Why You Should Never, Ever Go On a Destination Writing Retreat

So last week, Tim Raveling was here to let us know the what, where, and why of writing residencies. There are definitely a lot of options, but imo, one of the best destination writing retreats to attend is one where Angela Ackerman is speaking. I know, I know. Sounds like a pipe dream. But…Ange is going to be speaking at an amazing retreat coming up—one that has the word CRUISING in the title. Can you believe it? Well, read on, naysayers, because Christina Delay is here to share (in her own personal and beautifully snarky way) about this opportunity.

You’ll hear from loads of people why you should travel and go on writing retreats. There are lists, like The Case for Writing and Travel, that say why travel is super-important to writing. But there’s another side to this story. I’m here to reveal to you why you should never, ever go on a destination writing retreat. Especially not a Cruising Writers Writing Retreat.

Your Comfort Zone Will Be Tested

Leaving the cozy space of our comfort zone and traveling by plane, train, or cruise ship has the same feeling as starting a new school or a new job. Wouldn’t it be easier to stay at home, doing the safe thing and living within the known and explored shelter we’ve built for ourselves?

Because if we leave that comfort zone, the one that we know every nook and cranny of, we’ll have to enter a new space. A space where our comfort zone is not allowed.

There will be a different culture there in that space, maybe a different language. The food may not be what we’re used to. And the experiences we come across may not be what we expect. Surprises most certainly await us, if not around every corner, then at each new cruise port or country.

It’s definitely safer to stay at home, surrounded by the sounds and smells that we’ve known for years. Never mind that creativity is driven by new experiences and fresh senses. Is that burst of creativity and unlocking of the elusive muse really worth the leap into the unknown?

You’ll Change

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”                   – Mary Anne Radmacher

It’s been proven that change is one of the scariest things out there. And it’s also a fact that travel changes us. We cannot come home the same person again. Once a thing has been seen or heard or experienced, it cannot be undone. Traveling will broaden your world perspective.

Not only that, but your writing will change when traveling with Cruising Writers on a writing retreat. It will be influenced by world-renowned craft teachers like Lisa Cron, Angela Ackerman, and Margie Lawson. You will grow your writing tribe by meeting other retreaters who, like you, have bravely left their comfort zone. And you may make lifelong friends or add a new critique partner to your repertoire.

So if what you’re wanting is for everything to stay status quo, a destination writing retreat is the last thing you should do.

Old Ideas Will Be Challenged

On a writing retreat, you’ll be introduced to new writing craft tools that may challenge what you’ve used in the past. Marketing strategies from bestselling authors that are contrary to what you’ve tried may be tossed around.

With Cruising Writers First Pages Readings, an editor and an agent will challenge your first page, telling you what works and what doesn’t…and it may lead to revisions that you had never before considered. Brainstorming is also a common side effect of getting together with a group of writers. New ideas and plot problems are tossed around and worked out.

But all of that takes courage to face and to participate in. If you like your old ideas, your same-ole way of doing things, and your current marketing tactics, then never, ever go on a destination writing retreat.

Your Writing Career May Never Be the Same

Going on a writing retreat will open you up to new career opportunities and new professional connections. It could be the link that you need to take your career to the next level.


There’s that whole fear of success thing a lot of us have. And if that’s you, certainly NEVER, EVER go on a writing retreat. Because you will be exposed to influential people who are serious about writing, and they will remember you.

At Cruising Writers, our retreats are kept small on purpose so you have the opportunity to make lasting connections. Because of this, you may develop a relationship with the agent and editor that travel with us; on our September cruise, that will be Michelle Grajkowski (agent and president of Three Seas Literary) and Deb Werskman (editor with Sourcebooks). More than a pitch session, you’ll see them every night at dinner, possibly on shore excursions, in workshops, at the spa, on the walking deck, at the casino, etc. And with less than 30 other writers on the trip, you’ll have to talk to them before you pitch to them.

“Cruising Writers is an amazing opportunity to improve your craft with top-notch teaching sessions. The small group format allows you to get to know your fellow authors as well as the guest speakers, editors, and agents. Through the contacts I made on this cruise, I was able to sign with a well-respected agency that I had on my wish list for several years. Go. Take the cruise. You won’t be disappointed.”                                                – Vicki Tharp, Author 

If you’re not ready to launch your career or take the next step on your writing journey, then stay in your comfort zone. You won’t be disappointed.

But neither will you grow or be surprised.

Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she’s not cruising the Caribbean, she’s dreaming up new writing retreats to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.

Cruising Writers brings aspiring authors together with bestselling authors, an agent, an editor, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor together on writing retreats. Cruise with us to Grand Cayman this September with Lisa Cron (author, Wired for Story and Story Genius), Angela Ackerman (co-author, The Emotion Thesaurus), Michelle Grajkowski (agent, Three Seas Literary), and Deb Werksman (editor, Sourcebooks).

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Three More Lesser Known Archetypes

Back in January, Jonathan Vars was here to talk about some lesser-known archetypes and how utilizing them can bring a sense of freshness to our stories. Because of the positive feedback on that post, he’s back with three MORE archetypes you might not be so familiar with.

