Monday, September 11

Writing Prompt: What if scientists could tell what a person looked like from a sample of their blood?

Writing Prompt: What if scientists could tell what a person looked like from a sample of their blood?

I read about advances in science and technology and think, ‘This would make an interesting prompt.’ For example ...

Although the technology doesn’t exist yet scientists agree that in a few years we’ll be able to tell what a person looks like from a sample of their DNA. [1]

The writing challenge: Write a piece of flash fiction—fewer than 500 words—that involves the use of this technology. Keep in mind that (IMHO) the essential characteristic of very short stories is that it hints at a complete story. For example:

“I just stood there, in the stifling and cramped semi-darkness, listening to the frenzied beating of my heart. Or perhaps it was the bear’s heart.” [2]
by Tatyana Talstaya, August 9, 2017

If you’re feeling brave, please leave either your story or a link to it in the comments. Good writing!

If you have ideas for writing prompts, please send them my way! Also, if you have any feedback about this prompt, please share. Thanks in advance! 😀

1. Does Your Genome Predict Your Face? Not Quite Yet.
2. Flash Fiction: A summary of very short stories.

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

Saturday, September 9

How Hobbies Can Improve Your Writing

How Hobbies Can Improve Your Writing

Do you have a hobby? Something you don’t get paid for but do anyway? I do! I never used to, it was writing, writing, writing all day long. Then I let my writing schedule slip for three weeks and ran right into a wall of writer’s block.

To help me get back into the swing of things I gave the protagonist of my WIP an interest in two of my hobbies: baking and fermenting. I do things like bake pies then serve them with a salad dressed with my very own apple cider vinegar.

You likely have other interests: hiking, running, knitting, working out, inventing, electronics, programming, playing cards, climbing, and so many more!

Today I want to talk about how your hobbies, your passions, can help revitalize your writing.

Picking up a Hobby Can Improve Your Writing


While it's true that giving a character a hobby can help flesh them out, hobbies can enrich your own life as well. The bonus is that, if you're anything like me, writing about your hobby will make you ever more excited about it and you'll find yourself pushing your boundaries—going on a new jogging route, trying a new recipe, and so on. This, in turn, will feed back into your passion for writing.

Which brings us to ...

Hobbies Help Inject Passion into Your Writing—and Your Life!

I’m watching The Great British Bake Off—a LOT of folks love—and by “love” I mean go completely nuts for—a well-baked loaf. Which is great! Why? Passion. I think having passion (or, better, passionS) is the key not only to good writing, but to life.


It's impossible to overstate how important passion is to creating a great story. The goal of all storytelling is to evoke passion in the reader. One thing I haven't talked about as much is evoking massion in the WRITER—in you. But your passion is just as important as the readers'. Perhaps more. Without passion there is little motivation to get up in the morning, pick up your pen and write.

I know, I know, professional writers need to write—DO write—regardless of how they feel. If they don’t then they can’t afford to do nifty things like pay rent or eat. I get that. TRUST ME, I get that! But any little bit of interest, of passion, of excitement, of joy, you can find in writing—hell, in life!—the better.

One way to do this is to give your characters attributes that are fun for you, that you would love reading about, that you would enjoy watching.

Write Yourself, Your Interests, into Your Stories

It’s about taking care of yourself, doing things that feed your soul.

Writers often became tired. Disheartened. That’s natural. What helps us keep on keepin' on ARE our passions. It’s the things we care about, the things we are passionate about, that keep us connected to our characters and their fictional worlds. Writing would be much easier if it was a sprint. But it’s not, it’s a marathon that lasts a lifetime.

I think that, ultimately, it’s our passions that make us who we are. Our characters are no different.

If You Don't Have a Hobby

What if you don’t have hobbies? Some folks don’t. My advice: try something out. Google a list of hobbies and pick one. Or perhaps there's something you've wanted to do but just haven't gotten around to for a number of reasons. For instance ...

Too Expensive or Inconvenient

There are hobbies I wanted to indulge in but they were just a wee bit too pricey. Deep sea diving. Hang gliding. Flying.

Or perhaps your chosen hobby is too inconvenient. For instance, you might live far inland but you've always wanted to waterski.

If I want to give one of my characters these hobbies I talk to people who do deep sea dive, or hang glide, or fly, or waterski. I love doing this! I get to hear their stories AND make some new friends in the process.

Another possibility is to save up and treat yourself on a special occasion. For instance, hang gliding on your honeymoon or a significant birthday.

No Interest

Some folks don’t have an interest in taking on a hobby. And that’s fine! Though if you DO like the idea of giving your main character an interest here’s my advice, such as it is: fake it till you make it.

If you don’t really care about much—and some folks don’t—it’s more difficult to write about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, writing isn’t about the head, about the intellect, it’s driven by the heart. Even by the gut. It's driven by the sticky slightly disgusting messy bits inside us.

It all comes down to truth

Ultimately, it’s about truth. As Stephen King says: fiction is the truth within the lie. Sure, my protagonist doesn’t exist. Sure the world I’ve created for him was spun from my imagination. But the story is told to communicate a truth—the theme. How my characters react to each other and to the setbacks they've had, those emotions are real. True.

The Lessons We Teach

Stories teach us life lessons. They teach us how to make friends as well as how to lose them! They teach us what happens when you do the right thing.

This, of course, is less about Truth than it is about the framework of values we’ve adopted, the things we accept as being mostly true. It’s the truth about the writer, about their soul, their beliefs.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a book every writer needs if they want to submit to a traditional publishing house: Writer's Market 2018: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published

From the blurb:

"Want to get published and paid for your writing? Let this book guide you with thousands of publishing opportunities--including listings for book publishers, consumer and trade magazines, contests and awards, and literary agents. These listings feature contact and submission information so you can get started right away."

Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

Monday, September 4

12 Tips on How to Create a New Habit

12 Tips on How to Create a New Hsbit

For me, the key to creating a new habit—or re-establishing an old one—is Seinfeld’s method. This involves putting a calendar on the wall, preferably one that shows a whole year on one page, and drawing an “X” through every day you practice the habit.

After a few days you’ll have a chain of Xs.

Perhaps you’re different but for me there’s something satisfying about seeing the chain grow every day. After you get several Xs in a row you won’t want to break the chain. And as long as you don’t, you’ll form a habit. The trick is getting those first few Xs.

Why does this work?

I’m sure there’s another answer, something more profound, but I’ve found that on any particular day it doesn't seem that it's crucial to do ... well, anything.

For example, I lost 20 pounds and became much more fit because I’ve begun exercising every day. Which is great! I no longer sound like The Little Engine That Could when I climb stairs.

But for any particular day, if I don’t exercise that day, it would make no real difference—or at least that’s the way it seems. BUT if I have a chain of Xs on my wall then I have something visible, tangible. Something I don’t want to break. That helps keep me accountable and gives me motivation.

Even though each day's exercise can seem pointless, my wall calendar shows me that it isn’t. Each day forms a link to the next day, and the next, and so on.

Writing is similar. Being a writer isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Marathons require resolve. Willpower.

Habits and willpower

Essentially what I'm talking about is the importance of forming a habit. A habit is important because it has inertia.

When a habit is formed it feels physically uncomfortable to break it. This morning I did NOT feel like jogging. I thought about not going. After all, it's just one day, right? But that decision felt wrong. The thought of breaking my habit, of breaking my run of Xs, felt uncomfortable.

So I got my jogging gear on and walked to where I start my jog. And as I walked I began to feel better. Happy. Invigorated. Eager. It was an average run. But afterward I felt TERRIFIC! I had such energy. My body was a limp rag, but I felt great. I'd exercised, I'd connected the Xs for another day.

That made me wonder: how are habits formed and how can I help this process along?

How to Create a New Habit

I want to thank Scott H Young over at Lifehack for his wonderful article, 18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick. I’m not going to talk about all 18 of SY’s tips and tricks, just those that especially resonated with me.

In what follows the habit I have in mind is a WRITING habit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found it difficult to establish—or re-establish!—the habit of writing every day. That said, these are general tips and will help form just about any habit.

12 Tips for Creating a New Habit:

1. Commit to 30 days

Forming a new habit takes time. It would be mind-blowingly fabulous if one could pop a pill and—slam, bam—jump out of bed and write for hours at a time each and every day. But of course it doesn’t work like that. Forming a habit takes time. Probably not EXACTLY 30 days, but I think if a person does something—anything!—every day for 30 days there’s a good chance it will stick.

