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 28, 2012

Think Positive

We parents love the negative. We tell our children: don't get dirty, don't run, don't touch that, don't talk to strangers, don't get into trouble. The problem is, these negative actions are unclear. The child hears: get dirty, run, touch that, talk to strangers, get into trouble.

These negatives follow us into adulthood. "Don't worry!" we tell a friend. "I didn't think I ate so much," we moan after a particularly exciting dinner party. "I won't do THAT again." Isn't it better to say things to your friend like: "You can do it!" Or if you're worried about those calories or disturbed by the bloat: "The food was delicious, and I enjoyed it. I'll feel better going back to my regular eating patterns, though."

Negatives also become leading questions: questions forcing the *proper* response. Consider the following two examples:

"Do you want to work on this project?"

Don't you want to work on this project?"

The first question is open: the response can be either yes or no, without prejudice. On the other hand, the second question is forcing a response. The question implies an expectation and subtle coercion.


The negatives even pop into our writing. Think about it, how many times in your stories do you use DON'T, WOULDN'T, NEVER, NOT, and so forth? Do a word search and you may be surprised.

What does it look like to say your character is "not running"? Isn't it better to say he "shuffles" or "digs his heels in" or "meanders"?

Remember that these negatives are lazy writing. As a quick example, imagine you write the following:

"She was upset, and didn't follow her normal routine to get to work."

OK, if she didn't follow her "normal" routine, what did she do? Maybe she forgot to eat her granola bar for breakfast, or can anticipate a caffeine headache because she was too rushed to make coffee. Did she make a right onto 34th street instead of taking her usual route of staying on Spruce? Instead of entering through the front building door, did she sneak through the back entrance to avoid walking past Mike?

You can see that eliminating the negative adds a world of positives to further flesh out your story.

These negatives are a problem because they are abstract. They are difficult to imagine, leading to ghostly impressions rather than clear ideas. Get rid of negatives, in your writing and in your life.

Affirmatives rule.

Friday, December 21, 2012

How Do You Become a Writer?

Someone recently wrote to me to ask how to become a writer. I reflected on this. One thing people often say to me is, "When I have a little time I'm going to write a book too." I don't get this confidence... people know that you're not going to play a Beethoven sonata on your third piano lesson, or paint a masterpiece after a few months of art lessons. So, why do they expect to just sit down for six months and produce a Nobel prize-winning work? Stories like Stephanie Meyer's* notwithstanding, it doesn't usually happen that way.

* Stephanie Meyer is the author of the wildly popular Twilight series. She tells the story of waking from a dream haunted by her characters, then writing the story in six months. A year and a half later she had a mega-bestseller. Yes, these blue-moon (excuse the pun) events happen, but it's because Meyer found a premise that totally resonated with many people, and her writing was good enough that it didn't kill the story. I'm delighted when any writer makes it -- but don't expect this to happen to you without working on your craft.

It takes work to develop your craft. I am a strong subscriber to Malcolm Gladwell's thesis in Outliers, that someone must invest 10,000 hours to become *excellent* in a field. The good news is, you can become quite good even before those 10,000 hours, and hopefully be able to publish or otherwise reap rewards of your hard work before then.

The best advice I can give to someone with the dream:

1. Invest daily time into writing. (Actually, six days a week -- it's important to have a floating day for which you don't feel guilty if you miss). Minimally do three or so days per week. Use a word goal, not a time goal. For beginners I like to set a goal of 300 words per day or 2000 words per week. Keep pushing that goal up as you become better. KEEP A DAILY AND WEEKLY LOG IN WHICH YOU WRITE DOWN YOUR PROGRESS!

2. What to write about? Blogs and short pieces are good practice, but always keep an eye on your long-term goals as well. If you want to write a novel, then keep moving in that direction: short stories are good, but imagine ideas that will take longer to finish. Get a notebook that you carry with you at all times, and anytime you run across an intriguing idea or something occurs to you, write it down. You should make at least one or two entries a day -- get in the habit of doing this. If you're looking for ideas, you can scan through here.

3. A good trick I use is to make lists of, say, fifteen or twenty BAD ideas for something. By giving myself permission to have bad ideas I come up with more, and many are quite good. Once you find something interesting, free write about it and figure out how you might be able to twist things or otherwise make it even more interesting.

4. Read books on writing. Writer's Digest has a series of books on writing techniques, and there are many more as well. Check out the library or bookstore. Also, writing books that are free can be found on amazon.com/Kindle-ebooks --> Nonfiction --> Reference --> Writing. There's a free computer app to read kindle books at http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sv_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771.

5. Just read -- anything you enjoy. If you want, analyze why the story works or doesn't work.

6. Find other writers. Work with a friend to encourage each other. Join a writing group. Go to writing conferences. If you are OK with Christian values, you may want to join ACFW which is an incredible loop of 2000+ writers, agents and editors. They offer advice, free online courses, and writing contests with valuable feedback. Cost is $65 first year and $50 annual renewal. GET A SEPARATE EMAIL ACCOUNT if you join since you will be snowed under with correspondence.

7. Get feedback on your work, but also be careful since critiquers can be cruel, wrong, or otherwise not helpful. Listen, find what the person is trying to say (even if in a hurtful tone) and take the hint to improve your work.


Ultimately my best advice is to simply stick with it. It takes a long time to learn to write, and you have to drive yourself because NO ONE ELSE is going to get why you're doing it. Some people will make unhelpful comments -- "Nora Roberts publishes a book every six months; what's wrong with you..." Just believe in yourself. I always tell my kids that, no matter how beginner or bad you are at something, you will always get better if you practice. Writing is a long road, but ultimately rewarding.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Noah's Ark

He reached quickly and lightly to push the carved wood door open. His hair was black and coarse, and his eyes made me jump with their brown, almost-incandescent light.

"Emily!" he barked in a loud, penetrating voice. "You need to hurry."

I stumbled forward, my toe catching on the chair leg.


Noah's Ark occurs when writing elements -- adjectives, adverbs, or prepositional phrases -- come two by two. It's an easy trap to fall into. While it isn't *wrong* to write like this, this style weakens the writing because it repeats itself.

Look at the above sample. In three lines there are several Noah's Ark pairs:

stumbled/toe catching on the chair leg

The quick solution to Noah's Ark is to choose the strongest modifier, or better yet get rid of both of them. Let's try this with the passage above:

He pushed the door open. His eyes made me jump with their almost-incandescent light.

"Emily! You need to hurry."

My toe caught on the chair leg.

It's still not great writing, but it certainly moves better.

Those who write with much Noah's Ark tend to have static writing. They describe THINGS rather than ACTIONS.

The more lasting solution to Noah's Ark is not to set up sentences in this double-double modifier format to begin with. Instead use vibrant verbs. Don't stop to admire the view of your scene, but instead for each sentence push your characters and events ahead.

Friday, December 14, 2012

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, December 11, 2012

Author Interview: JANE LEBAK

It is my great pleasure to introduce to you author Jane Lebak. Jane recently published her second book, The Wrong Enemy.

Jane and I met in 2005 at a writer's conference, and were fellow students in the very first NANGIE course taught by authors Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt. Jane remains the best writer I know, with flawless prose. She's also a good friend. Thanks for visiting, Jane!

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. She is one of the bloggers for QueryTracker.net, a resource for writers searching for an agent or a small press.


Jane, can you write a description of yourself in six words?

Frequently lives in her own head.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

Surf the web. Knit. Read. Play violin. Although there's far too much surfing the web. Oh, and raising my kids. For some reason, I'm supposed to be doing that. :-)

You have a super blog describing your family's exploits. Can you tell us a little about your family?

