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Writers, Please Write

This month, I did not keep to my regular #WritingwithRae schedule. I’m late. It’s okay though. I gave myself permission to not only be late, but to skip it altogether. This blog post is about why and how.

As #NaNoWriMo19  is winding down my Twitter and Instagram feeds have been inundated with writers struggling with time management, illness, imposter syndrome, and #momlife (or #dadlife). So to all the writers dealing with a busy lifestyle, to all the writers dealing with chronic pain, to all the writers navigating parenthood, I hear you. I’m with you.

I have come across some wonderful people in the writing community, both online and in person. Since our introduction, many have gone on to get agents and book deals. Indie authors have started, completed, and published multiple manuscripts. Several writers seeking traditional publication have drafted nearly half a dozen books in the last year or two.

Wanna know how many drafts I have completed? One. One manuscript. One draft. One quick and dirty revision. One.

I have not joined in during NaNoWriMo. I have not participated in a Twitter pitch contest. I have not started the query process. I haven’t begun beta reads. Despite hoping to have done any or all of these this fall.

What I have accomplished is keeping two little humans alive, healthy, stable, and educated. I have guided them in not only mathematics studies, but how to have respect for themselves and others. I have taught them how to diagram a sentence, as well as how life isn’t about them but what they can do for others. I have introduced them to Shakespeare and given them permission to dream big and be brave. If I succeed in nothing else, I take comfort in knowing I loved my children more than myself, that they know they are loved, and that they have learned to love others. Parenthood is by far the most difficult job on the planet at times. Perfection in this job is unattainable. I inevitably do it wrong on a regular basis. But it is the only job I have ever had where boredom did not become a factor. It’s the only job I have had where my skills have not plateaued. It’s the only job where money is not a factor. It’s the only job where I have pushed myself to be better every day. It’s the only job I have had with rewards to be cherished for what’s left of my life.

I have also cared for the least of these. I never imagined I would ever be involved in the foster system. I never imagined I had the strength for it. Foster parents are the only parents asked to love someone else’s child as their own, only to be asked to say goodbye through no fault of their own. It’s impossible for anyone who has not been a foster parent to truly understand what it’s like. I thought I knew, before I become one.

Our home has welcomed four foster children in the past three years—four children in crisis. We have provided a safe, stable, and loving environment to the children of strangers. These children have experienced grief, neglect, abuse, and drug exposure. They have lived through too much at such a young age, sometimes even before birth. The foster care system is broken and while reunification is ideal, in some cases, losing a foster child is devastating. We grieve. The grieving doesn’t end. But there are also celebrations: a toddler, so neglected he did not know what it was to brush his teeth or wash his hair, learning to trust parental figures; an eight-month old, who could not hold her head up when she arrived, learning to crawl while in your care; an infant coming off of drug exposure, who screamed throughout the night, settling into a routine and sleeping soundly; a newborn’s brain gaining the necessary cognitive and emotional connections gained through interaction and need fulfillment that she otherwise would not have acquired. If I never have a New York Times bestseller, I can take pride in these efforts. These accomplishments are as life changing, long lasting, and worthy as a publication with one of the Big Five.

Parenthood is difficult no matter what job you have, but sometimes I see writers feel guilty or frustrated for not having the time for writing because of children. Writers, please write, but know that in parenthood, it’s never enough. There are never enough hugs, or talks, or games. There is no quota or word count to hit before we can look at our child and say “that’s enough for today.” Give yourself permission to be a parent first and a writer second. The words can wait. Their childhood cannot.

Another hindrance for many writers is illness and pain. I have been dealing with a multitude of ailments for many years now. Some of these ailments include arthritis in my lower back, chronic migraine, and fibromyalgia. None of these things will ever go away. Ever. I will never know what it is like to “feel” normal again. Every single day of my life I feel pain. That has been a very difficult thing to come to terms with. More often than I should, I carry on as if nothing is wrong, but something is always wrong. I take measures to make things manageable, but more often than not, I barely scratch the surface. Just this morning, despite being on a monthly medication to combat it, I suffered a severe migraine that lasted twelve hours. Sometimes my body just will not go. And because outwardly there appears to be nothing wrong, it’s difficult for loved ones to understand and gauge how I am. This affects my ability to write on a regular basis. Brain fog prevents me from finding the words. Pain keeps me from sitting at my desk. Fatigue grabs hold even when conditions are ideal. I may lose battles with my body, but I can’t be concerned with battles when my strategy is about the war.

Writers, please write, but know your body needs your attention. I know your frustration. I know the guilt you feel. I know at times you may even sense depression lurking around the corner. Don’t let the timeline of other writers dictate yours. This is not a race. Do the best work you can when you can. Set reasonable goals, but forgive yourself if you don’t meet it. No one is disappointed in you. Take pride in what you accomplish, despite the setbacks. Your words are hard earned. Each sentence is a reason to take pride in yourself. Each page is a “wow” moment when your greatest hindrance is your own body.

  Finding time to write when you have more obligations on your plate than you can handle can be the tallest hurdle to jump over as a writer. Most of us have full time jobs, families, numerous activities and appointments, cooking and cleaning, and social commitments. Unless you’re a full time writer, time management is easy BECAUSE THERE IS NO TIME TO MANAGE. Ultimately writers must be intentional about carving out time to write, whether it’s early in the morning before the world wakes and makes its demands on you, or at night once the kids go to bed. Often it’s not about finding the time, but finding the amount of time we want. I would love to have eight hours a day to write, but in reality I’m thrilled to get two solid hours and ecstatic with anything beyond that.

Writers, please write, but don’t let writing be one more thing you have to get done that day. Let writing be a pleasure. Know that writing can take many forms other than getting words on a page. It’s reading a book. It’s thinking through your plot points. It’s having a conversation with a critique partner or friend. It’s attending a local writing group or conference. It’s research. It’s watching a movie for inspiration. You may not have time every day to bang out that word count on the laptop, but there are multiple ways to get “writing” done for the day. Don’t be so hard on yourself and don’t feel like an imposter when you can’t make it happen. We all have different paths. We all come into this “job” by different means. We all bring different skills, strengths, and strategies to storytelling. Don’t strive to be like other writers who seem to have the time to write all day. Your struggle is your own and in the end you will be rewarded by your perseverance and endeavors. Work with the time you have. Don’t forget to live while you’re at it. Some of the best stories come from real life.

