Monday, December 30

Testing Your Story Concept

I've been following screenwriter Matt Bird's blog, Cockeyed Caravan, for a couple of weeks. Recently Bird wrote a post, The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Mad Men, chalk full of useful information.

Here are what, for me, were the highlights.

1. Is your story concept strong enough?

It makes sense that if you're going to write a book--something that is going to take, for most people, a few months (or years!)--it's a good idea to make sure you're starting off with a story idea that can go the distance.

Let's put our story ideas to the test by asking these questions:

"Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?"

I'd come across this notion of an ironic contradiction previously when I read  Blake Snyder's excellent book, "Save The Cat!"

Blake Snyder writes about irony in relation to the logline, or one-line, that summarizes your story. He writes:

"The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony."

Here are Snyder's examples:

Die Hard: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists."

Pretty Woman: "A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend."

A Note About Irony

(If you don't care whether those loglines really are ironic, then you might want to skip this section.)

I admire Blake Snyder. When he wrote Save The Cat! I'm sure he'd forgotten more about screenwriting--and writing in general--than I'll ever know. That said, the idea that either of those loglines is ironic doesn't sit well with me.

Here's one of the definitions, or senses, of "irony" that I think comes closest to how Snyder used it:

"(1) :  incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) :  an event or result marked by such incongruity. (Merriam-Webster)"

I think this usage note gives voice to my reservations better than I could:

"The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable," in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of 'ironically' in the sentence, "In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence, "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market," where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency. (The Free Dictionary)"

So it seems that what Snyder and Bird call "ironic" many would call "improbable." But, enough about terminology!

Ironic Contradiction

Another way to think about irony, and ironic contradictions, is as a hook

A hook is a familiar idea to most writers. The hook introduces a question that your reader will want answered. Snyder writes:

"[A] good logline must be emotionally intriguing, like an itch you have to scratch."

Lee Child mentioned that one way he hooks readers' interest is by asking a question he leaves unanswered until much later in the story.

Before I leave this point, I think that Breaking Bad had one of the best hooks I've ever heard. You have a genius teaching chemistry, sleepwalking through life, until he's told death will claim him in a few months. Then, as the result of a desire to provide for his pregnant wife and children, to leave them some money before he dies, Walter White starts to use his genius to make meth. And money. Lots and lots of money.

Is the protagonist going to have a happy ending? Um ... no. That's obvious right from the beginning. This is a doomed character. But we're interested! Walter White is doing something very bad but for the best of reasons. He's a weak guy putting it all on the line, finally (tragically) fighting for something he wants.

I was going to go through more points but it seems I've reached my word limit!

I encourage you all to read Matt Bird's article and, if you haven't, to pick up a copy of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!

Photo credit: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, December 28

12 Archetypes

Sometimes it's difficult to settle on what to write about but (thankfully!) today was not such a day.

Lately, I've been consumed (obsessed?) with exploring various character types so I was thrilled when I discovered "The 12 Common Archetypes" by Carl Golden.

Golden, from his reading of Jungian Psychology, believes there are 12 archetypes, each divided into three categories. (From my writerly perspective, whether this is the case is immaterial. I only need the archetypes to be interesting, not true.)

Types of Archetypes: Ego, Soul, Self

One thing I love about Carl Golden's presentation of these archetypes is that he gives for each a motto, core desire, goal, greatest fear, strategy, weakness and talent.

For instance:
Archetype: The Innocent
Motto: Free to be you and me
Core desire: to get to paradise
Goal: to be happy
Greatest fear: to be punished for doing something bad or wrong
Strategy: to do things right
Weakness: boring for all their naive innocence
Talent: faith and optimism
"The Innocent" is also known as: Utopian, traditionalist, naive, mystic, saint, romantic, dreamer.
I'll let you read Golden's article for the details on the rest of the archetypes, but they are worth looking at.


