Friday, 25 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 8 - Trying to Find the Click

By Sophie Wellstood
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there’s a pivotal scene between Brick and Big Daddy, where Brick explains his need to drink.
Something hasn’t happened yet, he says. That click in my head. The click in my head that makes me feel peaceful. It’s like a switch clicking off in my head, turns a hot light off and a cool light on and suddenly there’s peace.
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to equate Brick’s struggle to find his ‘click’ via pints of Bourbon with a writer trying to find theirs by way of a jumble of sentences - and of course Brick’s search is for oblivion rather than revelation, but never mind. For me the struggle is similar. The click is a rare, contrary creature. It hides. It beckons, then disappears. It sometimes feels like it has never existed. Oh, it visits every other writer, all the time, generously depositing its gifts of character, plot, dialogue and drama and two thousand words a day, but it avoids my front door like I’m the village hag who eats frogs and abducts orphans. It flirts, makes promises, then breaks them.

But we keep trying, don’t we? Because when the click does arrive, it’s why we write. It’s peaceful. It’s a hot light turning off and a cool light turning on. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle, the thrill of a new birth. It’s where we want to be. It’s just right.

But how do we find it, and, equally as importantly, how can we trust it’s the click we want, and not its loud-mouthed perma-tanned sibling, cliché?

There are countless exercises which develop the muscles and discipline of writing, countless lists of good habits, good advice and inspirational soundbites from fantastically successful writers. All have their value. The most true and comforting for me is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Accept that, and that’s the first hurdle cleared.

I guess the three or four main strategies for me in terms of searching for the click are these – in no particular order:

Psychic (narrative) distance

John Gardner explores the concept and practice in his book The Art of Fiction, and the authors, editors and tutors Emma Darwin and Debi Alper teach it (brilliantly). Understanding and using psychic distance in any fiction is probably the most effective way of finding a missing click – and essential in terms of changing text from a monotone drone (like my ex history teacher imparting the key dates of the industrial revolution) to an operatic orgy (like my dreams).

Scene structure

Oh it’s such hard, hard work. Why not just have page after page of lovely sunrises and birdsong until BANG, someone’s carked it? The first draft of my novel had over a dozen sunrises. In the current draft (probably around the 25th, I’ve lost count) I’ve managed to reduce the sunrises to about three, plus one very foggy morning. I love writing about weather but sadly readers don’t like reading about weather. Kill the sunrises and make every scene muscular, every page powerful, make the reader compelled to continue reading.

Some of the best advice I’ve found about scene structure comes from Dwight Swain / Randy Ingermanson here:

This should be tattooed on the inside of a writer’s eyelids:

Goal - Conflict – Disaster – Reaction – Dilemma – Decision.

Ingermanson also describes at length the concept of Motivation-Reaction Units. It all sounds very unsexy and un-arty but it works. With practice it should become second nature and provide clicks galore.

Cross dressing

Who is the narrator? Why? Whose story is it, really? Send your narrator away for the week and re-write the crucial scenes and / or the whole idea you have from another character’s point of view. By character, we can choose the dog, the lover, the parent, the china dog on the mantelpiece, or even the flames burning in the fireplace. It’s fiction. Of course we can give fire a voice. And change the other characters. Do they have be the gender you’ve assigned them? Or the age, the sexuality, the race, the height? How would it change your protagonist if they existed outside the stereotypes? Could the male hero be four foot ten? Could the female love interest be hairy?

Gifts (or stolen goods)

All writers should be eavesdropping, all the time. It’s basic, basic stuff. The click for my story ‘The First Hard Rain’ came before I’d even written it, during a car journey with a dear friend who announced, in all seriousness, 'But the M6 - now that’s what I call a motorway'.

