Is it a Flashback?

The incomparable Kristen Lamb is here today to talk about flashbacks. If you don’t know how knowledgeable Kristen is, you’ll know by the end of the post, where you can find information on her blog and craft classes, which I’m sure you’ll want to check out…

Angela and Becca were gracious enough to invite me to come guest post and lay out some truth regarding one of THE most controversial topics in craft…the flashback.

Usually when I blog on this a lot of folks wanna argue about breaking rules and non-conformity, and art, and how Such-And-Such uses flashbacks more than a Kardashian uses a Selfie Stick and Such-And-Such is a gazillionaire.

Here’s the deal. Professionals learn the rules first because we can’t break, bend or reinvent something we never even took the time to understand in the first place. Leave that to hobbyists and amateurs. Thus, before we address the flashback, I need to make something crystal clear:

Flashbacks are NOT a broad term universally applicable to every single shift back in time.

Thus, to understand the type of “flashbacks” editors like me hate and why we hate them, we must all be on the same page regarding “time travel” in fiction.

Flashbacks Versus Non-Linear Plotting

Courtesy: Sheila in Moonducks at

Not all plots are linear. Just because a story “goes back in time” doesn’t automatically mean the author is using a “flashback.” Often, it’s actually non-linear plotting.

There can be any number of reasons to choose a plot that doesn’t travel directly from Point A to Point Z in a neat orderly fashion. Perhaps the author wants to create an unreliable narrator as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

Another favorite? Vanilla Sky, which also used non-linear plotting as a diversion tactic for an unreliable narrator and to slowly reveal the TRUTH of what really was happening to protagonist David Aames.

Non-linear plotting is wonderful for misdirection.

Perhaps there’s an age-old mystery to be solved related to a current-day problem. Progressing linearly would reveal the culprit and “what really happened” and that the new and old are actually connected…as in James Patterson’s Murder House.

This type of plotting is highly useful in psychological thrillers, mystery and suspense…namely because you (Author God) are messing with time making it tougher for the reader to see your play. Literary sleight-of-hand, so to speak.

These plots seem to be chock full of “flashbacks”, but really they aren’t. If we cut the story up into pieces, we could line the scenes into a linear fashion and clearly see the standard three-act structure.

Flashbacks Versus Parallel Timelines

Again when I blog about the perils of flashbacks, protests like this inevitably appear in my comments:

Well, The Green Mile was a mega-hit book and movie and it was FULL of flashbacks.

The Green Mile was NOT full of flashbacks. It is what’s called a parallel timeline.

Another example of the parallel timeline structure is Nicholas Sparks’ The NotebookOne present story, one past story, both running parallel (like train tracks) until they converge at the point where the dominant storyline takes over and is resolved.

But remember: there is a purpose for the parallel timeline. The past is the past and cannot be changed. The current day protagonist and the problem he or she is facing, however, CAN be changed.

Thus the purpose for the past being revealed is to, in some way, solve the core story problem the current-day protagonist is facing.

A good example of this is the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Evelyn Couch (protagonist) is a doormat who’s being ignored, disrespected and bullied from all directions. Even though Evelyn is doing everything she can to please (which includes wrapping herself in cellophane to entice her hubby into romance instead of watching football), she’s roundly ignored and abused.

Then she meets Ninny Threadgoode (inciting incident).

It is ONLY through meeting Ninny Threadgoode and listening to the adventures of Idgy and Ruth and the Whistle Stop Cafe that Evelyn learns and grows and matures to where she can conquer her CURRENT problem—lack of a spine.

In fact, in this legendary cinematic scene, we witness the PRECISE moment Evelyn “gets” it and understands what her matriarchal mentor has been trying to help her understand all along.


We know Evelyn has “won” when in the end she is fresh, alive and confident instead of a simpering weenie begging to be loved and respected.

But the story isn’t just a bunch of reminiscing. The story in the past is salient to the resolution of the current story problem. The past timeline also follows three-act structure. Additionally, without the past timeline, without meeting Ninny, Evelyn would have never had the catalyst to change her present situation and escape her personal hell. If we teased the two timelines apart, we’d see a clear, linear three-act skeleton.

Training Wheel Flashbacks

Okay, so today I’ve thrown down some seriously advanced stuff on y’all since linear three act structure gets most of the attention. There are other varieties of nonlinear plotting but we only covered two of the biggies today, largely for the sake of brevity…and also because when your brains explode, it makes a mess on the keyboard.

Nonlinear plotting is NOT what editors and agents want to stab in the face when they read it. Nonlinear plotting is the sign of a highly advanced writer, not a giant red flag screaming “ROOKIE!”

The time-shift-rookie-red-flag is what I like to call the Training Wheel Flashback (TWF). I call it this because it’s most commonly employed by emerging writers who are learning to write a novel.

Now, there is no shame in learning.

We all start somewhere and training wheels are a good place to start. But eventually we need to ditch the training wheels or it’s awkward for everyone (on a bike and in a book). Kids use training wheels on a bicycle to learn to balance and get strong enough to no longer need the training wheels to stay upright and out of the hedges. Training wheels are to prop up a weak/new bicycle rider.

Same with TWFs.

Why TWFs are a red flag to agents, editors and folks like me is because it’s glaringly obvious the time shift’s sole purpose is to prop up a weak story, undeveloped characters, or “explain” that which doesn’t need explaining. (Refer to my post, STOP KILLING YOUR STORY! Why Suffering is Essential for Great Fiction.)

