Why You Should Be Excerpting Your Novel

Have you ever been flipping through a magazine and found an excerpt from a book, maybe one you’d never read? And did reading that short passage make you want to read more, prompting you to go looking for the book? This is why a lot of authors and publicists publish book excerpts: to generate interest in their story. Erik Klass from Submitit is here to discuss why this might be a good idea for you, too.

A few years ago I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” in the journal One Story, and was blown away. When the eponymous book came out a short time later, I bought it. For readers like me, who skipped Eat, Pray, Love, getting a taste of Gilbert’s fiction was important. We can understand why the author (and probably her publishers) went to the trouble of getting an excerpt published.

But a more important reason to excerpt a novel, I believe, is that, with a few publishing credits in the quiver, an (otherwise) unpublished writer might have an easier time finding an agent and eventually a publisher for his or her first novel. It is a great separator, a free pass to the top of a (towering) pile of queries. 

But, you say, your novel is structured with care. It is complete. It adheres to a particular emotional arc. It is the sum of its parts—or, correction, is greater than these parts. A completed puzzle. But a chapter, no mirror or fractal of its larger whole, may not have an arc of any kind. 

And I rejoin: If a novel is a love affair, a short story is a one-night stand. It’s quick. Sometimes a little dirty. Strangers remain strangers. In many of my favorite short stories, very little actually happens. Not much time passes (it may stand still). They are all mood and indigo. A thought. A gesture. A crack in a bathroom mirror opens up a violence. The silhouette of a child’s kite against a setting sun brings back a memory. Let’s go into the woods and follow a stream and spot a deer beneath a blood-red sky. There can be great profundity in the small. 

I’m currently working on a novel about a man wandering the streets of Łódź, Poland, contemplating the loss of love. In one chapter, about halfway through, the narrator sits in a small square in the city and remembers an afternoon at his ex-lover’s apartment. A moment in time echoing a moment in time. That’s it. No real narrative arc—maybe this is another word for plot—no arc at all. And yet, there are colors and sounds and smells. There’s that inescapable feeling of loss. The haunting fleetingness of memory. I’d like to believe it will work as a publishable excerpt. 

Yes, short stories are often subtle. This, I think, is good news for your excerpt. You don’t need to connect all the dots. I recommend you don’t. Hint. Sprinkle breadcrumbs. Those gaps? Leave them. Have you ever stood close to a painting—let us say, Van Gogh’s Roses (1890)—and studied just one small section—perhaps a single white fallen petal in the canvas’s bottom corner, painted, it seems, with the tip of a finger? It is easy to miss, white against nearly white. It is a beautiful thing. This may be your excerpt.

But not all chapters are ready to reveal themselves, to throw off their novel (in both senses) clothes. An excerpt may require some work. 

Let’s say your excerpt requires a little background. Try this: summarize your novel (up to the chapter) in a sentence or two. It’s a surprisingly easy—and startlingly effective—way to start a story. I just came up with this: My wife would be meeting her lover at 4 in the afternoon (Ulysses).

I think I’d keep reading.

And endings: Unlike most novels, your excerpt doesn’t need tidy resolution. In fact many short stories leave things vague. But you probably need a hint of resolution. Perhaps there is a catalyst, a spark, and we’re left to imagine the oncoming conflagration. (This might be how you’re ending your chapters already. It’s what we do, we novelists.) But if you need to tie things up ever so slightly, tie away. 

The chapter I mentioned above ends with my narrator eventually rising from where he sits in the little Polish square and continuing his journey through the city. No resolution. (It’s a sad chapter.) But I didn’t want to end this excerpt like this. So in the last couple paragraphs I created a new character (yes: deus ex machina), a girl with long legs and violet-blue eyes. Not a word is spoken, but there’s that hint. It’s enough.

What I’m trying to say is that we may change our chapters. They are malleable, these precious things of ours. They are made not of stone, but of clay. We may even tear them, sometimes to shreds. For this novel—this interminable novel of mine—I wrote a chapter about eight Polish poets preparing for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous visit to Warsaw in May 1927. I get into their minds, explore their loves. With just a bit of work, I was able to pull short excerpts from this chapter and submit these new “flash” stories to a handful of journals; all but a few were accepted. (Here’s one, if you have half an interest.)   

Most chapters, I believe, hold this potential. Consider it an exercise. Free of the pulling weight, the magnificent magnitude, of the rest of your novel, you may enter into your story’s story, use the tip of your finest brush (or finger), and paint anew.