As I mentioned in my original post, there are dozens of character archetypes available to the fiction writer. Having a broad range of character types is like having a palette of different colors to paint with. Each archetype offers a different perspective and point of view. They provide unique insights into your story that you would be unable to achieve by clinging only to the “tried and true” characters. So, without further ado, here are three more lesser-known archetypes to use in your writing:

The Penitent

The literal meaning of penitent is “sorrowful or regretful.” So the penitent is that character who’s seeking cleansing, forgiveness, and redemption from a dark past. One of the best examples of this that I’ve seen in modern writing is the character of John Reese from the TV show Person of Interest. Reese’s somewhat jaded past in espionage leaves him with many regrets that haunt him throughout the show.

The penitent is interesting because his guilt can serve both as a motivator (spurring him on to seek cleansing) and an Achilles heel (leaving him vulnerable to self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness). Any time a character can embody this sort of dual nature, it adds depth, both to his personality and the story as a whole.

The Curmudgeon

The curmudgeon is essentially the “cranky old man,” the cynical character who seems happiest when bemoaning imperfections. Curmudgeons are versatile in that they can play just about any story role—antagonist, sidekick, mentor, jester, even villain. Ebenezer Scrooge, everyone’s favorite Christmas hater, is the perfect example of this.

Though seemingly one sided, this archetype can be used to represent many different points of view, depending on the depth of character established. Although crusty and probably not much fun to be around, the curmudgeon can add realism to a story, reminding overly optimistic characters of stark realities and potential problems. The curmudgeon can also become a sympathetic character when readers learn the backstory   responsible for his or her negative point of view.

The Sycophant

The sycophant is the quintessential “yes man”, the underling who goes along with whatever their superior says in a constant effort to maintain approval. Sycophants are generally portrayed as somewhat mindless, accustomed to taking orders instead of thinking for themselves. A comical example is Lefou from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Despite being insulted and physically beaten by Gaston, Lefou remains devoted and eager to please, playing perfectly into this archetype.

Historically, the sycophant doesn’t have much of an arc, being used mostly to define other characters. Bring him to life by probing deeper into his background and making him more than just a subservient sidekick. An interesting concept is the idea of a pseudo-sycophant who poses as a “yes man” while secretly plotting against the hero in the background. By making him a unique and three-dimensional character in his own right, the sycophant can be used to provide singular insight, add tension and conflict, symbolize a larger idea or theme of the story, or act as a foil or mirror to the protagonist.

While archetypes are known for being certain kinds of characters, they don’t have to be etched in stone. Give them depth and add individualization by mixing them up. Who says you can’t have a penitent with sycophantic tendencies? Or a curmudgeon hiding his penitent roots? People are dynamic, and your characters should be as well. Applying human complexities to our characters can result in truly original characters that will greatly enhance your story and cast.

Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His work in literary analysis of classic films and literature has been published by academic websites and he is the author of the soon to be released novel “Like Melvin” for which he is currently writing a sequel. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter. He is currently willing to consider guest blogs for his website.

Posted in Characters | 10 Comments

Character Motivation Entry: Discovering One’s True Self

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Discovering One’s True Self

Forms This Might Take:

  • Embracing one’s sexual identity
  • Embracing one’s true gender identity
  • Experimenting to discover one’s passions
  • Shedding the expectations of others to follow a true passion
  • Seeking education to better understand one’s beliefs (about the world and how one fits in it, spirituality, etc.)
  • Achieving independence
  • Embracing travel and new experiences to leave one’s comfort zone
  • Taking on a big challenge which requires self-reliance and sacrifice

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): self-actualization

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Leaving a unhealthy marriage
  • Cutting off communication with a toxic family
  • Selling one’s home and assets to travel
  • Quitting one’s job
  • Going back to school
  • Moving somewhere new, with a different sort of lifestyle than what one was used to
  • Volunteering for a cause that forces one to re-imagine one’s priorities
  • Traveling to a isolated location where one is often alone, allowing time to reflect (going on an extended sailing journey, volunteering to teach in a remote third-world village, etc.)
  • Giving up one’s responsibilities so one has the freedom to choose what comes next
  • Saving up money so that one may afford to go on a sabbatical
  • Researching locations one may wish to travel to, or live
  • Researching experiences that will challenge oneself to get reconnect with one’s inner self
  • Making a list of one’s mistakes and practicing self-forgiveness
  • Seeking out a therapist to help one better understand one’s path forward
  • Revisiting old wounds and learning how to let go, including finding a way to forgive others who caused them, or find peace in some way
  • Studying up on how to live frugally or how to work and travel so one is not tied to a job
  • Finding a school, organization, or place of sanctuary where one may learn new things and discover who one really is in the process
  • Seeking out mentors with good advice or guidance in one’s area of self-discovery
  • Preparing family and friends that one is about to embark on something new
  • Practicing self-control, meditation, or other centering techniques so one is no longer controlled by fear

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Relationship friction with those who don’t understand one’s needs
  • Distance between loved ones who have different needs and feel unsupported or abandoned by one’s actions as a result
  • Draining one’s finances
  • A relationship partner not part of one’s inner journey may move on in one’s absence
  • Taking time away from one’s current path may cause one to fall behind (in a career, with other interests, losing one’s edge with certain skills that will not be practiced, etc.)
  • Growing apart from those one leaves behind (if one is choosing to go on a long distance sabbatical)
  • Having to give up a house, apartment, a vehicle, etc. that one cherishes because of financial strain

