Need a Creative Kick in the Pants?

FACT: every once in a while, the ol’ brain noodle goes limp. You stare at the screen…stare at the screen…stare at the screen. And then you remember…oh hey, there’s a pile of laundry downstairs. Or, the car needs gas. Or maybe you get a sudden urge to scrub those nasty grout stains in the bathroom because right now? It’s a get out of jail card. A reason to ditch the keyboard. And when your ideas dry up, doing something else—anything else—sounds like a GREAT plan.

It’s hard in these moments because guilt tags along. Guilt that we should be writing. That we shouldn’t have given up. And then worry sets in, followed by fear. Is this a sign that all the ideas have dried up? That we’re not cut out for this? Maybe the magic is gone. We’re broken. It’s time to switch careers.

Whoa there, self-doubt. Not cool.

MORE FACTS: You are not a fraud. You are not broken writer. You just need a creative kick in the pants, and me being the list-maker I am, you’re going to get a cornucopia of them.

Get Up and Move

  • Go for a walk. It’s okay, the outside world won’t kill you. It’s bright and shiny out there, full of smells and sounds and tiny bits and bobs that you are usually to busy to notice. Challenge yourself to see these things. Hear them, smell them, touch them. How would you describe them on the page? Bring something home with you—a detail that can be woven into the scene you are trying to write.
  • Go for a drive, somewhere you’ve never been. Life is busy. How often do you come last in the chain of priorities? Probably a lot, I’m guessing. So take a small trip, just for you, somewhere you’ve wanted to visit or check out. A park along the river that you often pass but never stop at. A coffee house with the funky tables out front. Go for a drive and experience that new place. Pay attention to your emotions. What do they feel like in your body? What type of thoughts enter your mind? Is there a moment in your story where you can ground a character using this emotion, showing it the same way?

Surf, Baby, Surf

  • Pinterest is a great source for ideas when you need them. Plunk out a few search terms and start exploring. Then, create a board for the scene you’re trying to write. Choose images of scene’s location. The weather. Find pictures that symbolize the action that will unfold between characters. Include an image or two that gives you ideas on something unusual or unexpected that could happen.
  • Find a quote that epitomizes how your character feels and the inner questions they are wresting with. (BrainyQuote is a good place to search by idea or theme, like “letting go of a relationship” or “betrayal” etc.). Find a few good quotes that help you slip into your character’s mindset. Many quotes have been made into images, and you could add this to a Pinterest board for your character.
  • If you are in the planning stage for a new novel, take your surfing skills to Netflix. Scroll through the descriptions for different movies and when you find one that grabs your imagination, stop and imagine what the story might look like based on that one-line pitch. What premises, characters, situations, ironies, etc. speak to you? Write them down.
  • Netflix again…this time, look at movies that are NOT in the genre you write. Read the one-liner blurbs. What situations, characters, and settings grab you? What ideas excite you and how could you tweak these to fit the genre you do want to write in? Trello is a great tool for organizing ideas. Make a column add all your ideas one by one on cards, and then drag them into different combinations. Play with ideas, see what comes together. Don’t be surprised if your next novel (or three!) come together rather quickly.

Shake Up the Routine

  • Sometimes we get in a bit of a rut. If your ideas dry up, shake up your setting. If you’re writing at home, try heading out somewhere. Think about what fuels you – do you need absolute quiet? A library might be a good fit. If you like a bit of noise or want to people-watch, try a coffee shop, a pub, or a picnic bench at the park.
  • Some people like to write at home, and that’s fine. But cast a glance around to see if your space is inspiring or not. We can’t all have stunning libraries to write in. Sometimes it’s the kitchen table, or facing the corner in the laundry room. Wherever you are, try to do whatever you can to feed your creative spirit. A screensaver that inspires the imagination. A candle that smells awesome. Soft lighting, music to write to. Make it as inviting and inspiring as possible.
  • Protect your space. If you are trying to write and there’s lots of distractions (kids, a blaring TV, texts, notifications, etc.) it’s hard to hang onto a creative mindset. Move to a place where you have privacy, talk to family members about respecting your writing time, and consider investing in an app like Freedom. You can block everything, or make it so you can only access the sites you use to write. We all know that the internet is great for supplying us with ideas but it can also be a black hole sometimes.

Get Creative with a New Medium

Angela made a thing!
  • If you’re stuck and the words won’t flow, express your creativity another way. Surprise your spouse with a homemade dessert. Take a sketchpad outside and find something to draw. Take a painting class like I did (that requires zero skill). Sometimes we need to just let go of the pressure of making words and make something else instead. Fill your well and then come back to the keyboard!
  • If you’re determined to push through your creative block with words, swap your keyboard out for a pen you love. (Hello, colorful gel pens!) Or, if you want to stick with your keyboard, switch fonts or colors. I find this really helps me and it’s great for editing, too.

Turn to Books

  • Reading, so obvious, right? And yet, sometimes we just need to set everything aside and get lost in a book or three. Make time to read. Choose books you’re excited to experience. And don’t be afraid to read outside your genre!
  • When the idea tank is empty, pull a book off the shelf that caused you to fall in love with writing. Pick an iconic scene and write it yourself. Or, choose an alternative ending. Write a backstory scene for one of the characters. Explore the world of another writer for fun, for you. Don’t worry about quality, just let your imagination run wild.

Think Outside the Box

  • Turn to a library of ideas, something that will help you sort out any story struggle. One Stop for Writers is all about making sure you NEVER get stuck staring at the screen. It’s filled with tools that will help you brainstorm fresh stories, dig deep into the layers of your characters, and find your way out of any plot problem. Check out the Idea Generator for quick help, our crazy-helpful Tip Sheets & Checklists or explore the powerful descriptive database and other resources using One Stop for Writers’ Free Trail. And right now, you can jump right in with a 75% off code for a 1-month subscription (ends March 20th, so hurry on this one).
  • Sometimes the story needs time to breathe. Stepping away can be a good thing, either literally, or just moving to another part of the story. I know, some people get itchy when it comes to the idea of writing out of order, but sometimes by skipping ahead you free your mind to work on the problems you’re encountering now. Working on a scene down the road that you can fully imagine will keep the momentum going so you don’t feel like you’re blocked.

