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Master Your Novel’s 10 Key Scenes

Master Your Novel’s 10 Key Scenes

I never planned to write books on novel structure. Nor create online video courses to help teach writers how to craft a solid story.

But after years of blogging on novel writing, producing hundreds of blog posts on the topic, and editing hundreds of manuscripts, I realized writers needed more. Though there were (and are) hundreds of books teaching how to write a novel, I kept wondering why writers were having such a hard time crafting a solid story.

Sometimes too much information is just too much. You know what I mean? There is so much great info on the internet. There are so many terrific online courses and super helpful writing craft books. I hear from writers about their extensive libraries of books designed to teach them how to be great writers.

That’s all good. I have a huge library too, and I buy books all the time. It makes me think of the Scripture in Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (12:12 NKJV).

So over the years, I set out to distill things down to the simplest concepts. I found that many writing instructors tossed around ideas about the three-act structure and terms like concept, idea, and premise. Many gave conflicting definitions.

I found myself making charts and simple lists. Since writing is so complex, and novel writing especially, I always searched for ways to make the process as intuitive and streamlined as possible.

That’s what got me started on the ten key scenes. I’d read a lot about the important turning points or beats or plot points in a novel, but, again, I found the terminology conflicting and confusing. Whenever I get confused, I try to find an easy way to explain something. I need that in order to make sense of the process.

A few years ago I developed The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction on this blog. My aim was to focus on those basic components that I often saw lacked developement and understanding in the manuscripts I edited and critiqued. From there I put a book together, and then a workbook. I also created an online mini video course, which nearly 1,000 writers have taken in the last few years.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on my books, blog posts, and online courses. And what’s been so encouraging and uplifting to me is to hear how so many writers have found these tools useful. Not just useful but giving them what they’ve needed and haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

Okay, maybe it’s all my handy charts. Or my fun slides and movie clips. I don’t know exactly, but I’m glad so many writers have felt all this instruction is helping them write the books they’ve dreamed of writing. I’m thrilled and humbled that I’ve been able to help hundreds of writers get excited about writing. I’ve even had writers tell me my books have completely changed their life, even going so far as to say my teachings have raised them out of the pit of despair and hopelessness and misery to finding joy and fulfillment in their writing and, subsequently, their life. Yes, it’s humbling to hear that kind of praise. I don’t take credit for any of it. Whatever gifts and wisdom I’ve been given are gifts from above. I’m just trying to be a faithful steward of what I’ve been blessed with.

So … what am I going on about?

I’ve heard from hundreds of writers about Layer Your Novel and my online video course The 10 Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel. More than any other book or course I’ve written, these have gotten so much positive feedback. I can’t count how many writers have said the content has made it so clear how to structure their novel and they are grateful for the information.

The material in my book and my course isn’t anything new. It’s all gleaned from the wisdom of many writing coaches and authors. I have my way of presenting the material, with a dash of my own methods and opinions. I share what’s worked for me in writing more than twenty novels. I’ve learned a lot over three decades of writing and publishing. And I love helping writers get to the point where they feel confident that they “get” novel structure.

It is something you have to “get.” It takes work, learning, practice, study.

I’d like to encourage you—if you are mystified about novel structure—to get my book and take my course. It won’t put much of a dent in your wallet. Rather than spend thousands of dollars getting your manuscript edited, only to possibly find out your story completely fails to hold up structurally, why not spend a few bucks and dive into novel structure?

I truly believe you’ll be glad you did.

If you haven’t taken the time to master scene structure, you’d best slow down and spend some time focusing on that. It’s not a good idea—in fact, it’s a terrible idea—to try to write a novel, or even plot one out, if you don’t have scene structure under your belt.

I have plenty of book chapters and blog posts on scene structure. And those charts. Be sure to download my 8 Steps to a Perfect Scene chart as well as my Scene Structure Checklist chart. Those will help. But they’re just aids. You need to take the time to both study and put into practice what you learn about scene structure.

Get Layer Your Novel here on Amazon (print or ebook). And sign up for my online course here. I offer a 30-day money-back guarantee on all my courses, so you aren’t risking a thing. If you don’t like the course, ask for a refund.

I present three specific methods in this book for layering that novelists might chose to use. I use all three (not for each book—I only use one per book). One method focuses on layering in a subplot. Another method centers on the more common “action-reaction” method found in all novels, and the third method is specific to romance structure.

While there could possibly be endless methods or variations of these methods, I feel these three cover the basics for most genres. And by deconstructing a handful of novels, to show you how great novels are structured on a framework of those ten key scenes (for the most part), I’m hoping you’ll see how your novel can and should be structured.

AND IF YOU ARE A NOVELIST . . . if you’re NOT in my email Fast Track group, you need to join. You get free books, special offers, lots of help to fast track you to success! If you are already on my mailing list, all you have to do is click on the “update your preferences” link at the bottom of any email blast from me and click “JOIN” for the Fast Track group. No participation required.

To join my mailing list and get in the group, click HERE. Or click on the link on the right to get my free Strategic Planning for Writers ebook (and when you enter your email, click on JOIN for the Fast Track group).

If you are serious about success, you need all the help you can get. You need to filter out all the noise and distractions and spend your time wisely, focusing on what will truly help you reach your goals.

I hope this layering method will aid you in structuring a solid story. I believe it will. And if you’ve found it useful, share in the comments!

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A Deep Dive into POV

A Deep Dive into POV

One of the most important decisions a writer has to make is regarding what POV she will use for her story or novel—not what character to write in, necessarily, but whether to write in first or third person, and if the latter, what variant of third person to use.

Sometimes the reason writers fall into the POV pit is the wrong choice of POV in the first place. They may have chosen to write their novel in first person, but their plot and premise require showing a lot of action involving other characters at times when they are not with the protagonist.

Genre may also influence this choice—for example, much YA today, especially dystopian, is in first person, present tense. This POV and tense provide the greatest intimacy with the main character, and that’s what YA readers want.

Some stories are essentially one character’s journey of deep insight and reaction to the world around her. Women’s Fiction, for example, is often told in first-person POV, for a deeper sense of intimacy. Other stories need to show multiple characters’ motivation, needs, and goals for the plot to work, and so usually the best option is multiple or shifting third-person POV. And yes—even despite all the warnings you might hear, you can use omniscient if you want to. It’s your story, after all.

But more than genre should determine the choice of POV. The primary question is “Which POV choice will best tell this story?” Often that choice is third person.

Third-Person POV Pitfalls

 Within third-person POV structure, choices need to be made for each scene. Who is the best character to show, experience, process, and react to the events in a particular scene? If the wrong character is chosen, a writer may slip into POV violation.

Why? Because the key points revealed in a scene may not be ones this character has access to. So the best way to avoid the POV pitfall is to first think through the objective and high point of your scene, then determine which character will be most impacted and impacting as the POV character.

Often that decision is a no-brainer. Your hero may need to find most of the clues in a murder mystery. And the killer in your story may be the only one witnessing the murder he commits. But other scenes may not be so obvious.

Take the time to consider what various characters might bring to the situation if the scene was put in their POV. And note what things they don’t or can’t know, and how that might help or hinder your plot. Sometimes it’s useful to have a character with limited knowledge witness events. That can provide for misunderstanding, misdirection, and plot complications. And those can be great developments for your story.

Variations on Omniscient POV

Objective omniscient POV is a narrator without a “voice.” Essentially the narrator is invisible; no personality comes through. Events are related as they happen, but the narrator doesn’t share insights, reactions, or opinions. This POV is a silent camera, recording the scene.

Since an objective POV can only show actions and dialogue, what the characters feel can only be implied by their actions and speech. That means writers can’t tell emotions: “She was angry (or sad or frustrated).” Take a look at this example:

Before:

Diane Chandler stood on the ledge of her eighth-floor office windowsill, afraid to look down at the heavy traffic below on Fifth Avenue. Her heart pounded as she inched out in her expensive Gucci high heels. Wind whipped at her, making her wobble. She clenched her hands tighter on the railing, her nails digging into the flesh of her palms.