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Financial struggles
  • A critical illness of a family member requiring one to return to one’s life and attend to them
  • Finding oneself in danger or harm’s way without support
  • Discovering the grass isn’t greener (by moving to another place, pursuing a new interest, job, relationship, etc.) and realizing one’s journey is an internal one, not an external one
  • A spouse who threatens to leave because he or she is feeling isolated
  • Personal responsibilities that must be dealt with (to do with one’s children, elderly parents, a sibling in trouble, etc.)
  • Contracting a disease, illness, or suffering an injury that sidelines all plans
  • Toxic family members who sabotage one’s journey in some way
  • Being asked to sacrifice something that one is not ready to give up

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Ongoing dissatisfaction
  • Regret and believing one settled for less
  • Having to hide who one is from those who will not understand
  • Unhappiness which could lead to illness or depression
  • Developing a drug or drinking habit
  • Having a mental breakdown or experiencing a mid-life crisis which causes one to do something stupid, like cheat on a partner, rage-quit a great job, etc.

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

Image: Hermann @ Pixabay


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Is a Writers’ Residency Right For You?

If you’re like me, you’ve heard vaguely about residencies for writers. Our own Sara LeTourneau just blogged about one she attended in Iceland (yes, Iceland!), and while I kind of knew what they were, I wasn’t totally clear on what they had to offer. Luckily, Tim Raveling is here to pull back the curtain and let us know what residencies provide and how they work.

An antique desk used by attendees of the New Orleans Writers’ Residency

If you’re a writer, the idea of taking a month off now and then to go somewhere quiet and work on your craft probably falls somewhere along the axis between wistful daydream and deep need. There’s a lot to get in the way – family obligations, calendar commitments, day jobs. Interruptions are part of the fabric of everyday life – but that doesn’t mean they always have to be.

A writers’ residency is meant to be a retreat from distraction, a solid block of time to devote entirely to your writing. Most residencies tend to last about a month, but you can find shorter and longer options as well. Some, such as the Norton Island Residency, are completely off the grid; others, such as my own New Orleans Writers’ Residency, are surrounded by bustle.

Most residencies charge an up-front application fee, usually around $25 or $30. If accepted, you may simply be able to attend for free or, in many cases (such as the Kerouac Project ) will even receive a stipend for food and living expenses. Other residencies, such as the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency, will charge a weekly amount in addition to the cost of the application.

If you’re wondering exactly what a writers’ residency has to offer, here are some of the many helpful takeaways.


The main thing a residency gives you is time that you could theoretically take for yourself but likely never will. A residency is a single block of time that you can commit to well in advance, that you can put on your calendar, that you can make plans for. You can take the time off work, tell your friends and family about it, and when the date arrives, just leave. And for an entire month, all you’ll have to worry about will be your writing.


Most residencies will ask you in the application what you intend to accomplish while in attendance. This is your chance to outline a goal—a central focus within a limited timeframe—that can provide clarity and direction often lacking in the bustle of everyday life. Want to finish the first draft of your novel? Edit that anthology of short stories? Finish a new poetry series? A residency can offer you the framework to make that happen.


One of the best things about attending a residency is that, for the duration, you’ll be surrounded by other writers and artists. Connections are made that can last a lifetime, ideas are sparked, paradigms expanded, collaborations commenced. Many residencies accept only writers, but others, such as the Willapa Bay AiR in Washington, encourage artists of all stripes to apply. Some attendees like to be surrounded by other writers for the critique and reading opportunities, while others find spending time with artists from other disciplines an inspiring change.


Many residencies take a very hands-off approach. You’re there to work. You’ll be given a place to sleep and, in some cases, meals, but otherwise will be left to your own. Others, like the Blue Mountain Center in New York State, have specific programs with focused discussions. Our program falls in the middle, offering mentoring and counseling and occasional readings and events.


One of the great advantages of most residencies is the setting. The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, offers beautiful stone cottages in a small arts village on a river. Artcroft in Kentucky is set on a 400-acre working cattle farm. The 360 Xochi Quetzal residency is located in a small town on the shores of the largest lake in Mexico. ThNew Orleans Writers’ Residency is located a few minutes away from the French Quarter, and the Kerouac Project is located in the house in Orlando where Jack Kerouac typed the original manuscript of Dharma Bums. Residencies aim to inspire, and whether you’re looking for remote wilderness or culturally rich urbanity, there’s most likely a residency out there to scratch your particular itch.

If you’ve ever attended a residency, we’d love to hear thoughts from your own experience—pros and cons, tips for applying, things to take into consideration, or what you would have done differently.


Tim Raveling is the co-founder of the New Orleans Writers’ Residency. He’s a writer, artist, and traveler. You can find him on Twitter at @nomadico.

Posted in Writing Time | 4 Comments

Using Real-World Locations to Ground Your Story’s Setting


Last month I went on a writing retreat in Iceland. (Yes, Iceland! In fact, you can learn more about the annual Iceland Writers Retreat here.) It sounds like a remote location for a writing event; and when I first told people I was going, some said, “Um… why Iceland? Why not someplace closer to home?”

