One Simple Technique to Improve Your Writing in 10 Minutes a Day

Summer is a glorious time, isn’t it? Drinks on the deck, barbecues, hiking, travel, maybe a day (or three!) at the lake…it’s like a reward for working our butts off all year around. But, with more things competing for our time during these summer months, it can be tempting to put writing off.

writing exercise, storytelling, writing

This is why I love today’s post, and this exercise: it is simple to do, doesn’t take a lot of time, and will help keep your pen sharp. Please welcome Sarah Moore to the blog!

I’m always wary of promises to shatter procrastination’s evil hold, lose that pesky weight or fix your firebombed marriage in “just 10 minutes a day!” Because, come on: 10 minutes? One-sixth of an hour?

Yet here I am with a too-good-to-believe promise of my own: You really and truly can improve your writing with one short, simple exercise:

Rewrite the work of famous authors.

An Exercise in Greatness

This technique is one I’ve been using for years. Originally, in fact, I didn’t even know I was doing it. In my early 20s, when I dreamed of being the next JK Rowling, I had no idea that my manuscripts were just bad versions of Harry Potter – agents had to tell me. Ouch. Slowly, though, it dawned on me: hey, this is a fantastic exercise.

Why? Because published authors, especially the ones you love dearly, are good. They understand how the game is played. For instance, indicating the passage of time is one of the most nuanced – and difficult to nail – skills a writer can possess. But the great writers? Well, they’re awesome at it, obviously. Worldbuilding? They’re on it. Speaking to character’s deep-seated financial fears? Yep, they know how.

A lot of writing is mental muscle memory, learning the tricks of the trade and employing them intuitively. Yes, you should do this on your own as well. But by cadging the skills of the published, you can cement those skills. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Choose an Author You Love

First select the author you’re going to emulate. Obviously it’s helpful if this author writes in your genre, but you don’t always need to adhere strictly. I’m a speculative YA girl myself, but that doesn’t make Jane Austen’s incredible depth of character development any less useful.

  1. Set the Scene for Writing Well

This step is not unique to this exercise. If you want to succeed at a writing habit, you need to make a plan … not pants the job. That means picking a time and place to write, whether it’s the break room on lunch, your desk first thing in the morning, or late-night bed while your spouse snoozes beside you. Eliminate distractions with a pre-pee, a cup of tea, a Chapstick and anything else that you might “have to” get up for. Don’t forget to grab your book of choice.

  1. Select a Short Passage

Pick a chapter, a paragraph, dialogue, even a poem. Ideally you select a piece that has a strong theme, visible through multiple elements of the story: settings, description, internal and external dialogue, and events. This will help order your writing. Read through your selection a few times, noting what happens, how it happens, novel words and metaphors, and most important, what you really love about it – what makes it good writing?

  1. Put It Away

This exercise works best when you let the reading percolate in your brain, but don’t look right at it, which runs the chance of straight copying rather than inspiration. So stash it out of sight, and resist the urge to pull it out again.

  1. Rewrite However Much You Can in 10 Minutes

writing exercise, writing tip, writing

Now rewrite the selection as much as you can in the allotted time span. Keep it short; you don’t want to give up too much of your own original writing time. And don’t feel pressure to rewrite in the same form. Turn a poem into prose? WHY SURE! Don’t change it so much that you lose the original mettle of the piece, but feel free to make it your own in whatever way you see fit.

  1. Keep It to Yourself!

Remember, this exercise is definitely toeing the plagiarism line. Okay, no, it straight-up crosses it. Which is totally fine in the privacy of your own garret, but notsomuch in your submissions. Remember The Words? The main concept was just that … the “author” found a manuscript on a train, retyped the original work and passed it off as his own. Terrible regret ensued. Rewriting is almost as bad, so don’t do that. Keep the results to yourself for later reference, though.

Follow these steps, though, and you’re guaranteed a short daily habit that exposes you to great works and almost effortlessly ingrains in you the techniques of great writing. If you have any suggestions for how to improve this exercise or any variations you use in your practice, please feel free to share them with us in the comments below.

Have you ever tried this technique? Let us know in the comments!

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 coaching others to help them reach their own writing goals through private calls and a Facebook Group. You can also find her posting cool stuff on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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Posted in Experiments, Focus, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writer's Block, Writing Craft, Writing Time | 12 Comments

Critiques 4 U!

Hello, lovely writer friends! How’s your summer going? My family’s working our way through our summer bucket list, which so far includes getting ice cream, picking berries, making pie, and going to the water park. We’re also getting ready to fly out of town to visit Nana and Granddaddy, which equates to children happily watching movies at 30,000 feet and uninterrupted reading time for me. That means I need some material :).

CONTEST CLOSED!

If you’re working on a first page and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment that includes: 

1) your email address. Some of you have expressed concern about making your email address public; if you’re sure that the email address associated with your WordPress account is correct, you don’t have to include it here. But if you do win and I’m unable to contact you through that email address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

2) your story’s genre (no erotica, please)

Also, please be sure your first page is ready to go so I can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to me right away, I’d like to ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of. 🙂

ONLY ENTRIES THAT FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE CONSIDERED

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

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Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Finding Friendship or Companionship

Can you guys believe it’s been a year since we started this thesaurus? Yeah, we can’t, either. That means it’s time to start wrapping this one up and making room for a new idea. We’re noodling that out right now and will let you know what’s next pretty soon. But for now, we’re wondering if there are any character motivations (story goals) that you’d like us to cover before we close up shop. You can see a list of existing entries here. Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see what we can do.