1. The Innocent
2. The Orphan/Regular Guy/Gal
3. The Hero
4. The Caregiver


1. The Explorer
2. The Rebel
3. The Lover
4. The Creator


1. The Jester
2. The Sage
3. The Magician
4. The Ruler

One of the cool things about these archetypes is that you can mix and match. For instance, one of my characters, a secondary character, is both a Regular Guy and The Lover.

The Four Orientations: Social, Order, Ego, Freedom

Here's where things get interesting. We've seen that the archetypes can be broken into three types (Ego, Soul or Self). But they can also be given an orientation: Social, Order, Ego or Freedom. ("Social" and "Ego" are opposites, as are "Freedom" and "Order.")

For instance, the archetype "Ruler" has the orientation of Order. "Hero" of Ego, and so on.


a. Lover
b. Caregiver
c. Everyman


a. Innocent
b. Ruler
c. Sage


a. Magician
b. Hero
c. Creator


a. Explorer
b. Outlaw
c. Jester

Fun Exercise

Find out where you think each archetype fits. Here's how I arranged them:

I think the most valuable thing is finding out which orientation you think each fits since that'll help expose how you think about characterization.

Interesting Articles:

- Major Archetypes and the Process of Individuation
- And now for something different! Elizabeth Spann Craig shared this link and it's so good I wanted to include it. The Murder Mystery Arc

Photo credit: "Season's greetings!" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Friday, December 20

Time Management Tips For Writers

Keeping up with my writing during the holidays has been, in a word, maddening! Another word would be: impossible.

Sometimes I feel like giving in and wading into the sea of social media and losing myself in LOL Cats and miscellaneous weird, and weirdly entertaining, facts. (Did you know that Google bought eight companies working on robotic technology in the last eight months?)

But Elizabeth Spann Craig has saved me from that fate with her post, "Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time." 

I know I often say, "Folks, this post is a must read," but, honestly, if you've ever wondered how some writers can turn out three or four books a year while working in 20 or 30 minute sprints (and, believe me, I have!) Elizabeth's post is one you'll want to read.

I've given you a link to Elizabeth Craig's original article, but here are the points that resonated with me and that now hang above my desk:

Two Time Management Rules For Writers

Rule 1

"You have to actively look for these pockets of time or else they disappear while we check email on our cell phones."

Rule 2

"You have to be prepared for writing…with writing materials and your writing mindset."

How To Prepare

Elizabeth Craig doesn't leave us hanging, she gives practical--helpful!--advice about how to prepare for these writing jags:

Ways to prepare for any size block of writing time:

1. Prepare an outline

"Have an outline or a mini-outline (for that writing day only and what you want to accomplish with the upcoming scene [...])."

"Either have a full outline or at least know what you want to write for the day (a mini-outline) and a brief summary of where you left off the day before."

2. Create a list of writing tasks

"Maintain a to-do list of writing-related tasks to accomplish. Mine may have anything from 'brainstorm more character names/last names' to 'write descriptions of Lulu’s house' to 'research Destroying Angel mushrooms'.”

I have an errand to run in a few minutes time so I've just jotted down a few things I need to accomplish today because I just know I'm going to have at least 5 minutes in a long lineup. Why not be productive rather than bored? (Or, even worse, bored and grumpy because I haven't written. Bah humbug!)

3. Make your outline and your lists ACCESSIBLE

Lists and outlines are great but they won't do us much good if we can't access them when we can snatch a few minutes of time for ourselves. Like, for instance, while waiting in line at the supermarket.

Elizabeth Craig writes:

"Make sure your writing to-do list is available to you for the shortest periods of free time that you might encounter.  I like to upload mine to my online calendar so it’s on my phone if I need it. You could also upload it to SkyDrive or Google Drive. Or just copy that sheet of paper and keep copies in your car or laptop bag or purse."

I use Dropbox. These days everything I write, or need to remember, gets saved to Dropbox or iCloud. For the first time in ... forever! ... I'm not panicked at the loss of my journal or iPad or laptop. (Though, don't misunderstand, I'd miss them! But, unlike my work, they can be replaced.)