My answer? Well, I had many reasons for going, but the most resonant one was:

The northern latitudes of my story’s fictional world were inspired by Iceland’s geography and climate.

Granted that before the Iceland Writers Retreat, I had never set foot on that subarctic, geologically active European island. However, I had fallen in love with it after watching the Iceland episode of Art Wolfe’s “Travels to the Edge” on PBS. Since then, I’d been studying photographs and researching whatever I could on Iceland’s weather, natural landmarks, and so on.

Thanks to the retreat, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland for the first time. And in addition to attending writing workshops, I was able to take a countryside tour that put me right there, on the ground of my story world, hearing and smelling and seeing an environment much like where I imagined my characters living.

Regardless of the genre we write – be it contemporary, historical, or speculative fiction – chances are our story’s setting might be a real place or a fictional world inspired by a real location. And in order for us to recreate that setting in a story, we should consider the “how” and “why” of its existence and understand how it influences other aspects of the story.

Understand How a Setting Functions Above and Underground

One of my favorite bits of worldbuilding advice comes from fantasy author N.K. Jemisin: “Build your world from the ground up – literally.” This can also apply to settings for stories in other genres. By learning how a real-world location “functions” above and underground, as well as why it functions in this manner, we can ensure that our story’s depiction of that setting is not only realistic, but also factually accurate.

How can we do this? By doing our homework, of course! Whether visiting the actual place or (if travel isn’t an option) researching by reading and interviewing trustworthy sources, we should have a list of questions that will give us a firm grasp on the location’s geography and climate. Here are some suggestions:

  • What are the setting’s latitude and longitude in the story’s world? What types of weather or seasonal changes does the setting experience as a result?
  • What types of terrain (mountains, tundra, forests, etc.) comprise this setting? What makes their existence possible (tectonic plates, latitudes, soil conditions, etc.)?
  • What are some of the setting’s natural landmarks? How did the area’s geology, climate, etc. form these landmarks?
  • Does this setting experience any seismic, geological, or meteorological phenomena? If so, what? Why are these phenomena possible in this location?
  • What kinds of wildlife (plants, animals, etc.) are found in this setting?

If it helps, here are three setting-related facts I learned about Iceland during my trip:

  • Iceland sits on two tectonic plates (Eurasian and North American) that are slowly drifting apart, thus causing the island’s earthquakes, volcanoes, and geysers.
  • Despite its latitude just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a relatively temperate climate because it lies in the path of the North Atlantic Current, which directs warm water northward from the Gulf Stream. This leads to cool summers (10 to 20 deg Celcius, or 50 to 68 deg Fahrenheit) and mild winters (-1 to 5 deg Celcius, or 28 to 41 deg Fahrenheit) compared to other countries at the same latitude.
  • Iceland’s rich, nearly-black soil is comprised of andisols, which form from the weathering of volcanic materials such as ash and are typically found in areas with cool temperatures and moderate to high rainfall.

What’s worth remembering is that a setting’s climate and geology will determine the geography, biodiversity, and other natural factors. For example, Iceland’s soil is a result of its climate and geological activity. If Iceland had warmer weather and sat in the middle of one tectonic plate instead of on the edge of two, its soil would be different. So would myriad other aspects of its environment. This is why it’s crucial to understand how or why a setting has its distinctive features, and how any changes, additions, or losses can impact that setting as a whole.

How Does Setting Influence Other Aspects of the Story World?

Think of all the social and cultural features that a setting’s many layers can determine: food, clothing, occupations, housing, hobbies or pastimes, even fuel and electricity. And that list is just for starters. So when using a real-world location for our stories (or basing a fictional setting on a real place), pay close attention to how geography or climate affect the people who live and work there. Every detail we include must have a solid reason for existing based on past setting-building decisions we’ve made. It wouldn’t make sense for mountain goats to call a rainforest home, right? 😉

How much does Iceland’s climate and geography influence its culture? Let me share three examples I learned during the retreat:

  • Because of its climate and island location, Iceland’s cuisine primarily consists of seafood, lamb, dairy products (yogurt, cheese, etc.), bread, and root vegetables such as potatoes and rutabaga.
  • Iceland is one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy. Thanks to its volcanic activity and abundance of water (ocean, rivers, waterfalls), the country generates 100% of its electricity and about 81% of its primary energy needs (heating, transportation, etc.) through geothermal and hydropower sources.
  • Most houses in Iceland are made from concrete, due to the island’s lack of native trees. Older buildings were constructed of stone, turf, and (in rare cases) timber.

The Devil’s in the (Sensory) Details

If you’ve read Angela and Becca’s Urban and Rural Setting Thesauri, you’ll know the importance of sensory details in setting descriptions. Sights and sounds are usually the first ones we think of. But what about smells, tastes, or textures? They can enhance the reader’s experience beyond what’s seen and heard, and make the setting seem vividly real.