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): Finding friendship or companionship

Forms This Might Take: Making a friend or building community with others, particularly when one is new to a certain place (such as a school, neighborhood, city, or job).

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): love and belonging

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Joining a local group, club, or team
  • Joining an online meet-up group
  • Opening one’s home as a meeting place for a group
  • Finding out the interests of the people one would like to meet
  • Scouting out likely friends at the places one frequents (the gym, playground, church, coffee shop, etc.)
  • Carefully grooming oneself before an anticipated meeting
  • Setting up playdates for one’s child as a means of meeting other parents
  • Enlisting the help of people one knows to introduce one to others
  • Practicing what one will say when one meets potential friends
  • Arranging group events in the hopes of building a relationship with a particular person
  • Getting a pet as a means of connecting with another living soul on some level

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • The possibility of rejection
  • Plummeting self-esteem if the process takes too long or one is rejected too often
  • Falling in with the wrong crowd out of desperation
  • Sacrificing other people or interests due to a limited amount of time
  • Spending too much money trying to impress others

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Negative past experiences that make it difficult for one to be vulnerable with others
  • Social and mental disabilities, like anxiety and behavioral disorders
  • Flaws that make it difficult for one to connect with others (abrasiveness, dishonesty, possessiveness, being uncommunicative, being withdrawn, etc.)
  • Insecurities about one’s abilities or what one has to offer
  • Controlling family members who don’t want one to connect with others
  • Influencers around the potential friend who sabotage one’s attempt to gain access
  • Toxic past relationships that provide one’s model of friendship
  • Prejudice and biases
  • A physical handicap that others must see past in order to get to know the real person

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal

Good Listening Skills

Gaining the Trust of Others

ESP (Clairvoyance)

Empathy

Gaming

Charm

Hospitality

Making People Laugh

Mentalism

Reading People

Skills that might ingratiate one with others (BakingGardeningMusicality, etc)

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

  • Feeling isolated from others
  • Falling into depression
  • Becoming bitter, angry, or vengeful
  • Developing a negative outlook toward society and people as a whole
  • Becoming prejudiced against the kind of people who have rejected one
  • Becoming reclusive
  • Discouraging one’s children from taking risks due to not wanting them to be hurt
  • Missing out on professional or self-improvement opportunities due to not having friends in certain places
  • One’s self-worth hitting rock bottom due to one’s inability to connect with others

Clichés to Avoid: 

  • The new girl at school being victimized by mean kids when she tries to join a certain group
  • Finding community by joining forces with other “misfits” because one can’t fit in anywhere else

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Plotting for Pantsters

There are a lot of heated opinions about whether plotting or pantsing is the best way to write a story. As an avid plotter myself, I was curious to hear about Dario Ciriello’s process, which contains a little of both. If you find yourself stuck on either end of the spectrum, today’s post might be just what you need to hear.

The subject of plotting vs. pantsing is one which, for reasons I don’t fully understand, generates a lot of heat in writing circles. I’ve seen discussions on the topic explode into flame wars in authors’ forums as experienced writers who really ought to know better try to browbeat others into seeing that their way is the right way.

I believe the only right method is the one that works for you. Anyone who tells you their way is the way is more invested in being correct than in helping you to write.

I’ve always been a pantser. And yet I’ve written two novels that, on the surface, appear extremely tightly plotted. One author I admire enormously told me he wished he could plot like me. We had a good laugh about that, because I don’t plot at all.

Let me be very clear: I think plotting is great if it works for you; if, on the other hand, the notion of outlining scenes and structure in advance makes you break out in a cold sweat, there’s another, and equally valid approach.

Let’s take a moment to define what plot is. Multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author C.J. Cherryh has a particularly luminous sentence on plot in her blog: “I think of [plot] not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions.”

So what creates these tensions? Characters do; characters and setup. For me, plot develops organically as the writer’s living, breathing characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or nature as they try to reverse that flaw in the universe which is the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, is not a verb but a noun which describes a story whose events are linked by causality.

Still, it’s wise to begin work with at least a rough idea of what you’re about. I speak from hard experience: having more than once written myself into a corner, I now make sure I have a few things down on paper before I embark on a long work such as a novel. These include:

  • Detailed bios and backstory of my main characters
  • A good setup and a rough outline of the first two or three scenes to serve as a launch ramp
  • An understanding of the “flaw in the universe,” the core conflict that drives the plot
  • A vague notion of the development of the story; though I don’t know where the story will lead, I think in terms of having guide rails to bounce off, a vague direction I’m aiming for
  • An idea of the possible ending (this can, and very likely will, change)

Here’s how I proceed; I stress this is only one way to write, the one that works for me. As with critique, take what resonates and ditch the rest.

I begin with a setup, the sort of one-sentence thing that Hollywood likes to hear in an elevator pitch. Something like, the captain of a whaling ship becomes obsessed by his quest for revenge on the white whale that bit off his leg. Or perhaps, a proud young musician tempted by the devil gambles his soul to win a golden fiddle. The best setups are often the simplest.

Next, I think long and hard—for weeks—about my characters, taking notes as I go. I write bios and backstory for them; most important of all, I work at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, their hopes and fears, and the relationships between them.

Finally, I jot down not an outline but a very loose framework of the first few scenes, with a hazy notion of one or two waypoints and where the story might end up. And then I turn everyone loose.

