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4 Ways A Twist Ending Can Ruin Your Story

NOTE FROM JENNIFER: this is a guest post from author and story coach, Devlin Blake. Enjoy!

More so than any other story, horror and suspense endings are not always predictable. Sometimes, the hero loses. Other times, there’s something else at play that changes the story entirely at the last minute.

Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales From The Crypt, Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and the Sixth Sense are all remembered fondly for their great endings. So naturally, a new horror suspense writer wants to build a great twist ending into their story to make it memorable. However, if a twist isn’t done right, it will not only be ineffective, but it will make your story completely unreadable a second or third time.

These kinds of stories also don’t garner fans eager for you next book. (Or movie. Look at M. Night Shyamalan.) So let’s look at the mistakes that come with twists. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

1. The Twist Is Obvious 

In horror and suspense genres, readers expect a twist. They don’t always get it, but they still expect it more than any other genre. This makes tricking them tough.

They’ve already seen all the twists, so now they’re just trying to figure out which twist your story has. After all, they know its coming.

Example: The Secret Window

This was not one of King’s best works, and as a movie, it was even worse. We see Rainey slowly going insane and getting blackmailed by a neighbor who shows up at all-too-convenient-of-a-time.

Even the neighbor’s name, John Shooter (shoot-her) was a dead giveaway. So there’s no surprise once we realize Rainey is Shooter and he kills his ex and her lover.

2. The Twist Breaks The Rules 

There are ‘rules’ in your story world that you set up and these rules create a contract with your reader. The contract states that this story isn’t a waste of their time. Stories that break these rules will not get a chance with a second book.

The most common way to break the rules is for the reader to discover that nothing your character did mattered. It was all some elaborate ruse, dream, or they got a reset button so they could avoid the whole thing. That makes all the vicarious experience and concern for the main character moot, since they were never in any real danger. The reader feels deflated after that, like a balloon with all its air let out.

Example: Shutter Island

Shutter Island is a great movie, the first time you see it. But after you know that Cobb is mentally ill and the entire thing has been one big show to snap him out of it—and it didn’t even work—the entire movie becomes unwatchable. I’m sure you’ve noticed how no one ever talks about this movie anymore.

3. Too Much Time Is Spent On The Twist 

Writers often spend so much time working on the twist, that they don’t spend enough time on character development, world-building or creating an interesting plot. A story with a ‘meh’ ending still has a chance at greatness if the rest of the story is there.

However, a story with great twist won’t last long if the twist is everything. The story still has to be there; the reader needs to be transported into other worlds and other viewpoints the same as any story.

Example: Alfred Hitchcock Hour

It’s surprising to think that the master of suspense had this problem, but he did. Because his half hour show was so popular, network executives decided to give him a whole hour and see how he did. The answer was, not well.

The suspense was too drawn out, which is basically the same as using short story techniques in a novel. It doesn’t work. Problems that were minor in a half hour, such as a lack of character development, became glaringly obvious in an hour format.

Today, his half hour show is remembered more fondly than his hour show.

4. It Ruins Characters The Reader Is Emotionally Invested In 

This talks about one very specific twist: the good guy who turns out to be a bad guy. While certain stories do this very well (example: The Usual Suspects), other stories get caught in the paradox.

The problem is the character we like and bonded with during the story didn’t just switch sides—he was never there in the first place. That makes our emotional investment in him feel worthless and all the actions a bit silly.

The world just became a colder place with this reveal and we don’t’ like the story as much.

Example: Angels and Demons 

This is another movie that’s only good the first time you see it. We spend the better part of the movie trying to save the Vatican leaders and getting to know the young forward-thinking priest, McKenna. While the movie is exciting and holds our interest, we discover that McKenna is the one responsible for the kidnappings and murders in the first place. Even worse, he’s not forward-thinking at all. He plans to bring back punishments on scale with the Spanish Inquisition. All that time we spent getting to know him was wasted. This makes the movie great the first time, but not the second.

Twists are a hard thing to pull off, particularly for the new writer. For every story with a great twist, there are many more with twists that don’t quite work. One of the problems with twists is that readers can see them coming a mile away.

This expectation can ruin the story if you let it. Yet if the twist is part of a well-thought out, well-written story, you can expect readers to keep re-reading your books, even after they know how it ends.

About the Author: Devlin Blake believes that craft matters and that great stories need structure and rhythm. Learning structure early in her publishing career changed everything for her. And now she coaches emerging horror and suspense writers on everything from craft to pacing to doing away with writers guilt. Devlin is able to write four books a year thanks to the systems she’s created in her writing life. Get free access to her best systems for writing your novel in between work, life and family, here.

How To Set Up A Blog Book Tour

NOTE: this is a guest post from Anni Fife, author of LUKE’S Redemption. Enjoy! –jen 

I’m a debut author, so when the reality slapped me in the face that I needed to organize the launch and publicity for my first novel, I broke out in a cold sweat: I knew nothing from nothing, and I needed to learn fast.

