Occupation Thesaurus: Landscape Designer

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.

Choose an interesting job for your character that will characterize, add tension, and provide the skills needed to achieve their story goals

Occupation: Landscape Designer

Overview: Landscape designers turn outdoors spaces into functional and attractive places for their customers. They meet with clients to ascertain their wants and needs, draw up plans, select plants, and propose their ideas to clients. Those ideas may include plant beds, water features, decking and patios, walls, walkways, pools, and small structures. Once the design has been solidified, the designer will oversee the project.

Necessary Training: A self-employed landscape designer needs no official training, though it would likely help in gaining new clients. Most design firms will require a certain level of training for their designers, whether that be an associate’s (two-year) degree in landscape design, a bachelor’s degree, a specific certification, or some degree of personal experience in the field.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Gardening, good listening skills, repurposing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Analytical, cooperative, courteous, creative, curious, focused, imaginative, industrious, meticulous, nature-focused, observant, patient, professional, responsible

NEGATIVE: Perfectionist

Sources of Friction: A fussy client who is never satisfied, misunderstanding a client’s desires, introducing diseased shrubs that die quickly, permitting issues with the local authorities, nit-picky inspectors, unreliable or dishonest employees, weather difficulties (extreme hot or cold, a storm interrupting a project), a blight or infestation of a certain plant that drives up prices, unforeseen issues with a project (the ground being rockier than expected, problems with the soil, etc.), being sold inferior plants that don’t survive very long, accidentally planting the wrong plants that won’t thrive or don’t get along, contractors cutting corners and building structures that aren’t reliable, a contractor becoming romantically involved with a client, working with a dishonest partner or business administrator, being really good with plants but really bad with people (or managing finances, marketing, etc.)

People They Might Interact With: landscape employees, the company’s owner, office personnel, clients, wholesalers and retailers (of plants, pavers, gardening equipment, etc.), plumbers, construction workers, inspectors

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Someone who entered this field so they could continue a parent’s business or carry on someone else’s legacy may find their self-actualization impacted if the job doesn’t make them happy
  • Esteem and Recognition: Someone seeking esteem may be unfulfilled if, despite doing a good job, they’re unable to garner the kind of recognition and accolades they would like

Common Work-Related Settings: Backyard, flower garden, flower shop, greenhouse, hardware store, old pick-up truck, pond, tool shed, tree house, vegetable patch

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Landscape designers are typically portrayed as men between the ages of 20 and 40. What about a female designer, or an elderly person who has retired from years of landscape work to pursue his dream of designing? Could your landscape designer be part of a family business, with mom as the office manager and an older brother overseeing the day-to-day landscape work? Be sure not to neglect the small details because it’s those that can turn a ho-hum career choice into something that catches the eye.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Critiques 4 U

Current Situation

WANTED: First pages to read by the pool


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 is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if you win. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

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 I’m creating 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. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

One More Thing…Free Access Codes!

Angela, Lee, & I love seeing you guys pounding out the words during summer because we know it’s always a challenge to find the time. If it will help you, grab this free month code we’ve created at One Stop for Writers to cheer on the brave writers attempting Camp NaNoWriMo this month.

1) Register at One Stop, creating your free account

2) Activate this code: CAMP_NANO_WARRIORS on the My Subscription page.

3) Select the 1-month plan. The first month is on us and you can cancel your subscription at any time. Easy, right?

This offer ends on Aug 1st, so activate your code soon.

We hope you find our One Stop tools and resources really help you make a dent in your writing goals this summer. And if you are doing Camp NaNoWriMo, GO TEAM! You’ve got this!

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There Will Be Blood

This is something I say to almost every writer: Make no mistake, there WILL be blood! No, I’m not referring to the movie. Or even to literal blood. But to the fact that if what happens in your plot doesn’t force your protagonist to struggle mightily internally – to ruthlessly challenge their most basic, painful and deeply guarded beliefs, to make them bleed — then even the most “objectively” dramatic event will be shockingly dull.

Dig deep to unearth your character's backstory, including their wounds, fears, and more

You want to hurt your protagonist, truly, madly, deeply, and with strategic precision. You want to dig into her past and find the thing that would cause her the most intense pain – emotional pain – and then . . . lean into it, hard. Double it. Triple it. And then imagine how you could make it even worse.

By making it worse, I do not mean throw a random external obstacle at her, or make what she has to do physically harder, or, if all else fails, simply make her reaction over the top. That’s external. That’s surface. And, maddeningly, that is the advice writers are often given. Things like (and I’m not making this up): “Hey, if your protagonist is mad at her boss, you could have her yell at him. But why not make it even more dramatic? Have her key his car in the parking lot. But why leave it at that? Instead, have her set his car on fire!”