Finally, there’s a whole art to submitting your—I must call it now—story. There’s much to submitting, but I’ll leave you with one piece of advice: read. There are literally hundreds of journals (I have over 400 on my list), and they vary widely. Many writers use Duotrope to search for journals—it’s a great place to start. (And if you want to make it really easy, I run a company that can help.) Read these things. It is pleasant homework.

I hope the above inspires you to submit excerpts from your novel. And I wish you success.

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of a full-service submissions company called Submitit. He has published stories in a variety of journals, including New England ReviewSummerset ReviewMaryland Literary Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He writes in Los Angeles, CA.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing and Self Publishing, Reader Interest, Short Stories | Leave a comment

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Lacking an Important Resource

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Lacking an Important Resource

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, loss of control

Examples: Characters are always going to be somewhat goal-oriented-whether they’re pursuing an overall story goal or a smaller-level scene one. When they lack the resources they need to get what they want, it creates a problem. Conflict can easily be generated if a character finds themselves lacking one of the following:

Food or water
A safe place to live or stay
Electricity
A weapon
Transportation
Information
Money or other commodities
Supplies
Tools or equipment
Medicine
A skill or ability
An ally in a position of influence
Paperwork (ID, a travel permit, a hall pass, etc.)

Minor Complications:
Lost time and energy as the character turns their focus to obtaining the resource
Inconvenience
Physical discomfort
Tempers flaring among allies as time passes and emotions escalate
The character being blamed for the lack when it wasn’t their fault

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Losing allies or investors who are tired of waiting for the character to gather what they need
A window of opportunity closing while the character is obtaining resources
The character cutting corners in obtaining resources, resulting in disastrous results
Ego pushing a character who doesn’t understand the resource to try and obtain it him or herself (instead of letting someone more qualified do it)
Crossing moral lines to get the resource
Reaching a physical or mental breaking point
Missing a crucial deadline
Other resources breaking or being depleted as a result
Not recognizing or admitting the importance of the missing resource until it’s too late
Someone within the group challenging the character’s ability to fulfill their role
Lashing out at the person responsible for the lack

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Stressing and worrying over how the resource can be obtained
Blaming oneself for not getting the resource before the lack became a problem
The character doubting their ability to lead or fulfill their role
Struggling with moral dilemmas surrounding how to obtain the resource
People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Anyone on the character’s team or in their group, people depending on whatever the character is trying to achieve (leading a revolution, building a bomb shelter, getting from one location to another, etc.)

Resulting Emotions: Annoyance, anxiety, appalled, apprehension, concern, defensiveness, denial, desperation, determination, disappointment, disbelief, discouraged, doubt, embarrassment, fear, flustered, frustration, guilt, impatience, inadequate, insecurity, overwhelmed, panic, stunned, uncertainty, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Disorganized, flaky, foolish, forgetful, fussy, impatient, impulsive, insecure, perfectionist, scatterbrained, uncooperative
Positive Outcomes:
Discovering skills the character didn’t know they possessed
Becoming more organized
Getting better at anticipating problems before they occur; being proactive
Learning to delegate; allowing others to be a bigger part of the process
Being able to ask for help when it’s needed
Connecting with people who can provide necessary resources
Learning to work through pain, discomfort, anxiety, or whatever else the lack may be causing

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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How a Character’s Job Can Awaken Unmet Needs

In fiction and film, often who a protagonist is at the start of the story and who they are at the end are different. Why? Because stories—the best stories—are about change. After all, in real life, we’re all in flux, learning and growing through experiences, gaining new insight, and adapting our worldviews. It makes sense that as readers, we want stories that show characters on a similar trajectory into the unknown.

The irony is that despite wanting to read about it, we know change isn’t easy, for us or the characters. In fact, change can be painful, making us feel vulnerable and afraid. We often fight it when it challenges our ideas, beliefs, and comfort zone too abruptly because we are not in control. And so, like us, characters understandably will also fight change to some degree when they are feeling the psychological squeeze.  

Change is an opportunity to learn, become someone stronger, and live our truth, which gets us closer to fulfillment and happiness. So as difficult and uncomfortable as it might be, it’s part of the human experience, and therefore it should be part of a character’s, too.

Change Arc Journeys

With change arcs specifically, the protagonist (and possibly others) will undergo an inner transformation during which he learns to harness his inner strengths, regain lost self-belief, and let go of the fears and wounds of the past (which is holding him back from living his best life in some way). To get to this point, though, the character must awaken to the fact that “something is off” about his life, causing him to feel unhappy, hollow, and unfulfilled.