Past Folded INTO the Present

Editors dislike shifting time to “explain” because it’s unnecessary and it wrecks the forward momentum which interrupts the fictive dream. Plain truth is that most relevant information from the past can be blended seamlessly into the present narrative. Also, spoon-feeding the reader is not what makes them turn pages. They LIKE working for the answers. Let them.

A made-up example of past blended into present narrative:

Bonnie wandered to the empty break room, praying strong coffee might burn away at least some of the constant fog in her head. Sure, the anti-depressants helped. Kept her from unraveling, even from maybe doing something stupid or possibly fatal. Yet, at the same time, the pills also made her tired.
All she wanted was sleep. Sleep. One of many luxuries she could no longer afford. Especially not now when she was alone, back working her old job in corporate sales instead of enjoying early retirement with Tom, her husband of twenty years.
How had she gotten here? A million miles from the private beach where they’d met in 1990, the beach where they’d built a condo. How had life gone so wrong?
The buzz of her cell phone snapped her hard back to the present. It took a long moment for her to realize she’d received a text. Her boss. The one who’d only rehired her out of pity. The same boss now texting her in all caps SHE BETTER GET HER ASS TO THE PRESENTATION.
Bonnie was late. Again. Of course she was. If she made it through today without getting canned, it would be a miracle.

See how we (readers) get a LOT of information about the past…yet not really. We don’t need to go back in time to when Bonnie and Tom met on a beach in 1990 to “get” they met on a beach in 1990. Additionally, in regards to the story problem, we “could” stop and go back in time and explain that Bonnie’s husband:

a) Was killed in a freak Fry-Daddy explosion.

b) Died of a heart attack (supposedly but was really murdered).

c) Left her for that slutty barista who always gave him extra sprinkles #FrappSkank.

Any number of things could be the reason WHY Bonnie is downing anti-depressants from a Pez dispenser and feeling scared and abandoned. Thing is, we DON’T KNOW anything beyond the fact that Bonnie is in trouble and there is a problem–A BIG ONE. There are also a lot of smaller, pressing problems that make us tense and…keep reading. We don’t know the exact nature of the core problem or even WTH happened before this moment we meet Bonnie in the break room… but we want to.

Less is almost always MORE.

Anyway, this is enough for today and thanks so much Angela and Becca for having me!

Hope y’all learned a lot and will visit my blog for all you wanted to know about craft, social media, branding and more. I also teach virtual classes over at my company W.A.N.A. International. If you’re ready to take that jump and seriously up your game? I’m bringing the ADVANCED classes, and if today’s post FIRED you up? I strongly recommend my upcoming class (an ideal compliment to our topic)— Understanding the Antagonist.

For those who’d like a peek at my fiction, I have a romantic suspense novella which is part of the Falling for the Billionaire Box Set. My contribution is Deadline. My romantic suspense The Devil’s Dance will be re-released within the next few weeks so I hope y’all stay in touch!

Kristen Lamb is an international speaker, award-winning blogger and creator of the top resource for author branding in the digital age, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World. She’s also the author of the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer.

Kristen has now returned to her first love…MURDER. Fictional murder. Jeez! Her debut romantic suspense, The Devil’s Dance is positive proof she watches way more Discovery ID than is probably healthy.




Posted in Flashbacks | 17 Comments

Fast-Draft Writing for NaNoWriMo and Every Other Month


I am an advocate of intentional writing, which almost always means slow writing, but sometimes it makes sense to write a fast draft of a book – if, for example, you are participating in NaNoWriMo, have a chunk of time with few distractions, or have a fast-approaching deadline you are motivated to meet.

Writing fast still requires intentionality. You still need a plan – a clear idea of the point you wish your story to make and a grasp of the best narrative structure to get you there. That is to say, you need to know what you want your reader to walk away feeling after they read your novel and what they will walk away believing about the world or human nature. You also need to know where the story starts and ends and what the reader will be tracking along the way.

Let’s assume that you know all those fundamental elements and you’re ready to write. How do you write fast?

writing a novel, nanowrimo, story writing, storytelling

Courtesy: Pixabay

The main idea is this: don’t get mired in too much detail. No long descriptive passages about places or people, no finely wrought dialogue (unless you happen to be able to write that fast), no clever turns of phrases that take hours to hone. Aim to get the bones of the story in place – the character’s motivation, the arc of change, the cause-and-effect trajectory that drives the narrative from one scene to the next – and leave everything else for revision.

If your novel incudes any world building – and almost every novel does, though of course some require much more than others – you absolutely must know the key physical, philosophical and psychological realities that inform the story you are telling, but you don’t have to know, say, the details of the monetary system or who owns the main media channels.

In NaNoWriMo, fast draft writing may mean sacrificing the NaNo wordcount and not “winning.” Winning NaNo with a manuscript that has to be slashed and burned is going to feel good for about a week, and then it’s going to feel really bad as you struggle to rescue the story. It would be far better NOT to “win” but to have 30,000 words that really work, or 45,000 or 51,000 or whatever. Remember that words on the page do not make a story.

What does fast-drafting look like? Let me show you—but first, a little context.

This is a first sketch of a scene in a fantasy romance by first-time novelist Leigh Robertson. In this scene, the main character discovers a rare breed of dragon egg that will change her fate when it hatches.

The author focused on getting the bones of the scene in place, and didn’t get stuck on the details. Instead, she noted where things needed to be added later. I asked Leigh to give a little commentary on what she was thinking as she whizzed through – and her comments are in the margin.