We're a family of geeks, although we're all geeky in different ways. (With the possible exception of Kiddo3, who's the only extravert in a family of introverts.)  We try to have a lot of laughter in the home, but sometimes you get the sense that it's the strained kind of "if-I-don't-laugh-about-this-I'll-scream" kind of laughter. There's a lot of fun when I hear the kids' take on why we do things, though. For example:

Kiddo4: No, don't take off my band-aid. It will come off when it's ready.
Me: You mean it will ripen like a fruit?
Kiddo4: No, when it runs out of stick.

The Kiddos all tend to observe the world in different ways, so I've had to become fluent in four different kinds of world-views ever since they were babies. You run into a room because the kid is crying, and somehow you know just what the kid is crying about, but for four different kids it might be four different things. I can't help but think that makes you a better writer, when you learn to read someone's mind for their own nuances.

Who is your hero, and why?

I've thought about this for a while, and I've concluded there's no one I consciously emulate.  But there are people in my life from whom I've taken inspiration, people who are doing the same things I'm doing and are further ahead of me. Sometimes when I'm stuck, I'll say, "Well, if he can do that, then I can do this."

When my daughter was diagnosed with anencephaly, and we knew she'd die shortly after birth, I joined an online support group. Most of the members were further ahead of me in the journey and had already given birth to their babies and lost their babies, but I could see from how kind they were to each other, how gentle, how strong, that it was possible to do this impossible thing. Not only to do it, but to become better people. So when I was feeling awful, and when the grief was worst, I knew I could keep going because they'd done it before me.

If I had to pick a specific person as a hero, I'd say Teresa of Avila. She had a comfortable life as a nun, but she felt called by God to something greater, so she set about reforming the Catholic Church, starting her own order in an effort to bring the other nuns to a better understanding of Christ. She went before the Spanish Inquisition several times, suffered through several inadequate spiritual directors, and yet all through this remained obedient to God's will for her life. Some people hated her. She'd buy property for her order through assumed names, sneak into town in the middle of the night with several nuns, and the first the town would know about it would be when they started ringing church bells the next day. They'd move into buildings that were practically ruins and then begin their work, quietly supporting themselves, because they knew if they'd made their plans known, people would have stopped them. But she didn't let anyone stop her. She just did everything God wanted her to do. I wish I could do that -- be as uncaring of people's hatred and as single-minded about doing the work God gave me to do.

Tell us about your books.

I've been writing since I was three and finished my first novel when I was thirteen, so I'll just skip to the two currently in print.

The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp Publishing, http://tinyurl.com/jlebak) is a Christmas novella about a cop who's struggling to save three homeless kids. It's three days before Christmas and the temperatures are below zero and still falling, but the kids refuse to stay in any foster family because they don't want to risk being split up. The only one the cop can turn to is his brother, a disabled priest who's got a reputation for helping homeless kids and gang members, but they've been estranged for years and in order to help the kids, they're going to have to resolve their own differences first.

The Wrong Enemy (MuseItUp Publishing, http://tinyurl.com/jlebakt) tells the story of Tabris, a guardian angel who vowed to protect a child and then broke that vow. The child has died, and Tabris expects to be tossed out of Heaven, but instead God gives him a second chance -- a second child. None of the other angels want him around, least of all the child's primary guardian, but there is someone who wants Tabris: a demon who used to be a friend, and who's making a full-court press to also end this assignment in tragedy, a tragedy of the eternal kind.

Your books are about epic battles between angels and demons. What fascinates you about the spiritual world?

It has everything I love about fantasy and SF (the super powers, the alternate ways of thinking, the eternal stakes) with the benefit that it's all actually happening around us. I fell in love with angels when I was sixteen, and it was life-changing for me. I just found it amazing to comprehend that there was a spiritual world right here in what we laughingly refer to as reality, and in all of this, we just don't see it, don't perceive it. We get only the merest glimpses of it, and yet it's in some ways realer than the material world.

Yes, I'm writing the angels from a Christian worldview. I've heard from my readers that a non-Christian has no problem getting into the story, though, because I'm not preaching. I'm just setting out the rules of the universe the same way you would set out the rules of a SF or fantasy universe, and they happen to coincide with the Christian Bible.

Do you write with a plan, or just explore the terrain in your mind as your story unfolds? How do you get all those words down?

I do a lot of planning in my head, but I leave a lot of terrain unexplored. I know the major plot points, but I don't always know how I'm going to get from one to the next. My characters will generally take me from one to the next, though, because whenever I'm not sure what I'd like to do, I ask myself what this character would do in this circumstance. And at that point, it works.

Since you are an agented, multi-published writer, and you write a blog to help writers (Publishing Pulse/QueryTracker), can you give some advice to those who are still trying to reach that magical "published" status?

Love what you're writing. It's only going to be love that keeps you sitting in the seat, that keeps you submitting after rejections, and that keeps you revising even when you think it's as good as you can get. It's love that keeps you working rather than giving up.

Also, write and submit smaller pieces. It's a lot easier to get published in a magazine than to get a book published. Moreover, it's a lot easier to publish non-fiction magazine articles than magazine-length fiction, so diversify yourself and write smaller pieces to sustain you while you're on the long haul of seeking a book publisher. Then, when you're ready to submit your novel, you'll already have several publication credits to your name, and that will give your submission some credibility.

What is your next project?

I just blogged it, actually! http://wp.me/p8I00-1vM 
"Amber Brickman never realized she was separated at birth from her twin, but even worse, neither did her mother."

Anything else you'd like to tell us?

The main character of The Wrong Enemy is named Tabris, and by the time I first started getting active online, the first edition of the novel had gone out of print. This was back in 1995. Well, I loved it enough that I adopted the handle Tabris as my online name, and this was even before Neon Genesis Evangelion had a character of the same name. I've been Tabris online ever since, so it's a little awkward nowadays when people want to talk about the character, only they also know me as Tabris.  I'd highly recommend a writer not name herself for one of her characters.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Stones in the Pot

You may have heard this story before...

A professor carried in a large glass pot and put it on the table. He then filled it with big rocks from a bucket under the table.

"Who thinks it's full?" he asked. Most of the class raised hands.

The professor then dribbled a significant number of pebbles between the rocks. "Now is it full?" he asked. The class nodded.

The professor sifted sand over the pot, putting in quite a bit.

"It's got to be full now, right?" Everyone agreed.

The professor then took a pitcher from behind the podium and poured water into the pot, emptying the pitcher. The water came to the top.

"Full?" the professor asked. After the class laughed and agreed that the pot was absolutely, positively full, the professor paused.

"The point of this demonstration," he said, "is not that you can always fit one more thing is. Rather, it's the opposite." Then he pulled out a big rock from his pocket.

"Will this fit?" he asked.

The class shook their heads: No.

"Would it have fit if I'd put it in before I filled the pot with other things?"

One kid spoke up. "Yes. Probably."

The professor nodded. "There's your lesson. First, do the important things."


It may be a silly story, but it represents a great truth. If you are a writer, you must work to achieve this title. The words will not appear on the page simply because you imagine things. The words that DO appear will only incompletely reflect what you see. The only way to move to a closer approximation of capturing your vision is to write junk. Write. And write. And write.

You must put writing in your life before you fill your life with the pebbles and sand and water. Make writing a priority. Do it every day if you can; at least make writing a regular activity with at least five or so hours a week. Recognize that you are doing something difficult by writing, and be patient and kind to yourself, but at the same time keep at it.

One of my favorite expressions is this: If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly."

Capture your dreams. Writers write. If you are a writer, then write.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Some Thoughts About Opening Your Story with a Bang

Some writers espouse opening a story that sets the reader or viewer immediately into the middle of a horrific disaster or other spectacular event. While this can work well, especially for films, this is a challenging technique to pull off especially for new writers.

Before the reader can be drawn into the disaster, he needs to understand what is going on (clearly presented descriptions and detail) and to care about the characters. A horrific unfolding disaster may even prevent the reader’s emotional engagement into your story because it’s so painful that he won’t want to become involved.