Completing your first novel, having it accepted by a reputable publisher (or professionally self-publishing), sweating through the editing process, contributing creative input on the cover, writing taglines and blurbs, dedications and acknowledgments, selecting favorite excerpts—this is the rollicking ride new authors love (and probably more experienced ones too!) It’s all driven by a breathless excitement at seeing your novel become a reality, and a nervous anticipation while awaiting your upcoming release date.

But somewhere between signing off on your final galley and receiving your formatted arcs, you have to start thinking about your launch and publicity. In fact, you needed to have started laying the groundwork a lot sooner. Jennifer Blanchard has mentioned numerous times that it is never too soon to create your author platform and start building your brand. Listen to her!

The basics you need are a website and a Facebook author page. Both should clearly identify your brand and be written in the style of your author voice. Once you have these—and there are plenty of informative websites and books offering advice on how to approach this task—then you can start the long-game of building your followers.

You need to be seen out-and-about on social media platforms, posting interesting stuff, commenting on other authors’ and readers’ posts, and sharing interesting blogs. And don’t forget, you need to be writing interesting content for your own blog.

Okay, enough about that. Let’s talk about Blog Tours.

What is a Blog Tour?

A specific period of time when your book is promoted across selected websites and blogs that are relevant to your target audience. The time can vary from one day to a week, a few weeks or even longer. The duration of your tour is based on the goal of your promotion.

A blog tour is like a book signing tour, except you are doing it online. It works for authors who are located in remote areas, have limited funds, or may be shy when it comes to public speaking. The fundamental aim of blog tours is to build relationships with your potential readers and industry influencers.

Blog tours do not necessarily spike sales. Their main success lies in increasing awareness of your book and your author name.

What are the different types of Blog Tours?

A regular Blog Tour includes content from your Media Kit (details below) and a unique article. This can be anything from an interview with the author or characters from your book, an interesting essay about your novel or about writing in general.

The blog host guides the content and tone. Often the blog host has daily or general themes that you need to accommodate. Don’t be shy to offer blog hosts unique ideas for your post, as well.

PRO TIP: Bloggers love exclusive and original content that fits their site guidelines 

Make sure your promotional company, or the blogger you are approaching, is aware you are willing to provide unique, original content. This will increase your chances of securing quality blogs stops.

Blog tours range from a few days to months.  Example: I have a four-month tour booked with one blog stop a week. The goal is to keep my name in the public eye over a sustained period of time. I selected this route to address my debut author status. I decided it was equally important to market my name as well as my book.

There are three main types of blog book tours:

  • A Book Blast is a one-day tour where you send the same content out over multiple blogs. Aim for at least 20 blogs. It is usually used for a book release day, a cover reveal, or an event like a one-day promotion or Blog Hop. The idea is to try and saturate as many blogs as possible with your promotional content. Some promotional companies also offer Twitter Blasts where they blast approximately six tweets to their followers over one day.
  • A Blurb Blitz Tour is like an extended Book Blast. For the duration of the tour, you stop on a different blog each day. The content for each blog is the same, and usually consists of your book cover, a blurb, a selection of excerpts, an author bio and picture, and your social media and buy links. This is the ideal tour to publicize a new release or to build awareness of your book in the weeks prior to your release.
  • A Review Tour offers blog hosts the opportunity to review your book. Credible reviews are difficult to come by so this is a great tour to receive guaranteed reviews of your book. Be aware that guaranteed reviews do not equate to guaranteed good reviews. However, as you are paying for the promotion, a reviewer will normally agree not to post a review that is less than three stars until after the tour is finished. Each stop usually also includes material from your media kit.

Note: Amazon has changed its rules for posting reviews, and it is possible that they might delete reviews received from a paid review tour.

Selecting a suitable blog tour

Promotional companies offer a variety of tours, but generally they are a derivative of the tours I have described above.

When booking a tour, it is important to be clear about what you want to achieve. List your goals and select the tour that most meets your needs. Ensure that it falls in with your launch or promotional plan and rollout schedule.

Giveaways

Most blog tours are accompanied by a giveaway competition where authors offer readers the opportunity to win a copy of their book, a gift voucher, a selection of swag, or other items. To enter the giveaway, the reader is offered a selection of tasks to complete, from interacting with the author’s social media to joining their mailing list.

There is no doubt that giveaways do increase traffic to your blog stop. The value of your giveaway is dependent on the size of your pocket and your feelings about giveaways in general. Personally, I prefer small giveaways. A valuable giveaway skirts too close to bribery for me.

There is also an opportunity to offer a prize to your blog hosts. I like this, as it is a great opportunity to thank your blog hosts.

How do you set up your blog tour?

There are numerous companies that specialize in book promotional tours. A lot of them tend to concentrate on a specific genre. Don’t be shy to ask your network of author friends for recommendations. If you fancy a couple of different companies, follow them for a while on social media and see how effective you find them.

Once you have made a selection, it’s as simple as making a booking. Prices are fairly reasonable and clearly displayed on their websites.

PRO TIP: You need to book your tour at least six to eight weeks in advance.

