Goal-Oriented Storytelling: Tension

This is the third post in my four-part series on ANTS, my framework for understanding what a story needs to keep readers engaged. Previously, I’ve covered attachment and novelty. Now it’s time to look at the big reason why stories have a plot structure: tension.

Cultivating tension is usually one of the first and most important skills a new storyteller learns. It’s why your mentors and editors are always yelling at you to add more conflict to your story. Let’s take a quick tour of what tension is and what it needs to work.

“Tension” is the word we use for the reader’s preoccupation with whether or not something bad will happen in the story. It’s a synonym for suspense, minus the latter’s association with thrillers. Storytellers create tension by giving the protagonist problems. When we watch the protagonist struggle to solve those problems, whether by going to battle or just arguing, we call it “conflict.”

The level of tension created by a problem is determined by two factors.

How bad will the consequences be if the problem isn’t solved?

We generally call this the “stakes” of a conflict. The destruction of the world is a much higher stake than the demise of a few goldfish. Rewards for solving a problem can matter as well, but readers are more preoccupied with potential losses than gains.

However, even big losses don’t create tension unless readers care about them. That’s why some attachment is a prerequisite for tension. As long as your protagonist is liked and the stakes are important to them, you’ll probably be fine. But if your story has no tension and you can’t figure out why, ask your readers whether they want your characters to succeed. If they think your protagonist is a jerk, it’ll be much harder to create meaningful consequences.

What is the likelihood that the protagonist will face these consequences?

If solving the problem feels like a sure thing, you’ll have no tension. This is why it’s essential for your villain to feel threatening. Unfortunately, the more often the antagonist fails at their goal, the more readers will feel that the protagonist can best them without an issue. Often, the best way to avoid this is to give your antagonist early goals they can succeed at without stopping the story. You probably don’t want them to kill the protagonist, but what if they manage to steal a weapon or kidnap someone the protagonist was trying to protect?

Putting deadlines on story problems is another time-honored way of making conflicts feel like an uphill battle. If you give your protagonist a whole year to find a solution, readers will assume they’ll figure something out, even if the problem is all but impossible to solve. Similarly, if the protagonist can try to solve the problem, fail, and then try again without being any worse off, the only conclusion is that sooner or later they’ll succeed. A ticking clock ensures failed attempts always leave the protagonist with a lower chance of success.

Like novelty, tension makes stories more entertaining. Bored readers are the most obvious sign that tension has dropped too low. While a few brief lulls between conflicts can give readers a chance to catch their breath, the tension should generally rise until the climax of the story.

However, tension is different from the other ANTS in one important way: you can have too much of a good thing. By its nature, tension is stressful. Some people don’t want lots of stress in their pleasure reading, and others may look for something low tension when they’ve had a bad day. It’s also inevitable that story problems will hit closer to home for some readers. Overall, preferred level of tension is one of the biggest reader divides, so it’s important for storytellers to choose the general level of tension they want in their stories and recruit beta readers with matching tastes.

Even if you’re catering to tension-averse readers, don’t neglect your plot. While you may not want life-or-death conflicts in a low-tension story, you should still have problems with lower, more personal stakes. Higher attachment can be crucial here, because it takes more attachment to care about personal issues. To compensate for lower tension, you’ll also need much higher novelty. Even if your story is very light, no one should get bored.

There’s another reason to cultivate a strong plot structure even in a low-tension story. Your plot isn’t just for tension; it’s also essential to the last of the ANTS. Join me in September when I cover tension’s partner and opposite: satisfaction. And to see the previous ANTS posts I linked to earlier, visit Attachment and Novelty.

Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.
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Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Conflict, Emotion, High Stakes, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Tension, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 1 Comment

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Professional Athlete

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

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

Occupation: Professional athlete

Overview: Professional athletes play a sport for a living. They make money off of ticket sales, medals and top placements they receive in sporting events, endorsements, corporate sponsorships, grants, merchandising, book sales, and by working part-time jobs to cover the bills. While most athletes don’t reach the millionaire level of fame and fortune that star players do, many can make a living as long as they stay healthy and on top of their game.

While much of an athlete’s time is dedicated to practicing their sport, their workday might also be spent reviewing footage of past performances, analyzing an opponent’s practices, working out, adhering to a fastidious diet regime, participating in promotional activities, and attending meetings with agents, coaches, and team members. Players of certain sports can live where they want and travel to and from sporting events. Athletes who can be traded at the whim of management may need to relocate multiple times throughout their career.

