Showing posts with label #writingadvice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #writingadvice. Show all posts

Monday, January 23

4 Ways to Choose a Blog Topic Your Readers Will Love

4 Ways to Choose a Blog Topic Your Readers Will Love

One of the most difficult things about blogging is deciding exactly what to blog about. To be honest, I think picking a topic is something of a dark art. For years, it was a source of agony but then I developed a few strategies.

I’ll confess that I was stumped about what to write about today (it was difficult to rip myself away from working on my book!), but instead of going through this process myself—which I do on a regular basis—I thought I’d share the process itself.

I find that, often, creativity needs a nudge. Like an oyster needs a spec of sand around which to form a beautiful pearl, so writers often need inspiration to get their ideas flowing.

In any case, if I don’t have a topic in mind to write about, then here’s how I choose one. But, before I get to that, let me show you what I affectionately think of as, ‘The Test.’

The Test

In order for a topic to get the green light it has to pass two checks:

A. Would my readers be passionate about this topic?
B. Am I passionate about this topic?

You are wildly interested in a topic but your readers? Not so much. 

Let’s face it, if your readers aren’t interested in a particular topic then, even if you’ve written the most erudite article, why torment them? Do write the article, but publish in another venue!

You think your readers would love to read about a certain topic but you’re not passionate about the topic.

I’ve had this happen. A few years ago I received several requests from readers to write about how to record an audiobook, and I thought that was a great idea for a blog, or even a series of blog posts.

But, for whatever reason, when I sat down to write the darn article it felt like I was trying to eat sawdust! I had to force myself to pick up and move the pen and the time stretched on and on and on and ... well, you get the idea. (I did eventually write the post, and I enjoyed doing it! Often our muses just need time to figure out how to make a topic our own.)

Sometimes a topic will sound great—perfect!—but you are so profoundly uninspired by it that it would take you ages to write it. That’s not making efficient use of your time. There are many topics that will inspire both you and your readers. Write about those and be happy! ;)

1. Podcasts.

Here’s what I do: As I’ve mentioned before (see: 6 Inspirational and Informative Writing Podcasts), I love listening to podcasts! And quite a few of my favorites are about writing.

One thing I do when I’m looking for topics my readers might love is to go to the podcast’s home on iTunes and sort the episodes by popularity so that the most popular podcast episodes are at the top. I then read the top 5 or 10 podcast titles and run them through The Test (see above).


What Buzzsumo does is show you a site’s most shared blog posts. Plug in a domain name and up will pop that particular site’s most shared blog posts. I use the free version and so can only see the 5 most popular posts, but that’s enough!

Select your five favorite sites and run their domain names through Buzzsumo. Look at the titles produced and Test them to see if any would be a good topic for you.

3. Your most popular Tweets.

One of the many nice things about Twitter is that it tells you which of your tweets and retweets were the most popular. This is a terrific way to see what topics your readers like to share!

4. Your most popular posts.

Practically any blogging platform will give you statistics; at the very least, it will tell you how many times a certain blog post has been viewed. If you’ve linked your blog to Google Analytics you’ll also be able to see, for example, how long visitors stay on the page. This will give you a more accurate idea about what viewers prefer, but if you don’t have Google Analytics, use whatever you have.

In what follows I’m going to talk about several ways you can get blog ideas from your own most popular posts.

a. Write a part two.

Many times I’ll come to the end of a blog post knowing there’s much more I could have written. When I go back and take a look at the most popular posts I ask myself, could I write a part two? You don’t have to call it part two, just blog about it and link back to the older post.

b. Give a detailed example.

You could give a detailed example that deals with a topic you wrote about in one of your more popular posts. For example, let’s say you wrote about how to write a Create Your Own Adventure story. You could create an outline and write the beginning of a small adventure then, for the blog post, share the materials and step through what you did to create them.

c. Write about the X most popular Y.

Let’s say your 3 most popular blog posts have to do with the same topic, say, “How to select a vacation spot snorkelers will enjoy.” Since you’ve got 3 posts about this as it is, maybe you don’t want to write a 4th! That’s okay, vary the kind of blog post. For example, “4 Snorkeling Paradises For Your Bucket List.”

d. Curate posts: your 5 favorite blog posts that week.

If you’re a blogger, chances are you read a number blogs. If a few posts stand out as being well written, then include them in a “best of the web” post.

For each article you use, give the title, the authors name and be sure to link back to the article itself (that’s important!)—in other words, attribute the article. This is also a good way of meeting other bloggers, I’ve had a number of folks whose material I’ve reviewed leave comments thanking me!

Those are my ideas, I’d love to hear yours! How do you choose a blog post?

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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 TV show: Lucifer

Lucifer is filled with lighthearted irreverence, I find it a wonderful way to unwind. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a critical rating of 75% and an audience score of 89%. It's is based on the DC comic of the same name.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you on Wednesday. Till then, good writing!

Saturday, January 21

The Tropes of Supernatural

The Tropes of Supernatural

I have a confession: I’m a super-fan of Supernatural. I’ve rewatched the entire series—twice! Each time something new would pop; I’d get a fresh insight into the rhythm, the patterns, the complex web of conflicting character desires.

For those who’ve never seen Supernatural, it’s ...

“an American fantasy horror television series created by Eric Kripke. It was first broadcast on September 13, 2005, on The WB .... Starring Jared Padalecki as Sam Winchester and Jensen Ackles as Dean Winchester, the series follows the two brothers as they hunt demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural beings. (Supernatural, Wikipedia)”

I’ve watched Supernatural from the very first episode way back in 2005. So, in honor of supernatural's upcoming 13th season, I thought I'd take a look at the tropes used in the show.

About tropes: The way I see it, just because a show uses tropes doesn’t mean it’s bad. It all depends on how the tropes are written.

Knowledge Broker

A Knowledge Broker “is the person who always seems to have the dirt on everybody. The person who runs an information-gathering system, with a network of informers.” The Knowledge Broker may seem “nearly omniscient. He/she always seems to have just the right tidbit of information for whoever is willing to pay their price. For the most part, he remains impartial despite his vast influence, and most people know to stay on his good (or at least indifferent) side.” (TVTropes, Knowledge Broker)


- Ice Pick from Magnum, P.I.
- Sam Axe in Burn Notice.
- Mycroft on Sherlock.

Related tropes:

- The Barnum
- Freudian Excuse
- Default to Good

Monster of the Week

A Monster of the Week story is one in which “characters fight a villain and the whole story is wrapped up at the end, never to be dealt with again.”

Cool fact: Did you know that the phrase, “Monster of the Week” comes from the writing staff of the Outer Limits (1963)?


- The Twilight Zone
- The Outer Limits
- Marvel’s Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D.