4. The magic of lists

If you only have five minutes to do something, have several lists on hand that need populating.

As an example, Elizabeth gives the headings of lists she might work on:

“5 ways to describe my protagonist,” 
“7 ways to describe the main setting,” 
“5 potential subplots involving secondary characters,”  
“5 possible endings for this book,” 
“7 ways my protagonist can grow,” 
“5 things my protagonist fears more than anything,”  
“my protagonist’s biggest goals”…you get the idea.

When I read this part of Elizabeth Spann's post a light went off. I've been re-(re-re-re-) reading Donald Maass' marvellous (I-can't-recommend-it-highly-enough) book: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, focusing on the questions he asks at the end of each chapter. 

I'm going to make a list of all Maass' questions relevant to my character and try to answer them in whatever odd moments I have during the day.

Stalled? Here's Elizabeth's tip:

"If you’re stalling and don’t want to write the next scene:  Skip the next scene and go on to the following one… the idea is to keep pushing through.  Or make a list of ways to approach the scene and pick the best one from the list in your short block of writing time."

Tomorrow I'm going to spend a few minutes getting organized so that I'll have something writing related to do when five, or ten, or fifteen minutes unexpectedly opens up.

What is your strategy to keep writing--to preserve your writing momentum--through the holidays?

Photo credit: "Spitfire" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution.

Wednesday, December 18

A Beat Sheet For Scrivener

A Beat Sheet For Scrivener

How to use Excel and Scrivener to build a beat sheet for your work in progress.

Ever wondered how to use beat sheets with Scrivener? I have! If you have too, rejoice and be full of tasty Christmas cheer. Jami Gold has written an article that does all the heavy lifting: "Ask Jami: Can We Use Beat Sheets with Scrivener?" (The answer is a most emphatic, "Heck Ya!")

I'm going to let you read Jami's article, she walks you through what she's done in great and glorious (yet interesting!) detail.

Here, though, are a couple of links you're not going to want to miss:

Jami Gold's basic beat sheet

That link will take you to an Excel file. Jami has set it up so all you have to do is plug in the number of words you'd like your finished manuscript to have and her spreadsheet calculates what beat should appear where. It's incredible.

Even if you don't use beats in your work, it's interesting to see where they would go.

Another must have is Jami Gold's Scrivener template.

I was slow to adopt Scrivener--I was a dyed-in-the-wool MS Word user--but now love it and wouldn't write in anything else.

SO. I was very VERY excited to see that Jami adapted her (brilliant) Excel spreadsheet to Scrivener by transforming it into a template.

And all for Christmas! What a wonderful gift. Thanks Jami. :-)


Photo credit: "Dreams" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, December 13

How To Evoke Emotion Through Your Writing

How To Evoke Emotion In Your Writing

Jami Gold is one of my favorite bloggers, and posts like this--How to Strengthen Emotions in Our Writing--are why.

I encourage you to read Jami's entire post, but here's the bit (see below) that resonated with me. I've been working on punching up the emotion in my writing; I printed off these tips and hung them on my wall, above my writing desk.

The Causes of Unemotional Writing & How To Correct Them

The following list is a quotation from Jami Gold's article, How To Strengthen Emotions in Our Writing.

Lack of response to a stimulus

If characters don’t react when something happens in the story, readers will see a “robot” instead of a character.

Misplaced response to a stimulus

If characters react before readers know the stimulus, the reaction won’t resonate as strongly.

Weak response to a stimulus

If characters seem underwhelmed, readers—unless they have reason to doubt the character—will assume the character knows the situation isn’t a big deal and will tone down their reaction.

Clichéd response to a stimulus

If characters react in a clichéd way, readers may skim over the response, lessening its impact.

Chopped/compressed response to a stimulus

If characters’ reactions feel cut off or compressed, readers won’t feel the full emphasis of the stimulus.