Necessary Training: Professional athletes only reach their level of skill through extreme discipline and years of diligent practice. Many work with private coaches to speed up the learning curve. Most athletes begin playing their sport as a child and continue honing their abilities through high school and college. While some athletes begin their professional careers directly after high school, most are drafted out of college, so they must have the academic foundation to get into a university and succeed there as they wait for the right opportunity to arrive.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Basic first aid, high pain tolerance, promotion, strategic thinking, super strength, swift-footedness

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Ambitious, analytical, confident, cooperative, decisive, disciplined, enthusiastic, focused, inspirational, passionate, persistent, responsible, studious, talented, uninhibited

NEGATIVE: Confrontational, obsessive, perfectionist, workaholic

Sources of Friction: A nagging or career-ending injury, having a bad day when an important scout is present, negative social media interactions being resurrected and tainting one’s reputation, trusting the wrong people (a greedy agent, friends who are only interested in one’s fame or money), failing a drug test, being replaced by a younger and more talented athlete, pressure (internal and external) to perform and succeed, a crisis of confidence, being traded and having to move one’s family to a new location, falling into temptation while on the road (one night stands, drugs, etc.), an unfavorable change in management or coaching staff, a coach that plays favorites, making poor choices with one’s vast amount of money, being accused of sexual harassment or fathering someone’s child, being sexually harassed on tour, losing a key sponsor or endorsement opportunity

People They Might Interact With: Teammates, competitors, coaches, agents and managers, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, physical therapists, fans

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: An athlete who is unable to deal well with the constant criticism inherent with this career may quickly find their self-esteem bottoming out.
  • Love and Belonging: Athletes who have to travel a lot or move away temporarily from family members may find it hard to maintain loving and loyal romantic relationships.
  • Safety and Security: Most career athletes last less than 20 years in their sport due to injury (this varies, depending on the sport). Career-ending and dangerous injuries, such as concussions and the like, can present a safety threat for professional athletes.
  • Physiological Needs: Athletes have been killed while competing, so while it’s unusual, it is a possibility.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airplane, airport, archery range, black-tie event, bowling alley, fitness center, golf course, green room, gymnasium, hotel room, house party, mansion, marina, outdoor skating rink, penthouse suite, skate park, ski resort, sporting event stands

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Stories about athletes typically involve the underdog hero going up against the well-funded, well-connected, legacy-type antagonist. Keep this in mind and switch up your characters to bring something fresh to the page.

Also consider the sport your protagonist will pursue. Popular sports are, well, popular for story fodder, but what about the less-romanticized activities? Sports like skeet shooting, equestrian dressage, fencing, wrestling, rowing, and paralympic events can provide the same competitive and stressful environment while allowing you to cover new ground for readers

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

5 Writing “Life Lessons” from an Empty Nester Author

Recently I entered a new life stage: the Empty Nester parent. My oldest son, following his younger brother’s lead, moved out a few weeks ago while my husband and I were in South America. Now, we’re back…and the house is a lot quieter.

When we’re out on a walk now, Scott and I sometimes run into friends with children. They ask about our boys and when we tell them we’re empty nesters, they glance at their kid-and-toy laden wagons, chuckle darkly, and say how they’d do anything for a bit of freedom again.

Sure, I’ll admit it’s nice to have a freer schedule and a much smaller grocery bill (guess who can afford the fancy 100% vitamin D eggs now—THIS girl!). But once the kiddos are gone, THEY ARE GONE. It doesn’t take long to wish the clock could run backward, to have a few moments where I was my boys’ world, when they would rush home with fistfuls of drawings to tell me all about their day at school.

The irony of each of us wanting what the other has, right? Writing is that way sometimes, too!

Like when I started out, I wanted to hurry up and be “good enough to publish.” I just wanted to skip past the sweat and pain of that evil learning curve and hold a book in my hands. (Sound familiar?)

Well, fast forward to now. I have books under my belt (hurray!), but I need to market, run a business, deliver a cohesive brand, network, research, stay on top of all the changes that upend the industry, teach, create more books…and oh yeah, continually improve my craft because (spoiler alert) the learning curve never ends. I totally admit I sometimes yearn for that simpler time when I was learning the ropes, blissfully unaware of the mountains still to climb.

Back to Empty Nesting…

This new stage of life has me looking forward and back so I thought I’d share five writing life lessons that helped get me to where I am today. Then in a future post, I’ll list 5 lessons to better internalize moving forward in hopes of gaining an even greater level of satisfaction with my writing career.

Life Lesson #1:  Open your mind to learning…I mean, really open it.

I run into non-writerly folks who think what we do is easy. I’m sure you do too…you know, the ones who say, “Yeah, I’m a good writer; I do it all the time for work. And I have the best idea, trust me, you writers would kill for it. When I retire and have time, I’ll publish a book.” 