So, BOOM. 15 ways to get those creative juices flowing through that incredible brain of yours. If you ever get frustrated, stuck, or stumped, work your way through the list. You’ll be back at the keyboard in no time at all!

Posted in About Us, Focus, One Stop For Writers, Reading, Time Management, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writer's Block, Writing Time | 9 Comments

Storytelling Decisions: What’s the Right Pace for Your Story?

As we learn to write, we often hear about the need to create a strong pace in our story. Many seem to think that a strong pace requires a fast pace.

However, that’s not what’s meant by strong. So what is a story’s pace and why is it important?

Pacing is not the same as the speed that a story takes place, whether the plot covers days or years. (That said, a drawn-out time frame for a story can affect a reader’s sense of a story’s pace, especially if it feels like characters are waffling on taking action.)

Instead, the pace of a story is determined by how fast or slow events unfold in the storytelling. Stories are about change, and pacing is a measure of how quickly things seem to change from a reader’s perspective.

A too-slow pace can feel boring—no one wants to read 100 pages of nothing happening, nothing changing. But at the same time, a too-fast pace can feel hectic, be difficult for readers to follow, and prevent readers from connecting to characters or the story. So we need to find the right balance.

What’s the Right Pace for Our Story?

The “right” balance will be different for each story. There’s no formula we can rely on for creating the “perfect” mix for our story’s pace, such as writing 50% action, 40% dialogue, and 10% narrative.

The right pace for our story depends on several factors, including:

  • our genre (thriller readers expect a faster pace than women’s fiction readers)
  • our story’s voice (some voices are more chatty or terse than others)
  • our story’s length (shorter stories often need a faster pace than novels, just to fit in the whole plot)
  • our goals for reader connection to characters (more emotional connection requires delving more into a character’s introspection and emotional experience)
  • our goals for reader experience (a fast thrill ride or deeper thoughts/emotional responses)

What Creates a Story’s Pace?

When we talk about pacing, we could be referring to several different writing or craft elements that affect pacing, including:

  • Story Structure: Beat sheets can reveal whether plot turning points are happening at the right point to satisfy readers.
  • Tension: Emotion, contrast, strong goals, conflict, foreshadowing, and even paragraph breaks can all increase tension, which affects pacing.
  • Narrative Drive: The sense of forward movement in the story, working toward a satisfying ending.
  • Obstacles: A sense of conflict—if meaningful and not random—creates tension, which increases a story’s pace.
  • Goals and Stakes: Pacing drags if the stakes aren’t rising throughout the story, and stakes can’t exist without goals at risk.
  • Infodumps: Dumping information from backstory, worldbuilding, or descriptions pulls down the pace of a scene.
  • Narrative Elements: Too much of anything—action, dialogue, description, introspection, etc.—in a row can hurt pacing, so limit any one element to two or three paragraphs and then add something else to the mix.
  • Sentence Structure: Long, complex sentences slow down a paragraph’s pace, and short, choppy sentences speed up a paragraph’s pace. There’s a time and place for both.

How to Create a Strong Pace?

Most pacing advice out there focuses on how to speed up or slow down our story’s pace, such as varying sentence and paragraph length, changing the mix of dialogue/action and descriptive paragraphs, using an appropriate level of detail, etc. All that is good to know, but doesn’t answer the question of how to create a stronger pace.

For a strong pace, ensure every aspect of our story has a purpose. We need to…

  • focus on good story structure, so the narrative drive of our story’s beats all lead to a strong climax
  • skip pointless scenes that don’t progress the story
  • create characters with strong goals, to develop stakes and motivations for their actions
  • avoid irrelevant information dumps or backstory
  • use the plot to reveal our characters
  • create appropriate conflict to drive the plot, establish tension, and push characters to confront their weaknesses
  • develop a strong voice to earn reader’s trust that everything has a purpose
  • avoid unnecessary repetition or giving redundant information
  • use smooth transitions to carry readers along the story’s flow
  • add hooks/story questions to maintain tension before switching to lower-stake subplot scenes

And finally, we need to…

  • speed up and slow down the pace when appropriate for story events—any speed can become monotonous if it lacks variety

Storytelling is an emotional journey for readers, and good storytellers pay attention to the journey from their readers’ perspective. A strong pace carries readers along on that emotional journey, like an expert tour guide ensuring no one gets lost or bored along the way. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about strong pacing or how to find the right balance?

Jami Gold

Resident Writing Coach

After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Posted in Action Scenes, Backstory, Characters, Conflict, Description, Endings, Middles, Openings, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Tension, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 13 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Being Unprepared

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

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

Conflict: Being Unprepared

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, loss of control, ego

Examples:
Going into an important work meeting, interview, presentation or speech, personal conversation, court case, etc. without proper preparation.

