Tag Archive | publishing

Write the Novel #9: Structure

There are three sections of a story: Beginning (Act I), Middle (Act II), and End (Act III). Many writing teachers have broken these down into other parts such as scene/sequel, and more, but the basic structure remains the same: three acts.

If you write fantasy, paranormal, or science fiction, do yourself a favor and get the book: “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. It is based on Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and is a fabulous way to learn about novel structure. If you don’t write in these genres, get the book anyway, you won’t be sorry.

Here are the tips in a nutshell. And no, I won’t go into detail. Mr. Vogler deserves the honor of being the best source for this information and I will not undermine his sales. 🙂

Campbell and Vogler break each act down into different parts. I will concentrate on Vogler’s interpretation here. His sections include:

Act I: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the first threshold

Act II: Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward

Act III: The road back, resurrection, return with the elixir

If you look at these through well-known stories, as he does, you can see where the breakdowns are. For instance, he uses the Star Wars movies as examples. We see Luke in his ordinary world with his uncle, he is called to adventure by Obi Wan, he refuses the call by insisting he has to help his aunt and uncle, he meets with his mentor (actually accepts that Obi Wan is his mentor) and crosses the first threshold by leaving the farm. He is tested, meets allies and enemies, goes through several ordeals, and gains the reward of being able to destroy the Death Star. He returns with his friends with new powers and a new life.

Simple, right?

Not exactly. It is simple when broken down to these basic units, but it can be decidedly difficult to write. However, by using Vogler’s approach, you may get a better grip on where things are going than if you just go forward with no plan at all.

You can also break the three act structure down into just scenes and sequels. A scene is nothing more than something that is happening. The sequel is what comes after that event. Each scene should contain a goal, a reason for that goal, and the conflict. What is happening in the scene? Why? What will happen if something goes wrong and your hero doesn’t achieve his/her goal in that scene? There has to be an event of some sort. It doesn’t have to be huge, it can be subtle and small, but there has to be a reason for it. The main character for that scene (does not have to be the main character of the story) should have to make a decision of some sort. What happens when s/he makes that decision? It should lead to consequences. This is your sequel. Then build from there. Each event should lead to the next and so on until the climax and end.

This is plotting.

For now, I’ll just leave you with these basics. I’ll go into more detail later on. But do yourself a favor and look for Vogler’s book. It is an excellent one.

Homework: Watch a movie. Or two or ten. Figure out the structure and apply it to the above. Can you figure out where each part happens?


Write the Novel #8: Conflict

This is one of the hardest things for an author to understand, yet it is a vital part of genre fiction. There has to be a problem for the hero and/or heroine to overcome and it has to be big enough that there is a distinct possibility for failure.

In a romance novel, conflict can be the difficulty that keeps the hero and heroine from getting together. In other genre fiction, it is the issue the hero or heroine fights against, whether internal or external.

Before I get into what conflict is, let’s look at what it is not:

  • Conflict is not a disagreement or argument. People can – and do – argue all the time without it ever being about something important
  • It is not a delay – just because there’s a flood or blizzard, unless the story is specifically about the flood or blizzard, there is not conflict.
  • Failure to communicate – having the heroine not tell the hero how she feels is not conflict.

There are two different types of conflict – internal and external. The easiest of these to do is external conflict. When you create your characters, you  have to give them a goal. Conflict comes when they can’t reach that goal. External conflicts are physical. Internal conflicts are emotional. The two should be related, but different. Conflict is the basis of your book. You need to put it into words before you type out the first word.

Conflict comes from characters. Plot comes from conflict. Once you know the problems your characters are up against, you’ll know what kinds of situations they have to face in order to overcome their conflicts. That is plot.

External conflict can be something as simple as wanting money to buy a house but not having a job. Internal conflict would be wanting a house because the character never had a stable home but putting down permanent roots scares her.

Plot points, also known as turning points, in your story happen because conflicts change. You character has a goal. She reaches that goal, but something happens to make things worse. This happens again, and again until you reach the climax, and the end. This is why you do character sketches and know your characters. What is it about their backgrounds that would lead to issues – either external or internal – that will cause problems in their lives? The worse the problem, or the harder to overcome, the better the conflict and the better the story.

Note: Conflict doesn’t have to be a life-or-death. Even small, seemingly unimportant conflicts can be fun. Think about an external conflict where two vain women are fighting over the last pair of shoes on sale. Or two men arguing the best fertilizers to use on their suburban lawns. Smaller conflicts arising from, or on a tangent to, larger ones can give readers a break from the angst of the larger ones.