The following two recommendations are promotional companies that specialize in romance that I have personally had dealings with:

  • Goddess Fish Promotions–I selected Goddess Fish Promotions for my debut release. They came highly recommended from my publisher and author friends. I’ve found them to be reliable and efficient. But their banners are boring! If I use them again, I will request more interesting banners. Note: Several days ago they informed me they have hired a graphics artist to improve their banners.
  • Magic of Book Promotions–this company came highly recommended. Tami Adams is very hands-on, and I found her helpful in the quoting stage. GFP were more suitable for my needs but I wouldn’t hesitate to use Tami in the future.

Organizing your own blog tour

If your budget is tight (or non-existent) don’t panic. It just means you have to work harder.

PRO TIP: Start as far in advance as possible.

  • Search for blogs that are relevant to your genre and start interacting with them. Follow the blogger’s social media links, and get a feel for the style and taste of the blogger. If you have an idea for a guest post, write to the blogger and suggest it to them. Write a succinct query letter that clearly states who you are, what you would like from the blogger, and what you have to offer. Include information about your book and a brief excerpt. Don’t forget to indicate to the blogger that you are familiar with their blog.
  • Ask your author network to recommend blogs sites they have appeared on. Don’t be shy to ask them to recommend you to these bloggers.
  • Connect with other authors–A lot of authors have their own blogs and use them to spotlight other authors. If you think one is suitable for your book, request a guest spot. Most are very amenable. If you are a debut author, ask for help. I promise you, you’ll receive it.
  • Find the most influential bloggers with the largest traffic. Look at the amount of comments posts generate. They should average around eight. If they are consistently less than eight or zero, avoid them. Their traffic is not worth your time. Often one large blog will lead you to another as they often share each other’s links. They all need content. Don’t be cautious about offering yours.
  • Write up a schedule and start to plan your tour. Limit your stops to one per day. (Unless you are planning a book blast.) All your stops do not have to offer exclusive content, you can mix it up (though it is highly recommended). Alternate unique guest posts with general book spotlights. Don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to write the content required for unique guest spots.

I suggest sending requests to around 35 to 40 bloggers with the goal of securing 10 to 12 spots. If you get more, great!

PRO TIP: When organizing a blog tour, don’t make a request for a review the primary aim of your query letter. Reviews are like hen’s teeth and bloggers are inundated with requests. I suggest you separate review requests from your blog tour. If you get them, consider them cream. (I send out requests for reviews on a near daily basis. It is time consuming but it is a numbers game. The more requests you send, the higher your odds of getting a ‘yes’.)

Your Blog Tour Is Happening. Here Are Some Tips

  • Inform all of your blog hosts that your book is available for review if they so choose. Ensure you have a copy of it in different formats—PDF, MOBI and EPUB are the most popular.
  • Send your content requirement to each blog well in advance. Be meticulous. Your reputation is on the line.
  • Once your tour starts, work hard to promote it across your social media platforms and don’t hesitate to ask your friends and network groups to share your social media posts and re-tweet your tweets. Remember: the more you help promote their promotions, the more they will be inclined to help you when you need it.
  • Most blog hosts will post on Facebook and Tweet your blog post on the day you are scheduled to appear. Make sure you share their posts and re-tweet their tweets.
  • Visit the blog early on post day–thank your host and welcome his/her readers in the comments. Let them know you welcome their questions.
  • Check your blog post hourly. Try and respond to comments as quickly as possible. Respond to each and every comment, even if it is just to thank the reader for popping by.
  • Remember to post a sign off comment on the blog at the end of the night. Thank the host and readers again. Inform the readers of where you will be stopping next.
  • Arrange your own giveaway. I suggest you run it for the duration of your tour. You can use a company like Rafflecopter to organize it for you.

Your Media Kit

You need to have the following content available for all of your blog hosts:

  • Book cover image
  • Blurb (150 to 200 words)
  • A selection of excerpts–three is good. If you write erotic or erotica, make sure you have a combination of excerpts that include a PG-rated version. (Around 300 words)
  • A biography (150 words)
  • A picture of yourself
  • Your website
  • Your Facebook author page link
  • Your Amazon author page and/or Goodreads profile page
  • Any additional social media links–Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.
  • Links to buy your book

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Phew! That’s a lot of information, but I hope it helps you. If you have any questions, comment away and I will answer wherever I can.

lukesredemption_w11043_750About the Author: Anni Fife left a successful career in television to fulfill her lifelong passion, writing. In the space of one month, she shut her business, packed up her city life, and moved to a small seaside village to begin her new life…as an author. LUKE’s Redemption is Anni’s debut novel. Anni loves spending hours on the beach searching for pansy shells, more hours drinking red wine with her gals, and the most hours writing steamy romance novels filled with hot alpha men, and the sassy intelligent women they can’t live without. She is currently working on her second novel, GRAY’s Promise.

5 Ways to Plot Your Novel 

NOTE: This is a guest post from award-winning author, Janice Hardy. 

I’m fortunate that plotting is a lot of fun for me. Figuring out goals and tough choices for my characters is one of my favorite aspects of writing, and I love putting my characters in impossible situations just to see how they’ll get out if it.

Not every writer has as much fun potting, however, so if you’re a writer who finds plotting more chore than joyride, I’ve discovered a few tricks to make it easier. And hopefully, a little bit more fun.