Possible Reasons:
An emergency situation that steals the character’s preparation time
Being assigned the responsibility last minute and having to “wing it”
Poor time management
Taking on too much, so nothing gets done adequately
Procrastination due to an underlying fear or worry
Subconscious self-sabotage (because the character doesn’t really want the promotion, etc.)
Wanting to sabotage someone else who is involved
Being morally opposed to the project
A travel or weather delay that keeps the character from important last-minute preparations
A rival sabotaging the character’s presentation at the last minute (ruining a prototype, stealing their laptop, destroying documents, etc.)
Going into the presentation drunk, hungover, very ill, or otherwise impaired

Minor Complications:
Looking unprofessional
Losing credibility
Being embarrassed in front of peers or influential people
Letting other people down
Hurting the reputation of co-workers, the character’s firm, etc.
Not getting paid for the gig because the character failed to hold up their end of the bargain

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Not getting the desired job, promotion, account, etc.
Being removed from the project and losing out on future opportunities
Failing to bring about change (if the character was speaking at a rally, providing a witness testimony, pleading a case in front of a committee, etc.)
Experiencing health problems from the stress or from being overworked (hypertension, ulcers, insomnia, etc.)
Getting fired
Not being able to salvage a relationship (if the character was unprepared for a conversation meant to mend a rift)
Blaming the circumstances or other people instead of taking responsibility; not learning from the mistake
Shying away from similar projects in the future

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Feeling guilty because other parties were impacted by the character’s poor planning
Struggling with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity
Toying with feelings of self-loathing
Being afraid to work as part of a team and let people down again

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: the character’s boss, other people working on the project, people benefiting from the project or presentation (conference attendees, the charity organization the character was representing, etc.)

Resulting Emotions: Agitation, anxiety, apprehension, confusion, defensiveness, doubt, dread, embarrassment, fear, flustered, humiliation, inadequate, insecurity, nervousness, overwhelmed, powerlessness, reluctance, remorse, resignation, shame, uncertainty, unease, vulnerability, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Abrasive, apathetic, cocky, defensive, disorganized, flaky, hypocritical, irresponsible, lazy, nervous, perfectionist, scatterbrained, timid, uncooperative, worrywart

Positive Outcomes: 
Learning to plan ahead, schedule more carefully, communicate more clearly, or whatever needs to be done so the situation isn’t repeated
Recognizing that they may not be suited for that career field or particular goal
Taking ownership of their mistakes

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Organize Your Research with Notes at One Stop for Writers

The last time Rodney Buxton was here, he shared some helpful information about how authors can export their One Stop for Writer’s Export material directly to Scrivener. Many of you reached out to let us know that you weren’t aware of that option, so we were super excited to get the word out. Rodney is back today to discuss another helpful One Stop research feature that you may now know about or possibly aren’t getting the most use from. Enjoy!

Before I started using One Stop for Writers, I purchased The Emotion Thesaurus on Amazon, then The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and so on. After starting to use One Stop for Writers I fell in love with having all the thesauruses available to use online, but I ran into a problem: often, more than one entry applied to what I was working on, and in a given entry, only a few lines might apply. I ended up with multiple books lying open and half a dozen browser tabs open as I frantically flipped back and forth between all of them looking for the crucial details I knew were there. Little did I know that One Stop for Writers has a solution for this. It’s called Notes.

The Notes Feature at One Stop for Writers

When I first saw this feature, I thought it was just a place for me to add my thoughts to an existing entry. And this is possible; if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in a thesaurus entry, just scroll to the bottom and create a note for that entry that can be kept in your workspace. I also knew that I could highlight the details that I wanted to use from an entry and save it to a note (so I wouldn’t have to go back through the whole entry later to find it). 

What I didn’t know was that I could use a note to collect information from multiple thesaurus entries and save it to a specific project. This changed everything. Here’s how it works:

Collecting Info from Various Sources into One Note

Let’s say you’re doing some setting research. My current book contains a scene set in Highgate Cemetery in London, so let’s start there. First, head to the Setting Thesaurus and locate the graveyard entry. 

When you find multisensory details that might work, highlight the line(s). A pop-up appears that says “Send to Notes.” 

You’ll be prompted to create a new note for the highlighted details or add it to an existing note in your workspace. Then you can choose to save the note loosely in your workspace or add it to a project. The latter is a great way to keep all your research and materials for a story in one spot.

This is good, you’re gathering some good details for your cemetery setting. But hold on—there’s also an entry for a mausoleum. If you find details there that you might be able to use, highlight them and add them to the note you just made. Maybe you want to add some information about the emotions your character will be experiencing in the scene, or track some symbolism possibilities. Use the same process to record information from the various thesauruses and collect it all into one handy note.

Formatting a Note

But what if a note is getting a little long, and it’s hard to know exactly what you’ve collected in there? No problem. Just edit it.

In your Workspace, open the note you want and click the Edit button at the bottom. Now you can arrange your data so it’s easy to identify and access. 

I like to add headers for the information, so I’ll add Sounds, Smells, Emotions—whatever applies. This can also be done as you’re adding items, but doing it when I’m finished gives me a chance to make sure I have everything I want and remove items I no longer need. The edit window also allows you to change font styles and sizes, so you can make your headings stand out. Another bonus is the ability to type in your own items or reminders about how you want to use those snippets.

And that’s all there is to it. Now I have a customized note just for a particular scene. When I’m ready to write that scene, I open the note, and everything I need is there. I don’t need to slow down my writing because the research has all been done and is in one note.

Other Ways to Use Notes

The beauty of this process that it can be used for any aspect of your story, and you can use material from tools other than just thesaurus entries. For instance, you can also use Notes for…

  • Scene Planning: Link to the Establishing Mood Setting Tutorial for future reference, make setting notes, map the protagonist’s emotional progress throughout the scene with details from the Emotion Thesaurus, explore weather options, copy/paste definitions from the Story Structure Terminology page for easy reference, etc.
  • Overall Story Research: save possible plot complications from the idea generator, link to a saved Symbols and Motifs worksheet, brainstorm overall story goals by saving possible entries from the Character Motivation Thesaurus, etc.
  • Generalized Character Creation: make note of distinguishing physical features, brainstorm occupation choices, link to a completed Character’s Fears worksheet, link to a created timeline of important events in their life, etc. (Please note that while a note can work well for basic planning, the Character Builder is better for in-depth research.)

The process for using notes is super easy and has a lot of helpful applications. Just another way that One Stop for Writers can be used to make life easier for authors.