2. Do it every day

First off let me say that many successful writers DO NOT write every day. And if you don’t want to write every day, that’s fine. It might be more difficult to form a writing habit if you only write every second day or every few days but if that’s the only time you have, go for it.

That said, writing every day is the best and easiest way to create a writing habit. Even if you can only carve out 5 minutes a day, it’s worth it!

3. Write at the same time of day

This is what really helps me. I find that if I crawl out of bed and dive into my writing straight away—before I have my coffee, even before I brush my teeth—it works best.

4. Write in the same place

Make a place for writing, make that pace especially conducive to writing, and then write in that place every day.

What does it mean to make an environment conducive to writing? For me, two things:

First, remove anything that will distract you. For example, disconnect from the internet, get away from Netflix, email, Facebook, etc.

Second, add things that will help keep you on track. I tape inspirational sayings to my monitor. For example, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

5. Bribe your inner child

This tip comes from just me and use it at your own risk! When trying to establish, or re-establish, a habit I often bribe my inner child by giving myself permission to drink an unlimited amount of coffee! You might not like coffee, that’s okay. Lee Child drinks enormous amounts of green tea.

The key is to pick something that won’t distract too much from writing (I find that getting up and making the coffee is a distraction, but since it doesn’t take up oceans of time it’s okay) AND isn’t hideous for you health-wise (for example, delicious ice cream). Recently I’ve begun brewing Kombucha and enjoy drinking that as well.

6. Start small

If you want to write for eight hours a day, don’t try and write for eight hours on the first day! Build up to it.

When I was in school training for the high-jump I could only get over the high bar if I started low and worked my way up. It was a psychological rather than a physical barrier.

I think the same is true for just about any activity. Start small and increase the duration and difficulty bit by bit. For example, when I began exercising I jogged slowly for 10 minutes and called it a day. Each week I increased the duration and difficulty until I achieved my goal. And (* knock on wood *) it worked! Writing is no different.

7. Remind yourself

The app I use the most is the Clock app. I set reminders for myself, reminders to deposit a check, to meet with friends, to leave for an appointment, and so on. I’ve also started to set reminders for my writing, when to begin, when to end.

8. The more the merrier

If you can find a group who want to create habits, people willing to share their victories and setbacks, this can be an enormous help. Facebook and even Google Groups are great for this.

That said, be careful to....

9. Hang out with people who have the same goals as you

Chances are, you’re trying to form good writing habits because you’d like to write more.

If you visit with people who don’t have good writing habits it will be harder for you to form those habits. Conversely, if you visit with people who have the kind of habits you want, you’ll find it easier to develop them. At least, that’s been true for me!

10. Use a trigger

Scott Young suggests creating a kind of ritual to mark the start of your activity, he calls this a trigger.

It helps if the trigger is something you don’t do any other time. So, for instance, if you’re like me and are nuts for yogurt you could splurge and buy yourself the pricy yogurt you usually pass up. You could then use this as a trigger by enjoying some yogurt just before your writing session begins.

Keep in mind that you only need to use the trigger to establish the habit. Sure, it would help to carry it through but you don’t HAVE to. Once a habit is established it seems to create its own inertia and become rather difficult to snuff out.

Using coffee as a trigger wouldn’t work for me because it needs to be unique and I drink several cups throughout the day.

If you try using a trigger I’d LOVE to hear about your experience, what you used and how it worked.

11. Visualize

Visualize yourself doing whatever it is you want to accomplish. I picture myself sitting at my desk—butt in chair—completing a chapter of my manuscript.

I also visualize my finished book. I see myself holding it, I feel the immense satisfaction of having my baby published and out in the world.

12. Forgive yourself

Chances are in the beginning you’ll miss a day or two or three. The key is not to give up. Hardly anyone succeeds at anything without failing first. One thing is absolutely certain: if you don’t keep trying the habit won’t form. Don’t let failure discourage you. Keep at it!

At the end of 30 days you might decide you don’t want to form the habit after all. That’s okay! The important thing is that you stretched yourself and tried something.

Further reading:

For more on habits and forming new ones see Owen Shen’s article, Habits 101: Research and Techniques.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.

Friday, August 18

How to Write Again after a Break

How to Write Again after a Break

You may have noticed I took an unscheduled leave of absence. Sorry about that. I was ticking something off my bucket list: being involved with the making of a movie!

And by “being involved” I mean that I wanted to do something that would give me a fly-on-the-wall perspective, something that would allow me to watch and think about what was going on. Being an extra (or ‘background actor’) gave me that opportunity!

Unfortunately, because of the pesky NDAs I signed, I can’t say more about it than that. If you ever have a chance to be an extra or background actor in a show, go for it! Of course, make sure it’s a legitimate offer, but if it is you’ll meet some VERY interesting people—your fellow background actors!

Okay, enough about that!

What I want to talk abut today is getting back in the groove. In my case, the writing groove which REALLY hasn’t been easy.

I know I’m procrastinating if my office is tidy—a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its place tidy. That, and I start to make journals. Currently, I’ve made enough journals to last me for at least a year!

And I suppose that even writing that, drawing this out, is a form of procrastination.

Oh! And brewing Kombucha.

Okay, so, my point: that even though it is taking a while to get back into the swing of things, since I have a pattern, a structure, (dare I say) a PROCESS, I have something to fit myself back into.

So I guess that’s what I’m writing about today, fitting back into old patterns and, in so doing, re-invigorating them.

Nothing Stays the Same

Heraclitus said that one can never step into the same river twice. The point being that the essence of nature is change. Not only do we change but the world also changes around us.

Perhaps the trick is figuring out how to change and still keep the things about ourselves we like. Or perhaps those are the bits, like Stephen King’s darlings, that need to be given up. I can never tell.

Sound difficult? It is! Especially if it’s radical change, the kind that shreds our lives. The kind that breaks us into a billion pieces, sets those pieces on fire and then smears them with napalm and incinerates them.


When we go through change AND come out on the other side we can put our characters through the same hell—er, “learning process”—and our story will be much more believable.

My feeling is that once I experience a particular something, a particular experience, it’s easier to write about believably. And since the hero’s arc is all about—or should be about—change; Intense, deep, destructive, life-shattering change—our writing is that much stronger.

And so there’s that. I guess my life has gone through quite a bit of change lately. There’s a temptation, an impulse, to walk away.

One thing I’ve found that does work for me is this: I sit my ass down in a chair and don’t let myself leave until I write something. By the way, the not leaving part is metaphorical. Bathroom breaks are fine and you get to eat but NOT cook anything. (Believe me I know what a delicious, scrumptious, diet-killing ribbit hole cooking can be.)

Which isn’t to say writers can’t be happy! But there is a reason so many of us have been friendless dreamers who live alone and drink WAY too much. I’m not trying to drive folks away from the profession, but just sayin’.

Back to the point.

The Beauty, The Utility, of Having a Schedule

Here’s my point: If you have a schedule then, even if you break that schedule, even if you shatter it into a million, billion little pieces, you’ll still have something, a structure, to come back to. Yes, things will be different, nothing is ever the same, but it will make possible what would otherwise be impossible.

And then the trick is to do it again.

Tuesday, July 18

Update: Writing and Acting

Sorry! I know I’ve disappeared for the past month. My deepest apologies.

I’m fine, nothing dire has happened. Just the opposite! I’ve been checking something off my bucket list: being an extra. Or, as we say in the biz, “background actor.”

It’s been amazingly, fantastically fun! There was a lot of filming where I used to live and I always wanted to peek behind the metaphorical curtain and see how movies are made. Being a background actor is giving me the opportunity to do just that!

So far I’ve only been on set for about 3 hours a day, the rest of the time I spend in holding (which is a huge air-conditioned tent). And when I’m working it’s difficult to look around. It’s really only when I’m asked to wait out of camera range that I can watch the process of filming. But, still, what I’ve seen has been interesting and (of course!) I can’t help but relate it to writing.

It seems to me that an actor going on an audition is similar to a writer sending their work off to a publisher. Perhaps I’m wrong, though. Please tell me what you think!

Similarities between writing and acting:

The part could have been already filled.

I’m told that occasionally a production must audition for a role even though the director already knows who they are going to cast.

WRITING: Often magazines have enough stories for several future editions, but they don’t close their submissions page.

Not what the director/production was looking for. 

When I was in high school (low these many years ago!) a troupe came in and showed various ways Hamlet and Ophelia could be played.

You’ve heard of character studies. When playing a character an actor develops a detailed idea/concept/notion of the character they are portraying.

But, even if they completely nail their portrayal of the character, it may not be what the producer was looking for.