TK, which you will see used throughout the sample pages, means “to come.” It’s proofreader-speak for anything that needs to be added. You can use it to stand in for a detail, a date, a description, or even a whole scene or chapter.

• TK date
• TK name
• TK description of town
• TK dialogue that establishes character’s authority
• TK how hovercraft are fueled for a long journey
• TK geography that isolates these people
• TK scene where Joe declares his undying love
• TK chapter where Dad walks out and Cassandra vows never to marry

What’s great about using TK as a placeholder is that when you go back to revise, you can scroll through searching for TK – and nothing else in the English language will come up. You can skip from TK to TK filling in details, and adding flesh to the bone.

Some TKs will take a simple Google search to flesh out. Others will be meatier problems that require more thought. But as long as the missing information indicated by the TK doesn’t directly impact the trajectory of the story, you don’t need it in your fast draft.

Download Leigh’s sample HERE to see what fast-drafting looks like.

If you are interested in defining the bones of your story before NaNoWriMo so you can write fast and with confidence, Jennie is teaching an online Blueprint for a Book Sprint workshop the last weekend of October. It’s 2.5 intensive days of planning + you get coaching feedback by October 31. Click HERE for details.

jennie-nash_framedJennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.

Twitter | Instagram



Posted in NaNoWriMo Strategy & Support, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 12 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Glassblower

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. (See this post for more information on this connection.) It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

occupation, character building, background information, writing a story, novel writingOccupation: Glassblower

Overview: A glass-forming technique whereby the artist manipulates glass (either by blowing through a tube or relying on more advanced methods) into various forms, such as vases, dishware, jewelry, window panes, figurines, art, and other décor. Glassblowers can work in museums, universities, or factories where they might create custom glass pieces for customers (such as scientists and manufacturers), teach apprentices, or do presentations for visitors. Others occupy studios to create freelance artwork that they sell to the public.

Necessary Training: Classes can be taken at trade schools and some colleges, but an apprenticeship with a master is the best way to become proficient in this area.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Promotion, breath control, manual dexterity, a high heat tolerance

Helpful Character Traits: Patient, alert, cooperative, creative, focused, industrious, passionate, persistent, whimsical, extravagant, fussy, perfectionist

Sources of Friction:

  • Friends and families who want one to pursue a more lucrative or mainstream career
  • Competitive or jealous rivals
  • Unfair teachers
  • Limited opportunities for training nearby
  • A physical disability
  • Internal doubts about one’s abilities
  • Limited finances
  • A competitive market
  • A change that results in one having to work with inferior supplies (a depressed financial market, a monopoly on certain supplies, a change in manufacturer, etc.) 

People They Might Interact With: Other apprentices or students, a master glassblower or teacher, landlords, gallery owners and visitors, delivery people, customers

How This Occupation Can Impact the Character’s Basic Needs:

  • Physiological/Safety and Security: While it’s possible for a person to make a living at this occupation, it’s difficult. On average, artisanal glassblowers today make about $30,000 per year. As a result, they often endure many years of financial sacrifice so they can pursue their passion and try to build a livable career. This can impact their safety or even their physiological needs.
  • Love and Belonging: They also may forego relationships with others due to focusing on their career, which can create a void in the love and belonging department.
  • Esteem and recognition: This need can take a hit when criticism comes along from professionals in the field, loved ones, or even the artist himself.
  • Self-Actualization: If the artist takes on a teaching or manufacturing job to cover the bills, he may find himself in a career that he doesn’t enjoy, sacrificing self-actualization.

Common Work-Related Settings: art gallery, art studio, factory, museum, shopping mall, university quad

Twisting the Stereotype: The majority of glassblowers are men, so having a successful woman in this career would be a refreshing change. Because of the dangerous materials and amount of training required to do well in this area, glassblowers are typically adults. So creating the right circumstances for a teen or young adult to be involved in this trade could also add an interesting twist.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Writing to the Beat: Translating Story Beats to Any Genre

jami-goldReaders of my blog know I’m a big fan of beat sheets, even creating a beat sheet for romance stories. Because of that, writers ask me what beats they should include in their mystery, thriller, or *insert any genre here* stories.

Unfortunately, I’m not an expert in other genres, but I can share a few guiding principles to help us apply the major beats to any genre.

Story Beats 101

Beats are simply plot events that change the course of a story. Some plot events change a story’s direction more than others, making the story turn to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stake, or goal. The major beats serve an essential function—a storytelling purpose that applies to all stories.

To keep this post a reasonable length, we’re going to focus on the four major beats. These four beats are found in virtually every story of every length and every genre. By understanding the function of these beats, we’ll better know how to translate them to our genre.

Major Beat #1: A Starting Point for the Main Conflict

The first major beat occurs around the 25% mark of our story (the end of Act One in a three-act structure). The function of this story event is to drag the protagonist into the situation or force a choice to get involved.

In a romance, characters first have to get together. No one will believe in a romance where the characters don’t interact. Readers want to see the banter, the power struggles, and the sexual tension.

So this plot event forces the characters to spend time together. They could work on a joint project, be trapped in a snow storm, be chased by a villain, etc. Whatever the specifics, they’re dragged into a situation that creates an opportunity for romance.

Other genres drag the characters into different situations, such as:

  • Mystery: an event establishes the protagonist’s reason to take on the “case” (assigned, volunteers because it’s personal, etc.)
  • Thriller: an event solidifies the protagonist’s desire to stop the bad guy (expert, personally threatened, etc.)