Worst. Advice. Ever.

Why? Because it focuses solely on amping up the external. And much, much worse, unless setting the boss’s car on fire is something she’s been building to from the get go, unless it would force her to confront her escalating internal issue, unless it’s something that given who she is, she would do organically — it’s utterly and completely arbitrary.

Here’s the kicker: It’s not even believable!

Because the first question we, as readers, innately ask is: “Why would she do that?” And the answer isn’t, because she’s really, really angry.

Think about it, most of us have probably been super angry at our boss at some point in our lives. Really hopping mad. But how many of us would have set his car on fire? Not that we didn’t WANT to, heck, we might have envisioned it in great graphic detail, in slo mo, for days. But to actually do it? Well that takes a person with a specific background, a finely honed trigger point, and a deeply set agenda. And in the case of our fire starter, that background would then inevitably spur her to make the decision to torch her boss’s car.

For instance, perhaps her boss has been heckling her, in the same way her abusive, belittling father did, and she’s swallowed it, excused it, rationalized it, losing bits of herself along the way, because, she told herself, keeping her head down is the only way to get the promotion that she’s been slaving away for for years. The promotion that will prove to her dad that she is worthy of respect. The promotion that, she just discovered, her boss gave to his nephew, telling her that she never would have moved up anyway, because she’s too meek, because she never does anything daring, anything innovative, anything unexpected, and never will. Oh yeah? With nothing left to lose, that person very well might flip all the cards and go straight for the blow torch. And we’d know why.

Want to create realistic, memorable characters that resonate with readers? Dig deeper into their backstory

So how do you, the writer, avoid inadvertently pushing your protagonist to do something she’d never, ever do? Here’s the secret: Your goal isn’t to go wide and broad, it’s to go focused and deep. Going wide means simply envisioning a “plot” – a series of external events — and so your protagonist’s job becomes to merely do what the plot dictates. Boring! And shallow. Going deep means creating a protagonist whose past dictates what she does, what she wants, what she believes, and most importantly: why. Thus your protagonist – all your characters – do things for their own subjective, personal reasons. THAT’S what makes a story believable. And here’s the beauty of it: by digging deep, the plot itself begins to emerge, because you know what would hurt her most, and chances are she’s brought it on herself.

That internal struggle – think: the emotional cost of each escalating decision the plot forces your protagonist to make — is where the blood comes from. NOT from bombs a bursting, cars a crashing, or dogs biting. After all, emotional pain is far more potent, life changing, and memorable than physical pain – regardless of how horrific said physical pain is.

That’s why your goal is to embarrass your protagonist, mortify her, force her to do something that, ultimately, is excruciatingly hard emotionally. In other words, the very things that paralyze us in real life.

And what’s killer is that because we so studiously avoid emotional conflict in real life, it can go missing in our stories, or be reduced to a very pale, tepid, easily resolved version of what would actually happen. Think: Hallmark Lite.

So you don’t inadvertently fall into this common trap, here are a few things to keep in mind, the better to deftly lure your protagonist into an escalating gauntlet of genuinely transformative pain. As Emily Dickenson so sagely said: A wounded deer leaps the highest.

  • It’s about vulnerability. It’s about the things we hide, the things we don’t want others to see. What is your protagonist hiding that, slowly, through the course of the story, will be exposed? Why does he believe it must be hidden? We’re not talking about logistics here – like, he keeps where the treasure is buried secret because if he told anyone they’d dig it up and steal it. Duh! That’s surface. We’re talking about a closely guarded secret about how he sees things, especially himself. Here’s a dramatic example (often the secrets are subtler, more idiosyncratic) but, for our purposes, this works: Imagine a teenage boy with the skill to be the star quarterback – the coach, his bros want him, need him for the team, which has been losing, and he’s their only hope — but he envisions himself as a figure skater. In a skirt. Now, imagine how he thinks said bros would see him if they knew the truth? Imagine the lengths he’d go to to keep them from finding out, and – this is key – the pain he’d feel from keeping the secret, from lying, from longing to be who he really is. In other words, you know exactly what would be extremely scary, utterly painful and ultimately liberating for him.


  • Force yourself to write those utterly painful, hard moments as they’re happening, and don’t leap over them. Don’t sum them up after the fact. Don’t have your protagonist tell us what happened. Let us experience it, in his head, as he does, in real time. Even if it’s a flashback. Our secret figure skater would have a lot of revealing past moments, which he’d call up in service of making the hard choices the plot would force upon him. Like the moment when he realized his true passion, and the moment when he realized how the world might see him as a result. Your job as a writer is to imagine the most painful thing that could happen to your protagonist, and then, go even deeper. I’m hitting on this hard because writers often skip gut wrenching moments because they’re, well, gut wrenching. Don’t. It should be hard. For you. It should hurt. You. In fact, if it doesn’t hurt you at least a little bit, you’re not doing it right.