This is the feeling of a need going unmet, and it can be a bit nebulous. The character may know he’s yearning for something without knowing what it is, and he’ll have to dig for the cause. An unmet need can create problems in many areas of their life, making it even harder for them to pinpoint what the source is. This creates a problem for us writers because for the sake of word count, we have to fast track this epiphany for readers. The character might be slow to catch on what’s wrong, but readers? They need to see what’s really going on as it’s key to them becoming invested in the character’s struggle.

Your Character’s Career: A Perfect Window into What’s Wrong

A great way to reveal what’s wrong in the character’s life is to use their job to show it. After all, work is a big part of anyone’s life, including your protagonist’s. Readers are hardwired to look for friction, and the day job comes with lots of built-in opportunities for clashes and problems, making a great showcase for conflict and unmet needs.

For example, take Adam, who works on the family’s ranch, training to take it over from his aging father. The world of cattle is all he knows—the routine of caring for animals and mending fences and the quiet hours of reflection as he leads the herd to grazing pastures and home again. Adam loves the sunsets and sunrises and roaming the wide-open spaces on horseback, but he also knows that something isn’t quite right. Let’s consider how his job might help him (and readers) pinpoint what is causing this dissatisfaction.

What if ranching is a duty, not a dream? Maybe he herds cattle yet imagines a different life, one with streets and shops, with high-rises and yellow cabs, a world busy with lights and sounds. He might think about university and the different possibilities available to him. Perhaps Adam is fascinated with buildings—their shape and flow, the beauty of glass and steel. To him, buildings are art, and he’s realizing he has a passion for how they are made.

As time goes on, ranching becomes drudgery; he becomes fixated on the less enjoyable tasks rather than the ones he likes. Most of his school friends have left to pursue education and build their own lives. Feeling trapped and lonely, he wants to experience new things too.

In this case, two things are awakening Adam to a need for change: a growing dissatisfaction with the work he does and the feeling that a window is closing. As his friends move forward, Adam believes he must do the same, and soon. This sense of urgency might help Adam evaluate his priorities about what’s important—studying to be an architect and having a different future—which will push him to have a difficult conversation with his dad.

Now let’s consider a different scenario in which Adam doesn’t dream of the city and being an architect. In fact, he loves everything about ranching. But he’s constantly butting heads with his father, who likes things to function a certain way. Always micromanaging, he points out what Adam misses rather than mention what he’s doing right. It doesn’t seem to matter how proactive his son is or how hard he works; his dad always complains about something Adam could have done better.

Adam is becoming increasingly unhappy, so when friends from college return home with enthusiastic stories about life at school, he can’t help but question whether ranching is for him. He longs for independence and a break from the constant criticism. As he and his friends meet in a pub, they talk about their lives. Some are excited about what they’re learning, but others seem overwhelmed and perhaps envious of Adam. On the drive home, he is uncertain what to feel. Life on the other side of the fence maybe isn’t as great as he first thought.

Giving your character conflicting information will create mixed feelings, which in turn sends their gaze inward to reflect on their situation and what’s bothering them.

In this case, Adam begins to realize that it’s not the ranching life he’s struggling with but his dad. An honest discussion about the problems might help Adam see his father’s criticism as well-meaning—a way to prepare him for the challenges of managing a ranch. Understanding that viewpoint can help him grow. Or maybe the conversation doesn’t go well and reinforces his dad’s need for control. If this can’t be worked through, another difficult conversation will have to happen, this time about Adam starting a ranch of his own.

A decision like this could be hard on both characters. Adam’s dad will be disappointed and possibly angry, and it will take time for him to understand his son’s decision to leave. Adam will also be taking a risk, walking away from a profitable ranch where all the kinks have been worked out. But if he is ready to fight for his independence, it means he’s realized something important: chasing what you want isn’t easy and involves risk. And while this situation with his dad will be difficult to navigate, doing so will lead to greater self-confidence and empowerment—the self-growth he needs to steer his own future.

A character’s job is one of the most important (and versatile!) details about your character and can be used not only to create a natural avenue for character arc growth, but also to characterize and showcase their deeper layers, provide hints to a past emotional wound, generate relationship conflict and more.

To investigate more ways you can use a character’s career to power up your novel, check out the newest volume in the Writers Helping Writers family: The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.

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Awesome Writing Tips From 6 Famous Writers

As I always say on Bang2write, there are no specific writing rules to break, just risks to take … That said, there are ‘best practices’!

This is why it can be a good idea to check out what others who’ve gone before us think … We can then decide if we agree, disagree or are neutral. In turn, this helps us work out how we see our own writing craft working.

So, check out these famous writers and decide what you think!