But she ignored the slight pain in her hands, steeling herself for the greater pain she would soon feel when she tumbled to the street below.

She gulped, wishing there was some other way. But there wasn’t. She had ruined everything. Her life was a disaster. Her boss would fire her once he found out the truth. And John . . . that traitorous friend! Telling her he’d keep his mouth shut if she paid him off. She knew where that would lead—to a lifetime of blackmail.

Diane squeezed her eyes shut, trying to muster the courage to take that small, final step. She sucked in a breath, but then heard something behind her.

“Wait!”

Diane’s heart sank to her feet. How had her boss found out so quickly? Traitor John must have run straight to Moore’s office after watching her pull the money from the safe.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

Diane shook her head, not daring to turn to look at him. He didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. He could sweet-talk her all he wanted. She’d still go to jail. And she’d never see her baby again. She couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter seeing her behind bars. No, she couldn’t bear it. Better for Angela to grow up never remembering her mother. I’m sorry, sweetie. But Aunt Judy loves you. She’ll take good care of you. Better than I ever could.

Moore spoke again, and she heard the frantic urging in his voice. But it rolled over her like the wind. Tears spilled down her face. She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath.

Then stepped out into the welcoming sky.

I hope you can see this is truly deep third-person POV. I spent much time going into Diane’s thoughts and feelings. And if that is my intent, I should stick with this POV. However, if I want to convey a detached objective take on this scene, wanting distance from emotion and a more insensitive camera feel, then the objective omniscient POV would be better.

Even if your novel is written in shifting third-person POV, it’s common to see partial or even whole scenes in omniscient POV. Usually you’ll see this at the start of a scene or in a novel’s opening scene. The reason is the writer wants to keep distance, prevent the reader from seeing and knowing too much of what is going on. This can add mystery and grab the reader’s interest right away, making her curious.

If I wanted that effect in my opening scene, for example, I would write it using the objective omniscient POV. Let’s assume I’m the camera, and although positioned in the building across the way, I have a great telephoto lens and can get fairly close to the character. Take a look at the rewrite:

After:

A woman stood on the ledge of an eighth-floor office windowsill, her eyes closed and her hands gripping the wrought-iron railing that framed the window. She inched out on high heels. Wind whipped at her, and she wobbled.

Moments passed as the traffic below moved in fits and starts.

The woman stiffened.

“Wait!” A man’s voice came from behind her, inside the office.

The woman kept her eyes closed, her head tipped back. She did not turn around.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

The woman shook her head.

The man spoke again. “Listen, just listen. Don’t move. Just take my hand—”

She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath. Then stepped out into the air.

Of course the After passage is much shorter. Out went all the things Diane knows and thinks and feels. What’s left is just what my camera records. The dialogue, the action. My camera doesn’t know what brand of shoe she is wearing. Nor does it know it’s the wind that’s making her wobble (see the subtle difference in how I rewrote that phrase?). She could be wobbling because of her nerves. My camera doesn’t know the characters’ names or their relationships, so they can only be a man and a woman (until Moore says her name). That much I can tell from across the street. I decided I couldn’t see her tears, but I could tell by her body language that she sucked in a breath.

Each passage has a very different style and creates a wholly different reader experience. So it’s up to you, the writer, to decide what you want the reader to experience and to choose your POV accordingly.

Subjective Omniscient POV

Subjective omniscient POV features a narrator with a strong voice who can show the internal thoughts of the characters within the scene. An omniscient narrator can hop around into heads and go where he wants. And it can be very effective to have that narrator react to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters.

This is a fairly uncommon POV, but it can be done well and powerfully. Such a narrator has his or her own voice, and everything that is seen, felt, and experienced by the characters gets filtered through this narrator’s mind and personality.

Sound confusing? It can be. That’s one reason it’s rarely used anymore. It is also a bit tricky to do well. Sure, it limits the POV violations—because when you’re omniscient, you can know anything and everything. But that doesn’t make it a great default POV for your story. Unless it serves your premise specifically to have an omniscient narrator with a unique storytelling voice, don’t use this POV. It can be imposing and distracting to have this “main character” controlling the story. But again, when it’s used well and to good purpose, it can be terrific.

Here’s one way the above passage could convey a subjective omniscient POV:

Diane Chandler stood on the ledge of an eighth-floor office windowsill, her eyes closed and her hands gripping the wrought-iron railing that framed the window. She inched out on high heels. Wind whipped at her, making her wobble.

Her life was in shambles, and she knew it. But she saw no other option. Even though her death was going to destroy more lives, at this moment Diane Chandler only cared about one thing—ending her pain. She had extorted money from her company and gotten caught. It had been foolish for her to think her coworker John wouldn’t have ratted to the boss. She’d always been kind of naïve that way. Quick to ignore the signs. Thinking everyone was honest and upstanding. Like she had been. Once upon a time. If only someone had pointed that out to her years ago.

Moments passed as the traffic below moved in fits and starts.

Diane stiffened.

“Wait!” A man’s voice came from behind her, from inside the office. Moore, her boss.

Seeing Diane on the ledge came as a shock. But he had to stop her. He couldn’t tell her how he really felt, how he didn’t care about the money she took. He knew the trouble she was in, her dark and troubled past. Her criminal record she’d failed to disclose on her application. He didn’t care about any of that. He loved her. He should have told her. That might have changed everything. Moore knew, though, it was too late. His heart ached.

Diane kept her eyes closed, her head tipped back. She did not turn around.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

Diane shook her head, not daring to turn to look at him. He didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. He could sweet-talk her all he wanted. She’d still go to jail.

Sadly, leaving Angela with her sister, Judy, was not going to work, but Diane couldn’t know that in this moment. In this moment, her sister was on the Interstate, talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend, and was about to get smashed by a truck veering across the divider due to the driver having a seizure. Angela was facing a life in the Child Welfare system. Would Diane have stepped off that ledge had she known? Who’s to say?

Moore pleaded. “Listen, just listen. Don’t move. Just take my hand—”

She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath. Then, to Moore’s shock, she stepped out into the air.

Moore would suffer many years of nightmares of this moment—of reaching out and just missing her fingertips. But in time, he would get over her. Like all the others that had slipped through his hands . . .

There are lots of ways I could have written this, including more or less of Diane’s subjective thoughts and feelings, adding more of Moore’s, going into their past, explaining. Or I could have brought out the narrator’s subjective voice more—more opinions, more personality. Again, it all depends on the premise and plot of your story.

Ask: Does my story need a narrator? If so, why and who? The narrator is palpably present in such a story, and so he needs to serve a purpose in being there. He may show up in the story at some point as a visible character, or he may stay invisible—heard, not seen.

Using omniscient POV can be a lot of fun, but watch out for those traps—especially the tendency to use excessive telling instead of showing.

Writers have the joy of being able to choose from a variety of POVs when telling a story. But with that choice comes the rules. We hope this in-depth look at Fatal Flaw #5 will prevent you from committing those heinous violations.

In Conclusion . . .

Mastering POV takes work. You need to pay close attention to who is experiencing a scene, and then be faithful to that character’s purview. There are many subtle ways POV can be violated, along with some big offenders, such as head hopping.

Before you start to write a scene, think through your objective. Consider what key plot points you plan to reveal and how they would best be revealed and by whom. Then write your scene sticking faithfully to that character’s POV.

If you’re considering writing your novel in first person, be sure that’s the best choice for your premise and plot. You’ll be seriously limited in what you can show and tell when trapped in one character’s head for an entire novel. If that’s too limiting, you may choose to have your protagonist in first person and supplement with other scenes in third-person POV with other characters. Some novels have multiple first-person POV characters.