One benefit of this technique—and Stephen King describes a very similar process in his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is that you tend not to telegraph your intentions to the reader. If you’ve built your characters well enough, they’ll act spontaneously and surprise you with their resourcefulness and ingenuity. Of course, they’ll develop as the story progresses, and this will probably require some adjustments to early chapters during the rewrite, but if you’ve done your work well, that’s no big deal—you’re going to do several revision passes anyway.

Working this way is, for me, wonderfully liberating. Sometimes a subplot or secondary character may need reining in, but I’ve never had any problems with the stars getting out of control. If I’ve built my characters to be real, living people, they’re going to do a better job of working themselves free of whatever mess they’re in than I could ever plan for them as an outsider. By working this way, it’s possible to craft novels as complex and textured as any plotter can.

There’s one simple tool I do find useful in the process of writing: an Excel spreadsheet that helps me track where my characters are at any time and keep things in sync. With rows for each character and columns for dates, it’s much easier to make sure things don’t get out of step. Not being a plotter, I fill this in as I write, but of course you can use it any way you like, even colour-coding for each character or good/bad events.

The headings in the date/time column will depend on the pacing of the story. In a book taking place over a span of just a few days, the date/time columns might be labeled by the day. If things get really complex near the climax, the columns can labeled by the hour or less (e.g., 2:30AM). Using a spreadsheet this way helps me know who’s where in the timeline—it’s really helpful to track everyone visually, especially in a novel with a lot of moving parts.

As regards structure, I don’t think about character arcs or plot or beats or scene goals at all. I trust my characters and setup to see to all that. But when I’m done with the first draft, I make a few notes—a sentence or two—about what happens in each scene so I can have an overview of the whole and make sure each scene is in its right place and has a point. So far, the process has worked beautifully for me, and I believe it can work for others, too.

To conclude then, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to write—there’s only what works for you, and that may be very different than what works for me.

Ultimately, I suspect our choice of process comes down to personality types: I’m at core a feeling, intuitive sort (I repeatedly test as INFJ); plotters probably have a more analytical, rational, ENTJ bent. Both personality types are equally necessary to the human family, and both approaches are equally valid in our craft.

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing. His fiction includes Sutherland’s Rules, Black Easter, and Free Verse and Other Stories. Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. You can find him online at his blog.

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Posted in Plotting | 31 Comments

No Shortcuts, Please: Myths and Misconceptions of Villains & Mental Health

I love the internet–I get to meet all sorts of wonderful people. Today I’m happy to welcome Sacha Black, who knows a heck of a lot about the baddie in your story…someone more important than some writers may realize. This misconception means sometimes not as much effort is put into building them, so Sacha is addressing this today. Strong characters are the gateway to a compelling story, so please read on!

Myths and Misconceptions of Villains & Mental Health

crafting a villian, writing the antagonist, how to write a villianVillains get all the interesting bits of a story. They’re the fun characters to write because they generate conflict with juicy, twisted plot lines. But the challenge is that stories are usually told from the point of view of the hero.  This means we have to write tight to create a convincing villain. But to do this, writers sometimes take shortcuts to make them “villainous.” One shortcut is giving your villain a mental health disorder. There are two problems with that:

  1. The disorders aren’t always portrayed accurately.
  2. It leads to myths, misconceptions, and stigmatizing a sector of society.

Let me be clear; I’m not suggesting anyone in the story with mental health issues must be a villain or antagonist. What I’m saying is that some of the great villains in literary and film history have these disorders. What’s unfortunate is that they can be portrayed in a clichéd or subtly discriminatory way.

Before we look at the myths, let’s tackle a common misconception that writers often get wrong.

Misconception – Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) Are “the Same”

Schizophrenia is not the same thing as a split personality (medically known as Multiple Personality Disorder).

Schizophrenia is a disorder of the mind often characterized by positive or negative symptoms which affect how a person thinks, feels or behaves. For example, positive symptoms could be hallucinations or delusions. Negative symptoms could include disorganized speech, variations in sleeping, poor hygiene, lack of eye contact, and a reduced range of emotions.

Think the Green Goblin from Spider-Man, or John Nash from A Beautiful Mind.

Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) is different. MPD is a disorder where a person will have more than one distinct and separate personality. Sufferers are unable to recall memories from one personality to another and each identity has distinct features, including separate genders, races, ages, sexes, gestures, mannerisms, and styles of speech.

Think Harvey Dent (Two-Face) from The Dark Knight or Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

If you decide to give your villain a disorder, be sure you know:

  1. You’ve got the right disorder.
  2. How the symptoms will affect your character’s behaviors, thoughts and dialogue.

Okay, let’s look at some of the big myths.

Myth one – The Number of Symptoms

Each of us is unique; we all have a different set of traits, the same can be said for anyone suffering from a mental health disorder. I just listed some symptoms of schizophrenia, but not every sufferer will have every single one.

Likewise, symptoms come and go; a handful of negative symptoms could arise for a period, only to dissipate, and the positive ones appear.

This is useful for your plot because you can draw on different symptoms at different times to heighten tension, create twists, or withhold information from characters.

 Myth two – Disorders Produce Violent Behavior

Because of technology, society wields the ability to impose expectations of what ‘normal’ is. The consequence of not behaving ‘normally’ means you might be stigmatized and put in a box deemed ‘scary and weird.’

Sufferers of mental health disorders often produce behaviors that deviate from acceptable norms, and that’s why they’re so often used for villains because villains deviate from the norm too.  