Related tropes:

- One-Shot Character
- Mystery of the Week
- Monster Munch

Walking the Earth

This is one of my favorite tropes! From TVTropes:

“Footloose and fancy-free, we set off among the Adventure Towns, seeking the next place, rather than our fortunes. / ... The character has no home (or he/she/it in progress of finding one), no job, no money, no identification, no friends, and no visible means of support, yet is always healthy, well-fed, clean, and welcome wherever he goes.”

“When one is forced to walk the earth against one's will, this trope becomes the much darker Flying Dutchman. / If a character walking the earth has a strict code of honor and spreads justice in his wake, he's a Knight Errant. Same code of honor (and wanderlust) usually results in passing the ‘Leave Your Quest’ Test.”


- Doctor Who 
- The Fugitive
- Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Related tropes:

- Adventure Towns
- In Harm's Way
- The Drifter

Myth Arc

A Myth Arc is basically a story arc—often a very LONG one. In the case of Supernatural the Myth Arc encompasses a soon-to-be 13 seasons of the show!

Cool fact: “Myth Arc” and “mythology episode” originated with the writers on the X-Files!


- Babylon 5
- X-Files
- Heroes

Related tropes:

- Continuity Lock-Out
- Story Arc
- Chris Carter Effect

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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 Writing a Novel with Scrivener, by David Hewson. I use Scrivener to write everything, including these posts!

From the blurb: Bestselling “author David Hewson, creator of the successful Nic Costa series, offers a personal, highly-focussed guide to using this powerful application to create a novel. .... Hewson, a Scrivener user for years who's written five of his popular novels in the app, takes users through the basic processes of structuring a full-length novel, writing and developing the story, then delivering it either as a manuscript for an agent or publisher or as an ebook direct to Kindle or iBook.”

And that barely scratches the surface! If you want to look at more tropey goodness:

Character profiles from the Tabletop Game: Monster of the Week. Here’s another list. Lots of great character ideas!

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing.


Wednesday, January 11

Write a Book in 15 Days

Write a Book in 15 Days

When someone writes a book in a week it's usually a nonfiction book, though it's perfectly possible to write a novella in 15 days. After all, many people write 2,000 words a day for NaNoWriMo, writing 2,000 words a day for 15 days will get you 30,000 words. Depending how you look at it, that’s either a long novella or a short book!

Pick a topic.

Everyone knows a lot about something: computer repair, day trading, painting, marketing, cooking, baking, traveling, home repair, woodworking, scrapbooking, film, music, fitness, weight loss, relationships, sports, raising kids, and so on.

What interests you? If you’re on Pinterest what are most of your pins about?

Not sure what you’re good at? Ask yourself: What do your friends ask you for advice about?

Narrow the topic.

Okay, so, now you know what kind of book you want to write but the topic still needs to be narrowed down. For example, if you’ve decided to write about cooking, what kind of cooking? Vegetarian, Vegan, food for omnivores, eating local, eating raw, the Paleo Diet, gluten-free cooking, and so on.

Since you’re writing a very short book, even that doesn’t narrow things down enough. You’re only going to be writing a about 30,000 words or so, therefore you have to get specific.

For example, if your current passion is eating vegan, then you might want to write about how to create a delicious vegan meal in 15 minutes or less. Or perhaps even something like 40 delicious, gluten-free, avocado recipes. And so on.

 Or if baking is your thing, what kind of baking? Do you love desserts? Or, even more specifically, cupcakes? You could write a book about your 20 favorite chocolate cupcake recipes. Or perhaps your 20 favorite cupcake recipes inspired by halloween. Here are a few more ideas:

  • 15 minute meals for folks trying to lose 30 pounds in 30 days.
  • 20 delicious German gluten-free cookie recipes.
  • 20 French dessert recipes that melt in your mouth, cost under $5 and won’t blow your diet!
  • 20 Japanese meals for the North American palette ready in under 15 minutes.

The possibilities are infinite!

Create an outline.

After you’ve decided on the general topic and then narrowed it down it’s time to create your outline.

How is this done? For example, if you’re working on a book about rock climbing (a subject I know nothing about) there is going to be equipment unique to that sport.

Also, just about every sport has beginners, folks who want to try it out but don’t want to look silly by knowing nothing about the subject. These people have never, say, gone rock climbing before and would like suggestions about how to ease themselves into the sport. Should they start climbing indoors or outdoors? Does it matter? What kind of equipment should a beginner buy, if any? How can one find a qualified teacher? And so on.

If you want to write a 30,000 word book, then plan to have each chapter come out to about 3000 words which means you’ll have 10 chapters. Of course this could change a bit as you write, but it is very helpful to have as detailed an outline as possible before you begin writing.

The idea is for each point in your outline to become a chapter, or subsection of a chapter. For example:

- Introduction (to be written last)
* What pain points do your readers have? What do they want help with? Talk about how your book will help. Talk about what value your book has for your audience.
* Tell your readers what you’re going to tell them.

- What is rock climbing? 
* The history.
* How rock climbing has changed over the years.
* Why rock climbing is a fun sport that’s good for you both physically and mentally.

- Your first rock climb.
* How old do you have to be to rock climb? 
* Is rock climbing okay for seniors, or should they consult with a doctor first?
* What equipment is absolutely necessary for rock climbing? Can you rent it or must you buy?
* What kinds of rock faces are best for the beginner? Indoors or outdoors?

- How to become a better rock climber.
* Are there exercises one can do? Perhaps a special diet? 
* Must one practice frequently?

- Competitive rock climbing.
* Are there clubs devoted to rock climbing? Competitions? 
* How much per year can one expect to spend if one becomes serious about the sport.

- Extreme rock climbing.

And so on.

I hope what I’ve written, above, makes sense! I’ve never gone rock climbing and know nothing about it. But that's exactly why I picked it: I wanted to show completing an outline doesn’t require any specific knowledge. It's the other way around, you use the outline to see what research needs to be done.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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.

If you’re thinking of writing a cosy mystery a terrific place to begin is, Writing the Cozy Mystery, by Nancy J. Cohen. At the present moment (Jan 11, 2017) Nancy Cohen’s book, though only 50 pages long, is a steal at $0.75! From the blurb: “Do you want to write a mystery but don’t have a clue where to start? Or maybe you’ve begun a story but are stuck on the plot? Perhaps you’re already writing a series, and you need tips on how to keep track of your material? Writing the Cozy Mystery is a valuable guide on how to write a traditional whodunit. This concise tool will show you step-by-step how to develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and sustain your series.”

That’s it for today! I’ll finish this post up on Friday by talking about categories and keywords, how to craft an eye-catching cover and many other things. Till then, good writing!

