On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Big Giveaway of Prizes, No Purchase Necessary.

Happy New Year Everyone! As my last entry of the year, I wanted to let you know about some bonzo prizes you can enter to win. Famous Writing Institution Gotham Writer's Workshop is offering an iPad 2, a 10-week writing workshop, a Kindle eReader, a Nook eReader, and great magazines and books for writers.

No purchase is necessary.

This contest is limited to the USA or Canada, and entry deadline is midnight Friday January 13 2012. Below is a list of 63 prizes. 63 individual drawings will be held. You can enter up to ten categories.

Good luck!

Enter the Contest now: http://www.writingclasses.com/ContestPages/WishList.php?referrer=27440

Entry Deadline midnight Friday Jan 13 2012
Canada or USA


The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

Gotham Baseball Cap

The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack

Submit: The Multimedia Guide to Submitting Short Prose (2 DVDs)

The 50 Funniest American Writers edited by Andy Borowitz

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi

Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt

The Seven Basic Plots by Christpher Booker

Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets edited by Alexander Neubauer

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen & Coleen O'Shea

Six-week Creative Writing 101 Online Course

Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson

Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces by Roy Peter Clark

Poets & Writers (One-year Subscription)

The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor

The New Yorker 2012 Desk Diary

How Not to Write a Sitcom by Marc Blake

Write/Rewrite Wall Clock

Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Ed.) by Moira Allen

Fiction Gallery by Gotham Writers' Workshop

Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now by Sam Barry & Kathi Kamen Goldmark

Six-week Reading Fiction Online Course

The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith

The Writer (One-year Subscription)

Zoetrope All-Story (One-year Subscription)

Six-week Script Analysis Online Course

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch eReader

The Dialogue: Interviews with Master Screenwriters (3 DVDs)

Writing Movies: The Practical Guide by Gotham Writers' Workshop

Jeff Herman's 2012 Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman

The Maeve Bincy Writer's Club by Maeve Binchy

Four-week "How to Blog" Online Seminar

Four-week "How to Get Published" Online Seminar

The Yahoo! Style Guide by Chris Barr and Yahoo! Editors

Apple iPad 2

Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns

Gotham Sweatshirt

Script (One-year Subscription)

Daily Muse: Writer's Diary 2012

Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide by Gotham Writers' Workshop

Write What You Don't Know: An Accessible Manual for Screenwriters by Julian Hoxter

Word Hero: The Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines That Live Forever by Jay Heinrichs

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book edited by Sean Manning

Barron's Painless Grammar (3rd Ed.) by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D.

The Film Novelist: Writing a Screenplay and Short Novel in 15 Weeks by Dennis J. Packard

Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves: Telling Stories in an Age of Blogging by Jerry Lanson

Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You'll Ever Read by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne

The Word Snoop by Ursula Dubosarsky

The Nighttime Novelist: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time by Joseph Bates

Messenger Bag

10-week Writing Workshop - Online or in NYC

Final Draft Screenwriting Software

Bookmarks (One-year Subscription)

Gotham Writers' Workshop $100 Gift Certificate

Playwriting for Dummies by Angelo Parra

Amazon Kindle eReader

Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson

The Well-Spoken Thesaurus by Tom Heehler

Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart

$50 Barnes & Noble Gift Card

So, Is It Done? Navigating the Revision Process DVD

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Writing Subplots

There are two main purposes for subplots:

1. to assist with the denouement of the climax – the subplot provides some mechanism of the story that is necessary for the Story Question to be successfully resolved.

2. to highlight the moral struggle that the protagonist undergoes. The subplot main character struggles with the same moral problem, but answers it in a different way.

I found that in most “popular” or “mainstream” novels and movies, there were usually five general story lines:

A line – Story Question; external story
B line – Protagonist’s “hidden need”; internal story
C line – antagonist story line
D line –additional external story line
E line – additional internal story line

Story lines focus on the different constellations of characters, whereas subplots describe story events. Therefore, you can have more than one subplot in the C, D and E story lines, although one is often sufficient. I advise caution, since too many subplots easily muddy the forward thrust of the story.

Most subplot story lines, especially on the E line, should ideally progress through the following stages of a Story (from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story). Remember that, for the subplot, the SP main character should struggle with the same issue as your protagonist but answer it in a different way. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Smeagle/Gollum mirrors Frodo, and Boromere mirrors Aragorn.

Stage 1: Weakness, Problem, and Need

Your SP main character has a weakness within himself of which he’s not aware at the beginning of the story. The weakness is MORAL (it hurts others) as well as PSYCHOLOGICAL (it hurts the character). Your SP main character also has a story problem stemming from this weakness. Finally, he has a need to solve this weakness.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula’s WEAKNESS: she doesn’t appreciate her family, although her family desperately wants her to join with them and are sad that she pulls away.

Toula’s PROBLEM: she wants to be seen as an individual, but her family holds to her so tightly that she will *never* be free.

Toula’s NEED: she must learn to be proud to be part of her Greek family as well as to be an individual.

Stage 2: Desire

Your SP main character has an outward desire, the story question of the subplot.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Toula’s DESIRE: she wants to fall in love and get married.

Stage 3: Opponent

The opponent is the character who is competing with the SP protagonist for the same goal.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Toula’s GOAL: she wants to be an individual, separate from her family.
Family’s GOAL: they want Toula to be part of the family.

Stage 4: Plan

Your SP main character must have at least a vague idea, or maybe a more detailed plan, of how he plans to fight the opponent to gain his desire.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula’s PLAN: she will keep dating Ian, whether or not the family approves.

Stage 5: Battle

Your SP main character and opponent battle for supremacy . This is a punch-counterpunch series of actions.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

BATTLE: Toula’s family tries a number of tactics to get her to separate from Ian: forbidding her to see him, using guilt, and introducing her to more *suitable* men. Once they realize that she’s going to marry Ian despite their best efforts, they take over control of the wedding plans. Toula continuously battles for her identity apart from the family.

Stage 6: Self-Revelation

After a great deal of painful struggle, your SP main character realizes and solves his need that you identified in Stage 1. Don’t make this revelation too easy or too obvious (don’t have your character come out and say it!), or your story will fall flat. Instead, demonstrate how this need has been solved.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula is depressed the night before her wedding because she realizes she will never be free of her family. Her grandmother enters the room and shows Toula a picture of herself as a bride, then gives Toula the wedding crown that she wore. Toula suddenly realizes that her family’s inclusiveness is a good thing, full of rich history, identity, and love. Toula is speechless as she hugs her grandmother.

Stage 7: New Equilibrium

Your SP main character has solved his need, or else lost his opportunity to solve it. Desire (Stage 2) is gone so that he simply will continue to live his life at a higher (or lower) level than before.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula celebrates the wedding reception with Ian and her family. Toula’s father gets up and makes a joke that although the two families are different, they are in fact now unified. Toula and Ian are then shown six years later walking with their own little daughter to Greek school. Toula tells the daughter that she can marry anyone she wants.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mixed Metaphors

Hi Everyone --

I couldn't resist. I received this in an email, and just had to share it with you, my dear friends.


Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country. Here are last year's winners.....

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse, without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River .

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap,only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Writers Write

I thought so -- there's no easy way to be a writer, except to write. This is the time.

On a writing loop I belong to, this question came over the wires:

I finished my first manuscript last September. I was naive and eager and began submitting it to agencies right away. I received some really nice letters back and also some constructive criticism, which I took to heart. I made some drastic changes to the manuscript, which I feel improved it considerable. My question is, what do I do with it now?

At what point can I resubmit the same manuscript to an agent? 3 months, 6 months, never? Help!

This great answer is from Kaye Dacus, a multi-pubbed author of some terrific books. You can check out her website at http://kayedacus.com.

What else are you writing? How many other manuscripts have you finished? If you haven't already been asked that by the editors/agents you've had contact with, you will.

My advice is to set this one aside and write/complete/revise another manuscript. And then another. And then another. The best way to train for becoming a multi-published author is to finish multiple manuscripts now, before you're agented/contracted. I'd completed four manuscripts before I ever dreamed of submitting anything to anyone---and I worked on that fourth manuscript for three years (two of those years in graduate school as my master's thesis with the help of two published authors and half a dozen critique partners). By the time I submitted it to anyone, I was already most of the way through the first draft of my fifth manuscript and planning my seventh through tenth. And that fourth manuscript became my first published novel.