WRITING: You can submit a terrific story but if its not what the publisher is looking for it’s not going to be accepted.

Of course, there are differences. I talked with a background actor who had a successful audition when he was in the right headspace and a horrible audition (for the same part) when he wasn’t able to get back into character.

With writers it’s a bit different, although even here you could argue there are similarities. Sometimes, whether a person thinks your story is a good read depends on their mood, even their surroundings. Have they had an argument with someone recently and would like to punch a wall? Are they in the middle of the renovation-from-hell? Are they reading your story between speakers at a crowded convention? If so, chances are that even if your story is exactly what they’re looking for, it will be rejected.

The moral: Take heart! Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Writers write AND submit their work (or self-publish!). Rinse and repeat.

I promise to return to a more regular blogging schedule when my stint as a background actor is over. And after the story I’m a part of has been aired I can talk more about the details of my very fun adventure!!

Sunday, July 2

Writer's Block and How to Beat it

Writer's Block and How to Beat it

I've been trying to write this blog post all day but the words wouldn't come.

I know all writers have experienced writer's block and know what a horrible feeling it is.

I know some folks deny there's any such thing as writer's block, that professional writers can't afford it. And they DO have a point.

But sometimes the words hover just out of reach. They peek around the corner then run screaming.

An hour ago I realized what was wrong: I had writer's block because I wanted to write something else! My muse wanted to work on the murder mystery I'm writing, but I NEEDED to write nonfiction.

The Secret to Curing Writer's Block: Compromise

Living with one's creative self, one's muse, is a bit like any serious long-term relationship: the key is compromise. I worked on my murder mystery for an hour (I set a timer!).

After the hour passed I sat down to write this blog post and the words (finally!) flowed.

Another thing that works is to write—or to TRY to write—for half an hour (or whatever span of time) and then, after half an hour, give yourself permission to do something else for ten minutes.

I find that, often, I end up working past thirty minutes because I've found inspiration. But it's important I know I have the very real option of stopping after half an hour.

Writing is about truth (at least, IMHO), and in order to write truth one has to be true to oneself. If your muse is leading you in a certain direction, try it out!

Do Something Else Creative

Take a break from writing and do something else creative: paint, draw, or cook. Do anything creative that strikes your fancy!

Chicken Noodle Soup: A Recipe

My favorite creative activity is cooking. I cook and I write. Today I made chicken soup. Here's my recipe:


4 large mushrooms
1 zucchini, cubed
1 crown of broccoli
1 stalk of celery
1 bunch of spinach
1 sweet onion
1 head of garlic, crushed and cut up
5 medium tomatoes
4 or 5 chicken drumsticks or thighs
chile flakes
civicha sauce (optional)


- Cut up the vegetables into bite sized cubes, including the mushrooms.
- Sauté the onions until almost translucent.
- Add garlic and sauté for 5 minutes or so.
- Add chicken and brown. I don't bother deboning the chicken, but it's up to you.
- Add enough water to cover everything, plus an inch or so.
- Add chile flakes.
- Cut stalk off broccoli and cut into cubes. Add to pot.
- Add celery.
- Add salt and pepper.
- Add cubed tomatoes.
- Simmer for 15 minutes or so or until the chicken is cooked.
- Add zucchini and mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes or until the zucchini has reached desired doneness.
- Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed. If it's not spicy enough (I love mine spicy!) I had a teaspoon or so of civicha.


Put a handful of spinach in a large serving bowl and ladel the soup on top. Stir the soup, making sure the spinach is limp.

That's it! Add whatever vegetables you'd like, I sometimes roast them first (especially root veges) and add them at the same time as the zucchini.

If you try the recipe, let me know I'd love to find out what you've created. :-)

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a reference book I have on my bookshelf, one I consult all the time. Next to Stephen King's On Writing, It's one of the most useful books I own. I'm speaking of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.

From the blurb:

"Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America's most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing. In the past decade, Writing Tools has become a classic guidebook for novices and experts alike and remains one of the best loved books on writing available."

Wednesday, June 21

Creating Effective Transitions

Creating Effective Transitions

Transitions are tricky. In a scene you write in the moment, recording your character's thoughts, feelings, actions and—most important of all—desires. In those times when you're immersed in the scene writing can seem effortless.

Transitions, not so much.

I'm not saying it's unclear what I need to do in a transition. At least, speaking generally. I know where I need to start (the disaster that ended the previous scene) and where I need to end (the viewpoint character's new goal) and what I need to do in between these two points (emotion --> thought --> decision --> action). But, still, these are general guidelines that allow for a LOT of flexibility.

Today I'm going to talk about how to create effective transitions between scenes.

(BTW, if you’re wondering what a sequel is I talk about them in Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.  For more about scenes and sequels I also recommend Dwight V. Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure.)

Simple Transitions and Sequels

Jack Bickham tells us there are two kinds of transitions: simple transitions and sequels.

I talk more about simple transitions, below, but basically simple transitions are what they sound like, one or two lines that takes you from one place/time to another place/time. For example, "At 10:30 Sarah was eating ice cream, three hours later she was dead."

Sequels are longer more complex transitions that link scenes together. At the beginning of a sequel the protagonist has been humiliated and defeated. Not only has he NOT achieved his goal, he has lost whatever progress he made. The question is: What does he do now? What is his next goal?

Transitions are about emotion.

All transitions should show the viewpoint character's emotion. (Scenes, on the other hand, are about CONFLICT.) Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer states that emotion “unifies sequel and holds it together.”

During a sequel your protagonist is preoccupied with the emotional and physical aftermath of whatever disaster ended the previous sequel. Swain writes that for a character to be preoccupied in this way is “actually to be preoccupied with a particular set of feelings. If your girl runs out on you ... you feel hurt and angry. If your boss fires you, you feel angry and panicky. If your friend betrays you, you feel grieved and confused.”

“... until you decide what to do about the situation, your feelings can’t help but be the thing uppermost in your mind.”

In a transition you summarize, skipping anything that doesn't help communicate the viewpoint character's dominant emotion, that doesn't help show his or her reaction to the disaster at the end of the preceding scene.

The Dominant Feeling

Let's talk a bit more about that last point. Think about the particular transition you’re writing. What is your character’s dominant feeling? Is it hate? Love? Fear? Desperation? Dread? Whatever it is, this will give you the unifying theme. For example:

Lily blinked at her computer and cringed. She would rather have a root canal than try to string words together coherently. Perhaps her ideas would flow more easily tomorrow. But when tomorrow came even the thought of writing felt like the blade of a knife.

In the above example I attempted to communicate the feeling of dread I've felt a time or three at the prospect of having to commit words to (virtual) paper. Lily was also dying for a big juicy hamburger and tired after a night of troubled sleep, but I didn't say anything about that because it wouldn't help express her feeling of dread.

Simple Transitions

Let's take a deeper look at simple transitions. As Jack Bickham writes in Scene & Structure, simple transitions cover either a change in time, a change in place or a change in viewpoint.

a. A change in time

Example: “It was the following Tuesday when they met again.”[1]

Example: Ruth flung her head back, closed her eyes and faced the sun, letting the heat dance over her skin. She wanted it to stay sunny forever. Alas, she lived in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen minutes later it started to rain.

Transitions generally come between scenes and compress time. Chances are the protagonist has lost and lost big at the end of the previous scene. She must now figure out what to do and, as part of this, she will likely need to travel to different places, talk to different people. If we followed our protagonist around second-by-second our story would be very boring. So we need to summarize, condense. We need to figure out her dominant emotion and let that guide our choices.

b. A change in place 

Example: “At about the same time Joe met Billy another meeting was taking place on the other side of town.”[1]

Just as transitions compress time they generally compress space as well. When your protagonist goes to visit his friends you're not going to want to describe the car, the heat, etc. You only want to bring in what’s important for your story.

c. A change in viewpoint

Example: Dan smiled hoping his girlfriend, Jan, wouldn’t find out he’d made it to second base with her best friend. [New chapter] “Bastard!” Jan thought, looking at Dan, seeing his guilty smile.

Changes in viewpoint are straightforward. First you were telling the story through one character's eyes and now you've switched and are telling the story through another character's eyes.

Just make sure it's clear to the reader that the viewpoint has changed as well as whose viewpoint the story is now being told from. The writer doesn't want to confuse the reader so it's a good idea to do this in the first sentence and certainly in the first paragraph.

Transitions and Time

Recall that scenes happen in the moment, time unfolds second after second. Sure, time can slow down but there are no jumps, no gaps.

But if you wrote a story that detailed every single second of your protagonist's life you'd end up with a story bored any reader to tears!