1. Follow the Problem

Some stories revolve around a major problem that must be solved or else. To solve this big problem, the protagonist must first overcome a series of smaller problems along the way. When we look at what the protagonist has to do at each step, the plot emerges. Most of the major turning points of the plot will be steps to solving this big problem, and they’ll form a logical path from start to finish.

To plot a problem-centric story, start with your core conflict. Think about what caused it, what it’s doing to the main characters and story world, and what has to be done to fix it. Let the problems guide you to your plot and follow the steps that take your characters from the page one problem all the way to the resolution on the final page.

Great for: Writers who like to focus on what happens in the story, and those who find it easier to create the situations of the story first. It’s also good for plot-focused stories where the events are more important than the character journey, such as thrillers or mysteries.

2. Follow the Characters

Since a character’s choices drive the plot, focusing on what she wants and why will lead you through your story. These plots often focus more on how a character grows and changes, and the choices that shape those changes. The major turning points will revolve around your character’s needs and desires, hopes and dreams, and what she does to achieve those needs.

To follow your character, start with the one thing your protagonist wants or needs and think about the things she will (or won’t) do to meet that need. What impossible choices will she face? What will push her to her breaking point? What must she do that she’s never been brave enough to do before?

Great for: Character-driven writers and stories where the focus is on the characters and how they grow. It’s also good for stories with strong character arcs that illustrate themes or explore human nature.

3. Follow the Individual Arcs

If plotting out an entire novel seems daunting, try taking it in smaller chucks. Plots forms arcs—beginning > middle > ending. The steps of the plot follow this same structure, so plotting your novel one small arc at a time allows you to move forward without having to figure out what happens farther into the novel.

If you think about your novel in small story arcs, start with your opening scene (or favorite moment–no one says you have to plot in order). Figure out where that leads and how that problem is solved. Once your protagonist finishes that arc, take the next problem and do the same thing. Look at your various arcs and determine how they link together to tell your larger tale.

Great for: Pantsers who don’t want to know how everything works out ahead of time. It’s also good for writers who imagine their stories in vignettes and prefer to write the scenes that excite them the most first.

4. Follow the Mystery

Some plots exist solely to answer a question, such as, “Who killed the baker?” Exploring the story questions of who, how, and why create the key moments of the plot. The plot exists to reveal a secret or find a truth, and the characters work with–and against–each other to that end.

If you have a mystery plot, start with the mystery and decide what questions the protagonist will have to ask to solve that mystery. Who will she need to talk to? Where will she need to go? What lies might she encounter? What half-truths might distract her?

Great for: Writers who enjoy the puzzle side of plotting, and who want to keep readers in the dark as long as possible. It’s also good for genres such as mysteries or suspense, where the focus in on the mystery more than the characters.

5. Follow the Emotion

For novels that are all about the emotions (such as romances), the plot focuses on the relationships and how the characters interact. The key turning points of the plot will be emotional ones, usually denoting important steps in that relationship or internal growth (or lack thereof).

If you have an emotional story, start with your characters and how they feel, and explore how their emotions will change. Who are the people contributing to their lives? How do those people affect their emotional states? What emotion do they wish to get rid of? How do they want to feel?

Great for: Writers who want to explore relationships and how people interact. It’s also good for romances or any story that seeks to explore an emotional truth.

There’s no right way to write, so don’t worry if your process follows a different path than most. If an aspect of a story appeals to you and inspires you to write that story, let it guide you to the perfect plot the way you like to write.

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What kind of writer are you?

———– 

About the Author: Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy

pynw-2x3Looking for tips on plotting your novel? Check out my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you develop your idea into a novel. For a hands-on approach, try my Planning Your Novel Workbook.  Revising your novel? Check out my newest book, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.

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Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Why You Need to Start Trusting the Process (And How To Do It)

NOTE: this is a guest post from Mary DeRosa Hughes of the Grateful Scribe

A few weeks ago, my best friend and fellow writer Kelly called me up on the verge of a panic attack. She was swamped with projects, when one of her clients came to her with an assignment she had no time for: writing employee profiles for a group of highly successful metropolitan realtors. Never one to disappoint a customer, she asked if I could pinch-hit for her.

I had room in my work schedule, so I accepted the assignment. After her breathing returned to normal, she gave me the details.

“They need a full page bio for each realtor. Twenty five of them. In five days.”

So it’s a tight timeline. 

“And you also have to interview everyone. ”

Now it’s a really tight timeline.

Then she hit me with the final piece: “Just a heads up:  they’re insanely busy people.  If you get five minutes of their time, that’d be a serious miracle. As in turning-water-into-wine kind of miracle.”

Uh oh.

Kelly was relieved, but my anxiety-fueled monkey mind was off to the races.

I have to track down twenty five real estate agents who barely have time to breathe, let alone talk to me. And if they do give me five minutes of their time, they’ll probably be hostile because they could have used those precious minutes to sell sixteen condo units. I’ll never get anything good from them, so the profiles will be horrible. Why did I say I would do this?