We learn more about the craft of writing with each manuscript that we complete and revise---our voice, our storytelling, our own individual style becomes stronger and stronger with each new story we write.

So, as I've said to the members of my local group many times: Bravo for finishing your first manuscript. Now write the next one.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Literary Agent Submissions: A First-Hand Account

As an aspiring writer, how is your query received by the agent? Read on for a little first-hand description.

I read an interesting essay last week on the Amazon Create Space community by someone (Mr. Mysterious) who’d done a two week internship (7 work days total, since there were snow days) in NYC last winter. I wrote to ask for permission to post this on my blog and unfortunately didn’t receive a response, so am taking the liberty here of just summarizing his observations and impressions because they’re so helpful. I’m assuming this is OK since this guy posted on a public forum loop.

Mr. Mysterious worked for an agent mainly reading queries and samples – since this agency requested a synopsis and first 5 pages when querying. He estimates during his time there that he went through 300-350 queries, averaging about 50 per day. For eight hours (not including lunch or bathroom breaks, or other duties and time expenditures), that might be about six or so per hour, or even more roughly speaking, one every ten minutes. This isn’t much time to impress someone who is reading, say, eight pages per submission (1 page query, 5 page sample, 2 page synopsis).

Many of the queries were “way too long,” and he found himself skimming the long ones and/or those with detailed plot descriptions. He felt shorter was definitely sweeter, and he paid closer attention to the concise ones. Queries were usually mediocre, and the handful that weren’t often had sample writing that was.

Mr. Mysterious always read the sample, even if he didn’t like the query. If the query didn’t have a sample, he requested the author to email it back in the body of the email.

After a day, he stopped reading the synopses:

1. Some were too long, occasionally even longer than the sample.
2. After awhile they started to sound the same.
3. If he didn’t like the sample, he didn’t care about the synopsis.
4. They took a long time to read, and when going through a large pile of correspondence the principle is: the faster the better.

The authors didn’t always follow the requested guidelines for number of pages (the longest sample was 20 pages), and although Mr. Mysterious didn’t immediately disqualify these writers, he was definitely annoyed and gave a less careful reading.

Out of 300-350 queries, Mr. Mysterious found exactly ONE that went into the YES folder, and 40 into the ?MAYBE? folder. These query samples had skillful writing (voice, characters, settings, etc.). A few maybes were included even though he didn’t like the samples simply because the writer had some good credentials: a former literary agent or previously pubbed by a reputable publisher and/or major magazine. Many of the credentials cited in the queries were trivial or irrelevant. Credentials only mattered to the intern when they were of something/someone he’d heard of.

The agent who was mentoring this intern rejected the YES, and from the maybes requested pages from one and left two others as possibles. The rest were rejected. The accepted ones he didn’t quite remember but doesn’t think they had credentials in their queries. Neither the agent nor Mr. Mysterious liked the query from the writer from whom she requested pages.

I was fascinated to read that Mr. Mysterious found the same terms appearing in many queries. For example, GUARDIAN – there were a lot of guardians in these samples. He didn’t mention what sorts of genres the agent specialized in, but it sounded like YA and adult, science-fiction-y adventure.

Here’s a quote from the intern’s post: “A lot of queries were like, Main Character is just your average kid/just wants to be your average kid, EXCEPT HE SHOOTS LIGHTNING OUT OF HIS BUTT WHEN HE FARTS.

“A lot of queries, especially YA Urban Fantasy queries, read like they’re all written from the same template. Off the top of my head.

“NAME, a [number] teen year old at [school name] has enough to worry about with [insert generic school/teenage problems], without [insert discovery of paranormal abilities, an ancient conflict, discovery of paranormal abilities AND an ancient conflict]. It will be up to Name to [stop conflict, learn to control abilities]. That is, if he doesn’t get [insert fantasy problem and/or generic school/teenage problems,] first.

“Jake, a thirteen year old at springwood high, has enough to worry about with not making the base ball team and getting dumped by text message, without a sect of ancient warrior chipmunks bringing their civil war to his town of Springwood. As the prophesied Tailless One it will be up to Jake to bring peace to the chipmunks, if he doesn’t get his heart broken by text message again first.”

This intern also found many girl meets boy stories, where the guy is just too amazing for words. After a few too many samples like this he rolled his eyes and passed on all of them.

Another interesting observation is that writers wanted to “start with a bang,” for example a plane crash on the first page. Mr. Mysterious found this stuff uncompelling, if not frankly boring. I would take a guess here that this is so because if you (the reader) don’t care about the characters yet, you don’t really care what happens.

Here’s another quote: “As an intern reading the first few pages of your novel, I was about the most detached person in the world from your story. I wasn't doing this for fun. Or as a favor, cause I knew/liked you. I was doing this, because it was my job, and as you may have guessed, a rather monotonous job at that (though certainly not without its rewards and excitement.) What this means is, the world might be ending in your story, but I was sitting there in an office, tired from my commute, hungry cause I skipped breakfast, and with a lot more queries after you to get through. And the world outside my window? Still there.

“As such, your primary goal in those first five (imo) should be to make the reader, be he agent, intern, or prospective buyer, care. If you make the reader care, he'll be hooked whether you drop a bomb on him or not. If you fail to make him care, then no matter how many bombs you drop, they'll all be duds. (lol, couldn't resist.)”

There were so many queries that he quickly started looking for reasons to reject. Some of these were:

1. Lots of typos.
2. Grammar or tense issues.
3. Blandness, clichés, not being interesting.

Mr. Mysterious kept reading especially if the samples had Voice and/or Humor. He suspects there are two types of Voices that are professional: an overt or stylized voice that is immediately intriguing, and a subtle or realistic style of voice. Some examples of voice that he gives are:

Overt/Stylized: Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, Chuck Palahuik’s Choke, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Doestoevsky’s Notes from The Underground, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian. These overt voices portray exceptional, unique characters with stories that leap off the page.

Subtle/Realistic: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, anything by Hemmingway, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Orwell's 1984, a lot of classic plays like The Glass Menagerie, and Death of a Salesman. You could imagine someone you see in the supermarket being able to tell these stories. This style often occurs in literary fiction.

5-10 pages for a sample may not be enough to capture this type of subtle voice well, and may not play well to a hurried agent or intern. However, different agents specialize in different genres, so you should look carefully for the type of agent that takes your type of stories.


I find it interesting to think that this intern found himself jaded and impatient after only a few days on the job. Keep this in mind when presenting your story. And thank you, Mr. Mysterious, for your sharp insights into the pubbing biz.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

This is Why I Write

I love this picture. Isn't this so true -- when no one understands or wants to hash out an issue -- when you may not even KNOW there is an issue -- books have a way of gently taking you by the hand and showing a better way. Novels especially, because they just tell a story, and buried within that story is the kernel of what you need, or the model that you can follow to be just a little braver or stronger.

Keep writing, my friends. You don't know how your words may touch someone.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Blog Book Tour: The Story Template

Hi Everyone. My book will be featured on a number of blogs today, and I plan to list reviews on the side of this blog over the weekend. Thank you for your interest!


It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story

Taegais Publishing, LLC (July 25, 2011)

***Special thanks to Amy Deardon for sending me a review copy.***


Amy Deardon is married with two children, and spends much time taking care of her family. In her life BC (before children) she was a scientist who did bench research. She is also a Christian who came to faith under protest through studying the historic circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus.

Amy has written one novel, A LEVER LONG ENOUGH, about a small military team that travels back in time to film the theft of Jesus' body from the tomb. This book won two awards.

Visit the author's website.


THE STORY TEMPLATE is a programmed learner that allows the writer to develop her story from chaos. The book uses a series of exercises for the writer to construct her story’s four foundational pillars; learn how to use the “secret weapon” of story structure: the story template; build character depth and believable change; and construct subplots. THE STORY TEMPLATE then reviews writing techniques, and finishes with discussions of editing, writing the synopsis and query letter, submitting one’s work to agents, and types of publishing that the writer may wish to pursue.

