrum of keys hammering as you slip into the moment. The familiar unease of the first draft as threads of dislike and effort weave themselves into faltering scenes that never translate onto the page as seamlessly as you’d like. But it’s a foundation; you can work with it.

The coziness is part of the appeal of what it means to be a writer. To curl up with a book, with your laptop, with your phone. It’s the artist’s charcoal-smudged hands, the chef’s slip-ups that ruin the dish but make for a good story. It’s what we send out to the world–hey, look, writing is how you imagine! I’m a writer.

That’s the narrative we tell on Twitter. The act of writing is solitary by nature, so these are the scenes we use to know one another. “My cat’s on my keyboard, guys.” “I can’t function without coffee!” “Just renamed my inbox ‘the endless void my queries seem to disappear into.’” It’s comforting, to recognize yourself in others living all around the world.

As with any hobby or profession, however, we only put the alluring parts on social media. The stigma of mental illness and value centric to monetary gain corrals us into keeping our fingers still whenever writing changes its hat.

The room is dark because you forgot to turn on the lamp when the sun set. Shit, were your glasses always this dirty? Rolling clicks of the fridge in the kitchen. The opening and re-opening of documents, the buzzing in your head that you have to do something, you can’t just sit here and feel like a wet parking lot cigarette butt. You’ve made a list (to-do, for your manuscripts), but you’d rather volunteer yourself into a coma than do them, without exaggeration, and that’s not trying to be funny, it’s just the level of dissociation you’re experiencing. The relief that hits when you realize you can edit a friend’s work instead is nice–but that dies, too, because you end up reading the same paragraph over and over. Some critique partner you are.

Did your eyes always hurt this much? Maybe you should turn down the brightness on your screen… oh. It won’t go any lower. You must not be sleeping well, which is crazy, because you got 10 hours last night. Just drink some coffee–after all, that’s aesthetic. If you act the part, it’ll happen! But now you’re mentally exhausted and quivering with caffeine, and your word count is still zero. Your word count is still zero. Your word count is still zero. What the fuck, you aren’t even distracted.

What do you do? Even sitting at a desk seems to take more from you than you initially had to offer, so you move to the couch. Two hours have passed since you sat down to write. Blankets and Netflix and an up-in-years laptop burning your legs. Your mouth has an unpleasant taste from the coffee. Query. Edit. Write. Do something. Your pet joins you, but you’re too much in your own headspace to give them a scratch–it’s okay, they understand. Not like some others you know. What a cruel joke (oh, don’t be so melodramatic), that the activity that gives you the most joy in life also triggers depression, feelings of uselessness, irritability–excuse me, I ordered mania on this?

To other writers who’ve been in this fugue lately, I see you. I know how transparent the glamour feels, how rutted out and cauterized this shit show is sometimes. Waltzing for an invisible audience. Form-fitting silks to a dress form replica of your insecurities, barely keeping up with some fucking wikiHow instructions. I see you. I’m tired, too.

Sam Speaks a Sentence

Get it? It’s like Horton Hears a Who, but with my name instead? And it’s not nonsensical because this post is kind of relevant to the famous line of the aforementioned book, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” and how it can relate to writing? I know, I can hear you right now, “Wow, Sam, you’re great at introductions that also serve as segues,” to which I shall say, thank you, that’s really very kind.

When we writers… err, write fiction, we tend to constantly worry about whether we sound lyrical enough to pass for more than a boring play-by-play of characters jangling around like marionettes. Every sentence is scrutinized and we perhaps spend more time than we should looking for where to slip in more imagery, more metaphors, more patterns, MORE. There’s something insatiable about writing; no matter how pleased we might be with one particular sentence or scene, the next line is sure to pop our giant egos–or, hell, even deserved fulfillment–and fill our heads with dissatisfaction again.

And this is a dangerous dance; not only are we giving a disproportionate amount of our already tightly-allotted creative time, but if we jam-pack every inch of our works in progress full of lyricism like some poorly cooked Tolkien-esque sausage link (I’m so sorry I made your eyes read that phrase), the result might end up sounding ridiculous. It’s like when someone uses a thesaurus too much: I bedeck you in adulations, mine swain. Sprint yonder alongside me.

woman working girl sitting

Whenever this happens to me and I catch myself sitting at my desk, staring at the document and willing the words to continue–but, like, in a pretty way–I force myself to take a second and accept the fact that sometimes, the best way to say something is just to say it. No one is going to think less of your story because you couldn’t think of a more emotional way to state “Jimothy frowned.” Jimothy can frown! It’s fine! His feelings are valid! And simplistic writing styles are valid too. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, most of the storytelling is done in simple writing, and it’s one of my favorites. So even if some of us feel this weird lingering, phantom pressure to turn into a specific kind of writer for others’ approval, you don’t have to. I’d argue it’s better to be true to yourself. Just say the thing if you’re struggling.

For those writers where ornate and overflowing poeticism comes naturally and they don’t feel any pressure when attempting flourishing language, it’s probably not a problem. Congratulations on the flowers that spurt from your fingertips when you sit down to write! I’m not bitter at all! But for those of us who constantly struggle to reach that peak, I’m here to remind myself, and you, that it’s okay to be proud of every foothold you manage, even if the next part in your story feels like you’re falling back down a ways. Highs and lows are natural, and without the lows, we wouldn’t appreciate the highs quite as deeply.