But then the chatter stopped. And I shifted from questioning my sanity to questioning my lack of faith, in myself and in the Universe.

I have been writing professionally for almost 20 years. I believe infinite wisdom is at work in everything. The Universe sent me this assignment for a reason.

So why do I think I can’t handle this?  I have to embrace it and trust the process.  Believing fully that everything will work out.

After pondering that for a moment,  I logged into my email, pulled up the contact numbers for every agent and started dialing.

My initial call was simply to set a time for us to chat. But surprisingly, quite a few of them agreed to let me interview them right on the spot, and they offered up some great info. Many of them even spent well over the coveted five minutes with me.
Several days later, I turned in the project, feeling not only relief, but a renewed sense of confidence, in both myself and the Universe.

Learning to trust the process is great for everything from supporting your work in the world to your mental and physical health. But what exactly can you do to snap into “trust autopilot” when faced with scenarios that are unfamiliar, nerve wracking or downright scary?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Inventory Your “Work Outs” (and I don’t mean time at the gym)
– How many times have things you initially doubted and stressed over actually worked out? Probably more often than not, right?

Keep a list of all the successes you’ve had when you just relaxed, took action and let the Universe orchestrate the “How.” When you feel like your sense of trust is headed for the exit, grab that list and read it.

Stop Fearing The Fear – As long as you are learning, growing and trying new things, you will encounter at least some level of fear at the outset of whatever you’re doing.

And contrary to what your churning stomach and racing heart may seem to indicate, you’re not going to die. Honestly.

You are actually becoming more alive by facing – and conquering – these uncomfortable feelings.

Curtail the “Cursed Hows” – You’ve set your intention. You’ve put positive energy around the situation. You believe that the Universe will deliver an awesome end result.

But…you can’t stop thinking of how it will all come together. Which people will or won’t cooperate? Where will the money come from? Is this going to take a week? A month? Forever?

When you catch yourself running this tape-loop in your head, stop.

Then remind yourself that you’re dealing with a powerful, loving,  unlimited creative force with riches and resources far beyond what you can imagine.  And all of them will be at your disposal the moment you choose to trust the process.

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What steps can you take to learn to trust the process in your own life?

About the Author:

About the Author: Mary DeRosa Hughes is a freelance writer and blogger based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has been writing professionally for over 18  years, with experience ranging from corporate video scripts and motion picture screenplays to marketing copy and website content. Her short film Anniversary was an Official Selection of the 2013 Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York, U.K.  She is also working on the rewrite of her first fiction novel, and is excited to be releasing her second short film Waiting For Goodbye in the summer of 2016.

If you’re ready to trust the process and want to up-level your writing life and get serious about putting your words out into the world, check out the Bestselling Author Mastermind for high-level accountability and kick-ass motivation. 

Image courtesy of farhad pocha

Here’s A Scene-Writing Exercise You Should Try

Note: This is a guest post from my client, Stephanie Raffelock, a novelist and blogger. Enjoy!–jen

If I possess the virtue of patience, even a little bit, it is deeply hidden under mounds of enthusiasm that doesn’t want to wait around for anything. But recently, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts that has brought me to the place of making friends with the dreaded “patience.”

I have added a step to my writing process and it is serving me well. It has to do with what to do when you get stuck writing a scene, OR how to prevent getting stuck in the first place.

A Scene Development Exercise

As I began novel number five, I did so under the design of structure. I am a huge fan of structure as it relates to story because story without structure isn’t really a story—it’s a narrative or a portrait at best. At worst, it is a ramble.

Student of story, yes I am, but that does not necessarily make me a patient student and I use that disclaimer as I find the main reason people do not do the work of construction and preparation before they write a single word of prose is because they are eager to just start writing and get on with it!  Writers often fall in love with their words, when they should be falling in love with their story.

I feel your pain. I’ve been there. So what was I thinking when I added another “step” to an already lengthy preparation process?

Here’s what I was thinking:  When you write a story, you must be the God of the world you have created. You must know every detail of the place and every detail of the characters you have placed in it. When you do not know all of the details, you might fall back or rely on coincidence and cliché. The thing about coincidence and cliché is that they strip your story of meaning. They are nasty little buggers.

Recently I started writing my new novel and I did so with preparation. I sketched out my concept and premise, wrote a short synopsis, plugged in the milestones (i.e plot points and pinch points) and then backed out of them into my scenes. I have a 40-plus page detailed scene list.

Now you would think that would be enough, but I keep remembering this thing about being the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the world I’ve created. So when I write, I look at the scene I am doing for that day. I know the mission of the scene. I know what the protagonist wants and what stands in their way. I know how the scene will move the story forward. But, as you know, you can see all of that neatly spelled out for you and still wonder how you are going to create a thousand words out of it.

Enter the Yellow Legal Pad. I’ve just looked at my scene for the day and now I pick up my Yellow Legal Pad and I begin to write down every question and every answer I can think of about that scene. Where is it? What time of day is it, exactly? What kind of watch was he wearing that let you know the time? What did he have for breakfast. How is he feeling. Did he sleep well last night. And I go on and on and on.