Superficial response to a stimulus

If characters react with only a physical or an internal or a mental response (rather than a combination of responses) to a major stimulus, the reaction can feel superficial.

Inappropriate response to a stimulus

If characters react wildly different from what readers expect (outside of societal norms or out-of-character) with no explanation, readers can distance themselves from the character because they no longer relate to them.

Melodramatic response to a stimulus

If characters overreact to a stimulus, readers can distance themselves from the story due to a lack of believability.
Great list! Any discussion of how to evoke emotion can be augmented by Dwight V. Swain's discussion of the subject. I touch on this in my own article: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.

I hope you have a great writing day. Remember, it doesn't matter if you think you're writing crap: write!

Photo credit: "Love grows in hearts, not uteruses" by Ansel Edwards under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, December 12

Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel

"The card system is your map and your guide; the Plot Points your checkpoints along the way, the 'last-chance' gas station before you hit the high desert; the ending, your destination." (Syd Field, Screenwriting)

I've been changing how I write. These days I use (virtual) index cards to create a detailed outline of my novel before I put pen to paper to create a first draft.

That said, I do write bits and pieces of scenes here and there, as the ideas come to me, so I have a feeling for my main characters' voices while I'm doing the cards.

Filling out index cards--approximately 56 index cards--will be familiar to just about anyone who has written a screenplay.  

Writing A Novel Using Index Cards

The first question I was asked after I explained this method to a friend was: That's too detailed. Are you nuts?!

But, hey, this is working for me (so far), maybe it'll work for you.

Before I go on, I'd like to mention that I'm not using physical index cards, I'm using the Index Cards app. I've been using this app for a few months now and can't recommend it highly enough. But one word of warning. I've had the program crash on me a few times, so I've learnt (the hard way) to back up my outlines. Be thou warned.

The Structure of a Novel

Although I love writing novellas--they are so much quicker--my first love is the novel, and I think this is also true for many readers. For my purposes, a novel is 80,000 (or so) words.

I've structured my current novel as follows:

First Act:
Trailer: 4 cards
First sequence: 5 cards
Second sequence: 5 cards

Second Act:
Third Sequence: 7  cards
Fourth Sequence: 7 cards
Fifth Sequence: 7 cards
Sixth Sequence: 7 cards

Third Act:
Seventh Sequence: 7 cards
Eighth Sequence: 7 cards

Total: 56 cards. That comes out to about 1,400 words per card (/per scene).

Those numbers are approximate. At the moment I have more than 56 cards, and the scenes are going to vary in length. When I roll up my sleeves and get writing I'm confident that not all scenes are going to be between 1,400 and 1,500 words! Some are going to be longer--much longer--and some much shorter.

These cards aren't meant to act as a straight jacket, just an approximation. After all, I'm writing a novel not a screenplay. They are a tool I can use to expose the bones of my story and let me suss out the gaps, the enormous gaping plot holes. As many, many, writers have said, it's much easier to change an outline than to change a completed first draft!

The Three Act Structure

I've written about the three act structure here: Story Structure.


Each sequence, like the story itself, will have a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning we introduce the characters and setting. Also, we might foreshadow at least a few of the conflicts to come. 

In the middle we have conflict and try-fail cycles. Characters strive to achieve their goals and are thwarted. They devise new strategies and try again. They are thwarted again, and so on.

At the end there is a resolution. Either the character achieves their goal or they don't. Usually they don't. Stakes are raised (and clearly spelt out).


Each scene is a lot like each sequence. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning we establish the characters and setting, in the middle conflict is generated by characters striving for goals and falling short. And, at the end, though there is a resolution of sorts, most commonly the hero will not reach their goal, the stakes will be raised, and they'll have to try, try, and try again.

Elements of an Index Card: Scenes

Each index card is either a scene or a sequel. (Here are two excellent articles by Jim Butcher which explain scenes and sequels.)

If the index card is a scene, then here are the categories I use:


Who is in the scene? List each character.