UPDATE: I've finished this series. Below are links to all the articles:

Part 1 of 1: How to Write a Book in 15 Days
Part 2 of 3: How to Pick Categories for Your Amazon Book
Part 3 of 3: How to Choose a Title, Create the Artwork and Write the Darn Book!

Friday, October 28

Writing to Entertain

Writing to Entertain

I’m going to pick up the thread of my last blog post where I talked about two things that drive us to write: First, the desire to communicate. This is the desire to share ourselves, our thoughts, our souls, with others. Second, the desire to entertain.

Today I cash out what exactly I mean by entertainment and look at how, as writers, we can entertain our readers. The answer: To evoke a reader's emotion, the reader needs to identify with the character. Which means she has to have clearly defined goals, obstacles to those goals, she needs to have something to lose and something to gain, and there needs to be some sort of urgency.

In short, eliciting emotion has everything to do with story structure.

Entertainment: The Evoking of Emotion

Most readers want to be entertained. To entertain another person is to evoke their emotions. Even in some of Agatha Christie’s more cerebral whodunits there was the sedate emotion of curiosity.

Stephen King writes for many reasons but one of them is to entertain others, especially his wife. The following passage is from his book, On Writing:

“When I write a scene that strikes me as funny (like the pie-eating contest in “The Body” or the execution rehearsal in The Green Mile), I am also imagining my I.R. finding it funny. I love it when Tabby laughs out of control—she puts her hands up as if to say I surrender and these big tears go rolling down her cheeks. I love it, that’s all, fucking adore it, and when I get hold of something with that potential, I twist it as hard as I can. During the actual writing of such a scene (door closed), the thought of making her laugh—or cry—is in the back of my mind. During the rewrite (door open), the question—is it funny enough yet? scary enough?—is right up front. I try to watch her when she gets to a particular scene, hoping for at least a smile or—jackpot, baby!—that big belly-laugh with the hands up, waving in the air.”

Making someone else feel good—or feel anything for that matter!—is a thrill. Seeing them laugh or even smile. Seeing them tear up, it’s ... well, as King says, I just love it. It’s a high.

That’s entertainment.

And if you give people a story that makes them laugh and cry, love and hate, they will think their time well-wasted.

But how does one do that? How does one manipulate a reader’s emotions?

The Writer’s Quest

The question of how to evoke a reader’s emotions has defined my writer’s quest for most of my adult life. I want to write a story my father would have loved so much he would beg me to tell another.

Being able to make another person laugh is a valuable skill. Being able to make everyone within earshot hang on your every word has always been advantageous. Even before we had currency, travelers who could tell engaging stories bartered their skill for food and lodging. (In fact, this still happens. My friend was nearly killed on her last vacation—she’s fine now—and, in her words, ‘ate out on that story for a month’!)

What entertains us? You might think that the obvious answers are: sex, violence, death, and so on. And that’s probably right as far as it goes but I think it misses the point.

If I showed you the picture of someone who had been brutally murdered, my guess is that you would not be entertained. In fact, you’d likely be vaguely nauseous and not at all happy with me.

But, yes. For obvious reasons death interests us. A few days ago a friend called to tell me his dog, Zeus, had passed away. I had walked Zeus for years and, of course, had become attached. We both cried and reminisced. But then I asked: How did he die? That mattered to me. As it happens, he died peacefully in his sleep at the end of a long life. I took some solace in that. But I would have felt very different if, say, he had been hit by a car.

Yes, we slow down to gawk at the van with the crumpled front end on the side of the road, but what question do we ask: What happened?

I believe that humans aren’t interested in death as much as we are the story behind it. We want to know: Why? When? What? Where? How? We don’t want that horrible thing to happen to us. We think if we know, maybe we can avoid it.

Going back to something I touched on a moment ago, if I showed someone—let’s call her Beth—a picture of a gruesome murder, I doubt she would be happy with me. The picture itself isn’t entertaining. But Beth would be very interested in the answers to the following questions:

  • Who was the victim? Was he a stranger or did I know him? 
  • Where did the victim die? Next door or two states over?
  • When did the victim die? 50 years ago or yesterday?
  • Who killed the victim? Is the killer a stranger or do I know him?
  • How did the victim die? Was it a quick death or was it slow and painful?

Reading this, putting myself in Beth’s place, it isn’t the photograph of the dead man that entertains me, it is that one of my goals is put in jeopardy: keeping myself and those I care about safe. It is that automatic, vicarious, sense of danger that puts all my senses on high alert.

These are also the kinds of questions we ask when we’re writing a story.

Beth’s goal: To protect herself and her family from the killer.
The opposition: The killer.
The Stakes: The lives of her family.
Urgency: If the victim lived next door and was killed a few hours ago, then the situation is urgent.

As I see Beth act I identify with her. I care whether she achieves her goal. I care when she suffers a setback. I care when she reaches the All Hope Is Lost Point and it seems she cannot succeed. And, finally, I have a warm cozy sense of well-being as the hero/protagonist bests the forces of opposition and, against all odds, achieves her goal.

My point is that entertainment isn’t static, it comes from the structure itself, from the arrangement of the many parts.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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 would like to share a link to one of Dwight V. Swain’s excellent books, “Creating Characters: How to Build Story People.” I bought this years ago and it has helped me enormously. Here’s the blurb:
“The core of character,” he [Swain] says in chapter 1, “lies in each individual story person’s ability to care about something; to feel implicitly or explicitly, that something is important.” Building on that foundation—the capacity to care—Swain takes the would-be writer step-by-step through the fundamentals of finding and developing [characters].

That’s it! I hope you could make some sense of my ramblings. NaNoWriMo is starting soon! My next post will be on Halloween, Monday, October 31 and then I will post every single day in November, outlining a key scene in a novel. So, if you’re NaNo-ing this year, swing on by!

Thursday, October 27

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

Are you competing in NaNoWriMo this year? I am! Although I’m putting a twist on it. Each day I'll blog about a key story scene as well as what elements it should have. My hope is that my post will provide inspiration and help you organize your story, like an oyster producing a pearl because of the irritating piece of sand that got inside its shell. (Not that my blog post is an irritating piece of sand! Perhaps I need to re-think that analogy. ;)

As my readers know, I’ve been interested in and written about the structure of stories for years.

One question I’m routinely asked is:

You say there are only two hard and fast rules of writing (you must read and you must write) but then you go on about the structure of stories. Sure, you say it’s optional—that wonderful stories can be written which conform to no recognizable structure. But then WHY spend so much of your time blogging about story structure if a story can be perfectly good without it?

This NaNoWriMo I’m going to be writing a lot about structure and so it’s important for me to answer this question. That’s what this post is going to be about, a defense of structure as well as an explanation of why this topic is so important to me on a personal level.

In Defense of Structure: Constraints Aid Creativity

When I was a child I had horrible nightmares.