You may decide you want to try your hand at omniscient POV. It’s your story, so you get to choose. But choose wisely, so you can tell the best story possible, and consider what’s common for the genre you are writing in. Then follow the POV rules so you don’t get ticketed for egregious violations!

What are your thoughts about omniscient POV?


Don’t fall victim to the fatal flaws of fiction writing.

This extensive resource is like no other! With more than sixty before and after passages, we five editors show writers how to seek and destroy these flaws that can infest and ruin your writing.

Here are some of the 12 fatal flaws:

  • Overwriting—the most egregious and common flaw in fiction writing.
  • Nothin’ Happenin’—Too many stories take too long to get going. Learn what it means to start in medias res.
  • Weak Construction—It sneaks in at the level of words and sentences, and rears up in up in the form of passive voice, ing verbs, and misplaced modifiers.
  • Too Much Backstory—the bane of many manuscripts. Backstory has its place, but too often it serves as an info dump and bogs down pacing.
  • POV Violations—Head hopping, characters knowing things they can’t know, and foreshadowing are just some of the many POV violations explored.
  • Telling instead of Showing—Writers have heard this admonition, but there’s a lot to understanding how and when to show instead of tell.
  • Lack of Pacing and Tension—Many factors affect pacing and tension: clunky passages, mundane dialogue, unimportant information, and so much more.
  • Flawed Dialogue Construction—Writers need to learn to balance speech and narrative tags and avoid “on the nose” speech.
  • “Underwriting”—just as fatal as overwriting. Too often scenes are lacking the necessary actions, descriptions, and details needed to bring them to life.
  • Description Deficiencies and Excesses—Learning how to balance description is challenging, and writers need to choose wisely just what to describe and in what way.

Don’t be left in the dark. Learn what causes these flaws and apply the fixes in your own stories.

No one need suffer novel failure. You don’t have to be brilliant or talented to write strong fiction. You just need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to tackle these culprits. And this book will give you all the weapons and knowledge you need.

“This book should be on every writer’s bookshelf.” —Cheryl Kaye Tardif, international best-selling author

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Handling Backstory in Dialogue in Your Opening Pages

Handling Backstory in Dialogue in Your Opening Pages

So many new writers start their books with pages—even chapters—of backstory. They want to tell the reader all about the creation of their fantasy world. Or they want to make sure readers understand every nuance of Mexican politics in 1956 because it will be critical to the plot on page 103. They want to make sure the reader understands every feature of time travel or cloning in the year 2133.

Then their editor suggests that instead of including all this material in the opening chapters of their book, they should just reveal the backstory through dialogue. Aha, the author thinks, dialogue—of course! After all, dialogue is a great way to open in media res and cut to the good stuff. But instead of jettisoning their precious descriptions and explanations, they essentially put quotation marks around the same ponderous material.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

None of your characters should talk like the narrator. And readers still don’t want a backstory dump—even in dialogue. Often the attempt to stuff backstory into dialogue results in long, tedious monologues instead of more believable two-way conversation.

Before:

Debby started panicking. “You know, John, that we can’t send people back in time without the right amount of energy, and even though we’ve done an excellent job in extracting energy from dark matter, as our last two experiments attest, I fear that there isn’t enough to get Colleen into the past and out of danger. Just look at the flux capacitor levels—the microcosm indicator is off as well, and it needs to be at 90 percent for a guaranteed trip. The flux capacitor is crucial for making a time jump, and needs to be at about 92 percent efficiency to work well. Also you need to contact Clare and Silas and make sure they can divert another 38 gigawatts of energy to the main frame so in one hundred hours she can make her jump back to the present. The main frame can handle up to 50 gigawatts, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Whew, did you find that tedious to read?

To make matters worse, these types of monologues often take place in the middle of important action—and readers aren’t going to believe a character will stop and give a lecture when bullets are flying or buildings are blowing up around her. Backstory, even in “active” dialogue, stops the present action.

After:

Debby frowned at the bank of blinking lights. “We don’t have enough energy here for Colleen to make the jump.”

“What can we do?” John asked.

An alarm sounded, and Debby hit the panel to the left to silence it. “Don’t know.” She glanced at the flux capacitor level and shook her head. It was nowhere near the 90 percent she needed. “I think you need to contact Clare and Silas. Maybe they can divert more energy.”

“How much do we need?” John asked.

Debby did some quick calculations. “At least another 89 gigawatts.”

“All right.” John jumped out of his chair. “I’ll contact them—if I can find them.”

In this example, we assume that John and Debby already know a great deal of the backstory and pertinent information because they are in the story. Even if I want to make sure that the reader is clear about time travel, a cumbersome description like this one only slows the action.

Readers Don’t Really Need to Know It All

Have faith in your characters, and even more faith in your readers. Allow the reader to enjoy the journey. It can be more fun to discover the world and plot along with the heroine than to have it all explained. When dialogue sums everything up, the reader may wonder why he should bother to read on.

Use a limited amount of shorthand that your readers will understand to convey what is going on. Use the characters to convey their expertise in their own proprietary language, which can add depth to a character and give a sense of what’s going on.

Make the notes for your world; do the research. Become the expert in your field of study and of the world you are developing. But don’t build a time machine piece by piece through your dialogue.

Another disadvantage of placing every bit of information in the beginning of your novel or story via dialogue is that by chapter 4 you’ll have nothing left to reveal.

If the situation has been explained, and you, the author, feel it’s all been said, your dialogue may then become sterile, stiff, and unnatural sounding. You know that your characters must speak to one another, but if their situation as well as the plot has already been outlined, there is little reason to advance the plot through the conversations.

Here are some things you can do to avoid dumping too much backstory in your dialogue:

  • Jettison all the dense backstory paragraphs at the beginning of your novel’s scenes.
  • Explain in common, character-driven language some finer points of the plot via dialogue.
  • Trust your reader to pick up on gestures, expressions, and atmosphere as substitutes for direct (and long) explanations.
  • Don’t explain everything—only bring in bits that are essential, are interesting, and advance the plot.
  • Don’t build a time machine all in one monologue.

Readers don’t spend as much time as they used to “getting into” a novel or story. It is your job to put the reader into the action and create intimacy with your characters as quickly as possible. The rest will follow.

 In Conclusion . . .

Take some time to look at your novel (or short story) opening, as well as your scene openings. Consider how and where you are showcasing your POV character. Is she doing boring, passive things? Thinking a lot without being shown in action? Are you intruding as the author to foreshadow things that will occur later, things your character can’t know?

One of the best ways to avoid this fatal flaw is to choose strong moments in which to bring your character onstage. If you plan ahead, knowing the high moment you are building to, you can get your character into the action just before conflict starts.

We’re tempted to explain in detail our backstory, character motivation and reasoning, and what our setting and characters look like. But no one wants a truckload of information dumped at the start of a story. Readers want to be swept away, transported—not buried under a ton of rock.

Your thoughts? Do you struggle with trusting your reader?


Don’t fall victim to the fatal flaws of fiction writing.

This extensive resource is like no other! With more than sixty before and after passages, we five editors show writers how to seek and destroy these flaws that can infest and ruin your writing.