I knew then that I had something, and I would use it, at some point. The sense that someone could have feelings towards a motorway… I would never have come up with it, ever, and it rescued my story. I’m eternally grateful to her. Another friend had a very elderly boyfriend who was at the time very ill with pneumonia. ‘Or Old Monia, as I call it!’ she laughed. And I’ll have that, too, thanks very much. So listen, listen, listen to people, take their words, hoard them and when the time’s right, use them.

There are a few writing exercises /games I use too when inspiration is low. They may not all lead to clicks, but they really help to just warm the word muscles up, to become focused.

One syllable stories

Exactly that. Write a story of 500 words using words of only one syllable.

Animal, vegetable or mineral

Some characters seem to arrive fully formed, others are less clear. One of the ways I get to understand my characters is to turn them into an animal. Or in a couple of cases, vegetables. In my second novel, I have a (gay) couple who are a polar bear and a fox. In the current novel, I have a couple who are a carrot and a turnip. It helps me to ‘see’ them and their characteristics very clearly. So give every character their equivalent animal or vegetable. It’s a lot of fun and may provide some lovely insights.

Free writing

From all good creative writing classes. Choose a random object – or get someone to choose something for you. The duller or weirder the better. A cat hair. A breadcrumb. A cork from a wine bottle. An intestine. (Spot the clues about my lifestyle here…). Write for fifteen minutes about that subject without stopping, without lifting the pen from the paper at all. No stopping to re-read, no editing, no judging or worrying about spelling or grammar or whether it’s ‘good’. Just words, words, words, one after another, for fifteen minutes. Something lovely happens with the subconscious, and there’s the huge satisfaction of seeing a page fill up with writing that wasn’t there fifteen minutes ago.

Mixed length sentences

Fix a dreary passage by using sentences of varying lengths (which should be standard practice anyway) e.g the first sentence must be exactly six words, the second exactly fourteen words, the third exactly four words and so on. Or write your Booker Prize acceptance speech using sentences which increase by one word until you get to twenty.

Hi. I write. I write books. I write good books. The book won a prize. This is a wonderful achievement…and so on. (This is a very bad example and you will do much better).

And finally … stop writing

More often than not, my best clicks have come from stepping away from the computer and going for a long walk or a long swim, preferably in the cold north sea. The rhythms of walking and swimming just loosen up my creative knots. I can visualise settings and people, and ‘watch’ them as they move around. I can see how they stand, how they interact with each other, how they laugh or cry. I talk to my characters too, out loud, and they talk back. I don’t care if it’s mad.

We all write because we feel compelled to create authentic imaginary worlds, to inhabit a new universe where we are the God of absolutely everything. It’s the most wonderful activity, and extremely difficult to do it well. There’s no quick fix for bad writing, and often no reward or recognition for good writing. But I hope some of these suggestions help you with finding your own clicks, and help you to take your writing closer to being the best it can possibly be.

Friday, 18 August 2017

BOOKCLUB: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

This month on the Triskele Book Club, we're discussing Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

About the book:

Libby Day was just seven years old when her older brother massacred her family while she hid. Her evidence helped put him away. Ever since then she has been drifting, surviving for over 20 years on the proceeds of the 'Libby Day fund'. But now the money is running out and Libby is desperate. When she is offered $500 to do a guest appearance, she feels she has to accept. But this is no ordinary gathering. The Kill Club is a group of true-crime obsessives who share information on notorious murders, and they think her brother Ben is innocent.

Ben was a social misfit, ground down by the small-town farming community in which he lived. But he did have a girlfriend - a brooding heavy metal fan called Diondra. Through her, Ben became involved with drugs and the dark arts. When the town suddenly turned against him, his thoughts turned black. But was he capable of murder? Libby must delve into her family's past to uncover the truth - no matter how painful...

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members—including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

Discussion (Liza Perrat, Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh):

Why do you think the author, Gillian Flynn, set Dark Places on a farm?

(LP): the particular farm on which this story is set is rundown, bleak and isolated, just like many of the characters. This setting reflects the general dark, macabre ambience that runs through the whole story.

