Fiction Writing Tips 51–60

Welcome to the sixth page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 51 through 60.

To return to the tips index, click here.

If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.


Tip #51: Create a Likeable Protagonist   

Why do you pick up a novel to read? Maybe you like this author or you're in the mood for something in this genre. Maybe you've heard of this book or this writer and you want to see what all the fuss is about. Maybe you're looking for some pure escapism or an easy summer read. Maybe you just like the cover art.

Underlying your reason for picking up any given novel, whatever that reason may be, is a set of expectations. You may not even realize you have them.

You expect to not be bored. You expect it to start a certain way and to have certain kinds of characters and situations, according to whatever genre the book is in. You expect the book to be comprehensible.

You also expect it to have a likeable hero.

"Nay," you say, "I don't have to like the hero. What about...?" and you name off some story with a protagonist who was a terrorist or a serial killer or an anti-hero.

All true. You don't have to actually want to be like the protagonist, but I contend that in some way you must at least be able to sympathize or empathize with him or her. Or else you won't keep reading.

Jack Sparrow is not a particularly nice person. But there's something about him that we like. We understand him. We want to see how he's going to get out of any scrape.

Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien series, is not very pleasant to be around. Kind of a jerk, actually. But in the first movie she has a cat she's willing to risk her life for. That's something we can understand and like. In the second movie she's still pretty hard, but she becomes incredibly heroic to save a little girl.

Even our beloved Neo in Matrix is not your typical hero. He's a junior slacker at a megacompany, he has authority issues, and he's a drug dealer on the side. Nice guy. But he's got that befuddled look on his face and the girls think he's cute and, of course, he helps his landlady carry out her garbage.

Whether we realize it or not, we expect (perhaps even need) our protagonists to be likeable in some way.

Because who wants to read about a total jerk?

And yet I regularly see unpublished fiction manuscripts with unlikable heroes. I think the author is trying to show how awful the person is so that the transition that happens during the story is more dramatic.

Good instincts, but you have to give us some hope even early on that there is something good and redeemable in this character, or we'll look elsewhere for entertainment.

This is especially true for stories that have lots of other characters who are unlikeable. If your unlikeable protagonist is surrounded by awful people doing awful things to each other, and your "hero" is just as awful but for some reason gets a starring role, you're going to lose readers in droves.

What a nasty situation. It would be like finding yourself in a party with a bunch of backbiting scumbags—and the person who invited you turns out to be the worst of the bunch. You'd excuse yourself from there as quickly as you could.

Works the same in fiction.

You have to intrigue your reader with your story but also with your protagonist. You have to give your reader some fairly prominent indication that this main character is heroic, likeable, understandable, or at least sympathetic in some way. Or your reader will put your book down. Simple as that. It's an expectation we have about fiction that we don't consciously realize.

Please hear me: a novel without a likeable hero will be a flop even if it has everything else going right.

On the other hand, a likeable protagonist covers a multitude of fiction sins. A novel can do a lot of things wrong—and take a lot of chances with the story—and get away with it if readers love the hero.

Want to tell a bizarre far-future story about a world in which beings communicate with one another by flapping their appendages in intricate patterns? Give us a likeable hero and we'll stick with your story through any weirdness. Want to tell a dark story that plumbs the depths of man's inhumanity to man? Let us care about your protagonist and we'll plumb any depth with you.

But give us an irredeemable ogre (with apologies to Shrek) who turns our stomach to be with and we'll drop your book like troll scat and move on to something else.

So what about the hero in your novel? Will readers like this person? Or are you trying so hard to be sure your protagonist looks distasteful—to show how far he or she will come in the course of the novel—that there's only black and no hint of white evident to readers?

You've got to give at least a glimpse of something that will help your readers consider your protagonist likeable. Do it early and do it clearly and you'll be able to take us on just about any ride you want.

Tip #52: Create Chapters of Appropriate Length   

This tip is more on the functional, formatting side of things than some of the theoretical tips. But practical tips are part of craftsmanship, too.

I never realized chapter length would be a problem for novelists. I mean, I knew how I found my chapter breaks and I assumed everyone else did them the same way. But when I started working with unpublished manuscripts I began to see the wide array of lengths authors considered okay for chapters.

Before I go on, let me hasten to say that there are no real rules about chapter length. If you want to have 75-page chapters (and believe me, I've seen plenty of unpublished mss. with chapters this long), that's fine. If you want to have 1-page chapters, that's cool, too. And if you want to have some chapters that are 1 page long and others that are 75 pages, that's your prerogative.

However, allow me to offer some suggested guidelines that may make your book more user-friendly and feel "about right" when it comes to chapter length.

First, what if you go with really long chapters? Chapters with more than, say, 22 double-spaced pages. These begin to feel like a real burden to readers. Imagine a reader reading a chapter as a swimmer holding his breath underwater—if you make the poor guy wait too long to get a breath he's going to give up.