So, no, I did not make #WritingwithRae happen the third weekend of this month. I had pain to cope with, children to school, appointments to attend, phone calls to make, and a baby to comfort. These things are priorities to me. But I also managed to finish three chapters of my new #WIP when my only goal for the month was to complete the outline. I critiqued six pieces from fellow writers and read three novels. I did a ton of research. I wrote this blog. Despite not having time. Despite living the #momlife. Despite being in pain. I do not dwell on what I haven’t achieved as a writer, but on my accomplishments. Each obstacle I overcome gives me strength to not give up. Each barrier I break through brings me encouragement to keep writing. I have stories to tell, and so do you.

Writers, please write.

My Favorite Online Resources for New Writers

This month on Writing with Rae I thought I’d share some of my favorite ONLINE RESOURCES FOR NEW WRITERS. When I first decided to pursue writing a novel, I absorbed tons of information from books to online articles and videos. As many of you know, there is a large BookTube community on YouTube and through this community I was introduced to AuthorTube channels. The first author came from a post someone shared on Facebook from Jenna Moreci. Jenna had just published Eve The Awakening and gave writing advice and tips in an entertaining top ten format of do’s and don’ts. While her channel has evolved over time with the content presented, she still comes back to her lists of favorites, dislikes, tips, and how-to’s. She is straightforward, funny, relatable, and encouraging. It’s been a joy watching her build her platform and become a very successful indie author. I know new writers will find her an inspiration and will learn valuable information for beginning the writing process.

Check out one of her latest videos: 10 Worst Pieces of Writing Advice

By far one of the most helpful resources for any writer whether new or experienced is the podcast Writing Excuses, a “fast-paced, educational podcast for writers, by writers.” One of the podcast’s headlining contributer is the one and only Brandon Sanderson, author of The Mistborn trilogy and The Stormlight Archive. But did you know he teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University? New writers in fantasy and sci-fi have a treasure trove of Sanderson’s 2016 university-level lectures that have been uploaded to YouTube at their disposal. Topics range from world building, character arcs, and magic systems, as well as the agent and business aspects of writing.

I highly recommend new writers check it out. You receive a free class in genre writing with only a click: Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #1 (Course Overview)

My next selection is a blog maintained by authors and publishing professionals called Pub(lishing) Crawl. Here new writers can find advice on topics from author websites to writing a synopsis. There are hundreds of posts from some of the leading professionals in the industry. The website has a handy resource page that can take you straight to the topic of your choice. You can also check out the PubCrawl podcast hosted by S. Jae-Jones and Kelly Van Sant. Pub Crawl is packed with pure gold advice and information—definitely a must for new writers.

I’ve shared an indie author on YouTube, but now I want to share a traditionally published author, Alexa Donne. Alexa shares writing advice on her channel, but from her perspective, addressing topics that include agents, writing hacks, and publishing. While Alexa focuses mainly on YA, any writer can apply some of her tips and tricks and learn from her experience as a traditionally published author. In addition to her YouTube channel, Alex is the co-founder of Author Mentor Match, which pairs “unagented, aspiring writers with mentors to help them with their manuscripts and guide them through the publishing process.” If you have a completed manuscript, check it out! Submissions open in February and will include Adult categories this round.

And check out one of Alexa’s latest videos: How Book Advances and Royalties Work

As a busy homeschool mom and foster mom to a little one, it’s near impossible to attend nonlocal writer conferences. But never fear! I have found the perfect solution: WriteOnCon! WriteOnCon is “a three-day online children’s book conference for writers and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, and young adult.” If you write adult lit, no worries! There’s still plenty of great information you can access right from the comfort of your own home. You have the freedom to access what applies to you. The conference features live lectures and Q&As, blogposts, critique forums, and pitch sessions. There’s even a CP Match program! Be sure to attend February 21-23. Tons of information for cheap.

If you want to see past conferences and get an idea of what to expect, you can use the code NANOPREP for discounted access to to the archives of 300+ events for 30 days.

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

My Novel Revision Process

The 1st daft is done. Now it’s time to begin the REVISIONS. But how does one go about it? This month’s #WritingwithRae is here to the rescue.

First, let me give this caveat. Everyone will have their own process when it comes to revisions. This is mine. I hope you will find it helpful, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Second, I cannot stress enough how important it is for writers to take some time away from their first draft. Writers need fresh eyes when it comes to revising a manuscript. It’s difficult to kill your darlings when they’re still sleeping in your bed.

Lastly, this month’s blog focuses solely on the FIRST revision. Unless you’re an extremely gifted or experienced writer, there will be other revisions. Sorry. We all wish there was another way around it. Each writer should find his or her own revision process. Take what you can use from this month’s blogpost and ignore what you can’t. Seek advice from a variety of resources and then get to work!

FIRST DRAFTS ARE MESSY ROOMS. Tornadoes-in-the-form-of-half-a-dozen-three-year-olds-messy-rooms. Trash. Everywhere. Toys. Everywhere. And can someone please explain what this chunky green stuff is rubbed into the carpet? We need to clean up! Roll up your sleeves. Here we go.

First we need to ORGANIZE; put everything where it belongs. I revise one chapter at a time, beginning with the first. I read through the chapter and then begin to rearrange and clean it up. Sometimes when you’re trying to clean a room, it appears messier than when you first began. You have to takes things out and move them to one side of the room while organizing the shelves and closets. Read through your chapter. Make sure all the elements are there. Fix wonky sentences. Add information that’s missing from when you first began your draft.

One thing to look for in your chapter is whether you are including sufficient sensory details. Don’t rely on sight alone. Look for ways you can include the other senses so your readers can have a rich and encompassing reading experience.

When the first draft is complete, you know what you need to do to make it the story you want it to be. You’ll be surprised how many improvements you will make right off the bat, simply by reading through it and making adjustments. You know how the story ends, so be sure to place some hooks to hang foreshadowing on. You may want to install shelving for subplots. You may need to add. You may need to subtract. Heck, you may even need to divide and multiply.

If you have had your critique partners with you throughout the drafting process, like I did, you may consult some of their ideas or feedback at this time. Make the changes you want. If an idea doesn’t work, don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of chances to revise! When you believe you’ve made all the changes you need at this time, read through it again. Make sure you haven’t left anything out of place and it’s organized like you want.