  • Finally, here’s a rule of thumb that will make your novel deeper, richer, more riveting, keep you on track as you write forward, and save you countless rewrites in the bargain: When you’re trying to figure out what happens next, don’t look to that external grab bag of objectively dramatic “Big Events” you could lob at your protagonist. Instead look into your story’s very specific backyard. There lies the answer to the question What would hurt, test, undermine my protagonist the most?

My advice? Keep your eye on the prize: Dig deep, down to where the blood is. Reap the blood. Put it on the page. That’s what the reader comes for. We’re hungry to see what would happen if we actually had to confront the truths about ourselves that we’re too afraid to reveal in real life, to see what it would really feel like, and hopefully change a bit, grow a bit, and maybe even feel a little less vulnerable. Giving us that vicarious experience is your job as a writer. It’s what makes you courageous. And what gives you incredible power.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com



Posted in Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Empathy, Resident Writing Coach, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 14 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Nightclub Bouncer

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.

Is your character a bouncer? Describe their security job correctly with the occupation thesaurus. Occupation: Nightclub Bouncer

Overview:  A bouncer is hired security for an establishment where alcohol is served. They have many different duties, including vetting patrons on entry to ensure they are of age and not intoxicated to the degree that they may be a danger to others or themselves. In addition to monitoring who enters the establishment, they watch for situations that could escalate as alcohol or drugs is added to the social environment: arguments that may escalate, physical altercations, unwanted advances that are turned down and the message to move on is ignored, unsafe conduct (climbing onto a stage when intoxicated, dancing on a speaker when it is against club rules, etc.), watching for movements and actions that could turn violent, patrons that become unruly or over-intoxicated, harassment of staff, and monitoring all areas within the club for safety. They also monitor for situations that could put the club at legal risk (illegal drugs being sold and consumed, people attempting to drink and drive, etc.)

A bouncer is typically very fit and imposing, and if necessary, will rely on the intimation factor to discourage situations from escalating that could put other patrons in danger. Physical interaction is used as a last resort to expel a customer when it becomes necessary to do so. Instead, quick wit, humor, and the ability to keep the situation as relaxed as possible by talking the situation out while steering the person to the exit are tools used to deescalate the situation. Reasoning with patrons that leaving is in their best interest to avoid involving the police and so they can get on with their night elsewhere where they will have more fun is the goal. If the situation escalates and becomes physical, or the bouncer, club employees, patrons, or the person being evicted themselves is in danger, then police will be called to take over the situation. 

What a bouncer can and cannot do to remove someone from the premises varies greatly depending on the laws of the state or province, so if you are writing a real-world bouncer, check into local laws. In most cases the bouncer has no more rights that an average citizen, and so rough handling and fights will rarely happen as this puts the bouncer and the establishment at risk for legal charges and being sued. They typically only engage physically to defend themselves, and only use reasonable force. Most will not carry a weapon, even if it is legal to do so. Their work attire may be casual (a t-shirt or collared shirt with the bar’s logo) or upscale (business suit) depending on the event and venue.

Necessary Training:

Training will vary depending on where the nightclub is located, but most bouncers do enter a training program so they better understand the scope of their work and learn techniques to spot problems before they start and how to deescalate and remove patrons in a safe and legal way for all involved. Bouncers may have to pass a drug test, have a background check, have a high school diploma, or other conditions in place depending on the venue’s location and hiring policies.

Bouncers may work a variety of venues: clubs, concerts, beer gardens, celebrity functions, special celebrations, strip clubs, invite-only private functions, casinos, restaurants, bars, etc. and their role may be tailored to suit the location and event.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, basic first aid, blending in,  charm, empathy, enhanced hearing, enhanced sense of smell, ESP (clairvoyance), exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, haggling, high pain tolerance, hospitality, lip-reading, making people laugh, reading people, self-defense, super strength, throwing one’s voice

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, alert, analytical, calm, cautious, centered, charming, confident, courageous, courteous, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, easygoing, efficient, empathetic, observant, persistent, persuasive, proactive, professional, protective, responsible, sensible, tolerant, witty

NEGATIVE: evasive, humorless, impatient, inflexible, macho, suspicious, temperamental

Sources of Friction: underage patrons with fake IDs, party goes with drugs in their system that become aggressive and violent, someone drugging the drinks of others, drug dealers on the premises, a patron who smuggles in alcohol, drugs, or a weapon, fights between women when only male bouncers are present, bartenders or servers being threatened or hit on, pick-pocketing, not enough security working a big event, a patron throwing a punch and the bouncer using excessive force when defending oneself, sexual predators, people who are unsafely intoxicated who are abandoned by their friend group, rivals or ex-lovers running into one another, special venue inclusions that make the area more difficult to monitor (a beer garden added to the parking lot, private events, special celebrations with distracting decor that restrict visibility, celebrity guests and media in attendance, etc.).