(GEH): The farm the author describes here isn't one of bouncing lambs and clucking hens, it's a bleak, rundown place that the family are struggling to keep afloat. I think the sense of loss and despair in the story are echoed in the settings, a very clever move by the author as it really adds to the atmosphere.

(JJ): For me, it symbolises the failure of the old ways. A farm means exposure to the harsh truth of climate change, unpredictable weather, unsustainable debt and the inability to rely on free labour, such as your kids. Additionally, it's remote and distanced from the town and its people.

The novel’s protagonist, Libby Day is a self-loathing liar, manipulator, kleptomaniac, and opportunist. Do you think the author intended to make her unlikeable? And were you able to empathize with her on any level?

(LP): Libby’s personality was shaped by the family she was born into, then the terrible tragedy that befell her at such an early age. For that alone, the reader can empathise with her. And yes, I do think the author intended to portray Libby as unlikeable. We see that right from the opening line: 'I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.' But I believe that is one of the author’s great talents; that she is able to render such an unpleasant character likeable and someone you come to root for as the story progresses.

(GEH): I didn't really grow to like the character, but I did feel empathy for her situation. To have lost her mother and sisters in such a brutal way, and to have been witness to the event, would scar even the strongest person. I also appreciated the fact that Libby recognised her own flaws and made no secret of them. She wanted to always be a better person but lived under no illusion it would actually ever happen. I think it's a brave call from the author to give the lead of the novel to this character but in my opinion it worked well.

(JJ): She reminds me of a turtle. There's a carapace born of hurt, formed by kindly sympathy around an immature, vulnerable interior. "I was raised feral". There's also laziness, pessimism, greed and judgement. She gives herself a free pass "because of what happened" but makes no effort to grow, come to terms, or make amends to those who wanted to help. She is incredibly annoying at times, which is what makes her an intriguing character. I didn't like her but she certainly interested me.

Why has Libby ignored Jim Jeffreys’ advice to earn an income for so many years? Why do you think she did that?

(LP): I think Libby was convinced society and the monetary gifts from strangers were her dues, as payment for her ordeal and the hard life she made for herself, because of the tragedy. As if society had to pay for her bad luck. She felt she didn’t owe society a thing, such as working to earn a living, or being a decent adult, but that it was owed to her. I don’t think Libby cares much about money anyway, or material possessions, and living basically hand-to-mouth suits her depressive, self-loathing personality.

(GEH): I think primarily down to a mix of self-pity and laziness. Libby feels the world owes her because of the tragedy of her childhood, and when the world stopped paying it turned her to bitterness.

(JJ): I agree with both your assessments. She does feel owed and she is lazy. This whole persona seems to have developed out of a sense of nihilism. She always has her "I could kill myself" card up her sleeve. This short-term approach to life means she cannot plan, will not contemplate a future and regards relationships as transactions. Or so she tells herself. However, someone with such a keen eye for the subtleties of human nature is nowhere near as disengaged as she'd like to think.

So why then do you think Libby takes up Lyle’s offer from the Kill Club?

(LP): Libby is skint. The kindness of strangers has run out and she’s desperate for cash, which is the major reason that propels her towards the Kill Club. After all, she’s lived off the victim card for so long, and this isn’t really any different. Also, perhaps now that many years have lapsed since her family was massacred, she can begin to look at the crime, and the supposed perpetrator, through different eyes.

(GEH): Desperation. She realises the money will soon be at an end and it's the easiest way of getting money fast. I don't think her intentions were any deeper than that, she certainly never thought of it as a way of clearing Ben's name in the beginning.

(JJ): Yes, obviously the money is a draw but so is the attention. Her name has dropped from the limelight and she resents all the billboards advertising another girl's disappearance. She gets into this for venal reasons, but the experience has a deeper effect. I also see a curiosity in her about why people care. Libby doesn't care passionately about anything so to see a group meeting of such urgency and obsession makes her take off her shades and blink.