Character's goal

For each main character in the scene, list his/her goal for this scene. Each character's goal should be concrete/specific enough to take a picture of. (Each character's goal will tie into their goal for both the sequence and the story as a whole.)

Character's stakes

For each main character in the scene, if the character wins/achieves her goal, what will he/she win?
If the character fails to achieve his/her goal, what will he/she lose?


What happens in this scene?


Where does it happen? Indoors? Outdoors? 
Is this setting interesting on its own? Does it have any significance to any of the characters? To the theme?


When does the action in this scene take place? What time of day or night is it? What date is it?


Why must this goal me accomplished now? If there is no sense of urgency, conflict is undermined.


What opposes the character's acquisition of their goal? 

Elements of an Index Card: Sequels

Dwight V. Swain in his invaluable text, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that:

"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come."

Swain goes on to note that the functions of a sequel are threefold:

a. "To translate disaster into goal."
b. "To telescope reality."
c. "To control tempo."

I'm only going to touch on the first of these functions--turning disaster into goal--here.

So, if a particular scene is a sequel, then these are the questions I ask:


How does the viewpoint character--as well as the other main characters--react to the resolution of the previous scene? If the hero achieves his goal is he happy or is he devastated because it's not what he thought it would be? If he didn't achieve his goal, is he angry, resigned, depressed, emotionally devastated, etc, etc, etc?

Remember, this is unfiltered emotion. The hero is just reacting. (Although how a character reacts can tell readers an awful lot about your character.)

Review hero's situation and enumerate his/her options

After your POV character (which for the sake of brevity I've been assuming is your hero/protagonist) stops reacting they need to figure out what to do. So they'll need to review their situation (what were the stakes?) and think of several things they could do next. For each possibility make sure the goal is clear, as is the opposition and the new stakes.

The main thing: Make the goal for each possible alternative scenario crystal clear.


The hero must decide. Which option the hero picks should be consistent with their strengths and weaknesses, who they are as a person. Which is just another way of saying that it should be plausible.


That's almost it. As I go through my cards I try to remember to ask myself these questions:

- Have I shown that the protagonist is clear and resourceful?
- Have I given readers a clear idea of what the hero's wound is?
- Have I shown the hero's special talent?
- Have I shown the hero's primary strength and weakness?
- Have I shown the hero's quirk?
- Have I demonstrated the hero's guiding principle?
- Is the protagonist pursuing justice?
- Is the hero active? Does he/she act of her own volition or is she pushed into action by plot events?

That's it! Good writing.

PS: I just listened to The Narrative Breakdown podcast and picked up these tips:

1. Surround your hero with characters that lack his/her particular strength.
2. Give the hero three rules to live by, whether stated or implied.
3. A catchphrase (Poirot: I do not approve of murder) can go a long way to communicating character.

Photo credit: "Index card pic" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, December 10

How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise

Have you ever had trouble telling two characters apart? Either in your own work or others? I know I have, which is why I was thrilled to find this exercise: Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers.

How to improvise your way into creating distinct character voices

This writing exercise started off as an acting drill, a brutal one guaranteed to turn your brain into mush in 30 seconds flat!

Why put yourself through this creative torture?

Because, just as this helps actors portray distinct characters on the stage, so it will make it easier for you to craft unique, fresh, lively, characters upon the page.

Here's the improv version:

"The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

"Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

5 Ways To Make A Character's Voice Distinct

1. Pace

Is your character's speech hummingbird fast, sloth slow, or somewhere in-between?

2. Dialect

Does this character use standard English? Are they educated? Where were they educated? Do they have an English accent? Cockney? Or perhaps their accent is American? Where are they from? Boston? Does this character use contractions?

3. Movement

Does your character move quickly? Are her movements jerky? Sudden? 

Often a person's movements are indicative of what he or she wants. For example, if your character is a femme fatale she'll move one way, if she's a single mother of five young children just home from her second minimum wage job, she'll move in quite another. Or think of the cautious, stealthy, precise, movements of a burglar.

