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, March 29, 2013

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 story's spine. 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.

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.

5. 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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Creating Tension in Your Story

Tension in your story must be in every chapter, every paragraph, and even every sentence. A good definition of tension might be: The uncertainty of at least one issue.

Tension is not generated when the writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end these events don't push the story along. They simply add word count. For example, a POV character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight Capri pants, feeling refreshed now. If the character has arthritis then her method of opening a bottle might give a grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.

So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this. Perhaps the most reliable device to add tension is to include a ticking clock: a time limit to accomplish a goal.

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

When you write a sentence, paragraph, scene, or more, ask yourself, “Do these words and events matter to the story?” If not, get rid of them.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Some Good Kindle Book Links

For those of you with a Kindle, you know or are learning the good and the bad of this sort of reading. I've had a Kindle since May 2010 and mostly love the darn thing, although I do have a few significant quibbles including an incomplete organizing system that makes me search through for books, high prices of many ebooks, and the vague feeling that Big Brother is watching every click of the page to tabulate my profile. Oh well, I have nothing to hide. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to carry my entire eclectic reading list in one small package that fits into my purse, and the screen even lights up for easy night reading in bed.

For all you Nook readers or those with other e-readers, I mean no disrespect. I think any of these e-readers has similar benefits; it's just that I happen to have a Kindle.

But today's column is for the Kindle, specifically some good links. Here they are:



Go to this link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/digital-text

This list is updated hourly, so check here often. This list mixes new books with public-domain classics such as Sherlock Holmes. Publishers often offer their new books for a short time for free.



Go to this link: http://tinyurl.com/399books

Every month Amazon chooses 100 e-books to offer for $3.99 or less. The selection rotates on the first on the month.



Go to this link: http://tinyurl.com/kindle-cs

The Kindles can be confusing, and like all electronic devices can break. This page has many FAQ lists to help you through troubleshooting your Kindle. If you're really stuck, there is a big yellow CONTACT US button located at the top right of the page. You can ask questions through email or talk to a real, live person immediately. If your Kindle is broken, Amazon typically sends a replacement unit to you overnight. Since your e-books are stored in the cloud, they can be easily transferred to the new device.



Go to this link: http://tinyurl.com/returnanebook

The Kindle store opens with the "Buy" button highlighted on any book you want to just read about, making it easy to purchase something by accident. If you need to return the ebook, or anything else, check out this page. You need to scroll a little to find the ebook section. Amazon lets you return any ebook within 7 days, no questions asked.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Discouraging Words are Dream Killers

In my writers group this weekend a newbie hadn't done any writing this month, and said frankly she wasn't going to go ahead with what she'd been thinking. Last month she'd been so excited about starting her project.

"Gayle, what's wrong?"

She laughed nervously. "I just don't think it's a good idea. My sister said there are a million books on this topic, and I'm wasting my time reinventing the wheel."

I asked if the sister had ever written a book. No. Had the sister done research on this topic? No. As a matter of fact, Gayle is taking a common problem but has a unique spin on it, and frankly IMHO has a good chance of making it in this tough market. I took a few minutes to explain why her sister would not be a potential buyer for her book, but in fact there are many people out there who WOULD be. The sister is not able to perceive this difference -- since SHE doesn't like it, NO ONE will like it. Flawed thinking.

Happily, after a few minutes of a pep talk Gayle is ready now to go ahead again. She wants to start this month by building a few reserve entries for a blog she will create this summer, and use these to help focus her area of expertise. This is the type of tiny goal that she feels she can do to start to hook into the project. Three cheers!

I see this discouragement a lot when writers parade fragile ideas before friends or family. While it's fine to tell people you're writing something, until you've already got a good hunk of it I don't recommend telling them the specifics of what you're writing, for the simple reason that it may be difficult-to-impossible to convey what you see. The idea at this beginning stage is malleable and changing, and the writer may not know at this point what makes it exciting, much less be able to express it.

If you do tell someone they will not *get* why this idea is attractive. The best response (from your mother) is a tepid pat on the head and a "Good for you, Dear." Most people say, "Huh," and then start to tell you about their own book ideas. A few, like Gayle's sister, are dream killers. They may not even be aware that they are dream killers, but they are.