I would like to suggest, instead of a devastating situation, that you form a relationship between your reader and point of view character. If you must have the exciting fire or other big event, build into it and allow the time for your reader and character to first become acquainted.

The first stage for the reader to become acquainted with your characters is to INTRIGUE. Your first sentence should grab the imagination in some way. Once you have your reader's attention, you can begin bonding your reader to your characters.

Building reader interest in your protagonist can be done in several ways:

1. Create Sympathy. If your protagonist suffers from something, whether an injustice, a physical defect, or a terrible loss of some sort, this will go a long way to create reader identification because the reader will feel sorry for him and therefore, of course, want him to win.

2. Put Your Protagonist in Jeopardy. Any time a character is in real danger, whether by physical or emotional threat, the audience is riveted. Start with a jeopardy small enough so the reader doesn’t automatically disengage from a painful situation, and build up from there.

3. Make Your Protagonist Likeable. We all want to be around pleasant rather than unpleasant people, and this is no different in stories. The person may behave well, or be funny, or be good at his job, or whatever—he has likeable traits that the viewer can appreciate.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Subplots are a powerful writer's tool to enlarge and delightfully complicate a story. Many writers simply add subplots as events or characters occur to them

during writing. While there is nothing wrong with this method, I'd like to suggest that deliberately designing subplots to perform specific story functions may be a

stronger method for writing.

The functions of subplots and the incorporation of these into a story often seems mysterious. To understand how subplots work, let's take a step back to look at

the entire story, then drill down to examine subplots.

The story can be divided into two general components:

Outer Story: the action events that occur. The outer story can be defined as the Story Goal (answered by a yes or no at the end of the story), Stakes (defining why

reaching this story goal is so important for the protagonist), and Obstacles (both internal and external).

Inner Story: the emotional changes and realizations that are made by one or more characters. The main component of the inner story is the Definition of the

protagonist's Hidden Need (an emotional lack, such as fear of bonding or reluctance to lead) that affects others, and then the protagonist's Solution to his Hidden


The story contains multiple narratives, event descriptions, and plot directions. Each of these component strands in the story can be categorized into one or more

of the following five classifications:

Strand 1. Main Outer Story: the events describing the protagonist's pursuit of his Story Goal.

Strand 2. Main Inner Story: The events demonstrating the protagonist's Hidden Need, and then his solution of this.

Strand 3. Antagonist Story: the events from the perspective of the obstacles, usually the main antagonist but can be anything that stands in the way of the

protagonist's reaching his goal.

Strand 4. Gift at Climax: the events that bring about a believable problem solution. For example, if a car will need to be available in the middle of the desert for

our hero to make a getaway, this sequence will describe how that car gets there.

Strand 5. Protagonist's Mirror: events experienced by another character with the same fundamental problem as the protagonist, say, control of an object or an

overriding temptation to pride. This Mirror character answers the problem in a usually bad way that serves as a caution to the reader about how the protagonist

might also potentially screw up if he's not careful.


Story scenes can fall into several classifications at once: for example, an event about a mirror character interacting with our hero may both push the story

forward (#1) and establish the mirror's fundamental problem (#5).

Subplots may be considered any events or story lines that fall into strands #2, #3, #4, and/or #5. These story strands often have a story shape, although can

also be isolated scenes establishing a neccessary story component.

What does a story shape look like? There are many answers to this, but one I like very much is from John Truby's book, THE ANATOMY OF STORY.

Stage 1: Weakness, Problem, and Need

Your story character has a Weakness within himself of which he’s not aware at the beginning of the story. The Weakness is psychological (it hurts the character)

and moral (it hurts others). Your story character has a story Problem stemming from this weakness. Finally, he has a Need to solve this weakness.

For example, in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy's Weakness is that she is unhappy living at home (psychological), and wants to leave (moral; exemplified by her

running away in the first act). Dorothy's Problem is that she runs away from home, causing her to be lost in the tornado and delivered to the land of Oz. Dorothy's

Need is that she must appreciate living at home with her family.

Stage 2: Desire

Your story character has an outer desire: the story's goal. For example, in THE WIZARD OF OZ Dorothy wants to leave Oz to go home.

Stage 3: Opponent

The opponent is the character who is competing with the story character for the same goal. For example, both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West want to

determine whether she is able to talk to the Wizard of Oz or not, and ultimately whether she can leave Oz or not.

Stage 4: Plan

Your story 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. For example,

Dorothy keeps making her way towards Oz. She also collects a motley group of friends who help protect her from the witch.

Stage 5: Battle

Your story character and opponent battle for supremacy . This is a punch-counterpunch series of actions. For example, Dorothy is kidnapped by the Witch's

flying monkeys, then fights her in the Witch's castle over the broomstick. Dorothy douses the witch with water, and the witch melts.

Stage 6: Self-Revelation

After a great deal of painful struggle, your story character realizes and solves his need that you identified in Stage 1. Demonstrate how this need has been solved. For example, after the Wizard of Oz flies off in his balloon, Dorothy realizes she had the answer to getting home with her all the time. She closes her eyes, repeats "There's no place like home," and clicks her ruby slippers together.

Stage 7: New Equilibrium

Your story 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. For example, Dorothy wakes and discovers Oz was a dream, but is content and happy at home with Auntie Em.


To deliberately incorporate subplots, examine the roles each story component plays in your story.

Start by determining the story arc of your hero's hidden need (strand #2). You will also need to determine how you will solve it. Solution of hidden need typically

falls in the third quarter after the midpoint, and is best done in three stages: hidden need is demonstrated, hidden need is solved, hidden need is shown to be

solved. The Hidden Need being solved is also often demonstrated at the climax of the story. For example, in the film U571 the main character's hidden need is

that he is unable to take command because he views himself as a big brother. The hidden need is first demonstrated when he steps back from a task, solved

when someone tells him he shouldn't step back, and shown to be solved when the main character is placed in another situation that requires leadership and he

fulfills it. Then at the climax, another situation is shown in which the character must lead by sacrificing one of his men.

Next, diagram your outer story (strand #1). Since much of the outer story consists of a series of punch/counterpunch with your main antagonist and other

obstacles, list these events. Now look at the story from the antagonist/obstacle point of view, and see if you can add a subplot here that weaves in nicely (strand


While examining the events in the outer story, determine if you have to set any of these up (strand #4). This strand's events doen't usually require a story arc,

merely a physically series of actions to set up a believable solution.

Finally, write down your main character's basic, fundamental emotional problem. Once you have this you can then invent another character with an identical

story problem, even if the outer manifestation isn't the same. For example, if your main character's hidden need is that he's afraid to lead, your mirror character

might be arrogant and overeager to take command -- the fundamental problem will be an inability to lead well (strand #5). Strand #5 subplots are often the most

interesting and involved to incorporate, and profoundly reinforce your story theme. They generally require the most deliberate development of story arc/story

structure as explained above.


Weaving subplots into your story can be a complex endeavor, but greatly enhance all story elements by both contrasts and reinforcements. Once you have your main story line worked out, take some time to contemplate additional story lines and events you may wish to incorporate. Remember that scenes can double to have more than one function. Play with these ideas to create something truly special in your writing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hero's Mirror

In writing your story, what is your protagonist most afraid of as he pursues the story goal? A useful technique to make his fear larger and more tangible to the reader or viewer is to use a mirror.

The mirror character often acts as an antagonist (not necessarily the primary antagonist) in the story to *block* the hero from reaching his goal, meaning that the hero has constant run-ins with the mirror. But who is this character?

The mirror character is, or used to be, very similar to the protagonist, and faced the same dilemma or moral choice or fear that the hero is facing now. The difference: the mirror made the WRONG choice, and therefore shows what life will be like to the hero if he isn't able to handle this problem correctly.