Major Beat #2: The Midpoint

story beats, story structure, save the cat, plotting

The second major beat occurs around the 50% mark of our story. The function of this story event is to change the protagonist’s goals/choices or add new stakes.

In a romance, the characters often “commit” to the relationship at this point. They might say “I love you,” exchange their first kiss, or admit their longing for each other. Each of those options adds stakes to the potential relationship and likely changes the characters’ goals.

Other genres use events that similarly affect goals, choices, or stakes:

  • Mystery: a second murder occurs, the protagonist discovers a new personal connection, etc.
  • Thriller: the threat now has a “ticking clock,” the protagonist becomes more personally involved in tracking the villain, etc.

Major Beat #3: The Black Moment

The third major beat occurs around the 75% mark of our story (the end of Act Two). The function of this story event is to steal the protagonist’s hope for a solution.

In a romance, this is often the “boy loses girl” moment. They lose trust in each other and/or the potential of the relationship. They might break up, have a big fight, or lose each other a different way (kidnapping, etc.).

In other genres, an event similarly makes the protagonist give up or fear they can’t win:

  • Mystery: the protagonist is kicked off the case, the next victim in the murderer’s sights is friend/family, etc.
  • Thriller: the protagonist loses the trail, the villain has acquired all the weapon’s pieces, etc.

Major Beat #4: The Story Climax

The fourth major beat takes up much of Act Three, from the 80-95% mark of our story. The function of these story events is to force the protagonist to face the antagonist.

In a romance, the characters face and overcome their fear. They might reject their fear’s power over them by revealing it to the other, or they might change their priorities to sacrifice for the other. Whatever the specifics, readers are shown proof of how the characters are willing to fight for the relationship.

Other genres feature different styles of showdowns:

  • Mystery: the protagonist unravels the last clue, confronts the bad guy, solves the case, etc.
  • Thriller: the protagonist outwits the villain, stops the bomb, prevents disaster, etc.

Although this is a simplistic look at each beat (a character’s internal arc brings more layers), hopefully this helps us understand how we can structure our story. Whatever our genre, if we keep the purpose of our story beats in mind, we’ll know what we need to accomplish at each point of our story.

Do you have any questions about how story beats apply to your genre?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest



Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Conflict, High Stakes, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 13 Comments

Introducing…the Occupation Thesaurus!

Let’s say you’re at a party, and you meet someone new. The small talk begins. If you want to learn more about them, what’s one of the first things you ask?

“So, what do you do?”

Asking this question can accelerate the getting-to-know-you process because the answer often tells you something about who that person might be. Nobody likes cliches, but careers can draw certain personality types. To test this theory, ask a handful of people what predominant traits an accountant, or preschool teacher, or artist might have. There are always exceptions, but many people within a given field share certain traits, passions, and abilities. True, the job may not be one they necessarily like or would have chosen for themselves, but that information can also tell you something about who they are and are not.

A career is one of the things that defines each of us, and the same is true for our characters. But as with most important aspects of your character’s life, a career shouldn’t be chosen randomly. Their job can play an important part in the overall plot and their character arc by helping them achieve outer motivations (story goals), providing natural sources of conflict, and allowing them opportunities to succeed and fail, grow and change, and learn about themselves.

character occupations, career research, character development character buildingThis is why Angela and I have decided that our next thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers will be about occupations. A certain amount of research is necessary for someone to authentically write about a character’s career, especially if it’s not one the author has personally experienced. So each entry will highlight a specific occupation and will contain information that you, as an author, might need to know, such as…

Required Training. How will your character go about becoming an athletic coach, astronaut, glassblower, or auto mechanic? If he’s already living his dream, what training did he have to go through?

Helpful Skills and Personality Traits. Every job includes areas of proficiency and personality traits that enable the person to succeed. Physical strength, dexterity, knowledge of higher mathematics, being able to sing or play a musical instrument, organization, charm, ambition—each of these can make a person much better (or really awful) at various jobs. Knowing which abilities and traits to give or withhold from your character will enable you to help him succeed or cause necessary stumbling blocks that can provide structure for your story and propel him or her along the character arc.

Sources of Friction. When it comes to sources of conflict, there are two biggies for most people: family and work. Workplace friction can be internal (feeling unappreciated, doubting one’s ability to succeed, being jealous of a co-worker) or external (having a boss who plays favorites, not making enough money, experiencing harassment on the job), and is often caused by the people we interact with on a daily basis. So knowing these possible sources can be especially handy when you need to amp up the tension in a scene.

Impact on Basic Human Needs. If you’ve been around Writers Helping Writers for any period of time, you know that we’re kind of obsessed with psychology and how it can be applied to characters. We’ve talked a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how the needs that are missing in our characters’ lives should be a driving force in their decision making. Many times, a character’s job can cause a void in one of these important areas. Exploring this can help you see how the career you choose for your character can shore up your storyline and drive him toward the overall goal (or individual scene goals) that can keep your story on track.

We’re very excited about this thesaurus because, along with providing the foundation of research required for a slew of possible occupations, it also will explore how these jobs can contribute meaningfully to the plot and the character’s inner growth. We hope each entry will give you ideas on how to tie together the important elements of your story so they’re all working in tandem with the character’s inner and outer motivations, propelling them forward on their journey to wholeness and contentment.