We need to see characters live moment-by-moment when there is a burst of purposeful activity (i.e., a scene) but then we need to transition to the next burst. How we do this greatly affects the pace of a story.

Controlling Pace

New writers tend to write stories that need speeding up rather than slowing down, but here are the a few pointers for doing both. (Most of these points were drawn from Jack Bickham's book.)

How to speed up the pace of a story:

  • Where possible, remove sequels from between scenes.
  • Where it’s not possible to remove a sequel see if it would be just as effective if you used a simple transition rather than a sequel.
  • Can you cut some descriptions of emotion from your sequels?
  • Check the motivations and goals of your characters in the scenes your transition links. Is it clear what motives your main characters? What their goals are?
  • Can you raise the stakes in one or more of the scenes?
  • Can you make the disasters at the end of your scenes more dramatic?

How to slow down the pace of the story:

  • Cut one or more scenes.
  • Shorten one or  more scenes.
  • Reveal more of the viewpoint character’s thoughts.
  • Expand the sequels.

That's it for today! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

I've talked about Jack Bickham and Dwight V. Swain in my article and can wholeheartedly recommend their books. Yes, they say basically the same thing but I love reading authors who the same topic but from different perspectives. If you're wondering which book to start with I'd recommend Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure

Here's a quote from Scene & Structure:
MENTION WORDS SUCH AS STRUCTURE, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of formula or predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events 


1. The example for (a) and (b) were from Jack M. Bickham’s book, Scene & Structure.

Monday, June 19

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

Writing Exercise: Make Your Own Critter!

The research vessel Investigator recently explored a 4 km deep abyss along the eastern edge of Australia and found some bizarre critters! A fish without a face, a blog fish, and (this is my favorite) a sponge with GLASS tips. Wow. Now make your own!

What does the head look like? Body? Does it walk? Fly? Swim? Does it have scales? Feathers?

What exceptional quality does it have? Can it withstand fire? Can it breathe fire? Is it poisonous? Can it camouflage itself? Does it lay eggs or give live birth? How long does it live? WHERE does it live?

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending a book I’ve read many times, a book that helped shape our understanding of what a good story is: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field. As an added bonus it’s well-written and a pleasure to read. Yes, it does focus on screenplays as opposed to novels but many of the same considerations apply: story is story. From the book:
“Because a screenplay is a story told with pictures, we can ask ourselves, what do all stories have in common? They have a beginning, middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order, as Jean-Luc Godard says. Screenplays have a basic linear structure that creates the form of the screenplay because it holds all the individual elements, or pieces, of the story line in place.”

Saturday, June 17

The Mummy (2017): A Review: Two Thumbs Up (Kinda)

The Mummy (2017): A Review: Two Thumbs Up (Kinda)

The Mummy is cinematic cotton candy, sweetness and fluff that tastes good in the moment but doesn’t satisfy. That said, it’s only in comparison with the 1999 version that the movie falls flat. It's not a GREAT action movie—for that I'd recommend Edge of Tomorrow—but it was entertaining. Overall, I give The Mummy thumbs up.


It’s going to date me, but I saw the 1999 version of The Mummy in the theater and, ever since, it has been my high water mark for all monster movies.

The way I think of it, the 1999 version is primarily a love story and, only secondly, a horror story. That's my opinion! The writers (Stephen Sommers, Lloyd Fonvielle, Kevin Jarre) created two great stories—the main arc and the relationship arc—and seamlessly wove them together. In 2017 we have two stories but the relationship arc isn’t as robust. It’s more a story about power and what some will do to keep it than it is about love and the cost of forbidden love.

In a way, the 2017 version was about love twisted into lust for power. But that’s a very different thing.

** Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you want to, don’t read any further! **

One of the ultimate expressions of one person’s love for another is to sacrifice their life. Lust for power leads to the opposite behavior and we consume even those we care most about. And, yes, there was some of that in the new movie. At the end Nick Morton kills himself and in so doing partially transforms into the god Set, becoming a monster.  He does this because it’s the only way to bring the woman he loves back to life. He would rather transform into a monster than live in a world in which his love does not exist.

Personally, I found this act unmotivated. To turn yourself into a monster—a fate worse than death—so that you can bring someone back to life, you REALLY have to care about that other person! I didn’t feel the groundwork had been laid for this.

I thought Nick’s sacrifice was implausible

It is unclear why Nick has this kind of epic love for Jenny Halsey. Sure, he likes her. We’re told they had a great night together, but at the end of this epic night Nick steals a treasure map from Jenny thereby endangering her career. But that’s okay. That’s just the beginning of the story.

Later on Nick saves Jenny’s life at the cost of his own BUT Nick tells us, later, that he didn’t think he would die. But whatever. Let’s ignore that. Let’s accept that Nick loves Jenny. Still. I may be jaded, but just because one person loves another doesn’t mean they would condemn themselves to a fate worse than death to save the other’s life.

Show don’t tell

In the 1999 version of The Mummy there’s a scene which shows the viewer how much these two love each other. Rick and Evelyn have just survived a skirmish with Ardeth Bay and his minions. Rick takes Evelyn in his arms, concerned, looking at her wounds. Later on, as Rick teaches Evelyn to fight, they finish off a bottle of liquor. Evelyn is drunk and very charming.

Rick: Unlike your brother, I just don’t get you.
Evelyn: I know, you’re wondering, ‘What is a place like me doing in a girl like this?’
Rick (grinning): Yeah, something like that.

They chat some more then Evelyn says, “I may not be an adventurer, but I am proud of what I am.” Rick asks, “And what is that?” Eveln replies, “I am a LIBRARIAN,” and then (she really is very drunk) kneels in front of Rick and says, “I am going to kiss you Mr. O'Connell.”

Rick: Call me Rick.
Evelyn (smiling drunkenly): Rick.

Evelyn passes out, Rick catches her, and then kisses the air where he lips had been.

I’m not doing justice to the scene. It’s very sweet. The emotion comes across in the acting.

In any case, after that scene you know Evelyn and Rick are in love, you know they would do anything for each other. There was no scene (or series of scenes) in the 2017 version that convinced me that Nick and Jenny were in love. They liked each other, sure. Maybe they even loved each other. And, yes, they would save the other’s life if they could, but accept a fate worse than death? I’m not convinced!

The Curse of the Unexceptional

Arguably, the number one rule of storytelling is that for your audience to care what happens in your tale you need to create characters that are EXCEPTIONAL, exaggerated, memorable. Even Murdoch (Murdoch Mysteries) whose primary characteristic is that he’s exceedingly ordinary is SO ordinary that he becomes extraordinary.

Although as a supernatural creature Ahmanet had many exceptional qualities, her backstory was surprisingly ordinary. Yes she was evil, but it was the kind of evil we’re all too familiar with. She was ambitious. Very ambitious. When it became clear that the only way for her to become Pharaoh was to turn darkside and make a pact with Set, a pact that involved killing her father and infant half-brother, she didn’t bat an eye. So, yes, she’s evil but a lot of people are evil. I don’t say that lightly. It’s hideous. But, tragically, people kill their family and for much less than to become ruler of a kingdom.

In the 1999 version of The Mummy the High Priest Imhotep (the Mummy) didn’t choose a fate worse than death. He chose to RISK a fate worse than death in order to bring his beloved back from the dead. Which is believable given that her death was partly his fault!

And, yes, I do see the parallelism: At the beginning of the story Ahmanet chooses to become a monster because of avarice while Nick chooses to become a monster at the end of the story because of love. That's a nice touch, but, still, my feeling is that love wasn't a big theme of the movie and it suffered because of that.

What went wrong?

If I could sum it up I would say that the 2017 version of the movie lacked key moments, memorable scenes. Yes it had a few (I’ll talk about one, below) but not enough.

My guess is that a few great, key, moments were left on the cutting room floor, but it takes more than that to account for the difference between the two versions.

As I've been saying, I believe one of the fundamental differences between the two movies, the two stories, is one of focus. In 2017 the theme was life versus death/evil where in 1999 it was love versus death/evil. That’s a significant difference.

To illustrate my point let’s take a look at the very beginning of the movie, at the trailer. Granted, this is just one moment but it is a series of these moments strung together that make a movie memorable.

The beginning of the 1999 version of The Mummy

The 1999 version was a hopeful, thrilling, terrifying, story about naivety, love and adventure.  It was about how love—even the High Priest’s forbidden love for the Pharaoh’s mistress—triumphed over death. It wasn’t that Imhotep was intrinsically evil, he just loved the wrong person.