Here are some of the 12 fatal flaws:

  • Overwriting—the most egregious and common flaw in fiction writing.
  • Nothin’ Happenin’—Too many stories take too long to get going. Learn what it means to start in medias res.
  • Weak Construction—It sneaks in at the level of words and sentences, and rears up in up in the form of passive voice, ing verbs, and misplaced modifiers.
  • Too Much Backstory—the bane of many manuscripts. Backstory has its place, but too often it serves as an info dump and bogs down pacing.
  • POV Violations—Head hopping, characters knowing things they can’t know, and foreshadowing are just some of the many POV violations explored.
  • Telling instead of Showing—Writers have heard this admonition, but there’s a lot to understanding how and when to show instead of tell.
  • Lack of Pacing and Tension—Many factors affect pacing and tension: clunky passages, mundane dialogue, unimportant information, and so much more.
  • Flawed Dialogue Construction—Writers need to learn to balance speech and narrative tags and avoid “on the nose” speech.
  • “Underwriting”—just as fatal as overwriting. Too often scenes are lacking the necessary actions, descriptions, and details needed to bring them to life.
  • Description Deficiencies and Excesses—Learning how to balance description is challenging, and writers need to choose wisely just what to describe and in what way.

Don’t be left in the dark. Learn what causes these flaws and apply the fixes in your own stories.

No one need suffer novel failure. You don’t have to be brilliant or talented to write strong fiction. You just need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to tackle these culprits. And this book will give you all the weapons and knowledge you need.

“This book should be on every writer’s bookshelf.” —Cheryl Kaye Tardif, international best-selling author

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How Novelists Can Say More with Less

How Novelists Can Say More with Less

Less is more. More impacting. More riveting. More intriguing. Throughout history, marriages have failed and wars have been won or lost over a mere word or two. Jesus said, “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” Simply stated, as was his style.

I often share with my clients something my eleventh-grade English teacher used to spout frequently: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.”

The best way to say what you mean is to use only the words you need—the most appropriate words for your context—and discard the rest. Think of the pages of your novel as expensive real estate. Writers who want to write well should aim to be as picky about the words they string together as the foods they eat or the clothes they wear. Pickier.

Bogging Down Your Writing Is a Bad Thing

Your novel’s pacing will be greatly affected by word choice. If you bog down your sentences with unnecessary words, your scenes will drag. In addition, using boring, flat, or weak verbs and adjectives will make the reading dull, no matter how exciting your plot might be.

Take a look at this Before passage and see if you can spot some of the problems. Then read my revision and compare.

 Before:

Suddenly, lightning struck!!! It was so loud and noisy, Debby screamed and lost hand control of her drinking glass, spilling it and shattering it on the Italian stone coffee table. Somehow, the power was gone, a blackout took place, and Debby trembled as she fearfully listened to the thunder rolling in louder in waves than usual. She felt it was so loud, the house began to shake. As if being in the middle of an earthquake. She began to cry and instantly the danger passed and everything was calm.

Debby was still frozen, too afraid to move much. She slowly turned her head to the left and then to the right as she focused her attention on what was going on through the front room window. She heard the sound of a loud vehicle idling outside of her home and that sound grew louder. Approaching the window with caution, she slowly pulled the left curtain open. Her eyes widened as she saw an old run-down rusty car parked out in front of her house. It showed no headlights . . . just sitting and idling with an ominous sound coming from its tailpipe.

A cold draft suddenly made Debby tremble greatly as she began to see what was starting to materialize. Two red beams of light, very small, like tiny eyes, began to glow from within the car where the driver was sitting on the front seat. The glow grew brighter and then she realized suddenly that they were indeed eyes and they were gazing right at her!!! Debby started to gasp for breath and she felt her heart was suddenly stricken with intense pain as if there was a tight grip of a fist around it . . . tightening. As her pain grew, her body began to crouch forward, nearly ripping the curtain off its rod.

Was that exhausting to read? Try this.

 After:

Without warning, lightning struck. Debby screamed and dropped her glass, which shattered on the Italian stone coffee table. The lights flickered out, and she trembled as thunder shook the house as if an earthquake rolled under it. Then, the night quieted, except for the patter of heavy rain and the murmur of distant thunder.

Debby froze, trembling. She turned and peered through the front room window. A motor idled on the street. With barely a touch, she pulled the curtain aside. A badly damaged black-and-white patrol car sat parked in front of her house, headlights off, no red-and-blue flashing lights. An ominous sound came from its tailpipe.

A cold draft tickled Debby’s neck as she watched two red beams of light, like eyes, glow inside the dark car where a driver sat. The glow grew brighter and Debby gasped. They were eyes—and they were gazing right at her.

A stab of pain made Debby clutch her chest. With a cry, she buckled with her fist entangled in the curtain and fell to the floor, the fluttering cloth covering her face like a shroud of death.

The first thing you probably noticed is the word count dropped by about a third. Think about ditching adverbs and replacing weak verbs with stronger ones. Avoid excessive punctuation, such as multiple exclamation marks.

A great way to seek and destroy extraneous words and passages is to use Word’s Find and Replace. Search for it was, there were, ing, and ly. Often a word ending in ing will reveal a wordy phrase, and ly will catch adverbs (we’ll cover pesky adverbs in a later chapter).

Overall, take the time to consider each word you use and see if you can’t come up with a better word, maybe one more colorful or descriptive. A phrase like “It was interesting and I liked it” is not interesting, and readers won’t like it. Write in your unique style and genre, but do it well.

Think of rewriting as creating a reduction sauce. The more you can eliminate those words and phrases that are not rich in flavor, the less you will have in the end. Which is more. And more, in most cases, is better.

What words or phrases do you often use that are superfluous?


Don’t fall victim to the fatal flaws of fiction writing.

This extensive resource is like no other! With more than sixty before and after passages, we five editors show writers how to seek and destroy these flaws that can infest and ruin your writing.

Here are some of the 12 fatal flaws:

  • Overwriting—the most egregious and common flaw in fiction writing.
  • Nothin’ Happenin’—Too many stories take too long to get going. Learn what it means to start in medias res.
  • Weak Construction—It sneaks in at the level of words and sentences, and rears up in up in the form of passive voice, ing verbs, and misplaced modifiers.
  • Too Much Backstory—the bane of many manuscripts. Backstory has its place, but too often it serves as an info dump and bogs down pacing.
  • POV Violations—Head hopping, characters knowing things they can’t know, and foreshadowing are just some of the many POV violations explored.
  • Telling instead of Showing—Writers have heard this admonition, but there’s a lot to understanding how and when to show instead of tell.
  • Lack of Pacing and Tension—Many factors affect pacing and tension: clunky passages, mundane dialogue, unimportant information, and so much more.
  • Flawed Dialogue Construction—Writers need to learn to balance speech and narrative tags and avoid “on the nose” speech.
  • “Underwriting”—just as fatal as overwriting. Too often scenes are lacking the necessary actions, descriptions, and details needed to bring them to life.
  • Description Deficiencies and Excesses—Learning how to balance description is challenging, and writers need to choose wisely just what to describe and in what way.

Don’t be left in the dark. Learn what causes these flaws and apply the fixes in your own stories.

No one need suffer novel failure. You don’t have to be brilliant or talented to write strong fiction. You just need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to tackle these culprits. And this book will give you all the weapons and knowledge you need.

“This book should be on every writer’s bookshelf.” —Cheryl Kaye Tardif, international best-selling author

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Scene Mastery Boot Camp ~ Geyserville, California

Scene Mastery Boot Camp ~ Geyserville, California

There’s still time to sign up for our Scene Mastery Boot Camp set in the heart of California’s gorgeous wine country! And, yes, there will be wine …

Why a boot camp?

Because getting away from the daily grind and distractions affords you the opportunity to focus 100% on your writing. No cleaning, laundry, meals to cook. Just indulge in your creativity.

At our boot camps, you’ll spend three full days with other writers, writing, brainstorming, reading your material, getting constructive feedback and personal attention, and having fun!

How often do you get out of your cage and just hang out with other creatives in a small group setting like this?

Boot camps are a far cry from attending a large conference. While conferences can be exciting and instructional, they can also be impersonal on some levels. And you rarely get individualized help to deal with the particular issues you are presently struggling with in your writing. I don’t know about you, but staying alone in a hotel room can be lonely, even after socializing at a conference all day!

