She’s bleeding.

Of all the scents assaulting his nose, only one took over his thoughts. She wasn’t even the only one in the room that held that scent, that had the coppery tang linger on clothes and skin and waft every once in a while with movement. The new bartender was rubbing her heel raw, the man nursing his vodka in the corner had scratched off a scab, and a few of the sorority sisters at the front were on the tail end of their cycles.

Nathan didn’t know her name. He didn’t know of her existence before he sat down. He was two beers into his visit before she sat down five stools away and quietly gave her order. He hadn’t been listening then, wouldn’t have known what was in her glass if his nose hadn’t picked up the sweet scent of tequila, wouldn’t have cared one bit about the way her voice lilted over his ears.

But she was bleeding, smelling absolutely, utterly delightful, and it was only years upon years of control that kept him in his seat.

“I’m not surprised to find you here,” a newcomer said, his proper British accent identifying him just as distinctly as his scent. He slid onto the stool to his right, between Nathan and the woman. “You always seem to enjoy the bars.”

Finishing his drink might have been an overused avoidance tactic, but it sure didn’t stop him from using it.

“I often wonder if maybe the alcohol doesn’t dull the nose.” The man shifted as he removed his coat and draped it over the bar. “You’ve never said.”

“You’ve never asked.”

His new companion huffed out an indignant snort Nathan was almost certain he practiced, but he didn’t say anything else until they both had a filled glass of beer in front of them.

“Would you answer?”

It was a good question. The two of them had never truly seen eye to eye and rarely got along. For most of their acquaintance, only necessity kept them civilized and even then, Nathan wasn’t certain he actually liked the man or if he simply enjoyed annoying him. It was weird to think it changed, but the animosity that used to be present when Colin showed up simply wasn’t there.

“I might,” he eventually ceded. “Depends on the day.”

The answering snort was a little louder than the first.

“So why are you here?” Colin asked instead and Nathan smiled into his glass.

“I wanted a drink.”

“And yet there are countless other establishments you could find a drink.”

He shrugged under his jacket, fingering the lip of his beer. “I like this bar. Just enough people coming in and out to ignore what’s going on.”

If he looked at Colin, he would get a good glimpse of her in the background. He shouldn’t, really. She had ordered her second glass and was steadily working her way to the bottom, but everything about her sent off a very clear message. The woman wanted to be alone.

“It’s an interesting clientele.” Colin’s murmur brought Nathan back to immediate company. “Though doing nothing for my appetite.”

He froze at the words, finally realizing that all that blood he could smell was calling Colin, too, in very different ways. The poor bartender was really working through those blisters and the man’s cut had finally scabbed over, but she was still bleeding. And the thought of Colin going after that scent sent a foul unease to the pit of his stomach.

Nathan tried for nonchalance. “Anyone in particular catch your eye?”

Colin turned and he was surprised again at the hazel he saw there. Nathan always expected a darker color, one to pull in and entice, and yet was always greeted with a light wash of color reflecting out. “Why do I have a feeling that question has a wrong answer?”

Damn, he hadn’t even tried to hide that bit of information. Turning back to his drink, he figured he might as well own up to the truth. “Because it does.”

“I know it’s not the man, your tastes don’t run that way.” Colin nodded for another glass and waited until they had more privacy to continue. “And the ones up front seem a little young for you.”

“I didn’t realize you paid such close attention to my preferences.”

“I like my face free of your claws.”

They wouldn’t be claws this time.

Colin stilled next to him, almost as if he had heard the thought. Nathan waited with baited breath as he took another pull from his beer. The buzz from the alcohol was slowly building and began the dull the sharp edge of his senses. Not terribly so, but enough that he could finally take a deep breath without knowing what everyone on the block had for dinner.

He could still smell her, though, just as clear as if he hadn’t touched a single drink.

“She’s a mistake.”

A low growl rumbled from his chest on instinct, shocking both of them.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking, don’t.” That crisp accent lost some of its form, widening and hardening into the less-enunciated drawl from Colin’s home town a bit further west than he liked to claim. He took a breath and Nathan had the sudden urge to beat the scent back out of him. “Leave her alone. She’ll only bring you trouble.”

The hair on the back of his neck was standing, muscles tense and wanting to jump, but Nathan pushed it all aside. It was an unnecessary reaction, one he wouldn’t feed. He wasn’t entirely certain where it came from or why, but he knew Colin well enough to know how to attack with words alone.

Plus, he didn’t know the woman enough to warrant a fight over flippant words.

“What makes you say that?” he drawled.

“Call it a hunch.” Colin masked his next breath from a pull of his beer. “I merely suspect she could do without your complications.”