Once all the major changes are done, it’s time to go in and do a clean sweep of certain words that plague first drafts. We’re TAKING OUT THE TRASH and getting rid of everything holding this chapter back. This part in the revision process is easier than it seems. Simply open up your navigation/find box and search for where the culprits are hiding in your manuscript.

The first offenders I hunt down are FILTER WORDS. Filter words force the reader’s experience through the character’s screen. Basically the character gets in the way.

Consider the following sentence:

“Edwin FELT enraged. He could HEAR his friends’ conversation and REALIZED they were discussing his girlfriend.”

Here we have several words filtering the action of the scene so the reader is an outsider, observing Edwin.

Now consider these sentences without the filter words:

“Rage consumed Edwin. His friends were discussing his girlfriend.”

Do you see how immediate the action is? Instead of being an observer, the reader gets to experience what is happening for him/herself.

Filter words weaken your story, but like most rules of writing, it doesn’t mean you can NEVER use them. There are always exceptions. Occasionally there is no better way to construct the sentence; removing the filter word fundamentally changes the sentence’s meaning. In these cases, you should keep the word. But more often than not, you can find a better way. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel distant from the action. We want our readers engaged, and eliminating filter words helps tremendously.

Here are a few of, in my opinion, the most common filter words writers use in first drafts: DECIDE, FEEL, FELT, HEAR, HEARD, KNOW, LOOK, NOTICE, REALIZE, REMEMBER, SAW, SEE, THINK, WONDER.

There are several comprehensive lists on the internet. Get familiar with them, but don’t bother trying to correct them all while on this step in the process. Not only is it overwhelming, but time-consuming. We are not in the editing stage—this is a quick revision. Run a find/search for each of the major words, throw them in the trash bin, and move on to the next step.

Our room may be organized, but there’s still a lot of garbage: broken toys, random clothes, snack wrappers. It’s time for the next step in the revision process. We’ve searched for filter words throughout our chapter. Now it’s time to get rid of other unnecessary words weakening our prose. First up—INTENSIFIERS and QUALIFIERS. These words are very friendly in the academic writing arena, but when it comes to fiction they do little to strengthen your manuscript.

Often writers make the mistake of modifying a weaker word choice with an intensifier. For example:

“He COMPLETELY lost his mind.”

If we eliminate the intensifier, the sentence is less cluttered and more impactful:

“He lost his mind.”


Intensifiers do not generally add anything to the sentence. We fool ourselves into thinking that by writing “The water is REALLY cold” we are adding to the “coldness” of the water. Instead the intensifier has the opposite affect and weakens the sentence.

Readers lose their stamina getting through your manuscript when it’s heavy-laden with intensifiers and qualifiers. It’s tedious work sorting through each sentence in order to find the meaning. Instead, writers should choose strong verbs and meaningful adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of writing “REALLY cold,” a stronger choice would have been “freezing.”

Here are, what I have found to be, some of the most commonly used intensifiers and qualifiers in first drafts: ABSOLUTELY, ALMOST, BASICALLY, CERTAINLY, ENTIRELY, LITERALLY, ONLY (the bane of my existence), REALLY, SIMPLY, STARTED, SUDDENLY, and VERY. Other words to be on the lookout for are AFTER, ALMOST, ALREADY, BEFORE, RATHER, SOMEWHAT, and UNTIL.

If you have managed to get rid of these qualifiers and intensifiers, congratulations! You have taken out the trash. Go reward yourself. SERIOUSLY, you deserve it. You REALLY do. LITERALLY. Ha!

Remember, word choice matters. Make strong choices.

We’ve organized and cleaned up filters, qualifiers, and intensifiers. Our chapter’s much cleaner, but there’s cookie crumbs and scrapes of paper, and where-did-all-this-hair-come from? We need to VACUUM up more problematic words. Now I’m on the search for my biggest pet peeve: the word “THAT.” It is EVERYWHERE in first drafts and almost always avoidable. Here’s the trick: if you leave “that” out and the sentence still makes sense, get rid of it.

Another thing to keep in mind is THAT vs. WHO. Too many times writers will substitute “that” when they should be using “who.” For example, “She’s the girl THAT went to boarding school.” The correct sentence should be, “She’s the girl who went to boarding school.”

Another word similar to “that” is JUST. Again, if the sentence makes sense without it, then get rid of it.

But what about dialogue, Rae? People use “that” and “just” in everyday speech. This is true. I’m perfectly fine with writers using words like “that” or “just” in dialogue. However, if you have a tendency to overuse these words in your narrative, then you most likely are overusing these words in your characters’ dialogue as well. Be sure to go through the dialogue and use these words sparingly.

Other words to search for are DOWN and UP. Writers often use “sit down,” when the very act of sitting is to move downward. Likewise for “stand up.” Getting rid of these little, but pointless words will keep your prose concise.

Some other words to be on the search for are words like BEGIN, START, SUDDEN, and THEN.

Lastly, let’s discuss adverbs. I am not in the “Adverbs Are Bad” camp, but I do believe many writers misuse them or rely on them too heavily. Often times writers fail to choose a strong verb and instead attempt to support a weak verb with an “LY” word. For example:

“The man ran quickly.” Vs. “The man dashed.”

Not only is the second sentence succinct, but it is immediate, clear, and direct.

Okay! The chapter’s organized. Trash has been removed. Now, SPOT CLEANING (remember, there’s something green and chunky in the carpet?). How do I polish my chapter? Many writers will save many of these steps for the editing stage. And as I stated before, all writers have their own methods. But there is a reason I cut unnecessary, misused, and weak words during the first few steps in the revision process.

Once your chapter is all cleaned up, it’s finally time to hear it. I cannot stress enough how important this step is during revisions, and yet so many writers neglect to do so. READ YOUR CHAPTER ALOUD. A novel may not be a poem or play, but it still needs to heard. You will be surprised at the mistakes you find, the awkward sentence structures you discover, and the clumsy wording you locate. I do this step twice. The first time I use Text-to-Speech and have the chapter read to me as I follow along. After I make the necessary fixes, I will then go through the chapter again, this time reading it aloud myself.

This is why I’m adamant about eliminating useless, misused, and weak words during the first round of revisions. I want to hear clear, concise, and strong prose. When I send my revised chapters to my CP, I want them to focus on the characters, plot, and narrative. It’s tiresome weeding through the grammatical mistakes, awkward wording, and muddy meanings. Taking a little bit of time to do quick fixes like these ultimately benefit the manuscript by allowing my CP to concentrate on his or her constructive feedback.