Long chapters feel burdensome. They feel like a lecture in which the guy just won't shut up about some topic. They feel like you're enduring and enduring as long as you can, but if there's no chapter break on this next page I'm going to quit. They feel like a long road trip when you're really hungry but every hill crested reveals another stretch without the Golden Arches.

Readers need "rest areas," reasonably spaced stopping points where they can place their bookmarks and be done reading for now. Overlong chapters don't allow these breaks.

Now, you can give little scene breaks within a chapter, and the reader can stop at any one of those. And of course you don't want your reader to stop reading. But the point remains.

Sometimes I think authors confuse chapters with, say, acts or parts, like in books with a Part 1, Part 2, etc., or when you're trying to identify your 3-act structure. Chapters are more regular stopping places than those. There can be multiple chapters within a part or act.

By and large, longer chapters cause a rising frustration and anxiety, kind of like needing a bathroom more and more every second but not finding one anywhere.

So don't let your chapters go too long.

Neither should you let your chapters be too short. Anything under, say, 8 double-spaced manuscript pages is probably too short. Why do you need a chapter break there? Why not use just a scene break?

If you have very short chapters and, when published, your book has an elaborate chapter head at the beginning of every chapter, you're going to end up with lots of white space, lots of fancy script, very little text, an annoying look, and probably an annoyed typesetter, to boot. Don't let your chapters be too short.

So far I've given loose parameters for what I think constitutes a reasonable average chapter length: nothing under 8 pages and nothing over 22 pages. (I'm referring to double-spaced manuscript pages here, not pages in the finished and typeset book.)

Within that 8-22-page range you have lots of room to find your rhythm.

How I Find Chapters in My Own Fiction

Personally, I shoot for 15-17-page chapters. A chapter of that length feels about right for me, both as a writer and a reader. (You may not be aware that I'm also a published Christian novelist. See my author site here.)

But here's the key: I don't worry about chapter length as I'm writing. Except for a few spots where I know for sure I want a chapter to end or a chapter to begin, I don't even include chapter heads in my rough draft. I use asterisks to serve as a dingbat signifying where a scene ends. I mark scene endings only, not chapter endings and beginnings.

After I've completed the rough draft, gone back and written all the scenes I later realized I needed, and moved everything around to where I think it should be, only then do I begin thinking about chapter divisions.

Waiting until I've finished the draft and all known edits before looking for chapter breaks saves me from having to reorder chapter breaks if I later decide to take the 12-page scene from chapter 9 and put it in chapter 4, which now makes chapter 4 go 28 pages or whatever. Waiting until things are more or less finalized before making chapter divisions saves me from tedious reformatting later.

Of course then my editor will come along and help me see how I need new scenes or ought to delete or reorder existing scenes, which sometimes creates the need to reformat chapters anyway, but that's just part of the game.

So I'll start at the beginning and go through the manuscript counting to 15. Seriously, that's how I look for chapter divisions. Granted, some scenes (like a prologue) are their own chapters no matter what their length, and in other places I've designated where I want to have a for-sure chapter break. But for the rest, I just count to about 13 from the last chapter head and then start looking for a scene break somewhere between the 13th and 18th page, with the 15-17 spot being my preference.

Because I tend to write scenes that are between 3 and 9 pages, I can almost always find a logical break spot somewhere in the 15-17-page range. Sometimes I have to settle for a 10-page or a 21-page chapter, but usually I can avoid that.

Of course I'll take a look at those proposed break points to be sure they would serve well as chapter breaks. Sometimes the break I've chosen does not work well at all and I have to keep looking, but most of the time it works.


If I've designated in the ms. that I really want a chapter to end at a certain spot, sometimes I have to be a little creative with my 15-page chapter length model. I'll usually work backward and forward from for-sure chapter breaks to find reasonable chapter breaks on either side of it. Eventually those will merge with the other chapter breaks I created in the usual way. (Does that make sense?)

So if I've marked a for-sure chapter break on page 128, I'll go around 13-18 pages backward from there to see where that chapter should begin. I'll probably work backward like that for one more chapter, but then I'll stop. Somewhere in there I will find the spot where the backward chapters match up with the 13-18-page chapters I've been finding as I worked forward from the beginning.

Is it okay to have one or two really long chapters or one or two really short chapters for effect? Like maybe you have one 1-page chapter with just one sentence in it. Just because you really want it to stand out. Sure. Do it. But don't do it much. Let these be the exception.

As for really long chapters, I don't think that's as good an idea. As we've established, really long chapters—like really long paragraphs (see Tip #9)—are irritating and wearisome to the reader. You can always find a place to break up a long chapter into smaller chunks.

Give your reader regular resting places, but don't let them follow too quickly upon themselves.

For most of your chapters, strive to find your rhythm with typical chapter length being somewhere between 8 and 22 double-spaced pages.

Tip #53: Understand the Publishing Process

Occasionally I get notes from people asking me to explain some portion of the publishing process. Like "What do agents do and should I get one?" or "What should I include in a proposal?" or "How does a book get edited?" or "What is an advance and how much should I expect if I get a publishing contract?"