At our boot camps, you have a village at hand to help you excel at your craft. You won’t believe how much you can progress in just three days!

At our Scene Mastery boot camps, you’ll learn all about the types of scenes you can craft, when to use which ones, where specific scenes go in a novel and why. You’ll learn how to bring in sensory detail in a masterful way. How to balance narrative, dialogue, action, direct thoughts, and backstory. You’ll go deep into character voice. All that and so much more!

Geyserville, California ~ June 9 -12

Our Geyserville, California, boot camp is set in a gorgeous wine region. Read about this Scene Mastery boot camp HERE.

The boot camp will be held at the beautiful Alexander Valley Hall, nestled in the midst of vineyards and surrounded by some of Sonoma’s finest wineries. We meet on Sunday, June 9, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. for a meet and greet at White Oak Winery, just south of Geyserville. There, you’ll meet the other writers attending and your instructors, have some yummy food and wine, and get your folder and homework assignments. From there, we’ll go wine tasting! So many great wineries just minutes away.

Boot camp starts Monday morning at 8:30 (coffee and fresh local pastries to start the day). You’ll spend all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday learning, writing, working, and discussing scene structure.Locally prepared lunch is included in the cost. The boot camp ends Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Be sure to come early on Sunday to explore the area and wine-taste. We’re encouraging everyone to stay at the Geyserville Hotel (mention the boot camp and get a discounted room rate). The hotel has a wonderful on-site restaurant (so you can grab breakfast before heading over to the hall). And it also has a heated pool and hot tub.

Sonoma County is gorgeous and especially in the early summer. It’s barely an hour drive north of San Francisco. Stay longer to take in more wineries and enjoy the fun towns of Geyserville and Healsburg.

Any questions? All the info you need to know is on our boot camp website at www.WritingforLifeWorkshops.com.

Can’t make this boot camp? Check out the others.

Other Scene Mastery Boot Camps:

Nevada City, CA (Wine Country, Sonoma County): May 5 – 8

South Lake Tahoe: Sept. 29 – Oct 3 (read up on the Tahoe house and boot camps HERE).

Carmel, CA: Nov. 3 – 6.

 

Here are some words of praise for our boot camps:

“The boot camp was a great opportunity to have uninterrupted time to plot my novel. Susanne is so knowledgeable and freely shares info and material. I highly recommend it!” ~ Margaret Austin

“The Plotting Madness boot camp was a great experience for me. It was an intense three days of instruction, group interaction, and exercise designed to help lay out and plot my next book idea. It did just that.” ~ Don Sheagley

“This was my second workshop put on by C. S. Lakin She is a terrific teacher and writes the best ;how to write’ books on the market. Getting to work with her in person is an amazing experience. I highly recommend her workshops for anyone who really wants to learn how to write and to get a chance to work directly with a great teacher and a room full of very talented writers.” ~ Ed Markel

“Attending the Plotting Madness boot camp was amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed it and came away with a completed outline for my novel. I recommend the boot camp for writers of all levels.” ~ Linda Childers

“I arrived with a sliver of a concept, and I left with an outline of a great story. I highly recommend the boot camp!” ~ Peter J. Ryan

“Come with ideas about your story premise, characters, and plot and experience story plotting at its finest. C. S . Lakin provides professional and unselfish feedback to propel you on your way to writing a great novel!” ~ Carol Hill

“I don’t have enough superlatives to describe how valuable this experience was to me. Thank you, Susanne.” ~ Tim O’Neill

Hope you’ll join us this year and learn some great writing techniques and insights into plotting and scene structure.

 

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6 Destructive Thoughts That Stop You from Writing—and How to Slay Them  

6 Destructive Thoughts That Stop You from Writing—and How to Slay Them  

Today’s guest post is by Dan Brotzel.

We all lament the lack of time we have for creative work. But then when we actually get some time, we sometimes fail to make good use of it. Here are six blockers to getting your writing done and how to deal with them.

“But it’s all been said before!”

Problem: You think: There are so many stories in the world already, what could I possibly add that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before, a hundred times better?

Solution: Remember that unoriginality at the level of structure isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s almost inevitable. We all love stories that are variations on well-known templates and structures. We like to see good triumph over evil, the odd couple finally get together, the killer unmasked.

Yes, it may have been said before. But not by you, to your audience, with your style and perspective.

“I can’t start writing till I’ve finished the research.”

Problem: You feel you can’t actually get down to the work till you’ve read every other word on the subject, just for background … and you’ve still got dozens more books and articles and websites to look at.

Solutions: Research is important, but so is a sense of perspective. The key thing to discern is when the research stops being useful preparation and starts becoming an excuse for not writing.

Don’t just research in the abstract; use what you discover to add to your story plan as you go. If you research in this focused way, you’ll often get to a point where you’re itching to write. And of course you can always do more research later to plug any gaps.

Ultimately, you have to practice loving acceptance over your perceived ignorance. It’s OK not to know everything. You’re a fiction writer, not a history professor.

Another tip: invent a deadline. Make a commitment with your agent or publisher or writing buddy to have that chapter ready by a certain date. Announce it on Twitter, write it on a board in your kitchen.

Do something that makes you feel you have to stop researching and get something written by a certain time.

“But I don’t have my nice special pen at hand!”

The demon of equipment fetishism is an agreeable chap most of the time—many of us go a bit weak-kneed in the stationery aisle—but he can become another excuse not to get down to the work.

A screenwriter friend of mine cannot do his first drafts without his trusty Pentel Rollerball of a particular shade. He used to tramp miles to find a replacement if his local shop sold out, and in the end took to buying twenty at a time because he genuinely believed that he couldn’t do any good work without one.

Solution: Sorry, but we’re going to have to talk tough here. This is just procrastination pure and simple.

If you’ve actually managed to carve out some time in your day when you can get down to some real creative work, do you really want to sabotage that because you’ve only got a scruffy biro to work with?

When writers are in the flow, they barely notice what they’re writing with or on. So get over it. Just start, using whatever’s at hand.

“That drill! I can’t hear myself think!”

When the work isn’t flowing, it’s easy to blame ambient distractions. Someone’s voice in the street is too loud. The workmen next door are a nightmare. How can anyone concentrate with that dreadful gargling sound coming from the water tank? I’m trying to work here!

Exorcism tips: Sorry, but this is procrastination 101 again. You’re annoyed with yourself for not getting to work, so you cast around for someone else to blame.

And it’s funny how all these murderous thoughts about street noises miraculously vanish when the work’s flying …

A good tip here is to set a manageable time limit with a treat at the end of it. Say: “I will write down notes or words for my next chapter—just jot down anything that comes to mind—for the next thirty minutes, ignoring all distractions, and then I will check Twitter/make a coffee/look up the football scores.” You’ll usually end up doing a lot more.

“I just don’t know where to go next.”

Sometimes you reach a point—let’s call it the middle—where the start has been safely tucked behind you but the end shows no signs of hovering into view. You know where you’ve come from and you know where you want to go, but you just can’t see how to get from one to the other.

Solution: Keep going, meta-style. If you don’t know how to say the next thing, write about what you want to say next, what effect you’re hoping to deliver, how this will all move the story on.

Move from show to tell. For example:

At this point I’ll insert an initially scary but actually quite touching scene with lots of dialogue, in which my MC finally realizes that Bob has been watching her all along, but not in a bad way. Bob actually cares for my MC, and has been looking out for her because he was always suspicious about her boyfriend, and made a promise to MC’s mom to see she stays safe.

When you write about what you want to write in this way, you are still effectively writing your book. It’s not quite as good as actually drafting that chapter, but it’s a lot better than just browsing the internet looking at random stuff.

“I’m going to look stupid.”

Fear of failure is another classic nudge to inaction. But—at the risk of sounding like your mom—if you don’t push yourself, you’ll never know what you were capable of.