(Did you cringe a little as you read? Probably.)

Those of us on this path know storytelling is an art, and it takes a lot of time and energy to become proficient (like any other professional career). But we don’t always know this at the start. When I first began penning stories, I thought I only needed a bit of polish to become “good enough.” (Oh, past Angela, how naïve you were.) Little did I know I was years away from getting agents and hitting acquisition meetings. Years away from my first book (which turned out to be non-fiction, something else I didn’t see coming).

So, don’t be afraid to push aside your ego to learn. From experts. From other writers. From sources all around you. Do whatever it takes. This dream of ours is a big one, and that means it takes a bucket-load of courage and sweat to see it through.

Life Lesson #2: Find your tribe.

Most of the time, writing is solitary. But writing alone doesn’t mean traveling the road alone. Joining a community of writers can open up our world in so many ways. The insight, knowledge, abilities, and red pens of others helped me grow into a stronger writer. A tribe will also keep our feet on the path if we become discouraged and lose faith in ourselves. Others will see our potential when we cannot, and their encouragement reminds us to believe when times are tough.

Life Lesson #3: Fill your writing toolbox.

One terrific thing about being a writer today is that help is everywhere…all we need to do is take advantage of it! A vast landscape of blogs, websites, apps, software, courses, workshops, forums, and custom tools ensure help is available in all areas of writing, marketing, and publishing. I have amassed a huge collection of resources over the years.

While you can find so much for free, don’t be afraid to make an investment if you find a class, subscription, or tool that helps you become a stronger storyteller. We have a lot to learn and manage as writers, and time is at a premium. Invest in a support system that works best so you have more time to create new books!

Life Lesson #4: Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t.

This was a total game changer for me. We all know that this career is full of uncertainty and upset that can leave us feeling inadequate. We think an agent is key to getting our book in front of editors, but can we make them say yes? Of course not. Once an editor has our book, we want them to take it to acquisitions, but will they? Who knows. And, if it does end up there, will it come out on top and result in an offer? Will the publisher invest in promoting it? Can we get a Bookbub? Will it hit the bestseller list? On and on it goes.

Stressing about an outcome we have little influence over is a waste of energy and time. Instead, we need to put our focus on what we can control: that our craft is strong because we’re constantly in a cycle of growth and learning. That we research what agents and publishers are looking for (if we go that route) so we target well. We can invest time into understanding our audience, how to best deliver what they need, and how to market effectively so we can place our book in their hands. We can build a brand, network, and research strong business practices to manage everything as best as we possibly can.

Lesson #5: Be authentic in all that you do.

This industry is tough. We all know this. Discouragement can sometimes cause us to not do what’s in our heart and mimic others instead because we think that must be “the magic.” Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to our peers’ experiences, the market, and what readers want is important absolutely, but we should never lose sight of WHY we wanted to write in the first place.

Each of us is unique; only we can tell the stories we are meant to tell. I believe we were all called to this work, otherwise we’d choose something much easier. 🙂 So, make sure the spark of who you are is in everything you do. This authenticity is YOUR superpower. If it’s missing from your writing, your branding, your interactions with others…readers will notice. You’ll notice. Yet, when your purpose and actions align, you’ll feel fulfilled and love the work you do.

These are my big ticket lessons and I’d love to hear from you! What are some of the aha! moments you’ve experienced on your journey?

Posted in About Us, Focus, Goal Setting, Motivational, Publishing and Self Publishing, The Business of Writing, Tools and Resources, Writer's Attitude, Writing Groups, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources | 18 Comments

Story Goals: Are They Slowing Your Story’s Pace?

If we’ve spent any time learning about story craft, we know the importance of goals in our story. They affect every aspect of our story:

  • Stories are about a problem to solve—a goal.
  • Characters striving for something are more compelling.
  • Scenes with characters pursuing a goal have a story purpose.

Without goals, readers can’t tell what stories are about, characters wander aimlessly, and scenes feel like filler. In addition, goals increase our story’s tension because they create stakes—the consequences if the goal isn’t reached.

In short, goals help drive our story forward. Without them, our story’s pace slows because there’s nothing forcing the story or characters to do anything.

But we need the right kind of goals. Some goals are active goals, and others are passive goals. How can we make sure we’re using active goals that force our story forward?

What Are Active vs. Passive Goals?

For all the talk about goals in storytelling craft, we might not have heard about active vs. passive goals before.

  • Active Goals: Active goals force characters to take action. They push the plot forward as the characters strive and overcome obstacles. They often lead a character to change or adapt, forming part of a character’s arc.
  • Passive Goals: Passive goals don’t force anything. The plot crawls along in neutral as characters simply want to maintain a status quo. Characters might stay in their comfort zone, with no positive lesson learned from a struggle.