I’m not worrying too much about passive voice or verb tense. What I’m focusing on at this stage are the quick and simple fixes–immediate results. Listening to my chapter, I hear clean, clear, and concise prose. It’s the reward I need to move on to the next chapter. Who doesn’t love a clean room?

Before I get to the last step I find it helpful to put the chapter away for a night and finish the revision the next day with fresh eyes and ears. Take the time you need. You might finish in a day. It might take you a week.

And that’s it! First revision of chapter one is done. On to chapter two–RINSE AND REPEAT.

I hope you found this week’s #WritingwithRae helpful. Take what you can from my method and apply it to your revision process. There is no one way to complete your first revision. Discover what works for you. And please let me know if you have any questions about what you have learned from me this week. Do share some or your revision tips in the comments. #WritingwithRae

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

The Nitty Gritty of Character Arcs

For this month’s #WritingwithRae we will explore CHARACTER ARCS: What are they? What are the types? Are they necessary? And what are some tips and tricks?

How do we define a character arc? First, it’s important we breakdown its role in the lives of your novel’s characters. To do this, we must know what it is our characters want or need. This is their objective. Conflict arises when obstacles get in our characters paths. How each character reacts to these obstacles creates his or her arc. No one wants to read a story about a character who reaches out her hand and gets her heart’s desire. Readers want characters to deserve it. Characters must struggle; only then will they value what they have gained.

It is essential writers decide what, if any, type of arc their characters(s) will have within the story. And while writers can take inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight “Shapes of Stories,” I tend to side with the three-arcs-camp: static, positive, or negative.

First let’s examine the STATIC character. Often writers overlook such characters, believing arcs are necessary for a dynamic story. But static characters are not flat characters. Flat characters have no depth, but when a static character is crafted with purpose, he or she can still be engaging. In fact, many static characters can take the leading role in a story.  Think of Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES (Collins), Sherlock Holmes (Doyle), Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), or even Alice from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (Carroll). These characters may not make a dramatic transformation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t grow.

Often though, static characters are used to contrast a more dynamic character (Joe vs. Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Dickens)). At times, characters who hold their ground may cause the people and world around them to transform. Other times, a static character is resistant to change due to moral standards. Static characters may be able to adapt easily to the obstacles thrown their way. No matter their impact, the world view of these characters is the same at the end of the story as it is at the beginning.

Now that we know not all characters must endure a transformation, let’s examine the most common arc in literature: the POSITIVE character arc. In the standard Hero’s Journey the protagonist overcomes both external and internal obstacles. With the positive arc, the character goes from “man” to “superman,” an ideal version of themselves. Typically the positive arc begins with a character’s misconception about themselves or the world around him or her. Often times this manifests as a flaw that thwarts the character’s efforts in obtaining their objective.

Along the character’s journey he or she is faced with a crisis and confronted with the truth about the lie they believe or the flaws they possess. If the character’s reaction is to embrace the truth, the result is a positive arc. They have found the chain holding them back or the key to achieving what they need. In some cases the objective may change altogether. Either way, the character has reached an inner strength/self-awareness. They are “more” and equipped to handle their new reality.

I recommend examining the positive arcs of the multitude of characters in novels such as LES MISERABLE (Hugo) or A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE (Martin). You can get the most bang for your buck with an ensemble cast. Taking the time to think critically about each character’s arc and comparing and contrasting these arcs with the others will be a great exercise.

Sometimes characters are bested by the trials and tribulations they suffer. This too can be quite compelling to witness. For these characters, their arc ends on a NEGATIVE note. Negative and positive arcs have similar beginnings: the character struggles to obtain his/her want or need. However, for these characters the misconception they have about themselves or the world around them does not encumber their goal. Instead it drives them.

Characters on a negative arc path do not suspect their arc will end any other way than positive. Where the path deviates from a positive arc is when the character embraces the lie instead of the truth. The acceptance of the lie may result from corruption, disillusionment, or a fall from grace. Often times, the character does so unknowingly, simple because their misconception is validated by the world surrounding them. Ultimately the chosen path leads to a character’s self-destruction. It doesn’t matter if the original objective was for good or ill intent. The result is a downward spiral.

Some of the most powerful character arcs with negative impacts are those where the character doesn’t just discover the “truth,” but has always known the truth. Despite knowing better, the character goes down the opposite path, maintaining all the while they are capable of not getting mixed up, whether it’s morally, legally, or emotionally. Unfortunately, the character is forced to compromise over and over until they are so far in, they have no choice but to accept the lie. This ultimately concludes with their defeat.

Examples of character with negative arcs include Nick Carraway in THE GREAT GATSBY (Fitzgerald), Frank Wheeler in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Yates), and Michael from THE GODFATHER (Puzo).

Lastly, let me leave you with a few closing thoughts all writers should keep in mind when crafting character arcs.

Whether your character’s arc is flat or a personal transformation, it’s crucial writers examine their characters’ arcs so the cause-and-effect of the plot can move to the forefront. This will also anchor your characters within the story.

When facing obstacles, a character’s strengths & weaknesses are tested and stretched beyond the point of elasticity, causing whatever state the character began in to be permanently changed. It is at the climax of the story your character must make his or her choice. Will they embrace the truth about themselves? Will they adapt to the way the world is truly? Or will they discover they were right all along and remain static? How much growth does he or she obtain on this journey?

Conflict requires action and affects characters internally. As characters react to the obstacles set before them they are progressing through an emotional/spiritual crossing. This internal crossing is just as important as the external crossing

Secondary characters have arcs as well, but it’s important writers do not let those arcs upstage that of the main character, unless, of course, you’re dealing with an ensemble cast. For example, Javert’s arc is just as compelling as Jean Valjean’s; Cossette’s as much as Eponine’s; Marius as much as Enjolras in LES MISERABLE (Hugo).

While there is a ton of advice on crafting character arcs, there is no right or wrong way. Pick the approach that works for the character and plot you are implementing in your novel. Many times, your character’s arc develops naturally once you have established what is preventing him or her from obtaining their objective.

Which are your favorite character arcs? Can you come up with examples of static, positive, and negative arcs? If you plotted your own arc, what would it look like?