4. Emotion

Is your character happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? Scared? Despairing? Think of how to communicate each of these emotions through dialogue (remember: show don't tell.)

Here is a list of emotions.

5. Pitch

Everyone's vocal range is different.

In her article, "The Human Voice--Pitch," Tonya Reiman writes that:

"Everyone has a distinct voice, different from all others; almost like a fingerprint, one's voice is unique and can act as an identifier. The human voice is composed of a multitude of different components, making each voice different; namely, pitch, tone, and rate."

Recall the character of Moaning Myrtle, played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shirley Henderson's voice is distinctive and was a significant part of what made Myrtle unforgettable.

60 Seconds of Hell: The Writing Exercise

What you'll need:

- A piece of paper (or electronic file) divided into six sections.

- A timer set to mark six increments of ten seconds each. If you don't have such a timer, a friend with a stop watch would come in handy!

I did this exercise without the aid of a timekeeping friend by using a stopwatch app on my iPad and then hitting the 'lap' button every ten seconds. It was awkward but doable. That said, if anyone out there knows of a timer/counter/doodad that can be set to emit a beep every X seconds, please let me know! :-)

What you'll do:

Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds.

Your goal is to make each character distinct by making each character's voice distinct. Remember, this is dialogue only.

Bryan Cohen encourages writers to experiment with this exercise. Try varying the amount of time or characters. Stipulate that one of your characters has to use a British accent. Be creative!

Cohen writes:

"Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

An excellent exercise! Good writing.

Article links:
- The Human Voice - Pitch, by Tonya Reiman

Photo credit: "Los Habaneros #10" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, December 5

How To Build Vivid Characters

How To Build Vivid Characters

Deborah Chester, in her latest blog post, "Writing with Flair" argues that we should not attempt to make our characters true to life. Instead our characters need to be:


No real-life individual could possibly exemplify all those traits. Nevertheless, our characters--especially our main characters--need to.

DC writes:

"When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk."

The task of the writer is to craft characters that make an impact on readers. She writes:

"How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s [...] on the page, involved in the story’s action?

"Is she making ANY impression on readers?

"If not, why not?

"One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

"Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

"All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

"One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

"She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

"The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

"Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

"But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

"'Realistic?' Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!"

Deborah Chester writes that "Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers' imaginations."

. . . .

"The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success."

. . . .

"Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

"That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else."

. . . .

"Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

"Silly? You bet.
"And she laughs all the way to the bank."

Writing with Flair is a terrific article, and just what I needed to read at this point in my WIP. Cheers! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Breaking through..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution.

Wednesday, December 4

Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success

Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success

Yesterday +John Ward--with the blessings of the authors--passed along a copy of Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success (link to the book on Amazon). You may know the authors from their weekly Self Publishing Podcast.

I was frazzled when John talked to me. I felt intimidated and more than a little anxious about my deadlines but ... well, what can I say, I was curious (and, hey, procrastination!), and John's an online friend, so I took a gander and, boy, am I glad!

Write. Publish. Repeat is a blueprint for establishing effective patterns of behavior. For getting us to think like writers and business people. 

Writers--authors--need a strategy for success. Writing--the telling of a story, the creation of a manuscript--is art, but selling your writing, whether this is to a traditional publisher or to the public at large, is a business. They write:
"Don't ask, 'Is Amazon the place to be?' Instead, ask if selling on Amazon fits well with and best serves your strategy of selling as many books as possible to your ideal readers."
Notice the mention of "ideal readers." I love this concept. Here's how the authors explain it:
"Try to imagine your ideal reader--a concept that were shamelessly stealing from Stephen King in On Writing. Theres one person you're writing for, and that person represents your perfect reader. [...] Your ideal reader will help you make the decisions you need to make when writing."
Also, if you've ever gotten a one star review on Amazon, this idea of your ideal reader can help explain that. This school of thought holds that one star reviews are a sign that your book is reaching the wrong audience, not that your book stinks. For instance, many of my science fiction friends would give any romance book a one star review.