In 2017 people are evil if they ... well, it’s not clear. And, really, that’s the fundamental problem with the movie. There’s a fuzziness about it that saps it of strength, of interest.

First, we don’t have the terrific scene that details some of the more gruesome aspects of the curse (the Hom Dai).

Recall that in the 1999 version we see the knives used to perform the rite laid out on the stone, we see Imhotep struggling, held by his captors. We see Imhotep's tongue pulled out of his mouth, we see the knife coming closer and closer. Imhotep’s eyes are wide and fixed on the blade as it descends.

JUST before the gruesome deed is done one of his captors steps in front of the camera but we hear Imhotep’s scream.

The next scene shows Imhotep being wrapped in strips of linen, his mouth sealed and his eyes closed. Then his struggling form is forced inside a sarcophagus.

But his tormentors are only getting started. They then pour insects—beetles—over him. We hear his muffled screams as the beetles race over his form, eating him alive.

Then the lid fastened and the sarcophagus is sealed with a special lock.

In a voice-over we’re told that the Mummy must remain sealed inside the sarcophagus, undead, and that if he ever gets out he will “arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh eater with the strength of ages, power over the sand and the glory of invincibility!”

What can I say? It’s awesome!!

As we’re told this we watch the Mummy’s sarcophagus being buried beneath the sad. Then the camera pans up and we see the enormous statue of Set that is his tomb marker.

It was VERY dramatic! At that point I KNEW I would love the movie.

The beginning of the 2017 version of The Mummy

In the beginning of the 2017 version of The Mummy there’s no story of forbidden love, instead we get elderly knights chanting. Granted, their clothing suggests something Arthurian (at least, it did to me), which was interesting. We see a knight’s body being interred. His lifeless hands cradle a beautiful ruby that seems to burst into fire when the light catches it, almost as if it is alive.

The next scene shows the burial chamber being broken open by an enormous drilling machine.

Soon folks in hardhats and aggressively orange vests swarm over the site. These folks are then politely shooed away by Dr. Jeckell and his minions. Here’s the voice-over; it’s told from Dr. Jeckel’s perspective:

“The past cannot remain buried forever. In my lifetime I have unearthed many ancient mysteries. At last, this too reveals antiquities’ darkest secret. A secret erased from history and forgotten to time: Princess Ahmanet—beautiful, cunning, and ruthless.”

As Dr. Jeckell speaks we see the princess spar with a man as her father, the Pharaoh, looks on approvingly.

“Sole heir to the throne of Egypt, the pharaoh’s kingdom would one day be hers to rule without mercy or fear and she would be worshiped as a living god.”

My opinion: They missed an opportunity. They’re TELLING us the princess is cunning and ruthless, but all they’ve SHOWN us is her sparring with someone. Perhaps if she’d killed her sparring partner, or perhaps if instead of sparring with someone if she’d tortured them for information and then broken her word to the unfortunate sap and killed him anyway ... well, that would have been pretty ruthless! As it is, we’ll have to take Dr. Jeckell’s word for it.

Back to the voice-over:

“The pharaoh had a son, the boy, now, would inherit her destiny and Ahmanet understood that power was not given, it had to be taken. Now in revenge, she made a choice to embrace evil. Set, the god of death, they made a pact. A pact that would unleash darkness itself.”

As we hear this, something suggestive of a mummy (we only see its silhouette) limps up to the princess and presents her with a dagger sporting a brilliant red ruby in the hilt. As Princess Ahmanet grasps the hilt of the dagger she begins to transform. Tattoos radiate out from the dagger, covering her naked, shapely, form.

Dr. Jekyll tells us: “Ahmanet was reborn a monster.”

We see Ahmanet kill her father and his newborn son.

Voice-over: “Yet the pact was not complete. She vowed to bring the demon into our world, in the body of a mortal man. Together, they would take their vengeance on humanity.”

Here’s part of what I don’t understand: What vengeance? I looked up the word just to be sure and here’s the definition, “punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.” What injury? What wrong? That her father had a child?!! Anyway, moving on ...

Before the princess is able to complete the ritual she is shot with darts and pinned to the ground. In the next scene we see her form swaddled in linen bandages.

Voice-over: “For her sins Ahmanet was mummified alive.”

We have a close up on the princesses’ linen-wrapped face as she is placed in the sarcophagus. Then—and I thought this was brilliant—we see the lid of the sarcophagus from the point of view of Ahmanet. We see it descend toward us. Just before the lid slides into place we have an extreme closeup of her wide, terrified, eyes and, as the lid is fastened and she is condemned to eternal darkness, we hear her haunting scream: Nooooo!!!!

I thought that was very effective. That was a memorable moment.

Voice over: The body, carried far from Egypt. There she would remain, condemned to eternal darkness. But death is a doorway and the past cannot remain buried forever.

Comparison and Summary

As you can see, the openings of the two versions of the movie say it all. The opening of the 1999 version set up all the dominos in the trailer. We met the High Priest before he was cursed. We saw his passion, his love for Anck Su Namun, someone who was forbidden to him. We saw the lengths to which he’d go to be with her, to keep her in his life. We were told WHY the Mummy must be kept in his grave and we were told what would happen if he got out, what his powers would be.

The 1999 version was hideous and horrifying. It was about love and death and the possibility of love being so strong it could survive death.

In this article I’ve argued that the 2017 version doesn’t have the same horrific moments and that it’s not as sharply focused. Granted, I’ve only watched the 2017 version once (when it comes out on DVD I’ll watch it a few more times!), but what I got from it was that, “Evil is real and it’s coming for you.” Which is a perfectly good theme for a horror movie (and a reason why I’m giving the movie a thumbs up), BUT it’s not a great theme for The Mummy.

The 1999 Mummy had a LOT of great moments, the 2017 Mummy had a few—thus my positive rating—but not enough.

To sum up:

The first movie (1999) is a love story, the other (2017) is more an invocation of evil. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie! It’s a DIFFERENT movie. As I said at the beginning of this article, I found it entertaining.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending the classic On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I’ve read On Writing a few times and each time I learn something new. I guess that’s what makes it a classic!

From the blurb:

On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sole, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.

Monday, June 12

Character Creation: Kinds of Characters

Character Creation: Kinds of Characters

Have you ever had the experience of a character coming to life? And, no, I’m not talking about an alienesque situation where something green and slimy explodes from your chest! Though sometimes creating a character can FEEL that painful.

Kinds of Characters

Do characters have an existence independent of the writer? Should they dictate their own actions? OR are characters mere figments of our imaginations? As Scrooge said, an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato”? Do they have no agency of their own, do they have no power to dictate their own natures?

As you might imagine, every writer I’ve read on this subject seems to have a different perspective. For example, Lee Child is of the opinion that, strictly speaking, characters don’t exist. They don’t have desires or interests, only writers and readers do. Sure, we talk about our characters MOTIVATIONS and GOALS but that’s just how we construct the illusion of agency.

The following is from a masterclass Lee Child gave:
Forget character, forget all that stuff, what you do to create suspense is you ask or you imply a question at the beginning and then you don't answer it until the end.

What I said about character leads me on to the type of thing which is something that drives me crazy. I've often heard it said, "On every page one of the characters must want something.”

And to me that shades toward a fundamental misunderstanding of what we're doing because the characters are not real. Okay? They don't exist. They are not capable of wanting anything or needing anything or being interested in anything. They are made up.
If you’d like to read more about Lee Child’s views on character see my post, Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?, especially the comments.

Others—notably Thomas Harris—feel that their characters are as real as flesh-and-blood people.

In Forward to a Fatal Interview Thomas Harris talks about discovering Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It was as if his character took on a life of his own, Harris was merely a shadow observing the characters as they lived their lives. In this sense, he was more like a transcriptionist than a director. He writes (I’ve omitted ellipses for the sake of readability):
I found that I could leave Chilton in the cabin with the lights on and look back at him from the dark. I was invisible then, out there in the dark, the way I am invisible to my characters when I'm in a room with them and they are deciding their fates with little or no help from me.

Graham was tense and I could smell fear on him. I thought Dr. Lecter was asleep and I jumped when he recognized Will Graham by scent without opening his eyes.

I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable in the presence of Dr. Lecter, not sure at all that the doctor could not see me.

In the Middle with You

Like most writers, I’m somewhere in-between Lee Child and Thomas Harris. There are times when I feel as though my characters have seized the reigns and all I have to do is watch them, listen to them. I feel that I’m a ghost in a scene unfolding before my mind’s eye.