These are wonderful questions. They're evidence that the aspiring author is trying to peer into the black box that book publishing seems to be.

I know from experience that, from the outside, publishing (and publishers) can appear to be this myserious, monolithic hegemony in which cruel minions labor ceaselessly to generate the most devastating ways to disappoint and discourage beginning novelists. Publishers, it seems, are big NO factories peopled by heartless fiends.

Even when I received a contract for three novels and began writing, my insight into publishing didn't increase that much. It wasn't until I crossed the line and began working for a Christian publishing company that all my notions of publishing as a soulless enterprise vanished.

It reminds me of Cosmo's line in Sneakers. Bishop has just discovered that Cosmo is working for the mob.

"Organized crime?" Bishop says, astonished.

"Don't kid yourself," Cosmo says. "It's not that organized."

Christian publishing is made up of Christian people. That in itself ought to tell you a lot about it. If you're been involved in a church over the years, especially if you've been in leadership in any capacity, you've seen that Christians are (usually) well-meaning people who are committed to a good cause and yet have a bunch of problems of their own and don't ever seem to reach perfection.

Add to that the business/ministry aspects of publishing in the Christian marketplace. Yes, you want to be putting out products that change lives and restore marriages. I know many people working in Christian publishing who left lucrative careers in secular fields because they wanted to do something that made a difference.

Yet at the same time a Christian publishing company is a business, and if you make too many altruistic (but money-losing) decisions, you're soon going to be out of a job.

Add to that the personal issues and even sin problems of these wonderful but imperfect humans, and you've got...well, you've got publishing companies that run about like the local church. Mostly good, occasionally awful, but almost always moving (or at least limping) in the right direction.

If you receive a rejection letter from a Christian publishing company it's never (at least as far as I've ever seen) intended to crush your hopes and tell you to crawl under a rock and never come out. You might get such a letter from a secular publishing company; I don't know. But people who work at Christian publishing companies are more or less like the Christians you know at church.

Maybe that will humanize them for you. What the rejection letter you receive actually means is one of at least two things: 1) your skill level isn't up to snuff yet (this is the most common reason for rejection), or 2) they simply and truly can't use your story for whatever reason.

Now, all of what has preceded in this tip has been helpful, I hope, but it doesn't get us closer to answering the questions raised in the first paragraph.

Because understanding the publishing process is so important, I needed to include much more than would fit in a single Tip, or even a reasonably short series. So I have written an entire article—with multiple spin-off articles to explain sub-topics—on understanding the complete journey from when the idea is a sparkle in your eye until the moment the book is on a bookstore shelf.

Read that article here.

And remember to pray for those folks who are pretty much like you but who work on the other side of the author-publisher equation. They need lots of encouragement.

Tip #54: Avoid Mixed Metaphors

The gulf between us was so huge I knew we could never be on the same page.

She used her Socratic mind as an escape hatch.

His calming tone took the edge off her fear but didn't jar loose any memories.

Sylvia's words were like shiny beads strung on a necklace that was the raging river of his life, headed for a cataract he couldn't shake no matter what tricks he had up his sleeve.

What did these four sentences have in common? They all used visual imagery, true. And I'm a sucker for word pictures. But used incorrectly, word pictures also have the power to destroy.

What these sentences have in common is that they're all mixed metaphors.

A metaphor is a figure of speech, a fanciful way of speaking that conveys meaning by using a reference to something commonly understood.

A metaphor, if you'll allow me the use of one to explain it, is a word or phrase that helps you "get a handle on" something.

Perhaps you saw "Darmok," the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew of the Enterprise came into contact with a race that spoke entirely in metaphor. The problem was that Picard and company didn't know what the metaphors were. They were specific to that culture. The Universal Translater perfectly rendered every word, but their language was still incomprehensible.

"Mirab, with sails unfurled" meant something like "now you're cooking" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" meant "When it rains it pours."

Visual imagery in fiction, as I point out in Tip #8 (Comparisons), is a great way to bring your prose to life (if you'll excuse the metaphor). Certain people, and most children, actually think in pictures, so using imagery is an effective way of communicating. It's also wonderful to use in your novel.

Enter the Mixed Metaphor

The problem comes when Mirab gets scrambled with Shaka and when the walls fall on the poor guy's unfurled sails.

A mixed metaphor happens when a writer combines two or more disparate images in a single passage.

Observe the ones at the top of this tip. The first one uses imagery of both a gulf and a page. Those don't go together. There are two families of images, two simile sets, being combined.

Here's the rule: When you start a metaphor you have to stay in that same metaphor family until you reach the end of the passage.

If that first example had been, "The gulf between us was so huge I knew we'd never find our way to the same shore," it would've been all right. (Weird, maybe, but not a mixed metaphor.) Or if it had been, "We weren't even in the same book, let alone on the same page," it would've been okay, too.

See how gulf goes with shore and book goes with page? That's what I mean about image families.