Rodney is a reformed pantster and an author of paranormal romance involving vibrant vampires. The latest book in his Erin Kingsly series, Beverly Hills Torture, is now available for presale. You can find him online at Facebook and Twitter.


If you’d like to give One Stop for Writers a test drive, now’s a great time. Click the image below for a 75% discount. (Ends March 20th)


Posted in Characters, One Stop For Writers, Story Structure, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Resources | 6 Comments

Synopsis Writing Made Easy

Every author I know hates writing a synopsis. They hate having to try to boil down their beloved story into 2 – 3 double spaced pages. They agonize over it, moan about it in public, throw fits, start the occasional bar fight. They would rather run in front of the bulls at Pamplona, wearing clogs, than write a short overview of their novel.

But don’t buy your airline tickets to Spain just yet, because it’s really not that hard. If you’ll just follow these guidelines, you’ll always have a solid synopsis, one you can show to any agent or editor and leave them wanting more.

A good synopsis is what I call “back cover copy on steroids.” It’s intended to “sell the sizzle” and give just enough of the steak to create confidence in the project.

This is not the same thing as a detailed outline, or treatment, which is much more substantial. The synopsis is a selling document. So approach it that way from the outset.

Before You Write the Synopsis

Build a foundation. Start from the ground up, one brick at a time.

Your first brick is a one sentence summary of your book. If you can’t boil your book down into a single, compelling sentence, you are not ready to write it or sell it. 

Second, expand that one sentence into back cover copy. That’s about 250 words of copy meant to sell your book to a harried consumer. You can easily learn to do this by getting books of similar genre from the library, or reading descriptions on amazon.com. Read a lot of these, studying the form. Write your own back cover copy. Work it until you have something that would make a consumer want to buy the book.

Now you’re ready to write the synopsis.

The Parts of the Synopsis

1. The Opening Paragraph

This tells us who the main character is, what he does (vocation), what he’s like. Then one line on what the character wants at the present moment. A day before the story opens, what is the character going for? Goals? Drives? 

Every Lead needs the above things. This first paragraph sets up the rest of the synopsis. Here’s an example. (Note: The first time you introduce a character, use the full name and put it in ALL CAPS):

WALTER NEFF is a hotshot insurance salesman on the make for more business. He likes making money and having the occasional fling with women he makes house calls on—even if they’re married.

2. Second Paragraph: The Disturbance. What is the incident that gets the story rolling? 

One afternoon he calls on a client and finds the client’s wife, delicious blonde PHYLLIS DEITRICHSON, wrapped in a revealing towel from sunbathing. She gets dressed and meets with him in the living room. During his pitch, Neff  makes little comments about her looks and a game of sexual cat and mouse ensues. One thing for sure, when Walter Neff leaves the house he knows he’s gone overboard for Mrs. Phyllis Deitrichson.

3. Basic Plot Paragraphs 

Now you lay out the main plot, and I do mean main. The synopsis is not the place to detail all the subplots, though you should certainly mention them briefly. Write about them in a way that shows how they complicate the main plot. One or two paragraphs should be sufficient for this purpose.

You obviously have a lot of freedom here. You’re going to be covering at least a page and a half with main plot material, the “sizzle” of the story. In the case of our example (from the movie version of Double Indemnity) you’d stick to the plot to murder the husband and collect the insurance money, and the opposition represented by Barton Keyes, the sharp-eyed adjuster who can smell a scheme from miles away. A short clip:

Walter comes in to work the next day, and sitting in the hallway is the last man he wants to see—Jackson, the guy from the train who talked to him in the dark. Keyes has brought Jackson in because the account of the “accident” is starting to stink. Walter has to keep from being recognized as Jackson tells his story. Keyes slowly pulls in the net, though around whom he doesn’t know yet. All he knows is that the “little man” inside him is raising Cain. And Walter knows all about how dangerous that little man is—to him and Phyllis.

4. Final Battle Paragraph 

Here you cover what I call the “final battle.” It’s the biggest crisis point your lead character faces, what’s at stake, why it’s a battle to the “death.” (It should at least feel that way to the character).

With Keyes closing in, Walter and Phyllis grow increasingly agitated. They try to meet in secret, but the strain begins to show. The seeds of distrust are sown. Then Walter discovers that Phyllis is seeing another lover. Now he must choose whether to run or take out his revenge—even if it sends him to the gas chamber. 

5. Resolution

The last paragraphs (try to keep it to one or two) tell how the story ends. 

Walter confronts Phyllis about her lover. Phyllis shoots Walter, wounding him, but can’t finish the job. Running to his arms, she states her love for him. He doesn’t buy it. “Good-bye, baby,” he says, then shoots her in the gut. 

Losing blood, Walter dictates a confession to Keyes at the office late at night, then turns to see Keyes listening. Walter tries to get out but doesn’t make it past the front door. Keyes calmly calls the police.

And there you have it. A quick, easy guide to crafting a synopsis. Just remember:

• Don’t try to tell everything, especially with regard to subplots. 

• Aim for 2 – 3 pages, double spaced. If you go to four pages no one’s going to arrest you, but you may be pulled over for holding up traffic.

• Rewrite and rewrite until it sounds like the marketing copy on dust jackets and back covers of similar books. Give it to some faithful readers for feedback. Make sure they, and you, are jazzed by it. 

• Send it out when requested, then wait for the offer to see the full manuscript. While you wait, be working on the synopsis of your next novel. 

James Scott Bell

Resident Writing Coach

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

Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Synopsis, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

How a Career Can Reveal Your Character’s Deeper Layers

Did you know that before Becca became an author and writing coach, she was a teacher?

It’s true. And if you know her, you’re probably thinking, I can see that. It makes sense.

Why? Because when you think of a teacher, certain associations come to mind.