It was Nathan’s turn to snort. “She’s an innocent. You don’t waste your time concerning yourself about anything beyond your next meal when it comes to them. What’s making you start now?”

“I care enough to keep myself safe.”

“You care enough to feed.”

“And you should care enough to be smart.”

He bared his teeth at the implication. “Meaning what, exactly.”

“Meaning you should leave her alone.” Colin pinned him with a hard stare, but not one he had seen before. “I’ve come to appreciate your presence breaking up the monotony of my life, I’d rather not see that end.”

“You know her,” Nathan breathed, some pieces fitting into place. “Who is she?”

“No, I don’t know her,” came the correction. “I simply…”

The words trailed off, but Nathan was patient. Colin liked to do this, act like he was sorting his words when really he was manipulating the situation. He’d continue—his pride wouldn’t allow him to let it go—but Nathan had long learned not to play into the man’s games. It was much easier to ignore and gain the same end.

“Something isn’t sitting right,” he finally answered, his scent wavering over the truth and a lie. “Leave her alone. You’re only noticing her scent because there’s so much of it. Any other day and she wouldn’t catch your attention.”

Something deep in Nathan highly doubted that.

The man in the corner stood from his table and headed toward the bathroom. Colin’s nostrils flared. It was no surprise when he finished his drink and followed the man down the corridor. Give him ten minutes and that man would stumble back out into the bar, dazed and pleased and all set to continue his night in a better mood.

If only Nathan’s hunger was satisfied that easily.

This is Nathan and Colin’s current introduction into the story. It’s too soon to say whether or not it will stay, but I like the moment between them.


I read a lot of writing in my line of work and while that’s amazing, I see the same flaws again and again. Below is a list of 7 common writing mistakes in fiction and how you can fix them. This list is by no means complete. In fact there’s a great list over at The Editor’s Blog that covers even more mistakes.

1. Bad dialogue

Sometimes writers can forget that they’re writing a conversation and thus not write a conversation. The dialogue can be boring, stilted and unnatural, and I’d rather listen to the territorial call of an Australian Raven than read one more word of it.

There are many things that contribute to bad dialogue, but here are the three that really get on my nerves:

  • Not using contractions–I’ve seen work that is modern and still doesn’t use contractions. Consider this:
    “You are going to be late.” Unless the speaker is trying to sound like an irritated mother and is leaving an emphatic silence between each word to sound threatening, use contractions. It sounds really drawn out and like the speaker is pointing their nose in the air. We generally don’t speak like this in real life, so neither should your characters.
  • Using complete sentences–Not only is it natural for your characters to chop their sentences, this can also contribute to their voice. Does your character say “I don’t know.” or “Dunno.” Would he/she say “I missed the train and had to find a lift home.” or “Missed the train. Had to find a ride.” In casual speech, we often only use the words necessary to convey our message, even if it doesn’t form a complete sentence. You shouldn’t apply this to every line of dialogue, but consider it if your dialogue sounds stale.
  • Using characters as a conduit for research and plot information–Sometimes writers like to show off their research (looking at you Jurassic Park), backstory, world building and plot by having their characters talk way too much. If your character says “Once this valley was home to an ancient race of elves, who looked after the land and treated it with respect. One day, the secret magic spring dried up and then the goblins came. Without their magic spring, the elves couldn’t fight back, and they were killed by the goblins. The goblins didn’t respect the land and now it’s uninhabitable.” he should probably shut up. It sounds less like a person talking than it does an audio tour. The information he’s shared could be given in a much more interesting way.

How you can fix it:

  • Listen to and watch the way real people talk to each other. Do they speak in full sentences with full words? Do they speak with grammatical correctness? Do they speak differently in different situations? How do hand gestures, body language and facial expressions help them communicate?
  • Read your dialogue out loud as if you’re practising lines for a movie. Does it sound natural? Does it flow?
  • Test every piece of information your characters give out. Does it all need to be said? Would your character say all of it at once? Do they need to say it all in so many words?

2. Passages of uninterrupted speech or thought

Sometimes you might want to avoid telling the reader about something and have a character tell another character instead. Sometimes you might want to avoid telling the reader how a character feels about something by having them think about it excessively instead. If this goes on for longer than a couple of paragraphs (or less), you risk allowing your reader to drift out of the scene.

The only thing anchoring your reader in the scene is your characters and what they’re doing. If the characters are talking or thinking for a long time without interacting with anyone or anything else, they might as well be floating in space, which can make the reader feel like they’re floating in space. That’s not to say that they’ve forgotten where the scene is taking place or who else is involved, just that it can feel that way if this is how the character acts.