A classic example of external conflict is one where the hero is a firefighter and the heroine is an arsonist. That’s conflict. Even more unusual would be where “she” is the firefighter and “he” is the arsonist. Why is s/he an arsonist? What is in his/her background that leads to this? For the perfect conflict, just remember, whatever one has to have has to be able to destroy the other. Both characters can’t get what they want.

Internal conflict is more complex. It’s what shapes your characters on the inside. It’s emotional, visceral, a need so deep they may not even know they need it. Internal conflict is personal and will most likely be different for each character (there may be similarities, but reasons will be different – or had better be!). It’s not enough to say that that your character is a loner. Why is s/he a loner? What is in his/her background that makes him/her untrusting of others?

Defining conflict is step one in writing the novel. External conflict shapes the plot. Internal conflict shapes the character’s actions and thoughts. Both together give you the story.


Go back to your character sketches and determine what is in your characters’ backgrounds that may lead to problems for them. Note these down and brainstorm story ideas from these issues.

Write the Novel #7 – a Rant about the Craft

No lessons today. Today, I’m asking you to indulge me in a little rant – though the rant is definitely about writing. The rant concerns the technique of writing – not the storytelling, but the craft.

One of the hats I wear is as a reviewer for my own site, the bookstore where I work, and a couple of other places where my reviews get posted. I’ve been at this for twenty years so I have some experience. My reviews have appeared in magazines, online, and in multiple newsletters. In addition to this, I have a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in library science. I’ve also been a copy editor for various publishers for a dozen years, and a multi-published writer for fifteen. I give you this information so you know my background and know that I do know a little about this business.

So what’s the rant? Authors who don’t bother to learn the craft. They have no idea what good grammar is, mix up homophones, split infinitives, head hop, change tenses, misspell words, and more. Although I am not trying to downgrade any one aspect, I find this is especially true of self-published writers, but it also pertains to some of the “professionally” published books I’ve seen lately. I just finished reading a book for review that had the basics of a good story, but I could not finish it because the writing was so bad. The writer head-hopped all over the place, sometimes within the same paragraph, and once within the same sentence (basically, this means switching point of view too many times so the reader doesn’t know which character’s head she is in).  In addition, she constantly mixed up word usage, especially peek/peak/pique and other homophones. These are not the same words and do not have the same meaning. It was obvious, at least to me, that she used just a basic spell-check program. This would not pick these words up since they are spelled correctly, but they were definitely used incorrectly. It’s a shame the book came across so poorly because I think there was a kernel of a good story in there, but I could not in good conscience recommend it because of the writing (And no, I did not post a review. I wrote back to the author and gave her my opinions and suggested she find a good editor before she went forward, which she is doing.)

I’m not saying nobody makes mistakes. Typos happen. They happen to me all the time, especially when typing fast. So do other mistakes. And I’m horrendous at editing my own work. Most writers will tell you they have trouble editing their own work – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is always a good idea to have someone else read your manuscript before it gets sent out. A new set of eyes will pick up what you may have missed. But therein lies part of the problem. If you’re going to pick someone out to critique your manuscript, they should at least know the basics of grammar or they’re going to miss the problem issues as well.

So please, if you’re going to write a novel – or anything – learn how to spell, learn the definitions of words, learn punctuation and grammar, learn about point of view and continuity. In other words, learn the craft of writing. If you don’t care for these basics, or are too caught up in your own writing to care, then at least lay out the bucks and hire someone to take care of it for you. Your readers will thank you. And I will too.

Some books and/or links to look at for help:

The Chicago Manual of Style – THE book for all things grammar

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – a classic that should be in every writer’s library

A good dictionary – Merriam Webster is a good place to start, but any good dictionary will do

Common Errors in the English Language

Random House dictionary

American Heritage dictionary

Getty Research Institute – for vocabulary

Grammar Girl

Grammar Now!

Etymology Dictionary

Purdue University Writing Lab

Urban Dictionary

Write the Novel #6 : World Creating

This is a class I teach in a variety of workshops. I was going to place the tons of information I’ve gathered for my classes here, but the outline I have is twenty pages long – and that’s just the outline. It’s much too involved to include here, so I’m going to give you the absolute best place I’ve ever seen for world building. Science Fiction Writer’s of America is one of the best sites to visit for information. Not only is the world-building information great, but so is their Writer Beware blog and more. No matter what you write, this is one of the best places possible to visit.