 While some disorders can cause a sufferer’s reaction to an event to be heightened, it doesn’t mean they will automatically be violent. So, if you intend for your villain to be violent, find another reason for the violence.

 Myth three – The Character Only Has One Disorder

 If a person has a mental health disorder, then the chances are they don’t just have one. Having a mental health disorder often (although not always) changes the brain’s chemistry. This means that the brain is more susceptible to having a second, third or even fourth mental health disorder. This is called comorbidity.

For example, people with schizophrenia can suffer from additional mental health disorders like:

  •  Substance abuse
  • Anxiety, and depression
  • OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Panic disorder

When creating your villains, don’t be afraid to give them more than one disorder. You don’t have to be explicit or use obvious exposition in the narrative to tell the reader what disorders they have, you can allude to symptoms through their behaviour, body language and dialogue.

Myth four – Lack of Treatment

Lots of books and films have long suffering villain’s who’ve never been picked up by the medical system, never had treatment and seemingly, have no coping mechanisms. Some do slip through the system. And yes, that helps us add a little fantasy and conflict into our stories, but it’s worth knowing the reality because it can create plot twists:

  • Some sufferers stop taking their medicines when they feel better, which creates a cycle of feeling better then suffering again.
  • Most sufferers of mental health disorders take drugs of some variety, and often participate in other types of treatments too.
  • Those that receive help are often taught coping mechanisms. Likewise, those that haven’t received help create their own. For example, sufferers of Schizophrenia might listen to music via headphones or sleep more than usual to drown out the hallucinatory voices.

Creating coping mechanisms, treatments and medicines for your villain is a simple way to add nuances and habits which will also add to their depth too.

Stopping the Myths and Misconceptions with Research

 If you give your villain a mental health disorder research it properly. If you choose to add fantasy around the disorder, that’s okay, but at least you’ll know how to avoid proliferating the myths and subtle discrimination.

So, here’s a list of things to research if you’re going to give your villain a mental health disorder:

  •  The illness in its entirety
  • Medication (and side effects)
  • Symptomology
  • Patterns of behavior
  • Triggers
  • Severity
  • Coping strategies
  • Reactions
  • Prevalence
  • Comorbidities
  • Whether or not a person is aware of their disorder and treatments

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my book 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft Superbad Villains. I’m also giving away a free 17-page cheat sheet to help you master your villains quickly, which you can get here.

13 Steps to Evil

Your hero is not the most important character. Your villain is. If you’re fed up of drowning in one-dimensional villains, then Sacha Black’s book 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain can help. In it you’ll learn how to develop a villain’s mindset, the pitfalls and clichés to avoid. You’ll also get a step by step guide to help you build your villain from the ground up. If you like dark humour and learning through examples, this book will help you master your villainous minions.

Sacha Black has five obsessions: words, expensive shoes, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and breaking the rules.

When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loudly, blogging, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules.

You can find Sacha here:

Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads

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Posted in Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Guest Post, Show Don't Tell, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 23 Comments

Character Motivation Entry: Achieving Spiritual Enlightenment

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): Achieving Spiritual Enlightenment

Forms This Might Take:

  • A new awareness of how society’s perceptions have become distorted (materialism, commercialism, racism, moral ambiguity, etc.)
  • Becoming self-aware in a way that evokes curiosity and creates the desire for an even deeper understanding
  • Awakening to new-found levels of love and connectedness with people, nature, animals, sacred spaces, the cosmos, God, etc.
  • Obtaining a feeling of “knowing” that one is on the right path (with one’s goals, by applying religious teachings that resonate, etc.)
  • Becoming more health-conscious by understanding our bodies are a gift
  • Desiring to learn, and to look for lessons and messages in every experience
  • Experiencing unshakable compassion and love for others, and seeing everyone as equal and deserving of it
  • Needing to give back to others and feel one is part of a bigger whole
  • Appreciating the power of love in a new way
  • Being able to let go of worry and trust in God, the universe, or oneself
  • Experiencing a unexplained event that opens one’seyes to a higher power, calling, or spiritual world
  • An unshakable belief in the power of intention and putting good into the world

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

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Fasting
  • Going on a pilgrimage
  • Attempting a near-death experience
  • Partaking in hallucinogenics or activities that encourage hallucinations
  • Seeking freedom so one may investigate one’s beliefs and devote oneself to self-improvement
  • Studying with a spiritual guide
  • Investing time into reading religious texts and speaking with mentors
  • Studying and experimenting with different forms of spirituality
  • Self-exploration (of one’s true self, soul, essence, light)
  • Mastering meditation and gaining deep self-awareness
  • Spending time in nature
  • Praying and devoting oneself to a higher power
  • Learning to communicate with spirit guides, forces, God
  • Living one’s life in a way that does the least harm (wasting nothing, avoiding overindulgence, behaving morally, etc.)
  • Seeking out others who feel and think as one does
  • Working on personal development
  • Working on growing one’s psychic abilities and intuition
  • Ridding oneself of negativity (toxic relationships, distancing oneself from ideas that don’t resonate, etc.)