Two very powerful mirrors are used by JRR Tolkien in his genius work The Lord of the Ring. As a very quick explanation in case you're not familiar with the series, the stories center around "The One Ring" as a representation of absolute power, forged by the ultimate evil being called Sauron. A number of creatures, both good and bad, pursue the ring. The ring has fallen into the hands of a humble hobbit named Frodo who must carry it through dangerous lands to destroy it where it had been created, the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo is assisted by many including Samwise Gamgee and Strider.

Mirror #1: Aragorn and Isildur:

Aragorn (Strider) is the rightful heir of Gondor. He is afraid to claim the kingship because he is afraid to be corrupted by the power that it represents, and his fear is mirrored through his ancestor Isildur. Isildur was seduced by the One Ring before he could destroy it, and set into play a traumatic series of events that lasted many generations.

Mirror #2: Frodo and Smeagol (Gollum):

Frodo is the ringbearer until he can destroy it. He is afraid of the strong seductive power of the ring: seductive because it promises ultimate individual power to the bearer. His fear is mirrored through Smeagol (Gollum), a ruined hobbit once very similar to Frodo, who long ago found the ring and hoarded it inside the mountains. After losing the ring, Smeagol (Gollum) acts nothing so much as a drug addict trying to regain his prize, alternately helping and harming Frodo and Sam as they inexorably travel towards Mount Doom. He ultimately plots (and almost succeeds) to kill Frodo to regain the ring.

These mirrors work together in the story: Aragorn must regain the power although he is afraid he will fail, like Isildur. Frodo must continue to carry the One Ring and eventually destroy it, although he is afraid he will not be able to withstand the Ring's temptations, like Smeagol (Gollum).

While designing your story, consider whether you might be able to use a mirror. This powerful technique can add strong resonance and demonstrate your theme in a clear, tangible way.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Watch the Backstory

I once had it explained to me that backstory is like meeting someone at a casual event where you have to chitchat. If a person comes up to you and starts telling you his life story: I was born in Arizona, my mom was a supervisor in a nursing home that was shut down after twenty-one years because of the suspicious deaths of five patients, I'm researching laws for importing Chinese kumquats and kumquats are often categorized as citrus and are grown on evergreen shrubs or short trees that produce 80 to 100 fruits each year, you'd probably start eyeing the door. Similarly, in a story the reader wants to WATCH the character and make his own judgments, not be told a lot of stuff that he's not sure what parts are relevant. Why the heck should he even care? He doesn't know the characters!

Back story can be defined as events that happened before the story begins. Unless handled carefully, back story will kill your reader’s interest in your story by pulling him away from the forward action.

The back story is important for you the author to understand the events currently taking place in your story, but often not necessary for the reader. Before you explain the past origins of a current circumstance, ask yourself if you need to do this for the reader to enjoy the story. Be tough -- more often than not you won’t.

Back story is incorporated into the story as a flashback, through narrative, or through dialogue.

1. Flashback. A flashback can be defined as a scene depicting a previous event. Since the flashback breaks the story action to insert something for which the reader has not been acclimated, it is difficult to handle well. I generally don’t recommend using flashbacks.

2. Narrative. Narrative is easier to make invisible but describing back story, even in an engaging fashion, breaks away from the forward action and thus should be done with caution if at all.

3. Dialogue. Dialogue is a notorious place to dump back story. Beware the "As you know, Bob" syndrome in which one character explains things of which the second character is already aware, for example past history of an event. A better way to handle background information is if the second character doesn’t know it -- then the reader can learn at the same time. For a great discussion on adding background information via dialogue, see Snyder’s discussion of "Pope in the Pool" in his stellar book Save the Cat!

Good writers know to make understanding the back story essential to the action of the present story. If a character must make a decision, right now, that depends on his knowledge of history, then the reader along with the character will breathlessly anticipate learning the information.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Essence of Your Story

A common problem that occurs when writing a book or screenplay is that it loses focus. There are interesting subplots, and interesting side journeys, and after awhile it's hard to know what to pay attention to. Yes, ever since Tolkien published Lord of the Rings I know many writers want to do this sort of complex world-building, but frankly I haven't seen too many of these epics actually being published. Heck, even Peter Jackson found he had to cut A LOT of Tolkien's material in order to get a comprehensible story line -- and his movie masterpiece trilogy is still 9 + hours long.

It's worse if you're not even trying to branch your story out in 32,853,02 directions.

I'd like to propose a few easy questions for you to answer about your story, that should be able to focus you in to get your story started with minimal trauma. If you can answer these questions, you've got the spine of your story. For every event or character that you want to add, simply ask yourself if it's consistent with what you've already laid out here. If it is, go for it. If not, get rid of it. This includes things like subplots: the subplot should either be adding a component that is necessary for the story usually at the finish, or following a mirror character where the character wants the same thing as the protagonist, but answers the question in a different way. Hmm, I should put up an article on subplots... will do this soon.

Ready? Here are a few questions to help you get at the essence of your story:

1. Who is your MAIN CHARACTER?

2. What external problem does your main character want to solve in the story? This is his OUTER GOAL. For example, he may want to win the big football game, or make a million dollars, or find a girlfriend.

3. Who or what is the chief OBSTACLE to your protagonist's achieving his outer goal?

4. What horrible things will happen if the protagonist cannot achieve his outer goal? This is the STAKES of your story.

5. What is your main character's HIDDEN NEED? This is a lack within your main character that he must solve before he can be happy. For example, he may need to forgive someone, or he may need to become courageous, or he may need to learn not to be selfish.

6. In one sentence, describe what your story is about.

These questions may be easy, or may take some thought. If you're having trouble, simply list, say, 10 or 20 stupid answers to the question. Then just pick one of these answers and see if you can fit it in; if you can't, choose another. Free-write your ideas so that you can tell a quick outline of your story in a paragraph or so. Figure out the captivating kernel of your story, whether character, plot twist, or something else.

Once you've got the basic direction of your story, you'll find it's much easier to start planning or writing. Go for it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Step By Step Writing

"I had the most exciting day yesterday. Steven proposed!"

"Ooh," Maggie squealed. "Tell me all about it."

Cathy stuck out her hand, showing Maggie a flashing ring. "Well, I woke up when my alarm went off at 6:30, like it always does," she said. "I pushed back my favorite green fluffy quilt from childhood that my Aunt Mary repaired and surprised me with last summer. The quilt always makes me smile because it reminds me of our family's Christmas celebrations at my childhood home in Minnesota." Cathy's brown eyes went dreamy for a moment. Then she continued.

"I got up and looked out the window to see a blue Ford drive past the red brick apartment building across the street where my best friend Judith lives. The car honked as it went by. The sun was in my eyes so I reached over to pull the shades closed, and then I put on my fluffy orange slippers and walked into the bathroom. The pink tile looked a little grey, and I wondered if I made the right choice with this color when I retiled the bathroom two months ago."

The rock on Cathy's finger caught the sun and glistened. "I turned on the shower and listened to the water run as I brushed my teeth. I studied my face in the mirror. My brown eyes seemed sad. When the water was warm I got into the shower and turned around in the water to get my long brown hair wet. The water felt like warm spikes on my skin. Then I noticed on the shower shelf that there was a new bottle of shampoo on the shelf. 'Oh yes,' I thought, 'I remember changing that yesterday.' It was a new brand and I wanted to try it..."


This conversation seems silly, doesn't it? Maggie doesn't want to hear this irrelevant chitter; she wants to get to the meat of Steven's proposal.

Although it's hard to imagine a conversation like this happening in real life, unfortunately many writers litter their chapters with this type of inconsequential detail that pumps word count but doesn't go anywhere. While this vignette DOES give us a feel for Cathy's life -- she's living in a city environment, far from home, and she has either time, money or both to retile the bathroom -- we're left wondering: Do we care?

Step-by-step writing (SBS), in which the writer describes every step, no matter how trivial, on the way to complete an action, or every detail on the way to describe the setting, is an easy trap for you to fall into. You are imagining the scene vividly in your head, and simply writing what you see. The problem with this type of writing, if not edited and boiled down, is that it's, frankly, boring.