Look at the second and third examples. Can you see how the image families are mixed? How would you change them to keep them consistent? Change either image to match the other; just make sure they belong together. I don't know what can be done with the fourth example. Deleting it is probably best.

Watch for mixed metaphors in what you read. Watch for them when you speak or write e-mails. You'll probably find you use them a lot. Work to cut down on them. And pay special attention to the word pictures in your fiction.

Hunt and peck through your manuscript like a bloodhound on a search-and-destroy mission on steroids, and root out every mixed metaphor so your reader doesn't drown in an avalanche of imagery gone bananas.


Tip #55: Manage Profanity, Part 1

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a care."

Doesn't quite work, does it? Give a rip? A flip? Frankly, my dear, I don't care one way or the other? Nah.

And yet in Christian fiction, profanity is verboten. The prim church ladies who enjoy inspirational fiction want to do so without having to expose themselves to foul language. So how do we portray characters who use profanity if we're not allowed to use it in our books? 

Ah, one of the great dilemmas of writing Christian fiction.

Let me hasten to say that I actually agree with the prim church ladies. Having to read profanity in something I'm voluntarily reading, and for fun at that, kind of spoils the experience for me. Many people come to Christian fiction to have good stories but to be untouched by the vilest elements of the culture.

In my years in Christian publishing I have had a number of disagreements with fellow publishing professionals on this topic. Some feel—quite vehemently—that avoiding profanity is inherently dishonest. Inauthentic. The way to reach the lost, they argue, is to show lost people doing lost things and talking the way lost people do.

I acknowledge that this is a valid argument. However, I continue to disagree that CBA fiction ought to be laced with profanity. The audience CBA publishers reach, after all, is not the lost, no matter how we wish it were so. The audience we do reach doesn't want to read "that trash."

Other folks want to include a watered-down version of profanity. They want the PG-rated vocabulary, which usually has a 1-to-1 correlation with actual profanity.

Still other folks want to eliminate swearing in Christian fiction entirely. I'm of that school of thought.

However, that doesn't help us with our dilemma. How do you create profane characters without resorting to profanity? Or should you, um, dern the torpedoes and use the profanity the character would use?

In preparation for this Tip I surveyed some of my published Christian novelist friends to hear how they deal with this issue. Their solutions fell into six major categories.

Proposed Solution 1: Use All the Profanity You Want

You can always just let your foul characters talk the way they would really talk. Though it pain you (or not) to do so, you can simply let it all hang out there and hope your publisher will be "open-minded" enough to let it stay in the finished ms.

One problem with this is that your typical CBA publisher will never let you get away with this. And it's not because they're prudes.

See, all it takes is one complaint from a little old lady from Pasadena to the Christian bookstore where she bought the book, and your book is pulled from the shelves and sent back to the publisher in bulk. Along with a nasty letter about how the bookstore owner will never trust that publishing company again. That's bad.

A variation on this is to write your rough draft with all the profanity you think should be in there, and then come back through later and use one of the following solutions to trim it out.

Proposed Solution 2: Use Watered Down Profanity

In this solution you come as close to the real four-letter words as you can, often with alternate four-letter words that aren't perceived as being as bad as the originals. In other words, you let your characters be as foul-mouthed as you can possibly get away with, while always pushing the envelope.

I'm a big believer in Ephesians 4:29, which says we should allow no unwholesome word to proceed from our mouths, but only those words that work to build up or educate the hearer. However, I think that latter phrase will allow me to tell you what I mean here.

In this solution, you use words like crap and dang and heck and geez, all of which offend me personally but are in the daily vocabulary of many people who love the Lord with all their hearts, so I won't judge.

To me, this solution makes your characters seem like B-level foul-mouths. Like they'd like to really cuss but their moms won't let them. It's hard to make someone seem really foul when they always hold back from actual profanity.

In that sense, I think this solution actually works against what you're trying to do, which is create someone truly profane. They all seem like wimps.

Oh...pickle juice!

Proposed Solution 3: Write for Secular Publishers (or Self-Publish)

If you're so committed to authenticity in your art that you can't bear to write something besides what your foul characters would really say, then consider writing for a publisher that doesn't care about bad language.

Namely, a secular publisher. Sometimes you're not writing what these publishers want unless you've got profanity throughout your story. You could make the argument that writing for a secular publisher is how you can reach the lost with your fiction anyway, so maybe that's the path for you.

Self-publishing is another potential outlet for your profanity-laced fiction. Some Christian subsidy publishing houses (like WinePress or Creation House Press) would probably want to tone down the profanity in your book, but secular self-publishing companies don't care one way or another. So long as you don't say anything in your book that might get them in legal trouble, they're probably okay with whatever comes out of your characters' mouths.

Proposed Solution 4: Avoid Writing Profane Characters

When I asked this question of one of my friends and fellow Christian novelists, she had a sort of epiphany. She realized that because of this prohibition against profanity in Christian novels she'd simply avoided writing truly foul characters in her fiction.

Such characters had been on the fringe of her stories but she'd never written one into the middle of her story—which would've obligated her to face this dilemma.