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

The Unreliable Narrator

It’s me, Rae! Or is it? The stories we tell are filtered through the narrator of the story. But what happens when that narrator’s viewpoint is compromised? This month’s #WritingwithRae explores the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Thanks to @akejones for the great topic suggestion.

I recently read THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware. Although I did find it particularly a great book, I really appreciated how Ware turned the idea of an unreliable narrator on its head. Instead of bring us to the conclusion our narrator isn’t telling the truth, we suspect her because everyone else suspects her. She has been the victim of a crime, drinks to excess, and has been battling anxiety since a teenager. Even she’s aware of how others view her, but is adamant she is telling the truth. Another recent read, NINE PERFECT STRANGERS  by Liane Moriarty, is filled with characters with questionable motives and suspicious accounts of the events unfolding. But do these novels count as examples of unreliable narrators? To answer this question, we need to examine the purpose and employment of this device.

The term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, but authors have used the concept for many years prior. An unreliable narrator does not tell the truth & lacks credibility. They may be blatant liars, hide the truth, or misjudge their circumstances. While almost always done in first person, there are a variety of types and an assortment of ways in which an author reveals unreliability.

At times the unreliable narrator device is used to keep a reader turning the pages, as they do not know what to expect. Other times an unreliable narrator is used to draw the reader into making his or her own conclusions. Either way, when done well, an unreliable narrator is a puzzle the reader wants to decipher—the truth is a mystery waiting to be discovered. This is why this device is especially helpful in crime & mystery novels where the author reveals information in a precise & purposeful way. Horror & supernatural stories also do well with unreliable narrators, especially when an author needs to blur the lines between fantasy & reality.

Writers must take care when employing this type of narrator; it breaks the unspoken trust between reader & writer. Your unreliable narrator’s purpose will be clear to the reader and you will avoid burning that trust to the ground. To do so successfully, writers must provide moments within the story where the reader will second guess or question the narrator’s version and search the pages for the underlying truth.

There are several ways to categorize unreliable narrators and it’s important writers are aware of the major types. The first type are LIARS. One might even argue that by definition all unreliable narrators fall into this first category. This character may lie by omission, contradict him or herself throughout the story verbally or through actions, or admit to being a liar from the get-go.

Characters who are deliberately dishonest may be the most difficult to sustain throughout a novel. The character’s motivations are in question—they take no responsibility for their deception. They have your attention and can tell the story however they wish. It’s a challenge to get your reader to connect with a confessed liar; they probably won’t even like your narrator. The character’s nature is deceitful and they are incapable of telling their story objectively. This character is deliberately being tricky. But authors must provide either common ground with or a way for the reader to relate to the narrator—a reason to hear the character’s version of the story. An unreliable narrator that falls into this category must be compelling enough for the reader to stay throughout the entire book.

Some examples of the LIAR include Briony Tallis in ATONEMENT (McEwan), Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Burgess), Dr. Sheppard in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Christie), Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Paul Lohman in THE DINNER (Koch), Christopher Boone in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Rosemary in WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES (Fowler), Frank Cauldhame in THE WASP FACTORY (Banks), and John Dowell in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Dowell).

Our second category includes NAÏVE characters. This character is usually a child or a character who has experienced life in an unusual way than those currently around him or her. They may have little experience with the way of the world, lack understanding, or have an inability to cope with reality. This category can also include characters who have a learning disability, brain damage, or lower than average intelligence.

These narrators are not deliberately lying, but rather their account of events is unreliable due to innocence, simplicity, gullibility, or inexperience. Their interpretation of the events forces us to translate their tale from a more traditional perspective and follow the bread crumbs towards the truth of the matter.

Some examples of NAÏVE narrators include Jack in ROOM (Donoghue), Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), Huck from THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FYNN (Twain), Forrest in FORREST GUMP (Groom), the children in THE THREE (Lotz), Christopher in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Edward in BIG FISH (Wallace), Bartholomew in THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW (Quick), and Piscine in THE LIFE OF PIE (Martel).

Our third category of unreliable narrators are what I call the MOONSTRUCK, and includes those characters with a variety of disorders, diseases, trauma, psychosis, etc. These are characters who may experience hallucinations, are under the influence, suffer flashbacks, amnesia, or PTSD. Their perspective is skewed due to mental illness or a personality disorder. Sometimes the lying is intentional, sometimes it’s not—it all depends on the specific way in which a character is written in the story.

Some examples of MOONSTRUCK narrators include Holden from CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Pat from THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Quick), Charlie in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (Chbosky), the unnamed narrator in FIGHT CLUB (Palahniuk), Rachel from THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Hawkins), Lia from WINTERGIRLS (Anderson), Chief Bromden in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (Kesey), Raoul Duke in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (Thompson), Barbara in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Heller), Humbert from LOLITA (Nabokov), The narrator in THE TELL-TALE HEART (Poe), Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis), John in A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Nasar), Barney in BARNEY’S VERSION (Richler), Portnoy from PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (Roth), Teddy in SHUTTER ISLAND (Lehane),  and Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov).

Lastly, let’s consider the LAWLESS category of unreliable narrators. Lawless characters lie to cover up their crimes. They’re motivated by a need to justify their actions, blame other characters, exact revenge, set up another to take the fall, or any other way one attempts to save oneself from consequences. The Lawless narrator is being manipulative as an act of self-preservation, and may exaggerate or diminish what happened. They want you to understand a fabricated truth and deliberately steer readers away from certain information. Occasionally we find characters who are unaware of their distortions of the truth, and are doing so not so much as avoiding punishment, but more as a way of coping with the unbearable truth of what they have done.

Examples of LAWLESS unreliable narrators include Nick & Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn), John in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Ford), Keyser Soze from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Larson), Nina & Isobel in TALKING TO THE DEAD (Bingham), Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov), & the narrator in THE END OF ALICE (Homes).

There are some types of unreliable narrators that are more difficult to categorize. For instance, some characters do not know the whole truth or misinterprets the truth. One such example is the narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier). She is not deliberately being deceitful; she simple does not understand and is therefore misled to what the truth is.

Some narrators tell their version of the story based on prejudices. Whether they were raised to believe a certain way or adopted a belief as an adult, bias, discrimination, bigotry, etc. can slant the narrative. Nelly from WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Brontë) and Invisible Man from INVISIBLE MAN (Ellision) are examples of this type of unreliable narrator. The narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier) would also fall into this category.