To try and prevent these nightmares, my dad would tell me a story before I went to sleep, a different story every night. Sometimes he told me about the tiny village he grew up in, the chickens he raised, the pair of wolfhounds that defended him against rabid wolves, or the mean camel his parents made him take care of.

Other times Dad would put his own twist on folktales (how the lion got to be king) but, often, he would just make up a story.

Whatever story he told me there was one constant: I wanted more. I would always beg him to tell me another, and another. Dad would complain: “Karen, I'm going through all my material! I have to save something for tomorrow.”

Well, one day after I’d started kindergarten the inevitable happened. I decided I would tell my dad a story. It went something like this:

This morning Mom made my breakfast and then I put on my coat and that was good because it was SO COLD. Then I saw Jan and we ran to the door and I won! Then Mrs. Bloom taught English but no one likes her because she smells funny. Then the bell rang and I came home!

My dad was not impressed.

My dad was a natural storyteller. He never read an article about how to write, nothing about “Three Tips to Build Suspense” or anything having to do with The Hero’s Journey and if you asked him what an arc was he’d talk to you about Noah!

And yet he told wonderful, interesting, suspenseful stories.

That first, failed, performance changed me. It gave me a desire, a goal, that has lasted my entire life: I want to do what my dad did, I want to be able to tell a story he would want to listen to as much as I wanted to listen to his stories.

My Writer’s Journey

My parents were readers so it was natural that I became one. It was also natural that I began to write my own stories.

After reading C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I was all about the soft magical silence of a lonely glade, or the feeling of aloneness—but not loneliness—that comes from sitting on the art gallery steps downtown and letting the sights and sounds of the crowd sweep over me.

When I was a tween I would write hopelessly atmospheric non-stories and foist them off on my mother to read. She always came back with, “Oh it was lovely, Dear.”

“Really!?” I would say, excited beyond all reason. “Which part did you like best?" I asked. "Was it the part about the leaf turning yellow?”

“Err... Yes, yes, I think it was,” my mother said, her smile a shade too tight, too stretched.

Then one day I became suspicious and, after Mom said she liked my story, I asked, "What did you think about the gorilla? Was it too much?"

There was, of course, no gorilla.

“On no! I liked the gorilla,” my unsuspecting mother said, absently flipping through her recipe cards, thinking about dinner.

“Ah ha!” I said, my voice exploding into the otherwise quiet room. “You never read it!”

I feel guilty about that now. Mom’s cheeks went bright pink and she spluttered something incoherent. Finally she said, “Well, you give me so much to read and I’m so busy. Sometimes I just want to rest.”

I do give her kudos for telling the truth. Putting what she said another way: it was boring.

And it was.

My mother and father didn’t make allowances for age or inexperience. If a story was boring then it was boring and—regardless of who wrote it—they weren’t going to read it. Life’s too short.

And I get it. I do. Now. At the time they might as well have put my little writer’s heart in a vice and crushed it.

At that time my parents were the entirety of my audience. They were my world. More than anything, I wanted them to want to read my work, to read it because they liked it.

One thing I’ve wondered is ... Why? Why was I so passionate that they like my writing, my stories?

The Intimacy of Prose

Although it took me a while to puzzle it out, I think I know. Consider this:

Although it depends on the kind of story we read (some viewpoints are relentlessly external) we often get to know not only what a character looks like on the outside—long brown hair, button nose, suspiciously large mole—but what she is like on the inside. We know what she thinks, what she feels. We know when she lies and we know why. We know if she is in love and with whom and how that makes her feel.

In short, we feel we completely understand the character because we know her in all her glorious particularity. And with that understanding comes a feeling of intimacy, of familiarity and acceptance. We like them. These characters can become like our friends, our family.

When I was a child all my characters were me. I wrote about myself, about my internal states, my loves and likes and desires, about my perspective on the world. And I thought if I did it right that the people who read my work might come to feel about me the way I had come to feel about my favorite characters.

Two Motivations For Creating Stories

Broadly speaking, I think there are two reasons why I write—and I don’t think I’m alone in this. First, as you've seen, I write to communicate. Second, I write to entertain. I think that, in practice, these two motivations are intermingled. Let's take a look at each.

Writing as Communication

In On Writing, Stephen King tells us a secret: writing is telepathy. He writes:

“And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

“Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

“Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To colorblind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

“.... The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

“We’re having a meeting of the minds.”

The thing about communication is that it only really works if we’re honest.

Writing is telepathy and telepathy is communication. We are communicating our thoughts but not just our thoughts. When we write we cannot help but communicate how we see the world, our likes and our loves, our very soul.

For me, this is what is meant by, “The truth inside the lie.”

Some people write because they want to share themselves—how they see things, their worldview, their unique perspective—with others. Of course, this isn’t the only reason anyone writes. If it was, then their story would probably be as entertaining as that first story I told when I was 5!

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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 would like to share a link to a book I’ve just published! It’s called How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Years ago I wrote a post about how to write a CYOA story and it went on to become one of my most popular. Then I realized why: there were no books on the subject. So I wrote one! If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at writing a CYOA story, it will give you a place to start. If you read it, I would love to know what you thought of it!

Okay, that’s it! This was a long blog post. Sorry about that! I’ll pick up where I left off next time and talk about writing as entertainment. I’ll go over why I believe writers need to care about the structure of their stories. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 5

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

Over the years I've written a few articles about the various ways a story can be structured (see: Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction, A Story Structure In Three Acts), but CYOA stories are in a class by themselves. (Google CYOA structure to see what I'm talking about). If you do, you'll see dozens upon dozens of CYOA branching structures.

(How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 1)

This multiplicity reinforces something Chuck Wendig said: at the most concrete level there is no such thing as one story structure. Rather, each story's structure is unique. [2]

You might ask: Well, if that's the case, Karen, why do you go on about story structure like there is one, and only one, structure that all stories have?! ('One structure to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.' Sorry, couldn't resist!)

Great question! It's all a matter of specificity. It depends on to what extent we abstract away from the specific details of the story to more general details. For example, I think it's a safe bet that no two coastlines are exactly the same and yet, when mathematicians compare their shapes they can be seen to exhibit the same fractal pattern. The same can be said for leaves, the shells of certain snails, and so on. [3]

My point is that—as with the hidden geometric structures of coastlines—it's only when we pull back from the particular details of any story that structural commonalities between them emerge.

The Unique Structure of a CYOA Story

This post is about two kinds of structure. The first kind is the sort of structure I just talked about.

The second kind of structure I'll discuss is unique to CYOA stories and has nothing—or at least very little—to do with the first kind. To make this less confusing, I'll call the first kind of structure, "story structure" and the second kind of structure, "branching structure."

