2 writing ‘rules’ that peeps keep getting wrong

I’m no expert, nor do I want to come across as sanctimonious, but among the writing chatter online I’ve lately seen a few rules of writing being misused or misunderstood, so figured chatting about would at the very least offer catharsis, at medium help be clarify the points for myself, and as best maybe, just maybe help others with the craft.



The two rules I would like to discuss are:

  • In media res and,
  • Show don’t tell

In media res is Latin for ‘in the middle of things’ (according to Prof. Google) and refers to the idea that fiction, novels in particular, should begin in the midst of some action.

This advice is often presented in response to some common newbie mistakes (of which I am guilty of many) such as starting a novel with any of the following:

  • A MC waking up to start the day that will eventually lead to the story
  • The MC travelling to the inciting incident
  • The biography of the MC
  • The creation myth of the world

I’m sure you get the drift. The point of ‘in media res’ is not to avoid any of the above necessarily but more to the point start with something of substance to the story you want to tell.

So how are people getting this wrong. Well, it seems like a lot of writers are making the mistake of equating action with ACTION! Similar to the confusion over what conflict means in regards to fiction, action does not necessarily mean explosions, fights or extreme turmoil. In media res is not a call to make novels more like Marvel movies, but rather a direction to start a story on point.

(P.S. conflict in fiction refers to a tension over what will happen next exemplified best by a character having to make a difficult choice that will impact the story at hand, not wars, fight scenes or arguments as the common parlance would imply)

To further flesh out the idea, a better word than ‘action’ might be to start with active characterization. Not every novel starts with a vitally pertinent plot scene per se, but sometimes just something to introduce a character and develop them. My stance it as long as the scene ‘moves’ and involves activity (broadly defined) this works well.

Show don’t Tell.

Man I’m probably going to get lynched for this one.

Show don’t Tell, has probably go to be one of the most oft presented pieces of writing advice out there. Yet the number of times I see someone overdo or misrepresent the advice is almost as high.

To be fair, the advice has several layers to it. Show don’t tell cautions writers that presenting information directly to the reader can start to get a little dull, especially in regards to character traits, feelings and action. For example it’s more convincing to show a character is angry from their actions and dialogue than say ‘Bob was angry’. Furthermore it can be more potent to show actions from the results/effects than to state what happened e.g. ‘The blow from Bob’s fist made the cups jump off the table’

(P.S. I don’t think these are amazing examples of brilliant prose, just hoping they are clear exemplars of what I’m saying)

Going further, show don’t tell also is a reminder that whatever is setup in a story ought to be included within the tale. For example angry Bob should probably have a reputation with other characters, or for a better case a character presented as super attractive should be responded to accordingly throughout the story (don’t overdo reminders of character hotness though unless that’s what your story is about)

The important point is though, that show don’t tell doesn’t mean meticulously hunt down every possible instance of ‘tell’ in your story and eradicate them. And even more importantly ‘show don’t tell’ doesn’t mean to turn every line into a pumped up purple piece of elaborate prose. Your work still needs to be succinct and efficient and 12 words should not be used when 4 will do.

It relates to my slightly garbled post yesterday(?) that writing doesn’t just have to be good enough, the goal of writing is to find the most powerful way of presenting your concept to create a vivid experience for the reader. Showing rather than telling is often the path towards this.

So that’s that. What are your thoughts about writing ‘rules’? Do you have any particular ones that spring into your mind?


Brave and Reckless’Advice for New WordPress Bloggers– Part 1

Awesome advice from Christine Elizabeth Ray on blogging

Brave and Reckless

It wasn’t so long ago that I was a brand new blogger at WordPress. I started my blog at the beginning of October with no real goals in mind other than making one particular piece of writing publicly available for sharing. I chose WordPress because we use it at work and several friends spoke highly of the community.  It wasn’t until I saw my first piece of original writing on my blog that I started thinking what next?

I knew nothing about blogging. But I did know that all communities have their own unique culture and through a combination of trial and error, generous mentors and reading several really good guides to WordPress, I found my footing here. This past weekend I hit 500 followers.  I remain just as flattered today that someone has read and responded to my writing as I did the first time.