Stephen King

Stephen King is a writer who needs no introduction … He’s one of the most prolific living authors, publishing at least 87 books. He writes a minimum of one thousand words a day but is an advocate of being ‘pantser’. This means he ‘flies by the seat of his pants’ without an outline, making up his story AS he writes.  (Other writers such as JK Rowling are ‘plotters’ in contrast because they DO write outlines). Want more pointers from King? CLICK HERE.

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes is a TV writing goddess … You probably know her best as the creative force behind classic hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy. Rhimes puts big emphasis on self-belief when it comes to success.

I can really relate to this. When I started, no one believed a teen single mum who lives in the middle of nowhere could make any impression in the writing or script reading world … but I did! I can relate to Shonda’s words as a script editor, too. Unfortunately, I have seen lack of self-belief SINK so many writers who could have had great careers. So, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! More from Shonda, HERE.

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard was an author and screenwriter, with many of his books adapted for the big screen multiple times. His most famous include Rum Punch (filmed as Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino in 1997); Out of Sight starring J-Lo and George Clooney (1998) and TV’s Justified (2010-2015). This was adapted from Leonard’s short story Fire in The Hole, plus Leonard was also executive producer until his death in 2013.

Leonard had lots of strong opinions about what makes good writing. Amongst others he said writers should never start a story with the weather or use adverbs to describe the word ‘said’. Funnily enough, despite being one of my favourite EVER writers, I don’t always agree with what Leonard says! I always learn something from his pointers, though. Read more from Leonard, HERE.

Kirsten Smith

Kirsten Smith wrote the classic Rom Com, Legally Blonde starring Reese Witherspoon. Unlike Stephen King Smith values planning and when writing, she considers the purpose of every single line. If it doesn’t? Cut it out! She also places audience at the heart of what she’s doing. More from Smith, HERE.

Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele is a writer and director who won an Oscar for the screenplay of his smash hit horror, Get Out (2017). His pointers on searching for meaning and truth in writing are so important … It’s these two things that really attracted an audience to his film. Three years on, it seems Get Out is waaaaay ahead of its time now after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests. If you haven’t seen the movie, you have a real treat in store … That level of subtext is so difficult to pull off. To read more writing advice from Peele, CLICK HERE.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was another classic author with plenty to say. A Nobel prize winner, Steinbeck wrote stories about The Great Depression decade. Also, before Steinbeck ‘made it’ as a writer, he supported himself as a manual labourer himself while writing.  You may also remember learning his novel Of Mice And Men at school (I know I did!).

I think my favourite piece of writing advice ever comes from Steinbeck: ‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.’

This tip has worked for me for all my novels now (I’m currently writing novel number eight!). Let me know if it works for you! If you want to read more tips from Steinbeck, CLICK HERE.

Final Words

Are you more of a Steinbeck or Smith? Peele or Leonard? King or Rhimes? Or maybe you’re more of an amalgamation of all of these famous writers, mixed with a good chunk of your own tips!

So, whether you’re a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ (or something else!), be sure to share with us in the comments. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Lucy V. Hays

Resident Writing Coach

Lucy is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers at her site, Bang2write.com. To get free stuff for your novel or screenplay, CLICK HERE
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Posted in Characters, Focus, Motivation, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Stereotypes, Story Structure, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 4 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Discrimination or Harassment

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Experiencing Discrimination or Harassment

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, loss of control

Examples:


Discrimination: being treated unfairly by someone because of a characteristic or activity
Harassment: aggressive intimidation because of a characteristic or activity

Both of these scenarios involve prejudicial treatment—meaning, a person with prejudice or bias made a judgment about the character based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, nationality, level of education, political affiliation, etc. But harassment often occurs repeatedly, making it a more personally targeted action. They both can occur anywhere—in any environment, relationship, organization, etc.‚—and the ways in which they can occur are, sadly, myriad. Your character may experience discrimination or harassment if any of these characteristics factor into the following scenarios:

Not getting a job or promotion despite being the best candidate
Being paid less than someone else doing the same job
Being excluded from a club, team, or other groups
Being ignored or overlooked in favor of other people (at a store, in line at the DMV, etc.)
Not being called on in class
Not being invited to parties or other social events
Being pulled over by police when the character has done nothing wrong
Being monitored, scrutinized, or targeted without cause due to a characteristic
Standards being changed for the character (a testing measure being lowered, a physical requirement being higher for the character than for others, etc.)
Treatment stemming from biased expectations—i.e., boys being expected to pursue athletics while girls are expected to pursue the arts; teens being scrutinized in a store due to false beliefs that “all teenagers shoplift”
Being denied service at a restaurant, store, etc.
Being unfairly fired or let go from a job
Receiving hate mail
Being told off-color jokes, called slurs, or otherwise being verbally insulted based on the characteristic
Needing more education, experience, or social proof to be viewed as an expert
Being pressured to do things that other people aren’t being pressured to do (return romantic or sexual advances, adhere to a different dress code, etc.)
Being subject to rules, policies, or processes that are not universal
Having to provide a higher level of evidence to be trusted or believed
Personal boundaries or privacy not being respected (the character’s hair being touched, being leered at, personal space being invaded, etc.)