We could use your help with something, though. In researching occupations, it quickly became clear that we’ll never be able to assemble a comprehensive catalogue of entries. One resource listed over 12,000 careers to choose from. So…not even close, lol. We want to showcase a variety of jobs, including the popular ones many authors will need and the not-so-common ones that can challenge you to think outside the box and pursue possibilities you might not have considered.

This is, hopefully, where you come in. If there’s an occupation you’d like to see us cover, would you please tell us in the comments? If the career you’re interested in has already been mentioned, do still include it; this will show us which ones are really popular and could increase our chances of writing about it. We have to take a lot of things into consideration when choosing which entries to include in a thesaurus, so we won’t be able to write about every occupation that comes up, but seeing which ones are of interest to you all would be SUPER helpful for us.

Can I just say Thank You, in advance? You all continue to be the inspiration behind our work as we try and figure out which resources and information will help improve your stories and grow you as writers. In short, YOU ROCK!

We can’t wait to see what you come up with. Look for the first entry next Saturday!






Posted in Uncategorized | 81 Comments

Get Your Mind Right: An Easy Trick for Nipping Creative Fear in the Bud

The funny and talented Sarah Moore is back today to help us get over our fear of creating. As writers, we have a lot of challenges to face, and this is one that we really need to beat into submission or those stories inside us will never get out. Read on!

You’ve set the scene perfectly: a clean desk gazing out through a rain-filled window, a steaming mug of coffee, a fresh document open on your computer, gleaming white with promise. It’s all so perfectly writer-ish, isn’t it? Hemingway/King/Rowling would be proud. You are doing this.

After 5 minutes, the “doing this” has not much progressed. After 10, you have typed and erased a single sentence about eight times. You have also chewed a cuticle, wondered about lunch and suffered a brief, spasmodic panic attack when you imagine anyone, anywhere, ever reading what you write.

If you can even write it, that is. Cue additional panic attacks.

Fear of Reception (Or: That Thing You Shouldn’t Worry About)

Chances are, as a reader of this fine blog, you’re a creative type. That comes with many wonderful qualities and one big, giant, clawing foible: insecurity. Any writer who denies this should either a) stop lying to yourself or b) write a book about how you’ve accomplished that, because you’ll make millions.

The fear of how our writing will be received can become so crippling that it stops us in our tracks … often before we even put figurative/literal pen to paper. Instead of working hard and worrying about reception later, you spend minutes or hours or days fretting about what “people” will think when they read your work.

Because the assumption, of course, is your work will be seen by EVERYONE EVER. Then instead of writing your novel for fellow YA-lovers, say, you’re writing it for your mom, and your ex-boyfriend, and that one girl in high school who was mean to you at prom and you’d really like to show her … etc. It’s impossible to write for an audience like that, not least because those people probably don’t even like YA fantasy. Or perhaps you write only to achieve what another writer has, which leads directly to death by comparison.

So this is really a two-part problem: You write for the wrong reasons, which doesn’t inspire creativity; and you cripple yourself with fear by imagining all these people whose opinions terrify you instead of the ONE person who would love to hear/read/experience this story.


A Better Way (Or: Your New Writing Mindset)

Guess what? You don’t have to swim in that morass of creative fear. You don’t have to get all pruny while the water chills around you. You can get out, and here’s how.

Imagine Your Perfect Reader

I love this strategy. It helps me remember, whenever I start to worry that _________ is going to ridicule my work, that I’m not writing for _________. I’m writing for my perfect reader, someone I probably don’t have Sunday dinner with, or even know. That reader has a host of characteristics, which you can feel free to list out – finding your audience is a great exercise – but the most important characteristic is this: They enjoy your writing. That’s it. They love your subject. Your characters. Your slant. Your story. You’re writing for them.

This is a useful tool not only when you’re sitting alone and writing, but when someone asks you about your work and you feel troubled answering. What if they don’t like it? What if they raise an eyebrow, or nod uncertainly?

To that I say … who cares? You’re not writing for them. If you need to, you can even tell them that. Gently. Politely. Kindly. Just shrug and say, “Yeah, it’s probably not your cup of tea. But I’m really excited about it.” It’s the nicest beat-down ever, and your conversational compatriot doesn’t even know they’ve been beat down.

Focus on Your Sphere of Influence

When fear arises, we tend to catastrophize, then start trying to control all possible outcomes. Don’t tell this person! Don’t put that on Facebook! Spoiler alert: That’s nonsense; you’ll never manage it. So the question becomes, what is your sphere of influence? What can you control, and what can’t you?

Well, you can control what happens at your rain-glazed, coffee-fueled writing desk. You can’t control what Cindy from work thinks. You can control how much deliberate practice you put in every day. You can’t control what people will say when you publish the resulting short story or novel. You can control your work. You can’t control the minds of others.

… yet. I’m working on it.

Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario

I like to call this “writers’ exposure therapy.” *chuckles darkly*

Whenever you start to freak out, just close your eyes and envision the absolute worst-case scenario. Here’s mine: I will write a book that I believe in wholeheartedly. I will take it to a conference and pitch it to agents. I will get requests for partials from all of them. I will get signed on. I will almost have a book deal … and then the agent will drop me.

Oh hey, guess what? That happened. It sucked. Like, reaaallll bad. But no one is dead. The apocalypse did not ensue. No zombies. (My biggest fear is always the zombies.)