And when basing a story’s setting on a real-world location – well, what’s better than visiting that area or someplace similar first-hand and experiencing it with our senses? But if we have to rely on research instead, we can still investigate which sensory details are appropriate for that setting. Here are some questions that can help:

  • Sights: What kinds of objects, natural features, and colors stand out in this location? What tiny details might some people overlook?
  • Sounds: What noises, voices, etc. can characters hear in this location? Are these sounds natural (leaves rustling, waterfall roaring) or manmade (the drone of a vehicle motor)?
  • Textures/Sensations: What does the character touch in this setting? How does it feel? How about the ground/floor under his feet or the air indoors or outdoors?
  • Smells: What fragrances and odors can the character smell? Are they natural or manmade? Pleasing or off-putting? Fresh or stale? Are any smells food-related?
  • Tastes: Does the character eat or drink anything in this setting? If so, how does it taste? Do any strong scents leave an artificial taste in the character’s mouth?

One of the most unique sensory experiences I had during the Iceland Writers Retreat was at Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring. As I stepped off the bus with the rest of my tour group, I immediately noticed plumes of white steam rising from the spring and a sulfurous (“rotten egg”) smell. The most intriguing details, however, greeted me when I stopped at the spring’s safety gate. There, I found spring-green moss growing on the reddish-brown rock, heard the hiss of steam and hot water, and felt the air grow humid and slightly warmer compared to the Icelandic April chill. Water droplets pelted my clothes as a burst of wind kicked up, and it was impossible to tell if it was raining or if Deildartunguhver was “spitting” at us.

Now, think of how vivid your reading experience would be if those details were included in a scene set at a hot spring. They would make you feel like you were actually there, wouldn’t they?

Are any of your stories set in or inspired by a real-world location? What research have you done (either by traveling or reading/interviewing) to capture that setting as completely as possible? Do you have any other tips or suggestions to add here?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Setting, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Caring for An Aging Parent

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Caring for an aging parent

Forms This Might Take: Taking on the caregiving role for a parent who is no longer able to care for him/herself. This may mean the parent is declining due to dementia or Alzheimer’s, is suffering from a terminal or chronic illness, or is simply unable to get around safely on his or her own. While the character could choose to pay for a parent’s care in a separate facility, this entry will focus on the character who makes it a goal to care for the parent him or herself.

Courtesy: Pixabay

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): safety and security

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Renovating one’s home to accommodate the parent’s needs
  • Moving into a home that is easier for the parent to access
  • Educating oneself on the parent’s illnesses
  • Planning meals for the parent (if there are special needs in this area)
  • Researching and purchasing necessary accommodations (a wheelchair, walker, toilet, etc.)
  • Revamping one’s budget to cover caregiver costs
  • Meeting with a lawyer to discuss wills, power of attorney, and other end-of-life considerations
  • Making changes to one’s insurance policy
  • Redistributing duties between other household members to create extra time for the parent’s care
  • Coordinating duties and care between siblings
  • Hiring out certain duties (lawn care, house cleaning, grocery deliveries, etc.)
  • Finding a job one can do from home, or one that has more flexibility
  • Joining a support group for caregivers
  • Becoming more organized to stay on top of the additional duties
  • Bringing in someone to help care for the parent (a health care professional, a companion, etc.)
  • Researching activities or hobbies that would be good for the parent

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Quitting one’s job, or losing one’s job because of too much missed time
  • Giving up on hobbies or dreams due to a lack of time
  • Having no “me” time
  • Strife with siblings and other relatives (when they won’t help out, over differences of caregiving philosophy, when finances become strained, etc.)
  • The deterioration of one’s health due to stress and “caregiver burnout”
  • Depleting one’s retirement fund or nest egg to cover costs
  • Missing out on opportunities with one’s own children due to having to care for one’s parent
  • Growing apart from friends due to having no time to get out and socialize
  • Falling victim to a scam or con-artist
  • Strained relations with the parent, who may harbor resentment over the loss of control and necessary changes being made that she isn’t happy about

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • The parent refusing to comply
  • Legal issues that make it impossible for one to make necessary decisions on behalf of one’s parent
  • Siblings and other relatives who disagree about the proper care for the parent
  • Immediate family members who don’t want to make the required sacrifices
  • Limited finances
  • Insurance limitations
  • Desperately needing to keep one’s job, but having a boss who is inflexible and unsympathetic
  • Personal health problems that make caring for someone else difficult
  • Having a child or spouse with special needs that also require attention
  • Growing resentment over the situation
  • The pain of having to watch the mental or physical decline of one’s parent
  • Second-guessing oneself; doubting one’s ability to carry on

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Basic First AidGood Listening SkillsESP (Clairvoyance)EmpathyHospitalityMultitaskingOrganization

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • The parent sustaining an injury or dying while living on his or her own
  • The parent’s quality of life falling to an unhealthy level
  • The parent receiving poor care or being abused in a facility
  • Broken relationships with relatives who won’t forgive one for giving up or not doing what they believe was rightTortuous guilt over having failed one’s parent
  • Losing everything (one’s job, life savings, important relationships, etc.), and still having to stop caring for the parent when one runs out of resources

Clichés to Avoid: 

Taking in a parent with whom one has a strained relationship, and the relationship being healed because of the decision.

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

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A Cheat’s Guide to Writing a Synopsis

Does the word “Synopsis” make you want to put a screwdriver into your ear? You aren’t alone. Luckily for all of us, we have Sarah Juckes of Agent Hunter here with us, and she’s got a neat how-to system for writing synopses to share!