People They Might Interact With: patrons, bartenders, management, liquor reps, celebrities, private security for celebrities and other important personalities, wait staff, cab drivers, police officers

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: A character who was self-conscious of their physical condition may chose this career to reclaim their own sense of personal power.
  • Love and Belonging: A character who struggles socially or with dating may choose this job because the social atmosphere to gain insight on how to successfully interact with other people.

Common Work-Related Settings: bar, black-tie event, casino, medieval tavern (speculative), nightclub, police station

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype:

Not all bouncers are beefy, intimidating men. Women can also be bouncers and often can have a better success rate at talking down situations with both men and women because they are not as physically imposing. Some clubs will always have a female bouncer on staff to handle situations specifically to do with women, enter areas where women frequent (such as the bathroom), and to help calm down situations where egos and testosterone are at play.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Spy Novels: How to Nail The Character of an Espionage Hero

Great treat for you today–Piper Bayard (of Bayard & Holmes) is digging into what an espionage character should look like. And she should know, because her co-author, Jay Holmes…well, read on to find out!

James Bond, Jason Bourne, Sydney Bristow, Jack Bauer . . . Nothing thrills like a well-crafted spy. However, most of us haven’t served in the Intelligence Community (“IC”) to have experience to draw on, so it helps to talk to someone who is the real deal. My writing partner, Jay Holmes, is the real deal. He’s a forty-five year veteran of field intelligence operations and a senior member of the US Intelligence Community.

So is Holmes a spy? No. Holmes is a “spook.” As he says, spying is seamy. The preferred slang among American intelligence operatives, particularly older operatives, and in the American IC in genera is “spook,” not “spy.” Usage of the term “spook” in the Intelligence Community dates back to the 1800s and is derived from “a ghost that haunts people and is considered undesirable.” It has nothing to do with the racial slur, and operatives of all races are referred to as “spooks.” “Spies” are the agents of foreign countries that are spying on us, or they are foreign agents who are spying on their own countries on our behalf.

Now that we’ve settled that, let’s take a look at some character traits that all spooks share.

Character Traits

While members of the IC can have an infinite variety of personalities, religions, political opinions, and backgrounds, American spooks all have some character traits in common. These traits will be similar to greater and lesser degrees in other countries.

1. Highly Developed Mental Discipline

Members of the Intelligence Community must be able to compartmentalize information, as well as their experiences. They must mentally wall off the work life from the personal life, and vice versa. Otherwise, they would talk out of turn, get burned out, or worse, if a field operative, they would get dead.

2. Love of Travel and Experiencing Foreign Cultures

One reason spooks are drawn to the work is an abiding interest in people, cultures, and experiencing their world.

3. Recognition That Diverse People Actually Are Diverse

Anyone can talk about diversity. Talking is easy. Those in the Intelligence Community, on the other hand, must live those differences, and they know that recognizing and understanding the contrasting values, personalities, and customs of other cultures is paramount to both their survival and the success of their missions. They must work within that kaleidoscopic framework on behalf of American interests.

4. Superior Intelligence

Spooks really do have to be smart.

Holmes and I know what you’re thinking . . . But there’s this spook on [fill in the network] that says really stupid things. Yes. We often laugh at them and wonder what they’re up to. With members of the IC, as with everyone, intelligence is a tool that is dependent on the user, and it can always be limited or even nullified by character and hubris. The greatest mistake any spook, or any person, for that matter, can make is to think that because they know some thing, they know every thing. Falling into that trap is its own form of stupidity.

5. They Are Wholly Committed

Members of the IC are not wishy-washy people, whether they spend their career at an analyst’s desk at Headquarters or in Third World countries hunting down our enemies. They commit their time, their relationships, and even their lives in service to their nation. The clandestine services take a piece from everyone who serves. Everyone.

6. Good Sense of Humor

Even the field spooks like Holmes, whose spirit animal is Grumpy Cat, have a great sense of humor. Without it, they would go mad in short order.

7. Loyalty

US spooks are loyal to America and to the ideals of the US Constitution and US society. This is not a blind loyalty or a fanaticism, but rather a deep commitment that makes them willing to sacrifice their lifestyle and potentially their lives in service to their country.

8. Socially Accepting

Religion, race, ethnicity, first language, and financial background are irrelevant to US field spooks as compared to skill and loyalties. In fact, such differences are highly valued and useful as long as the individuals are first and foremost loyal to America and to American constitutional ideals. The field is a meritocracy, and what matters most is who can get the job done and come home alive.