Product Details:

List Price: $15.95
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: Taegais Publishing, LLC (July 25, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981899730
ISBN-13: 978-0981899732


Writing a novel or screenplay sounds like a great idea until you sit down to start. Where do you start? Many different methods exist to write the story, ranging from extensive preplanning to venturing onto the first page without an idea. This book describes an approach to developing story--laid out as a sequential series of exercises to facilitate implementation--that you can use whether you prefer a structured or loose approach to writing. You can use it at the start to develop an idea fragment, or later to rescue a partial or completed manuscript that doesn't seem to be working. The method works whether you want to write plot-driven (genre) or character-driven (literary) stories. It enables you to efficiently use your time and creativity by breaking down the process of story building into a logical plan. You will not waste time sitting at your keyboard, wondering what you should write and how you can organize your ideas into a complete manuscript.

The idea for this book originated from my own learning process in producing a novel. Having written scientific articles, newspaper columns, and other nonfiction, when I decided to write a novel I was surprised by how difficult it was to get the words down. I tried outlining, and I tried just going ahead. I had wonderful ideas, but although the scenes I wrote were exciting the story itself often seemed somehow “wrong.” I threw out more pages than I care to remember. Through sheer grit I finished the novel, but when I thought about writing another my heart sank. I decided to first solve the problem of understanding how story worked.

I chose twenty entertaining, modern novels in different genres, and fifteen more-or-less recent films (and I've since confirmed my preliminary observations with tens of more stories). One at a time, I took them apart: I made a list of each scene, then did a word count or timed the scene, calculated percentages and other statistics, and graphed each story onto a five page chart. I studied each story's progression, then compared the progressions of different stories to determine common pathways. I also read all that I could on constructing stories. The writing how-to literature was heavy on techniques (plotting, point of view, characterization, dialogue)--all of which are important--but there wasn't much on blending it all together. Screenwriting how-to books were stronger on structure, but still didn't give me all I needed.

I studied story after story, puzzling out how they were built. First, I identified elements called story posts, and found that these posts fell reliably within the timing of the whole. Then I found consistent trends of progression in the plot, as well as consistent trends of development and interactions in the characters. My biggest surprise, in fact, was finding just how unvarying were the underlying levels of the story. I also identified a unit of story construction I call a “bubble” that bridges the gap between the high concept ideas for the story and individual scenes.

Once I had my background knowledge, I coached students to develop their stories, and thereby constructed an algorithm for the practical application of this theory.

So, what is this “story template” that is the title of this book? Is this a formula or blueprint you can mindlessly follow, like a paint-by-numbers canvas?

In a word, no. I like to call what I found a template since it describes the shape or progression, on a deep level, of virtually all stories. Recognizing this pattern in a story is something I liken to sketching a face. An artist will tell you that a person's eyes are about halfway down the head, and are separated by another eye width. The bottom of the nose is halfway between the eyes and the chin, the mouth is proportionally between the nose and the chin and extends to imaginary vertical lines drawn below the eyes' pupils, the tips of the ears hit about eyelid level, earlobe tips at bottom-nose level, and on and on. Faces are infinitely varied, yet if the artist ignores these rough proportions, no matter how carefully sketched the face will always look “wrong.” Similarly, you will use the template to ensure that your story elements are proportionally correct and all present. The template gives you a guide, but never dictates, what you can write.

Getting the story shape right is the first, and (in my opinion) the hardest step to writing a gripping novel or screenplay. Without good structure, the story tends to meander without a point: although it may have high action, it is characterized by low tension.

You may want to first read this entire book to get an overview of story before starting with the exercises. Keep in mind that shaping a story is intensive work, and it will take you weeks or even months to get your story organized. This is normal. Don't get discouraged, and don't skimp on the exercises. Take your time to thoroughly work through each step. At the end, your story will be much stronger, and the actual writing will go like a dream.

This book is not sufficient for producing a finished story ready for publication or production. You will need to master further writing techniques such as characterization, description, dialogue, transitions, editing, etc. I will touch upon a few of these to give you some direction, but the only way to get really good is to practice. Fortunately, many excellent books are available for help. See Appendix One to start.
Outline of The Plan

I like to use the metaphor of constructing a house to envision building a story. To assemble a house, you move from larger to smaller elements to sequentially put something together. Only after you have worked through many tasks is it finally time to do the fine details of painting the windowsills and installing the wallpaper. Similarly, while you have ideas about character arcs and plot twists, and maybe you've even written some scenes, you will be well served to develop a direction before writing through your manuscript. If you write your first draft as the ideas occur to you, then this will comprise your story planning. You'll find that you probably don't have enough material to form an entire novel or screenplay, and even if you do it may not hang together. Believe me, this is a laborious and frustrating way to go.

The Story Template gives a series of actions for you to do that will allow you to develop your story ideas with a minimum of angst and wasted energy. Some exercises will be quick, others will require a great deal of thought, and perhaps even a marination of thought, before finishing. Don't be in a rush--some of your best ideas will come as you play with character or event possibilities. As you continue to develop your story you will probably revisit different components of these exercises, going back and changing previous work, as you move through this programmed story outliner. That's okay. Just go with the flow, and have fun.

When you've finished with these exercises, you will be ready to start writing your manuscript, with ease and flow and speed, because you will have already done the hard organizational work. Even if you want to change the story as you're writing, you'll be able to do so with an understanding of how to balance the changes. You will have a detailed roadmap that will allow you to bring your vision--your book or screenplay--to completion.
Writing Tools

You are a writer. Before you start, you need to assemble the following items:

1. A tool with which to do your major writing, either a computer, an old-fashioned typewriter, or paper and pencil. If you do handwrite your notes, you may want to treat yourself to a special pen that you love, and is only to be used for your magnus opus.

2. A system to organize your template exercises. I prefer hard copy: printing out computer files, or writing on loose leaf paper, then placing the sheets in a three-ringed binder. This notebook may inspire you and give you a sense of accomplishment as you look through to see how much you've done. Not as recommended is keeping files only on computer because they're harder to flip through, mark up, and juxtapose ideas; or a spiral or bound notebook because you can't replace pages or change their order. But do what works for you.

3. A small notebook to carry with you at all times. Use this to jot down any thoughts that come to you.

4. Index cards. Get two packs, and we'll go over how to use them to story board. Also get a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker (thin tip) for bold marks. Finally, you may want to purchase an index card binder to permanently keep your cards in order.

Getting the Words Down

Here are some tips to help you get the words down:

1. Decide on a daily quota of words that is manageable. A good starting goal might be 300, but remember to keep pushing this number up as you become accustomed to the writing process. Create a log to record your daily output. Post this on your refrigerator or otherwise keep it prominent in your daily life.

2. Set aside at least fifteen minutes at a time in which you can remain undisturbed. Aim for an hour or more if you can.

3. Don't start your writing session by checking your e-mail or doing anything else except for writing.

4. Turn off anything that might distract you--music, radio, or television. Some people can write through these things, but try without for a few days to see if you do better.

5. If you're stuck, do free-writing where you talk to yourself on paper. Something like, “I'm trying to figure out what Jason's problems with Mike might be in this scene. I was thinking about…”

Let's get started.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Growth of Amazon

Let me say at the outset that I have a love-hate relationship with amazon. I love being able to get books so easily, and I love love love my kindle. I bought a kindle fire for my husband out of my minimal personal funds, and am hopeful he'll love it also. (He wants one but doesn't want to "spend the money").

On the downside, as a seller I feel like amazon takes my little widow's mite to itself. My publisher is offering my book at a 55% discount, which means they are paid $7.20 for each $16.00 book. Printing, shipping, and miscellaneous costs leave very little to go into the coffers. By contrast, amazon takes $8.80 per book. Yes, they ship, but is this fair? Furthermore there is no one to talk with at amazon about this. The publisher choices are to lower the discount to get more per sale (a problem for other reasons), or suck it up until and unless I the author get better sales. I actually had a good wave of sales and was building momentum until amazon raised the price. Now, I don't know. It is discouraging, believe me. No one reads this blog anyway, so I guess I can complain a bit. Sigh.

The summary below is from frugaldad.com.