A teacher is someone who…
…is giving
…is patient and compassionate
…appreciates knowledge
…is an advocate for kids
…is detail-oriented

Sound like Becca? It sure does, especially the last one (she grammars the heck out of everything I write, let me tell you!).

*pauses as Becca screams that grammar isn’t a verb*

(Hey, I didn’t say I always LISTEN.)

Most individuals are drawn to a certain career because it is a match to their personality and interests. You don’t see many unfriendly, pessimistic, greedy, miserly people become teachers (and if you do, I’ll bet you a fat, sugary donut that’s trauma talking, not personality).

Personality traits, skills, interests, passions, abilities, personal history…all of these things influence the type of job we tend to seek out. Paying the bills is a necessity, sure, but if it is within our control, we want to find work we actually enjoy. And like so much else in fiction, what holds true for us in life holds true for our characters.

A character’s occupation isn’t window dressing. It’s a valuable opportunity to show, not tell important information in an economical way.

One of the big issues we run into when it comes to “showing” is that it can chew up a lot of word count. Showing takes more effort than telling, but when the details matter, it’s worth it. Still, we do have to be careful and not get carried away as too much description will slow down the story.

This is why using an occupation to do some heavy lifting when it comes to characterization is a boon: people make associations between people and careers. You can use this to help readers get a feel for who your character is more quickly, which is a necessary step toward encouraging bonds of empathy to form.

Now don’t mishear me – I’m not saying that using an occupation to characterize is all you need to do. But if you choose a job that aligns with their personality, passions, and other factors, your character will feel more authentic because the work they do reaffirms who they are.

So what can an occupation say about your character?

Well, a job can…

Reveal Personality Traits
Showcase Morals & Beliefs
Provide a window to their Interests and Passions
Demonstrate any notable Skills, Talents & Abilities
Indicate their Priorities
Hint at Emotional Wounds (ones they may be running from OR trying to face)
Uncover their Unmet Needs
Reveal Personal Struggles & Relationship Friction
Give you a source of possible Points of Conflict to use in the story
Demonstrate their Education Level
& more!

What about a character who hates their job?

It’s true. Choice isn’t always a factor and sometimes characters (like us), must do work they don’t enjoy: they need the money. It’s close to where they live. It fits their life circumstances. It’s all that’s available. In this case, there may not be a perfect alignment between work and who they are deep down. But valuable information can still be delivered through discrepancies. Consider…

A character who is skilled at killing yet is morally opposed to having to do it. This tells the readers the character feels forced into this work. The “why” is something you can use as a hook to prime readers for the reveal.

A character who is a chemist for a pharmaceutical company even though painting is his true passion. Again, the “why” becomes a question readers will feel compelled to unravel: was it parental pressure to choose a career in science (causing an emotional wound & resentment)? Did a mission to find a cure trump the desire to follow a dream (something personal is at stake)? Was it job security (because health benefits were critical…maybe someone in their family is sick)? The possibilities are endless.

A character who is a server even though she has a Master’s degree in finance. This begs a new question: why choose a job they are over-qualified for? Are they in a witness protection program after discovering the investment firm they worked for was laundering money for the mob? Was the stress of their previous career too much? Is this the only job they could find where hours flow around school times, an important factor to them as a single parent of a special needs child?

The source of a discrepancy reveals something deeper about your character. A reader’s “need to know” draws them in.

As you can see, a character’s job is a treasure trove of characterization. It can also supply your story with CONFLICT. Much time is swallowed up by work, and this can be a hotbed of trouble for characters, creating friction in their relationships, a disconnect between work responsibilities and family, duty vs. desire, and more.

This is why Becca and I built an Occupation Thesaurus – to help you wring every drop of potential from this valuable facet of your character’s life.

The Occupation Thesaurus is now at One Stop for Writers!

If you are interested in seeing all the ways an occupation can breathe life into your characters and the story, visit the Occupation Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers. We’ll be doubling this thesaurus in size in the coming months (and turning it into a book as well…watch for a NEWSLETTER update about that).

Plus, for those of you addicted to One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder, we’ve hardwired this thesaurus into the DAILY LIFE tab. You’ll also find it attached to the WOUND section in case your character chose a career to avoid situations that could lead to more painful trauma which they experienced in their past, or if they are trying to make up for a past mistake through their work.

We encourage you to think outside the box at all the ways your character’s job might impact the story, and have packed this thesaurus with ideas to help!

(Psst. If you haven’t yet used our Free Trial, now might be a great time to activate it.)

What does your character’s job say about who they are at their core? Does it shed light on backstory that will factor into the story? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in Action Scenes, Backstory, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Hobbies, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Description, Diversity, Fatal Flaw, Fear, High Stakes, Motivation, Occupation Thesaurus, One Stop For Writers, Pacing, Plotting, Show Don't Tell, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Resources | 1 Comment

Critiques 4 U—Guest Editor Edition!

CONTEST CLOSED!

It’s time for our monthly critique contest, and we have a new guest editor to introduce you to! Those of you who are familiar with Critiques 4 U know that last year, Sara Letourneau of Heart of the Story was kind of enough to offer some critiques. This month, developmental editor April D. Brown is offering to share her insight on first pages.

April D. Brown helps authors reach for hidden and lost opportunities within their works. As a developmental editor, she helps authors identify missing pieces and overdone parts. She works through consistency and plot issues, including the time line, characters, and an in-depth review of already written stories. 

Her editing strengths are nonfiction and coming of age, science fiction, and apocalyptic/dystopian. Visit her website for more information, or find her on Twitter.

When I realized that April specialized in developmental edits, I knew that single-page submissions weren’t going to give her much to work with. So for this month’s contest, instead of giving away the usual three first-page critiques, we’re choosing one winner, and April will offer feedback on their first five pages.