9. Covert Action Spooks Can Get Wild During Recess

Field spooks, specifically, have a “certain skill set” that lends them to being a bit wilder than the average bear when letting off steam. Holmes and I aren’t providing examples in order to protect the guilty.

10. Counter-Intelligence (“CI”) Specialists Are Sober and Intensely Patient

CI specialists are looking for that one irregularity—that one glowing clue. Or to sink to a cliché because it is so apt, the needle in the haystack, and they have to sift through tons of hay. CI spooks keep track of mountains of information and are highly skilled at catching that one anomaly or inconsistency in evaluating a foreign agent or in locating a mole within their organization. That requires the soul of patience and attention to detail.

The overriding trait common to members of the IC, particularly to field spooks, is a farsighted optimism. It is a belief that what they are doing is helping to make their country safer for those back at home. It is the conviction that when they risk their lives, it is for a better tomorrow.

“If I didn’t believe I was helping create a better world, I would never jump out of the plane.”~ Jay Holmes

Any questions about the character traits of real life members of the IC? Who are your favorite espionage characters in literature and movies? What heroic qualities do you see in them?

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers.

Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more.

It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Please visit Piper and Holmes at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.



Posted in Character Traits, Characters, Cliches, Guest Post, Motivation, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 7 Comments

How Do You Lead Readers to Your Theme?

A good book, once finished, often leaves you with that feeling of something more. I like to think of it as the book’s essence. It kind of hangs around like a ghost, occasionally prodding you with reminders of the realization you had while reading it, or bringing to mind that character who never left you. Of course, there are plenty of facets in your novel that help to create this ‘ghost,’ but two key factors are the theme and golden thread.

These terms are often used interchangeably, but in my mind, they are slightly different, although inextricably linked.

The theme is the big idea or moral message underlying the story. For example, in The Hunger Games, the theme is sacrifice, or sacrificing yourself for others.

What's your story's theme? What clues can you lay for readers to lead them to that theme?

The golden thread refers to all the elements throughout your novel that piece together near the climax to reveal your book’s theme or inner truth. Think of it as a hook on a bookish fishing line that pulls your reader through your novel. As it does, it attaches more and more pieces of bait until right near the end, it catches a whale of a fish for the win.

In The Hunger Games, the theme is sacrifice. Collins lays pieces of sacrifice bait throughout the story, from the early chapters where Katniss volunteers herself for the Hunger Games in place of her sister, right through to the final chapter where she and Peeta make a pact to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and take down the games.

So how do you lay this golden trail that will lead readers to your story’s theme?

Tip 1: Pin down your book’s theme in a single sentence

Why? Because it will help you unearth what pieces of bait to lay through your book. Ask yourself: In a single sentence, what is my book’s theme?

The Hunger Games’ theme can be summed up this way: Sacrificing yourself for the greater good is necessary. Or, sacrificing yourself for others will lead to greater good.

(More information on determining your story’s theme can be found here.)

Tip 2: Position your main characters on opposing sides of your theme

Your hero and your villain should sit firmly opposite each other, particularly when it comes to the theme. For example, Katniss, the hero, sacrifices herself for everyone else. Whereas, President Snow sacrifices everyone else for his benefit. This provides lots of opportunity for conflict and tension.

But the hero doesn’t have to be perfect from the start; more often than not, the hero will start out flawed, on the wrong side of the thematic line. Through your story and your hero’s developing character arc, they will face a number of challenges that will force them to confront their actions and the choices they’ve made (on the wrong side of the theme). Eventually they’ll reach a thematic conclusion near the climax of the story when they’ll see the error of their ways and make the right choice that leads to saving the day.

Tip 3: Show the conflict via your theme in three ways

  • Pit the character values based on the theme against each other (i.e. hero and villain)
  • Make your main characters have different embodiments of the theme (i.e. differing levels of willingness to sacrifice or different views on sacrifice)
  • Give your hero a decision based on the theme

Tip 4: Weave your theme into each major plot point

Plot and theme connect seamlessly. Most plots have key elements like plot points (where something significant happens), pinch points (with the villain ramping up pressure), and turning points (usually a significant event in favor of the hero). At each of these points, you need to bury the theme into your story, whether it be through character action, decision, dialogue. or otherwise.

For example, in The Hunger Games, the story opens with the principle of sacrifice and Katniss’s decision to volunteer for the games on her sister’s behalf. Throughout the story, Collins continues the theme of sacrifice, albeit in different ways:

  • During the Hunger Games Katniss refuses to sacrifice Rue (another very young tribute) – risking death herself.
  • Katniss also puts herself in danger to go and find much needed medicine for Peeta when he’s injured.
  • She also weaves in the flip side of the theme: not only are these children murdered (sacrificed) live on TV in the games, we later discover that Snow has turned the old tributes into mutated wolves, sacrificing them again.