Solution: Remember that the more you do, the easier it gets. Joining a writers’ group is a massive help here. Reading your words to others and listening to feedback helps you understand your work better, of course, but it also helps you to build resilience and thicken that tender skin.

Final thought: pat yourself on the back!

When you complete a piece of writing that was hard to get down, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Stop and savor the feeling of a job well done. You did it! And you can do it again.

What excuses do you make when sitting down to write? How do you slay them? Share in the comments.

Dan Brotzel is coauthor of a new comic novel Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this blog, you can preorder Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – use promo code KITTEN10. Connect with Dan on Twitter

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The Character Arc in Six Specific Stages

The Character Arc in Six Specific Stages

Here’s a post I wrote for Writers Helping Writers some months back that I’d like to share with you.

As a writer, you’re probably familiar with the term “character arc,” but what does a character arc entail? How do you structure this arc? And what informs the way your character changes, from the start of your story to the end?

While all characters in a novel can have arcs, it’s the protagonist whose change should be the most significant. Depending on genre and plot, your hero’s change might be subtle or life-altering. A suspense thriller or cozy mystery may show little character growth by the end, when the bad guy is caught or the mystery solved, whereas a thoughtful women’s fiction novel or relational drama may showcase monumental change.

But, in all stories, arcs are about change or transformation. And the stories with strong arcs show a character starting in what Hollywood movie consultant Michael Hauge calls identity or persona.

What makes for a great persona is a character who has suffered in his past and has developed a coping mechanism over time. This is his face he presents to the world that keeps buried his pain, fear, or hurt.

It’s human nature to deny and avoid painful feelings. But when we suppress them, it creates problems. We are never truly happy in our persona. It’s like having a tiny (or big) thorn in our toe that is festering. We keep our foot in a sock and walk around trying to ignore it, but it isn’t going to go away on its own. At some point we have to pull off the sock, look hard at the infection, then extricate that thorn and flush out the wound.

This gives us a blueprint for the process of crafting a strong character arc. While we understand coming up with “a wound” for our protagonist is key, we don’t want to make up any ol’ wound. We need to develop one that is intrinsically tied in with our premise.

Your character moves from his persona to his true essence in stages, gradually and in a believable manner. People don’t change overnight. Events erode a person’s grasp on his persona until he can no longer hang on to it. By the end of your story, your character finds no safe haven in that persona any longer.

Let’s take a look at these six stages of transformation, using the movie Hostiles as a perfect example.

  • Stage 1: This is your setup scene at the start of your novel. Your character is fully in his persona. This is the face he shows the world, and though it’s helped him cope with life, it has not brought him happiness.

In Hostiles, Army Captain Joseph Blocker has spent the last two decades fighting Indians, and he’s witnessed horrific things the Indians have done. He hates the Indians and cannot see past his hate to imagine they have any humanity or worth. Before he retires, he’s commanded to escort the ailing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk—his most despised enemy—to his ancestral home in Montana. He is fully in persona.

  • Stage 2: At this stage (between the 10% and 25% mark), your character’s entrenched views begin to be challenged. He gets a glimpse of his essence, of who he could be, if he let go of his persona.

In Hostiles, Blocker’s hatred begins to crack when he witnesses Yellow Hawk and the other Indians quickly move to join in protecting their group, even killing other Indians in defense. This glimpse of integrity that he sees in Yellow Hawk sparks respect and challenges his core beliefs that all Indians, especially this one, are savages and nothing more.

  • Stage 3: Somewhere between the 25% and 50% mark, your character, still in his persona and moving toward his goal, is gradually changing due to what he is experiencing and learning. A mentor or friend might mirror to his the way he is acting, pointing out how that’s not working for him. Or something someone says or does makes him stop and consider how his coping mechanisms aren’t making him happy. Think of creating a scene in which he takes the first step toward changing, or that shows he is already changing without realizing it.

In Hostiles, Rosalie, a woman whose family was butchered by Indians and who Blocker saved and has taken with him on this journey, has a deep talk with Blocker about life and spiritual things. This mirror moment gets Blocker questioning his life and values and begins to crack his hard shell.

  • Stage 4: This stage comes sometime between the Midpoint and the Dark Moment (75% mark). Now your character knows he must embrace his true essence. He is not there yet, but he fully realizes his persona is failing him. He must get the courage to be true to himself and face the truths he hasn’t been able to face. Often this is where the character backslides into his persona again, where it’s safe. But it doesn’t work anymore. There is only going forward.

Rosalie and the two native women are kidnapped by a group of fur traders who come across them as they wash dishes at a creek. Alerted by Little Bear, Blocker and several of his men, as well as Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, track them down. They find the fur traders’ camp and witness one of the kidnappers beating Yellow Hawk’s daughter. When the kidnappers return to their tents, the men sneak down into the camp and attack the kidnappers and kill them. One of the rescuers is killed in the struggle. This intense event, which throws the opposing characters together, uniting them in purpose and morality, causes a further transformation of Blocker’s character. The Indians are people who strive, who suffer, who take care of those they love. He sees they are not all that different from him. He’s almost in his true essence.

  • Stage 5: This is the moment of arrival. As the climax barrels into him, he fully embraces his true essence, which gives him all that’s needed to reach his goal. He has everything to lose, but he goes for it. The final push to “arrive.”

In Hostiles, after a huge climax of death and mayhem, the group finally reaches Montana, and Blocker and Yellow Hawk, who is near death from cancer, speak. Blocker names some of the men he had lost fighting Yellow Hawk. Yellow Hawk responds by saying that he had also lost people. The two men shake hands in an apparent mutual act of forgiveness and friendship. When they arrive at Valley of the Bears, they bury the now dead Yellow Hawk using a traditional native burial scaffold. When white men approach and threaten them—mirroring the exact attitude Blocker had at the start of the story: hateful, racist, violent—we see Blocker take a stand, and he kills the leader of these men. Everyone in Blocker’s group is shot and killed except Rosalie and the young Indian boy.

  • Stage 6: At the resolution, your character is now fully in his essence; he has transformed and sees the world and himself in a new, healthier light. He is honest and transparent about himself.

At the end of Hostiles, Rosalie boards a train with the boy, heading home to where she will raise the young warrior. Blocker says good-bye, but because he is now fully in his essence, wholly transformed, he cannot leave the woman he loves. He is now able to do two things he could never have done at the start of the story: be at peace enough to allow himself to love this woman he cherishes and decide to help raise an Indian boy. He has broken through his racism and hate by way of experiences that taught him the lessons he needed to learn, giving him understanding that had never been within his grasp. A powerful story with a perfect transformational journey for the protagonist.

When you sit down to work on your character arc, consider using the Six Stage Plot Structure. Brainstorm scenes that will showcase the specific stage your character is in, for each turning point in the story. I also use this, and other, examples in my extensive online course on The 10 Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel. If you want to master this, take this course!

Using this framework will not only help you write a solid story, it will aid you in crafting a believable character arc for your protagonist that will engage and delight your readers.


Plotting is hard! That’s the reason I started teaching intensive three-day boot camps on plotting and scene structure. If you’d like to really master scene writing, consider attending one of seven boot camps held in beautiful locales around Northern California.

There is no better way to master novel craft than to go deep, applying what you learn immediately, and having personalized help every step of the way. Plus, boot camps are a whole lot of fun! No distractions, no dishes to wash, no kids to cart around. Just dedicated time to improve your novel-writing skills.

For more information on our boot camps, go to our event site Writing for Life Workshops. There, you can read up on all the events and book your space.

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Essential Character Tips for Fiction Writers

Essential Character Tips for Fiction Writers

 Today’s guest post is by Beth Barany.

No matter if you’re a plot-driven or character-driven writer, your characters need to feel real so that your readers can connect with and care about them.