Recently I have had numerous…

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Q&P Episode 4: Science Fiction Special

Agent Analysis by Hofsetz

C. Hofsetz

In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.

The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.

These are their stories.

A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.

Previously on Query and Publish…

Navigate to posts in this series:
Previous post: Agent Z.
Next post: Agent W (Date TBD).

Science Fiction Special

I have no prejudice against any kind of genre. Despite my preference for Science Fiction, I still read and enjoy books such as The House of The Spirits, The Alchemist, Harry Potter, Pillars of The Earth, Master & Commander, Sherlock Holmes, and so on.

Still, I grew up with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C…

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Writing that ‘could be better’

Of all the lessons about writing fiction this could be the most disheartening.

People debate all the time: why are are adverbs so bad, do you always have to show rather than tell? And so forth.

Now many of the rules of writing have multiple rationales and purposes, much like good fiction writing itself the rules often communicate layers of meaning. One purpose of many said rules is to drive a persons writing to be better.

That probably sounded a little redundant or obvious but hear me out.

Writing is an incredibly competitive process within itself. Even if your work is free of tropes, cliches, errors and the dreaded plot hole, sometimes it still doesn’t fly. Not to paint all indie and self-published authors with the same brush, but I come across a particular problem often with self-published titles where the writing falls flat and I can’t explain it,

Well no more (I mean I think I can explain it, not that authors are getting better)

Every word in a work of fiction has a purpose, either to describe the setting, character, action and so on. Portraying any of these things isn’t necessarily that difficult, but portraying them well is much harder. (P.S. by portraying well I mean words that vibrantly bring the story to life in a reader’s imagination, maximizing the emotional journey and joining the whole story together is a satisfying and seamless way).

The television equivalent would be a show or whatever that had technically good content but didn’t edit or use cinematography well, having boring shots and awkward edits.

I guess the point of my rant is that many ‘rules’ like to avoid adverbs, or to ‘show don’t tell’ aren’t prohibitions but rather guidance towards better writing. I don’t think that readers have a voice in the back of their head telling them a work could be better (well they kind of do) but in terms of really capturing a reader and creating a vivid world you want all the purposes of your words to be efficient and potent as possible.

Just a quick thought/rant that sprang to mind when I got up this morning!

What are your thoughts on the matter? Am I off the mark, on the mark? Who is this poor mark anyway?

Lessons from Reading: Horus Rising

A long while ago, alongside reviewing books I also composed a post about what notable lessons I learned reading the piece. Whether it was strengths to emulate or mistakes to avoid for myself I tried to make sure whatever I read I gained from as a writer.

For whatever reason that practice faded out, most likely due to procrastination and/or poor motivation as a whole (i.e. the things that usually hold back my projects)

Since 2017 has, if anything, at least been a year when I’ve managed to maintain some consistency blogging so I thought I’d resurrect the practice.

So my first book is Horus Rising:


(Brief Summary) Horus Rising is set in the Warhammer 40K universe, a D&D type sci-fi world where humanity has sprawled among the stars for millennia and at the time this book is set, wars against both human and alien worlds to (re)unite mankind over the galaxy.

There kind of a massive universe to explain which I won’t here.

The main character is Garviel Loken a high ranked Astartes Marine who quickly rises in authority within the ranks of the Luna Wolves a military chapter ruled by Horus (of the title)

Strengths to learn from.

Horus Rising was surprisingly well written, I hope that doesn’t sound too judgy, but I did expect guns blazing and mass amounts of world-building exposition. While there was a little of this the book was quite well grounded in it’s characters.

So as a first good lesson for big ‘world’ sci-fi and fantasy is to always build the word through the lens of the characters and contrive the action of the story to show what the world is like.

The book also provided great examples of how to handle over-powered main characters. In the 40K universe Astartes are basically giant Captain Americas combined with giant Iron Man’s. When they go to war very little can stand in their way. Now often fiction with powerful MC’s will opt for story lines outside of their superpower, like romance, maintaining secret identities and so forth.