I want to stress that everything I say here is given with the intention of providing a person new to writing CYOA stories a place to start. If you write a story that doesn't fit into the kinds of structures I talk about, that's great! The important thing is not that your story has a certain kind of structure as opposed to another—or any kind of structure for that matter!—it is that you've written a story you love, that you're excited about. One that, when you read it, works. Ultimately, that's the only test that matters, whether you and your intended readers feel that reading your story was time well spent. (see: Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules For Writing)

The general structure I'm going to talk about is—and I want to stress this—given purely as a place to start. If you have your own ideas about how you want to write your CYOA story, go for it! Ignore everything I say here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a place to start, like an oyster using a grain of sand to form a pearl, then take what works for you and ignore the rest.

CYOA Terminology

First, let's get some terminology out of the way. This is how I think about CYOA stories, but I'm not saying this is how anyone else thinks about them!

Narrative block: What I have been calling a narrative block is also a node on the decision tree. For example:

Narrative Chain or Path: A narrative chain is composed of linked narrative blocks. For example, the following narrative chain is composed of 21 narrative blocks:

Narrative Chain or Path. (Click for larger image.)

Complete narrative chain. A complete narrative chain represents a complete story. These narrative chains reach the lowest level, in this case level 21 (see my discussion of levels, below).

Cut narrative chain. What I call a cut narrative chain tells a full story too, in it's way, but the player doesn't reach the lowest level. An example of a cut narrative chain would be one in which the character died before she reached the end of the adventure. A cut narrative chain is a narrative dead end.

Clusters: The CYOA stories I've looked at seem to have 2, 3 or 4 main clusters. For example, the following structure has two clusters ...

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

... while the following structure has four clusters:

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

You get the idea. Each cluster has a branching structure of narrative blocks inside it. In what follows I'll talk about a structure with only two clusters because it's simpler.

Levels/Depth: What I'm calling a level refers to the depth or length of the narrative chains. Generally speaking, the longest narrative chains seem to be 20 narrative blocks in length. The figure, above, has 21 levels.

Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99.


1. "Writing Tips how to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story," by Len Morse.

2. Chuck Wendig uses language in uniquely creative ways which makes most of his blog posts NSFW. Be warned. But this particular blog post is truly excellent (as most of his posts on writing are): 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure.

3. "Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns", by Jess McNally, Wired Magazine.

Monday, October 3

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description

I like writing descriptions for my stories about as much as I like eating day old spinach. So! In the best tradition of procrastinators everywhere I decided to write a blog post about how to quickly write a good description. 

By the way, if you think this topic sounds familiar, I’ve written about it before, though with a slightly different focus. Here are links to those posts: 

Let’s get started!

How To Write A Pain-Free Story Description, Quickly.

If you outlined your story this process should be relatively pain-free. If you didn't outline, answering these questions may help strengthen your story's structure.

i. Who is the main character?

In J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular children’s story, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re given the main character’s name right in the title!  Harry is an orphan who lives with his odious Aunt Petunia, her intolerant husband, and their spoilt child Dudley.

ii. What is unique about the main character? What is their special gift? What can they do that no one else is able to? Has their special gift marked them in some way?

Harry Potter had been able to mortally injure Voldemort. In Lord of the Rings, only Frodo could carry the One Ring to Mount Doom. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson gives Lisbeth Salander elite computer skills, she can do things that none of the other characters in the novel can do.

iii. What is the initial setting?

As a baby, Harry was left with his obnoxious Aunt Petunia Dursley, Uncle Vernon Dursely and their bratty child Dudley Dursley. Harry is not accepted for who he is and he is constantly reminded that his aunt, uncle and Rodney all hate having him around and wished he would leave.

iv. What is the main character’s initial goal?

Harry’s initial desire—the thing he wants most when we’re first introduced to the character—is to be part of a family. He desperately wishes his parents weren’t dead, that he was living with them. Or even that he knew more about his parents. Harry, like all of us, wants to find people who accept him for who he really is.

v. What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her initial goal?

In Harry’s case, his Aunt, Uncle and their spoilt son Dudley oppose Harry. They are his antagonists, his tormenters. 

vi. What is the story goal?

The story goal is the main character’s overriding goal. Whether the main character will attain the story goal is determined at the climax of the story.

Harry Potter’s overriding goal in the first book is to protect the only home/family he has ever known, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, from harm. He wants to figure out how Voldemort is endangering the school (and the world in general) and stop him. Specifically, he wants to prevent Voldemort from getting hold of the Philosopher’s Stone and getting back his power.

vii. Description of Antagonist.

What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her story goal?

Voldemort opposes Harry. Or, to put it another way, it is impossible for both Harry and Voldemort to both achieve their main goals. 

viii. Positive stakes: If the main character achieves his/her goal what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist’s allies and the world in general?

- Harry: Will be able to stay at the only place he’s ever felt accepted, it’s his only real home.
- Voldemort: If Voldemort doesn’t get the Philosopher’s Stone then he won’t be able to get his power back which means he won’t be able to take over the world and remake it in his image.
- Harry’s allies: Life can go on as normal.
- Voldemort’s allies: Their dreams of attaining wealth and power will be dashed.

ix. Negative stakes: If the antagonist achieves his/her goal, what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist's allies and the world in general?

- Harry: Harry would be dead.
- Voldemort: Voldemort would, eventually, rule the world and kill billions of people including Muggles.
- Harry’s allies: Dead.
- Voldemort’s allies: Bloated with wealth and power.

x. Break into Act Two.

What happens, what occurs, to transition, to carry the main character into Act Two?

Hagrid arrives to grant Harry one of his wishes: he tells Harry what he really, truly, is—a wizard—and gives him the incredibly welcome news that he will be attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the fall. The school, or rather the people there, become Harry’s new family and give him the sense of belonging he sought.

xi. The Special World of the Adventure. 

Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and that he has been accepted into a school created just for people like him. Not only will he fit in, he is regarded as  something of a hero.

xii. Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point.

Voldemort is attempting to get his power back. If he does he will destroy the entire world, Harry and Hogwarts included.

xiii. Test and Trials.

While in the Special World of the Adventure, the main character learns about his parents and himself. He discovered how his parents died, why and how he came to live with the Dursleys, why he has the scar he does, and Ron Wesley’s family accepts him.

Putting the Description Together

Okay! You will notice that not all of the above points directly contribute to the description, but they help lay out the essential structure of the story, it’s backbone. 

By this time you should have one or two sentence descriptions for each of the above points. Now let’s knit this information together into a description. (Not each and every point will be used, but they allow us to  double-check that our story is well-formed.) By the way, I’ve taken this particular description from the publisher’s book page.

Initial setting: “Eleven-year-old Harry Potter is an orphan living with his cruel aunt and uncle when ...”

