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.

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?