How Can We Recognize Passive Goals?

If we’re not aware of the difference between active and passive goals, we might think our story is just fine. After all, our characters do want something. There is a goal—but it’s not necessarily strong enough to force our story forward.

Look at the description of passive goals above. See that word maintain? That’s passive.

Passive goals use words like keep, continue, stay, and so on. The character wants to keep their job, continue in their relationship, or stay in their home. That’s different from a character actively going after what they want beyond the status quo.

Why Are Passive Goals “Bad”?

At first, those examples above might look fine. On the surface, passive goals often feel like any others. We can point out how the character does want something.

So on some level, passive goals might be enough to get the job done. But no matter the specific details, passive goals are about avoiding. Characters are avoiding change—and stories are about change.

Goals about maintaining, keeping, and staying leave the story in neutral (and possibly stalling out completely) rather than forcing forward movement. So in addition to weakening our character’s arc, passive goals make our story’s pace feel slower.

Are Story Ideas with Passive Goals Doomed?

Luckily, having passive goals doesn’t necessarily mean we should toss the whole story idea and start over. Often, the problem isn’t with our story idea but in how we’re expressing it.

It’s usually possible to tweak most passive goals into active ones. Once fixed, keeping the active goal in mind while drafting will help our story—and us.

  • Help for Our Story: Focusing on active goals throughout the drafting process will naturally increase our story’s tension and pace. Our characters’ desires will be felt more keenly, and characters will be faced with a need to change or adapt to get what they want. That creates a stronger arc, as they learn what they’re capable of, and in turn the lesson they learn creates a stronger sense of our story’s theme.
  • Help for Our Writing Process: Focusing on active goals can help us get through the draft. A stalled story is harder to write, as there’s no clear idea of where the story—or we—should go next. So if we’re struggling to figure out what comes next in our story, we can check if the goals we’re using are active.

How Do We Fix Passive Goals?

Look at why the status quo is at risk or why they’re avoiding the change. Usually somewhere in that why is an idea we can make the focus of their active goal.

For example:

  • Passive: She wants to keep her job—which is at risk.
    Active: She wants to find proof her coworker is scamming the company and blaming others.
  • Passive: She wants to continue in her relationship—to avoid change.
    Active: She wants to get her mother to stop thinking she’s a flake who can’t commit.
  • Passive: She wants to stay in her home—to avoid change.
    Active: She wants to convince her husband to go to couple’s counseling and fix their marriage.

Those active goals (which aren’t even great ideas) give the characters—and us—a stronger focus for their struggle. Knowing what they’re actively striving for helps our story move forward. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about passive vs. active goals?

Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Fear, High Stakes, Motivation, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 10 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Nurse

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

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

Occupation: Nurse (RN)

Overview: Registered nurses are in charge of patient care. They observe and record symptoms, helping to guide a patient’s health plan. They also instruct loved ones and caregivers in how to properly care for a patient. Some RNs may have other roles outside of patient care, such as teaching or organizing a nursing crew. They may work in a hospital, clinic, long-term care facility, doctor’s office, school, or even prison. If they’re part of a home health care company, they’ll travel to meet their patents in their homes or at other facilities. Depending on where they work, some nurses will focus primarily on certain kinds of patients or care, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, plastic surgery, dermatology, etc.

Necessary Training: Registered nurses need a 4-year nursing degree and will have to pass a national licensing exam. Nurses with a graduate degree can seek certification in an advanced clinical profession to become a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or a specialist in another area.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, basic first aid, empathy, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, hospitality, multitasking, reading people

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, affectionate, alert, calm, centered, cooperative, courteous, decisive, diplomatic, discreet, efficient, empathetic, friendly, hospitable, industrious, intelligent, kind, merciful, meticulous, nurturing, objective, observant, optimistic, organized, patient, perceptive, professional, responsible, sensible, studious, supportive, unselfish

NEGATIVE: Fussy, manipulative, pushy

Sources of Friction: Fractious or uncooperative patients, patients who lie about their true condition or health habits, missing important warning signs in a patient, suspecting that an elderly or underaged patient is being abused, being unable to help a patient, having to provide end-of-life care for a favorite patient, a patient being unable to afford treatment, losing touch with a critically ill patient (because they moved unexpectedly, were transferred to an area beyond one’s care, etc.), becoming addicted to opioids or other medications, being asked by a terminal loved one to help with their final transition, undesirable work conditions, working with patients who don’t follow prescribed treatments and keep having the same problems, overbearing or condescending doctors, favoritism in one’s department, budget cuts that result in understaffing and poorly maintained equipment, seeing problems with a patient that one can’t treat (homelessness, toxic relationships, poor nutrition, etc.), treating a patient and discovering they have a dangerous and infectious disease, suspecting a doctor of malpractice or incompetence, harassment on the job