In fiction, unlike in life, the words must always push ahead without dead space. You, the writer, must incorporate many pieces of information -- story, character flaws, descriptions, and even morals from which the reader can learn a lesson -- in a way that is compelling and doesn't feel forced.

 In the example above, the first three sentences establish the promise of an interesting story, and Maggie is poised to learn more until Cathy goes into SBS mode. Cathy would have done better by cutting to the chase. Any more of this and your reader will close your book faster than you can say "page 2."

You avoid SBS by incorporating a forward direction at all times to your story action. Don't include extraneous details; only put in what is necessary to understand the story. For example, no one cares that a character is opening a bottle of water. However, if your character has only a few seconds to sneak a sip and calm her cough before giving a speech, the question of whether she can get that bottle open in time becomes pressing.


There are at least four good techniques to create tension and thereby avoid SBS:

Technique #1: Intrigue

New unexpected plot twists or provocative information add valuable sweet spots throughout your text. These prick the reader's curiosity and cause her to want to know more.

Intrigue is also a fabulous technique with which to start your story. Since your reader is not yet bonded to any of your characters or events (unless this is a continuation of a series), intrigue will draw in the reader at the start without her needing to understand your story's background.

Here are some examples of possible opening lines:

He hadn't thought dying would be like this.

Sadie didn't know it at the time, but Brandon's entering through the side window, rather than the door, would change her life.

The pin cushion was from the nineteenth century, delicate brocade caught up in a flirty twist at the top.

These lines all have in common the attribute of raising questions or curiosity in the reader.

Depending on how strong is your hook, after the opening line you may even be able to switch topic for several paragraphs before returning to the opening issue. The reader remains riveted through the routine because the opening line has made her curious about the situation or what will happen.

Technique #2: Write in Deep POV

Point of View (POV) is a challenging topic that takes more time than I can cover in this short article. Suffice it to say that many writers write in objective POV without realizing it.

Two examples:

(Objective): Jenny and Paul sat across from each other at the table in the corner of the ice cream parlor. She was nervous because Paul was so charming, and she didn't want to say anything wrong. Jenny twirled the long silver spoon in her hand. After a moment she noticed her chocolate ice cream was melting, so she neatly took a large bite of the icy treat. It suddenly triggered a transient trigeminal spasm, and she grimaced.

(Deep): At the corner table of the Double Dip Jenny caught Paul's wink, and she felt those familiar butterflies. Darn it, why did she keep falling apart like this? She dug her spoon into her ice cream so Paul wouldn't see that he unnerved her -- and shuddered a moment after the ice cream went down. She waited for the headache to pass, trying not to notice that Paul was staring at her.

The objective POV example describes what a camera would describe, and uses words at a distance from the characters. We are told Jenny is nervous instead of being shown actions that would allow us to conclude this. This passage uses objective words that Jenny would never say herself while living this scene: "took a large bite." and "icy treat."

The deep POV example focuses on Jenny's reaction to Paul, rather than the mechanics of eating ice cream. The passage uses Jenny's direct thoughts: "familiar butterflies" and "Darn it." The rest of the description notices what Jenny is noticing. For example, unless she's a medical student she would never think, "Gee, that ice cream just triggered a trigeminal spasm, so I'm grimacing."

Two excellent instructional books for POV are: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson.

Technique #3: Ticking Clock

A ticking clock is a great way to increase tension. Your character must do something, or avoid something, before a fast-approaching deadline arrives.

Technique #4: Set a Story Goal

This is a basic trick for creating story conflict. In order to be engaged, your reader needs to know for what she will be watching, and this is best done by stating a clear story goal before the scene unfolds.

The goal statement must be a clear sentence that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Here are some examples of a story goal that can be the first line of your new chapter:

Susan had five minutes to find the necklace before Richard returned to the room.

Timmy didn't know if he'd be able to convince his mom that he'd just seen his dad's ghost -- but he'd have to try.

Claire gasped as she saw William was no longer in the car. He must have run away. She had to find him before his medicine ran out.

Follow your goal statement by going into the conflict phase of the scene, where your viewpoint character deals with a series of internal and external obstacles.

Finish with an effective ending: either a YES BUT or a NO AND FURTHERMORE. You can read more about designing a scene in Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure and my own book, Amy Deardon's The Story Template.


SBS writing is a helpful stage for the writer, because it teaches you to notice detail rather than skipping through a scene too quickly. However, adding the forward arrow helps your writing become compelling and fascinating. Try it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Addendum: Sending Your Manuscript to Yourself

Jan kindly wrote to me after yesterday's post to let me know that sending your manuscript to yourself through snail mail is NOT an effective way to prove your copyright in a court of law. If you wish to create a legal record of ownership, you can electronically register your work (in the USA) at http://www.copyright.gov. The cost is $35. According to a commenter (Gary Townshende in http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/09/07/intellectual-property/) you can register multiple works under one submission for a single fee.

Some countries may accept a postmark as a legal copyright registration, but please investigate this topic if you are considering doing this.

MANY THANKS to Jan for letting me know about this! Jan also gave links to several articles on this topic that you might find interesting:




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to Protect Your Work from Theft

Many writers seeking publication worry that an enterprising agent or publishing assistant may steal their work. To be sure this is a wrenching situation to imagine. With the growth of the internet and electronic files, if someone's objective is to steal your words it is laughably easy.

If you are currently sending out submissions and the image of your book being stolen keeps you up at night, I recommend that you immediately print out a hard copy of your manuscript and snail-mail it to yourself. Don't open the sealed envelope. In a court of law the postmark will prove beyond a doubt that you are the originator of this body of work.

Now that you feel better, I'd like to tell you why you shouldn't worry about manuscript theft.

Point One is that the moment your ideas are translated into a tangible format, they are automatically copyrighted to you. You don't have to worry about hiring a lawyer or finding a registration service. Any court of law recognizes this copy write.

Point Two, and this is most certainly true, your manuscript is not valuable enough to steal. The process of getting a newbie manuscript accepted by a publisher, then editing, packaging, and marketing it, is mountainous no matter how good the book is. If one manuscript doesn't work, there are plenty more available. Trust me, no one wants the aggravation.

I remember I used to be semi-paranoid about people reading my manuscripts -- especially writers who knew how to submit manuscripts, and those who might recognize what gold was before their eyes. I found on the rebound that these same writers gave priceless feedback that honed my writing skills.

I have grown to recognize that nothing I write, or ever will write, is deathless prose. There are few people who will produce this level of work. My advice to those who worry about theft, is relax.

Even with my published works, I have cheerfully given away thousands of books, and feel that I'm ahead in the bargain. My best thought is that I may have helped people, or at least challenged them. The next thought is that my name has become better known, and this helps build a good reputation for further works.

John Kremer, a noted self-publisher, often poses this tongue-in-cheek question: should you err on the side of theft or obscurity? 

Why are you writing? Is it to make money? Or to get your words out there? I recommend that you let go your words, let them fly and touch people. Ideas change people; give your words a chance to reach others.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Study with the Story Template Part Two

The "hidden need" of the protagonist is an emotional lack that he solves during the course of the story. I first heard this term from Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue at a writing conference where I attended their first "NANGIE" instructional class in 2005.

The hidden need not only hurts the protagonist, but most ideally it also hurts those around him or her. Some examples of this hidden need might be someone who is afraid to confront others, or who loves money more than family, or who is unconsciously arrogant.

The hidden need triplet describes 3 specific stages in which this flaw is actually solved in your protagonist:

1. Demonstrating the hidden need
2. Solving the hidden need
3. Demonstrating that the hidden need is solved

These stages normally occur in the second half of act two, right after the midpoint, and often form a "mini-story" to give a break from the excitement and story ramifications of the midpoint.