Don't let discouraging words kill your dreams. Trust in yourself that even if (ironically) you can't verbally express what you're trying to do, you WILL be able to do it. Writing is not done quickly -- it takes regular work, five to seven days a week, to put a few words down at a time. All writers think while they're writing that the words are terrible. Many times this is correct but the only way to get past this is to KEEP WRITING. The reason more people don't write books is because they're unable to get past this self-criticism.

Don't tell people what you're doing. Don't kill your dreams. Just do it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Word Tics

No matter how much you don't want to do this, almost certainly in your manuscript you have included word tics. These little buggers are simply words that you overuse, your list of personal cliches that make sense to you but will start to grate on a reader if used too often. For example, in my first manuscript I found that my characters kept "murmuring" to each other.

I found a website that counts the incidence of words in a passage and lists them from most to least common. "The" and "and" appear, of course (although you can specify not to search for little words), but then you'll find the specific words used in your writing.

Great tool! http://www.wordcounter.com/

Friday, March 8, 2013

Encouragement for Writing

A little boy in his first year of piano lessons went with his mother to hear a world-famous pianist in concert. As the crowd waited for the concert to begin, the little boy grew restless and while his mother wasn't looking, slipped out of his seat and wandered toward the stage where the gleaming grand piano waited.

Before anyone knew what was happening, he climbed up on the bench and began to pick out the only song he remembered: Chopsticks. Snickers erupted from the audience and he glimpsed his mother's horrified face, when suddenly he felt someone behind him.

Fingers touched the keys and arms were around his back. A deep voice whispered in his ear,"Don't stop. Keep playing."

And to the delight of the crowd, the great musician added chords and trills to the little boy's efforts to produce a unique masterpiece never before heard until the crowd was on its feet in ovation.

So as you stare at that blank computer screen and question whether this is God's path for you, listen for his voice in your ear: "Don't stop. Keep playing." Work your fingers to the bone and expect that the Great Composer will fill in the rest.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

FYI: Writer's Digest Contest

Do you have an original, unpublished, unproduced piece of writing? Writer's Digest is seeking entries for its annual writing contest, now open. You may enter as many manuscripts as desired. Here are the specs:


Grand: $3000 plus trip to NYC to meet 4 editors or agents.

1st: $1000 plus $100 in WD Shop
2nd: $500 plus $100 in WD Shop
3rd: $250 plus $100 in WD Shop
4th: $100 plus $50 in WD Shop
5th: $50 plus $50 in WD Shop
6th - 10th: $25

top ten winners in each category will be listed in the November/December 2013 issue of Writer's Digest. All winners listed in the Competition's Collection and on writersdigest.com.


Memoirs/Personal Essay (2000 words max)

Genre Short Story (4000 words max)Mainstream/Literary Short Story (4000 words max)

Magazine Feature Article (2000 words max)

Rhyming Poetry (32 lines max)

Non-Rhyming Poetry (32 lines max)

Stage Play (first 15 pages in standard script format plus a one-page synopsis)

Television/Movie Script (first 15 pages in standard script format plus a one-page synopsis)

Children's/YA Fiction (2000 words max)

Inspirational Writing (2500 words max)


Before May 6, entries are $27 for first entry and $20 for each additional. Poems are $15 for first entry and $10 for each additional.

After May 6, entries are are $32 for first entry and $25 for each additional. Poems are $20 for first entry and $15 for each additional.


Enter by snail mail or email. Entry needs to include name, address, phone number, email, line/word count, and competition category in the upper left hand corner.

Snail Mail:

Writer's Ditest Annual Writing Competition
8469 Blue Ash Road
Suite 100
Cincinnati PH  45236




Good luck!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Write Your Goals Down

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

Find a piece of paper and WRITE DOWN YOUR GOAL. Paste it on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.

Writing down goals also reminds me of a very simple trick I use to finish long writing projects. When I use it, it's magic. When I don't use it, nothing gets done. Are you ready?

Two steps:

1. determine a daily or weekly writing quota of WORDS PER DAY. (not minutes/hours per day -- you want results).

2. make a chart, and put it on your refrigerator where you always see it. Every day, write down what you've done.

Doing these two steps is amazing, I promise.

I'm keeping this entry short because you shouldn't be on the internet anyway! Get back to work!