People They Might Interact With: Doctors, other nurses, other healthcare providers (physical therapists, psychologists, etc.), patients, hospital administrators, administrative staff, the patient’s family members or caregivers, pharmaceutical reps

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Nursing is a rewarding career, but it also requires long hours and can be emotionally draining. Someone in a difficult work environment who is unable to move up or change specialty areas may begin to feel stifled and dissatisfied.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A nurse in the frequent company of a condescending doctor or disapproving relatives may come to doubt herself and her chosen profession.
  • Love and Belonging: A nurse who becomes too emotionally attached to her patients may have a hard time becoming attached to others. Or she might connect with her patients in an attempt to keep from having to open up to the people in her life, either creating or reinforcing a void in this area.
  • Safety and Security: Safety could become an issue for a nurse who works in a dangerous part of town, treats volatile patients, or who doesn’t practice sufficient self-care.

Common Work-Related Settings: Break room, cruise ship, emergency room, hospital (interior), hospital room, living room, nursing home, psychiatric ward, refugee camp, waiting room

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: While there are more men in the nursing field than ever before, most people still associate this career with women. Whatever the gender, make sure that your nurse has a combination of interesting and meaningful attributes and flaws. You can also switch things up by placing your nurse in an unusual location, such as a refugee camp, psyche ward, or boarding school.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Critiques 4 U, featuring Sara Letourneau!

It’s time for our monthly critique contest, and editor and writing coach Sara Letourneau is back to offer feedback on the winners’ first pages.

Visit the Heart of the Story website to learn more about working with Sara or her writer website to read some of her poetry and freelance writing.

Contest Guidelines

This month’s contest will work exactly the same as it usually does, only Sara will be the one contacting you if you win.

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, Sara will be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if she’s unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Please be sure your first page is ready to go so she 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 her right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, Sara will be in contact to get your first page and offer her feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments

Stay Thirsty

I love a good ad campaign.

When I started running a small publishing business years ago, I had to teach myself advertising and marketing. I read some classics on the subject, such as How to Write a Good Advertisement by Victor O. Schwab and Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples.

My favorite, though, was Ogilvy on Advertising by the legendary ad man David Ogilvy. This volume made me appreciate what goes into successful ads, and just how hard they are to pull off. It also made me realize that some of the same elements of a good ad can be applied to our stories.

One of my favorite campaigns was “The most interesting man in the world” commercials for Dos Equis beer. 

A typical spot featured “vintage film” of this man in various pursuits, while a narrator recited a few facts about him. A few of my favorites:

• He lives vicariously through himself.

• He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.

• The police often question him, just because they find him interesting.

• He once taught a German shepherd to bark in Spanish.

• When he drives a car off the lot, its price increases in value.

• Superman has pajamas with his logo.

At the end of the commercial we’d see him—now a handsome, older man—sitting in a bar with admiring young people at his elbow. He would look into the camera and say, in a slight Spanish accent, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.”

And then, at the end of each ad, comes the man’s signature sign off: “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

What was so good about this campaign?

It was risky. Having a graying man as the lead character in a beer ad was, as they say, counter programming. 

It was funny without trying too hard. The understated way the deep-voiced narrator extolled the man’s legend was pitch perfect. 

It had a complete backstory, revealed a little at a time in the mock film clips.

These are qualities of a good novel, too: risky, in that it doesn’t repeat the same old; a bit of unforced humor is always welcome; and its backstory renders characters real and complex without slowing down the narrative. All that we can learn from “the most interesting man in the world” campaign.

And from the man himself we can learn, as writers, to live life expansively and not just lollygag through our existence. Not waiting for inspiration but going after it, as Jack London once said, “with a club.” Believing, with Jack Kerouac, in the “holy contour of life.”

We ought to be seekers as well as storytellers, a little mad sometimes, risking the pity and scorn of our fellows as we pursue the artistic vision. Then we park ourselves at the keyboard and strive to get it down on the page. Why go through it all? Because the world needs dreams rendered in words.

Writer, keep after it and someday this may be said of you as well: “His charisma can be seen from space. Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number.”

Stay thirsty, my friends.

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 Twitter.

Posted in Motivational, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Treasure Hunter

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

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

Occupation: Treasure Hunter

Overview: A treasure hunter is someone with an inquisitive nature who uses their investigative talents to find lost, stolen, or forgotten treasure. It may be buried, sunken, hidden, part of a recovery mission, a historical find, or a prize as part of an elaborate hunt created by a person with means.