Let me use the movie U571 to demonstrate. It's a movie made in 2000 about a submarine crew in WW2 that wants to capture a Nazi Enigma machine (story goal). If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it! It's very exciting and beautifully done.

Stage One: Demonstrating the Hidden Need
Tyler is the second in command who likes to be a "big brother" figure to those under him, but is afraid to lead. Right after the midpoint disaster in which the captain is killed, he finds himself in command of a crippled ship. The men are worried. Tyler admits to them that he doesn't know what they're going to do. This scene starts at 55.1% of the whole.

Stage Two: Solving the Hidden Need
The chief petty officer takes Tyler aside and privately tells him to never, ever say to the crew again that he doesn't know what to do. The captain, the chief petty officer says, is an awesome figure, and must always present a strong presence in order to give courage and inspire loyalty and confidence in his men. Tyler listens carefully. This scene starts at 58.9% of the whole.

Stage Three: Hidden Need is Demonstrated to be Solved
The Americans surface and see a small Nazi plane flying overhead. Since they're on a German Uboat, Tyler tells his sailors to wave as if they are also Germans. One of Tyler's sailors orders the one manning the guns to strafe the Nazi plane, but Tyler orders him not to. There is hesitation but the gunner holds his fire, the sailors wave, and the Nazi plane seems to be fooled as he flies past. Then Tyler turns and punches out the sailor. "This isn't a democracy!" he growls. This scene starts at 60.5% of the whole.

Near the Darkest Moment when the Hidden Need is again Demonstrated
Close to the darkest moment, Tyler needs a functional torpedo tube, but it's underwater and for anyone to fix it will be dangerous and likely fatal. Tyler orders one of his crew to go in there and FIX it, darn it, and do it now! This scene starts at 93.2% of the whole.


I could show you this same pattern in story after story after story. I included the percentages not to be rigid and say your hidden need triplet MUST occur here, but instead to give you an idea of the natural reliability of its placement. My student Emily was amazed to verify how closely different points of a story (not just hidden need triplet) tended to fall. This is another subject, however.

The hidden need triplet is a specific sequence of actions that solves the hidden need. Just having a protagonist with a hidden need suddenly acting better at the darkest moment is not the same, and will not have the same resonant effects.

When designing or editing your story, make sure that your protagonist has some sort of flaw that needs to be healed. Then, demonstrate clearly exactly how it is healed. By doing this your story will carry a strong emotional punch.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Study with the Story Template Part One

One of my high-school students, Emily, did a school project using the story template algorithm. Her goal was to examine classic and non-classic stories to find any differences in the story structure. She decided to use just movies since the analysis is quicker, although still not trivial: for each story she broke it into a list of scenes, timed each scene, then calculated percentages of whole for duration and placement. Her definition of a classic was a film that had been adapted from a novel, had one or more sequels, and/or was recognized as the epitome of its genre. Furthermore, the original novel or film must have been made at least 25 years ago (1985 or earlier), since it takes at least about a generation to be recognized as a classic. Non-classics were films in that same time period that did not fit the "classic" criteria. She tried to choose films from a variety of genres.

She chose well-known movies:

Charlotte's Web
Prince Caspian
Tuck Everlasting
High Noon
Raiders of the Lost Ark

Heaven Can Wait
War Games

To analyze these movies, Emily studied the story template and then broke it down into 16 specific testable points. After doing her research, and contrary to all of my expectations, she found a real difference in structure between the classics and non-classics.

15 of the 16 points were present in all the stories. However, 1 of the points was present in 6 out of 7 classics, but in none of the non-classics. This blew me away. When she did a Fisher's exact t-test for binary data on the presence or absence of this one variable in identifying a classic, in a two-tailed test (which is harder to reach significance), she had a p value of 0.03, considered significant. (The p value means that if you did this test 100 times, in 3 out of 100 trials you would expect to obtain these results by chance. Scientific standards typically accept a p < 0.05 to be considered significant, meaning that the scientist is probably measuring a real phenomenon). This result indicates the presence of this one story point is highly correlated to having a "classic" whereas its absence means it is linked to being a non-classic.

These aren't clean statistics since the original project design looked for 16 variables. The likelihood with this many variables is that one might reach a level of significance with one of the variables just by chance. However, 1) none of the other points changed -- they were all present in both classics and non-classics; and 2) this point makes a lot of sense to me that it might distinguish the lasting stories from the throwaways. At the minimum, it seems to be important to remember to include this point. It sure can't hurt.

I'm sure you're wondering what this variable is? Well, this blog entry is already long, so I'm going to save that till Friday. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think it might be. Happy writing.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Hello Friends:

I live on the East Coast of the USA. If you see this entry, you'll know that our power and internet is still out, and I am not able to post. I will be back as soon as possible, hopefully by early next week. In the meantime, happy writing and best wishes.



PS You'll be happy to hear I'm keeping up with NANO by using my Neo2. I often use the Neo2 instead of the computer for writing even if the power's on... it's such a cool little machine!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NANO is Starting!

NANO will be starting on Thursday, so this is your last chance to review strategy before you start...

Let me just list a few ideas that might be helpful as you go:

1. Determine how you're going to write 50,000 words before you start. I favor the "Slow and Steady" approach in which you write 2000 words six days per week, but do what works for you.

2. Make a log for which you can record each day's work, and your total words. Once you start writing use this log to enter your daily word count onto the NANO site. It's fun to watch your words pile up.

3. Start at the beginning, and keep going. Use your list of ten events to stay on track. Also develop a "Notes" file into which you write anything you think of that you don't want to break away to do: change your main character Steve's name to Joe in the first 50 pages you've written, give Joe a baby sister or a sky-diving hobby with concomitant past memories, research ways to fold a silk parachute, and so forth.

4. Develop a "Journal" file in which you can free-write if you're untangling a knotty scene or character issue. THESE WORDS COUNT TOWARDS YOUR GOAL!

5. Have fun with NANO. Use all the tools and friends on the NANO site to encourage you to keep going. Many regional areas have a write-in at a local restaurant on one or two nights, where everyone brings a laptop and pounds away on the keys. Just remember that there are THOUSANDS of people across the globe going through the same work that you are. You are not alone.

6. Don't worry that every word you write must be *perfect.* Even if you end up writing 100% garbage, you've gone through the exercise of putting down 50,000 words in a month. This is OUTSTANDING! You've done well, and more than most people.


Here a few resources to consider:

For inspiration that you can write quickly and well, along with practical tips:

Rachel Aaron: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love


Quick method for organizing your plot:

Marg McAlister: The Busy Writer's One Hour Plot

For practical, just-the-facts advice for many aspects of writer's block, plotting, and characters:

Anything by Holly Lisle


If you're stuck you can do these exercises and have them count towards your word count:

Victoria Lynn Schmidt: Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days


And of course, I HAVE to plug my own book! But seriously, it will help you. I originally developed these exercises for my own stuff, and am delighted (and always humbled) that so many have also found them helpful :-)

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


Good luck! You can do this.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Top Ten Events

This is a short series to help focus your writing for NANO.

Now that you've briefly reviewed an effective way to develop scenes (and sequels) in your story, you need to know how you're going to have your story unfold.

A story has a definite sense of progression. Some general story themes that you can explore, in order from beginning to end, might be:

Introduce your main character (MC), and a few other important characters especially the character with whom your MC has a difficult relationship, and possibly the antagonist. Your MC may be experiencing a slow sense of suffocation in his ordinary world.

Suggest a desire or opportunity for your MC, and describe a limited task or goal he can pursue.

After finishing his limited task show the MC entering into a new environment and being presented with a big goal. If your antagonist enters the story after after the midpoint, you'll need just a big goal. For example, in the film Sky High Will is anxious attending a school for superheroes, since he has yet to demonstrate superhero powers. His goal after he enters the school is to discover or develop these powers. Alternatively, if your antagonist is present from the beginning you'll have some idea of your overriding story goal. In the film U571 the WWII sub crew with Ryan as second in command knows from the beginning that their goal will be to capture a Nazi ENIGMA encoding machine, the story goal.