Amazon Infographic

Source: Frugaldad.com

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fantasy Genre

Fantasy Genre

The Fantasy genre (monsters, genies, magical powers, time travel, and so forth) has been around since at least the time of Greek mythology, but it's interesting to study how "alternate reality" stories have developed in the modern era. Three early modern stories, that are now considered classics, are:

*The Nutcracker (scored by Tchaikovsky, premiere 1892, adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" written in 1816)

*Alice in Wonderland (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, written in 1865)

*The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, written in 1900)

These early-modern fantasy stories are similar:

In The Nutcracker, at a Christmas party Clara is given a nutcracker that her brother promptly breaks. After midnight Clara dreams she sees the mouse king and Nutcracker fighting -- and through her heroic slipper-throwing she dispatches the mouse king and breaks the spell on her beloved Nutcracker, who is really a handsome prince. The prince takes her to the Kingdom of the Sweets where he and Clara hold court over all the dancing subjects in the kingdom celebrating the prince's return and Clara's bravery. The End.

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is bored waiting with her sister, then sees a white rabbit with a watch run by. After falling down the rabbit hole she eats and drinks strange things, shrinks then grows tall, talks to disappearing cats, attends bizarre tea parties, rumbles with the Queen of Hearts ("Off with her head!") and basically has a confusing time of it before waking and realizing it was all a dream. The End.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy on her way home from rescuing her dog is caught up in a tornado and dropped in the land of Oz. She's chased by the Wicked Witch of the West, wears diamond slippers (ruby in the Judy Garland 1939 movie), and wanders through the country picking up assorted companions as she goes to find the Wizard of Oz so he can send her home. (NOTE: I'm still trying to figure out Dorothy’s line at the end. It goes something like, "I learned that when I go looking for my heart's desire, I don't have to go farther than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never lost it in the first place." Huh??). The End.

Does anyone see what the common theme in these stories might be?

I think the reason these don't work well as stories is because they don't have a point. They are PREMISES, without a goal-directed narrative. In all three, the main character goes on a journey, but comes back exactly the same as before. Well, Dorothy in Oz DOES have a character arc, but it's a trivial one: She basically learns that it's good to be home. This is like saying that the grass is green. Do I CARE about what happens to Clara, Alice, or Dorothy? Not really.

All three of these were written when fantasy types of stories were just beginning to emerge. The story world in these stories was sufficiently entertaining for an audience not as sophisticated in terms of story type and development as we are today with mega-special effects and mind-twisting story worlds.

So, in light of this, how might one make a story gripping? How might one cause the reader or viewer to identify with the protagonist?

Answer: There must be an element within the protagonist with which your reader or viewer identifies. By this I'm not talking about statistical data (white male, 30s, lives in Chicago, day trader), but rather, what the protagonist desires in the story, the point through which the character arc traverses. In other words, there must be a goal.

Let's do another example: Rocky, a classic film that I love love love! But wait a moment. I detest boxing; I can't stand the violence, crowds, yelling, smoke, blood, etc. I'm not an Italian man. I don't live in Philadelphia. I don't go to bars, or have friends who trash their houses with a baseball bat when they're angry. I don't punch raw meat. I do love dogs, so I could see myself running with Rocky’s Boxer, Budkins, but that's about it. Oh, and the music is great.

But surely this isn't enough to keep me watching. What I love about this movie is Rocky's determination to make something of himself: he doesn't want to be "just another bum from the neighborhood." Gee, I can definitely identify with this. I know that this is a hard thing to accomplish. I watch Rocky's heartbreaking struggle: he's pushed down at every turn, but somehow through a lucky break and some very hard work, he's able to claw himself up to prominence. He doesn't even win the final fight, but he knows that he has indeed become a Somebody through hard work and determination because he was able to “go the distance” with Apollo Creed.

Rocky's character arc parallels the course of triumph that I wish for my own life. He fights; I fight. He's knocked down; I'm knocked down. He makes progress; well, maybe I can make progress too. There's some hope.

The reader or viewer must care about your protagonist. To do this, there must be a deep abiding drive in your protagonist that your reader or viewer can identify with, and root for, and hope to see victorious. If your hero can do it, the reader or viewer thinks, then maybe so can I.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don't Be a Welfare Hydra

For those of you who don't know, I've done an in-depth study of story (novels and films) with the aim of articulating how stories can be put together. I've been fortunate enough to coach several writers to apply and refine my paradigm, and I think I'm onto something! This algorithm is scheduled to be released as a book THE STORY TEMPLATE at the end of June.

A main, and I mean really main, really big, problem that I keep running across while editing I've called the "One Darn Thing After Another" syndrome. But I've just found the icon for this that I think is perfect -- the Welfare Hydra!

First, take a look at this 3 minute clip. This scene is from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason needs to kill the 7-headed Hydra in order to steal the golden fleece. The chick is Medea, a high priestess who's basically betrayed her people to help Jason, but we won't go into the whole ethics of Jason's quest here -- after all, this is high Greek mythology, so let's just watch it for fun:

This is an impressive movie with astounding special effects for 1963, and I enjoyed watching it on many levels. I first saw this movie a few years ago with my boy, when as a first grader he became interested in ancient warfare topics in general (as an aside, he impressed the heck out of his teacher by taking half an hour to explain the Pelopynesian War to the class. My daughter, though, is the Greek myth expert. But as a proud mom, I digress).

I feel a bit guilty being so critical here since the special effects technology WAS so primitive, but hey, this makes my point. In this clip, did you notice what the Welfare Hydra does?




Yes, the Hydra waves its heads a bit, hisses, and slithers on its floppy little belly. It even catches Jason in its tail at one point, but promptly lets him go and doesn't press the attack. You can almost hear the Hydra saying (in a squeaky voice) "I'm scary! I'm scary! See how scary I am?" At the end it bares its chest so Jason with his sword can conveniently stab its heart, at which it obligingly dies.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Simply this: in many of the stories that I critique, I find this same sort of "Welfare Hydra" mentality appearing, on both the macro and the micro levels. The writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end, these events don't make any difference to the story. They don't push the story along.

The micro events just add word count. A character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight capris, feeling refreshed now. Excuse me? Does any of this detail really add to the story? Now, maybe if the character had arthritis, then her method of opening a bottle might give a little grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.

So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this, but the core principle is to consistently raise the stakes for the protagonist: put more in jeopardy, make it uncertain that the protagonist can accomplish a goal that is vital to him and for the long-term success for the story. Everything counts, including little actions. Who cares how the character opens a bottle of water? But if the character isn't sure that she will be able to sneak a sip of water to calm a cough before she has to make an announcement, it might become more interesting.

A good way to raise these questions is to write in a deep third person point of view. Many manuscripts I read are written in a superficial POV, where actions are captured as if on camera, and there is no insight into the character's thoughts. The penetrating POV is one of the great strengths of novel writing. (Films of course have music, camera angles, and other tricks that make them a different, yet also strong, medium).

Use your POV!

Here are two passages:


Sam ran down the hallway. It was long, and there were no windows. He picked up speed. The entrance was twenty feet away. (objective POV)



Sam couldn't see the intruder, but knew he must be close by. This was the hardest part to get out of the building: a long white tunnel, no windows.

Twenty feet. He might just have time. If only he could turn off these lights to race in the dark, but no time, no time.

And then he heard a footstep behind him...

(penetrating POV)


OK, it's a hokey example written off the top of my head, but you get the idea, I trust.

When you write, whether a paragraph or a scene or more, keep asking yourself, "Are my words a Welfare Hydra?" If they are, stab them through the heart.

Friday, November 25, 2011

No Substitute for Experience

An art teacher ran an experiment in his ceramics class. He divided the class into two groups. One would receive their final grade based on the quantity of pots they were able to make: for example, 50 pounds was worth an A, 40 pounds a B, and so forth. The other half of the class would be graded on the quality of only one pot; it had to be exquisite.

And the experiment began...

The first group made pot after pot, some small, some large, more, more, more.

The second group strategized, studied the ceramics of the masters, sketched and plotted, calculated, planned, and finally each made his one pot.

So which group won?

Interestingly, the group that was judged on quantity also ended up with the highest quality pots. The second, strategizing, group found their pots beset with mistakes that they hadn't anticipated. As the first group made pot after pot, they also learned to better produce works of art.*

*a story from John Ortberg's If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.