What the author of Horus Rising did well is still focus on the purpose of Astartes (to shoot stuff to smithereens) but found useful ways of building tension nonetheless. For example the three parts to the book contained three central tensions:

  1. An Astartes turning on his own – this put the MC Loken is a tense spot as the space marine are sworn not to fight each other, so even though he is a super-powered/armoured dude Loken still has to make a tricky decision around what to do with the situation
  2. Conflict within the Astartes, while not directly aggressive the second act deals with disagreements between the ‘good-guys’ while I don’t think the second part of Horus Rising was particularly powerful, the story reminds us writers that not all conflict is between goodies and badies
  3. Finally the last act has a well executed sequence where the Astartes attempt to interact with a recently found alien race peacefully. It’s well executed because it turns the strength of the main characters on it’s head, in fact becoming a weakness as the very power of the good-guys makes the alien’s nervy and unlikely to make peace.

What about some Weaknesses or mistakes to learn from?

I think firstly Horus Rising presents some cautions for sprawling world building:

  • Don’t overwhelm reader with multiple characters or concepts. The beginning pages of this book are packed with these. I know I said Horus Rising did world building good, there were moment of over-exposition
  • Be cautious with leaping between locations and character. I think in epic story lines writers want to show-case the variety of settings and concepts they have in story, but the strongest parts of Horus Rising contained characters familiar to the reader. When part II began in the book the narration jumped to a new planet with new characters and new problems, it was all a bit much and severely slowed the pacing and enjoyment.

Secondly Horus Rising presents a good example of how tending to the series can weaken an individual story. While I enjoyed the book immensely the majority of the climax was more of a ‘next time on the Horus Heresy’ type ending, numerous tensions  were developed but reading the end didn’t feel particularly satisfying on it’s own. I guess the nature of running series is a post for another day, but I firmly believe that books need some power on their own.

So those were the main lessons I learned from the book Horus Rising, appreciate you coming along for the ride.

Original Review

Are there any other pointers that other readers may have picked up from the book?

Any feedback on the nature of the post? I hope to do more alongside my reviews in the future so any advice or points on what would make them more useful for others would be awesome.

Next up (probably) IQ84



Agents: not the enemy!


There seems to be a tonne of misconceptions out there about literary agents. Granted there is a fair amount of research to be done, and it takes a while to fully get one’s head around the traditional publishing process. It’s not like the publishing process is glamorized or in general particularly well understood by anyone not interested in writing (I have yet to here my workmates start a conversation about #pitmad around the lunch table whereas all other manner of subjects is dissected through the joy of reality TV). The point being that I guess this complexity does leave open potential for misconception, and possibly once you also consider a potential writers warped ideas about their own work, sometimes you get aspiring writers who are not only confused about the representation and publishing process but also quite disgruntled about it.

Said disgrunts are unlikely to be reading this blog so I suppose this is more just sharing odd thoughts against my own understanding – and an invitation for correction or sharing of other people’s experience with this topic.

So what are some of these misconceptions?


Literary Agents are Gatekeepers

Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘Hold-up, aren’t agents literally literary gatekeepers? I mean doesn’t their role fit exactly the definition? After all most big publishers won’t accept manuscripts unsolicited from unrepresented authors?’

Well this is partially true, but it’s far more accurate to look at agents as experienced heroes, who may be willing to help you storm the publishing castle, rather than the dude standing at the gate.

I think people assume agents are like the grumpy receptionist, tasked with keeping calls away from the big boss, and thusly see agents as a barrier to their success not the key.

The important point that is so often overlooked is that successfully querying and gaining an agreement for representation doesn’t mean an automatic acceptance into publishing bliss. Publishers can still reject the book, not saying agents aren’t good at their job just trying to point out that when writers get rejected they aren’t getting denied access to the publishing castle where everyone’s books sell in the millions, but rather the agent doesn’t feel like they can help that person to further their publishing journey.

The most telling awkward comment revealing this in when people say things like “who knows how many amazing best-sellers would have been picked up by publishers if agents hadn’t rejected them?”

My guess is around 0 to 0.001 percent?

Of course there will be some amazing manuscripts out there, not published for whatever reason. But for the most part, at least on the subject of selling books, agents and publishers are on the same page, i.e. wanting to sell books. After all if the role of literary agent didn’t evolve the way it did, publishers would probably have a team of editors and reviewers who would do almost exactly the same process, only less flexible and supportive.