When you are world building for your story, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, or even a historical, gather the information, but don’t dump it all into your story. Like characterization, all that background is for you. You’ll use some of it, but you won’t use it all. But it will show in your writing because you’ll write like you actually know the place. It will come across naturally instead of forced.

When creating your worlds, don’t forget the physical as well as the note taking.


When I was creating my world for “Akashan’te”, I happened to be on vacation with my family at the shore. All that sand. So I started building my lands. The kids got in the game and we grew the world, and several more. Since I couldn’t very well bring the beach home, I took lots of pictures and, when I got home, sketched it out. You don’t have to have the ocean and beach nearby in order to create your worlds. Clay works well. Or papier’ mache. Or blocks. Or anything that gives you perspective. Think about the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and how the main character sculpted his mashed potatoes. I don’t recommend the later scene where he built the mountain in his living room, but a smaller version will work. Have fun with it.

So this week, take a look at the site for SFWA and grab some sculpting tools and have fun!

Write that novel #4: Characters

It’s time to create characters for your story. Characters bring your story to life. They are who the reader wants to read about. Pick up any newspaper – what catches your eye first? It’s usually a story about a person. Yes, there may be a fire or a flood or something else horrific happening, but it is the people the journalists write the story about. They focus on the people and how they are affected. This is what you need to do.

But how to make your characters come to life. Your reader needs to sympathize with your characters. They need to care about them – whether the emotion is love or hate, the reader needs to feel something for your characters. You have to do more than just give them a name and gender. In order to really understand your characters, and thus present them better on the page, you have to get to know the intimate details of your characters.

When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout. As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look? Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips? Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes? What about your heroes? Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which, of every one of the seven manuscripts I read, the heroine was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of oriental descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.

Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare? Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with gray eyes? Or even a redhead? In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism? Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk? Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone? Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle? How do they carry their packages? How do they move in relationship to other people? Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way? Does anybody stand out in the crowd? Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they? What do they do? Why are they acting the way they are? What are their other physical attributes? Do these add or detract from their personality? Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Let’s talk about names. Names are important. There are lots of places online where you can gather names for your characters, both first and last. What you need to remember when picking out names is: 1. Do not name multiple characters with similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. 2. Pick names that are consistent with the era you are writing. 3. Pick names that are either appropriate for the character or, if you’re writing irony, something so different as to be a part of the character. To explain: Ethel and Walter were perfectly acceptable names in 1910. Today, not so much. Madison is a popular name for a girl today, but two hundred years ago? No. So if you are writing a historical, check the names for that era. Also, watch for stereotypes that cling to names. You can spend hours figuring out names for your characters and have fun with it.

If you’re having trouble with the names, maybe you need to visualize them and get to know more about your characters. Look at magazines and images online to get a picture of your character. Once you know what s/he looks like, you might be able to work better.

One way I like to find out about my characters is to “interview” them. Yes, you read that right. I “interview” them. To do this, I pull up a list of questions and answer them as my character would. You can also do this with a friend – having them pretend to be the character. This can be fun and give you different insights into the development of your character. The questions can be broken down into subsets: physical, emotional, history, ethics and so on. The following are some questions you can answer. As you go through them, you may come up with more. You don’t need to answer all of them, but the more you do, the better you will know your character. Remember, this doesn’t need to be done for all the characters, just the main one(s). Secondary characters should just have the basics.


Character’s Full Name:

Reason or meaning of name:

Nickname:                                    Reason for nickname:




How old does s/he appear?

Eye Color:

Glasses or contacts:

Hair Color:

Natural or dyed:




Type of body/build:

Skin tone:

Skin type:

Shape of face:

Distinguishing Marks:

Predominant feature:

Looks like:

Is s/he healthy?

If not, why not:



Character’s favorite color:

Character’s least favorite color:


Favorite Music:

Least favorite Music:






Daredevil or cautious?

Same when alone?

Favorite clothing:                                Why?

Least favorite clothing:                          Why?

What does s/he like to wear in public?

In private?

Does s/he wear any jewelry? What kind?

Other clothing accessories:

Kind of Car(s):

Where does character live?

Where does character want to live?

Most prized possession:                           Why?




Smokes:                                           What?

When and how much?