The moral of this story is that if you want to accomplish something, you must do it! Don't talk, don't take classes, don't read books about it, unless you also start producing attempts. Yes, your attempts may stink, and they are hard and impinge on your schedule, but they are also the only way to become better. If you want to write a novel, then start by writing: emails, grocery lists, little scenes, anything. If you compose beautiful music, then write a million songs and record the best.

Don't be someone who in ten years looks back on today and says, "Oh, if only I'd done this..."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ISBN (International Standard Book Number)

Today I want to talk about the vanity/subsidy publisher versus the self-publisher in regards to the registration of the book.

When you are thinking of publishing your own book, there are several options. Many people read the advertisements in a writing magazine, and without researching options simply go to one of these: a company that they pay in order to publish their book. Quality of services ranges from excellent to steal-you-blind; Mark Levine has written a helpful book comparing 45 companies , but there are so many that he only scratches the surface. Strictly speaking, publishing with one of these companies is NOT self-publishing: it is vanity/subsidy publishing. You are a self-publisher only if YOU are the publisher.

The publisher becomes important when considering the ISBN. The ISBN, also known as the International Standard Book Number, is like a book's social security number: it is a unique identifier that is forever linked to your book. The ISBN is necessary to engage in generalized commerce in bookstores, online, and other venues -- in other words, you can sell a book by hand without an ISBN, say cookbooks at a community function, but that's it.

Pick up any book on your shelf. On the back cover you should see a white box with two bar codes, and also several strings of numbers. The larger barcode on the left encodes the book's ISBN, a 13-digit number beginning with *978* if it's published in the USA. Since the system recently switched to 13 digits, each book also has a 10-digit ISBN although it may not be printed on the book. The smaller barcode on the right encodes the book's price in a five digit number. The number is *90000* indicates no price specified.

Since the ISBN identifies the publisher, unless you have bought the ISBN from RR Bowker (if you publish in the USA), the book is not considered *yours.* I want to quote this section from the United States ISBN Agency, the official source for ISBNs in the USA:

Who can assign ISBNs to a publisher?

There are over 160 ISBN Agencies worldwide, and each ISBN Agency is appointed as the exclusive agent responsible for assigning ISBNs to publishers residing in their country or geographic territory. The United States ISBN Agency is the only source authorized to assign ISBNs to publishers supplying an address in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico and its database establishes the publisher of record associated with each prefix.

Once an ISBN publisher prefix and associated block of numbers has been assigned to a publisher by the ISBN Agency, the publisher can assign ISBNs to publications it holds publishing rights to. However, after the ISBN Agency assigns ISBNs to a publisher, that publisher cannot resell, re-assign, transfer, or split its list of ISBNs among other publishers. These guidelines have long been established to ensure the veracity, accuracy and continued utility of the international ISBN standard.

As defined by the ISO Standard, the ISBN publisher prefix (or "root" of the ISBN) identifies a single publisher. If a second publisher subsequently obtains an ISBN from the assigned publisher's block of ISBNs, there will be no change in the publisher of record for any ISBN in the block as originally assigned. Therefore, searches of industry databases for that re-assigned ISBN will identify the original owner of that assigned prefix as the publisher rather than the second publisher. Discovering this consequence too late can lead to extensive costs in applying for a new prefix, re-assigning a new ISBN, and potentially leading to the application of stickers to books already printed and in circulation.

If you are a new publisher, you should apply for your own ISBN publisher prefix and plan to identify and circulate your books properly in the industry supply chain. You may encounter offers from other sources to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices; you should be wary of purchasing from these sources for the reasons noted above. There are unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs and this activity is a violation of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram. If you have questions, contact the US ISBN Agency for further advice.


Did you catch what this statement above says? Basically, the company that publishes your book, forever will be the official publisher on record. YOU CANNOT TRANSFER THE ISBN, and YOU CANNOT BUY THE ISBN FROM THE COMPANY, no matter what they say. The book is linked to THEM, not to you. If you want to break your contract with the publisher for whatever reasons to go to a different company, the book will still be registered to the first company. To unlink the book you'll need to get a brand new ISBN and start from scratch: your marketing efforts done earlier will be for naught.

Another common problem with vanity/subsidy publishing is that usually the author doesn't own the cover, the typesetting, the illustrations -- none of the physical files. If you want to leave this company for whatever reasons, you will walk away with nothing. The book will need to be re-typeset and a new book cover designed, as well as obtaining a new ISBN.

Ron Pramschufer, a self-publisher, writes an article about this HERE.

Deciding to go outside of a traditional publisher is a serious decision that must be carefully evaluated. You need to realize from the start that the odds are severely against you, especially for marketing fiction. These two landmines I discuss today are a few among many as you start to look into producing your own book.

Friday, November 11, 2011



A wrongfully-imprisoned young man gains freedom and a fortune that he uses to wreak an elaborate revenge.

This story takes place in the grand sweep of Napoleonic France. Nineteen-year-old sailor Edmond Dantès has just been promoted to ship's captain, and plans to marry his great love in a few days. Unfortunately dangerous jealousy stirs the hearts of three of his so-called friends who conspire to accuse him of treason. Edmond is thrown into a rocky prison in which he almost goes mad from isolation until he meets a fellow prisoner tunneling under his cell. This prisoner teaches Edmond all he knows, including the location of an unimaginable fortune that Edmond believes may be fantasy.

When the prisoner dies, Edmond sews himself into the man's shroud and escapes to find the treasure, then Edmond’s erstwhile companions who imprisoned him for years.
With his wealth and disguises, Edmond becomes dangerous as he righteously rewards or ruins one man after another, bringing long-hidden secrets to light. Edmond's plans are elaborate and unexpectedly fitting, but as his revenge leaves a trail of devastation, he begins to wonder if forgiveness is more powerful than anger.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sample Pitch: DRACULA

DRACULA: (212 words)

An unlikely group of professionals and friends discovers a mythical evil that is surprisingly real and determined to infiltrate 1900s England.

A young English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, travels to Eastern Europe to do business with a Transylvanian noble. Although the local people urge Harker not to proceed, and one woman even hangs a crucifix about his neck, he enters the mysterious castle of Count Dracula. Soon he learns his host climbs walls like a bat, has no reflection in a mirror, and will not let him go. Three dreamlike women hunt him and almost steal his soul; he fears he will go mad.

Harker escapes to England and rejoins his five friends, only to find the dear friend of his fiancée dying from a mysterious wasting illness. A learned professor, Van Helsing, recognizes the unusual symptoms. Further educated by Harker's observations of his terrifying ordeal, Van Helsing leads the hunt to extinguish the vampire Dracula before the Count can wreak more damage. Dracula has more influence and cunning than expected, though, and soon establishes a strong presence in England. As the group of friends helplessly watch, Harker's fiancée falls ill with the same symptoms that killed her friend. Can the small band of vampire hunters stake Dracula before he kills them all?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing the Pitch

The pitch is a short, 200 word synopsis of your story. This is a slightly longer version of your logline, and helpful for selling your book, say in a query letter.

There is no “one way” to write the pitch. I suggest you study the backs of book covers to get a sense of what these might be like. The purpose of the pitch is to give a brief description of your story so the reader feels compelled to learn more.
I have a general formula I use for my own pitches, although these suggestions are flexible and not hard-and-fast rules. If you’d like, you can follow along with me.

At the top of the page, write your fifteen to twenty word logline that describes your story.

Next, write an intriguing set-up of your problem or inciting incident in two to four sentences.

Next, write some of the problems that occur during the beginning-middle of the story in two or three sentences.

Next, hint at the deeper problems of your story in one or two sentences.

Finally, end the pitch on a one sentence cliff-hanger.

Next two entries I'll post two examples of pitches.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Premise or Story

During my fiction coaching, when I first meet with someone they may have a great idea:

“I want to write about this little old church lady who loves gambling in Las Vegas.”
“I want to write about a dog who has human intelligence and can be a spy.”
“I want to write about a special book that gives personal messages to people.”

And I always sit back and say, “OK. Now tell me about your story.”

There is usually a notable silence

Most people starting out, I find, don’t understand the difference between a premise and a story, yet this is critical. The PREMISE describes some circumstance, or person, or other interesting thought, on which a story might be based.

The STORY, on the other hand, describes a concrete arc of events and so forth that describe a specific journey and life-lesson of one particular person, fighting particular obstacles in order to achieve a particular goal.