Minor Complications:
The character having to hide their feelings in the moment because it isn’t safe to address the treatment
Inconveniences arising from avoiding the person/place where discrimination occurs
Damaged relationships (looking at someone differently because of what they did or didn’t do)
Confronting the other party, resulting in awkward conversations
Having to submit a harassment report or attend an inquiry
Having to explain (again) why something is discriminatory
Dealing with the rumor mill in the aftermath
Being scrutinized and judged unfairly by those who weren’t there

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Not being supported by those with influence (being asked to “let it go”)
Telling others about the treatment and not being believed
The character lowering their expectations to match those of the discriminator or harasser
Confronting the other party, and the occurrences escalating instead of going away
Being blamed for contributing to the problem
Having to change jobs, neighborhoods, etc.
Other discrimination or harassment situations arising because this one has gone unchecked
Friendships souring because the friend doesn’t believe the character’s claims or doesn’t know how to respond
Experiencing long-lasting physical, mental, or emotional distress
Pulling away from other people groups and staying within the group that makes the character feel safe
Because of the mistreatment, reading discrimination into other circumstances where it isn’t a factor
Becoming biased against the kind of person who did the abusing (people of that race or gender, in that occupation, etc.)
Losing one’s temper and incurring consequences (being reprimanded at work, getting suspended from school, being removed from a board or organization, etc.)
Suffering further discrimination and humiliation by a company who doesn’t take responsibility (being asked to move on a plane, at a restaurant, or being shifted to another position at work to circumvent the situation rather than deal with the offender)

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Discriminatory experiences causing a war between hope that things will change and losing faith in humanity
Trying to decide whether to call out the behavior or not (especially if the character fears negative fallout by doing so)
Internalizing the treatment (believing that what was said is true)
Struggling with fear, anxiety, or depression
Growing resentment, anger, or rage

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Co-workers, the character’s family members, neighbors, other people in the same demographic

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, anxiety, appalled, apprehension, betrayed, bitterness, defiant, depressed, despair, desperation, determination, disbelief, discouraged, disillusionment, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, envy, fear, flustered, frustration, hatred, humiliation, hurt, indignation, insecurity, intimidated, loneliness, neglected, nervousness, overwhelmed, panic, paranoia, powerlessness, rage, resentment, resignation, sadness, self-pity, shame, shock, tormented, unappreciated, unease, vulnerability, wariness, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Abrasive, cynical, hypocritical, ignorant, inhibited, martyr, needy, nervous, paranoid, perfectionist, pessimistic, prejudiced, reckless, subservient, violent, withdrawn, worrywart 

Positive Outcomes: 
Standing up for what’s right and seeing a positive change because of it
Shining the light on a wrong and exposing it
Educating people and gaining allies for the cause
The character sharing their story and emboldening others to do the same
Hearing other people’s stories and recognizing that the character isn’t alone
The character benefitting from cutting the toxic people out of their life
The character being able to identify and accept their characteristic as a strength rather than something to be downplayed or ashamed of
The character experiencing harassment or discrimination and becoming self-aware enough to acknowledge and discard their own biases

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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Critiques 4 U

How are you all doing? Things are so crazy in our world; it’s easy to get so caught up in what’s happening around us that we lose our center. I’ve talked to so many people who are searching for peace—something they used to have but are missing now and desperately want to get back. If you’re struggling with this, take some time to do what brings you peace. Spend time with uplifting friends, go for a walk, pray, volunteer…whatever that looks like for you.

One of the things I do is focus on what I’m grateful for. And I’m honestly grateful for all of you. Being able to help you and offer support makes me super happy to get to work everyday. One of the things I really like doing is reading your story openings and sharing my thoughts about them. So let’s get our monthly critique contest underway :).