What do you think begins to stir Libby’s mind about the innocence, or guilt, of her brother, Ben, for the crimes?

(LP): The Kill Club is a group of crime enthusiasts who meet to discuss famous cases, such as Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper … and Libby’s Kansas Farmhouse murder. And when Libby realizes many of its members are convinced Ben is not guilty, she starts to question what she saw exactly, or did not see, the night of the massacre. The author expertly evokes the fallibility of memory here, and the lies a child might tell herself to get through such a devastating trauma.

(GEH): Yes, I think meeting so many people who were so certain of her brother's innocence lit a spark of guilt somewhere deep inside Libby's psyche. How did she know what she saw as real back then really was the truth? When she couldn't answer that question to her satisfaction, she had no option but to follow her journey to the truth.

(JJ): As mentioned above, Libby avoids the 'dark places'. These include the truth of that night, happy memories of her family, any honest analysis of her own behaviour, the potential enormity of a miscarriage of justice. She sticks her fingers in her ears and sings because she lacks the emotional tools with which to break any of it down. She's disaffected until she encounters the affected. Taking a peek at the possibilities, at her own pace, she starts to examine shadows, doubts and her own instinct. The latter is vital because she has learned not to trust herself.

Did you think Ben was guilty?

(LP): Well no. That seemed to be the whole point of the story, putting doubt in the reader’s mind. However, I did ask myself, along the way, if the author might be creating a red herring.

(GEH): Not really. It could have been a dramatic twist that the bad guy really was the one doing life in jail, but it seemed unlikely. I thought the ending and the big reveal were my personal highlights of the novel.

(JJ): Because we spend a lot of time in Ben's head, and understand his disenfranchised rage and teenage impotence/potency, I didn't. Had it been a single act of violence, a crime of passion by a pent-up kid with a shotgun, maybe. But strangulation, shooting and axe murdering three of his family? He simply wasn't that kind of kid.

What did you make of Diondra and her relationships?

(LP): Diondra loves to be in control and I think she’s attracted to Ben as she can have complete control over him. She can manipulate him to do whatever takes her fancy, and send him on a guilt trip over her pregnancy. And then there is the “friend”, Trey, with whom Diondra seems to relate on a sadistic, warped kind of level. Someone she feels comfortable being evil with.

(GEH): Now that's one character I didn't connect with on any level! She is very complex, spoilt, needy and dangerous too. The unplanned pregnancy set her on another level, and she saw the best way yet to control and manipulate people. I did find her part in the modern day story quite shocking too.

(JJ): I'm with Gilly on this - I loathed her and her privileged arrogance. A classic manipulator. That said, I think the portrayal of Ben's experiences with her and his reaction to her friends is pitch perfect. I felt every single one of Trey's put-downs personally. Sly, devious and people-users. Toxic.

Libby’s mother, Patty Day constantly worries whether she is a good mother. What did you think?

(LP): Poor Patty is a victim of her time, place and situation in society. She tries her best, but constantly fails due to situations beyond her control, such as finances and an abusive husband who keeps turning up to claim money she hasn’t got. However, at the end, the reader realizes just to what extent a mother such as Patty would go, in an effort to try and provide for, and protect, her children. I really felt sorry for Patty, trapped in this terrible situation.

(GEH): I sympathised with the position Patty found herself in and couldn't fault her for doing her best under the circumstances, but did question her life choices and decisions. Obviously, if you look at her final decision it was solely based on improving the lives of her children, so yes, a good mother I think.

(JJ): Certainly a victim of circumstances, strong for her kids but weak with her husband. Her sister has more of a toughness which the children respect. Patty's exhaustion is total. Little moments show how much she loves her children yet she cannot provide for them alone. She reminded me of that classic Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange. At the end of her strength still trying to hold everyone up.

Did you like the story’s split narrative? Did you find one point of view more appealing than the others?

(LP): I enjoyed reading all the different points of view equally, as each cast a different light on the events.