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Pushing the mind or body too far
  • Unintentionally neglecting loved ones in one’s pursuit of internal awareness
  • Giving up a job, losing a home, etc. in order to find the freedom one needs to explore one’s beliefs
  • Losing friendships with people who don’t understand one’s goals and ambitions
  • Letting go of experiences, items, or activities that are symbols of materialism even though it conflicts with what family members cherish

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Being scammed by people who are out to take advantage
  • Discovering a mentor is not who they appeared to be and this leading to one questioning one’s path and beliefs
  • Experiencing an event that causes disillusionment (seeing cruelty, observing godly people acting ungodly, etc.)
  • A health crisis
  • An injury that causes brain damage
  • A painful challenge that makes keeping one’s faith difficult
  • A marriage where one’s spouse has different spiritual beliefs
  • New (and highly credible) science emerging that “explains” a spiritual experience one had
  • Extreme life events that wear one down and make it almost impossible to hold to one’s beliefs (being captured and tortured, living in a country torn by war and in constant threat, the senseless loss of a child, etc.)

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

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

  • Going back “to sleep” (and re-embracing distorted perceptions)
  • Feeling disconnected with people and the world in general
  • A sense that something is missing, and that life is not as rich as it could be
  • Becoming fearful of death and what lies beyond this world

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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Angela Looks Back: Why We Must Invest If We Want a Writing Career

One thing I am terrible at is taking the time to glance back. You know, pause and think about how far I’ve come on this writing journey of mine. Usually my gaze is fixed ahead on whatever is next and figuring out how to juggle the load. But today I want to take a minute to do this because there are some important lessons there.

I started just like anyone else…green.

I didn’t know it of course; I thought my writing was awesome…but okay, maybe it needed a touch of polish. So even though it terrified me, I stepped outside my comfort zone to find other writers. I made my first investment in my career…a critique group.

Well, it didn’t take too many critiques at The Critique Circle to see I had a loooooong way to go. I dug in, investing my time and energy, losing count of the critiques I wrote online and off somewhere after 1000. Boy, did I learn a lot.

During that time I made a financial investment, moving up from a free plan to a paid one, but it was so worth it because I could submit work quicker and therefore improve faster. The price wasn’t huge but I agonized over it as I wasn’t making any money from writing and so felt guilty spending it. Any of you feel that way? Looking back, I wish I hadn’t beaten myself up so much, but more on that later.

FUN FACT: Becca and I met online at The Critique Circle. Can you imagine if I hadn’t taken the leap to try something outside my comfort zone? We would have never met!

The next big investment came when I reached that magical point all writers reach: you have grown enough to fully grasp just how much you don’t yet know. So, Becca and I took an entire year away from writing fiction to study the craft. We devoured writing books, everything from Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to Snyder’s Save The Cat, to Wood’s Description. I don’t know how many books we read in total, but it was a lot. Switching gears was such a smart move for us as we grew a ton that year.

Another investment? Attending my first conference. Oh, the GUILT! A stay-at-home mom, I certainly saw no income from my writing. My husband was starting to prod, suggesting maybe it was time for me to try something else. But I knew this was the path for me, and part of that road is seeking out learning opportunities. So in 2005, off I went to SIWC (Surrey International Writers’ Conference) to listen to gurus like Donald Maass and Diana Gabaldon. My hand cramped from all the note-taking. I had to navigate the social events, too. *cue introvert terror* But I had to figure out the networking thing if I wanted this as a career.

FUN FACT: In October, I will be returning to SIWCas a speaker. (Donald Maass and Diana Gabaldon will be there, too. Life is crazy, right?)

Fast forward a bit, and Becca and I were basically joined at the hip. We’d started submitting our work to agents and editors and this mysterious word, Platform came up. Ugh, MORE to learn? Oh yes…that’s the writer’s life, isn’t it. So, we started a blog. Totally clueless, no idea what we were doing…but we did it anyway.

FUN FACT: Since May 2010, The Bookshelf Muse blog has accumulated 4.2 million hits. In 2015, we moved and became Writers Helping Writers. It’s accumulated 2.6 million more.

The time investment in building this site into what it is now? HUGE. But worth it? Oh yes. This is where we connect with all of you and it allows us to follow our passion of helping others.

Many more investments followed. Paying for online classes, more conferences, books on writing craft, workshops. Taking the time to learn how to build presentations and give them. Spending time with publishing experts to learn the industry to increase my chances of success. Investing large amounts of time to learn how to market, run a business, and self-publish. And finally, a crazy leap into the world of writing software to build One Stop For Writers, which for me, has been the biggest energy investment of all, but unbelievably  rewarding. I love One Stop, and love knowing something that I help to build is in turn helping others.

FUN FACT: I started this journey in 2003.

Maybe you think after 14 years, I’d be done with investments? Nope! I’m attending my first 5-day writing retreat this fall with Margie Lawson. I am always learning and strengthening my craft, and this retreat will give me more valuable tools for my toolbox. I’m determined to never stop growing.

NOT-SO-FUN FACT: None of this was easy.

Sometimes I wanted to quit. Especially in those hard, discouraging times. I could have said, No, this is just too much to invest or let the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) suggestions to move on get to me. But I kept believing in this path, and in myself. I kept investing. And now?

So please, wherever you are on the writing road, no matter how frustrated you might be or how unsupported you feel, keep going. Do whatever you need to to learn. Find mentors, read, write, rewrite, work. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you keep investing, it will happen. Don’t let guilt or anything else stop you!

I’ve written a post on ways to elevate your craft here. Have a look if you like! One of the items on the list is to attend a retreat which I mentioned I’m doing this November. But believe it or not, I’m also teaching at a retreat in September (10-17th). So if you think this might be something you might wish to invest in, please check it out.