Describe how the MC successfully adapts to his new environment, and introduce some friends that will walk with him through his journey.

Create a big event that changes the MC's perspective on his big goal. For example, in Sky High Will suddenly develops super-strength, and becomes a school hero in a well-attended exercise. Will will now be OK! (false high). In U571 the main USA sub is blown up and its captain drowned, necessitating Ryan to move his remaining crew to a crippled Nazi sub (disaster).

Explore how the antagonist appears and continues to gain strength, while your MC continues to face problems.

Describe another big scene in which someone or something dies, and the MC now knows what his final encounter with the antagonist will be.

Come up with unlikely ideas the MC may use to defeat the antagonist.

Describe the final blow-counterblow encounters of the MC with antagonist.


These themes describe how a story develops. To do your story, a good trick to start is to list ten main events that will occur in your story. If you can't come up with ten, you'll know immediately that you don't have enough "stuff" to carry a novel -- so add events THAT PUSH THE STORY GOAL FORWARD. Avoid the one-darn-thing-after-another syndrome, in which you describe events that don't really change the main story arrow. As you add events, make sure they're critical to answering your story question.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Organizing Your Scenes

When I write, I like to plan out the broad outlines of a chapter before I start in. I often end up changing it, mind you, but I at least start with a direction.

According to Jack Bickham in Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure, there are two units of story construction: a SCENE and a SEQUEL. Very roughly speaking, the scene follows the advancing plot, and the sequel describes the POV character's reaction to it. Bickham describes that all stories are beads of Scene-Sequel-Scene-Sequel, although many times the sequel can be pulled to speed up the action.

His thoughts on Scene/Sequel allowed me to develop a technique for planning each chapter. Here is what you can do:

At the top of the page, copy in this little outline:


POV stands for the point of view character, in whose head you will be writing from.

GOAL: what short-term goal will your POV character want to achieve within the next few pages? When writing the draft, you should have the character actually state his goal clearly close to the beginning.

CONFLICT: what obstacles will stand in the way of this goal? Obstacles can be both EXTERNAL (other people, physical obstacles) and INTERNAL (fears, worries, lack of knowledge). Come up with at least five conflicts. Even though you don't have to use all five when writing your draft, they prevent writers block -- if you become stuck, simply throw another problem at my poor POV character.

DISASTER: the scene should not end neatly. There are two types of endings that are helpful:

YES, BUT: in this ending your POV achieves his goal, but gets a problem as well. For example, if Jim's goal is to ask his boss for a raise, his boss replies, Yes Jim, but you must also work an extra twenty hours a week.

NO, AND FURTHERMORE: in this ending your POV does not achieve his goal, and furthermore gets more problems. For example, Jim's boss might say, No Jim you may not have a raise, and furthermore you're fired.

Two other types of endings are not helpful:

NO: This ending simply results in failure of the chapter goal. Since this ending does not advance the plot, any sequence ending in a "no" can and should be removed from the story.

YES: This ending stops the action cold.Not helpful.


For a sequel, post this outline at the top:


EMOTION: refers to the POV character's emotional state immediately following the previous scene. Is he frightened, worried, angry, desperate?

THOUGHT: once he's had some emotion, he's able to logically evaluate the circumstances.

DECISION: the character is in a bad situation, and must decide what he is going to do.

ACTION: He begins to do what he decided.


There is no easy way to write, but doing this little bit of preplanning for each scene is invaluable. Occasionally the scene will shape differently than planned, but that's OK too -- just go with the flow.

The scene-sequel dyad gives you a point to write about, incorporating a forward arrow to your story that grips your reader to learn more.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Your Story Engine

This is a brief series to help you prepare for the NANO challenge starting November 1st

Writers can be meticulous planners, SOTPers/pantsters (seat of the pants writers), or somewhere in between. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, articulating your story engine before going ahead will clarify whether you even have a story, and if so, how you might go about writing it.

The story engine is comprised of three components:



The Story Goal is the task that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This task needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is successful, or not, by the end of the story.

Make sure that your story goal is something noble: for example, a protagonist who wants to achieve a powerful position so that he can impose his strange philosophy on many people will not be a sympathetic character, and his goal will not be something your reader will root for. On the other hand, if your protagonist is trying to, say, obtain money to help a little girl with cancer, your audience will be sympathetic. It is the protagonist's motive in his story goal that matters.

Your story goal should be able to be broken down into smaller goals. For example, if your character's story goal is to win a big singing contest, she'll need to be struggling in obscurity before learning of the contest, struggle for the entrance money, have classroom run-ins with nasy competitors who may ruin her reputation or costume, convince an important ally to work with her, and so forth before the big night and the climax of the competition. These smaller goals push your story forward since achieving each small goal brings you one step closer to the big goal.


The stakes determine why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he won’t be motivated to achieve it. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved? For example, in our singer's example from the previous paragraph, if the girl doesn't win she won't qualify for the college scholarship that will let her be the first one in her family to go to university... and she thus won't be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and helping the people in her poor neighborhood. Make your stakes important enough, and noble enough, that they are worth great protagonist efforts in your story.


If your protagonist can simply achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, holding the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to never make it easy on your hero. Internal obstacles are within the protagonist; things like the protagonist dealing with fear, lack of knowledge, or hiding a deadly secret. External obstacles are more visible; things like the protagonist outsmarting an enemy, crossing difficult terrain, or needing to find an object. Before you start writing each chapter, list a few internal and external obstacles that your POV character will have to deal with. These obstacles will prevent writer's block as you go through the scene.


Take a few minutes now to work on your goal, stakes, and obstacles. Any events in your story should relate to your story engine to make sure the narrative pushes forward. Determine several different levels of stakes so that the story goal becomes increasingly important. Come up with imaginative and multiple obstacles so that the story goal becomes increasingly in doubt. This planning at the beginning will pay off dividends soon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's Almost That Time of Year: The NANO Challenge

National Novel Writing Month offers an annual challenge that is the equivalent, for writers, of running a marathon: 50,000 words in one month. This seems to be an impossible dream for some novelists, especially those who are perfectionist or otherwise have significant writing blocks. This challenge always takes place in the month of November.

When I first heard of the NANO challenge a few years ago, I was in awe of those who could do this -- or even those writers who were brave enough to register. After a few years, though, in a rebellious mood I decided I was going to conquer this. In 2010, with trepidation, I signed up. Darn it, I WOULD conquer this challenge!

I'm happy to tell you that I actually did it :-), not only in 2010 but in 2011 as well. I wrote a lot of garbage without much publishable, although I did spend lots of time developing some ideas. I'm going to go for it again, this time with a serious goal, to knock out my prequel to LEVER since it's been long enough without having finished it.

Do you want to be brave with me and try this?

Some writers doing NANO go in spurts: a few hundred words during the week, then ten thousand words over the weekend. Other writers make a great start but don't enter their daily output after the first week. I would like to suggest my own strategy that works without being totally exhausting. The secret is: slow and steady wins the race.

Here's my strategy: Write 2000 words per day for 25 days. Since there are 30 days (4 weeks, 2 days) in November, this gives you one spare day per week, plus an extra cheat day. Even garbage writing counts since there isn't time to get the prose perfect, merely to get the words down. Producing so many words per day takes, oh, two hours or less. If you get up an hour early, put in 30 minutes during your lunch hour, and write another half hour before going to bed, or other schedule that works for you, you can squeeze in this time.

Admire your word count! As a personal ceremony every morning before you start, put in the previous day's work on the NANO graph. Check out the happy comparisons to the progress line. This is a definite motivator.

Now, before November 1st, if you decide to do this you'll need to take a few days to get used to the NANO idea. Over the next few entries I'll go over some preparation work you can do to organize your novel (ideas for plot, characters etc.) so that you can run out of the gate on November 1st.

