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.