How you can fix it:

  • If your characters have a lot to say, try to include the other characters as well. Have them ask questions or make comments so it feels like a scene and not a soliloquy.
  • If your character is around others when he/she is deep in thought, try to include the other characters in some way. If the POV character is thinking about something that the other characters can see, why not give voice to one of the other characters in between thought paragraphs?
  • If the character is alone when he/she is deep in thought, is there a way they can interact with their environment? Unless they’re standing in front of a wall, they should be able to see, smell, feel or hear something.
  • If your character is absolutely, completely lost in thought, is there a way you can bring some sort of image into it? For example, on page 216 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is thinking about how to treat a burn she receives. Almost the entire page is a paragraph describing a memory; however, there is still action in this memory and, therefore, there is something for the reader to imagine.

3. Not knowing when to/not to use said

Some people will tell you to use descriptive speech tags and others will tell you there’s nothing wrong with said. Both are true, but when do you follow the former and when do you follow the latter? And when do you use no speech tags at all?

Using anything but said and using nothing but said both get exhausting and boring very fast.

How you can fix it:

Below is a rough guide to what kind of speech tag to use. Please bear in mind that it is only a guide and will not and should not apply to every situation.

Said is unobtrusive–a way of letting the reader know who’s talking without making a song and dance about it.
Specific verbs (e.g. whispered, shouted, mumbled) give the reader information about how the words are being said.
Adverbial tags can also give extra information about how something is being said, but more often than not they can be replaced with a stronger verb (e.g. she said loudly can be replaced with she shouted). Writers can also fall into the trap of telling where it’s better to show when using adverbial tags, which can make the writing bland. Sometimes telling is better, but with speech tags, it’s usually better to absorb the reader in the conversation. If you’ve used an adverbial tag, go back and have a look at it. Is there a better way you could get the message across?

What you need to pay attention to when determining what speech tags to use is the context of the speech. If the reader is already aware of the manner in which a character is talking, it won’t be necessary to remind them every time the character speaks. If there are only two characters in the conversation, it won’t be necessary to finish each quote with he said/she said. Going back to #2, you can also do away with speech tags entirely and use action to demonstrate how a character is feeling, while also grounding the reader in the scene.

The key to avoiding repetition and blandness is to find a balance between using the unobtrusive said, using something more specific, and mixing it up with a bit of action, which means you might not even need a tag at all.

4. Too much description/overwriting

Sometimes it’s better to tell and not show. Some details just aren’t important enough to warrant a lengthy description. If you want your reader to know that it’s raining, you can write something better than “It was raining”, but there’s no need to go overboard and write a poem about how the puddles on the asphalt looked like a great abyss.

Think of description like camera focus. The more you describe something, the more focus you put on it. If you put enough focus on something, you eliminate everything else. What’s this? A close-up. What does a close-up in a movie tell you? That object of the close-up is significant.

Be wary: when you write thirty words describing the way the moonlight is reflecting off the inky black lake, you might not be just setting the scene. You might also be giving the lake undue emphasis, and it’s probably going to irritate your reader when they realise there’s nothing significant about the lake at all, you were just showing off your imagery skills.

How you can fix it:

Keep it real. What would the character notice, what would they think about it and is it worth the attention? And try not to focus on sight. Your characters have more than one way to perceive their environment, and incorporating their other senses can help build a 3D setting for your reader rather than just painting them a picture. Give the reader enough to imagine the scene, and no more.

5. Not knowing when to/not to use adverbs

There’s a lot of writing advice out there that will tell you to cut all adverbs. The result is that many writers now think adverbs exist only to eat their children and wouldn’t dare to ever use one.

There is truth to the advice, but to say “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”? Really, Stephen King? And his dandelion analogy assumes there’s no editing process.

Adverbs aren’t evil, but there is such a thing as using them ineffectively. Which of the below are more descriptive?

She ran quickly or She sprinted

“It’s a long way down,” he said nervously or “It’s a long way down,” he said

He was shamefully prone to anxiety or He was prone to anxiety

She sprinted not only gets to the point faster, it also creates a more powerful image for the reader.
“It’s a long way down,” he said gives no indication of how the speaker is speaking or feeling; however, “It’s a long way down,” he said nervously is telling, not showing. Rather than using an adverb here, the writer could describe the speaker’s body language.
He was shamefully prone to anxiety tells you how the character feels about being prone to anxiety and there is no stronger word to replace “shamefully prone”.

How you can fix it:

Ask yourself:

  • How would the meaning of the sentence change if the adverb was removed?
  • Can the adverb and verb be replaced by a single verb?
  • Does the action really need clarification?
  • Does the adverb add something to the sentence that can’t be described in another way?