The first exercises I usually give to a new person are for them to describe what, exactly, the main character is trying to achieve. This thing must be specific and clearly answered with a yes or no. Then, I wonder why the main character wants to achieve this thing? What horrible things might happen if he doesn’t get this? Then, who is the main character competing with in order to get this specific thing?

Finally, I like to know what are the specific problems that the main character may encounter on his way to achieving this goal?

These questions usually take the person a week or so to work through. They sound basic, but without these answers the person is dealing with a premise – an interesting thought – rather than a story.

To recap, here are the questions to ask:

PREMISE: who is your main character? Does he have an interesting background?
GOAL: what is your main character trying to achieve in THIS story?
STAKES: what will happen if your main character is not able to achieve this goal?
ANTAGONIST: who is the chief person standing in the way of your main character? Why is the antagonist blocking the main protagonist?
OBSTACLES: what problems might the main character face as he goes about achieving the story goal?

Friday, October 28, 2011

NaNo is Coming

Here it is: the annual challenge from National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org/) to write 50,000 words in a month.

Like running a marathon, for many years I looked at this goal with awe: sure, it might be possible, but was it likely? Not for me. Finally last year I decided to face my fear head on. I decided that writing 2000 words per day, six days per week, would do the trick. I'd have a few spare non-writing days for those impossible times when the world falls around your ears, and could keep going otherwise. 2000 words is a lot, but it's doable.

And so, I started out. I friended a few people and watched their word outputs: the NaNo site has a graph into which you input your word count every day. Some graphs looked like mine: slow and steady. Others were wild: flat, flat, and then an infusion of 8-10,000 words over the weekend. My brain would fry doing that.

At the end of the month, I found... I'D DONE IT! I had about 53,000 words. Most of it was drivel, mind you, but the only criterion was quantity, and I had that.

And now, it's that time again, starting on Tuesday November 1 through Wednesday November 30th. Things are tougher this year with kiddo stuff, but I'm going to try for it.

I learned while writing my first novel that SOTP (seat of the pants) is not the way to go. Heck, I developed and refined my algorithm (THE STORY TEMPLATE: CONQUER WRITER'S BLOCK USING THE UNIVERSAL STRUCTURE OF STORY) because I didn't want to waste time doing I knew not what. The Template book has more than 100 specific exercises that sequentially help the writer develop all elements of a story, and then combine them.

So for this next month, instead of venturing out on a new story SOTP, I am going to use my algorithm to develop the sequel of A LEVER LONG ENOUGH. Once this is finished, I would like to look for an agent, then find a new home for both of these books. And after that, I have a blockbuster idea for the prequel, entitled NEST AMONG THE STARS, describing a spectacular space station disaster.

If you will be joining me in NaNo, I'd love to be buddies! My handle is Amy_D.

Happy writing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lowering Amazon's List Price

Amazon discounts DTBs (dead tree books -- with a real cover and paper pages). However, it doesn't discount all of them.

When my book was released this summer my publisher offered a 50% discount -- this meant that when a store such as amazon bought the book to fulfill orders, they only had to pay the publisher half the retail price of the book. In the industry this is considered typical -- publishers almost always offer a substantial discount to sellers. Since the publisher also pays for printing the book, the net profit to the publisher can potentially be small.

Since the release, my book has been listed on amazon at its full retail price of 15.95, despite this 50% discount. This meant that even though my publisher only received 8.00 and paid much of that money for costs, Amazon took the entire rest of the 8.00 selling price. I wanted amazon to pass on that publisher discount to the buyer in the form of a reduced sale price, so spent over an hour talking with people in customer service who knew NOTHING! They didn't even know who set the prices, much less how I could ask for price changes to be considered.

My friend Grace, who is also a publisher, suggested that I sell the book at a lower price on my website. Amazon has a button on each book listing for which the person can alert amazon the book is selling cheaper -- and amazon who wants to be the lowest seller will bump the price down. Fabulous idea, but sadly for a number of reasons I wasn't able to implement this.

Another friend suggested that I offer the book on Smashwords for any price I want, and since Smashwords feeds into amazon they would also lower their price. This was another super idea except for two reasons: 1. Smashwords offers only e-books, not DTBs. 2. Smashwords holds onto the right to sell the book *forever* -- so any changes of rights, say a different publisher, wouldn't allow someone to remove the book from Smashwords.

I had practically resigned myself to having amazon make eight dollars off of each sale, but in desperation wrote to one other publisher friend and asked him if he knew anything. In the email I misspoke to say my publisher was considering "raising the discount." What I meant to say "lower the discount," from 50% to, say, 20%. The publisher would then keep 80% of the retail book price: 12.80 per book instead of 8.00. Even a 20% discount offered from the publisher will normally result in amazon just charging the retail price. (A lower discount will mean amazon will charge more than retail, since it also needs to make money). By saying the publisher would RAISE the discount I was saying that the publisher would take even less money per sale.

My friend jumped on that and said it was a good thought. He checked through his own catalog (he is a subsidy publisher, so the individuals each choose their own discount) and found that those giving a 55% discount received a discounted price on amazon, whereas anything lower did not get a lower price.


My publisher raised the discount to 55%, and a week later the list price for my book on amazon dropped to 12.44.

No one else, including the printer, publishers, or amazon people, could give me a straight answer, but here it is for anyone trying to figure this problem out: IF YOU WANT AMAZON TO DISCOUNT THE LIST PRICE OF YOUR DTB, HAVE YOUR PUBLISHER OFFER A DISCOUNT OF 55%.

I hope I've just saved you a lot of aggravation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Protagonist's Core and the Author's Bargain

Protagonist's Core

The trick of the character arc is to strip away the protagonist’s identity so that he can become who he truly is: his core. His identity protects him from exposing this core. The protagonist doesn’t know what he needs to be complete.

You need to ask yourself while forming your story: what sort of life would best suit your protagonist? What choices would he need to make to get there from where he is starting? These are involved questions that take time to work through. Free-write your thoughts. Then, write down in a few words the essence or core of your character.

As a writer, you must be cruel to your protagonist. You are going to offer him the life of his dreams, but the catch is he must give up his identity in order to grab it. Think about the bargain you are going to strike with your protagonist. Give him everything he wants… but only if he gives up his old life. Summarize this bargain in a few words.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Your Protagonist is Afraid of Repeating Something

Your protagonist often has an unhealed source of continuing pain: a wound that occurred before the story began, or perhaps in the prologue. If present, this wound is undeserved. It can be from a single event or, more commonly, an extended situation, and it often occurs during childhood. Because of this wound, your protagonist has fought at great cost to overcome his circumstances from the wound, but he is afraid it may happen again. For example, a character growing up dirt-poor who has "made it" at Wall Street may be deathly afraid of losing his money.

Because of his fear, your protagonist has developed a protective identity that helps him to manage life. This identity is how your character sees himself, and he clings to it in order to define himself to others. Identity can be comprised of age, gender, belief system, job, family—whatever your character thinks is necessary to describe who he is.

A good way to specifically articulate the character’s identity is to explore what the character would not do, or the types of feelings he would not admit to, if it meant he’d have to give up his identity.

Take some time to explore who your protagonist thinks he is. What does he need to keep doing to advance his life in the way it is going? What sorts of thoughts or actions would he never do?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Who is Your Protagonist?

While you may have complex story ideas, it’s important to identify one, and only one, protagonist for your story. The technical definition of the protagonist is that he is the character who most emotionally changes in the story: he learns how to repair an emotional void or need in his life so that he can live more freely. This character change, or arc, describes a journey of fulfillment.

This protagonist will have an emotional HIDDEN NEED that needs to be fixed during the course of the story. This Hidden Need will be related in some way to the overall theme or moral that you want to use for your story. While your story might be about many of your characters, the protagonist will be the one whose story it is.

You need to decide whose story this will be. List all the characters you may want to include in your story, and describe your thoughts around them. How will each change, or will he change? Then look through your list to decide on which character you most want to focus. If there are two (or more) characters that make major changes, that’s okay, but one has to be dominant. Make a choice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Hidden Need

Over the next few posts I'll go over the components of a character arc, but today want to focus on the skeleton of the character arc: the HIDDEN NEED.