You can do this, too. Probably the most elegant solution to how you can not have to decide whether or not to let your profane characters use profanity is to simply not write any profane characters. Problem solved.

You could make the case that avoiding a major kind of person in your stories puts a certain limit on your fiction and your storytelling, but that might not be a bad thing. We all limit our story choices anyway, choosing for instance not to write romance or horror or YA, so maybe this is the right solution for you.

Proposed Solution 5: Use Euphemisms

This is probably the most commonly employed solution to our dilemma. In this, you let characters be as foul-mouthed as you want them to be—you simply don't spell it out.

When Jerry learned of Mary's affair, he let us all know exactly how he felt about her character, her physical attributes, and choice aspects of her ancestry.

Louise's anger grew throughout the day. Finally, after kicking her toe on a table leg, she let loose with a string of profanity that left the ochre paint decidedly paler.

This kind of thing is the literary equivalent to how old movies used to handle sex scenes. The door shut and we faded to black. We knew what was going on, but it wasn't demonstrated for us onstage.

Incidentally, this is also the way old novels handled profanity. Here's an example from A Touch of Death, a 1953 novel by Charles Williams:

She didn't like me. And you could see the chords in her throat while she was telling me about it. "Shut up," I said.

In Internet parlance, we speak of meta-data. This is data about data. Metaknowledge is knowledge about knowledge. It's a way of describing something by taking one step back from the thing to tell us what it is and what attributes it has.

This solution to profanity is metaprofanity. It's information about the profanity. We don't see the swearing itself, but we see a description of the swearing.

You have to be more creative (and use more humor) to write this way. Anybody can write in a cuss word, but it takes real talent to give us the feeling of the cussing without literally spelling it out.

This is probably the solution you should use most of the time.

Proposed Solution 6: Invent a Language

You can't do this in most books, obviously. But when you write speculative fiction you have the opportunity to create a whole new language. That way, characters can be swearing a blue streak but because it's a made-up language, no one can possibly be offended.

The cancelled science fiction TV series Firefly does this. Sort of. The solution there is to use bits of Mandarin Chinese when the characters go off into cussing. Because in the far future the last great superpowers, the U.S. and China, merged, giving a certain merging of their languages.

It's quite convenient to have a swearing language at your disposal. You might be able to do this, too.

Firefly also uses made-up words not from Chinese. Characters say "gorram," which is obviously a euphamism for something else, but it's not actually cussing and therefore no one has grounds to be upset. Battlestar Galactica uses "frak," which again they get away with because it's technically not a word, though it's clear from usage what it means.

I'm inventing a language for my own epic fantasy. It's mostly English but I use synonyms for all kinds of things: a gnat is a neener, a squirrel is a scratch, and "okay" is "ulda."

I'm also allowing the characters to cuss like construction workers—but only in this nonsense language.

Snoog. Rhyne. Stelnate.

Are you offended? Exactly.

Two more things on this solution. First, there is a theory that a culture's swearing vocabulary arises in areas where that culture feels repressed. For instance, French Canadians use parts of a cathedral as their curse words: Oh, tabernacle! Holy sancrist! Apparently they felt oppressed by the church.

If you're making up a culture, why not use this theory to also make up a curse vocabulary that involves whatever they're feeling repressed by (or did feel repressed by back in the day when such things were being invented)?

In my story, my characters feel overly oppressed by high taxation. "Well, I'll be taxed" is a common epithet in their tongue.

Such a solution allows you to be as crass as you want using words or terms that are, in and of themselves, inoffensive.

Second, there is a wonderful Web site that creates new words from old ones. All you have to do is enter a fairly large pool of words—any words—and click a button. And boom, out comes a new set of scrambled words that sound vaguely like the original ones but are completely new.

Why not use this for your cursing vocabulary? I do.

In my fantasy I wanted to use words that sounded like church words but weren't. Here are some of the new words coined by this Web site: restate, sacle, baptudy, substion, and tesure. Cool, huh? Try it out.

Next Time

Okay, those are the main solutions for showing profane characters in Christian fiction. Hopefully, one is for you.

Next time I'll tell you what I think is the real issue and the challenge for you.

Tip #56: Manage Profanity, Part 2


Little blond Barbie dolls. Cute.

Dwayne moved through the house with the silence of a roach. Must be nice to have a playroom and a big room of your own. He bent over the large dollhouse, where a blond plastic bimbo sat askew in her chair having a burger and fries with a redheaded plastic bimbo.

Moonlight cast soft shadows on the toy cabinets and dress-up bin and pink bean bag chairs in the playroom. Typical. Delicious.

Dwayne picked up the blond doll and caressed its molded smile with the tip of his hunting knife. The stiff yellow hair fell across the edge of the blade.


He snatched the locks in his thumb and fingers, slightly less dexterous because of the rubber gloves. He put his left hand over the doll’s face, held the knife to the scalp, and pulled the hair across the blade. The strands came away in his hand reluctantly, like pulling a wing off a bird.