CRITIQUES 4 U

THIS CONTEST IS CLOSED 🙂

If you’re working on a first page (in any genre except erotica) and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Two caveats:

  ▪    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, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

  ▪    I’d like to be able to use portions of winning submissions as illustrations in an upcoming presentation on first pages. By entering the Critiques 4 U contest, you’ll be granting permission for me to use small writing samples only (no author names or book titles).

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

We run this contest on a monthly basis, so if you’d like to be notified when the next opportunity comes around, consider subscribing to our blog (see the left-hand sidebar).

Best of luck!

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No Story Conflict? Explore Your Options

As a reader of Angela and Becca’s blog, chances are you’ve seen some of their many posts about the role of conflict in our story. In fact, as a Resident Writing Coach here, I’ve previously talked about how to make our story’s conflict stronger.

The most common advice is to add more conflict to our stories, to add more external or internal obstacles that force our characters to struggle while attempting to make progress on their goals. After all, without conflict, our characters would reach their goals immediately: The characters want X and then they get it. In other words, we’ve learned that conflict is what turns a goal into a story.

But what if that’s not the kind of story we’re trying to tell? What if adding conflict doesn’t feel right for our story? Are we stuck?

Maybe we just need to expand our idea of what constitutes a story…

Different Narrative Story Structures

If we grew up in Western culture, chances are that we learned from our time in elementary school that stories are about solving a story problem. In turn, a story problem implies goals, stakes, and conflict, as the characters try to solve the problem.

However, that dramatic-arc narrative style doesn’t apply to every story, especially those in non-Western cultures. More importantly for today’s topic, stories with different narrative structures often don’t rely on conflict the way we’ve learned. This lack of conflict doesn’t mean they don’t “count” as stories, but it does make them different – and that means we can learn from them.

Narrative Structures with No/Low Conflict

Examples of narrative structures that take a different approach to conflict (often ignoring it completely) include:

  • Kishōtenketsu: 4-act story structure found in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese storytelling, from centuries-old stories to modern manga and Nintendo video games
  • Robleto: style of traditional Nicaraguan storytelling, which includes a “line of repetition” tying a character’s many journeys within the story together
  • Daisy-Chain Plot: story follows single object or idea with no central character
  • Fanfiction “Fluff”: zero-conflict/angst stories focusing on character interactions
  • Oral Storytelling: often emphases a moral message and not conflict
  • Rashomon-Style Plot: repeating events from different perspectives

A Different Way of Defining Stories

If we’re stuck in a Western-culture perspective of storytelling, we might assume no-conflict stories would be boring. Or we might not consider them stories at all. But let’s take a step back to understand what makes a story a story.

As I’ve often talked about on my blog, all types of stories are built on change. Most Western-style storytelling is based on a conflict-style of change, which involves the protagonist overcoming or learning from external or internal conflict (or failing to overcome or learn).

However, that’s not the only kind of change that can apply to storytelling. Many of the examples listed above instead focus on change in the reader rather than in the character.

For example, Rashomon-style stories present the same events as perceived by different characters to the audience, and it might be up to the reader to decide where the truth lies. In fanfic “fluff” stories, readers simply expand their imagination of what beloved characters might say, do, think, behave, or react in different situations.

In kishōtenketsu, the third act typically includes an unexpected “twist” unrelated to the previous acts (often seeming like an outright non sequitur) until all aspects of the story are brought together and reconciled in the fourth act’s ending. In other words, the twist can be more about changing readers’ perspective than the typical “plot twist.” (Check out the first comic at this link for a simplistic example.)

No Conflict? We Still Need a Story

All that said, this knowledge of alternatives to the usual conflict-focused story doesn’t give us an excuse to release boring dreck to readers. We still need to make sure our story is a story, especially as there’s a risk to relying on alternative story structures, as our Western audience is probably expecting a typical narrative. Being too stuck or lazy or whatever to think of how to add conflict is different from purposefully creating a story where conflict is unnecessary and beyond the point.

So if we’re going to claim our story fits one of these other narrative structures, we need to learn the rules and expectations of that structure just as much as we now study conflict, goals, stakes, etc. Claiming our story “fits” an alternative structure doesn’t automatically make it true.

In addition, we need to make sure we know how the idea of change applies to our story. Whether found in the character, the story world, or readers’ perspective or experience, the sense of change creates the sense of a story. No matter the style of change or how much conflict our story does—or doesn’t—have, the change is a type of enlightenment.

Readers want to discover the unknown, from “what happens next?” to “how does this apply to me?” or “how do these story ideas relate to each other?” A reader’s desire to get answers can create another form of tension and conflict, even in non-Western-style stories that are often thought of as conflict-less. And that emotional investment from readers will help ensure our story—no matter the form it takes—is satisfying to readers. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about no/low-conflict stories or alternative narrative story structures?