Break into act two: “... he makes a discovery that will change his life forever: he is a wizard. He is whisked away to the mystical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry ...” 

The Special World of the adventure: “... to learn magical skills, from potions to spells to flying on broomsticks.”

Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point: “But an evil power is rising, the same one that threatened to destroy the entire world when Harry was only a baby. 

Test and Trials: “As Harry learns the truth about his family, his childhood, and his mysterious lightning-bolt-shaped scar, he finds unforgettable friendship, a loving surrogate family, and ...”

Description of Antagonist: “... the courage to face the darkest force ever to menace the wizarding world.”

That's it! If you'd like to read more about story structure, here are a few links:

Monday, September 26

C.S. Lewis: Writing Advice

C.S. Lewis: Writing Advice

To say that C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, while true, doesn't begin to cover the enormity of my debt to him.

When I was a child he was the writer. I read the seven Chronicles of Narnia books in a gasp, one a day. My parents didn't see me for a week!

Mom would knock on my door and try to lure me out of my room every once in awhile—her efforts were NOT rewarded. But that's okay. She was a reader too and C.S. Lewis was on her 'approved writers' list. And she knew there were only seven books!

Today I was going to continue my series on how to create a Choose Your Own Adventure story (see here and here), but I'm not going to do that. Something happened on the weekend that I'm still reacting to and, as a result, I have the attention span of a gnat and the emotional stability of ... hmmm, well, say, of someone watching "The Fault is in Our Stars" for the 10th consecutive time!

Instead, I'm going to write about C.S. Lewis' advice to writers. For me, this is a bit like hugging a favorite blanket. I loved Lewis' work as a child; his novels are exemplars of what I consider interesting, absorbing, well-written stories.

C.S. Lewis' Writing Advice:

C.S. Lewis gave many different kinds of writing advice over the years. What I share, below, is his advice as it relates to language use. This advice comes from a wonderful blog post over at, Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis.

1. Clarity is King

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else."

A similar piece of writing advice, one that Stephen King often gives, is to kill your darlings. In other words, remove those bits of text that don't do anything to further the story but which the writer is inordinately attached to. This is advice to ruthlessly de-clutter our writing in an effort to make our story as streamlined, as clear (and therefore as compelling) as we possibly can.

King follows the rule of thumb to reduce his manuscript word count by 10% before he submits it. Excellent advice, and not just for fiction writing.

2. Be direct. Forceful.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them."

In other words: use language like an athlete training for a big race. Make your sentence a sprint, make your scene a five minute mile.

What does the athlete want? Often the goal is either to win the race or beat their own best time. A writer's goal is similar. We want our books, our stories, to reach the number one spot on the bestseller lists or, failing that, we want our work-in-process to be the very best we've ever written. The way to do this is, I would argue, similar in both cases: be intentional. As you write, hone your skill. Try out new things. Do you feel most comfortable writing in the third person? Try it from the first person! Do you write best using the past tense? Then try writing from the present tense. Do you normally write from one point of view? Next time, try alternating points of view. And so on.

Words and paragraphs are tools a writer uses to create and communicate meaning. Be ruthless. Pair down your words, hone the meaning and in so doing you will expose the story.

3. Favor concrete nouns over abstract ones.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean 'More people died' don’t say 'Mortality rose.'"

Again, clarity is king.

4. Don't let fear drive you to use adverbs.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible,' describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me.'"

I know this post is about C.S. Lewis' writing advice and yet I keep turning to Stephen King (if you haven't read On Writing you really, really, should), but what Lewis says here is very close to what King says in On Writing BUT Lewis' comment is more explanatory. I'll give you a quote from On Writing and then I'll say a few words about how Lewis' advice helps explain what King is on about. I'm devoting time to this because I've often been puzzled by King's assertion of the link between fear/timidity and adverb use). King writes:

"Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?"

Lewis is talking about adjectives while King is talking about adverbs (at least those that end in -ly), but I think the point each writer is trying to make is, essentially (ack!), the same.

When we write things like, "She jumped up and down. It was delightful," it IS like we're giving our readers stage direction. We're telling them what they should see in their mind's eye, we are telling them what they should feel. We say: This event is delightful, that is how you, Dear Reader, will think of it.

But, of course, that's telling not showing. As Lewis says, we're sloughing off the job of picturing this to the reader. Why? We do this because of fear. We do this because we're scared that, otherwise, our writing won't be able to communicate the meaning we want to express, the thought we want to express. Fearful and perhaps a bit embarrassed, we reach for an adjective or adverb that will tell the reader how they should feel, rather than using language, using our writing, to drag them into the world of the story and the mind of the narrator.

(Stephen King: What is writing? Telepathy, of course!)

5. Use the right word for the right job.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

This is KISS: Keep it simple, silly. Again, go for precision. Choose simple words that cleanly and clearly express your meaning.

If you would like to read about C.S. Lewis' daily routine, here's a blog post about just that over on C.S. Lewis's Ideal Daily Routine.

My hope is that you will find something in this post that inspires you to continue writing strong, fearless, prose. (That's also my hope for myself!)

Just as athletes must train, so writers need to hone their craft. I like to use short writing exercises to try out new things (for example, to write in a different tense or from a different perspective). Here is a list of writing prompts if you'd like to try it out.

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Wednesday. Until then, good writing!

By the way, if you love listening to audiobooks (I do!) as well as radio plays (I do!) here is the best of both: the Chronicles of Narnia turned into a radio play! The best part is that you get it for free if you subscribe to Audible.

(Yes, that's an affiliate link, but this is a product I would love to buy and so don't hesitate to recommend. Also, clicking this link won't increase the price you pay for the product, but Amazon will put a small amount of money in my account, and every little bit helps to sustain this blog. If you'd like to contribute in another way, I also have a Patreon page.) Thanks!

Wednesday, September 21

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part Two

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post, How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) story. It's one of my favorite posts because I love CYOA stories. I mean, who wouldn't? They're a cross between a book and a game!

Anyway, I've always wanted to expand on that first post and, today, decided there is no time like the present. If you haven't read my previous post, and don't have time right now, here's a list of what that post covered:

  • What a CYOA story is.
  • A way of thinking about the plot in a CYOA story.
  • The overall structure of a CYOA story.
  • The structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story.
  • What kind of endings a CYOA story might have.
  • What kind of characters to include.
  • Whether a CYOA story should have a subplot.
  • Pros and cons of writing a CYOA story.
  • Today I want to expand on one of the themes I touched on back then: the structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story. Next time I'll discuss in more detail the unique overall structure of a CYOA story.

Enough preamble, let's get started!

The Narrative Blocks of a Choose Your Own Adventure Story

Novels are composed of scenes and sequels.