Tip 5: The Ultimate Decision

In and around the final battle, your hero should face the ultimate thematic decision. In the case of Katniss, she and Peeta are on the brink of winning the Hunger Games, but President Snow decrees that only one contender may live, meaning one of them must kill the other.

This prompts Katniss to have a thematic revelation: they will never beat the Hunger Games the way they want to (with both of them living). Therefore, it is better to sacrifice themselves so their deaths prevent Snow from getting his single winner.

It’s the old adage of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But the sacrificial suicide pact saves them both because Snow would rather have two winners than none. The reason this is such a satisfying ending is because Collins uses sacrifice bait throughout the story to lead you to this conclusion.

If you bury the theme within your story’s plot points, scenes, and characters’ actions, you hook the reader with tiny pieces of theme bait. It leads them to one glorious thematic conclusion in your story’s climax.

More to the point, sowing these breadcrumbs makes the reader feel like they are having the thematic revelation personally; it provides an ‘aha’ moment, rather than having the theme told or explained to them. And that right there is how you leave them with the book’s essence, the magic, the ghost of a revelation they’ve had, and a story that will haunt them forever.

Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.

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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Theme, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

How To “Level Up” Your Character’s Wound

Every writer who has spent time studying the craft writing knows of the character wound, and that they are the foundation of a strong, memorable character. Why? Because they make characters complex, authentic (I challenge you to find me a person that isn’t carrying an emotional wound, consciously or unconsciously), and they provide the foundation for the most moving moments a story can contain—the character arc. Yep, wounds are the birth of the change and growth your reader is there to experience.

Sure, not all stories need a character arc (and therefore a wound); there’s New York Times best sellers out there that leave the character the same way we found them. But who doesn’t love the story of the underdog, the one that perseveres, the hero that overcomes? I’ve never done the math, but my guess is those stories are disproportionately represented in the coveted #1 ranks. I think it’s safe to say a character wound is an important part of your writing repertoire.

A character wound is a painful past event that changes who your character is.

In psychological terms it’s called the ‘negative core belief*’, whose definition is almost identical to that of a character wound— ‘a negative, broad, and generalised judgement an individual has made about themselves, based on some negative experiences they have had during their earlier years.’ Whether you define it intuitively, or scientifically, in essence, it’s a thinking pattern rooted in our past. One that will impact how your character perceives the world, and ultimately the choices they make.

*You may have seen Angela and Becca refer to this as the lie, misbelief, or false belief. Read more about it HERE. 😉

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional woundMost writers acknowledge this and incorporate a character wound into their character’s backstory, but what the simplistic definitions above don’t capture, is that wounds (and our negative core beliefs) are multiply determined. What do I mean by ‘multiply determined’? Essentially, every belief, thought, bias, and perception we’ve built about ourselves and our world is a product of not one incident, but a layered and dynamic interaction of nature and nurture.

In psychology we call it the biopsychosocial model, but I wouldn’t spend any more time on that term that the seconds it took you to decipher it. What writers need to know is that the wound their character carries has been created by the interplay of a variety of factors. Consider the following:

Your Character’s Biology

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional wound

Early scientists subscribed to the “tabula rasa” theory of development; that at birth the human mind is a “blank slate”. In fact, every one of us arrives in this world with certain predispositions programmed into our microscopic DNA sequences, which means any character in your story has the same roots. Consider the play of genetics and neurology that influences your character’s temperament, personality traits, intelligence, and physical attributes. If your character is extremely introverted and short, they are going to respond very differently to an abusive father than a character that is brash and built like a barn. If your character has a family history of mental health issues and they see something no one else can, they are going to jump to a whole different set of conclusions than someone who doesn’t. To create an authentic person on your page, you need to reflect these biological building blocks, because they play a part in how your character internalises their experiences and how they engage with others.

Your Character’s Psychology

This component focuses our lens on how your character thinks and behaves. Heavily influenced by both biology (nature) and the social context (nurture), your character’s wound is a reflection of their perceptions, thoughts, emotions, motivations, personality, and behaviour. Sure, you can have a hero whose ex-wife cheated on him (and is about to meet his soulmate…who’s a shifter), or a young, orphaned boy who lives on the streets (and is about to discover he’s the only hope for an ancient civilisation he didn’t know existed), but is your character an optimist? Are they a quick thinker, or do they need time to process the events that unfold around them? When it comes to crunch time, do they avoid, do they rationalise, do they go on the attack? A wound, the belief that we’re unlovable for example, doesn’t exist within a vacuum. Your character’s psychological traits are going to mold that belief into something very nuanced and unique (and the awesome bit is that you, the writer, get to say what that is!).