Jami Gold

Resident Writing Coach

After 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.
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Posted in Balance, Characters, Conflict, Endings, Experiments, Pacing, Plotting, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 12 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Being Given an Ultimatum

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Being Given an Ultimatum

Category: Power struggles, increased pressure and ticking clocks, relationship friction, moral dilemmas and temptation, loss of control, ego

Examples: “Ultimatum” is a Latin word meaning “last one.” It’s a final demand that, if not met, will result in serious consequences for the character.

In romantic relationships, an ultimatum is often an order for the character give up something (a job, dream, hobby, or another person) or risk losing the person making the demand.

Sometimes, instead of asking the character togive something up, the other person demands that the character do something they don’t want to do. At work, this might involve the character having to violate a moral code, break a promise, or marginalize someone else in order to keep their job.

While ultimatums have a largely negative connotation, keep in mind that they’re not always bad or unreasonable. Demands to stop abusing drugs, be an involved parent, get to work on time, or stick to the rules of one’s parole are legitimate ones meant to establish healthy boundaries or help the character make better choices. But that doesn’t negate the stress and conflict that result when even a well-meaning ultimatum is given.

Minor Complications:
The situation keeping the character up at night
Trouble focusing at school or work
Other relationships suffering (because the character is keeping secrets, they’re taking out the stress on their kids, etc.)
Minor health issues, such as weight loss, stomach upset, headaches or fatigue
Dragging things out and prolonging the agony (through stalling, avoidance, denial, etc.)

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Not taking the other person seriously
Choosing the path that allows the character to continue in hurtful or destructive behavior
Giving in to an unreasonable ultimatum to placate the other party
Refusing to comply with a healthy ultimatum and losing an important relationship (friend, spouse, child, etc.) as a result
Listening to foolish advisors and making the wrong choice
Making a decision that results in the character living with dissatisfaction, insecurity, or regret
Giving up something the character truly loves and values

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Being plagued with indecision; not knowing what to do
Resenting the person making the ultimatum
Feeling trapped and powerless
Struggling with feelings of shame or self-loathing for allowing oneself to get into this situation or be pushed around by others
The character doubting their instincts or discernment

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: the person making the ultimatum, family members, co-workers and employers, neighbors, people the character is responsible for

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, annoyance, anxiety, apprehension, betrayed, bitterness, conflicted, defensiveness, defiant, denial, despair, desperation, determination, disbelief, discouraged, disillusionment, dread, fear, frustration, indignation, intimidated, panic, powerlessness, rage, reluctance, resentment, resignation, sadness, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, stunned, unappreciated, uncertainty, unease, vulnerability, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Addictive, antisocial, apathetic, confrontational, controlling, defensive, dishonest, haughty, indecisive, inflexible, irrational, melodramatic, needy, oversensitive, paranoid, stubborn, subservient, uncooperative, vindictive, weak-willed

Positive Outcomes: 
Recognizing the need for change (in the case of a well-meant ultimatum)
Recognizing in the aftermath of an ultimatum that it was a good thing; being grateful for it
Evaluating priorities and getting a clear idea of what’s important
Knowing what one really wants
Seeing the person making the ultimatum for who they really are
Increased confidence over having made the right decision in a difficult situation

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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Writers, Are You Struggling? It’s Time to Turn the Page

This year’s been a bit of a nightmare, hasn’t it? It feels like we’re living in the Upside Down. Between COVID, anxiety, financial stress, (and new responsibilities if you have school-aged children), you probably haven’t written as much as you’d hoped and your other goals have been disrupted. You aren’t alone. 

Not having control over our lives in such an extreme way is hard, and naturally, it impacts our mindset. We struggle. We get discouraged and pessimistic. In fact, you might be tempted to just write the year off completely…rip the 2020 calendar down, douse it in gasoline, and light it on fire along with any plans and goals.

Please don’t do this.

Goals Are Important

Every January, we writerly types perform a ritual: sit down and decide what we want to focus on during the next 12 months. Will we write a new book? Build our platform and learn everything we can about the industry? Take the leap and self-publish?

We aren’t alone in setting big goals. The rest of the world does too, in the form of business plans, marketing strategies, and heck, even New Years Resolutions. Collectively we understand that goals motivate and achievement moves us closer to the life we want. Since we view the start of a new year as a fresh beginning it’s the ideal time to chart a course toward our dreams.