Let's talk about scenes. Just like a story, each scene 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 who strive to achieve their goals and inevitably fall short. At the end of the scene, though there is a resolution of sorts, often the hero will fall short of reaching his scene goal.

So that's a scene. What is a sequel? I'll let Jim Butcher explain this. On his Livejournal, he writes:
Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:

1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene's outcome.

2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.

3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.

4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE--IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.

Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simply that works out?

1) Scene--Denied!

2) Sequel--Damn it! Think about it! That's so crazy it just might work!--New Goal!

3) Next Scene!

Repeat until end of book.


When I write a scene, I use index cards, one card per scene. The cards themselves can be physical index cards—I've outlined that way many times!—but, of course, there's an app for that these days. I use the Index Card app. In any case, here is the information I put on the cards:

1. GOAL: What does the main character want?

For each main character in the scene, list her goal for that scene. Each character's goal should be concrete and specific enough to take a picture of. Note: each character's goal should tie into their overall story goal.

2. STAKES: What does the character have to win or lose?

For each main character in the scene, if the character achieves her goal, what will she win? Conversely, if the character loses, what will she lose? Whatever it is, make it concrete, make it something you could take a picture of.

3. WHO: Who is in the scene?

Make a list of all the characters in the scene and then, for each of them, go through these questions:

What is this character's goal?
Does the character achieve her goal?
If the character doesn't achieve her goal, what does she lose?
If the character does achieve the goal how does her life change? What does she win?

4. WHAT: What happens in the scene?

Summarize what happens in the scene in one or two sentences.

5. WHERE: Where does the action in the scene take place?

  • Is the setting vivid? Memorable?
  • Does the setting present the main character with a challenge?
  • Is the setting unusual? Suprising? Unexpected? Remarkable? (Think of Fangorn Forest in the Lord of the Rings.)
  • Does the setting help you showcase the characters strengths and weaknesses?
  • Does the setting have special significance to any of the characters?
  • Does the setting tie in with the theme?

Note: Not all these questions will be relevant for each setting.

6. WHEN: When does the action in the scene take place?

Does the action take place inside or outside? Is it day or night? What time is it? What date is it?

7. URGENCY: Why does the main character have to attain their goal now?

Why must the protagonist attain their goal? What is pushing them, and the action of the story, forward?

Often—perhaps too often!—this is taken care of by a ticking clock of some kind. This doesn't have to literally be a ticking clock (though sometimes it is). Perhaps one of the characters is ill and requires treatment, or perhaps (as with Sherlock Holmes) the main character is simply bored.

8. OPPOSITION: Urgency is a force pushing forward (—>) where Opposition is a force pushing backward (<—).

Urgency and Opposition both act on the main character, and perhaps other characters, but definitely the main character.

For example:

Urgency: The main character is ill and must receive treatment soon or they will die.

Opposition: The nearest hospital is over a day's walk away and the character requires treatment within the next couple of hours.

Resolution: The character collapses but is found by a hiker who happens to have a satellite phone.

Urgency: Sherlock Holmes is bored. If he doesn't get an interesting case soon, he will start shooting up Mrs Hudson's walls.

Opposition: John Watson, or perhaps Mycroft Holmes, wants Sherlock to do something ordinary and uninteresting.

Resolution: Someone comes to Sherlock with an interesting case.

For more about structuring a scene see: Using Index Cards to Outline a Novel.


Sequels help orient the reader in the overall story and are great for revealing character. Let's face it, we read not just because we're interested in what will happen next, we read because we're interested in the characters, in what is happening to them. That's why we care, that's what pulls us through a book.

Making readers care about your characters is essential to good storytelling. If we can do that then we will have devoted readers. Mastering the sequel is the key to this.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What are the elements of a sequel? Here's Jim Butcher again:
Here's the basic structure to a sequel. [...]:





And it MUST happen in THAT ORDER.
Let's go over this point by point:

1. Emotional reaction.

Sequels are all about reaction. At the beginning of the sequel we see the character reacting to whatever happened at the end of the scene. Recall that at the end of the previous scene the character underwent a stressful experience—most likely a setback—and now we get to see how they react to it. This, right here, is a large part of character development. How we react to major setbacks reveals character. This is true in real life and it's equally true in literature.

2. Review, Logic & Reason.

The character has had their emotional reaction, now they need to think about what happened. The character goes over exactly what happened and they seek to understand it. Why did it happen? The character seeks to understand their failure.

3. Anticipation and Planning.

The character turns from looking backward to looking forward. Given that this happened in the past, what is likely to happen in the future? Given that the antagonist whipped my hide just now, how can I change my tactics so that doesn't happen again? Part of the anticipation phase is thinking of various things that could happen, various possible futures, possible paths the protagonist could take. The protagonist thinks about each of these possibilities and how he or she could respond.

4. Choice.

Now it is time for the protagonist to choose which path to take. He has had his emotional reaction. He has calmed down and thought about it calmly. He has thought about various things the antagonist could do next and how he might counter it. Now it is time to choose among these possibilities and finalize the plan. This gives the protagonist a new goal and leads into the next scene.

Next installment: How to Write a CYOA Novel, Part Three.

Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99 on Amazon.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts 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, Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. From the blurb: "Ramp up the tension and keep your readers hooked! Inside you'll find everything you need to know to spice up your story, move your plot forward, and keep your readers turning pages. Expert thriller author and writing instructor James Scott Bell shows you how to craft scenes, create characters, and develop storylines that harness conflict and suspense to carry your story from the first word to the last."


This has been a blog post about how to write a CYOA story, but what I've said, above, is true for any story. Next time I will dive into the unique aspects of CYOA stories and examine their structure. Also, I'll talk about how to approach scenes and sequels given the branching nature of a CYOA story.

That's it! Tomorrow I'll post a writing prompt on my Wordpress site (I tweet them as well), so head over there if you'd like to do a quick writing warmup! Otherwise, I'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend and, in the meantime, good writing!

Friday, September 16

Creating a Three Dimensional Character

Creating a Three Dimensional Character

Three dimensional characters are interesting. Readers care about them. So the question is: What makes a character three dimensional?

Robert Mckee, in his wonderful tome, "Story," talks about how giving characters opposing qualities helps breathe life into them.

One way to make a character three dimensional is to give them diametrically conflicting characteristics. And, of course, the best way to do this is to show and not tell. Which raises the question: if a character is, say, both generous and selfish how do we show this?

Showing opposing characteristics:

1. People. Have the protagonist interact with different people. With one person they are, for example, bold and outgoing, with another they are shy and retiring.
2. Setting. Either have one character interact with two different settings, or have two characters who have opposite characteristics interact with the same environment.
3. Time. Look at a character at different times. (This is, I think, the most common way of exploring character.)