He rotated the defiled doll before his eyes and felt the excitement rise in his neck. Pretty little thing.

Dwayne dropped the doll to the carpet and stepped into Camille’s room. The kindergartner lay sideways on her PowerPuff Girls sheets, blond hair arrayed over the pillow like a yellow skirt.

Pretty little thing.


Lorraine gazed at the martini just down the bar from where she sat. She shut her eyes, almost tasting it. Her own glass rattled when she lifted it to her lips, the ice betraying the tremors in her hand. Water. All it did was chill her. But at least it kept the gravel out of her voice.

“You really used to be a model?” the guy asked.

Lorraine forced herself to look at him. He was bulbous and sweaty, with meaty fingers like a stack of Michelin tires. The thought of him touching her…

“Yeah,” she said, “really. Magazines and catalogues and sh—” She censored herself. Maybe this guy was one of those pervs who didn’t mind adultery but couldn’t stand foul language.

His eyes widened and wandered somewhere south of her eyes. “That’s really something, huh?”

“Yeah. So you sure you don’t need the Percocet anymore?” He’d said it was his wife’s pain-killer but there was no need to remind him that he was betraying her. It might blow the whole thing. Lorraine stamped down a shudder. She needed a smoke.

His eyes came back north. “Huh? Oh, right. No, no, she doesn’t— I mean, it’ll be fine.”

Lorraine stood up and pressed herself against his shoulder. “I don’t know about you, honey, but I’m ready to get somewhere private with you.”

He almost fell getting off the bar stool. “Yeah, sure. Definitely.” He dropped a twenty on the bar and headed to the door, gripping her hand on his arm as if he thought she might run away otherwise.

She was going to run away, all right, but not just yet. She watched his jowls bounce as he walked and again thought of that face on hers.

“Just…let’s go grab the Percocet first, okay?”

“What? I can’t go home with—”

She yanked her hand away and stopped. “You’re going to get it first, you hear me. Or you don’t get,” she said, pulling the hem of her shirt wide open for him to have a look, “what you want.”

His eyes bugged. “Right. Right. Okay. Come on.”

She smoothed her shirt and preceded him to the door. Perv.

Profanity Without All the Bad Language

Were those characters foul? Were they profane? Did you feel their depravity in the seat of your being? If I did my job right, you were horrified by Dwayne and disgusted by Lorraine.

I created that effect because of all the foul language I used, obviously. I mean, have you ever heard so many profanities in the space of a single page?


But surely these are the kind of people who would use profanity. Foulness pervaded their character. Even if you didn’t actually see or hear them using four-letter words, you felt a deep corruption oozing through their skin.

Here’s the point: it is quite possible to create the feeling of profanity without the use of profanity.

In fact, doing so is superior to using profanity in your fiction. It’s the better way, in my opinion.

In his novel Rising Sun Michael Crichton creates a foul-mouthed detective character. He drops the F-bomb as commonly as the words “the” or “and.” He is truly the most disgusting, pathetic character I’ve ever seen on the pages of a novel.

This reaction may not have been what Crichton was aiming for. He probably wanted this character to seem intimidating and street-wise but I just thought he was a sad and empty wretch consumed by self-loathing.

In other words, the free and frequent use of profanity in a book does not necessarily create the hard-edged character you may be trying for. You may find the profanity working against you. 

Conversely, the absence of profanity in a book does not mean you cannot create hard-edged or profane characters. As I hope I've demonstrated above.

Show vs. Tell

If you’ve been reading this column very long you know how I feel about show vs. tell. If you’ve read any of my novels you know how I feel about show vs. tell. For a refresher, read Tip #29.

Anybody can write, “She was angry because of how he’d treated her on the plane.” It takes a lot more skill from the writer to communicate that she was angry and that the cause of her anger was how he’d treated her on the plane—and to do so without saying so outright.

Telling is cheating, in my opinion. It’s lazy storytelling. It reveals a low view of the reader’s intelligence and a lack of trust in the author’s own ability to convey information on paper. It stops the story cold and removes all mystery. It is, in short, A Bad Idea.

Showing, on the other hand, is the land where the masters dwell.

When it comes to communicating that a character is lost or profane, the frequent use of profanity in the manuscript is telling. It’s lazy. Anyone can do it. Yep, that’s a foul-mouthed person.

It takes more creativity and skill—not to mention more words—to communicate that the character is lost or profane but to do so without the use of profanity itself. In other words, it’s showing.

I know you want to be a superior novelist. I know you want to take the path of higher craftsmanship. That means showing and not telling in every aspect of your fiction.

Which is more effective: Crichton’s detective or Dwayne and Lorraine? Which method most perfectly conveys the dissoluteness of the character? Which method more insidiously reveals the person’s degraded inner state? Which method better shows profanity?

Telling conveys head knowledge. Showing conveys heart knowledge. When you show something to your reader she feels it at the center of her being.

That’s what you want to accomplish when you have a character who is foul. You want your reader to feel it in her toes.

