Does Your Writing Cut The Mustard?

The first restaurant I worked in was an American-style family restaurant – pretty exotic for the southwest coast of Scotland in the 80s, a place festooned with fish’n’chip shops, where ‘chicken tenders’ sounded like a new language.

One of my jobs was to set out bowls of condiments before the customers came in…and not just salt, pepper, vinegar, and the two sauces known to us (red and brown), but things like ‘hamburger relish (it was green! Who had ever heard of such a thing?!) and three types of mustard: one classic yellow, one fancy ‘Dijon’, and one totally alien grainy concoction that I fell in love with.

Tonight, I opened a jar of that grainy mustard and its tangy smell transported me back 38 years, to the service corridor between the kitchen and dining room of my first job, when mustard was an exotic new experience.

It reminded me of a truth in writing: we spend so much time in our own heads that we take for granted the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we write.

Sometimes, when we show our work to someone else they are thrilled by a throwaway phrase or a description that took no effort at all…because it’s normal to you.

Sometimes we need other writers to push us to try the mustard, when we’re accustomed to always reaching for the salt and vinegar. 

And yes, this is my fancy way of letting you know that Critique Week is coming up, and that if you would like to get some fresh eyes on your writing you should consider joining us.

But more than that, it’s my way of encouraging you not to take your own writing for granted. It might be the new flavor someone else is looking for!

Keep writing,


P. S. I’ll be opening up registration for this round of Critique week, soon. Get on the waitlist here.

How To Be A GREAT Critique Partner

There’s a memorable scene in the movie Silence of the Lambs, when Jodie Foster’s FBI supervisor points out that assumptions are treacherous “Because when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and me…”

I was thinking about that today, as I prepare for another Critique Week, here at StoryADay.

When I interviewed Matthew Salesses, author of Craft in the Modern World, he talked about the difficulty of giving meaningful feedback to other writers if we don’t root out our unconscious biases.

Chances are, if you’re like me, most of the literary greats you were exposed to at school were white, male, and dead. 

“Good stories” were those that were modeled after Faulkner or Joyce, or Poe. 

But what if you’re being asked to read a story by your friend who is queer, 25, and an immigrant from Nigeria? How do you ‘judge’ that story?

How To Be A Sensitive Reader

In my experience, the best way to give helpful feedback is to get into conversation with the writer.

Some useful questions include:

  • Who are you writing this for? (Accepting, humbly, that I might not be the target audience.)
  • How do you want the reader to feel at various points in your story?
  • Are there any cultural storytelling norms you’re using that I might need to know (if I’m not your target audience)?

I hope this gives you confidence to say ‘yes’, next time someone asks you for feedback.

Keep writing,


P. S. If you’re interesting in getting great feedback from some talented and thoughtful writers, find out more about the StoryADay Critique Week.

What If You ARE A Good Enough Writer?

Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift – If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland

If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland

We hold ourselves back.

We hold ourselves back because, what if our writing isn’t good enough?

What if we put in all this effort and we fail?

(First question: have you defined success for yourself, yet?)

Is Your Writing Any Good?

It’s hard to know the quality of our own work.

We’re too close to it.

That’s when critique groups and writing buddies can come in handy.

Sometimes the word ‘critique’ scares us, but in my experience sharing work with writing friends often means they spot the parts of my writing that are working…and that I take for granted.

Why are we so critical of our own work?

Lots of reasons.

  • When you’re in your own head all the time it’s hard to know when you’re being insightful or entertaining. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.
  • You were probably told not to brag about yourself by someone who loved you and wanted other people to like you. Who wanted you to be safe.
  • We are comparing our first draft with someone else’s 20th!
  • It’s safer to aim low than to aim high and risk failure.

What If Your Writing Is A Gift?

Today, I’m challenging you to ask yourself:

  • What if my writing really is good?
  • What if my words are exactly what someone needs to hear today?
  • Isn’t it a little bit arrogant to assume you know how your writing will affect others?

Isn’t it a little bit selfish for you to hold back?

↑↑↑ If that were true, what would you do, today? ↑↑↑

Who Do You Listen To?

In which I tell you what my critique partners said about my latest pages…

Listen to the Audio

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Watch the video

It’s dangerous to allow rejections, acceptances, marketing budgets or any other business-related nonsense to determine your worth as a writer.

So who should you be listening to? In this episode, I have some thoughts…

StoryADay Critique Week:


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Please don’t do this…

I popped into a writers’ group on Facebook this morning and saw something so awful, so muse-crushing, so career-killing that I had to write to you and beg you not to make the same mistake.

Sound dramatic? 

That’s because I feel so strongly that you shouldn’t do what these two writers did. I’ve seen it stop writers in their tracks for years, if not forever.

What was this horrendous thing?

In two separate posts, this morning, I saw writers post their tender first efforts at writing (in their words “the opening of my novel”)  in a forum full of strangers and ask for feedback. 

Here are some of the responses they got:

Continue reading “Please don’t do this…”

Now What?

Revision Mess

StoryADay September is over, and now, a week into October, you might be missing the thrill of high-velocity creativity. 

But this is the perfect time to look through your stories and figure out:

  • which ones are perfect (ha!),
  • which were useful exercises that will forever be consigned to a dark corner of your hard drive, and
  • which might be worth revising.

Don’t Love Revision?

I know, I know! 

  • Turning out new stories, racking up the word count, feels productive. Revisions can feel like, ugh…spinning your wheels.
  • Writing first drafts is kind of exhausting, and revision feels like preparing to climb the same mountain twice.
  • Writing new words, when you’re in the flow, feels like flying. Revision can feel like staring at a report of ‘why my writing sucks!’

If any of these treacherous thoughts are keeping you from making your stories the best they can be, delighting and impressing readers, and learning to be more productive in your writing practice, you’ll want to grab the  free StoryADay workbook: 

seven, concise pages of tips and mindset tricks to help you learn to, well, love revision. And it’s yours free, right now!

And when you’ve read it I’d love to know what questions you still have. Have you been in critique groups before? What worked and what didn’t? Are you terrified by the idea? (You’re not alone!)

Just reply leave a comment below and tell me what you’re thinking.

Creating Compelling Characters

Plot happens outside, but story happens inside

Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Caution Magnetic Magnet

For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.

The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.

But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.

Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?

How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?

Step 1: Know Your Character

None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.

We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.

Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:

You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)

Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.


Step 2: Nobody’s Perfect

In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.

But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?

The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.

Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”

At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.

And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)

Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.


Step 3: Show Their Inner Conflict In Action

In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:

  • The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
  • It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)

Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.

One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that

  • Are symbolic of their inner struggle
  • Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
  • Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.

For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.

In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.

That’s the question the rest of the film answers.

And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.

Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.


Big Final Caveat

All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.

If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.

All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.

And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.

Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.

If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:

  • All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
  • How best to interact with each
  • What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback

Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.

Download the Critique Primer Now

116 – Critique Week Is Back! Oct 21-31

Join our critique ‘week’, Oct 21-31 (because wouldn’t it be nice if every week had a couple of extra days to get stuff done?) and get access to the Revisions & Critique Mini Course as well as having me and 3 of your peers critique your work.

Use the code: octearlybird before noon (EST) on Sunday, Oct 21 to save $20


Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”