(GEH): Yes, it worked for me. It made it far more layered to see the story and the history of the events played out between the major characters involved. It didn't confuse me at all, although I applaud the author for mastering the complicated narrative.

(JJ): The fact that each voice has such a distinctive tone and pace made it a definite success. Libby's inertia, long drives, introspective thought contrast with Ben's violent, jerky, scattershot narration whereas Patty is running out of ideas, so her recounting of the day feels like one punch landing after another. I think it's beautifully balanced. 

If you've read this book, please feel free to join our discussion and make a comment.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 7 - Self-editing

By Debbie Young
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

No matter which genre you write in, cultivating a habit of effective self-editing will make your books better and boost your confidence as a writer. As an author myself, I know that’s been true for me, and I’d like to help you gain the same benefits by explaining how and when to self-edit – and when it’s time to stop and hand over to a professional.


There are three main kinds of editing:

Developmental or structural editing: addressing your book’s shape and form, looking at story rather than style
Line editing: refining your story sentence by sentence, to make the language as precise and expressive as possible
Copy editing or proofreading: checking for technical correctness of the language e.g. spelling and grammar

Professional editors provide all of these services, and self-editing includes them all too. 


"But wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t it received wisdom that you can’t edit your own work because you’re too close to it?”

Sorry, I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. Even with a bottomless budget, you should still edit your own ms to the best of your ability before submitting it to your chosen professional editor for a final polish. Why?

To learn and grow as an author – if you let someone else tidy up  your mistakes, you won’t learn to stop making them 
To reduce the costs of a third-party edit - a good professional editor will charge less for a relatively clean script than for one riddled with errors
To build a better relationship with your editor – make him or her look forward to your mss rather than dreading them

“But I’m aiming for a contract with a trade publisher, rather than self-publishing,” you might be thinking. “They’ll provide an editor to do that for me.” 

Er, dream on. Yes, a trade publisher will provide an editor, but they’ll also be much less likely to offer a contract for a shabby script than for a polished one. You’ll still have to do much of the editing yourself, following their instructions. Surely it’s better to get it right first time, rather than being sent back your script covered in edits, like homework marked in red pen? “Must try harder” is not a pleasant message to receive at any age.


“I’ve got plenty of editing apps that will fix that stuff for me.” 

By all means run your ms through your word-processor’s spellchecker, or more sophisticated, algorithm-based apps such as Hemingway or Grammarly, but beware of their limitations. These mechanical methods will not pick up every error, nor will all their suggestions take your personal style into account. Its corrections may not be net improvements. For example, spellcheckers will accept words that are accurately spelled but wrongly used. No apps can replace the power of the human brain, or have your insight into your book’s unique concept and qualities. 

So if you want your book to be truly your own work, presented to the best of your ability, you should self-edit it thoroughly, rather than write the first draft and abdicate responsibility to all and sundry to turn it into a finished script.


Now for the good news: although self-editing is hard work and time-consuming, it’s also hugely rewarding. Many authors even prefer self-editing to writing the first draft, because this is when their story really begins to shine.  

If you’ve never done much self-editing before, you’re in for some surprises:

The number of edits you’ll make long after you thought your draft was finished (a quick check of my final draft of my latest novel yielded 350+ further tweaks)
How much easier you’ll find the process on each subsequent book, (I learn more with every book I write)
How intense and exhausting the process is, physically as well as mentally (if you’re not tired after self-editing, you’re doing it wrong)


So now let’s press on with instructions on how to go about it – and then I’ll give you an exercise to practise your skills in miniature, before you let yourself loose on your current work-in-progress.

First, take a break from the actual writing process. Writing and editing require two different parts of the brain – the first creative, the second critical. You need to turn off your creative brain and reboot your inner critic. 
The creative brain and the critical brain are like those two little weather people in a traditional wooden weather house: they should never both be out at once.