Now most of those things will never make it into my story, but after several pages of this, the scene (because I already know how it moves the story forward ) is beginning to flesh out. I circle a few things that inspire and inform, and the rest is just the rest. It gets tossed.

I am the God of the world I created and I know everything about every scene and character and that’s why I can write a good story and that’s how I stay un-stuck.

Why This Works

Writing longhand does an interesting thing to your brain. It uses a different part than typing on a keyboard. It slows you down. And when you are slowed down, you become more thoughtful about your creation.

Think about when you first started writing, I’ll bet you were like me. I’ll bet you filled spiral notebooks with everything from lyrics and poetry to short stories and character sketches. I don’t write much longhand these days. I have two computers and a damn iPad and even email myself to remind myself to do stuff!

But I have fallen in love with the Yellow Legal Pad, and yes, it does deserve to be capitalized. I may buy stock in the Yellow Legal Pad company. A couple of them are always sitting on the table next to me when I write in the morning. And interestingly, I look forward to picking them up and riffing on my plot and my characters.

That’s my new step. A new addition to prep.

I love this Robert McKee quote: “Do the work, tell the truth and the results will follow.” The work that he speaks of is preparation. The truth is about how well you know the character so that cliché never exits their mouth onto your page, and the results, well the result is good, tight professional work.

Adding in this one step to my process is making my prose better and it is helping me to tell the most compelling story that I can. Seemed like it was worth sharing.

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How do you develop the scenes in your story? 

About the Author: Stephanie Raffelock is a novelist and a blogger. Her debut novel is represented by Dystel Goderich Literary Management in New York. Subscribe to her quarterly newsletter and receive an appreciation gift: “The Writers Dinner,” a unique vision for an entertaining evening. 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Aquino

Story Structure and Success Mindset for Emerging Novelists

I’m super excited to share that I was interviewed on Lorna Faith’s podcast, Create A Story You Love. We talked about story structure and we covered one of my favorite topics: success mindset.

Grab a snack, prop your feet up and give this a watch.

Want to learn more about Students of Story, the membership site and community I talked about in the podcast? Go here.

Go From Hobby Writer to Pro By Focusing On These 5 Things

Being a hobby writer and being a pro writer are two totally different things. Although they go together as we all start out as amateurs and hobbyists before crossing over to that pro writer world.

But if you want to go from being a hobby writer to being a pro writer (aka: making money from your writing), there are several transitional steps you need to take.

I wrote a guest post for the Huffington Post sharing my top 5 tips for going from hobby writer to pro. The very first tip of which is: Work On Your Mindset

Wait, what? Did I just say “work on your mindset”?

Yep.

Because mindset is everything. Especially when you want to do something at a professional level.

The professional level requires a different mindset than the hobby level. In the hobby level, it’s OK to be half-committed or to not care if you only do your writing once a week or once a month.

The pro level requires you to go all in. To be fully committed to showing up every day and doing the work. And this all begins in your mind.

When you create a success mindset, you’ll be in a better place to take the actions needed to go pro.

You can read the rest of the article and get all 5 tips by going here.

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What are you going to do to begin moving from hobby writer to pro? 

Featured image courtesy of Eelke

How To Make the Most of the Words That Tell Your Story (And Why It Matters)

This guest post from Rachel Starr Thomson is adapted from the new book she co-authored, 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.

Fatal Flaws FINAL ebook cover

The author’s new book; available now on Amazon.

In the book I recently cowrote with four other editors (including, C.S. Lakin, who has guest posted here before), we wrote an entire chapter on finding (and fixing) pesky adverbs and weasel words. These are words that tell instead of show, that clutter up the page with useless or repetitive information, that make reading a weighty slog instead of an immersion we barely notice because we care so much about the story itself.

The checklist at the end identifies weasel words to look out for excessive or overuse of:

  • Speech tags instead of interspersing with action beats
  • Adverbs overall
  • Prepositional phrases (“He went into the house, picked up the dog, opened the cupboard, took out a beer, and sat down on the couch.”)
  • “To be” verbs (“I was going, he is feeling bad,” etc.)
  • Superfluous words and phrases (“just, very, started to, began to,” etc.)
  • “Telling words” (“he knew, he felt, he thought, he wondered,” etc.)
  • Bodily movements that can feel tedious and repetitive

But you might wonder why all this even matters. Are we just being pedantic? Who cares what words are used as long as the story gets told?

Fair question. In fact, though, you might as well ask why directors don’t just shoot their movies on an iPhone. The story would still get told, right?

Truth is, words matter. They are your camera. And your script. And the skill of your actors. And your soundtrack.

Sentence-level choices affect the way your entire story is conveyed. You won’t get across a high concept using gutter speech. You can have the best story in the world and still sabotage it with poor word choices.

Clutter

One of the best ways to identify poor word choice is to figure out how much clutter your manuscript is dragging around. You know that guy who keeps so much junk in his car—flyers, old fast food wrappers, empty water bottles—that he can’t give you a lift without shoving a backseat’s worth of crap over? You don’t want your book to feel like that.