Necessary Training: Depending on the type of treasure being recovered, different types of education will help one’s success or be required. For example, someone who salvages shipwrecks would need need their diver certification and have documentation that allows them to pilot a boat. Depending on the location, and whether the treasure hunting mission is legal or not, additional permits may be needed to search. Also, being educated in a specific area of history, map reading, navigational skills, knowing the culture and language tied to the nationality of the treasure lost would all help the treasure hunter (but if they didn’t have this knowledge, someone on the team could supply it). Understanding symbols, glyph, being able to follow clues based on details only those educated in a certain era or with intimate knowledge of the person who hid the treasure will also be important if one is to recover certain finds.

Treasure hunters would also need equipment to help them (this could range form a metal detector to deep sea salvage gear, to explosives, and more) and be proficient in their equipment’s use. They would also need to be able to handle situations that could come up (beating out rival treasure hunters, dealing with local superstitions, gaining permission to search, working with (or past) law enforcement, encouraging locals to open up when investigating the past, obtaining financial backing, etc.).

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, a knack for making money, basic first aid, enhanced hearing, exceptional memory, foraging, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, haggling, high pain tolerance, lip-reading, lying, making people laugh, mechanically inclined, photographic memory, predicting the weather, promotion, reading people, repurposing, self-defense, sharpshooting, sleight-of-hand, strategic thinking, strong breath control, super strength, survival skills, swift-footedness, wilderness navigation

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, adventurous, alert, ambitious, analytical, bold, calm, courageous, curious, decisive, disciplined, discreet, focused, imaginative, independent, industrious, meticulous, observant, optimistic, organized, patient, persistent, persuasive, resourceful, thrifty, wise

NEGATIVE: addictive, cocky, devious, dishonest, evasive, know-it-all, macho, manipulative, materialistic, obsessive, stubborn, superstitious, suspicious, unethical

Sources of Friction: Rival treasure hunters unraveling the clues before or at the same pace that one can, tight-lipped locals (that don’t trust outsiders), maps that have degraded with age, old equipment that barely functions or breaks just when it is needed most, wasting time following false leads (and letting one’s competition get the jump on one’s operation), trying to bribe an official or police officer and it backfiring, finding a treasure only to have a government body or relative to the original owner try to claim it, having one’s equipment or vehicle sabotaged by a rival, personality conflict within one’s crew, a curse tied to the lore of a treasure that turns out to be true, buying a treasure at auction or in a yard sale and finding it to be a fake, trying to circumvent the law and being arrested, being unable to obtain permission to search a specific area, being attacked or injured during a job, finding a treasure’s resting place only to discover another has been there first

People They Might Interact With: museum curators, archeologists, historians, police, government officials, local guides, drivers, laborers, fellow treasure hunters, ship owners/captains, experts, financial backers

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: If a treasure hunter’s desire to find a big score is their sole focus and this never materializes, it could threaten their sense of self, and make them wonder if they have wasted their life
  • Esteem and Recognition: A character in this field that is always one-upped by other hunters may struggle with self-esteem issues
  • Love and Belonging: Treasure hunters often travel, and can be gone for long periods of time. This means they may struggle with commitment and responsibilities that lie outside the job, including relationships
  • Safety and Security: In the scope of their work, treasure seekers may travel to locations that are hazardous, and whenever a large finders fee is in the offering, humans can present a danger, too

Common Work-Related Settings: abandoned mine, airplane, airport, alley, ancient ruins, antiques shop, arctic tundra, art gallery, attic, backyard, badlands, bank, basement, bazaar, beach, bookstore, canyon, cave, cheap motel, condemned apartment building, construction site, country road, creek, desert, dungeon (speculative), farm, fishing boat, forest, ghost town (old west), graveyard, grotto, hiking trail, lake, library, marina, marsh, mausoleum, meadow, medieval castle armory (speculative), medieval castle (speculative), medieval tavern (speculative), medieval village (speculative), moors, mountains, museum, ocean, pasture, pirate ship (speculative), quarry, razed city street, root cellar, salvage yard, secret passageway, sewers, swamp, thrift store, waterfall

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: A lot of treasure hunters are portrayed as men, but women have a adventurer’s spirit too. Why not consider this career for your next female protagonist?