Dreams Are Important

Writing a book. Publishing a book. Building a sustainable writing career. This is our collective dream – yours and mine. A crap sandwich like COVID can’t erase the fact that DREAMS MATTER. Your dreams matter. And while it’s harder than it should be for all of us right now, if at all possible, we need to find a way to keep moving toward those dreams.

Unfortunately, our COVID challenges will continue for some time yet. But good news…right now we have a special seasonal ally: Autumn.

When Seasons Shift, So Can We

For many, September marks a unique point in time: when summer gives way to fall. As such, this month has always had a “roll up your sleeves” feel to it: kids go back to school, adults return to work if they’ve been on holiday, and we writers head back to the keyboard in earnest after ignoring our WIP a little (or a lot) over the summer.

Just as January prompts us to imagine and plan the future, our minds are hardwired to think a certain way when September rolls around. It is a time to buckle down, make preparations, finish important work, and embrace change.

Now for some (like my Aussie friends), September may not actually be “fall.” But no matter what month autumn hits, it affects people the same way.

An Opportunity to Regroup & Refocus

The symbolic nature of fall is powerful, and we can use it to our advantage. This time of change makes it easier for us to regroup, leaving disappointment over what didn’t get accomplished or didn’t happen in the past and shift our thoughts to what can still happen.

It’s not too late to make strides toward your goals. Where can you dig in? Can you be creative right now and write? If so, do. If you can’t (and that’s okay), think about other ways to refocus energy toward your writing dream: small steps that are doable.

Maybe you can…

We have four months left of 2020. Four months to dust off personal goals, adjust business plans, and create a modified to-do list. Let’s turn the page and push forward, doing what we can as time and energy allow.

The season of fall is highly symbolic and triggers motivation. Use it to your advantage!

Posted in Balance, Focus, Goal Setting, Motivational, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Time | 1 Comment

Ways to Defeat Self-Doubt: Hang Upside Down (and Other Creative Moves)

September, 2009, was Dan Brown week in the world of publishing. That was when The Lost Symbol—Brown’s much-awaited follow-up to The Da Vinci Code (2003)—hit the bookstores.  

The Lost Symbol was not easy for Mr. Brown to write. I mean, how do you follow a once-in-a-lifetime megahit like The Da Vinci Code? Brown copped to the pressure. Regarding the long lag time between the two novels, Brown said in an interview:

“The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who’s had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, ‘This is what the character does,’ you say, ‘Wait, millions of people are going to read this.’ … You’re temporarily crippled….[Then] the furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I’m just a guy who tells a story.”

What happened to Dan Brown on a mega level happens to most writers who publish more than one book. A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they’re published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.

The truth is, writing fiction gets harder because we continue to raise the bar on ourselves. That is, if we truly care about the craft. We know more about what we do with each book, and where we fall short. We hope we have a growing readership, and we want to keep pleasing them, surprising them, delighting them with plot twists, great characters and a bit of stylistic flair.

Dan Brown reportedly deals with all this by using gravity shoes. He hangs upside down, letting the blood rush to his head. Bats use the same method. But there are other options.

Whenever you are wondering if you’ve got the stuff to be published (or, if published, to stay that way), let me offer a few helps.

1. Write. This is the most important thing of all. Get “black on white,” as Maupassant used to say. Even if you feel like pond scum as an artist, just start writing. If you can’t possibly face a page of your project, write a free form journal about something in your past. Begin with “I remember . . .” Pretty soon, you’ll feel like getting back to your novel.

But we can’t stroll down the aisle of “Plots R Us” and choose something fresh, right out of the box. (Although Erle Stanley Gardner was known to use a complex “plot wheel.” I guess he did okay). We are on a never ending quest for premises, characters and plot. No matter how many books we’ve done, we keep aspiring to the next level.

2. Re-read. Pull out a favorite novel, one that really moved you. Read parts of it at random, or even the whole thing. Don’t worry about feeling even worse because you think you can’t write like that author. You’re not supposed to. You never can. But guess what? He can’t write like you, either.

3. Incubate. For half an hour think hard about your project, writing notes to yourself, asking questions. Back yourself into tight corners. Then put all that away for a day and do something else. Walk. Swim. Work your day job. Stuff will be bubbling in your “writer’s brain.” The next day, write.

4. Stay away from the internet and social media for 8 hours. Think you can do it? It may be harder than you think! But what a needed respite for your creative mind.

Mental landmines abound for writers. The key is not to let any of them stop you from writing, even if you have to hang upside down to do it.

James Scott Bell

Resident Writing Coach

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 on
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Posted in Balance, Motivational, Reading, Writer's Block, Writing Craft | 2 Comments