This is where excessive verbiage comes in. The “to be” verbs; obtrusive “tellers” like he thought, he knew, he felt; overused prepositional phrases: all of these just cause clutter. Readers have to shove them over to find the story.

Write tight. Use strong, simple verbs (he ran, not he moved quickly and rapidly.) Imply some actions (he grabbed a beer from the fridge after work, not when he got home from work and entered the door, he crossed the floor, went into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and grabbed a beer). Get out from between your character and your reader (where was he? not he wondered where he was.)

Clutter and cadence are closely related. Cadence is improved through use of poetic technique—alliteration and assonance, meter and rhyme. But it starts with cutting the clutter.

Dialogue

Adverbs tend to show up most in dialogue. They’re scorned not because they are bad words, in and of themselves, but because they tend toward telling where writers could show with just a bit more effort. Nine times of ten, the dialogue itself will convey “angrily” or “sadly” or “nervously.” And it should.

But dialogue is a pit for all kinds of poor word choices. A few more pointers:

Use said: it’s invisible. Shouted, whined, pouted, shrugged, laughed, gritted, seethed, cajoled, and implored are not (and half of those aren’t even types of speech. Nobody can shrug a sentence).

You don’t need to use speech tags for every line. Use paragraphing and action beats to let readers know who’s speaking and keep the dialogue anchored in the real world, not floating out in white space.

Beware of “body emotions.” You know the kind: people expressing emotion through body language like raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and the ubiquitous hand run through hair (although I can never figure out what that one is supposed to convey). Some of this is great.  A lot of it is distracting. Imagine a camera that’s always focused on the actor’s nose. That’s the effect.

Metaphors and Similes

I love language. I am a writer at least as much because of Emily Dickinson as Nancy Drew. So I love what a good metaphor brings to a scene. But wow, can you get this one wrong.

As an editor I frequently point out the effect metaphors and similes have on the whole atmosphere of a scene—on its emotional impact, if you will. If a scene is supposed to convey majesty and terror, don’t compare the chill that your character experiences to brain freeze from swallowing a milkshake too fast. (I wish I was exaggerating.)

When it comes to this use of language, don’t ask how cleverly you can describe an action or sensation. Ask how you can you communicate the mood of the scene. Going back to our movie analogy, this is lighting. It changes the way we receive everything.

Don’t Sweat. Do Edit.

When you’re writing, just write. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Do go back and edit it, because all that small stuff makes up the big stuff by the end. And develop your ear: through reading, through writing, through listening.

Words matter. They are the stuff of our written dreams.

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What tips do you have for editing your writing?

About the Author: Rachel Starr Thomson is the author of eighteen novels. As an editor and writing coach, she has helped writers achieve their best work for over a decade—so she’s thrilled to contribute to The Writer’s Toolbox series, which gives fiction writers everything they need to know to create compelling, solid stories. The newest release—5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writingis available here, and features more than sixty detailed Before and After examples of flawed and corrected passages to help authors learn to spot flaws in their writing. You can check out all Rachel’s books at her website.

Why Every Novel Needs Tension (And How To Create It)

Pro photo for book cover-small image

C.S. Lakin

This is a guest post by C. S. Lakin

I hope I don’t need to tell you why you need tension in your novel. Every story, regardless of genre, needs to ooze with tension.

Why? Because tension determines the pacing of the story.

Without tension of some sort, readers may lose interest. Their eyes might glaze over or their minds wander. They might start thinking about what to make for dinner or glance at all those bills sitting on the desk.

The last thing an author wants is for readers to think about anything other than the scene they’re reading.

To ensure readers stay riveted on a story, you need to ensure there is tension on every page.

Every page? Is that possible? Yes, it is.

But before we look at how that’s possible, we need to examine the types of tension at work here.

Different Types of Tension

Just what is tension, anyway?

In real life, we avoid tension, often at all costs. We don’t want to be tense, and we don’t like tense situations. And we don’t want others around us to be tense (although, some people are really into drama).

So let’s break this down a bit.

First, we need to look at two aspects of tension. There is the tension the characters feel as individuals, and then there is the overall tension in the story.

Don’t confuse action with tension. Don’t confuse high drama and high stakes with tension.

You can have the most exciting plot elements in the world—with car chase scenes and buildings blowing up and the threat of the end of the world and still completely lack any tension—as far as the reader is concerned.

So while you may be writing about tense things that should make people feel tense or you are showing characters under stress, that doesn’t necessarily equate to your book’s tension. The tension a writer should be aiming for is something other than making readers feeling uptight or worried.

Make Your Reader Tense

What we as writers want is tension in the reader. And that kind of tension is not dependent on what kind of action is going on in a story. Even the most subdued, quiet, nothing-seems-to-be-happening scene can have tension ramped to the max.

No, this doesn’t mean we want our readers to be stressed-out—although if you are writing intense suspense, that probably is exactly your aim. The kind of tension we want readers to feel is a sense of heightened anticipation, interest, curiosity, excitement.

This is a good kind of tension. Think of the tension in a tightrope. We want a reader’s attention to be taut.

In other words, we want readers to care so much about what is going on that they are uncomfortable. And when someone is uncomfortable, they want to resolve whatever it is to the point at which they can again feel comfortable.