The next time you bring a debauched character onstage in your fiction, I challenge you to consider how you can reveal the character’s foulness through scene and action instead of the direct use of profanity.

Take look at the solutions in Tip #55. Maybe use one or more of them. But always, always concentrate your efforts on how you can show your character being profane instead of just letting the epithets flow.

Or Dwayne will get you.

Tip #57: Avoid Present Tense

This tip is the first in a series about things to be avoided in your fiction.

Like most of the "rules" in writing a novel, this one should apply to every writer learning the ropes. Like most of the rules in writing a novel, this one holds true 98% of the time. And like most of the rules in writing a novel, a gifted author can violate it flagrantly and have fabulous results.

In other words, it's a rule of thumb, a great guideline for almost every writer in almost every instance, but it's not a Commandment. Still, violate it at your own risk.

Most of the time, most of us should avoid present tense in our prose. Examples:

Jimmy walks across the room and looks out the window.

The crowd reacts with horror when Deborah falls off the stage.

You're using present tense when you're speaking as if the thing is happening right now. It's the use of is instead of was, of walks instead of walked.

Most fiction is written in past tense. "It was a dark and stormy night." (Not "It is a dark and stormy night.") Past tense is what readers expect. It's the convention every reader anticipates in every novel, as expected as black ink on the page or text written in left-to-right lines. It's a given.

When you violate a given, it's jarring to the reader. What if your book's words were printed vertically up and down the page so that the reader had to turn it sideways to read it? Would it make it a better or more interesting book? Not necessarily. Would the reader thank you for doing it differently? Um...not so much.

Present tense is like that. Some readers might not notice for awhile because it's certainly not as jarring as vertical text, but it's still not what the reader expects. I guarantee that editors and publishers and booksellers will notice. And they will object.

I know this because I once tried to sell a proposal in which the prose was all in present tense. I chose present tense because I thought it felt more immediate and accessible. But I was soundly instructed that such a thing was unacceptable. I didn't understand, but I went ahead and changed it to past tense to try to get it published.

After that time, I came onto the editorial staff at a publishing company and have since served with three CBA publishers. I slowly came to realize that they were right. Present tense is great for your synopsis and it's the only way to do dialogue, but for the narration and description it's not the way to go.

Over that time I have seen the occasional manuscript written in present tense that has worked beautifully. That's the exception the proves the rule. It's usually done by a massively gifted author who could violate every tip in this column and still create a breathtaking work of staggering genius.

But most of us should stick with past tense.

As I mentioned above, you should always use present tense in dialogue. Dialogue uses lots of tenses, actually. Spot them: "Where where you? Janine says you were over at Dianne's house, but you told me you were going to a movie."

You should also use present tense in your synopsis.

Now, if your book needs you to call attention to time, like maybe you're making a philosophical comment on the brevity of the moment, or you're playing with states of consciousness in which your viewpoint character is losing it a little bit, present tense might be the right tool for you.

Everywhere else, stick to the convention.

This goes back to Tip #13, the invisible novelist. Your goal is to disappear so that the reader forgets she's reading a book and instead enters into the world of the story. She can't do that if you're waving your hands with odd and obstructive stunts like present tense.

For the most part, most of us should avoid present tense most of the time.

Tip #58: Avoid Direct Address

This tip is the second in a series on things to avoid in your fiction.

In the parlance of cinema, direct address is when an actor speaks directly into the camera. If you'll watch, most cinematography is done in third person. The camera (and therefore the viewer) is an observer, not a participant.

There's an invisible wall between the world of the story and the world of the viewer. Films occasionally break this barrier intentionally (and of course TV news anchormen do it all the time) to interesting effect, as when Ferris Beuller looks right into the camera and lets us in on his world.

This is akin to the "aside" in theatre. In these, there is a kind of a pause in the action and an actor turns directly to the audience, often with his hand to the side of his mouth as if sharing a secret, and makes some humorous comment about what's going on in the story.

In nonfiction writing, especially of the self-help variety, authors can and should speak directly to the reader. In Christian living books the effect the author is striving for is usually an intimate chat between a person who has knowledge and a person who wants that knowledge. But fiction is not self-help. Fiction is entertainment.

In fiction, direct address is when you talk directly to the reader. Often this takes the form of sentences using the word you, in which the reader is the you in question.

You'd never know it to look at him, but Tommy was...

You know how irritating it is when people...

The building was rectangular as you look at it from above...

It was the largest celebration you've ever seen...

Let me set your mind at ease, dear reader...

[Also watch for examples of when the you is understood: "But don't worry, he'll be all right."]

When the author does this, it has a disconcerting effect on the reader. It's shocking and off-putting, rather like finding out that the two-way mirror you thought you were safely hidden behind is actually just a pane of regular window glass. You're exposed and suddenly part of the story, instead of sitting back as observer only.

That's why movies don't do it very often. People come to movies to be entertained, not put onstage. It's also why video phones will have a hard time catching on. People would rather be hidden than revealed.

It has the same effect in fiction. The invisible barrier is broken and the reader is discomfited, if only on an unconscious level.