Your Character’s Social World

Understanding how to properly create a character's emotional woundOur social world has been molding us since the day we were born. Our parents, our broader family dynamics, our communities, and our culture are all layers that define us. Social factors are probably the most invisible influence when it comes to the private and often unseen thoughts that live in our heads, but it’s equally as influential as biology and psychology. Your character may have been through trauma, abuse, grief or loss and have reached some conclusions about themselves or their world. But when they decided that adults can’t be trusted, that they are a failure, or that they don’t belong, what world were they living in at the time? Were they isolated and discriminated against, or did they have economic security or a strong cultural identity? How did these factors impact on the wound your character carries? Did they reinforce it or challenge it?

We all want our characters to be authentic and realistic. Capturing that on a page, heck, in a book, is a challenge considering how complex and complicated Homo Sapiens are. But it’s a challenge worth investing in, because crafting a character that becomes as real for your reader as they are to you is something every writer strives to create. And ultimately, that unforgettable character is a key factor that will have readers coming back for more.

What do you think? Have you considered all these layers when crafting your character and their wound? How do these layers weave together to challenge or reinforce your character’s wound?

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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Posted in Character Arc, Character Wound, Characters, Emotional Wound Thesaurus, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 9 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus: Ethical Hacker

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.

Need help figuring out the perfect jobs for your cast of characters? The Occupation Thesaurus can help. This week's entry? Ethical Hacker

Occupation: Ethical Hacker

Overview: Ethical hackers are professionals who are employed to deliberately break into a customer’s network or system to determine security vulnerabilities and offer solutions. Also called a “white hat hacker,” these individuals apply the same techniques and methods that malicious hackers use, but their intent is not malicious. Rather, they seek to shore up potential issues to keep the bad guys out.

Ethical hackers may work as independent contractors or be part of a security firm.

Necessary Training: Training requirements vary from job to job. Because of the security risks, many employers require that their hackers have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or another related field. They also may want anyone they hire to be certified in one of the main IT security certifications.

While it’s possible to become an ethical hacker without any formal training, getting hired  can be difficult. This occupation is legit and in demand, but many people view the field suspiciously, believing that ethical hackers are simply bad hackers turned good. For an employer to put their company’s security into the hands of a stranger, they need to be able to trust that person. Many times, a degree or certification (as well as legitimate references) can be enough to convince them.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Gaining the trust of others, multitasking

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adventurous, analytical, centered, curious, discreet, independent, intelligent, meticulous, observant, persistent, proactive, professional, resourceful, responsible, studious, uninhibited

NEGATIVE: Addictive, confrontational, devious, manipulative, mischievous, paranoid, perfectionist, rebellious, suspicious, unethical

Sources of Friction: Missing a vulnerability within a client’s system that is then exploited, being blamed for a breach in a recent client’s system, one’s own system being hacked and one’s credibility being threatened, getting caught using unethical procedures on a job, unknowingly letting one’s certification lapse, nefarious individuals from one’s past making it difficult for one to “stay clean and fly straight,” word getting out about one’s illegitimate hacking activities from the past, being blackmailed, complications arising from one’s illegitimate hacking activities on the side, lack of respect from loved ones who don’t understand one’s job, not being trusted by others (because of one’s past or their own prejudices about the industry), conflict with the client’s IT security team over proposed solutions, being very good at one’s job but struggling with the social part (having to communicate with clients, lead meetings, engage with security teams, etc.),

People They Might Interact With: clients, online certification instructors and admin, people working for or with the client (employees, contractors, past employees, etc.)

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: It’s possible for ethical hackers to receive criticism from many quarters. Black hat hackers could see them as sell-outs and cowards while legitimate professionals may have a hard time trusting them. If unethical hacking is a part of their past, family members and loved ones may continue to be suspicious. If any of these dysfunctional dynamics come into play, it can impact the character’s esteem.
  • Love and Belonging: Hacking is an often solitary occupation, meaning many in this field may struggle building relationships.
  • Safety and Security: A hacker’s safety and security may be threatened if they discover vulnerabilities in a system that the creator doesn’t want removed. This need could also be impacted if the hacker fails to protect a popular or public client’s system, resulting in the public at large or an important grid (traffic, electricity, food distribution, etc.) being exposed.

Common Work-Related Settings:  Basement, boardroom, man cave

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: When people think of the typical hacker (even an ethical one), they picture a twenty-something male working out of his basement. Give readers a pleasant surprise by considering alternative genders, ages, and locations. What about a semi-retired grandfather working out of his assisted living facility? A stay-at-home mom who works in her she-shed during school hours? A part-time pastor or priest doing ethical hacking as a way to supplement his income?