Received wisdom is that you should put a book manuscript away for about six weeks in a drawer (as if a drawer adds a special magic absent from a cupboard or shelf!) That allows time for your short-term memory to clear, so that when you come back to it, you will read what you actually wrote, rather than what you think you wrote, and so be more objective.

Plan to read through your manuscript very many times, with most of these times being for a specific reason, e.g.

- For plot structure – does the timeline work, does it make sense, will it meet readers’ expectations for your genre?
- To check speech – do conversations flow, do speech tags help rather than hinder (less is always more with speech tags), is it always clear who is speaking?
- For superfluous words – have you eliminated flabby padding that doesn’t add anything to the story except word count?
- For sentence and paragraph length – too many long blocks of text are hard on the eye, and it’s usually easy to them shorter, e.g. interjecting an action in the middle of a long speech to add a bit of movement and variety
- For writing tics - favourite words that are over-used (if you’re not sure what yours are, paste your whole ms into a word cloud generator, downloadable from the internet, and see what floats to the top – you may be surprised at the result)
- For continuity errors – do anyone’s eyes change colour from one page to the next, or their hairstyles or their names? (all frighteningly common) 

At each pass, key in  your changes before starting your next round of edits. This may seem an extravagant use of time, but it is the most effective way of fine-tuning your prose. 


The  more formats you read your ms in, the more opportunities for improvement you are likely to find. Many authors work exclusively on their computer, but paper print-outs can be surprisingly helpful. 

“But I want to save trees!” is a popular misconception.

In our environmentally-friendly age, many authors feel guilty at printing off paper copies, particularly of long works, worried about wasting paper and ink. Avoid a guilty conscience by buying paper from sustainable resources (which is pretty much most of it these days) and tell yourself you’re supporting the forestry industry instead. 

Read your ms in the following formats as well as on your computer:
- On paper (ideally in a different typeface to the one you wrote it in)
- On an ereader or ereading app (these apps are free and available for phones and tablets, so unless you’re a complete Luddite, you’ve no excuse to avoid them)
- On paper again – but this time formatted in the style you expect your finished book to be in  (suddenly your book will seem much more real, and you’ll see it more through your readers’ eyes and be more sensitive to errors you don’t want them to read)

Finally, read the whole thing out loud. Yes, that will take a long time, but the resulting improvements will justify the time spent. (If you dictate your first drafts, you’ll have already discovered how much better spoken text flows.)


You don’t have to wait for your next book to be finished to try this system for yourself. Here’s a quick and easy exercise that I hope will leave you convinced that self-editing will make you a better writer and help make your books the best they can be. 

1. Take a pen and paper and write a 200 word description of something you do every day, e.g. making a cup of tea, cleaning your teeth, getting dressed.
2. Get up and leave the room, get yourself a drink, then come back, with your writer’s mind rebooted in critic mode.
3. Type it into your computer, and as you do so, if an obvious improvement jumps out at you, feel free to include it.
4. Read it on screen a number of times, checking and correcting each of the following, one at a time: logical order, continuity, writing tics, sentence length, paragraph length.
5. Try to reduce its length by 10% by eliminating superfluous words. It may be easier than you think. Can you reduce it by 15%? 20%?
6. Print it off, and while it is printing, gaze out of a window to refresh your eyes.
7. Now read the revised new print out. Spot anything you missed? If so, input those changes and print again.
8. Now read it aloud. Anything else you want to change? Change it, and reprint it. 
9. Finally, compare it to your original manuscript. You should see a significant difference. And think how much happier your professional editor would be to see the self-edited version rather than the original draft.


Put your final version away in a drawer - ah, the mysterious magic of the drawer! ;) Take it out again at least 24 hours later, but preferably six weeks later, and see whether there’s anything else you’d like to change. I bet a professional editor would also still find room for improvement.


Don’t let the number of corrections you’ve made in the self-editing process dent your confidence as a writer. Instead, congratulate yourself on your craftsmanship and dedication at honing your prose to the best it can possibly be, just as a sculptor chips away at a block of marble, little by little, until a masterpiece stands before him.