And if you decide to do NANO, make sure you buddy me. My NANO name is Amy_D. Write to me at amydeardon at yahoo dot com, to let me know so I can buddy you back. And good luck!

More soon...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Organizing my Kindle Books

Kindle is an amazing device, but it still has limits in its ability to organize books. I have enough books that I don't want to search down my list every time I'm looking for something to read. So I've been experimenting with different ways to organize, and have found a way that works well for me. I'd love to hear if you have other tricks and ideas on this also! My process of organization is still far from perfect.

For those of you who have a Kindle, you know that you can create Collections (folders) on the device and then put your books into one or more folders. So, say you want to find a writing techniques book, you just have to look in that Kindle Collection and browse through to choose what you want. For my Kindle I had 12 Collections, including a "To Read" and a "Reference" folder. Since the Kindle screen only shows 8 Collections at a time, I had to scroll through even the Home page to see the entire contents rather than being able to take in everything in one glance.

The Kindle is capable of storing, what is it, 1000 books? Something like that. Still, I enjoy the Amazon feature of being able to take a book off my Kindle if I know I'm not going to be reading it in the next few months because I don't like cluttering up my machine. Just like a regular bookshelf: I used to keep my "active" print books on the shelf near my desk, and the rest went in another room or in the basement. Since I've gotten a Kindle I am slowly getting rid of most of my print books, and love the extra bookshelf space. On my Kindle I don't want to read through every single title even in a particular category on my Kindle, because for some of my categories I have more than 60 books. I have more than 100 in "Fiction." Most of my books I have archived, or in other words, taken off my Kindle.

To archive, Amazon stores your books for you in what is called "The Cloud," that big hard drive in the sky. To read any book that isn't already "on" your Kindle, simply go to "Archived Items" and pull up the title. The WiFi or 3G capabilities in the Kindle download the book to your Kindle in a few seconds. You're good to go.

There are (at least) two limitations with storing Kindle books. The first is that, on the Kindle device, you can make only one level of Collection. There are no subdivisions; to put one book into Historical Fiction category and another into Adventure Fiction, you have to make two separate folders -- you cannot put both folders within your Fiction folder. Too many Collections make too many things (books or folders) needing to be searched through. My discomfort with busy screens means that I can't use overly specialized Collections, so must archive books to avoid not being overwhelmed while going through my one-level Collections, which leads to problem #2...

The second problem with organizing Kindle books is that, when archived, they're only in a list by title or author. There is no option to categorize. This is why I carried more books on my Kindle than I was likely to read in the next few weeks -- maybe 100 -- because I didn't want to forget about their good information that I wanted to get to sooner than in five years.

But this became a circular problem: cluttered Kindle, or unmarked archives list? What to do?

A few weeks ago when I was particularly frustrated searching for a book I couldn't find because I couldn't remember the title or author, I decided to figure out a better solution. What I came up with is not perfect, but not too clunky and frankly I can't think of anything better. If you have a better system, I'm all ears.

I decided to use my computer as a second record of my books to be able to categorize archived items. I used the free app from amazon, although I'm sure Calibre or other book programs would also work. Here's what I do:

On the app on my computer I developed categories. I didn't want to download each book onto my computer since I think they're OK in the cloud (and downloaded books clutter the program), but I still have a list of all the books linked to my account. I simply sorted all titles, archived or not, and categorized them on my computer. The next step was liberating -- I went through my Kindle and got rid of all but about six books, plus my reference file (dictionary, Bible, and Archives). The six books are in my "To Read" Collection, compact enough to see the list on one screen with two spare places, and how cool is that to have a single Home page!

As I finish a book I simply archive it. To consult my book list for replacements etc., all I have to do is go to my computer to check out what I've earmarked to read next. It's not perfect, since without my computer I'm flying blind, but this system DOES make me happy with decreasing clutter, and works reasonably well.

OK, so do I have a problem, or do multiple screens of Kindle books bother anyone else?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Whoa, Nellie! My Experiment with Free E-Books

For the past few months I've been selling on average 4-7 ebooks of Template per day (total monthly ebook sales between 120-220, plus print sales of 120-200). I'm just delighted that so many people seem to find Template helpful, especially since I wrote this for myself and decided on a lark to put Template in a book. A number of people have written to me with happy stories of what they're writing and how it's going. You guys go! Congratulations on forging ahead with an intimidating dream, and I don't doubt you will make it if you keep working.

I've been learning about e-marketing. This weekend I decided in the interest of research to offer my ebooks for free on Kindle Amazon.

I still don't know if this is a good or a bad move. The theory behind offering a free book is that you can get your name out there with more books, and also push up your rankings. The downside of course is that you lose sales money. I need to wait to see if my sales the rest of the month go up, stay the same, or go down. I can guess that offering one book in a series is an advantageous move, since you may pull more sales on the other books. My two books are both singles though so I'm not sure... will have to wait. If nothing else, this was an entertaining weekend, with some unexpected results.

My reaction in a nutshell was whoa, Nellie! There are a LOT of people who like free kindle books. I gave away 9000 ebooks in two days (7484 Lever/1517 Template), which dwarfs my normal sales of 300-400 books total (print plus ebook) per month. I suspect most of the people who grab these free kindle books troll the lists and download 30 at a time to store for possible reading in the future. In other words, this population is different from the discriminating, buying person who carefully evaluates each book to find the best value for answering a specific need.

My primary observation was unexpected: my novel (A LEVER LONG ENOUGH) was five times as popular as my nonfiction book (THE STORY TEMPLATE). LEVER, I think I've mentioned to you before, is self-published. (This is a long story why I took this road that I won't go into now). LEVER came out in 2009. It received very positive responses, including two well-known author endorsements, two independent awards, and 36 4- and 5-star amazon reviews (and one three-star). This novel is my baby, and I am very proud of it. However, despite marketing the heck out of it, in three years I've sold only a few more than 500 books. This is considered an extremely respectable sales record for a self-published novel, by the way, especially because LEVER came out just before ebooks starting ruling the market, and therefore most of these sales were print. However, these sales are pathetic compared to this past weekend, in which I gave away 7484 LEVER ebooks in two days. I figure if only 10% of the people who downloaded it read it, I'm still ahead of the curve. And wow! I'm excited about this, since for the past year I was selling zero to five per month. Since I wrote it I've wanted as many eyes as possible to see LEVER, more important to me than the money I might make.

It was gratifying to watch both my books climb the amazon rankings, even though I know it's transitory. LEVER hit #16 of all free ebooks downloaded. Here's a screenshot of it as #1 in the MYSTERY category.


TEMPLATE hit #130 of all free ebooks downloaded, not quite high enough to show in the top 100 list. Still, for a specific how-to book this isn't bad. Here's a screenshot of it as #1 in the Reference/Writing subcategory.

That was fun! OK, now it's time to wait to see how much damage/how much help offering a free book gives to my sales figures...


Monday morning, 6 am EST: At the top of this blog I've pasted my new report screenshot that I just took. 24 Template sales (thank you, guys, and I really hope this helps you write :-)  )and, wait for it, 44 of LEVER! This makes me happy, since as I said before Lever is my baby. It makes me happy people are seeing it -- a jump from the 0-5 sales per month it's been making, mostly from those who buy my writing book and then want to see what I've done. BTW for you TEMPLATE readers, since I wrote LEVER before I did my studies for TEMPLATE, it doesn't quite follow the template since my midpoint is at 40%, but my subplot midpoint is at 60% so it evened out.

LEVER is ranked 2887 in total paid sales right now.

And yes, for everyone who read Lever and is dying to know more, I'm working on the sequel. Hope to get that one finished soon. NANO is coming up in a few weeks for a kick in the writing pants, happily.


NOTE: Free Kindle ebooks can be found at www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks. Go to the right, scroll down, and hit the tab to "See all Best Sellers in Kindle Books." Categories are to the left.