6. No conflict in the beginning

The first few chapters of a lot of stories I’ve read involve the main character plodding along in their daily life. This is a good thing as the reader needs to get a feel for your character before the big plot things happen, but that doesn’t mean the first few chapters should be without conflict. I don’t want to read about a character waking up, looking at themselves in the mirror, getting dressed, getting coffee, going to work, getting home, going on a date etc. for three chapters. It’s boring and I don’t care about any of it.

The confusion might be caused by common story structure theories that say the main conflict enters the story at the first plot point, or 25% into the story. But this doesn’t mean there should be zero conflict at the beginning! At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry was told ‘no funny business’ or he’d be grounded. Not long after that, there was some vanishing glass and an escaped boa constrictor. After this happened there was a mysterious letter addressed to Harry, and he spent an entire chapter trying to get hold of it as the weirdness escalated. There’s conflict and a goal right off the bat, and the story hasn’t even really started yet. In The Hunger Games Katniss faces the Reaping. In The Hobbit Bilbo finds himself hosting a dinner party for dwarfs and being asked to go and fight a dragon.

How you can fix it:

  • Take a look at all the books you’ve read. Most of them (if not all) start with some sort of problem or goal. Study up on this to help you realise what makes a good beginning.
  • Don’t fill your first few chapters with characterisation and nothing else. Build your character in the context of a problem or goal.
  • Keep in mind that you find your characters more interesting than your reader does. What you like about your character might not be enough to keep the reader’s interest.
  • What’s going on in your character’s life? How is this going to influence what happens when the conflict or story goal takes the stage?
  • What would happen if you cut your beginning out of the story? Would the plot still make sense? Maybe it’s better to start the story at a later point.

7. Lack of story structure

When you write a first draft, whether you’ve planned it or not, there are going to be structural flaws. Maybe halfway through you thought of a way to solidify a character’s motivation. Maybe at the climax you thought of a way to strengthen your conflict. Maybe somewhere in the middle you had no idea where you were going with this and slugged your way through some boring scenes. It’s all good; this is how stories come together.

What should happen next is that you revise your draft with story structure in mind. There’ll be a lot of “I should add a scene here about this” and “what was I thinking when I wrote that?” and after a few goes, you’ll have a story.

Writers don’t always do this though (which, by the way, makes my job take longer and cost more). They’ll go through and fix all of the obvious problems, but what remains is a manuscript that still lacks a solid structure. It’s messy to read, it’s confusing, it’s clearly not thought out, and it feels like the writer is giving me the finger. I’ll regret paying for the book, stop reading it and leave a negative review on Goodreads. Is that worth not giving your book a good edit?

How you can fix it:

  • Read a lot. Make sure you have a decent grasp on different story structures. Make sure you understand the way stories progress, the way they’re paced and what keeps the reader engaged.
  • Re-outline. Or if you pantsed your way through the first draft, make an outline. Write a checklist for what each scene should accomplish and what each chapter should accomplish. Make a timeline of how the events progress and how the tension increases. Don’t base this on what you’ve written, base it on what you’ve figured out about your plot.
  • Edit ruthlessly. If a scene doesn’t measure up to your new plan, cut it. If it’s in the wrong place, move it.

Quick Publishing Tip: Don’t Bury Your Gold


For those of you who are submitting short stories or novels for publication, I offer you this quick tip: Don’t bury your gold.*

The harsh truth is that most magazines, agents, and editors receive so many submissions that they rarely read past the first paragraph (of a short story) or page (of a novel) before they begin to make a decision. And if you don’t show them something they want to see within that time, they may not finish your story at all. So don’t bury the good stuff!

I often see stories where the writer “hides” their best stuff in the middle of the story. This can happen on a story-level when the writer doesn’t reveal the “hook” of the story until five pages in. It can also happen on a style or skill level when the writer doesn’t show their best writing until the middle or end of the story.

This strategy might work for writing that you share with your friends or family, but if you want to get the attention of an overworked, underpaid, stressed out editor or agent who has already read 50 stories that day, open with your gold, don’t keep it buried in the middle where they might not even see it!

As a first reader for literary magazines who is often in the position of reading through tons of submissions in a day, I can not stress this enough. Editors are much more likely to overlook weak or uninteresting writing halfway through a story that had a strong beginning than they are to keep reading a story that has a weak start. Show us what you’ve got, and show us right away. Hope this helps!

*If you are working on a story right now, please please please don’t let this advice get in the way of your creative process. As with any publishing advice, I recommend that writers make these kinds of changes to their story in the later stages of writing, after it’s done or almost done, rather than obsessing about them while doing early drafts or outlines. That will only lead to writer’s block!