So what’s your worst fear? Chances are it feels pretty grim when you allow it to flit around in the back of your subconscious. But if you bring it into the clear light of day? Eh. You’ll survive it. Just give that fear a wave, remind yourself that you’re alive and, actually, you rock pretty hard … and get back to work. Even when all you’re doing is writing that first draft badly, you’re getting closer and closer to the goal of a beautiful, wonderful, finished product just perfect for your special reader.

Go, you!

Sarah Moore has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has worked as a professional writer for the last seven years. She is the owner and founder of at New Leaf Writing, working as a fiction writer by night, and with clients and other writers to help them reach their own writing goals by day. You can find her talking about reading and craft on Instagram, or read her new book about creative fear, Get the Hell Over It: How to Let Go of Fear and Realize Your Creative Dream.


Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs


I was at a Bouchercon some years ago and did a panel with some other thriller authors. Before it began we were interacting with some people in the audience, and a woman in the front row made a funny comment about something I said, and I replied into the mike, “I’ll do the jokes, madam.”

We all had a chuckle. A few moments later the moderator, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”

I shook my head.

“Sue Grafton,” he said.

Indeed it was the amazing Sue Grafton, author of the alphabet series featuring PI Kinsey Millhone. Which, when you think about it, is virtually unprecedented. Twenty-six mysteries featuring a single series character in a variety of plots.

How, one might ask, does she make this magic happen book after book?

journaling writing process writing a novel series organization

One answer is the novel journal. I read about this in her chapter from the book Writing the Private Eye Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). Sue calls this her “most valuable tool.”

What this tool does is provide a “testing ground” for ideas, a place for both left and right brain hemispheres mix it up a little. As she puts it:

Right Brain is creative, spatial, playful, disorganized, dazzling, nonlinear, the source of the Aha! or imaginative leap. Without Right Brain, there would be no material for Left Brain to refine. Without Left Brain, the jumbled brilliance of Right Brain would never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.

The novel journal is a free-form document that is added to each morning before getting to work on the novel. This is what Sue puts in there:

The day’s date and a bit of diary stuff, how she’s feeling and so on. This is to track outside influences on her writing.

Next is notes about any ideas that emerged overnight. I especially like this part, because the writer’s mind has been working while I sleep and I want to pour out everything I can. The trick here is not to think too much about what you write. Just let it flow.

Third, Sue writes about where she is in the book. She “talks” to herself about the scene she’s working on, or problems that have arisen. In the “safety of the journal” she can play the What If game. She can debate things with herself. Right Brain and Left Brain can duke it out. She’s playful. “I don’t have to look good. I can be as dumb or goofy as I want.”

What happens then is that she finds she “slides” naturally into her writing day. There is no hesitancy as there might be if she just got to work on the WIP.

Here are a few more tips on making the novel journal work for you:

  • Trust. Keep your fingers typing. Lose control. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Stay with the first flash. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Figure out what you want to say in the act of writing.

“We write and then catch up with ourselves.” (Natalie Goldberg)

  • If you don’t know what to write in the journal, open a dictionary at random. Pick the first noun you see. Now start writing whatever that word suggests to you.
  • Work out problems in your novel by asking questions and letting your Right Brain suggest answers. Then let your Left Brain assess them.
  • Be specific. When something unique pops up, follow that lead. Don’t hesitate to write for five or ten minutes on one thing if that’s where you’re being led.
  • Be willing to be disturbed.
  • If you’re a pantser, the journal will help you decide what to write next. If you’re a plotter, the journal will help you bring life to the scenes you’ve mapped out. And if plot or character takes a weird turn, you can hash it out in the journal until you decide how to use it.
  • Special note to Scrivener users: there’s a novel journal tool built into the program. It’s called “Project Notes.” Select this from the Projects menu. The nice thing about this is that you can add sections to it. You could have your daily, diary-type entry in one section, and notes on characters, plot, theme, and so on in other sections. Plus, you can use the highlighter to mark insights you want to emphasize.

Do you use journaling to help with your process? What does it look like for you?


Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.




Posted in Experiments, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 25 Comments

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus Releases Soon. Will You Help Us?

It’s that time again: a new thesaurus book is coming!

Click for the back jacket description!

Why? Because we believe The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is the writing guide you’ve been waiting for.

Great fiction relies on deep, authentic characters who have needs and desires readers can relate to.

Who a character is, what they want, fear, and need most will all be rooted in their backstory. And, like the real world, past experiences help shape who a character becomes, in good ways and bad. Of those experiences, emotionally traumatic ones are the most harmful…and insidious. A wounding event can send a character’s life off course, hold him (or her) back, and keep fulfillment & happiness beyond reach.

To understand how broken or hurt a character might be at the start of the story we have to dig into his darkest places. Only then can we construct a goal so personal and important to him that he is willing to face his fear, acknowledge his vulnerability, and most of all, defeat the lie he believes that damages his self-worth and keeps him stuck in the past.

Sounds…challenging? It is!

(Which is why we think you’ll find The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma helpful.) 🙂

Our release date is in late October, which brings us to the question:

Any of you lovely people interested in joining our Street Team? Because we could REALLY use some help.

If you might like to lend a hand with visibility, just sign up using this FORM.

We promise to make it as easy as possible and not strain your time too much. Any help you can offer is so appreciated. 🙂 And thank you all so much for cheering us on and always supporting us. We love you guys!

One housekeeping item:

Becca and I are going to take a mini blog break to try and get our ducks in a row as we have many big, exciting things happening this fall. We will be back in the blogging saddle next week!

























Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Why Characters Need Choices in Fiction

Help me welcome one of our favorite people, Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy). She has a great post on the importance of providing characters with stake-heavy choices, so please read on. 🙂 

Choices drive every single conflict in a novel. The protagonist wants something (the goal), something is preventing her from getting it (the conflict), and she must make a choice about what to do to get what she wants. The opposition might be direct or indirect, but it’s the challenge faced and the choices made to achieve that goal that make the conflict (and the novel) work.

However, if the choice is obvious and no one would ever choose the other options, it’s not really a choice, and any conflict in making that choice goes right out the window.

Making a decision is one of the most important things your characters will ever do. Readers turn the page to see what happens next, and decisions are all about the “next.” As long as they care about that choice.

“Should I have the eggs or the cereal?” is a choice, but no one is going to stay up late to see how that turns out. Because the other half of making a choice is the fear that you’re making the wrong choice (the struggle side of internal conflict).

Now, here’s where it gets tricky.

The characters will have their own concerns, but what makes their choices matter is how readers feel about it. If readers care about the outcome of a choice, that choice matters to them even if it doesn’t matter to the character (who might not realize the importance of the choice yet). If readers don’t care, no matter how important that choice is to the character, it won’t matter to readers.

If a choice is a core conflict choice, then it should have major consequences. If the entire book is about that choice (such as a romance or character-driven novel), there has to be high stakes for making it. If the choice isn’t that important to the overall story, then it can have lesser consequences—but honestly, if the outcome doesn’t matter, why have it in the book in the first place? The choices don’t have to all be bad options, but they should have a consequence that matters to readers and characters.

Let’s look at a very common choice in fiction—choosing between two romantic options.

If the choice is, say, between two men, and there are no consequences aside from hurting one man’s feelings, the stakes aren’t high enough to carry a whole novel—because it isn’t a choice readers are likely to care about. Sure, readers will have a preference between these two men, but unless more is going on in the novel, they can just flip to the back and see who wins.

As a core conflict, a choice between two good things with no consequences for making that choice is probably not going to hold a reader’s interest. But as a subplot, or in conjunction with an internal conflict, it can be an effective choice and provide higher stakes—but only if it also has the potential to cause trouble for your protagonist. And this is key.

Let’s go back to those two men…If hurting one of them was all the consequence the protagonist had to worry about, so what? Harsh as that sounds, whoever “loses” will likely just go on with his life and find a much better gal than the one who dumped him. As for the woman, nothing bad is going to happen to her for breaking his heart. It’s probably not going to hurt her in the long run, even if she does feel bad about it for a while.

If, however, the man was so upset he killed himself, that’s a pretty serious consequence to her actions that she’ll have to carry around the rest of her life (if a clichéd one). If he decided to make the protagonist’s life miserable in revenge, that would cause her trouble. If the man she dumped was her new boss’s brother, she might be in a world of hurt at that new job.

The consequence doesn’t even have to be this overt, and might have subtle ramifications for the protagonist. It can cause emotional troubles—it can make her so guilt-ridden it keeps her up nights and causes a ripple effect. It might make her realize the callousness of her actions and trigger a change to be more compassionate toward people. She might choose not to make a choice and get herself into real trouble by continuing to date both men.

Whatever the choice, let it have the power to affect your protagonist in some way (usually adversely), even if that problem is down the road a bit. If there’s nothing to gain by overcoming a challenge, there’s no point in winning or seeing who wins and how. Just look at all the fans who leave a sporting event before the end when it’s clear who’s going to win. The conflict is no longer important because the outcome is obvious.

Are there hard choices in your current manuscript?

Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

This book will help you:

  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn’t a “one size fits all” solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty road map to how conflict works, designed to help you create the right conflict for whatever genre you’re writing

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, connect with her online:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound







Posted in Conflict, Empathy, Guest Post, High Stakes, Pacing, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 11 Comments

Want to Find the REAL Story? Ignore Your Instincts

Guys. I’ve fallen in love with this essay by Emily Ruskovich. It so beautifully captures the author’s process of how stories evolve, how they morph from a single image, feeling, or idea into a full-fledged story—if we just let it lead us to where it wants to go. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me.

For me, so much of writing is chasing feelings I don’t understand. Sometimes the feelings mingle with memory, and sometimes they don’t. Paying attention to these feelings, which can arise at any time, is crucial.

Sometimes, at first, I chase the feeling too fast. I make an easy story out of it, using instincts I have developed as a fiction writer. The story is neat. Its climax is exciting. A great deal is at stake. But usually, this first story is not the real story. It’s just a structure I build quickly in my mind to house the original feeling. And the real story is the one I find only by actively not forming a story out of it, only by actively ignoring my instincts. Instead, I allow images to gather in my imagination in this strange way that is very dif- ficult for me to describe. These images might gather over the course of a day, or over several years. The images feed the feeling until, finally, the feeling is whole enough for me to capture it inside of a scene. And then it happens fast.

story inspiration, short story, writing process how do i write a story

It’s as if fiction is this parallel world that is real and living all the time, and these feelings that authors get are simply tiny collisions of our world and the other. It always feels like an accident to me, when I dip into that other world, because I don’t know the rules of how these worlds overlap, and I can’t sense their orbits.

This is not a metaphor; this is actually what it feels like when I write. A few days ago, my cat licked a mosquito off a cold window, and immediately I felt the first flicker of a story. Why? I don’t know. A few days before that, my brother and I scooped with an old coffee can a gelatinous sac of bullfrog eggs out of a grassy ditch, and I felt it then, too, as if I’d accidentally scooped into that can a portal to that other world.