Anyway the conclusion of that misconception is that agents are not a barrier to being traditionally published, they are a supportive service. Yes there is a teeny chance that an agent might miss or have a different opinion on how brilliant a manuscript is that a publisher may just have picked up, but the chances that 10-20 agents will reject a ‘should be’ best-seller when it is that good are pretty slim.

The final odd point to add here is sometimes people get a bee in their bonnet when agents have preferences. Assuming that agents are some sort of government or charity funded role who are required to support authors to get published or something. There is no obligation to represent an author anymore than other arts, like acting or music, just seek out another agent if the preferences don’t match.

What else?

Literary Agents should offer more feedback

Now I have a lot of sympathy for this misconception. After all as an aspiring to be traditionally published author myself, life would be a lot easier if every rejection letter came with some constructive criticism. People seem especially wound up about whether its their query letter, synopsis or sample pages that sunk their proposal.

But there are a few problems with this perspective.

First of all agents do not source any income from the slush pile. Agent’s income is from successful sales of represented authors FULL STOP. There is no profit from searching through the slush pile, no tit or tat benefits of taking more time and care with rejections, and no payoff for free feedback.

In many respects we should be thankful that agents provide anything given the nature of the task.

The problem is many people treat submissions like entries to a high school writing competition, and whine about it equally. There often is a gap in logic where it is missed that the rules of supply and demand come into play. There is typically a huge supply of queries and manuscripts, but agents don’t really have a demand for them, or rather the demand is kinda odd in that it is hoped to find marketable work within the massive supply (it’s not like they can just randomly choose pieces to represent because there will be a high proportion of duds).

And the issues with providing feedback for all rejections are myriad. It’s one thing to make a quick decision not to represent, it’s actually very time consuming to provide feedback. Even a few lines or an indication of what about the submission didn’t work for the agent can take a decent chunk of minutes, minutes that DON’T EARN ANY MONEY. Which brings me to my second point that if agents did provide feedback for every rejection, how ridiculously quickly would it just become common practice to fire away a subpar work and just tweak as seemed necessary?

And finally my favourite cringey complaint about agents:

“I put all my energy love and emotion into this work, the agent should at least….”

Newsflash: the agent isn’t the only person who doesn’t care.

Sorry if this comes across a little harsh. All the time I stumble across writers who think the world owes them one. I suspect the problem might be one of personal belief and/or worldview but there is nothing more painful than listening to someone who believes that because they have put so much blood, sweat and tears into their novel it deserves to be represented.

Now it is true that writing a novel is hard. But again people have a warped idea about how supply and demand works, and there are a lot of people out there putting their blood sweat and tears into their work too. As above agents aren’t demi-gods (well not for this reason anyway 🙂 graciously decided who gets to be published and who doesn’t, they are people doing a job, a job which only earns money by selling books. We recently hired someone onto a team, and a big selling point was that they had been working hard for our organisation and were extremely determined, which are GREAT points for an employee. When it comes to publishing your book counts. Reader’s might take a moment to appreciate how many years your novel took, or how much of your soul it contains, but have you ever seen a blurb or favourable quote saying ‘this took me 12 years.’ or ‘I feel like this book is a part of me’?

Agents aren’t cold, the world is cold. It is frustrating to learn that your passion and effort only counts if it leads towards a marketable book, but that doesn’t mean agents should have additional reverence for the personal journey a writer took in compiling their novel.

So to round out a probably somewhat unstable rant, some key points of what agents actually do:

  • An agent’s primary role is to work with authors to get published
  • It may seem like agents spend a lot of time rejecting submissions, that is because they receive thousands
  • Agent’s want marketable books and easy authors to work with, there is no conspiracy theory around who they work with and so forth


Are there any agents out there who want to correct my misconceptions? What about other weird assumptions people make about agents?

Thanks for hanging out!

Probably don’t want every book set in a Civil-War era boarding school/holiday but some good tips nonetheless!

Happy Tuesday!! This week for Top Ten Tuesday I’ll be sharing the Top Ten Reasons I’ll Read a Book ASAP. In other words, these are some aspects of books that I look for when deciding what to read next. There are so many that I could list, but these are the first ones that come to mind. 1. […]

via Top Ten Tuesday: Reasons I’ll Read a Book ASAP — Nut Free Nerd