The location couldn’t be better: a cruise ship headed for the Caribbean. And the speakers? Wow. Not only will you learn a ton, you’ll also build personal relationships with industry folks like Michelle Grajkowski, President and Literary Agent of 3 Seas Literary Agency and Deb Werksman, the Editorial Director of Sourcebooks Casablanca. Then there’s Lisa Cron, who is amazing. Have you read Story Genius? (If not, go do that–it’s terrific).

And I’ll be there. I’d love for us to meet in the real world.  🙂

How have you invested in your writing career? Let me know what some of your best investments have been in the comments!

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

A big CONGRATS to Isabella, who won a Freewrite Distraction-free Smart Typewriter!

I am so excited for you and all the writing you will accomplish with this terrific tool. We’ll be in touch by email, so watch your inbox. Thanks to Astrohaus for this terrific prize. To find out more about this go-anywhere writing tool, visit the Freewrite site.

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Posted in About Us, Critique Groups, Critiquing & Critiques, Motivational, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources | 36 Comments

Suspense in Stories…the Big Tease

roz-morrisSuspense is one of the storyteller’s biggest teases. It’s a state of waiting, of growing unease in the reader.

Most stories consist of raising questions and delaying the answers. Suspense in its purest form heightens that sense of uncertainty. This might be a situation of physical danger, such as walking along a narrow parapet outside a high-rise building – will the person fall? It might be emotional jeopardy, where a character is becoming involved with a person who is not what they seem – will their heart be broken?

The key to suspense is anticipation, and a suspenseful situation usually makes the reader bond more closely to the characters – whether they’re in an action-filled genre or a quieter, more thoughtful work. So whatever you write, here are some guidelines for adding suspense.

Dramatic irony and viewpoints

Dramatic irony is a key way to generate suspense. Essentially, it’s a situation where the reader has more information than the characters. Two friends alone in a house together, and the reader knows that one of them intends to kill the other. Or two characters meeting in a café, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the table. It is our extra knowledge that gives the situation its bite.

To use dramatic irony, you need an omniscient point of view, or more than one narrative viewpoint – and you need to represent the antagonistic forces. They must keep presenting fresh threats, increasing the pressure, or the suspense is lost. They might be a person, a group, or perhaps a natural force like an impending earthquake – in which case you might find it useful to personify the danger with a group of seismologists monitoring a geological fault.

Here’s a difference between suspense and mystery: in a mystery, we might follow a number of viewpoints, but they’re all usually the good guys, trying to solve the puzzle. The viewpoint of the antagonist remains offstage because their identity and plans are usually the big reveal. But in suspense, the narrative pressure comes from the reader’s big-picture view and the rising sense of danger. Plus, the reader usually feels the protagonists aren’t being careful enough – like a parent who fears their child doesn’t understand the true risks of a course they are embarked on. Which is why this kind of danger-suspense is so primally compelling.

Antagonist forces and the story arc

So the antagonistic forces are significant players in the dramatic-irony brand of suspense. If your antagonist is a person or group of people, they must be smart and inventive. They have to keep the protagonists—and the reader—on the run.

You also need to allow your protagonists to make progress, otherwise they will seem ineffectual. If appropriate for the genre, it will also be more satisfying if the protagonist can force the antagonist to work harder and change their plans – and this can, in turn, make life worse for the protagonist. So if you’re plotting this kind of suspense story, think in terms of a game of cat and mouse, planning so that it escalates in pressure. Allow the protagonists to get ahead sometimes so they look capable; and think of switching the threat into a new direction as the antagonists up their game.

The extreme antagonist

The antagonist must be credible, but they don’t necessarily have to be understandable or civilised. Stories generally take the protagonist outside their comfort zone – which is why the events are a true ordeal for them. Suspense antagonists often have villainous impulses that are beyond our experience and comprehension – such as Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan (recently filmed by Tom Ford as Nocturnal Animals), a story-within-a-story where a family is run off the road in a remote part of Texas. Even though these antagonists are extreme, their behaviour should have its own underlying logic and the psychology must be sound. Their actions mustn’t seem random.

Stakes

Suspense involves putting the reader in a state of anxiety, so be sure you’ve made the reader understand what’s at stake. (It’s easy, in our writing bubble, to forget to do this! We know what the threat means; the reader might not.) If the impending disaster has personal consequences for the protagonist, have you made the reader aware of them? Do they have a loved one they need to protect or rescue? Do they need to prove their innocence in an incriminating situation? The protagonist must have a good reason to keep fighting and the reader must be anxious for them to prevail. For more information on incorporating stakes into your story, see these gems by Jami Gold and James Scott Bell.

Think active, not passive

One of the biggest problems with manuscripts in progress is that the protagonists are passive. This can be very irritating to the reader. Although a protagonist may be a victim in some ways, it’s far more rewarding to watch them get into trouble actively by making choices that aggravate the situation. And the reader should be thinking STOP, DON’T DO THAT! even though they know it is inevitable. So the protagonist should provoke the antagonist to worse actions.

But that provocation doesn’t have to be tough-guy action. It might be something conventional, such as involving the police, which the antagonist might take exception to. Our good guy might make a misguided attempt to reason with the antagonist, and thus expose their own worries and weaknesses, giving the antagonist valuable ammunition. These are all actions by ‘normal’ protagonists that could escalate the situation. But – and this is the crucial difference – they are attempting to solve the problem within their own boundaries. They’re not sitting back and doing nothing.