I’m excited about the chance to switch up our monthly contest and offer you something a little bit different. So if you’ve completed your first five pages 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, we’ll be able to contact you if you’re chosen. Just please know that if we’re unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

A few caveats:

  • For this month’s contest, April is looking for genres other than romance. She also doesn’t edit severe abuse stories or those containing violence (some survivor fiction is acceptable).
  • Please be sure your submission is ready to go so April can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If your opening needs some work and you won’t be able to submit it right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

One commenter’s name will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow morning. If you win, April will be in contact to get your opening pages and offer her feedback.

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

Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 30 Comments

5 Mistakes to Avoid if You Want to Finish Your Book

Hi everyone, Angela here introducing a familiar face: Colleen Story, who always dispenses great advice on how to stay motivated and keep moving forward toward writing goals. Today she’s looking at finishing, and how to navigate past all the little things that try and stop us from reaching The End.

When you start writing a book, you intend on finishing it.

You begin with a wave of excitement. A new book holds so much promise. Then somewhere along the way, something changes. The story gets more difficult. It takes longer to finish a chapter or even a page.

And then suddenly you’re in the middle of the book and you’re stuck. Before you know it, it’s been weeks or even months since you’ve written a word.

Your project dangles dangerously on the precipice of the giant wasteland known as “unfinished manuscripts.”

You must not allow this to happen! If you do, you become one of those writers who don’t finish their projects. We never hear about them.

You want to be a writer who finishes. It’s those writers who build successful careers.

To do that, avoid these five mistakes.

1. Chasing After a New Idea

There’s a condition called the “shiny object syndrome” that may attack when you start to struggle with a story. New ideas pop into your head and they seem like much better ideas than the one you’re working on now. If you’re not careful, the syndrome will convince you to start over on a new project.

Don’t fall for it. Write the other ideas down, store them somewhere safe, and continue working on the project you’ve already started. Otherwise, you will continue to chase after new idea after new idea but never finish any books.

2. Failing to Schedule Your Writing Time

When you first start working on your book, your excitement carries you. You hurry to your computer whenever you have a chance because you can’t wait to write more. But then when the story starts to get difficult—as most stories do—you may start to put off your writing time.

This is why you must schedule time on your calendar to work on your project. Get a calendar—whatever type works for you—and schedule in time to write every week. Once you have made the time, report to work as you would for any other job or appointment.

Even if you’re not sure what to do during that time, put yourself in the writing space anyway. Use the time to research your story, read instructive blogs or books, or write a different scene.

Eventually, your creative brain will kick in, and you’ll be writing smoothly again.

3. Allowing Life to Interfere

Whenever you must invest considerable time working on a big project, it’s common for life to interfere. Something goes wrong at the job. The car breaks down. A friend or loved one is beset with a crisis and needs your help.

Whatever happens, it pulls you away from your project. You go for weeks or even months without working on it. When things calm down again, you think about returning, but it’s difficult. You’ve lost your momentum, and don’t remember where you were in the story.

Here is where many writers fail. It’s common for life to interfere. And it’s common for writers to give up after that because let’s face it: getting started again is tough.

Don’t let a life crisis lead to an unfinished manuscript. Do what you have to do, then when it’s time, get out your calendar, schedule time to write, and dive in once more. Often the secret to finishing a book is starting over again and again.

4. Failing to Track Your Progress

When you start to struggle with the story, it’s easy to feel discouraged. This is when that nasty self-doubt tends to appear, which will encourage you to give up.

This is where tracking your progress can help. How far have you come? Writers who never finish don’t know. Successful writers have some sort of system they use so they can look back and say, “Hey, I can’t quit now. Look at how much I’ve already done!”

Here are a few options:

  • Keep a time log. Record every time you work on your story. Write down the date and time spent, then your total time for that day. Add up the time for each week and month.
  • Keep a word count. Use a table or Excel document to keep track of how many words you write each day. This is something many famous writers, including Hemingway, did. Post the chart where you can see it easily.
  • Keep a journal. Take five minutes at the beginning or end of the day to record your thoughts on your story. Write down how you feel, what the characters are doing, what you think they will do next, or anything that occurs to you. The more information your journal contains, the more helpful it can be in times of struggle.
  • Keep a calendar. Using a wall calendar, mark an “X” for every day that you work on your project. This is a method made popular by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Once you have a series of “x’s,” you’ll resist breaking the pattern, which can encourage you to keep going. 

5. Giving Up

Even if you think the story is no good, or you’re stuck and don’t know what to do, abandoning the project is almost always a mistake.

Finishing a book gives you experience in finishing a book. If you write only a few chapters, all you’ve practiced is writing chapters. You haven’t practiced taking an idea from beginning to end, which translates to weak storytelling skills.

Don’t give up on yourself. Keep going. Get help if you need to. Ask a writing mentor or hire a book doctor. Then no matter what happens—whether you publish the book or not—be proud of yourself. Finishing a book isn’t easy. Many writers never accomplish it. But you will…as long as you don’t give up.

Note: For more guidance on how to finish the creative projects you start—including the 5 things you must have to complete your book—get Colleen’s FREE mini-course here!