Lastly, some narrators are “Other.” These may be ghosts or otherworldly beings. Screwtape from THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS (Lewis) and the ghost in THE TURN OF THE SCREW (James) are examples of unreliable narrators who fall into the “other.”

So what are a few things authors need to consider when deliberating the use of an unreliable narrator? The first aspect to ponder is whether you, as an author, are oversimplifying the definition of an unreliable narrator. These characters are more than just liars. After all, we have just examined a number of unreliable narrator types and determined these characters can hide facets of the truth, withhold information, or misjudge circumstances.

The author must determine how the narrator relates information. This will depend on their perception of reality. Narrators consider the “audience” to which they are telling their story—their assessment of their narrative audience. Imagine telling a raunchy story to your best friend how that story might change in the telling if the audience was suddenly your grandmother. To the narrator, audience matters.

So, instead of examining literary theory and introducing you to Peter J Rabinowitz , Tamar Yacobi, Ansgar Nünning, & Greta Olson, who provide criticism and insight into unreliable narrators, I will touch on the reader’s ability to believe or not believe the character.

Readers use certain cognitive strategies in determining a narrator’s reliability and it is those strategies authors can exploit. Suspecting a narrator as being unreliable goes beyond intuition. Readers come to the table with preexisting concepts of normalcy and it is this difference between the narrator’s norms that clue the reader into the narrator’s reliability. After all, if your worldview is similar to the narrator’s you may be less likely to suspect the narrator of not being trustworthy. If the opposite is true, then you may see warning signals far earlier in the story.

Ultimately authors must contemplate on how a reader reconciles discrepancies in the narrator’s account. There is a scale that shifts back and forth as the reader follows the narration–trustworthy on one end and unreliable on the other. A crafty author learns how to signal to the reader where and when to move the slider on that scale. A signal may include a character contradicting him or herself, having spotty memory, or lying to another character. Another signal may involve the narrator challenging the reader’s understanding of the world or confirming an impossibility (i.e. “I see dead people.”). Having awareness of how the reader interprets the narration is key to having a successful unreliable narrator.

Another consideration is the reader’s comprehension of literary devices, genres, stock characters, and conventions and how these can affect a reader’s strategy in determining a narrator’s reliability. A reader who is aware of the author’s employment of the braggart soldier character may identify that character’s contradictions faster than a reader who does not. A writer cannot know an individual reader’s awareness, but nevertheless should keep such things in mind.

There are several tips writers can engage to give their unreliable narrator purpose realization. The first is understanding that every narrator is, in essence, unreliable to some degree. It’s been called the Rashomon Effect. Memory is faulty and subjective, situations can be misconstrued, and perspectives are skewed. Each narrator relates a different version, even though the story is the same. Some aspects of each account are true and some are false.

Second is knowing our characters are reflections of real life. As we are flawed, so are they. Characters should be layered with blind spots, individual opinions, & insights, giving them a unique “voice.” Partial unreliability adds to those layers & portrays a narrator as “human.” However, when an author uses the device of an unreliable narrator, the unreliability does more than add a layer to making a believable character. It has purpose and justification, driving the plot forward. When using this device, the writer’s job is to place the question in the reader’s mind: who is this narrator really? When done correctly, readers continue to turn the page to find the answer. They need to find know.

Third, writers must consider the reader’s connection to the character. The reader is giving the writer unearned trust. It’s called the Suspension of Disbelief—the reader stays his or her doubt or criticism for the sake of the story’s enjoyment. If an author is not deliberate in the use of an unreliable narrator, if the author goes too far and too fast, that trust has not been respected and the reader’s connection with the character is broken. Poorly crafted unreliable narrator can feel manipulative, confusing, or pretentious. The trick is to give just enough doubt for the reader to suspect something is amiss.

A fourth tip writers can utilize is creating a narrator whose motives are unclear. When your narrator’s drives differ from or mindset conflicts with other characters, readers begin to question the reliability of the narrator’s version of the story. Nora from THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS (Messud) is a great example of how this can be done successfully.

Sometimes writers can paint their narrator as innocent or the victim of some wrong doing. It is only later when the narrator’s duplicity is revealed. When done with precision, readers can easily recall all the clues left by the author throughout the story & experience a dual feeling of respect & revulsion for the cunning character. We were fooled by their veil of virtue, when all the while it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nick and Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn) and the narrators of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (Semple) are great example of how authors can surprise a reader with sly unreliable narrators.

Authors can drop hints as to the unreliability of their character in a variety of other ways. For example, using secondary characters to catch your narrator in a lie (as in Koch’s THE DINNER with the character Serge). One may also have a predictable narrator suddenly do something so far off from what is expected your reader’s head is liable to spin (as in Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES with the character Nora).

What’s important is that the reader believes it. Having your narrator be a sociopath like Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis) is all well and good, but when readers sympathize with a complex character who is revealed to be unreliable, it’s gold.

Whether they are trying to protect others or themselves, an unreliable narrator’s justifications are relatable. The reader is left asking, “Would I do the same in their shoes? Independent to when the unreliable narrator is revealed (straight away, gradually, plot twist), the use of the device should leave the readers questioning their interpretation of the story & reexamining the trustworthiness of the character’s version of events.

For a deeper study into unreliable narrators, I highly recommend an examination of Eva Khatchadourian in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Shriver). This highly complicated unreliable narrator fits into several categories. Here we find a mother tackling both grief and shame after her son’s act of violence. As difficult as it is to answer why is also the question of how much responsibility does Eva bear? Closure is not conceivable without knowing the answer and she is consumed and tortured by her search and need for…what? Absolution? Pity? Or punishment?

Who is your favorite unreliable narrators or authors who frequently uses this device? What is the last novel you read where an author kept you guessing the narrator’s reliability to the end?

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month and I hope you found some helpful information to take your writing a step further. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae Twitter threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month). See you next month!

Romantic Subplots: Tips and Tricks

This month’s Writing with Rae is all about romance. While some of these pieces of advice apply to romance novels and subplots alike, we will focus primarily on romantic subplots within a novel of a different genre or mixed genre.

But before we dive any further, let’s discuss some of ISSUES IN ROMANCE that drive many readers crazy.

Lust at first sight happens, but characters who fall in love instantly is not realistic. Nor is it believable when characters fall in love after their first kiss or first sexual encounter.