Ticking clock

A ticking clock makes suspense all the more agonizing. If the characters have to stop a threat or solve a problem, could you add a deadline?

Be unpredictable

Some suspense is predictable; if your character is dangling by one arm off a cliff, we know there are a limited number of ways the scene could go. He falls or he doesn’t.

But what about this: your character sees her mother open a letter and gasp at the news. Before she can tell us what it is, she realises the pot on the stove is boiling over and has to sort that out. Meanwhile, the letter is simmering in our minds – what was in it? Who did it involve? This is a simple way to prolong the anticipation before a revelation.

Inability to take action

I’ve talked a lot about action, but another strong source of suspense might be a character’s inability to act. So they might witness a crime but be unable to help, perhaps because they are scared, had their hands full with something else, or were too far away to shout a warning or intervene. This sense of helplessness can be powerfully emotional, especially if you want a reader to remember a situation that preys on the protagonist’s mind.

Don’t rush!

Suspense is a slow-burn thing. Good storytelling has a keen sense of emotional timing – how long to spend on each event for maximum effect. This actually follows the way real life works because we don’t see time in seconds of equal length like a clock does; we experience it stretching and shrinking according to our attention and emotions. Adrenaline – the anxiety hormone – can make everything appear to take much longer. In Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, a character falls into the water—an action that the casual observer would see happening comically fast, in just a few seconds. But Murdoch describes it from her character’s point of view, and it takes more than a page as everything goes through his mind – and it doesn’t seem too long.

So don’t rush a suspenseful passage. Make the reader feel every moment.

Conclusion

If a story in its purest form is a question with a delayed answer, suspense is one of the ways we can colour it with emotion –make the reader more curious and more invested. Make them shiver.

(Psst! I’ve got a lot more information about suspense techniques, active protagonists, and emotional pace in Nail Your Novel 3: Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart)

roz-morris_framedRoz published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. A writing coach, editor, and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients, she has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel, a blog, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. Find out more about Roz here and catch up with her on social media.

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Posted in High Stakes, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

The Write Life: How To Enjoy Summer and Still Be Productive

writing productivity, summer writingWhen you live in a place like Canada where summer can be, er, fleeting, you feel enormous pressure to get outside and DO STUFF. And heck, no matter where you live, summer is a time to be with family, enjoy s’mores around the campfire, go kayaking, and enjoy life’s bounty. After all, isn’t that the point, to live our lives?

But, we writers tend to have 3 modes of operation: writing, thinking about writing, and feeling guilty about NOT writing. As you can imagine, summer causes a bit of havoc on our psyche. Guess what? We can have our cake and eat it too! Just re-frame your expectations and redefine “writing-related” tasks.

Feeling unproductive? Worried your writing will be shelved for the summer? Give one of these ideas a spin:

1) Make a list of marketing and platform building tasks.

Small blocks of time are the perfect opportunity to get through some of the smaller jobs there’s never time for. So if you want to revamp your facebook page, investigate who your book’s audience is (and maybe start building relationships with influencers), or even build a business plan, make a list and tackle these piecemeal in the time gaps you do get.

2) Research an area of struggle.

Are you on shaky ground when it comes to dialogue, plotting, or *internal screaming* grammar? Why not take some time to read a book on the topic, google up some blog posts, or study your favorite authors? Work on this area and by summer’s end, you’ll be that much closer to mastering it. In fact, if you are looking for knowledge to absorb, I recommend starting with my pinterest boards which are broken down by writing topic.

3) Read a few books in your genre, and at least one outside of it.

It’s always good to stay current with one’s genre, and if finding time to work on a novel is too difficult, you can stay in the flow by studying what others are doing. And because reading in only one genre can cause is to have blinders on at times, try a foray into another genre, too. You’ll be amazed on what you pick up by reading in a genre you don’t typically write in.

4) Tackle some small or unfinished projects.

Do you have blog posts or a book review to write? Maybe a few magazine pieces which need editing? Or it could be there’s some critique group feedback to go through in the hopper. Whatever the case is, try to work through a few of these smaller tasks and you’ll feel good because you’re flexing your writing muscles AND knocking items off your to-do list.

5) Sign up for a class.

Chances are there will be writing events or workshops in your city over the summer, so why not search up local writing groups and associations (RWA, etc.) and see what’s happening in your area? And if not, look online, starting with Kristen Lamb’s WANA International and Margie Lawson’s Writing Academy. You can’t go wrong with either.

6) Take your writing with you.

If you are road-tripping this summer, heading into the woods camping, going to the lake for the afternoon or have idle time as you take kids to various activities, find a way to bring your writing with you.

You can write in a a notebook (if you don’t mind going old school by using paper to transcribe later), bring a laptop or tablet (if you get good battery life), OR, you could invest in your writing career and get yourself a Freewrite Smart Typewriter.

Not only is the screen fully visible in daylight (like a kindle screen), it stores 1 million pages, syncs to the cloud, and get this….has a battery life of up to 4 weeks.

Can you say awesome travel buddy?

How do you make sure you’re productive during the summer? Let us know in the comments!

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Posted in Business Plan, Contests, Focus, Reading, Revision and Editing, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Time | 14 Comments

Distracted Writing: Is It Sabotaging Your Career?