How to show opposing characteristics:

1. Using other fictional people to develop character.

In real life I wouldn't act one way to a friend and the next second act the complete opposite way. For instance, I wouldn't give a friend—or anyone!—a big bearhug and then slap their face. That behavior wouldn't even make sense.

Obviously, our characters shouldn't behave that way either. If we want to use our character's interactions with other, fictional, people to bring out diametrically opposed aspects of their personality then we craft other characters to specifically tease these characteristics out.

For instance, with one character—perhaps a character who is absent-minded (they’re always dropping things, forgetting where they left their glasses, their keys, etc.)—the protagonist is snippy and short. But with another character, perhaps one that is polished and who comes from a wealthy family, the protagonist goes to great lengths to be pleasant. This tells the reader much more than if we either just showed one side of the protagonist or told the reader the character in question was a snob.

2. Using setting to show character.

Think of a haunted house. The dark hallways, the creaking floorboards, the mysterious groans as the house settles. You turn a corner and a sticky cobweb stretches across your face and ... what’s that? Something cold and slimy presses against your cheek. You scream and fling it off you, not really wanting to know what it was, but you can’t help it, you’re curious. You look at the object lying before you. It’s long and thin, slightly curved and covered in what looks like oil. It's a severed human finger! (Cue screaming violins.)

So there we have a setting. Now let's look at how that setting can help us with characterization.

Let's say Character A is naturally skittish and doesn't like dark old houses with ominously creaking floorboards. How would this character behave in the setting described above? I think that, like Gus on Psych, he would scream and run. (At least, that’s what I’d do!).

But what would a character like Indiana Jones do if confronted with a severed finger in the way described? I think Indy would look at it dispassionately, wonder who the finger used to belong to, then step over it. This shows us that Indy is the kind of person who has seen (and possibly done) it all. Nothing phases him. As was the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is even more effective when you pair someone like Character A with Indy (as they in fact did).

Then, to show that Indy isn't just a calloused adventurer, that he is human, throw a few snakes in with him. That's right! The animal he is truly scared of. This shows us that Indy is both brave and timid, and we've demonstrated this simply by changing the environment. (The idea is to tailor the setting, the environment, to bring out these aspects of character.)

When we use a setting to show who our characters are as opposed to telling our readers who they are, not only do we avoid boring exposition, but we create movement, action and, ultimately, (hopefully!) interest.

3. Character change over time.

The most common way to exhibit opposite traits in a character is to do it over a span of time.

We’re all familiar with this. The protagonist starts his journey as, say, a cringing milquetoast and, over the course of the story, gains confidence in his abilities, in himself. At the climax, he courageously faces the very scary antagonist and defeats her.

This is also what we mean by a character arc.

That's it for today! I'll post writing exercises on my new site ( Saturday and Sunday and share them in my Twitter feed. Then on Monday I'll be back here with a new blog post. Until then, good writing!

Other articles you might be interested in:

The Key to Making a Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites
Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?
Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy

Wednesday, September 14

Writing Advice: The Wisdom of the Web

Writing Advice: The Wisdom of the Web

Today I want to share some of what I'm calling the Wisdom of the Web. There are many wonderful writing blogs out there with wonderfully helpful content. Today I'd like to share three blog posts I thought contained excellent advice.

1. The 5 Most Common Mistakes Writers Make When Seeking Book Reviews, by Gisela Hausmann.

This is from C.S. Lakin over at Live, Write, Thrive.

Top Amazon reviewer Gisela Hausmann gives advice on how to approach a reviewer with a request to review your book. This is a daunting task since top Amazon reviewers receive more than 200 requests per week!

According to Hausmann, here are a few mistakes to avoid:

  • Make sure your request does not read like a form letter. You're a writer, let your distinct voice shine through. Think of your email more as an audition than as a solicitation.
  • Focus on how your book is different from other books in your genre.
  • Do your research. Discover what the reviewer likes to read. Study their Amazon Profile.
  • Keep your email brief, 150 words or less.
  • Be persistent. Don't give up! Just because a top reviewer doesn't agree to review your book right off the bat doesn't mean they're not interested in your work. They can only review so many books!

2. Five Tips For Creating Intrigue,

Here are a few tips on how to keep readers reading:

  • Begin in the middle of the action.
  • Tell each chapter from a different character's point of view.
  • Vary the format of your novel. Try including letters, journal entries or emails.
  • Have varied sub-plots. (e.g., tragedy vs comedy, etc.)

3. 25 Things I Want to Say to So-Called "Aspiring" Writers, by Chuck Wendig

a. Chuck Wendig says, Drop the 'aspiring' in 'aspiring writer.' If you write then, dang it all, you're a writer!

b. Writer's write. Don't aspire. Do!

c. Push through the bad days. Every writer has bad days. A professional writer shuts out the nagging voices of negativity and writes.

d. Develop your own voice. Some writers find it natural to write from a 1st person perspective, others prefer a 3rd person perspective. Some writers find it natural to write science fiction, others mystery stories. Some writers find it natural to write in past tense, others in present tense, and so on. The only way you'll know which kind of writer you are is if you plant your butt in a chair and write.

e. Finish what you write.

f. Learn the rules so you can break them.

g. Writing is a skill and like any skill—bricklaying for example—it can (and must!) be learned.

h. Read voraciously. Read critically.

i. Don't be discouraged when your work doesn't sell. If you keep at it you'll get better.

j. Talking about writing is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Reading about writing is not writing.

k. Get used to rejection. Chuck Wendig writes, "You need a leathery carapace. A chitinous exoskeleton. Writing is a hard-knock career where you invite a bevy of slings and arrows into your face and heart. It is what it is." Amen.

l. Write! Chuck Wendig writes, "You’re a writer. You can make anything up that you want. It may not be lucrative. It may not pay your mortgage. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about what’s going on between you and the blank page before you. It’s just you and the story. If you love it and you want to write it, then wire your trap shut and write it. And write it well. Expect nothing beyond this — expect no reward, expect no victory parade — but embrace the satisfaction it gives you to do your thing."

Let me add my own point here:

m. Invest in yourself and use an editor. Most of us don't know a professional writer who can look over our work and give us feedback. The next best thing is enlisting the help of the best editor you can afford. But don't send your editor all 80,000 words of your first novel! Find an editor who will take a 10 page outline of your book along with the first chapter. That way, if you end up having to start over from scratch it's much less work for your editor and much less expensive for you. Most importantly, you'll save time. And in the end, time is our most valuable resource.

That's it! I hope you found something of use in these points. If you did, please let me know! If you didn't, please talk to me. Tell me what your goals are as well as what is keeping you from meeting those goals. You can use the comments, below, or email me (karenwoodwardmail (at) gmail (dot) com). I would love to hear from you!

Talk to you again on Friday. In the meantime, good writing!