Lovers can be assertive without being abusive. If a character says, “no,” and the other character forces him or herself, it’s rape. So many writers attempt to use this behavior to paint a “bad boy” image, when in fact these characters are abusers. Please stop trying to redeem abusers through love. It ain’t gonna happen.

And while we’re at it:  control and insane jealousy are frightening and dangerous, not romantic.

The most unrealistic trope, in my humble opinion, is the Adonis falling head-over-heels in love with the Ugly Duckling. I understand the appeal this can have, but most of the time the Ugly Duckling character is portrayed with extremely low self-esteem and only through the love of the hottest guy/girl in town can he or she realize their self-worth. Right. Okay.

Love triangles suck. How many love triangles have you experienced in your lifetime? Hmm? Can the real Slim Shade please stand up? Stringing two girls or two guys along through an entire subplot frustrates readers and takes your MC’s likability meter down several notches.  

One of my Twitter follows questioned this stance on love triangles, using Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games, and The Notebook as examples of successful love triangles. It’s important to note however that in these examples, the main character was not “stringing” two love interests along throughout the story. In the examples of Pride and Prejudice and The Notebook, circumstances kept the main character from being with their chosen romantic partner. The main character isn’t “torn between two lovers,” their situation has torn them apart from each other. In The Hunger Games, Katniss would certainly have gone on to have a romantic relationship with Gale had circumstances not bring her life as she knew it to a screeching halt. The time she spent between the two love interests was due to two things: 1) her desire to hang on to her own identity 2) her romantic relationship with Peeta began as a ruse. With that said, I still feel my point is upheld–Katniss did become a bit more unlikable in the love triangle situation.

What are some of the expectations readers have when it comes to romantic subplots?

READER’S EXPECT a romance to involve the relationship and love between characters. In romance novels, the story has a happy ending for the characters involved. Otherwise, it’s not a romance. When it comes to romantic subplots, the same principal applies, but there is more flexibility; subplots revolve around and are affected by the main plot, and that main plot is not romance.

Romance centers on love, not lust. It should not be confused with the erotica genre, which focuses primarily on the sex of the relationship. Romance does not require sex.

Romantic subplots include consensual characters engaging in a relationship of equality, respect, and love. They care about one another and value each other. They do not demean the other’s feelings and do not pass judgment.

This does not mean that your characters cannot or will not fight. Even healthy couples fight. But if you are including tactics such as physical harm, name-calling or verbal abuse, gaslighting, or manipulation within the fight, you are not writing a romantic subplot. You are writing a dysfunctional relationship that includes deal-breakers.

That’s not to say characters can’t make mistakes. Many people say things they don’t mean to their significant other. Most people have had moments of despicable behavior. The difference in a romance is how the relationship is mended. Does the character admit his or her mistake and take full ownership? Does their apology express remorse and does their behavior change in a way that warrants forgiveness? Does the character grow from this experience and make all efforts to not repeat their mistake?

Readers expect characters involved in a romantic subplot to be happy. This includes the ability and desire to communicate with one another. Don’t frustrate your reader with lengthy silent treatments or ridiculous plagues of miscommunication. 

We’ve examined lots of DON’Ts, so now let’s discuss some DOs. How can writers create realistic attraction between two romantic characters?

First thing’s first. Writers need multi-dimensional characters. They should be flawed, not perfect (this includes physically appearance too). I know it ruins the fantasy, but at least it’s real. Stop focusing on what is right about the romantic love interest, and consider instead what is wrong.

Writers should think about how the characters in a romantic subplot complement each other. A more timid character may not like the stubbornness of the other character, but can still admire that character’s determination when it comes to fighting for what is right. A character prone to anger may feel calmed by the other character’s ability to keep their head in stressful situations.

Find ways throughout the subplot where characters can be vulnerable with each other. Give them opportunities to build trust and experiences in which they can connect.  It is in these raw moments where the reader witnesses the relationship blossom. Discovering a person who appreciates you without judgment is something to be cherished. Make this happen and your readers will root for these romantic love interests with everything they have.

What are other ways writers can create BELIEVABLE ROMANCE within their subplot?

When introducing two characters who are intended love interests, it’s important writers allow the readers time to get to know each character. Readers want to invest in the relationship, so if you give it all from the start, not only is the romance presented falsely, but readers no longer have a reason to care.  Allow time for expectancy. Provide opportunities for the love interests to get to know each other; it’s how your reader will learn these two belong together.

With that said, realize slow burns that last too long may not succeed in leaving your reader on fire for the romance. Slow burns that go on forever are usually victims of miscommunication, which most readers find extremely frustrating. Slow burns are fine, as long as there’s a purpose.

One trope often used is that opposites attract. And sometimes this is true, BUT these subplots do not always ring true for several reasons. Often times the differences are there to create conflict between the characters, but conflict does not create attraction. Instead, writers should examine the character arcs to find ways in which these differences can lead to experiences where personal growth occurs.

Another way writers create believable romance is to keep the characters evenly matched. Many times we read about couples on opposite sides of the spectrum, and the character with more to offer has no reason to find the other attractive. Seriously. How many times do we see this in real life? I’m not saying the prince can’t fall for the pauper, but that pauper better have something to complement the prince. We need reason for the prince to find the pauper attractive. There must be a common ground where the characters can meet and bond. They must build a source of support for the each other if they are to be in a romantic relationship.

Lastly, if you want a believable romance your characters better darn well like each other. There must be more to their relationship besides conflict and miscommunication. Readers expect romance. The love interests should make each other happy, not miserable.

Let’s discuss some tips for kissing scenes.

Kissing scenes in novels require description, but many times writers make the details technical and sterile. Like fight scenes, readers are lost when play-by-plays diminish the visceral quality.

Instead, use the senses to describe the kiss: the feel of the lips, the sound and/or smell of the breath, the taste of the mouth, etc. Instead of describing the each move the body makes, writers should focus on how the body reacts. Does his heart begin to race? Do goosebumps spread across her neck? Does he begin to perspire? Is her breath warm? Do her cheeks burn?

More importantly, readers are interested in how the characters are feeling. What emotions are bubbling within? Are they nervous? Calm? Terrified? You should also include how the feelings shift throughout the scene. Does anxiety turn to calm when the kissing partner returns his or her affection with fervor? 