If you’re pressed for time or just want to get to the essentials, I recommend these three essential characters tips. By no means are these tips exhaustive. I cover many more brainstorming tools for character and for plot in our newest book for writers, Plan Your Novel Like A Pro, from which this article is adapted.

Tip #1: What Does Your Main Character Want?

What does your character want?

Stories are built on characters and their journey to get what they want. Your job to put obstacles in the character’s way so he can’t easily obtain what he wants. (Otherwise there would be no story.)

Once the roadblocks are built, you’ll create a resolution where the character may or may not overcome the obstacle. Usually in genre fiction, you’ll create a happy resolution, but you don’t have to have a happy ending, of course. It’s your story.

What kind of story goal could you have?

Most good stories have two types of goals: an external one and an internal one.

An external goal, as the name states, is something outside your character, a tangible that could be anything from getting a job done to saving the world. Most importantly, this external goal needs to be enough of a challenge to carry your story, perhaps coming from your character’s yearning, and it needs to be relevant for your genre.

For example, in the third book of my epic fantasy series, Henrietta and the Battle of the Horse Mesa, I needed to create a big goal for my main character that befitted the final book in a series. But first, she had an initial goal: to return a six-year-old boy to his mother, even though a multi-kingdom war was brewing.

Henrietta’s bigger goal was to decide whether or not she should lead the army, and if she decided yes, then she had to figure out how to do that.

Your main character also needs an internal goal. This is an internal experience to your character. Perhaps your character wants respect, admiration, or to love and be loved. The internal goal usually reflects a deep need all humans desire. Knowing what this is and coming up with ways you can manifest this in your character’s circumstances will connect readers to your character.

For example, Henrietta the Dragon Slayer is not that deep a thinker, but she does want respect. Most importantly, she wants freedom. In fact, she has two competing internal desires—for freedom and to do the responsible thing. These competing internal desires are one of her big challenges. I’ll get to challenges in a moment.

In your story, what does your character want?

  • Her external goal
  • Her internal goal

Once you know your character’s goals, then you need to know why she wants what she wants. This will help you create a three-dimensional understanding of your character and your story.

Tip #2: Why Does Your Character Want What He Wants?

When getting at what drives your characters to want what they want, their motivation, I find it works best to interview them.

Ask your character, “Why do you want this thing so badly?” and “What will having that do for you?”

With each new reply, ask again, “What will having that do for you?” until you get to what feels like the core of his desire, his core motivation.

For example, I asked Henrietta, “Why do you want to return the boy Antoine to his people so much? What will having that do for you?”

I discovered she felt a sense of obligation.

Then I asked, “You feel a sense of obligation? Once you’ve delivered the boy, then I guess that sense of obligation will be relieved? Again, what will having that do for you—to deliver the boy to his mother?”

Henrietta’s reply: She won’t be treated like a mother anymore and no longer will have this little boy hanging on her. She’s a seventeen-year-old warrior woman, her whole life in front of her. Time enough to be a mother later, much later.

I kept asking, “What will having that do for you, once you’re relieved of this pretend motherhood?” I discovered under that was a belief she had about herself: “I could never be a mother.” Now I understood that she was driven by a rejection of the possibility of motherhood.

I kept going. “Henrietta, what will having that do for you?”

Underneath that, I discovered her sadness, that she really would love to be a mother and would love to have a family. But because she was a warrior, she didn’t think it was for her. She’d created a rule for herself she couldn’t break.

Just by asking this question again and again, “What will having that do for you?” you can uncover complicated juicy material that motivates your character. This kind of complexity helps make your characters feel real to your readers.

When you ask, “What will having that do for you?” notice that the replies come from your subconscious where all our stories reside.

So far, we’ve talked about your character’s goals and what motivates her to want those goals. Our first two essential character tips. The third essential character tip is about conflict.

Tip #3: What Stands in Your Character’s Way: Conflict

I approach conflict in an atypical way because I’m a character writer.

I first encountered conflict, or lack thereof, when my critique partners said to me, “Beth, your characters are so sweet, but you have to make bad things happen to them. Otherwise, you don’t have a story.”

I had a hard time understanding conflict. Through lots of trial and error, I discovered the exercise of asking my character, “What are you afraid of?”

This question helped me uncover possible conflicts for my characters.

If you know what scares your character, then you can incorporate that into your story as conflict.

As a brainstorming tool, I created an exercise I call the “List of 20.”

Here’s how you can use it: Write the numbers 1 through 20 on your page. Then set a timer for ten minutes, usually a good amount of time to complete this exercise.

Next, list all the fears that your main character has. Just move the pen across the page or fingers across the keyboard. It’s okay if you repeat things. It’s okay if there’s no discernible order. Just write, write, write.

In doing this exercise, what I discovered is that my brain organizes my character’s fears in order of normal, or obvious fears, to deeper and bigger fears. The first time I did this exercise, I was super happy and very surprised because I had discovered a way to create a story outline.

For example, as I was brainstorming Henrietta and the Battle of the Horse Mesa, I asked myself, “What are Henrietta’s fears?”

One of her fears was that she would lose Franc, her companion. At the beginning of the story, they were traveling together, so it was an obvious fear. She cared deeply for him and didn’t want their companionship to end. What if something bad happened to him?

I got excited when this fear came to me. Losing Franc could occupy a whole section, maybe even the whole book. Ideas about what she would do if she lost Franc came tumbling in.

Since I was drafting my List of 20 and needed to come up with more ideas, I asked myself, “What else is she afraid of? What could be worse than that?”

Some other ideas I uncovered: She was afraid of being under the thumb of anyone in authority, so what if she had to ask someone in authority in this new territory for help? That would make finding Franc harder. Good!

That’s what we want for our characters—for things to get worse before they get better.

But I still didn’t have twenty fears. I kept asking, “What else is she afraid of?”

She was afraid of looking stupid because she was a smart-mouth. She was in a territory she didn’t know. Everything in her environment could cause her problems. By the time I finished my List of 20, I had plenty of problems to fill out my story, all based on Henrietta’s fears.

To Recap: Brainstorm Your Main Character’s Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts

Brainstorm to uncover each of your main characters’ inner and outer goals, inner and outer conflicts, plus corresponding motivations for each goal.

What will you uncover about your characters when you brainstorm their goal, motivations, and conflicts? Let me know! And happy writing!

Note from C. S.: Want to learn more about crafting terrific characters? Take Beth’s online video course. Enroll HERE!

Award-winning fantasy novelist, Master NLP Practitioner, and certified creativity coach for writers, Beth Barany runs Barany School of Fiction, a full suite of courses designed to help genre fiction writers experience clarity and get writing, so they can revise and proudly publish their novels to the delight of their readers. She’s also the author of books for writers, including Plan Your Novel Like A Pro, cowritten with her husband, thriller writer Ezra Barany. Connect with Beth via her blog, Writer’s Fun Zone or on Twitter: @Beth_Barany.

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When Slow Writing Leads to Great Writing

When Slow Writing Leads to Great Writing

Today’s guest post is by Tara East.

Our lives are busy and they’re just getting busier. We’re desperate for tips about time management, scheduling, prioritization, and optimization. We want life hacks and shortcuts. Technology has eliminated some of the tedious domestic tasks that consumed our time and zapped our energy, yet we’re still complaining about being time poor and exhausted.

These days, we expect more from life and ourselves, but creatives can find this approach rather distressing.

A schedule is a great way to see the week ahead at a glance. And time blocking can help you set realistic goals and expectations, especially once you start allotting time to the things that matter: writing, work/study, exercise, and leisure.

But time management, tight scheduling, deadlines, and optimization tactics can quickly become problematic, because—let’s face it—there is nothing efficient about creating art.

While maintaining a weekly schedule may better your chances of completing big goals and reaching deadlines, it is also important that you hold these guidelines lightly.

After all, how else will the muse find you?