The hidden need is an emotional lack or deep-seated problem that your character must fulfill during the course of your story in order to be fulfilled. For example, the character may suffer from a lack of courage, or an inability to be emotionally close to his girlfriend, or an overspending habit. The hidden need is linked to the moral or theme of your story -- in other words, this hidden need serves as a concrete demonstration of the larger, overall point that you're trying to make.

The hidden need is also considered a "subplot" of sorts in your story -- your hero is pursuing the story goal, but also must wrestle with this problem within the context of solving the big problem.

The hero usually isn't even aware of his problem/hidden need, although others around him are. Often there is a scene near the beginning where a character actually tells the hero he has a problem, which he dismisses.

The hidden need is usually solved in the third quarter of the story. The best stories solve the hidden need in a "triplet" of actions: the hidden need is clearly demonstrated, the hidden need is solved, and the hidden need is demonstrated to be solved in a small action. Often towards or at the climax, the solved hidden need is critical for the hero's triumph.

Stories without a hero's hidden need will fall flat, since the story will only be sustained by outer action. People desire to read stories for emotional fulfillment, and the hidden need is the mechanism to incorporate emotional involvement in your story.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Character Arc Part One

Writers use many techniques to develop a character, and you’ve probably heard of at least a few of these. For example, some writers spend hours working on character questionnaires describing physical characteristics, personality and mannerisms, personal and professional histories, and other information. Writers can develop interrelated character histories, family trees, and bombshell generational secrets. Others might keep a journal in the character’s voice, or conduct in-depth interviews by pretending the character is sitting across the table. Some use a Myers-Briggs or other type of personality analysis. These are all fine, and you should feel free to use any techniques that help you to envision your story people. However, in my opinion the character arc is what makes or breaks the character.

Over the next few entries I'll talk about how to develop this character arc. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Funny Edits

Funny Edits

Here are some fun headlines --


Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter


Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says


Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers


Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over


Miners Refuse to Work after Death


Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant


War Dims Hope for Peace


If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile


Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures


Enfield ( London) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide


Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges


Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge


New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group


Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft


Kids Make Nutritious Snacks


Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half


Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors


Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book is a Product

I read comments on Amazon about how Kindle books are too expensive. After all, there's no physical product, just an electronic file that travels through the air to reach the e-reader. As a writer I want to jump in to the conversation. Of COURSE Kindle books aren't free! The writer should receive recompense for his time and creativity. Sadly, this idea doesn't occur to many non-writers.

Resentment for paying for Kindle books reflects the contemporary attitude that information should be free. After all, one can find anything for free on the internet. It's harder to convince someone that he must actually shell out bills for the information contained in your book. This is why, when you finish your book and start attempting to find an agent or sell it yourself, you must keep the focus on the buyer, not yourself, to explain why the buyer will get a bargain by purchasing your product.

Too many times I read newbie query letters to agents in which the writer explains all about the book, but says nothing about how this book might serve to fill a need in the purchaser or what the writer will do to market said book. I always ask some questions to help focus the writer:

What books is your book similar to? And please remember that your book will NEVER be unique -- Similar books exist. Find them.

What makes your book different and better from others in the field?

Who reads these similar books? You need to identify your target audience. Who else might buy a book like yours?

What is your platform? Platform included things like live appearances and lectures, publishing articles with a byline, groups and so forth that you belong to (church, clubs, friends), and of course internet presence: Websites, Blogs, Tweets, Friends, online loops, and so forth. Your platform represents the people whom you might be able to reach to tell about your book.

THESE are the types of things an agent or editor wants to hear about before taking your book on. Give them what they want.

Too often I run into wannabe authors who think that printing the book is the end of the process. This is why they are such an easy target for subsidy printing companies (about which I am extremely negative, but that's another column). The author is tired of always being rejected and figures that he can easily circumvent the process to publish his book. Right? Actually no.

It is a straightforward process to produce a nice looking book, whether you are published traditionally, published by a subsidy company, or do it yourself. It's an almost automatic process to be listed on the online bookstores like Amazon, and even producing a Kindle or Nook version is free and straightforward. (Yet another column). THE HARD PART IS TO MAKE THE SALES!

Marketing. Underline that word with two lines because that is what makes the difference. Your book is a product. Make it as perfect as you can with the writing, and then figure out how you're going to sell it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writing Conferences

Writing conferences can be encouraging places to meet other writers as well as editors, producers, and agents. They can be wonderfully renewing experiences for writers of many skill levels, ranging from thinking-about-it to multi-published.
Conferences vary in size and quality, so you’ll want to investigate before putting money down to register. Do you want to focus on a specialty area or something more general? How far away can you travel, and for how long can you stay? Check out who are the speakers and faculty, and make sure there are at least a few you’d like to meet.

Conferences are typically comprised of lectures as well as one or more brief individual appointments with the professionals. Normally for the appointment you’ll pitch your story to the agent or editor, and hope that you might be able to spark some interest. Be prepared: before the conference put together a proposal, a synopsis, and the first few sparkling pages of your manuscript just in case the person asks to see something. You also need to rehearse your logline and elevator speech (thirty second summary) so when the person says, “Tell me about your story,” you’ll be able to coherently answer.

Chances are that you’ll also informally meet agents and editors at meal times and other times throughout the conference. It’s difficult, but remember not to be a pest or to be over-eager to push your work on them. You’ll have a position of power if you can step back and be relaxed about meeting people. Chat and ask how they liked their trip. Find out a little about them instead of talking at them incessantly. It is often a tiring experience for the agent or editor to be on display for the few days of the conference, so be kind.

Don’t forget to bring your business cards to pass out as you meet your fellow writers.

Friday, September 23, 2011



It's important. Check out these headlines. 'Nuff said.


Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over

Miners Refuse to Work after Death

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

War Dims Hope for Peace

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile

Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

Enfield ( London ) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges

Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Read Out Loud On Your Kindle

Many writers extol the benefits of hearing their words read out loud to detect awkward phrasing or other problems. The theory is that by getting a different perspective, you might be able to get a clearer view of what you actually have, and correct your writing to make it flow better.

In the past writers might have read aloud themselves, although this didn't give a perfect effect since they were also reading as they listened. If the writer was lucky he might have a friend kind enough to read, or even go through the tedious steps of recording their words, then playing them back. Computers now can use an audible program to read aloud, although this ties the writer to one location to listen.

A new way, if you have an Amazon Kindle, is to place your file on the Kindle and then use the text-to-speech feature to read aloud.

Your Kindle has an email address associated with it. (YOURADDRESS @ kindle.com). You can find this address by going to the home page|Menu|Settings|Device Email. Attach the document and send it to this address. If you're cheap like me and don't want to spend even the quarter to receive the article, send it to YOURADDRESS @ free.kindle.com. In about a minute or two amazon returns your converted file.

If you sent it the free way, you need to plug your kindle into your computer and move the file over to the DOCUMENTS folder on the kindle.

Once your ms is on your kindle open it up, push the AA button, and turn on the text-to-speech feature.

Easy peasy. Happy writing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ending the Scene

The basic unit of the story is the scene. The scene is a miniature story in which something happens to push the larger story forward, and its anatomy is fairly simple: the GOAL of the scene (what the main character is trying to accomplish); the CONFLICT (back and forth between movement toward the goal and obstacles); and the DISASTER (end of the scene).

The DISASTER or ending can end in four ways. Let's imagine that the scene goal is that Tom wants to ask his boss for a raise. Here are the four possible outcomes:

Yes: Tom's boss says, sure I'll pay you more money. The "Yes" answer generally stops the story action, and therefore should only be used for a specific, deliberate effect.

Yes But: Tom's boss says, sure I'll pay you more money but you're going to have to work half days on Saturdays. This is a good scene ending because it introduces a further question into the story: How will Tom be able to put in this extra time when he already has something else to do on Saturdays that is essential for him to complete the story goal.

No: Tom's boss says, no you cannot have more money. If you have a "No" scene ending then you can safely delete this scene since it doesn't advance the story -- your character is in the same place after the scene as he was before it started.

No and Furthermore: Tom's boss says, no you can't have a raise, and furthermore you're fired. This is an effective scene ending because it heaps further problems onto our hero's poor shoulders.