A few months ago, I sat down to condense my 70,000 word novel into a captivating synopsis that was guaranteed to ‘wow’ anyone who read it. And yep – you guessed it. The one I ended up writing, sucked.

Writing a 1 – 2 page summary of your book is hard. But after speaking to my writer and editor friends (and later, the agent that signed me), I tried out a ‘cheat’ method that actually seemed to work. Even better – it was surprisingly simple.

First – the golden rule

One of the main issues I was having with my synopsis, was that I was trying to sell my book to the reader. I was using the kind of language you’d find on the back of a published book, or in the film trailer. The result? Two pages of pitchy words and no sense of story.

The point of your synopsis is to explain the main plot to the reader. It is a technical document and doesn’t need to ‘sell’ your book – your book will do that. This is the golden rule.

Finding that out felt like a weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t need my synopsis to be a literary masterpiece – I just needed to write short sentences on what my book was about.

This is how I did it.

 1: Know what your book is about

What is the key theme running through your novel? This will probably be the line you give family and friends when they ask you what you’re writing. My book is about my protagonist – Ele – and knowing this gave me something to focus on when writing my synopsis. Anything that didn’t concern the progression of her character, didn’t need to be in my synopsis.

2: Take out the post-it notes

To find out what happened in my novel, I read it through again from the beginning. For every scene, I wrote a one-line summary on a post-it note and stuck it on my wall. When I had done, I could see my whole plot from a distance.

 3: Merge and remove

My next task was to remove notes from the wall that didn’t directly progress the central story – in my case, that of my protagonist, Ele. Some of this was hard – it can be difficult to know which scenes progress plot and which don’t, so if I was unsure, I kept them in for now.

 4: Transfer it to the page

Looking at my post-its, I found that my novel could be split into four main parts according to setting, which I used as headings on a new Word document. I then typed up each post-it in turn using short, clear sentences. At this point, it started to become clearer which scenes were integral to my main story, so I continued to remove those that weren’t.

5: Tell the story

I now needed to set the scene for the reader at the beginning of the synopsis. I wrote two paragraphs under my first heading, which outlined who my protagonist was, where she was and what she wanted.

My next job was to go through the scene descriptions I had written and ensure they made sense to an outsider.

As my novel is character-driven, I found that I only needed to mention the scenes that progressed her story. For example, over ten of my original post-it notes could be summarized by ‘Ele finds out more about the Outside’. The important scenes for me were the ones that raised the stakes for my protagonist and showed her changing attitudes as the novel progressed.

 6: Complete the check list

The only thing left to do then was to ensure my synopsis was ticking the boxes on what all synopsis should do:

1: Tell the whole story (even the ending).

2: Give the names of only the most important characters (too many names become confusing).

3: Be a technical document with no ‘pitchy’ words (eg: using clear, simple language that enables your story to be the star).

The result? A simple outline of my plot and characters, including the major stakes and their resolution.

It was perfect.

My novel is told from the point of view of one character and is linear in time, but that doesn’t mean that this process wouldn’t work for writers with complex stories. When I spoke to my agent about my synopsis, she said that one of the most useful things I had put on there were my four headings, separating each part of my novel in terms of where my character was. As you go through your novel, you might find that headings emerge for your story two – perhaps in terms of who is narrating it, or where you are in time.

The most important thing to remember is that it’s not your synopsis that will be ‘selling’ your book to an agent or publisher – that job lies with the novel itself. A synopsis is really just a neat version of your plotting notes. Simple – right?

If you do try this Cheat’s Guide to write your synopsis, I’d love to hear how you got on. It worked for me – I hope it helps you, too!

 Sarah Juckes is a YA writer who works with Agent Hunter, the comprehensive online database of UK literary agents. For more information on submitting to literary agents read this useful guide from The Writers’ Workshop. You can also find her on twitter as @sarahannjuckes.





Posted in Agents, Guest Post, Publishing and Self Publishing, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction


You’ve likely seen countless posts and resources related to creating great characters, but almost all of them seem to be lacking in one aspect I’ve found to be perhaps the most powerful: giving your characters contradictions.

Some might read this and say, “Huh? Isn’t that inconsistent characterization? Or undefined characterization?”

The contradictions I’m talking about aren’t continuity errors or mistakes. They can relate to internal conflicts, but they are not internal conflicts. If you don’t like the term “contradiction,” many of the things I’m about to talk about also work as “contrasts.”

When writers are given methods to create characters, the approaches often include giving the character strengths and weaknesses, likeable attributes, a unique appearance, and a nice backstory, or a secret or fear. These are all wonderful and useful things. But how do you make your character more complex? More interesting?

The answer lies in giving them some sort of contradiction. Let’s look at some examples of characters and the contradiction or contrasts surrounding them.

Harry Potter: the most famous and (rumored to be) most powerful wizard in the wizarding world, and he lives in the cupboard under the stairs at his abusive aunt and uncle’s.

Frodo from Lord of the Rings: the most unskilled, unqualified, and harmless person who is the only one capable of taking the evilest magical object, the Ring, through the darkest lands to be destroyed

Blu from Rio: a bird who doesn’t know how to fly

Simba (adult) from The Lion King: the king of the lions no longer wants to be king and is charged with killing his beloved father.

Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games: long pampered and adored as society’s playboy and sex symbol, Finnick yearns for loyal monogamy and shares a pure love for Annie that is unrivaled. Though he could have any woman in the country, he falls for a mentally disabled girl that he’s forbidden from marrying so the antagonist can continue to use him as a high society prostitute.

Edward Cullen from Twilight: Love or hate Twilight, Edward is a great example of a walking contradiction. A vampire who falls in love with a human who has the most potent blood he’s ever encountered.

Murph from Interstellar: A girl who hates her father for leaving her must call upon her love for him to save a dying earth.

Giving your character some sort of contradiction or contrast immediately makes them more interesting. We wonder how they can be that way. We wonder how they live their life. The reasoning and space between the contradiction is where the character gets complex. Harry doesn’t like being abused at his aunt and uncle’s, but he doesn’t like the lavish attention he receives from overcoming Voldemort either.

The contradiction can lead to a character arc. Blu in Rio has never been able to fly, but he has to overcome that weakness in the movie. The arc is more interesting because Blu embodies his contradiction. It’s more interesting than perhaps a non-contradictory arc would be.

The contradiction can be simply a question of lifestyle (How can the biggest, richest playboy of Panem want a monogamous relationship with mentally disabled woman?). Or it could be a contradiction in identity (How does a lion prince who spends an entire song dreaming of becoming king turn to loathing the idea? While being haunted with the fear that he killed his beloved father? Who is he? Where does he fit and belong?). Anyone who has seen The Lion King knows that it deals largely with identity.

The space between these contradictions—where they meet, are explored, and explained— is where your character becomes complex. The fact that Harry has to deal with being hated in one world and being loved in the other (and likes neither) makes him more complex. Frodo being one of the least experienced characters in Lord of the Rings but the only one capable of carrying the ring makes him complex. While media portrays Finnick as having a slew of lovers, the only love of his life is an unusual girl he’s willing to die for to protect. That makes him complex. And all this complexity gives the character depth.

One point worth mentioning: the more outlandish and center-stage the contradiction, the more exploring and explaining it likely needs. The goal is to create depth, not caricatures.

Sometimes these contradictions lead to on-page internal conflict. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they play into the character arc. Sometimes they don’t. The point is this: the quickest way to make a character complex is to give them some kind of contradiction.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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Posted in Characters, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 7 Comments

Character Motivation Entry: Being The Best At Something

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Being The Best at Something

Forms This Might Take:

  • Winning a local competition (best chili in the city, prettiest garden display, best home brewed beer, etc.)
  • Winning an election (Being chosen as prom king, elected to student council, winning a seat on city council, becoming mayor, becoming a minister or judge, etc.)
  • Being awarded a scholarship (for an art competition, for one’s prowess in math, for an essay one wrote, etc.)
  • Being profiled in one’s local paper for an accomplishment or accolade
  • Coaching the winning team
  • Being chosen for the Olympic team
  • Being on a winning team at the champion level
  • Having one’s business win a prestigious award
  • Being acknowledged for being the one to put on the best parties or events
  • Being chosen (to act in a commercial, winning a part in a movie, being given a spot in an orchestra, etc.)
  • Being the best parent, grandparent, teacher, boss, etc.

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): esteem and recognition

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Reading up on the activity one wishes to master or the issues of importance that one should know
  • Observing (in person, watching video footage, etc.), studying one’s competition
  • Studying as necessary to become more proficient
  • Practicing one’s communication (written, verbal, etc.) and charm to “win over” those who may be in a position to help
  • Being open to trying new things, adding more “tools” to one’s toolkit
  • Seeking out mentors or coaches as needed
  • Practicing obsessively
  • Dedicating oneself to the area of study, cutting out distractions
  • Researching past winners and studying their methods
  • Understanding the risks and be willing to take the ones that make sense
  • Understanding one’s judges or the people one must win over to better deliver exactly what they need
  • Buying whatever equipment or services that might give one an edge
  • Putting in more effort than one’s competition
  • Practicing affirmations and positive self-talk

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Giving up one’s free time
  • Friendships that grow strained because others aren’t supportive of one’s passion
  • Spending one’s savings on training, equipment or other things needed to be the best
  • Relationships that become damaged because of competition
  • Losing out on family time
  • Having less energy and focus for other things
  • Dropping the ball in other areas of one’s life because of a singular (possibly obsessive) focus on one’s goal

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • A health crisis (either one’s own or that of a family member) that requires time, money, or both
  • A financial crisis (losing a job, a sudden expense like needing a new car, etc.)
  • Deepening family problems that must be addressed, requiring one to refocus one’s time
  • A move due to work
  • A talented competitor with better resources and support
  • Sabotage
  • Not having the knowledge, talent, or experience to be the best (needing to be more seasoned)
  • Realizing this goal will not bring fulfillment (as it is a false goal and a deeper need is at the root)

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Crippling disappointment
  • Losing the respect or esteem of family or friends for not succeeding
  • A negative outlook
  • A future laden with underachieving
  • Low self-worth

Clichés to Avoid:

  • Because of the popularity of the Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies, one would want to avoid creating a character who was obsessed to the same degree

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

Image: 3dman_eu@Pixabay



Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

5 Reasons Why Every Author Should Join a Book Club

Today we have a post on a topic that has never been discussed at Writers Helping Writers. Can you believe it? After 9 years, that’s almost impossible. So I was very excited to hear about Kelly Miller’s proposed post. It was also beyond awesome to get a guest post proposal from a writer who’s been walking the journey with us since our Bookshelf Muse days. Talk about dedication! So read on as we discuss book clubs and what they can offer writers.