It's similar to the reaction my young son had the first time he heard the Veggie Tales CD in which Bob and Larry actually said his name. It was too intense. He was no longer safely hidden. He was exposed. It was three years before he could bear listening to that CD again.

Go through your manuscript looking for those times when you've broken this invisible barrier. If you really, truly want to reach through the page and grab your reader's attention—even knowing that will quite likely make her ultimately not finish reading your book—then go for it.

And this rule, like most of the others on this column, can be violated flagrantly and successfully by a wildly talented novelist.

But most of the time most of us should maintain that invisible barrier and not try to directly address the reader.

And you can take that to the bank.

Tip #59: Avoid Agenda-Driven Fiction

I can't tell you how many times I've read something like this in the fiction proposals I've considered over the years:

I wrote this novel to prove that Christians ought not gossip.


My aim is that readers conclude that unconfessed sin can cause their lives to fall apart.

...or even worse...

I have written this novel to show the complete depravity of man and that the world's only hope is salvation in Jesus Christ.

Okay, don't get me wrong, I agree with all those things. Especially the last one.

But when you come to fiction, you can't write a novel to prove a point. You can't be writing a sermon (or, more commonly, a diatribe) to tell those sinners off.

Many well-meaning writers come to fiction as a means of sugar-coating their bitter pill. They want to preach to some deluded audience or rail against some social ill and they feel that fiction will somehow make their message more palatable and persuasive.

I'm here to tell you that it does not.

Agenda-driven fiction is bad for two reasons. First, it's almost always written by someone who has no interest in learning the craft of fiction. In other words, it usually stinks as a novel. These authors aren't typically patient enough to learn how to do it right. They just want to loose their fusillade and move on with their lives.

Second, agenda-driven fiction is often bad because it isn't about a person or a story; it's about an Important Lesson.

In fiction, story is king. It outranks (or should outrank) everything else, including that lesson you want to drive into the reader's thick head.

And in order to make story king, you have to start with character. Read Tip #50 to find out how to construct a story the right way: protagonist first.

Readers do not come to fiction to be preached at. They come for escape and entertainment and fun. You start putting in anything that feels like bony finger pointing and the reader will quickly find something else to do besides read your book. If they want a sermon they'll go to church. Outside of church they want no sermons.

But What About Theme and Message?

Am I saying that fiction must be about merely funny or entertaining things, "lite" topics without any substance?

Of course not. Good novels have a theme or a message or even a note of warning or challenge. Hopefully your novel will have this, too.

My novels Operation: FirebrandCrusade and Operation: FirebrandDeliverance tackle serious humanitarian issues (modern slavery in Sudan and North Korean tyranny to its people, respectively). I very much wanted to make people aware of what's going on in these regions. But even in those novels, story was king. Characters reigned over Message.

There's a difference between writing a novel to prove a point and writing a novel about a person and finding out later that you've made an interesting commentary on some theme that resonates with you and readers.

It can even work if you know in advance what you want your theme to be—if you do it through your protagonist's inner journey (see Tip #3). Keep it subtle, keep it about the character and not the reader, and the reader may (or may not) take up your invitation to examine her life on this issue.

And that's the difference. With agenda-driven fiction you're nailing the reader to the wall like a fire and brimstone preacher. You want her squirming in her pew. With correct fiction you're offering up a story and letting readers interpret it as they will.

You're doing what Rod Serling often said when introducing an episode of Twilight Zone: "Presented for your consideration, a man who..."

Don't come to fiction to prove a point or teach a lesson. Just tell your story and let the chips fall where they may.

Tip #60 Avoid Exclamation Points in Narration!

Okay, the exclamation point above is a joke! It's for emhasis! It shows how silly it looks to have exclamation points in anything but dialogue! It makes you look like a hack writer!

I can't tell you how many times I've been reading an aspiring novelist's otherwise worthy prose only to come upon one of these. It will go something like this:

Denise peeked into the sealed room and then forced the door open wider. She got her arm through and then her head and shoulders. Finally she was all the way through. The air was stale and choked with dust. And there against the stone wall she saw the cloak!

I know you want your reader to get excited about your story, and I know you want to convey the viewpoint character's excitement. But you need to do that through word choice and the actions and spoken words of the characters, not through exclamation points in narration.

(I hope it goes without saying that if an exclamation point is bad then two or three—or an exclamation point plus a question mark—is even worse!?!!? We're not writing e-mails, for crying out loud.)

In dialogue, by the way, exclamation points are welcome. If your characters are in exciting situations or are just prone to excited speech, the reader expects lots of exclamation points. But only between the quotation marks.

An exclamation point in your non-dialogue passages makes your prose look weak. It looks like you think the reader won't get it (or won't get excited) if you don't signal it with the Roman candle that is an exclamation point in narration.

Trust your reader to get it. Trust in your ability to show—through what the characters say and do (see Tip #29)—when excitement is called for in the story and in the reader.

So go your way and stop using exclamation points in your narration!

Want More Tips?

Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.