When writing it's important to always be moving your story ahead. Your scene ending is the means to accomplish this movement.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writer's Block

As writers we all deal with it. Here are some tips posted by Merlin HERE.



I recently had occasion to do some…errr…research on writer’s block. Yeah, research. That’s what I was doing. Like a scientist.

I found lots of great ideas to get unstuck and wrote the best ones on index cards to create an Oblique Strategies-like deck. Swipe, share, and add you own in comments.

Talk to a monkey - Explain what you’re really trying to say to a stuffed animal or cardboard cutout.

Do something important that’s very easy - Is there a small part of your project you could finish quickly that would move things forward?

Try freewriting - Sit down and write anything for an arbitrary period of time—say, 10 minutes to start. Don’t stop, no matter what. Cover the monitor with a manila folder if you have to. Keep writing, even if you know what you’re typing is gibberish, full of misspellings, and grammatically psychopathic. Get your hand moving and your brain will think it’s writing. Which it is. See?

Take a walk - Get out of your writing brain for 10 minutes. Think about bunnies. Breathe.

Take a shower; change clothes - Give yourself a truly clean start.

Write from a persona - Lend your voice to a writing personality who isn’t you. Doesn’t have to be a pirate or anything—just try seeing your topic from someone else’s perspective, style, and interest.

Get away from the computer; Write someplace new - If you’ve been staring at the screen and nothing is happening, walk away. Shut down the computer. Take one pen and one notebook, and go somewhere new.

Quit beating yourself up - You can’t create when you feel whipped. Stop visualizing catastrophes, and focus on positive outcomes.

Stretch - Maybe try vacuuming your lungs too.

Add one ritual behavior - Get a glass of water exactly every 20 minutes. Do pushups. Eat a Tootsie Roll every paragraph. Add physical structure.

Listen to new music - Try something instrumental and rhythmic that you’ve never heard before. Put it on repeat, then stop fiddling with iTunes until your draft is done.

Write junk - Accept that your first draft will stink, and just go with it. Finish something.

Unplug the router - Metafilter and Boing Boing aren’t helping you right now. Turn off the Interweb and close every application you don’t need. Consider creating a new user account on your computer with none of your familiar apps or configurations.

Write the middle - Stop whining over a perfect lead, and write the next part or the part after that. Write your favorite part. Write the cover letter or email you’ll send when it’s done.

Do one chore - Sweep the floor or take out the recycling. Try something lightly physical to remind you that you know how to do things.

Make a pointless rule - You can’t end sentences with words that begin with a vowel. Or you can’t have more than one word over eight letters in any paragraph. Limits create focus and change your perspective.

Work on the title - Quickly make up five distinctly different titles. Meditate on them. What bugs you about the one you like least?

Write five words - Literally. Put five completley random words on a piece of paper. Write five more words. Try a sentence. Could be about anything. A block ends when you start making words on a page.


On the other hand, remember Laurence Olivier.

One day on the set of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman showed up looking terrible. Totally exhausted and practically delirious. Asked what the problem was, Hoffman said that at this point in the movie, his character will have been awake for 24 hours, so he wanted to make sure that he had been too. Laurence Olivier shook his head and said, “Oh, Dusty, why don’t you just try acting?”

So, when all else fails, just try writing.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Here’s the short and easy take home message: Don’t fake your facts. Someone, somewhere, is going to find you out. Call universities, museums, science labs, accounting offices, veterinary hospitals, or other places having people who know what you need to know. Be polite and keep calling until you’re connected with one or more experts. Tell the person you are a writer. Most of the time the expert is delighted to talk with you provided the conversation is no more than about ten minutes. Explain what you want to do in your story, then ask the expert if this is a reasonable scenario. Let the expert discuss and suggest things—you stay quiet and take notes.

When you’ve written your section(s) ask the expert if he would read what you wrote to make sure it makes sense. Finally, acknowledge the expert’s help in your published book or manuscript.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Setting Your Goals: An Exercise

I just read an interesting article that said people who write down a goal double or more the chance of accomplishing it. We've all heard to write things down, of course, but maybe it's a chestnut that needs to be revitalized.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke:

How do you eat an elephant?
One piece at a time.

This process works with any large task, from prioritizing goals, to writing a novel or other large piece of work, to anything else you may wish to accomplish in your life. You start with an overview, then keep breaking down the big tasks into smaller and smaller pieces until each task is manageable so that you can make headway.

The first time you do this, it might take you an hour or more to organize your goals to write them down, but it’s time that’s well worth investing. You don’t need to wait until right before New Year’s Eve either – anytime is the right time to focus your life. Also, create a folder on your computer or get a notebook and write on it GOALS in big letters. You’ll want to get into the habit of writing down goals with the date as you think of them, big and small, and you can refer to your notes as you start to take action. Writing down your goals will clarify them in your mind and allow you to take specific, positive actions to accomplish them.

Finding your goals can be a repeated two-step process: first write down all your ideas for something, and then take time to winnow and prioritize. Both processes are essential, and they shouldn’t be done concurrently. This process can get messy after the first stage, but you need enough material to choose the best solutions, not just the quickest ones. If you’re stuck, try free-writing your thoughts (and make sure you WRITE them, not just THINK them). For example, “When I was a kid I wanted to sail around the world, and the idea still appeals to me even though I have many obligations and haven’t sailed in years. Hmm. Do I like the idea more of being on the water, or of visiting exotic places, or of doing something that people are impressed by? I think it’s the idea of being free, and no one being able to catch me. Well, there is the lake nearby and lots of people sail there every weekend; surely I might be able to at least start with this…”

Be open to crazy ideas, then find the realistic kernels hidden within those clouds. Ready?

1. Write down what you want to accomplish in your life. You know the drill: think of what someone might say about you if you died tomorrow or what you’d like them to say differently if you died in seven years, think of what might be on your tombstone, how you might be remembered by important people in your life, and so forth. What sort of legacy do you wish to pass on to the next generation? What are some things you could accomplish that might bring this legacy about? Take time to contemplate your own mortality and what you want to do with your brief time on Earth.

2. Keeping your life goals in mind, what would you like to accomplish in the next five years? Put down anything and everything you can think of, then study this list and choose the most important goals. You may want to divide them into different categories – mind, body, spirit, work, family, personal – then pick the top one or few for each category.

3. For each goal, break it down into two or more steps that need to be taken. Imagine this date next year, and think about the progress that would satisfy you. Be realistic: you’re not going to earn a PhD in a year, but you may investigate schools, take a few prerequisite courses, or sit for the GREs.

4. Break down each year goal into steps. Figure out how much you might realistically do each month on each goal. You may want to concentrate on one for a few months, and then switch, but always have reasonable amounts to do for each month. Choose a concrete endpoint. For example, if you wish to write a novel in a year, your monthly goal might be “produce 20,000 words” rather than “write every day.” The more specific your goal, the easier it will be for you to evaluate whether you have actually fulfilled your goal.

5. For each monthly goal, again break it down into four weeks.

6. If you wish, you can break down your weekly goals into day goals.


Once you have your goal list you have a good sense for where you want to aim your efforts. Now comes reality.

A goal sometimes sounds reasonable on paper, but when you start to implement your plan you find it’s not quite so easy. For example, if you want to write that novel in a year and calculated so many words per month will get you there, you may realize after writing for a few days or weeks that you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re simply producing many pages of garbage (and/or becoming very good at Spider Solitaire). Step back. Should you outline your story before writing it? Should you read some how-to books, or join a critique group? Should you lower your word output from 1000 words a day to 300? YOU ARE NOT FAILING IF YOU HAVE TO MODIFY OR CUT BACK! As long as you’re doing something, and making progress, you are doing more than most people ever do to fulfill their dreams.

Another technique that many people use is a “to do” list for daily tasks. Some find these helpful, but others find them overbearing and guilt-producing. I like to have only one task on my “to do” list, and once I finish that to add another item and start work on that, but since I need to remember tasks to add to my “to do” list I may be engaged in semantics – a sublist from my true “to do” list. Oh well. Other people swear by using palm pilots, or having computer alarms, or whatever. Play with different organizing tools and tricks, and see if any of these helps you to become more productive. The most critical and basic one, I believe, is simply to write things down no matter which formats you use.

Good luck pursuing your dreams.