Other times it can seem as though a character is opaque to me, especially early on. At those times I’m much more like Lee Child. To get past this, to push on, I’ll look at characters I love (generally, characters in the same genre I’m writing), list their relevant properties, and brainstorm.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

WINNER OF THE NEBULA AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL • Naomi Novik, author of the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Temeraire novels, introduces a bold new world rooted in folk stories and legends, as elemental as a Grimm fairy tale.

Thursday, June 8

Outlining a Murder Mystery

This article is part three of How to Write a Book (Part One, Part Two). Today I take the theory I laid out in my previous two posts (especially the last) and create an outline.

5a. Murder in Meadowmead: Example Outline

Murder in Meadowmead is a story I’ve been writing through a series of blog posts. Why? To give others—especially beginning writers who have never written a book—an idea of ONE WAY this can be done.

If you look at what I’ve created, below, and realize you do things differently, that’s fine! Do whatever works for you. But if you’ve never written a book and wonder how someone else does things, read on. When I was younger I didn’t have anyone’s shoulder to peek over. In those days I wanted to learn how someone took ideas (and goals and hopes and fears) and spun them into a tale.

I’m not saying what follows is the ‘right’ way (there’s no one right way!) to write a story and it’s certainly NOT the only way. But if this helps you, awesome!

By the way, this post continues a series I began on How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

 a1. ACT ONE (25%)

a1.1. The Ordinary World

The ordinary world represents the detective’s—Alex’s—life before the adventure (for more on Alex see Let's Make a Detective!). This is his starting point (for more on story structure see: The Structure of a Great Story). The setting should be designed to show readers who he is (the paintings he's chosen to display on the wall, his liquor cabinet, whether he keeps a journal, whether he displays pictures of family and friends, etc.

Further, something about Alex—his mannerisms, his behavior or how he looks—should be exaggerated; memorable.

Perhaps I’ll start the story by having Alex pack his belongings in preparation for his move to Meadowmead. He needs opposition, so perhaps Alex has a friend who thinks he’s nuts for moving. Or ... no. Not a friend; Alex doesn’t have close attachments. It’s his lawyer; he’s there to either pick something up or drop something off.
“Why are you moving there? And don't talk to me about that awful restaurant your mother-in-law left you. Where the hell IS Meadowmead, I’ve never heard of it! I’m sure they roll up the sidewalks at 9 pm. No restaurants, no entertainment, what the hell are you going to do? Stay home and READ?!” Robert said.
It’s a good question. WHY would Alex move from a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, one overlooking Central Park, to a sleepy town hardly anyone has heard of? Why THAT town as opposed to another? Is Alex looking for something? If so, what? What is drawing him?

Or is Alex running away from something? Perhaps memories of his late wife? (He and his late wife lived in his Manhattan apartment. They moved in after their honeymoon. They lived there for one glorious year before she died—I’m not 100% sure how she died, but I’m pretty sure her death was thought to be an accident.)

I think I’ll incorporate flashbacks. Alex is walking around his apartment looking at pictures of himself and his late wife in happier times. In one they’re holding hands, screaming at the top of their lungs as they bungie jump off a cliff; it was their honeymoon and Alex had never been that scared in his life. As he looks at the picture he smiles and turns away from Robert to wipe a tear from his eye.

“I’ll have everything packed up and sent on,” Robert said.

Alex shook his head. “No. Just pack it up and store it.”

“Everything? You don’t want anything sent on? Not even your clothes?”

Alex shakes his head and leaves.

a1.1 Revision Notes: 

Robert needs a goal, something he wants in the scene. As it is, there’s no friction. What is Alex giving up by moving? What is he gaining?

I think I’ll make Robert an older man, a friend of Alex’s parents. He wants Alex to take charge of the family business. He sees Alex’s move to Meadowmead as him running away, as cowardice. Alex needs to have a definite, concrete, goal in moving to Meadowmead. He may not share this with Robert, but he should allude to it.

a1.2. Inciting Incident: What is the Inciting Incident?

The Inciting Incident is where the world of the story changes. It is BECAUSE of the Inciting Incident that the protagonist receives a Call to Adventure (if these terms are unfamiliar, see my post A Story Structure in Three Acts).

I think I’ll make the Inciting Incident MYSTERIOUS. At twilight a strange older man rushes down the sidewalk and staggers into Alex. Apologies are exchanged.

“I have to go,” the other says, breathless, his watery fish-like eyes darting everywhere at once.

“Is someone chasing you?” Alex asks, glancing around. The street is empty.

The two exchange a look, a glance. Alex thinks, This man is terrified.

There’s something familiar about this apparent stranger, Alex feels he’s seen him before, perhaps a long while ago. “Do we know each other?” Alex asks, frowning. The man tears himself away and rushes on.

Shaken, Alex puts his hands in his pockets. Nestled in his right hand pocket is a small package. Some instinct keeps him from reacting. Alex finishes his shopping and walks home, careful not to betray any excitement. Only when he is safely in his apartment away from prying eyes does he reach into his pocket, take out the package and examine it. (I don’t yet know what’s inside, but it should be something that shatters the detective’s old world. Perhaps he learns something about his wife or her family.)

a1.2. Revision Notes: 

This scene needs to go first! THIS (the package and the events surrounding Alex acquiring it) is the Inciting Incident and it’s how I’ll open the book. This is why Alex decides to move to Meadowmead. (I discover, later in this post, that the package contained information about his wife’s death, information that convinces Alex that her passing wasn’t an accident.)

a1.3. Call to Adventure: What draws the protagonist into the quest?

The Inciting Incident changed the world; it has shattered the protagonist’s status quo. The Call to Adventure is the protagonist reacting to that change.

There are two arcs, two storylines, that intimately concern the protagonist: the INNER ARC and the OUTER/EXTERNAL ARC. The external arc is the murder mystery. The internal arc is about Alex facing his demons and trying to track down and punish those responsible for his wife’s death. Each of these has an Inciting Incident.

a1.3. External Arc

Alex’s late wife’s brother, Ben, comes to Alex and asks him to figure out who murdered his friend. Sure, he has an ulterior motive, but this is the reason he gives (I go over the sidekick in the post Let’s Create a Sidekick!). Alex initially refuses because he never was close to Maria’s brother—the man had never liked him, never thought he was good enough for his sister—also it really doesn’t look like there’s a case.

NOTE: The External Arc doesn't begin until Act Two, I mention it here only because we're talking about the Call to Adventure.

a1.3. Internal Arc

Alex wants revenge for his wife’s death. He is sure there’s something in the town that can help him figure out who killed his wife.

NOTE ABOUT THE PACKAGE: This is what was in the package! Evidence that his wife’s death wasn’t an accident, evidence she was killed and that the answer to who killed her can be found in Meadowmead. I think the package contained a USB flash drive.

A waiter/manager at his restaurant, someone who has been there for ages will act as Alex’s mentor. Perhaps she knows tarot. She gets Alex to reconsider by giving him information that connects his late wife’s family up to whatever the package was, whatever drew Alex to Meadowmead. Also, this woman talks to him about his wife, what she was like as a child. She talks about his wife’s mother, her family. Perhaps she also gives him something of Martha’s or Martha’s mothers. Perhaps he also has a dream that night. In any case, he changes his mind and begins to investigate with the brother.

a1.4. Journey to the Special World: What mini-quest takes the protagonist from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure?

Often the Special World is in a different physical location. For instance, in Star Wars Luke left his home planet of Tatooine and headed off to join the Rebel Alliance. In my example story the Special World is the small, sleepy, town of Meadowmead, especially those parts of the town associated with Alex's late wife’s family.

a1.4. Internal Arc

The quest that takes Alex from the Ordinary World (Manhattan) to the Special World (Meadowmead) of the Adventure will have to do with the mysterious package. Alex will need to risk something and he will need to get something.

Perhaps, after Alex unwraps the package, he will set up a meeting with the messenger who gave him the package. The messenger is either killed while they’re meeting or just before and Alex finds his body. Perhaps there’s something on the body that provides Alex a clue. Perhaps the older man has the same tattoo as his wife, or a similar medallion.

Also, there should be a point of no return either here or at the midpoint. Alex should have to make a conscious decision to continue with his quest despite the cost, the stakes (and the cost/stakes must be spelled out before he makes his decision).

a2. ACT TWO (26 to 75%)

Show the protagonist discovering the Special World of the Adventure. There should be tests and trials as well as fun and games. The Special World is starkly different from the Ordinary World—inside out and upside down.

a2.1. External Arc

Because of what Alex learns about the package, because of his experience finding the messenger dead, because of his conversation with the manager over at Absinthe Cafe, Alex decides to help Ben (his late wife’s brother) investigate the death of his friend. At this point Alex accepts the Call to Adventure.