(Contains affiliate links)

Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, was the gold-medal winner in the Reader’s Favorite Book Awards (Writing/Publishing 2019). Overwhelmed Writer Rescue was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book in 2018, and her novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others. Find more at these sites:

Writing and Wellness | Writer CEO | Teachable | Author Website | Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Losing a Phone

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

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

Conflict: Losing a Phone

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, loss of control

Examples:
A phone breaking
Leaving the phone somewhere
The phone being stolen
A teenager’s phone being confiscated as a consequence
Being without a phone while it’s being repaired
Partially breaking a phone and being unable to replace it; having to use it though certain important features don’t work

Minor Complications:
Being bored (while standing in line, at a red light, etc.)
Not being able to call or text others when away from home
Having to recreate the information on one’s phone because it wasn’t backed up properly
Not having immediate access to emails, voicemail, and texts
Getting lost without the phone’s GPS
Missing an appointment because the character can’t access their calendar
Missing out on impromptu get-togethers that are set up via text message
Losing meaningful pictures that had not yet been backed up
Needing to replace the phone but not being able to afford it, meaning the character has to go without for much longer

Potentially Disastrous Results:
The phone being stolen and one’s private information being accessed
The thief using credit card information to make unwanted purchases
A stolen phone being connected to a crime
A loved one needing desperately to get in touch
The character experiencing an emergency (being carjacked, running out of gas in a deserted area, the character’s house catching fire and the neighbor not being able to reach them, etc.)
Missing a vital work meeting
Having an occupation where missed calls have great impact—e.g., a lawyer whose friend has been arrested and uses their one call but is unable to contact them
Losing business opportunities because of not being able to receive and respond to emails quickly
Being stalked by the thief, who uses the character’s calendar to track their location
Replacing the phone with one that is more than the character can afford
Suffering from a disorder that makes the loss much more difficult (anxiety, OCD, etc.)
Being in a situation that makes the loss much worse (a child needing to be picked up and having no way to contact the character, a parent suffering a heart attack and relatives are unable to reach the character, etc.)

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Feeling stupid about having lost or misplaced the phone
Worrying that a stolen phone could put loved ones at risk (due to the information that was on it)
Being afraid to tell others (a parent, a spouse) that the phone is missing
Worrying that the character’s personal information (their address, banking info, etc.) has been compromised

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Anyone who is inconvenienced because the character is without a phone: children, a spouse, extended relatives, co-workers, the boss, clients, neighbors

Resulting Emotions: Agitation, anger, annoyance, anxiety, disappointment, embarrassment, frustration, impatience, inadequate, panic, unease, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Addictive, compulsive, controlling, disorganized, extravagant, forgetful, martyr, melodramatic, needy, nervous, perfectionist, temperamental, timid, worrywart

Positive Outcomes: 
Learning to be present with others (rather than being glued to the phone)
Forging stronger face-to-face connections with others
Being more efficient because less time is wasted on the phone
Recognizing how much time the character is wasting on the phone and vowing to exercise restraint in the future
Recognizing the value in delayed gratification—not needing to see and respond immediately to everything that happens
Learning to be more responsible
The character being more appreciative of the luxuries and “extras” they’re able to indulge in
Adopting a new perspective on what’s important and necessary in life

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

Need More Descriptive Help?

This conflict thesaurus is still being developed, but if you would like to access our entire descriptive collection (14 unique thesauri and growing), visit our main site, One Stop for Writers.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How to Build Powerful Character Relationships

Character relationships are, in many ways, the glue that holds a story together. Almost every tale has at least one relationship at the heart of it, often more. Rarely can a character sustain a story on their own; they need others: friends, family, mentors, lovers, enemies, strangers, pets, something. The story cast might be large or small, and these relationships may not even be with other people.

In Cast Away, Chuck Noland had a volleyball named Wilson. In I Am Legend, Robert Neville had his dog, Sam. Relationships not only make the world go round, but they also help to prove the deeply layered characterization that you’ve spent so much time working on. Why? Because who someone is will come out through the relationships they keep, good and bad.

Readers are drawn in by relationships between interesting characters. In fact, the relationship itself can be a big reason why a character becomes unforgettable. Look no further than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, Rocket Racoon and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Andy Dufresne and Red in The Shawshank Redemption. These relationships work so well the audience may mistakenly believe they were effortless to write. Usually, the opposite is true. A writer needs to think about the multiple layers of a relationship, giving it enough depth to showcase each character’s specialness while ensuring they play off one another through power struggles and create the type of synergy that is amazing to behold. Let’s look at some of the important layers of a well-drawn relationship.

Relationship Roles

The first thing to come to mind when thinking about a relationship are the roles of the characters: friends, teammates, lovers, enemies, a parent and child, a mentor and student, the aggressor and victim, etc. Familiar relationship labels work well in fiction because readers can acclimate more quickly to the situations within your story. And because roles are part of our relationships (Becca and I are co-authors, writing besties, business partners, and friends, for example) using them in a story naturally provides readers with an outline of what they can expect when the characters are together.

Sometimes character roles are clear from the start; other times, they shift or evolve into something different and new. Characters may embrace dual or more roles within the same relationship, leading to complex layers, complication, and friction. Occasionally, a character believes they understand the roles of a relationship only to discover they do not. And this is where the fun really begins!

But roles are only the outer frame of a relationship, a blueprint for understanding the subtext between two characters. To dig deeper and create something unique and authentic, we need to also look at other elements of a relationship.

Relationship Status

In today’s social-media-obsessed world, status is a way of letting people know if you’re in a relationship or not. In fiction, I think of status as the nature of the bond between two people and whether it has a positive or negative alignment. Think of it like this: roles provide basic rules of what to expect, but status will show readers how functional or dysfunctional the relationship is.

For example, a friendship on the outside suggests that both individuals are supportive and caring of one another. Yet under the surface, one may be taking advantage of the other, the two parties may be locked in competition, or the relationship could be abusive and toxic. Understanding the nature of a relationship and who holds the power (and when) will set the tone for the interactions between the characters as you write and help readers know what to expect.

Here are some of the different positive and negative status dynamics you might see in a relationship:

Positive

  • Loving
  • Supportive
  • Nurturing
  • Motivating
  • Mentoring
  • Trust bond
  • Romantic
  • Comforting and safe
  • Reliable
  • Fun

Negative

  • Critical
  • Competitive
  • Neglectful
  • Controlling
  • One-sided
  • Toxic
  • Codependent
  • Dysfunctional
  • Loveless
  • Volatile

If you put two characters in a scene together who have a relationship dominated by one of the undercurrents above, regardless of the goal or stakes, this status will shape their behavior and actions in the scene, transforming it.