Now let’s channel  Salt-N-Pepa and talk about sex, baby.

First, please, for the love of romance get your facts straight. If you have not had sex, a certain type of sex, or understand how bodies react and work…ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS. Things like reaching orgasm simultaneously are rare, so writing about it for each sex scene won’t fool many readers. If you are a male writing from a female’s perspective—please talk to a female for accurate information.

Second, let me reiterate that romance does not require sex. Nor are you required to write a sex scene in your romantic subplot. Don’t feel pressured to do so. You can also do what is called a “fade to  black” or “offstage” sex scene that is understood or referenced to  within the story, but not described. It’s perfectly acceptable. This is a romantic subplot, NOT a romance novel.

If you have taken the advice from the week’s #WritingwithRae you will have a believable romance no matter if a sex scene is present or not. If you do want to include a sex scene, be sure it has a purpose beyond the characters hooking up.

Sex scenes in novels landing in the YA category should focus more on the emotions, not the body. Children do not need graphic descriptions or confusing metaphors. Most adult novels with romantic subplots should include sex scenes that focuses on both the body and the emotion. This will come across as realistic for your readers.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do not feel genuine? Painful virgin sex, sex on the beach, sex against a wall, sex in a tub or shower. In reality, these things are usually not sexy, accurate, and just plain awkward.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do feel genuine? Ones that include birth control. Scenes where the characters declare mutual consent. Timid first sexual encounters. Sex on a bed! A BED, for the love of romance!

Congratulations! You now know all about creating ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS in your novel. For an additional resource in writing romance subplots, my wonderful CP, Brittany Kelley, a romance author, suggested the resource ROMANCING THE BEAT by Gwen Hayes.

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments!

See you next month!

Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

This month’s Writing with Rae was a request by one of my Twitter followers, @Ninjajedi34. She wants to know how to identify and fix PASSIVE VOICE in writing.  And who doesn’t? Passive voice plagues every writer at some point in his or her career. The cure is to define it, identify it, and then search and destroy.


To understand the difference between active and passive voice, you need to strip your sentence down to its bare minimum: subject and verb. Examples:

Jane ran.

Sally jumped.

Dick sat.

Simple enough, right? Now, let’s throw a wrench.


No, not really. But we are throwing out objects. Objects are what the subject is acting upon. They may be present in the sentence or implied. For example, in the sentence “Dick sat” it is implied he sat “on” something, even though it is not explicitly stated in the sentence.

So when we write, “Dick sat on the bench,” the object our subject acted upon is the “bench.” In other words, the subject ACTIVELY engaged with the object by performing the action.

In a nutshell, ACTIVE VOICE consists of a subject+verb+object structure. It may be a simple sentence, but rest assured it’s active!


On the flipside of active voice, PASSIVE VOICE switches the sentence structure, taking the object and putting it in the subject’s place in the sentence: object+verb+subject. Instead of “Sally jumped the gap,” a passive voice reads, “The gap is jumped by Sally.”

Here the object does nothing (as objects do). An action is done to it by the new object (what SHOULD be the subject).


The hallmark of a passive voice sentence is to be verbs + “by.” To be verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) partner with the word “by” in a sentence where the object is in the subject’s place in the structure  and creates a passive voice.

Remember, just as in the above examples of objects being implied in the subject+verb structure, so too can the new object (the intended subject) be implied in passive voice sentences. For example:

The gap is jumped over [by Sally].


Here’s one of the most amusing tricks to spotting PASSIVE VOICE: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence and the sentence still makes sense, you have a PASSIVE VOICE present. It’s an old tip, but so easy.

The track was run BY ZOMBIES—silly, but makes sense= PASSIVE VOICE

Jan ran the track BY ZOMBIES—does not make sense, ACTIVE VOICE


Why do so many of us fall under the spell of writing PASSIVE VOICE sentences? Because the subject+verb+object structure does not always make strong sentences. This is especially true when using “ing” verbs.

Jane was running the track.

Sally is jumping the gap.

Dick was sitting on the bench.

The above examples are active voice sentences, but they FEEL passive. The subject seems too distant from the action.

Never fear! There is an easy fix! Anytime you search for an “ing” word and see it combined with a to be verb, change it.

Jane ran the track.

Sally jumps the gap.

Dick sits on the bench.

Once you’ve done this, you can add details to strengthen the sentence.

Sally jumps with abandon over the mud-filled gap in the path.

Dick sits, like melted wax, on the hot metal bench.


There is good news when it comes to identifying PASSIVE VOICE. PASSIVE VOICE is awkward. It reads awkward and it sounds awkward—especially for native English speakers. Because of this, PASSIVE VOICE is easy to detect. Just read your work aloud. If it sounds “funny” look for the tell-tale signs: to be verbs and “by,” then examine the sentence’s structure.

In reality, writers have a harder time avoiding WEAK active voice sentences, than passive voice sentences. I see it all the time in my drafts and the drafts of others. Thankfully, the fix is just as easy as detecting PASSIVE VOICE. Search for the “ing” words and check the word for a to be verb preceding it. It can take a while, but the more you fix, the more you’re aware of the problem. Before you know it, you will begin to eliminate WEAK active voice sentences in your drafts naturally.


So why is PASSIVE VOICE the wrong choice?  Readers are able to engage in the story more easily when the action the subject takes is clear. ACTIVE VOICE does just that. PASSIVE VOICE disrupts the reading experience. The reader is distracted because there is too much distance from the subject and the actions. When a sentence is in PASSIVE VOICE readers are left to decipher what action is being performed by whom and to whom.

Sentences in PASSIVE VOICE also require more words in order to make it “work.” This is not the case with ACTIVE VOICE, leaving the writer room for valuable details to enrich your prose.

PASSIVE:  The car was chased by the dog.

ACTIVE:  The livid dog chased the red car.

In the ACTIVE VOICE sentence above we get a broader picture of what happened even though the same number of words were used.

I should note that PASSIVE VOICE is not always a mistake. In academia, for example, PASSIVE VOICE is preferred. Other situations may include when the subject is unknown, when the subject is obvious to the reader or has already been mentioned, when it’s not important for the reader to know who the subject is, or when the subject is general.

The link below is a great resource for more examples of passive versus active voice:

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/active_versus_passive_voice.html


Congratulations! You know how to identify and fix passive voice in your writing.

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments!

See you next month!