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Tips for a Successful Writing Collaboration

It’s hard to believe that Angela and I have been writing together for over a decade. It started in 2008 with this blog, where we pooled ideas and shared writing responsibilities. Then we stepped up our game and decided to write a book together. And then Lee Powell came along with his proposal for One Stop for Writers…

Our collaboration has been kind of a magical one. As I’ve often said in my best Forrest Gump voice: Angela and me was like peas and carrots. But it’s more than that—particularly when it comes to co-writing books. How do we do it? How have we managed to create books together that sound like they’ve been written by one person rather than two? How do we agree on the ideas for our books in the first place?

Questions like these are the most common ones we get from authors. Co-writing is on the rise in both the fiction and non-fiction markets; people are interested in trying it but they aren’t quite sure how to make it work. So I figured I would tackle the topic and offer some advice to would-be collaborators. But in the spirit of true collaboration, I reached out to some of the authors I admire who have found success writing books with others.

So read on, future co-authors. Some of the tips that follow are universal in nature while others may be simply one way of doing things. Hopefully you’ll find some answers that will clear the air for you.

1. Find the Perfect Partner

Read books in the genre you want to write. Take the extra moment to send a compliment or two to the authors. We’re writers and we all love compliments and positive feedback. Introduce yourself with an offer or a kind word instead of an ask, which will almost always be ignored.

In addition, Facebook groups can be a great place to meet other like-minded authors. I’ve met some awesome people in those groups. Conferences and writers’ retreats can be another place to make a friend and maybe start a collaborative relationship. For example, we’ve met several new friends at the Sell More Books Show Summit in Chicago. Consider attending local events at libraries or critique groups where you might also find writers looking to make connections.

Regardless of how or where, finding the right collaborator is a lot like making friends or finding romance–it’s not always easy and it’s different for everyone, but you’ll know when you find the right person.

~~J. Thorn, co-owner of Molten Universe Media with Zach Bohannon, authors of the Final Awakening series

2. Discuss the Details Up Front

Create a written document before you start to co-write that acts as a contract between you. It should cover everything from how you will communicate, who is responsible for what, target dates and word count, how you will handle the money, how you will publish and market, what happens if the book is an incredible success — or if it’s a failure. It should also cover what happens if you die, as copyright lasts 50-70 years after the death of the author and you are creating a product that will (hopefully) stand the test of time. I’ve co-written three books with J.Thorn and we used shared Google Docs for our contract agreement, as well as writing our chapters and communicating during the project. We outlined everything in our book, Co-Writing A Book: Collaboration and Co-Creation for Writers.

~~Joanna Penn, co-writer of 5 novels and 2 non-fiction books, including Co-Writing A Book: Collaboration and Co-Creation for Writers with J.Thorn

3. Have the Same Overall Goal

When one author is writing for therapy . . . Okay. We all write for therapy. . . When one author is onlywriting for therapy, and the other author wants to be a USA Today Bestseller within three years, there will be blood. One person will be getting their nails done while the other is breaking their nails on the keyboard. It will end up being a waste of time for both of you. As with any business venture, success requires distinct goals and timelines for your project and making sure both of you are on the same page with expectations and commitments.

~~By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes, authors of Spycraft: Essentials and its upcoming sequels

4. Share Your Words

As my daughter and I edited our two-voice 2019 memoir, some of my narrative fit more logically in her sections. When that happened, she adopted my writing and adjusted the words to fit her own style and voice. Other times, I conscripted her words and made them my own.

~~Nancy Jorgensen, co-author of the soon-to-be-released memoir Go, Gwen, Go

5. Divvy Up Ownership of Viewpoint Characters

Coauthoring fiction can be tricky, because no two authors have the same style, and it’s hard to keep characters consistent. My coauthor and I used a simple plan to solve the consistency problem. The basic idea is that each of us “owned” one or more of the viewpoint characters.  We assigned each scene in advance to one viewpoint character, and then whoever owned that character had to write the scene.  Immediately after writing the scene, it was emailed to the other author, who then inserted revisions and emailed it back. If there were conflicts in portraying any character in the scene, the “owner” of that character had final veto power. This worked out very well in practice.  We also typically made revisions by adding in things, rather than deleting material.  If we honestly felt that something needed to be deleted, we discussed it by phone, and then whoever originally wrote it did the deletions.

~~Randy Ingermanson, coauthor with John B. Olson of the award-winning novel OXYGEN, a hard science fiction novel about the first human mission to Mars

6. Don’t Co-Write. Co-Author

That means a decidedly distinct separation of duties. If my name is one of two on the cover of a book, I have either written every word (a la Left Behind) or edited every word (50 titles with Chris Fabry). I know some succeed by sharing the writing, but that would not work for me.