Have you ever been a part of a book club? I’m not talking about a get together where you all drink wine and talk about everything but that month’s novel. I mean a bone-a-fide gathering where every member is armed with their club’s latest pick, questions they want to discuss, and an opinion on what they read.

As a writer, if you’re not a member of a book club, you’re missing out on an untapped avenue for not only invaluable research but a bevy of potential superfans. Here are 5 of the top reasons you should join a book club.

Learn How Readers Think

Face it, if we knew how readers thought, we’d have already written a New York Times bestselling novel instead of firmly treading water as a mid-lister. But there’s no better way to get into the mind of a reader than to sit and listen to a group of them discuss a book. True, they may not be discussing your book or even your genre, but there’s always something useful you can glean from their conversations.

In my book club meetings, I’ve learned what makes a reader stop reading within the first three chapters. And what makes a mentally-fractured protagonist someone you can empathize with rather than hate because of their whiny qualities. Researching and reading this kind of information online is possible, but until you have a front-row seat to hear the back and forth between book clubbers about why one person hated the main character and another was totally drawn in, you can’t truly absorb the information and shape it into something usable.

Fantastic Source for Research

While working on your latest novel, how many times have you wondered about the possible hiding places in a half-constructed building, or how it feels when a deathly allergic person is stung by a bee? Okay, maybe that’s just me, but I know from personal experience that sometimes internet research or a Facebook post to your friends isn’t enough. When you meet people in a book club, you discover information about their professions and hobbies that can be a priceless resource. The more connections you can make in the real word (a.k.a life that happens away from your computer), the better equipped you’ll be once you sit down to write.

That’s me in the middle of my book club—the one with the glasses holding a copy of my first mystery novel!

Potential Beta Readers

Book club members really know their books! Once you’re in a group for a while, you’ll come to know the members who are really good at articulating their opinion of what works in a story and what doesn’t. These are the people you want reading your WIP. Pull them aside after the meeting or message them and tell them that you’ve noticed their insights. Ask them if they’d be willing to provide feedback on one of your books in the future.

Great People Watching  

If you’re willing to sit back and listen—really listen—a group of book clubbers is a great way to find new material for future books. I know it’s tempting to talk as much as possible, because face it, writers are always stuck in front of the computer with only our pets to keep us company. But during the meeting, once the conversation about the book dissipates, the participants usually hang around and talk about their lives—everything from their demanding kids and jealous husbands to the office starlet and the hunky lawn guy. This is the best time to absorb the words and interactions between the members. You never know when you’ll come away with a nugget of inspiration which could lead to your next great protagonist.

The last book club meeting I was at, one of the ladies was talking about her young daughter who likes to climb into her bed at 2 am. The way she described her daughter hogging the bed and the need for her to be “all up in her womb” was hilarious. It’s moments like these where people can provide you with the best lines that will make a writer’s night.

Feedback on Your Novel

Don’t join a book club with the express purpose of trying to get members to pick one of your novels. Instead, participate in a few meetings before it even comes up that you’re an author. If you build the strong bonds first, it won’t look like a smarmy move when you mention your book. In fact, everyone will be so surprised that you write, they’ll be clamoring for you to choose one of your own books the month you’re picked as host.

If your book is read by the group, be sure to leave your ego at the door. Whether the feedback is good or bad, don’t let it give you a big head or, in turn, crush you. Instead, look at the meeting as a learning opportunity. When you’re creating a list of questions that everyone will discuss at book club, ask the ones that will help you understand your strong and weak points as an author. That way you can incorporate the lessons you’ve learned into the next book.

How to Find a Book Club

Unsure of how to find a book club? Check out the Reader’s Circle website. It’s an online community that matches book clubs with potential members. Just use the search function and enter your zip code. When I filled in mine, I found a great Mystery Book Club not too far from my house. Other resources are community bulletin boards with listings for local groups at a bookstore or library. Even meetup.com advertises groups. And if all else fails, start your own group!

I’d love to hear about any helpful experiences you’ve had as an author in a book club. Please share yours with us in the comments!

Kelly Miller is an award-winning mystery author with three books and two novelettes to her credit. Dead Like Me and Deadly Fantasies are the first two books in the Detective Kate Springer series. Splintered was named a 2015 Kindle Scout winner and garnered a publishing contract with Amazon’s Kindle Press. She’s also published two mystery novelettes in her My Nightmare Series, My Blue Nightmare (which is free to newsletter subscribers) and My Emerald Nightmare which just debuted April 2017. For more information about Kelly Miller visit www.kellymillerauthor.com.


Posted in Reader Feedback, Writing Groups | 8 Comments