Perhaps Ben is a detective on the force. He tells Alex that his investigation isn’t going anywhere and he wants a fresh pair of eyes. His sister always said she had never met anyone as smart as Alex, that if Ben ever had a crime he couldn’t solve he should get Alex to help. Ben is trying to butter up Alex but it kinda works.

a2.1. Internal Arc

Alex remembers his wife in a certain way. She was intelligent with a quick smile and a kind heart. She was an open book, brimming with passion for life. As Alex explores the town, talks to people who knew Maria, he forms a very different image of his late wife. The people of the town know Maria as someone brilliant but sad, withdrawn and even a wee bit scary. One thing they all agree on is that she was very determined. Once she decided to do something nothing could stop her.

a2.2. Trials: What challenges does the protagonist have adjusting to the Special World?

a2.2. External Arc

Alex needs to interview those who saw the victim last, discover what their alibi’s are, what their potential motive would be, and so on. If Ben is attached to the police in some way this could be useful, otherwise Alex will have to get creative.

Obviously the number of suspects you have is completely up to you. I’m going with 4 and here’s why. One of the suspects will be killed at roughly the 2/3 point leaving 3, which is fine. That’s still enough choice to make things suspenseful. The fewer suspects I have the less planning I’ll have to do. It’s that old adage: KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly).

As part of the trials the detective will go to each of the suspects and try to suss out whether they have means, method and opportunity. Also, the detective will likely have to consult at least one expert to help interpret the evidence or confirm a theory.

a2.2 Internal Arc

Alex has trouble finding out about his late wife. Alex has trouble getting folks to talk to him, even about the weather! Those few who do talk refuse to give him any information about Maria or her family. Alex has to employ a variety of techniques to get information (bribing people with food, free meals, doing favors, perhaps even a little blackmail).

He starts off by hiring someone to investigate the elderly man who gave him the package (see the Inciting Incident). That leads to other sources of information, other people to question. One person he wants to speak with is his father-in-law; Alex suspects this man is linked to his wife’s death, but he’s not sure how. Or perhaps Alex THINKS he knows how he just wants to hear him admit it.

a2.3. Approach the cave: What crisis compels the protagonist to confront the antagonist at the midpoint?

a2.3. External Arc & Internal Arc

Something that Alex came across, some evidence/information, has shed light on his wife’s death. It has given Alex a link between his wife’s so-called accident and her family.

a2.4. Midpoint: What happens at the confrontation? Does the protagonist win or lose? Do they acquire any information? 

a2.4. External and Internal Arc

At the midpoint the protagonist finds out something, some information, that is critical to the case. I think that perhaps this is when Alex finds out the central role Maria’s father plays in the cabal.

Alex confronts Maria’s father, a man who has never liked him. Alex believes the father is behind his wife’s death. Maria’s father says that IF anyone was the cause of her death then that person was Alex. Maria left the family because of Alex and NO ONE leaves the family. She had been warned.

Something that the father says triggers a memory, something about the murder Alex is investigating, but he can’t pin it down. It’s like having something on the tip of your tongue ...

a2.5. Bonding

After the midpoint there’s usually a time of bonding. The protagonist gets together with his allies (so far that’s only Alex, Ben and maybe his manager at Absinthe Cafe) and discusses what happened at the midpoint.

In any case, they have dinner at Alex’s restaurant and discuss the case. They probably interact with a few other characters from the town.

a2.6. The First Plan

As part of bonding, a plan is cooked up. You could make this part a bit humorous. Have it that the group thinks a character, call him Hank, is the murderer. They’re all set to bring him in. They go to Hank’s office and then ... find him dead.

a2.6. Complication: Something goes very wrong and complicates the protagonist’s quest, what happens?

Hank’s death is the first complication.

a2.6. More complications: Events keep going wrong. What happens?

Alex is arrested for the second murder. He’s been framed. As soon as Alex arrived at the location of the second murder police, etc., arrive. There is no REAL evidence of Alex’s guilt, the cabal has no real evidence, they are just trying to intimidate him.

Ben posts bail.

a2.7. All Hope is Lost: What happens at the All Hope is Lost point?

The cabal makes it look like Alex has violated his bail, either that or they trick him into doing something that violates his bail. He’s thrown back into jail. Perhaps someone comes to try and kill him but Alex defends himself.

It looks as though the cabal has won and Alex is finished. No matter what he does, the cabal will be one step ahead. If they want him to rot in jail, then Alex will rot in jail. If they want to frame him for murder then he’ll go down for murder.

a3. ACT THREE (76 to 100%)

In general terms, here’s what’s happening in the third act: All subplots have been closed out or will soon be closed out. The detective knows the identity of the murderer and events are pushing the protagonist toward the big reveal.

The way I’m thinking about it (and keep in mind this is early days) The internal and external arcs don’t exactly merge, but Alex now knows what he’s got to do on both counts.

a3.1. Race to the Finish: How does the protagonist get her mojo back and get back on track?

At the beginning of the third act Alex thinks the cabal killed the second victim. (We know this is incorrect, it was Lydia Morton.)

Something happens that gives Alex the epiphany he needs to solve the case. (The thing that was niggling at him when he confronted his late wife’s father at the midpoint is now made clear.) He realizes his anger, his hate, for the cabal has been blinding him. The cabal didn’t have anything to do with the second victim. As soon as he realizes that, he realizes who killed both victims.

Although Alex now knows the identity of the murderer he doesn’t have enough evidence to prove his suspicion.

a3.2. The Second Plan

Alex realizes that the cabal either has the proof he needs for his theory or is suppressing it. Further, the cabal is working against him (mostly) because

a) The murderer, Lydia, is a member of one of the founding families and they protect their own.
b) The cabal doesn’t like Alex. The cabal doesn’t seriously think Alex will be able to hurt them in any significant way, but accept that he could make things more difficult for them.

Alex’s plan is to get leverage on the cabal so that, at the very least, they’ll stop blocking his attempts to get the evidence he needs to bring the murderer to justice. Let’s say there is something specific, some object—perhaps a piece of paper or a section of surveillance video—Alex needs to get his hands on. He tries to hire someone (perhaps he knew people in Manhattan) but they all refuse once they realize the target is the cabal.

a3.3. First Complication

Note: There doesn’t HAVE to be three complications, though that is a good number because two are generally similar (though the stakes are raised each time) while the third is different and much more dire.

Alex tries to get what he needs from the cabal and fails.

I think this story needs a strong antagonist other than the cabal and the murderer. Perhaps the police chief or the mayor? Someone with power, someone who could really hurt the detective. Let’s say we’ve got someone like this in the story. They foil the detective’s attempt to get what he needs AND, on top of this, he lands back in jail. (Or perhaps now he’s thrown into one of the cabal’s private jails.)

a3.4. Second Complication

I think Alex needs a mysterious benefactor, a kind of mentor character. We might not find out who this person is in the first book.

Did Alex get what he needed from the cabal? No BUT Alex’s benefactor intervenes and he’s released. This was a one-time-only intervention. (In order for this not to be an instance of deus ex machina I’ll have to retroactively insert this character into the story, starting at the beginning. Perhaps this person helped Alex figure out what was in the package he received at the beginning of the story, the thing that became the Inciting Incident.)

Alex’s benefactor helps him get out of jail BUT this raises the stakes for Alex. Perhaps his sidekick—Ben—is assaulted or kidnapped or in some way put in danger. Further, Ben was in the process of getting critical evidence.

a3.5. Third Complication

Alex goes to the cabal to either blackmail them or offer them something they can’t refuse. Perhaps Alex says he’ll withdraw from everything, he’ll leave town, if they return Ben unharmed.

The cabal is shielding the murderer, Lydia, because of her family connections (perhaps they’re also scared of what she could tell Alex about their organization). The cabal catch Alex off-guard. They aren’t easily manipulated. Alex’s late wife’s father makes Alex a surprising offer. In exchange for giving Alex what he needs to solve the murder he’ll owe his father-in-law a favor.

a3.6. Climax: What happens at the climax? Does the protagonist win and, if so, how?

Since this is a murder mystery it’s no surprise what happens at the climax! This is the Big Reveal.

Since this post is quite long enough I think I’ll save the various kinds of reveals for later!

a3.7. Wrap up: What happens to the major characters?

I'm not going to worry about this until the rest of my outline is more developed.