But also like the sculptor, beware of applying the chisel for too long! There comes a point at which self-editing morphs into self-defeating. Don’t be the sculptor who chips off your statue’s nose. 

If you find yourself unwilling to stop self-editing, ask yourself whether you’re really just putting off the moment of declaring your work complete. I met a man the other day who told me he’d been editing a novel for ten years. Either he’s been writing the wrong thing, or for some reason he is afraid of publishing it: fear of success, fear of failure, or fear of being sued. 

Sometimes good enough is good enough, and it’s time to move on to a new writing project. 

A rigorous self-editing habit will make your work the best it can be, now and throughout your writing career. 

Good luck, and keep writing!

Debbie Young is the author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, the first of which is Best Murder in Show, and various collections of short stories. 
She also writes non-fiction books, such as How to Get Your Self-published Book into Bookstores, part of the Self-publishing Success series published by the Alliance of Independent Authors, of which she is Publications Manager. 
For more information about Debbie’s writing life, please visit her website

Friday, 4 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 6 - Filtering

By Jason Donald

Images courtesy of JD Lewis

Have you ever re-read you draft pages and, like me, thought to yourself, “This whole section just feels blah!”? The writing is grammatically correct, not too many adjectives and adverbs, the characters were behaving realistically, the plot moves along at pace… so what the hell is wrong? Why does it feel so stale?

Perhaps your writing suffers from filtering. This concept was introduced to me by a friend and as soon as she mentioned it I could see I was doing this… a lot. Filtering is term that was started by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing.

What is filtering? It’s words or phrases tacked onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes. Meaning, the character is placed between the reader and the action in the story.

Let's look at some writing with filtering:

Janet felt a sinking feeling as she ran through the diner and out the front doors. She wondered if Jake would really just get up and leave her. She saw him throw the suitcase into the car and slam the door. He seemed cold as his gaze met hers. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. Now she knew he would take the money and disappear, leaving her to take the heat. She decided to beg and ran across the parking lot, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, and she felt the gravel spitting at her as she saw the convertible careen onto the road.

Do you see how the highlighted words come before the action? This forces the reader to step back and watch the character, rather than the action. It moves the reader away from the events on the page. An extra step has been inserted between the reader and the story. A filter.

Here is the same piece of writing after filtering is removed:

Janet's stomach sank as she ran through the diner and out the front doors. Would he really just get up and leave? Jake threw the suitcase into the car and slammed the door. He turned. Her gaze met his, and his eyes narrowed. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. A cold chill enveloped her; he would take the money and disappear, leaving her to take the heat. She ran across the parking lot, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, spitting gravel at her as the convertible careened onto the road.

Do you see the difference? Can you feel the difference? The events are up-front and immediate. The reader is more able to visualize the actions on the page. In the last sentence, the reader directly views the car in its haste to depart.

Here's a list of common filter words to become aware of in your writing. I have this list pinned above my desk:

to see, to hear, to think, to touch, to wonder, to realize, to watch, to look, to seem, to feel (or feel like), can, to decide, to sound (or sound like), to notice, to be able to, to note, to experience

All writing rules are there to be questioned, tweaked, toyed with and disobeyed. (even this rule!) Sometimes you do want a filter word. Sometimes you need that distance, because you need to know that the character “sees” or “hears” or “wonders”.

1) Henry watches the kids splashing in the river. – Here, the filter word adds an important layer to the meaning of the sentence.

2) I hesitate for a second and then touch the dog’s damp, quivering back. - The filter is critical for meaning.


Take a page from your draft manuscript.
Using the above list, circle all the filter words you can find.
Re-write those sentences.
Has the prose improved? Is it less blah?

Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, (Jonathan Cape) was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award. His second novel, Dalila, (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) was published in Jan 2017. He lives in Switzerland and runs Write Time retreats to nurture authors.