Note, from Herb:
I think there’s an argument to be made that modern writing styles tend towards a trend that wants word economy to be the priority, i.e., if a word does not serve to further the plot, it has no use, which undermines words for aesthetic purposes or words for enlightenment of a theme, etc. So I think in a lot of ways we’ve moved past an age of flowery language.

it’s a living #13

CONTENT WARNING: implication of intent of nonconsensual sexual activity (i.e., includes creepy man at a bar). Please take care of yourself.

I’ve been hanging out at the bar a lot lately. I haven’t even been drinking–Deanna’s Kip Shouldn’t Be Close Enough To Alcohol To Smell It policy is still going strong–but that hasn’t stopped me from showing up several nights a week about an hour before they close, sitting myself down at the very end of the bar as to not get in the way, and nursing hot tea in a margarita glass that Deanna or another bartender brings me if she’s busy. I don’t know where the tea comes from, or why I always get it in a margarita glass, but I don’t really care.

On week nights, it’s vacant enough that Deanna has time to talk, but I don’t always want to. I’ll write in my journal, curate the bar’s playlist, roll my eyes when Deanna groans at my taste. I’ll scroll through Twitter, Grindr, close the apps, check my texts, write some more, change the song, forget about my tea and grimace through drinking lukewarm Earl Grey. I go round and round, trying to satisfy a hollow stomach, hollow chest, empty hands.

I don’t usually go on Friday nights. It defeats the purpose. But earlier there was a customer at the gas station who came in wearing a beanie, and my head turned into putty for the rest of the day, so I came here looking for clarity.

When the group near to me leaves, I barely notice. When someone takes the seat next to me, I don’t look up from my notebook.

“What kind of margarita is that?”

I look up and see a guy, probably in his early twenties, smirking down at me. He’s hot, but in a straight way.

“The kind for a nineteen year old.”

“I see.” He shifts so that he’s angled towards me, grabs the tea tag and flips it over. “Earl Grey, huh? Preferred tea of Captain Picard.”

I look at the tea, then back to the guy. “Who?”

Star Trek.”

I shrug my shoulders. “Never seen it.”

“Oh damn.” He clutches his chest and leans back in his chair. “Nevermind then.”

It’s a setup, I know, but I fall for it anyway. “Nevermind what?”

“Well, I was coming over here to chat you up, but if you’ve never seen Star Trek I’m not sure I can do this.”

“I’ve seen the Chris Pine ones.”

“Of course you have. It’s Chris Pine.”

I give him a laugh, because straight-hot or no, his voice is coaxing the emptiness from my body one syllable at a time.

He points at my journal. “What’s with the notebook?”

“I’m a Vulcan anthropologist. Studying humanity at its most deplorable.”

He looks around, then back to me with raised eyebrows. “You think this is as bad as it gets? I can show you so much worse.” His hand goes to my knee, and the suddenness of this situation knocks me back a little, but his touch syphons away a little more of the null, and I lean into it.

“Can you?” I ask.

“Why don’t you let me–”

I glance up absently, ready to brush off whoever’s bothering me. It’s one of Deanna’s coworkers–Rob?–who’s glaring at Star Trek dude. I try to catch his gaze so I can let him know it’s fine, but when he does look at me, his severe eyes catch me off guard. “Deanna needs your help with something, kid.”

I hesitate. “But I–”

“Kip.” Rob’s a big guy, and his muscled arms are folded across his broad chest, and sue me, he’s intimidating. I grab my journal, hop off my stool, and walk down to the other end of the bar, glancing back at Star Trek dude as Rob says something to him in a low tone.

“Deanna, do you actually need something or is Rob just trying to cockblock me?”

Deanna looks up from her sweeping, expression comically scandalized. “What?”

I gesture back towards the other end of the bar. “Grey shirt over there? Looks straight, totally not.”

Deanna goes from scandalized to shocked.

“Right? I was surprised too. But Rob–”

“That motherfucker,” she mumbles under her breath.

“Damn, Dea. Rob’s not that–”

“Kip,” she squeezes my arm, eyes lingering on Rob and Star Trek dude. “If you ever see him in here again, if he ever tries to talk to you again, you kick him in the balls and then come get me or Rob or any of the others right away, okay?” She takes her eyes off them long enough to give the same severe look that Rob did.

I stare back for a moment, confused. Then it clicks. “Oh.”

She sighs, runs a hand through her hair, leans against the broom. She looks older than her thirty years, like an industrial age factory worker, breathing in miasmic air and slowly killing her youth. “You okay?” She asks.

I can still feel his hand on my knee. I’m drained, drained of warmth, light, touch. Gravity pulls at my sternum and gut and knees, and I want to join Deanna’s pile of bar debri on the floor, as used as a crumpled straw wrapper. I think if I get any emptier there’ll be nothing left. “Deanna, can I ask a weird favor?”

“Weirder the better, kid.”

“Can I hug you?”

The age on her face disappears like it’s been carried off by a breeze. There’s no hesitation as she pulls me into her side, tousling my hair like I’m a little nephew that needs to be teased. Her fingers press down on the top of my scalp as if to keep me from floating away, her arm around my side gives weight to my existence. I feel fuller.

Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling


This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.