Drinks:                                           What?

When and how much?


How does character spend a rainy day?

Spending habits (frugal, spendthrift, etc):       Why?

What does s/he do too much of?

Too little of?




Type of childhood:

First memory:

Most important childhood event that still affects him/her:








Relationship with her:


Relationship with him:


How many?                                    Birth order:

Relationship with each:

Children of siblings:

Extended family?

Close?                                       Why or why not?

How does character relate to others?

How is s/he perceived by…





How does character view hero/heroine?

First impression:                            Why?

What happens to change this perception?

What do family/friends like most about character?

What do family/friends like least about character?



Most at ease when:

Ill at ease when:



How s/he feels about self:

Past failure s/he would be embarrassed to have people know about:      Why?

If granted one wish, what would it be?      Why?

Greatest source of strength in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not):

Greatest source of weakness in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not:

Character’s soft spot:

Is this soft spot obvious to others?

If not, how does character hide it?

Biggest vulnerability:



Optimist or pessimist:                            Why?

Introvert or extrovert:                           Why?

Drives and motivations:


Extremely skilled at:

Extremely unskilled at:

Good characteristics:

Character flaws:



Biggest regret:

Minor regrets:

Biggest accomplishment:

Minor accomplishments:

Character’s darkest secret:

Does anyone else know?

If yes, did character tell them?

If no, how did they find out?



One word s/he would use to describe self:

One paragraph description of how s/he would describe self:

What does s/he consider best physical characteristic?

What does s/he consider worst physical characteristic?

Are these realistic assessments?      If not, why not?

How s/he thinks others perceive him/her:

What four things would s/he most like to change about self?       Why?

If change #1 was made, would character be as happy as s/he thinks?      If not, why not?




Person character secretly admires:       Why?

Person character was most influenced by:      Why?

Most important person in character’s life before story starts:     Why?

How does character spend the week before the story starts?

Immediate goals:

Long range goals:

How does character plan to accomplish these goals?

How will other characters be affected?

How does character react in a crisis:

How does character face problems:

Kinds of problems character usually runs into:

How character reacts to NEW problems:

How character reacts to change:



Wow. I surprised myself.

I did not have a great day today. I won’t go into details, let’s just say it was a frustrating day. On top of the frustrations, I wasn’t able to get any writing done (except this blog). So I feel behind on things I should be getting done. Plus I looked over a couple of my contracts and realized there were a couple of problems I need to discuss with one of my publishers, so that topped off my day.

In light of the contract issues, I sat down to look at some of my stories that I had finished and in progress…and I surprised myself. If you look at my websites, you will see that I have four books and three short stories published under this name, and four more under another name. Okay, eight stories or books – not bad considering that most people who write will never be published. But then I looked at the other stuff I have sitting around. In addition to what I have out, and what my publishers are sitting on (four more stories), I have twelve more finished novels that just need me to work on them (edit), eleven more that are nearly done, twenty-five short stories (almost all are science fiction in nature), and another thirty-eight stories that are at least started, but just sitting there waiting for me to do something with them.

You don’t have to do the math, I did. I have a total of one-hundred-one stories either published or waiting for me to do something with them. And I’m sure there a a few ideas sitting around somewhere that I don’t have in my computer.


Now I’m certain that very few of them will ever go any further than they are right now, and several will probably be combined to form a single story, but still, I surprised myself. I didn’t realize I had that many. It feels pretty good. It shows me that I am a productive writer, even when I don’t feel like I am.

So on days like this when I’m feeling low about the writing, I’ll pull out that list, take a look at it, and know that I can get the stories out and that if I run into a block, all I have to do is pull up one of those works in progress and work on it.

I think I’d better go pull up a file and get some writing done. 🙂

Addendum: I kept counting (don’t ask – it was something I just felt I had to do), anyway, in addition to the above, so far this year alone, I’ve done 50 reviews for three different sites, critiqued twelve stories/novels for friends, relatives, and crit partners, done a half-dozen articles for newsletters, and blogged (I didn’t bother to count these) for this and other sites. That’s in addition to past articles for newspapers and magazines (I was a newspaper reporter for two years), more reviews than I can remember (did this for almost fifteen years), and copy-edited almost fifty full-length books (fiction and non-fiction) for private clients.

And yet, most professional writer’s groups don’t consider me a published writer because I’m not actively pursuing a career in writing. Interesting, huh? 🙂