~~Jerry B. Jenkins, New York Times bestseller with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the Left Behind series with Tim LaHaye

And a few final tips from yours truly…

Know Your Strengths & Weaknesses

Each author brings something important to the table. Knowing each person’s areas of strength can help in the doling out of responsibilities. For instance, Angela has an amazing sense of vision that allows her to visualize the overall product and what it needs to include. I stink at that, but I have a knack for distilling information into a sensible order. When we know each other’s strengths, it’s easy to know who should do what.

Build a Foundation of Mutual Respect

This is hugely important for any successful collaboration—in writing, business, family, whatever. It means trusting the other person’s expertise in a certain area and letting them handle portions of the process without micro-managing. It requires give-and-take in situations where you may not 100% agree. Sometimes you’ll have to check your ego at the door and apologize for a mistake, admit that you need help, or take on a duty that may not be your favorite. Basically, if you look at your work as a team effort—two individuals working together toward the same goal—it helps maintain the proper perspective.

Hopefully these tips have filled in some blanks for you. What other questions do you have about the collaboration process?

Posted in Collaboration, Experiments, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 5 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Bounty Hunter

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

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

Occupation: Bounty Hunter

Overview: Bounty Hunters apprehend fugitives who are running from the law. While a suspect awaits a court date, they’re often released on bail. If they can’t pay the money themselves, they get it from a bail bondsman. If the suspect doesn’t appear for his court date, he becomes a fugitive. The bail bondsman may hire a bounty hunter to find the suspect in exchange for a portion (usually 10-20%) of the bail amount. Bounty hunters may work directly for a bondsman or do freelance work on their own.

In some ways, bounty hunters have more freedom than official police officers because they can enter the fugitive’s home without a warrant and cross state lines to apprehend the fugitive. Their work might include such activities as interviewing family and friends, canvassing the fugitive’s neighborhood, staking out certain locations, tracing phone records and license plates, and confronting the suspect when he’s found. Because of the inherent danger in this job, most bounty hunters work in teams or pairs.

Necessary Training: In the U.S., you must be 21 years old and hold a high school diploma or GED to pursue this career. While many bounty hunters have a background in the military and law enforcement, no official training is necessary. Because they must be licensed in most states, they’ll have to pass an exam that covers the laws and limitations for their trade area. Someone new to this profession would likely apprentice with an experienced hunter to learn the trade.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Basic first aid, blending in, charm, ESP (clairvoyance), exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, haggling, high pain tolerance, knife throwing, mentalism, parkour, reading people, self-defense, sharpshooting, strategic thinking, super strength, survival skills, swift-footedness, wrestling

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adventurous, alert, bold, cautious, decisive, discreet, focused, industrious, just, observant, patient, persistent, persuasive, protective, resourceful, responsible, sensible, uninhibited, wise

NEGATIVE: Callous, confrontational, humorless, manipulative, nosy, obsessive, pushy, rebellious, rowdy, suspicious, vindictive

Sources of Friction: Trying to get information from uncooperative sources, being confined by the law, being tempted to circumvent the law to catch a fugitive, not being able to find the fugitive, receiving incorrect information from a source, a job requiring going over budget or schedule, an important contact going out of business (one’s primary investigator or bail bondsman, for instance), conflicts of interest (the fugitive being a person one knows, having a family member who was victimized by the fugitive, etc.), suffering a physical injury that makes it difficult to do the job, being wounded or taken captive by the fugitive, working with an impatient bail bondsman, working a case that multiple bounty hunters are also working, do-gooders questioning one’s methods, having to enter dangerous neighborhoods and talk to volatile people to get information

People They Might Interact With: bondsmen, law enforcement officers, people associated with the fugitive (family members, friends, neighbors, former bosses, etc.), “regulars” in the areas where one frequently works (shop owners, wait staff, etc.), administrative personnel

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A bounty hunter who chose the profession because he was unable to pursue the career he really wanted (such as one in the military or law enforcement) might soon become restless and feel unfulfilled.
  • Safety and Security: The danger associated with this job, the fugitives involved, and the neighborhoods they frequent could easily cause safety or security problems for the character.
  • Physiological Needs: Most careers wouldn’t impact a character on this level, but a bounty hunter could easily lose their life in this line of work.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airport, alley, backyard, bar, basement, big city street, casual dining restaurant, cheap motel, coffeehouse, convenience store, courtroom, diner, emergency room, fast food restaurant, garage, gas station, hospital (interior), hospital room, hotel room, indoor shooting range, living room, nightclub, park, parking garage, parking lot, police station, pub, public restroom, small town street, subway train, waiting room

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype:

Bounty hunters are often portrayed as rough and grubby, which helps them blend into the environments where their subjects are hiding. To switch things up, consider a bounty hunter who takes on only high-profile cases and must share the upscale looks of the fugitives he hunts.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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