If you’ve been on the productivity hamster wheel for a while now, the idea of slowing down and taking your time may feel perplexing or even frustrating. But if you give yourself the permission to slow down and to daydream, you never know what literary gold your subconscious may dig up.

Give Yourself Permission to Wander

Think of a schedule as a trail map. It can lead you up the mountain, but it’s also important that you pay attention to your immediate surroundings. If you spot a narrow path through the bushes, give yourself permission to wander along that alternative route. Who knows? You may find another, even better view.

If you typically write following a strict outline, consider putting the outline in a drawer and freewriting awhile.

Maybe you have a character from a previous scene who you found really interesting and you’d like to spend a little more time with. Maybe there’s a romantic subplot you need to flesh out, even if it’s only for your understanding of how or why these two characters find each other attractive.

Not everything you produce has to be publishable, and not everything you produce is going to get published. So why not take some time to write a scene with a minor character who has piqued your interest. Sometimes these relaxed exercises can spark new ideas that do become relevant to the larger project.

Good art doesn’t have to take a long time, but it often does.

For some, writing is an act of perseverance and constant dissatisfaction. For others, it is joyful and energizing. The thing that connects these two points of view is discipline—because good art takes time.

Although you may studiously research and construct a careful outline before you start writing, the truth is we often don’t know what we are doing until we start actively engaging with the project.

People may not think that writing is a tactile act, but it is. Planning and outlining is helpful, but we often can’t “see” our story until we’re actually writing it.

Rather than following a strict outline, we can instead allow our feelings and our sense of what we are trying to accomplish to tow us toward the watery image contained in our mind’s eye. It is through the act of writing that this image gathers shape, constructing its own body, and, consequently, a will of its own.

Let the Story Take the Lead

It’s important to hold your outline and intentions for a novel lightly, because a story can have a mind of its own.

Some authors work tediously on an outline that they then follow to a T; others may mentally map out their entire plot ahead of time so that their writing sessions feel more like dictation rather than creation.

An alternative approach is to let the story come out as it wants to come out.

Outlines are useful and they can save you a lot of time, but if you’ve been a reader for a long time, then you already have an innate understanding of narrative structure.

Have confidence in your subconscious and in your story.

Sometimes it’s helpful to open your document and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Switch off your analytical mind and allow the next scene to occur organically.

When we create from a relaxed state, we often come up with better ideas or notice previously unseen connections. You may get the sudden idea to bring back a minor character from an earlier chapter, or a previously unseen plot hole may come to your attention.

If freewriting isn’t your style, you can always spend five minutes constructing a mini-outline prior to starting your writing session. That way, you have a general idea of where you’re going, but you’ve also allowed space for spontaneity.

Revise Slowly

It’s okay to take your time during the revision process.

Words that are easy to read are rarely easy to write. So take your time to think and write slowly.

Revise your manuscript in layers so that each pass has a specific purpose. Often, a first draft is primarily concerned with plot. Ask yourself:

  • What are the story beats?
  • What is happening here, to whom and why?
  • Is this event moving the plot forward, showing character or adding flavor to the narrative?

Later revisions can then focus on other story elements such as character arcs, mood, theme, symbols, voice/style, tension, and pace.

Again, give yourself permission to approach this part of the writing process slowly. After all, there are few areas in life where we allow ourselves to be slow.

While the practice of slow writing is at odds with the current work culture, it is vital that creatives give themselves the permission to approach their art at a pace and within a time frame that suits both them and their current writing project.

Good art takes time, so don’t be afraid to slow down and meander. Chances are the final product will be all the better for it.

Tara East holds numerous academic degrees in journalism and creative writing. Her nonfiction pieces have appeared The CuspThe Huffington PostQueensland Writers Centre and The Artifice. Her fiction has been published in October Hill magazine and TEXT journal. In 2017, she was shortlisted for The New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Fiction.

 

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On the Importance of Having a Community

On the Importance of Having a Community

Today’s guest post is by M. K. Rainey.

It’s amazing to me how some writers can go their entire careers without ever having a solid community. In fact, I’d argue that’s impossible.

Even the most Luddite and reclusive of authors have a community (obviously outside of social media), whether that’s family, friends, or loyal fans—if they’re lucky enough to be even somewhat successful.

Readers don’t just plop into your lap once you write a book, short story, poem, or essay. To find readers, you have to start with some kind of community. Family and friends are the most obvious starting place, but what if writers could be more supportive and help create that initial platform to share one another’s voices?

It’s hard to do. We have social media communities, like this one, where folks come together to like, repost, and share work. But most of that communication has a lifespan of fifteen seconds before dropping into the endless, digital ocean in which we toil.

While writing can and does have its impact on the reader, I find that most of the work I write for online platforms (including this very piece) doesn’t last in my audience’s memory for even a fraction of the time I spent to write it.

So how do we change that? How do we build community and make lasting impacts on one another beyond the internet’s ethereal plane?

Well, we do what humans have done since the beginning of us: we get together, in real life.

Five years ago, two friends of mine and I were living in that human hotbox known as Manhattan, in East Harlem. We were tired. Tired of traveling to the far reaches of Brooklyn to hear words from writers we admired.

For those who don’t live here, Harlem is to Brooklyn what Chicago is to Milwaukee, or what L.A. is to Santa Barbara, at least on a less-than-ideal day in public transit. So we did something to change that: we started our own reading series to help build community for writers in NYC living outside of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods. We called it the “Dead Rabbits Reading Series”. This move, in ways I couldn’t have known, drastically changed the trajectory of my life for the good.

We built our reading series the way we build friend groups: we started small, but we kept showing up, kept uplifting one another, cheering each other on, bringing more and more artists into the fold in order to uplift them too.

Now, five years later, we’ve hosted nearly three hundred writers, readers, and artists, and there’s no sign of us stopping now.

The majority of my friendships in NYC have grown out of this reading series. A huge chunk of my literary audience began here too. However, we’ve gained even more than that. Career-wise, my cohost signed with his first agent through the series. I’ve been privileged to host countless writers I admire, write reviews and interviews for their books, and even publish essays on running a reading series.

Best yet, this year, we took our reading series to the next level and launched Dead Rabbits Books.

The lives and work of the artists we’ve hosted at our series has impacted me so greatly that my team and I decided we wanted to create a publishing company for them. We wanted to make our community bigger, stronger, more diverse, and unique. We saw the possibilities in creating a press. Not just any old small press, but a community-driven one that mirrored the work we’ve been doing in our series.

Our mission isn’t to chuck books at an audience. We want to give to the community as much as we receive, which is why we’re helping other people start their own literary and artistic communities. We’ve found an audience not by retweeting writerly memes but by sitting next to people, hearing their stories, looking them in the eyes, and sharing our vulnerabilities with one another.

We’re in the process of building these artistic communities in places such as Seattle, Little Rock, Baltimore, and North Carolina. Real communities. Real groups of people coming together in person to support one another and hear  their work.

For us, this makes complete sense. Humans are pack animals and have always been. There might be parts of us that need to slip away and be alone for a while. I frequently have what I refer to as my “extrovert hangovers” which cause me to stay in bed and read all day.

But having a community on the other side of that lifts me up, encourages me to keep going, even on days when I feel weary of such work. I don’t know where I’d be without it. Certainly not writing this article.

You can do this too. Go build your own community. Whether it’s a book club, a writing circle, a reading series, or just a couple of writerly types gathering to talk shop in a bar regularly, you can do it. It doesn’t have to be serious or formal. Start small and it’ll get there. We did.

And, if you’re nervous about it, we’re here. We want to help. All you have to do is ask.

M. K. Rainey is a writer, teacher, and editor from Little Rock, Arkansas. She cohosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series, and is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Dead Rabbits, a literary press that collaborates with writers to create work that matters. Find more about here at her website.  

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