There’s also a common perception that ethical hackers weren’t always ethical. Keep in mind that your character might have a squeaky-clean past and still be good at this job.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Critiques 4 U!

What Becca Wishes Her Summer Looked Like

Welp, here in New York, we finally made our way to summer vacation. Also known as Becca’s Annual Transition From Working In A Quiet House To Trying To Get Stuff Done With Two Kids Underfoot. Maybe you can relate. Luckily, the sleeping in, eating ice cream, family time, and general laid-back-ness make it all worthwhile.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we get to totally slack. Some of us still have first pages to read. And you know what that means :).



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 is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if you win. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

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 I’m creating 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. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Wax On, Wax Off: 5 Areas To Polish Before Submitting A Manuscript

Mr. Miyagi: Wax On, Wax Off (Karate Kid)

Most writers are familiar with the saying, “You only get one chance to impress,” and there is no industry where this holds truer than in publishing. From the agent who reads those first requested pages, to the editor searching for the manuscript that wows, to the reader who has dozens of unread books on their kindle to choose from, there really is no room for anything less than exceptional writing. Putting in the extra time before hitting send can help you impress right out the gate, and keep those eyeballs glued to the page.

Here are FIVE polishing tips I recommend before releasing your manuscript into the wild.

Click to download this checklist!

Eradicate Crutch Words

One of the simplest ways to strengthen your writing is to search and destroy weak or overused words in your manuscript. These crutch words can come in a variety of shades – descriptions we tend to reuse, directional cues, passive language, overused body gesturing, etc. If you are writing in deep point of view, also look for filtering words that create unnecessary distance (looked, felt, smelled, touched, knew, wondered, believed, saw, thought, etc.) between readers and the character. Weed these out so you are showing what the reader sees, feels and thinks directly, bringing readers into the character’s inner experience. If you need a guide, here’s my handy Crutch Words List.

Strengthen Your Verbs

In the flow of creating, we often choose verbs that instantly come to mind, but these are not always the strongest choice. Your final pass should also include a quick study of the verbs you use, ensuring each one is as specific and active as possible. It sounds tedious, but practice makes perfect and after a few pages, you’ll instantly spot generic ones that will need to be switched out. Using active verbs also means your manuscript can shed some of that unwanted adverb weight. To spark ideas on better verb choices to replace bland ones, grab a copy of our Active Verb List.

Review Your Descriptions

I hear these thesaurus books are pretty good at helping writers master description… 😉

Tight writing means not just choosing the right things to describe, but ensuring that everything described does double or triple duty. Consider your descriptions, everything from characters, to the setting, to the raw emotional experiences, and challenge yourself to do more with less. Does the setting description also tell the reader something important about the character’s personality, beliefs, habits, positive qualities, flaws or morality? Do you make use of symbolism and common associations to deepen the meaning? Are your emotional moments sensory in nature, helping to trigger the reader’s own emotional memory so they empathize with your characters? Each word you use should earn the right to be part of the story, so think about how description can also characterize, reveal bits of important backstory, create sensory imagery that reminds readers of their own experiences in the real world, and convey a deeper meaning through theme and symbolism.

Amp Up Emotional Showing

Characters are the heart of a story, and their emotions are the lifeblood that pumps beat to beat, keeping readers engaged. Taking the time to run a final pass with emotions in mind can lead to a rich payoff. Go scene to scene, and look at how your characters express themselves through body language and dialogue. Are they offering strong cues which convey exactly what they are feeling, including the intensity of each emotion? Are the movements and gestures you use to show their body language freshly written, or do they feel a bit generic? If so, hone in on this emotional showing and come up with an action beat, vocal cue or dialogue tidbit that is specifically designed to fit with your character’s unique personality.

Unique characters mean unique expressions & body language

While you’re beefing up your emotional showing, watch for instances where you name an emotion. These are places where you are telling the emotional response or are unsure whether you have shown the emotion well enough and so have additionally named the feeling to ensure readers “get it.” Whichever the case, a bit more effort to lose the telling and show directly will give readers a richer emotional ride.

Monitor Your Story’s Pace

Finally, reading your book with an eye on pacing will help you spot any places where the momentum is flagging, either through a lack of tension, too much description, extended POV character introspection, or unneeded backstory and information dumps. If you find your attention waning as you read, likely others will as well. When the pace starts to flat line, give it an injection of story adrenaline. Can you raise the stakes, add a ticking clock, insert complications or simply streamline the moment to focus on what’s really important? The pace should ebb and flow as you balance intensity with relief, but never slow so much the reader is tempted to skim.

What are some of the key areas you always go back to polish? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in Editing Tips, Pacing, Revision and Editing, Setting, Show Don't Tell, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources | 19 Comments