Again, this isn’t a metaphor. It’s actually how it feels. Some images catch hold and linger. They are imbued with irrational meaning. They are the souls of stories I haven’t yet found.

A few summers ago, walking through a very small town, my mother pointed to an old farmhouse and told me about a relative of hers who once lived there. When he was a baby, his father put him out on the porch in the winter, hoping the baby would freeze to death. The story made me very sad for my relative, and angry at the cruelty of his father. I began to imagine that someone walking by the house looked in and saw the baby on the frozen porch, and I imagined the stranger breaking the window with a rock, climbing in, and rescuing the child.

This was the first story, the easy one, partly because it was so close to the real story, and  partly because the emotions were exact – sadness for the baby boy, fury and disgust for
the father, love for the stranger. It was compelling, and it made me feel.

But it was not the real story. The real story began to rise in me the farther we walked away from that house, talking about other things. If the light that afternoon had been a little different, if the dust hadn’t tasted in the air the way it did, if we had stopped for a cup of coffee or even just to tie a shoe – it’s likely the story would have stopped at its own trueness. But as it was, it grew. Suddenly, I saw the porch in my mind, and it was completely different from the real porch, the one I’d seen just minutes ago. And locked inside of it was not my relative, but a little girl I’d never known, ten years old with dirty-blonde hair and a bright and cruel face, a tight, twitching mouth.

She was standing in the middle of that porch that was built out of windows. This was her punishment for something (what?) terrible that she had done, to stand out here in the cold, locked out of the house and also out of the out-of-doors, in the frozen in-
between space that was the covered porch. The windows were framed with frost. The locked door behind her was blue. I saw the stale, wicker chair beside her. I could smell its frozen cushion. On the ground, a cup of water, as if her father could assuage his guilt by reminding himself he had given her that. The girl wore a dress. She could have put on her coat, which was wadded up beneath that wicker chair, but she did not, though her bare arms were covered in goosebumps. She stood perfectly straight in the middle of the porch. And what she was wasn’t sad – she was wildly glad. She relished her own hunger; she devoured that cold. Her breath was bright and beautiful and scary.

And, suddenly, it wasn’t her father who had put her there but her older brother, a teenager, fed up and hardworking and in charge, much older than his sister but not half as
smart. Inside, he is secretly pained by having locked his little sister on the winter porch to punish her. He feels tired and guilty and half-panicked at what he’s done and what he can’t quite decide to undo, though it would be the simplest thing in the world, to just unlock that door and let her win. He’s looking through the curtain of a different window, seeing the passersby, his neighbors, glance at his poor sister, locked out
in the cold, and he is punished by their glances, by their shame of him.

And suddenly, it’s not the girl who is being punished by her brother, and it’s not her brother who is being punished by the glances of the passersby; it is the passersby themselves who are being punished by the girl. They glance up at those windows and see her staring out at them, see her gathering the pity from their eyes until what’s left in them is only their own shame, as if they, somehow, are to blame for the abuse she is enduring so bravely, in total silence, in total stillness, hands clasped elegantly in front of her. And they know that she is making a display of herself, but they are wrong about why: They think she stands that way, in pained grace, because she is trying to preserve her dignity. They think she wants to appear to the world as strong and brave for their sakes. And such striving makes her even more pitiable in their eyes, her stern innocence a terrible shock in the winter light. Should they go knock on the door? Chastise whomever has done this to her? Should they call the police? Should they spare the girl by pretending they haven’t seen and just hope, pray, that it will end soon for her? It is terrible, the indecision and the shame.

The girl knows all this, of course, and doesn’t mind the cold because of what she knows. She is glad for this singular chance to stand in this perfect glass case, like a museum display, and exhibit to the world the stupidity of her brother and the culmination of all the injustices inflicted upon her beautiful self.

And she triumphs; to the passersby, the girl becomes more than herself, a feeling they carry into their own warm houses. For some of them, she is a memory of having long ago endured pain inflicted by adults; for others, she is the memory of having just yesterday inflicted that pain upon a child. She is guilt; she is blame. She is a trapped and frozen breath that chills her brother to his core and lasts in him forever.

All of this is only an instant, something I felt over the course of a single summer walk beside my mom. And yet this instant has stayed inside of me for two years now, and nothing has ever come of it except this essay, an answer to a question: What is writing like?

Maybe there is nothing more to this story. Maybe this is it.

Or maybe one day she’ll wake up inside of me, suddenly furious to discover that she has been used as an example. I will be there on the sidewalk, and she will look out, and I will see her blame me for what I’ve done to her story, for my cold exploitation of her pain. Suddenly, she will look down at the floor, where the cup of water has frozen solid after all this time. And she will bend down, bang that cup against the floorboards until that cylinder of ice slides out. Then she will pick the ice up, wrap it in the coat she removes from beneath that wicker chair, and bang it against every window, breaking them all.

Then, like fiction itself, she’ll climb out, down into her yard, face me for an instant, and turn away.

Emily Ruskovich’s piece is part of The Compact Guide To Short Story Writing, which features 14 essays on the craft of short story writing. The guide explores crafting killer beginnings and endings, idea formation, character development and more all via the relatively small number of pages a short story is limited to—indeed, a unique challenge but also an opportunity to take some interesting storytelling risks. Whether you write short stories, novels, screenplays, picture books, or any other form of narrative writing, this guide is a goldmine of helpful gems. 

Posted in Short Stories, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 20 Comments