We’re pleased to welcome Alex from Astrohaus, the makers of the Freewrite Typewriter, which is one of the coolest devices for writers I’ve seen. In fact, it’s so helpful we’re giving one away, so stick around for more on that. But first, let’s talk about distractions that compete for our writing time, especially those we really must learn how to subdue if we want to succeed as writers. Over to you, Alex…

As writers in the modern world, we face endless time-stealing distractions throughout the day. Everywhere we look, little digital villains rob us of our focus, keep us from doing the research we need for our story, and stop us from editing that next chapter. The main culprit? The internet!

How many of you have a smart phone close at hand in your writing space? You know, to check Instagram and Facebook and post the occasional selfie so we stay connected with followers. Just a quick break, right? But wait, is that a funny picture of Jared Leto? And wow, our old roommate invited us to an event? Better see who’s going!

You get the picture. Social media is an insidious antagonist, playing upon our weaknesses, our curiosity. Losing the phone doesn’t end the problem. Even on a laptop or desktop we end up surfing far too much because distractions are a click away. Our entire workflow is disturbed. They used to call it “Internet Addiction.” Now it’s just routine…but for a writer, it can destroy your career.

Author Alain de Botton has particularly strong words on this subject:

 “The internet to this generation of writers is as alcohol was to previous ones: anxiety suppressant, enemy of talent, challenge.”

So what’s the solution: Airplane Mode? Stronger willpower? Or maybe we can follow in the footsteps of these master writers as they wall themselves off from writing distractions.

George R.R. Martin: A giant of the literary world, Martin has produced the outlandishly successful A Song of Ice and Fire book series, which spawned TV’s Game of Thrones. While Martin may use a standard computer to “cruise this interwebby thing,” everything changes once writing time comes around. As he states on his old school LiveJournal blog, “I still do all my writing on an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0.”

DOS? Really? But Martin’s Internet-free setup has allowed him to spin out over two million words. Try to match that when you’re playing Candy Crush all day!

Jonathan Franzen: Franzen, the author of Freedom, The Corrections, and other award-winning novels took the WiFi card out of his laptop. Then, just in case he ever felt tempted, he plugged an Ethernet cable into his laptop’s port–using crazy glue–and then hacked off the cable’s head, thus permanently blocking access to that little route. There’s a man who doesn’t trust his own will power!

William Gibson: Ironically, the cyberpunk author of Neuromancer claims, “I’d never so much as touched a PC when I wrote Neuromancer.” Indeed, he typed his groundbreaking, futuristic novel on a 1927 portable typewriter! Not what I would’ve expected from the man who invented the term “cyberspace” back in 1982 in his story “Burning Chrome.”

Okay, these drastic measures might be over the top…but at the same time, we have to do something

If we don’t plug the hole on distractions, that novel will never get written and rather than build strong writing habits that will turn our dream into a career, we’ll continue to waste time on internet fluffery.

4 modern tools to try to free yourself from distractions:

CalmlyWriter

Calmly Writer is an online text editor, “designed to help you focus on writing.” As you start typing, all distracting options disappear from the interface and it offers a “focus mode” to let you work on one paragraph at a time. If you find minimalism helpful, this might be a fit for you.

Sprinter

Similar to the above, Sprinter is another option but is also terrific for writing sprints. And if you struggle with “butt-in-chair” syndrome, Sprinter encourages you to focus by providing a non-distracting counter set to 15 minute increments. The counter allows you to turn writing sessions into bite-sized pieces if you wish, which can be easier to fully commit your focus to.

Write Or Die 

Write or Die is a unique, fun spin on writing software where you can set up challenges to force yourself to take action. If you are really serious, you can set it to a mode where it deletes what you write if you pause too long! Lots of bells and whistles, but perhaps the program itself is a bit of a distraction.

The Freewrite Distraction-free Typewriter

We at Astrohaus built Freewrite to help writers get into a writing flow and stay there. The Freewrite is a word processor designed for the current digital age. Featuring an E Ink screen, full mechanical keyboard, sturdy aluminum housing, and room for one million pages, it’s the ultimate drafting machine.

Unlike cheap-feeling laptop keyboards, this smart typewriter uses high quality mechanical technology for a more tactile experience (typing on the Freewrite keyboard feels similar to playing the piano). Screen-wise, Freewrite utilizes high-contrast, easy-on-the-eyes E Ink (think Amazon Kindle e-readers), meaning you can type outside on the brightest of days.

Use it anywhere, anytime, completely off the grid. Take it to work. Camping. On a road trip. Anywhere! Freewrite is a distraction-free tool that fits your lifestyle. Connect your Freewrite to WiFi to have your drafts automatically backed-up and synced to DropBox, Google Drive, or Evernote.

So…is it time to invest in a new way of writing? This week we are giving away a Freewrite to a lucky reader. Read on to learn more!

Want to Win Your Very Own Freewrite?

(International Giveaway!)*

Imagine using this smart typewriter during your lunch hour (with no temptations to check email or Facebook), while your child is at swimming lessons, or even to grab a quiet hour to write on the back porch.

To enter, fill out THIS FORM. 

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for entering! To find out who won, visit the bottom of this post

And please swing by the Freewrite site as they’ve got so much more great information on this innovative tool.

*This giveaway is open to anyone over the age of 18, in countries, states, and provinces where such giveaways are legal. Full legal rules are here. We’ll draw a winner and announce it on July 13th, 2017. One entry per person.

I think we all agree…with everything competing for our attention, we need to be more protective of our writing time.

If you could use the Freewrite to write anywhere, where would you do it? Let us know in the comments! 

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Posted in Contests, Experiments, Focus, Guest Post, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Resources, Writing Time | 39 Comments