Relationship Polarity

When it comes to any character in a relationship with the protagonist, we also want to ask, Is this person for them or against them? In other words, are they working for the protagonist and their interests, against them, or do they land somewhere in the “it’s complicated” zone?

On the outside, it seems like the answer will be painfully obvious: of course the antagonist will be working against your hero or heroine, and anyone part of the protagonist’s tribe will be working for them. But… is that how it works in real life? Really?

Sadly not. Relationships are complex because the people involved are complex, coming from different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, wounds, and fears. They also have different worldviews, desires, and aspirations. And let’s not forget that the characters in a story are not chess pieces; they each see themselves as the hero or heroine of their own story. It would be illogical to expect that their needs, values, and goals will always align with the protagonist’s.

Two characters could be the best of friends, but if the protagonist’s goal in the story is to join the army and their bestie’s goal is to keep the protagonist safe because he believes his friend will be killed in battle, they will be at odds because their viewpoints and emotion-driven beliefs don’t align. The best friend may be the keeper of secrets, a brother in all ways but blood, but still working against the protagonist and their interests.

Consider the Netflix hit, Stranger Things. In season two, Chief Hopper becomes a caretaker to Eleven, hiding her away at an old family cabin so the Bad People won’t find her. He cares for her and views her as a surrogate for his own daughter, who passed away as a child from cancer. While the two refer to the relationship as a friendship because this is a social concept Eleven understands, it is really a parent–child dynamic. He is determined to protect her from harm, something he feels he failed to do for his own daughter. Her goal is to see Mike, the boy who saved her and for whom she has deep, complicated feelings. Hopper knows her heart’s desire is to see Mike, and while he wants her to be happy, this conflicts with his own goal of protecting her. So, to keep her safe, he makes her virtually a prisoner.

In this case, Hopper isn’t a villain, and Eleven isn’t an irrational, hormone-raging teenager. Both have valid reasons for their goals and actions. The layers between them and their opposing goals create a push-and-pull dynamic that keeps the viewer captivated, and it is this type of complexity that we should strive for in our own character relationships.

Characters may be in support of the protagonist’s goal or against it for different reasons. If you need to understand where your characters fit on the spectrum, ask yourself:

  • Do the characters have a similar attitude toward most things or do they conflict?
  • Do they share the same beliefs, or stand far apart on certain issues?
  • What common bonds exist between these characters — do they share a history (good or bad), beliefs, common struggles, or needs?
  • Do either have certain emotional triggers that will make them blind to something, become obsessive (fight), or cause them to back away in avoidance (flight)?
  • Are there conflicting loyalties at work between these characters that might come into play?
  • Do they have similar backgrounds and experiences, or are they different?
  • Do the characters have the same goal, competing goals, or do the goals conflict somehow?
  • Do the characters have needs or desires that converge or differ?
  • Are their moral codes close to the same or do they each have a different line in the sand?

Often when a character is acting against the protagonist, it isn’t malicious. They simply prioritize differently because they are thinking of their own reality first (as they should!). In fact, having some friction in this department increases the authenticity of your characters because conflict reinforces how each person is living their own life and working toward filling their own needs and goals.

Relationship Friction

There are plenty of books and movies where a brooding hero or heroine tries to push everyone away and go it alone but rarely does this work. At some point, they realize that they need someone or something, and without it, their lives are less meaningful. Or if they aren’t quite there on the self-reflection front, they at least recognize that without help their chances of reaching their goal are slim.

Relationships are essential in the real world because they are both fulfilling and functional. Including them in fiction is a no-brainer, but like real ones, they need to feel authentic. This means we stay away from the “perfect relationship” and instead embrace imperfect ones that not only ring true but also generate glorious conflict.

Whether your characters are working toward the same goal or not, here are some interpersonal areas of friction you might like to explore:

  • Conflicting attitudes
  • Respect that doesn’t flow both ways
  • Conflicting beliefs
  • An imbalance of power or authority
  • Opposing values
  • Jealousy or envy
  • Different risk thresholds
  • Differing moral lines
  • Conflicting motivations
  • Sexual friction
  • Secrets involving shame or guilt
  • Dysfunctional communication
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Different expectations

One of the most fascinating and complex relationships I’ve enjoyed in the TV realm is the one between Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural. These two brothers are the epitome of what it means to be family by sticking together no matter what.

And yet, it hasn’t always been easy. Season after season there is ongoing relationship conflict, that, if it didn’t exist, the show would not have gained the cult following it has today. Each season is a tug-of-war where the relationship grows by showing the evolution of power struggles and moral conflicts, and how each character has to learn and respect the other’s individuality and identity if they wish to keep that brotherly bond intact. At different times, each one of the above situations has come into play.

Remember, friction isn’t always negative. Friction between two people can also be a positive event. Attraction, desire, love, and lust supply the heartbeat to many a novel. Anticipation can be nerve-racking in a good way, and competition can spur characters on to do their very best. So, whether friction is a healthy manifestation of desire and need or filled with unhealthy disagreements, power struggles, and the quest to dominate, readers are pulled in.

Writers are taught to dig deep when it comes to building a character, but we also need to remember to put that same attention into the development of those characters’ relationships. Doing so means creating a golden thread that can weave itself into the emotional fabric of the story and create room for growth and change that will mirror how the characters grow and change themselves over the course of the story.

If you really want to explore all the fascinating roots of your character and have a way to compare and contrast all the members of your story’s cast, try One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder tool. Creating profiles of the major story players and comparing them will help you find all the connections and friction points, providing you with a roadmap to deeper storytelling. (There’s a FREE TRIAL you can take advantage of, too!)

Posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Emotion, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Plotting, Show Don't Tell, Stereotypes, Story Structure, Subtext, Tension, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 8 Comments