Of course there are books which are truly horrid in the sense that they contain bad grammar. And, certainly, there many stories--whether traditionally or indie published--that contain plot holes, flat characters and impossibly purple prose. 

That said, I think usually these kinds of books sink silently without garnering mention. A one star review, especially a scathing one, is evidence that, with your prose, you reached out and touched someone. Just not in a way they found pleasant! But, so what? Your story elicited strong emotion. Put that in the win column and move on.

I want say more--a lot more!--about ideal readers, but the best thing to do is buy the book, Write. Publish. Repeat, and read it for yourself. At the moment it's on sale for $2.99 until December 7th, 2013.

Again, here's a link to the book on Amazon.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "desert highway" by Robert Couse-Baker under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Monday, December 2

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins, in conjunction with Agatha Christie's estate, offers writers a chance to play a game of Consequences by writing a chapter in the voice/style of the Queen of Crime. A theme is given for each chapter and contestants have three weeks to finish their entry and submit it.

The winning entries are placed online for others to read and, together, they will constitute a mystery story written collectively.

Entry Fee: None. This is for fun and the contest is free to enter.

The Background

This competition is based on the game of Consequences Agatha Christie played with the other members of the Detection Club.

"In 1931, in a literary game of Consequences, Agatha Christie and thirteen other members of the Detection Club contributed a chapter (and a proposed solution) to a collaborative detective novel ultimately called The Floating Admiral."

This time around you can contribute a chapter.

The Contest

"In 2013, we are inviting all comers, wherever they live, whether they have read a Christie novel or not and whether they are a published author or not, to contribute a chapter, and an end solution, to a similar (and we hope equally enjoyable) concept: Write your own Christie.

"Our novel will take ten months to complete so there will be ten chances to enter a chapter and win."

For complete instructions, see the link at the bottom of the page (Write Your Own Christie).

Chapters One and Two have already been written but Chapters 3 to 10 lie ahead. You're given chapter titles. The title for chapter three is "Enter the Detective" (for a complete list see "Write Your Own Christie" in the list of links).


a. Your chapter must be between 1,500 and 3,000 words long.

b. You must have a clear denouement in mind. Write one or two sentences describing:

a) the identity of the murderer,
b) their motive,
c) how they committed the murder.

Your description should be consistent with all the clues given in the previously published chapters

c. "The murderer must be one of the characters introduced in Chapters One, Two or Three."

d. Don't reveal the murderer till Chapter Ten.

e. Only one entry is allowed per chapter, but you're encouraged to submit an entry for each of the remaining chapters.

How To Submit Your Entry

You must fill out and sign the entry form--it's available in the PDF file "Write Your Own Christie" (see the links section, below)--and include it with your entry (this applies to whether you're submitting by email or by traditional mail). 


If submitting your entry by email, send it to:

Don't forget to include:
- your full name as well as 
- the chapter number 
in the subject line of the email.


Send your chapter to:

Agatha Christie Limited, 
4th Floor, 67 - 68 Long Acre,
London, WC2E 9JD, 

The Judges

Entries will be judged by Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson, David Brawn, Christie's British publisher, and Daniel Mallory, Christie's American Publisher and one of her biggest fans. "They're looking for originality, plenty of plot twists and perhaps a little gentle humour."

The Prize

If your entry is selected the judges will invite you to dinner. In addition, authors of highly commented chapters will "receive a copy of a Christie novel of their choice," one signed by Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard.

The Fine Print

With contests of any sort one always has to worry about the fine print. On submitting your entry are you also 

"All entrants agree to not publish their entries in any form and anywhere in the world until September 15th 2014 without ACL's express written permission."

Seems reasonable.

I just found out about this contest today. Sounds fun! I'm currently writing two books, but this is something I'd love to try and squeeze in. Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors, I've enjoyed her work immensely over the years, in all its many and varied forms.


- Write Your Own Christie (webpage) (twitter page)

Photo credit: "Copper Eyes" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licence.