General Observations

I find it fascinating how a story comes together. I started off with no idea about a mysterious package, the idea just came to me. Then I realized the package contained evidence that Alex’s wife didn’t die a natural death, that she was helped off this mortal coil. That information combined with hints about Meadowmead was enough to get Alex to move to a small town he never knew existed a week ago.

I suspect I’ll talk more about this in subsequent posts, but notice that when I started off the story I had NO IDEA how it would start. I’ve talked to other writers and that’s normal! So don’t stress about the first few paragraphs of your story, about that first scene, until AFTER you have a solid first draft (not a Zero Draft, a first draft). Sketch out the bare bones of your story and then flesh things out as you go.

SIDEKICK. One thing I need to develop further is Ben’s role in the story. Rather than doing that now, I’m going to publish this post and fill in the gaps later.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

I've been to Michael Hauge's workshops and he is AMAZING! He just came out with a new book: Storytelling Made Easy: Persuade and Transform Your Audiences, Buyers, and Clients — Simply, Quickly, and Profitably. I haven't read it yet (I just found out about it 5 minutes ago!) but it's at the top of my 'to read' list.

From the blurb:
Renowned Hollywood story expert Michael Hauge’s Six Step Success Story formula gives your potential clients and buyers the emotional experience of success—and will move them to take action.

Tuesday, June 6

How to Write a Book, Part Two

How to Write a Book, Part Two

This article is part two of How to Write a Book.

2. Figure out how many words you can write a day.

As you write your Zero Draft you’ll also get an idea for how many words you can write in a day. You want to shoot for a SUSTAINABLE amount. Writing a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

NaNoWriMo is wonderful practice for writing everyday. It doesn’t matter if you can write 50,000 words a month, but trying helps you get in touch with your inner writer and figure out your average word output.

If you can’t write every day, that’s fine! Perhaps you have an insane schedule conceived in the depths of hell and can only write once a week. That's okay! All you’re trying to do at this point is figure out how many words you can write over a certain time period.

3. Create a story outline.

Don’t worry if you don’t know how the story ends (the Climax) or what the middle bits are (Midpoint Crisis) or even what sets all these events in motion (the Inciting Incident). That’s what we’re going to work on now.

Take what you know about the story and:

a) Internal: build on your understanding of the story, and
b) External: shape the basic story outline so it fits the structure of your chosen genre. 

Before we think any more about (a) or (b), though, let’s talk about suspense.

3a. A note about suspense.

I’m interested in writing stories that entertain. Not everyone is! And that’s fine. But I love a rousing, suspenseful, tale. Since these kind of stories are what I love to read it’s natural that they’re also what I love to write.

Another thing: It’s MUCH more difficult to sell books that aren’t entertaining. Yes, there are folks who read and enjoy stories that do not have even the faintest smidgeon of suspense—I’ve met them!—but that’s not my audience.

When I write these posts I’m writing to those who, like me, want to craft stories that entertain.

3b. Begin at the end.

When I create an outline for a story I begin at the end.

Sounds perverse, doesn’t it?! But—especially if you’re writing something with the element of surprise—it makes sense to start with what we KNOW and then work out what needs to happen for us to get there.

For example, let’s say you know that Bob Boisterous murdered Sally Soffit with an experimental drug because Sally was going to get the promotion Bob coveted.

Means: Experimental drug
Motive: Bob wants the promotion
Opportunity: Bob says he was taping a podcast in his private studio when the murder occurred—and it seems as though he’s telling the truth.

You know Bob has to get caught which means he has to make a mistake. Let’s say Bob put the poison in Sally’s coffee. When she tasted the coffee she cringed and said, “Someone put sugar in this,” but drank it anyway because she was caffeine deprived and in a hurry.

The killer didn’t know Sally would tell anyone her coffee was too sweet or that the person she told would remember it. When the dregs of Sally’s coffee is analyzed it seems to only contain coffee because the killer switched the cups.

Our detective thinks Bob’s behavior is fishy. Bob hated Sally (and vice versa) and Bob’s grief seems false. If he had nothing to do with her death, the detective feels he wouldn’t be as intent on hiding his true feelings.

Also, the victim’s comment about the sweetness of the coffee (Sally NEVER used sugar) is enough to make our intrepid detective suspicious. Further, the detective knows of a poison that would act on the victim in a way consistent with what the coroner told him about the body.

The murderer was counting on the death being put down to natural causes—the victim had a heart condition and the effects of the poison looked like cardiac failure.

You get the idea. Everything is much easier once you know where you’re going. Because of this you can save a LOT of time.

3c. Complete your outline.

At this point you don’t have to know every last little thing about the plot but try to have something down for the main points. Keep in mind that your outline isn’t written in stone! It can and will change as you write.

Even if your outline has gaps it helps to have the bones of the story written down. You’ll be able to see which parts are missing. A well-defined, concrete, problem is much easier to solve than a nebulous ill-defined one.

ACT ONE (25%)
(This is the Ordinary World. Describe it as you introduce your characters IN ACTION. Give them an initial problem to solve, setbacks, etc.)
Inciting Incident: What is the Inciting Incident?
Call to Adventure: What draws the protagonist into the quest?
Journey to the Special World: What mini-quest takes the protagonist from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure?

ACT TWO (26 to 75%)
(Introduce the Special World of the Adventure. It should be starkly different from the Ordinary World, inside out and upside down.)
Trials: What challenges does the protagonist have adjusting to the Special World?
Approach the cave: What crisis compels the protagonist to confront the antagonist at the midpoint?
Midpoint: What happens at the confrontation? Does the protagonist win or lose? Do they acquire any information?
Complication: Something goes very wrong and complicates the protagonist’s quest, what happens?
More complications: Events keep going wrong. What happens?
All Hope is Lost: What happens at the All Hope is Lost point?

ACT THREE (76 to 100%)
(All subplots have been closed out or will soon be closed out. We’re concentrating on the hero’s quest, racing toward the finish line.)
Race to the Finish: How does the protagonist get his/her mojo back and get back on track?
Climax: What happens at the climax? Does the protagonist win and, if so, how?
Wrap up: What happens to the major characters?

You don’t need to answer these questions in any detail at this point. This will just give you the big points, the turning points.

Now we have an outline. Granted, this outline will vary depending on the kind of genre you’re writing for, but you’ve got the bare-bones done. High-five!

4. Decide how long you want your finished manuscript to be.

Now figure out how your story fits into, or onto, your outline. When I think of this step I think of pulling a dress (your story) over a mannequin (the outline).

I’m not going to fib, this step is a bit of a dark art. Let’s start by deciding how long we want the finished manuscript to be.

If you’re writing a fantasy you might want to shoot for 90,000 to 100,000 words or, if you’re writing a romance, you might want to keep your word count closer to 60,000 or 70,000. It’s my experience that mysteries range from anything between 60,000 to 85,000 words.

Let’s say you decide to shoot for around 80,000 words and use a three act structure.

Act 1: 20,000 words.
Inciting Incident (5%): 4,000
Call to Adventure (10%): 8,000
Journey to the Special World (20%): 16,000

Act 2: 40,000 words.
Trials (26%): 20,800
Approach the cave (40%): 32,000
Midpoint (50%): 40,000
Complication (55%): 44,000
More complications (60%): 48,000
All Hope is Lost (70%): 56,000

Act 3: 20,000 words.
Race to the Finish (76%): 60,800
Climax (90%): 72,000
Wrap up (98%): 78,400

Of course you might not want to use three acts, perhaps you’d prefer four or five or even six! All the major points (Inciting Incident, Call to Adventure, etc.) will be the same. Also, keep in mind that at the end of each act, a major event should occur which spins the hero’s journey (the through-line) in a different direction and increases the stakes.

As far as what happens in each act you’ll want to adapt it to the genre you’re writing in. For instance, here’s a five act structure for a murder mystery.

5. Write your first draft.

Congratulations! You’ve got an outline. Sure, there are gaps but you’re getting the feel for the general shape of the story, the major moments. Now let’s see what we can do about filling in the missing bits.

For example, there’s 4,000 words between the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure. One thing that can help get you through the gaps are scenes and sequels.

I’m putting together an example outline for Murder in Meadowmead. I’ll try to finish that up today and publish it tomorrow (Wednesday).

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending: The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maass. I’ve had the privilege of taking a couple of workshops from Mr. Maass. He’s terrific! If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, take it! His books are amazingly helpful. Highly recommended!

From the blurb:
While writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader's experience must be an emotional journey of its own, one as involving as your characters' struggles, discoveries, and triumphs are for you.

Readers can simply read a novel...or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.