The Secret to Tension

So what is the secret to creating that kind of tension in a novel? Great characters. Characters with a lot of inner conflict that is continually present.

Sure, outer conflict will add to that tension. But if your readers don’t care about what happens to your character—because you did not present and carefully showcase an empathetic, intriguing, vulnerable, engaging character—they won’t have much interest in the story and won’t feel that niggling need to know what happens next.

Let me just say this: without constant tension in your story, you won’t have a story.

If there are no stakes, no risks, nothing for your protagonist to lose, how can you have any tension? You can’t. And you can’t have a compelling story either.

So tension is story. Outer conflict throughout is crucial.

And the inner conflict your characters struggle with also creates tension. If your characters aren’t having problems making choices and don’t have conflicting feelings, your scenes will lack tension.

Keep in mind these important points about creating tension:

  • Create great characters who struggle with inner and outer conflict.
  • Have a terrific plot that features lots of outer conflict (which creates outward tension in the story).
  • Make the stakes high—high for the protagonist and ones that impact her goal for the book. High stakes are about what the character cares passionately about. This is the key. To create tension, then, you need your very empathetic characters, and particularly your protagonist, to be facing trouble with high stakes.

If you spend time making sure your novel is full of great characters struggling with conflict, tightening your plot so it moves ahead at a steady clip, and raising the stakes for your characters as high as possible, you will succeed in making your readers tense. Which is a good thing.

About the Author: C. S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical, and takes the mystery out of novel structure.

Image courtesy of conejoazul 

5 Ways to Boost Your Creative Juices Using Your Nose

This is a guest post from blogger Cindy Coons. I asked her to write this post after she approached me with the idea of using scents to unblock yourself and get inspired to write again. Cindy is going to share her top 5 scents for helping you to boost your creative juices. Enjoy!–jen

By Cindy Coons

As a relatively new writer, I have been thinking about various ways to get the proverbial juices flowing. Many writers use certain triggers to create ambiance for the perfect masterpiece. They will listen to music that assists in the flow of their words.

Others will write with a specific pen. The touch of it provides assurance that there are hidden words in there just waiting to be released. Still others need set the stage, whether the beach, or in a park or in the mountains so when they look up, they can see their words come alive in front of them.

Some of my favorite writers are those who eat chocolate or drink a special tea or coffee to extract the creative juices. As a lover of essential oils I started thinking, hearing, tasting, seeing, touching….what about scenting? As in scenting your writing space?!

Making Sense of Smelling

Part of the reason people may go to the beach or hang out at their local bakery or cafe isn’t just that it makes them happy or the food is really good.

Unknowing to most, the sense of smell, seemingly so innocent, is amazingly one of the most mind-altering. It is one of our most primal senses, so we often dismiss it’s abilities and focus on the other senses to get us through the day.

So the questions remains, can the sense of smell be the key that unlocks the creative part of your brain?

Without going into too much science, when you smell something, it travels up your nose through some 50,000,000 receptor cells, hits the olfactory bulb and is translated into a message. The message can be transcribed differently based on your genetics.

During translation, the smell affects your limbic system, which has a direct and indirect influence on so many of our body systems, such as the regulation of the fight-or-flight and stress response, as well as behavior and motivation.

So, can certain scents can affect the way you feel, how motivated you are, as well as reduce your stress and perhaps unlock amazing ideas hidden in your head? Yes!

5 Scents for Boosting Your Creative Juicing

1. Linguistically Gifted Lavender

If you are having trouble getting your words out, lavender is the queen of oils. Lavender is the oil of communication, and by diffusing this oil, you will open up your ability to get the words out, as well as decrease your stress associated with not being able to write. It helps to unleash your innermost thoughts and feelings, allowing you to connect with your true self.

2. Lift Up Your Spirits Lemon

Besides smelling like a Starburst, lemon oil is the oil of Focus. If you are having a tough time sitting down and writing, or you have a deadline you have to meet, lemon is your go-to oil.

Lemon will help to clear out the self-judgment that oftentimes holds you back from living up to your true writing potential. It also helps to balance mental fatigue and restore your energy.

I call it sunshine in a bottle! Vitamin D has nothing over lemon oil.

3. Believe In Yourself Bergamot

If you tend to be overly judgmental about your writing or are having a tough time being optimistic about how amazing your writing will be, you need some bergamot oil. More commonly known at the flavor in Earl Grey tea, bergamot is the oil of self-acceptance.

It will awaken your emotions of hope, love, and help give you confidence in yourself.

4. Peppermint the Powerhouse

Similar to bergamot, peppermint oil will help you get past yourself. This oil brings joy and light to your heart and soul.

It has the power to invigorate, stimulate and help keep you awake!

If you are in need of something as an afternoon pick-me-up to keep writing, peppermint is your go-to oil.

This is also a great oil to diffuse during brainstorming sessions, as it will allow your memories to be recalled easier.

5. Wealthy and Wise Wild Orange

Last, but certainly not least, is one of my favorites, and what I am diffusing as I write this blog post, wild orange. Orange is the oil of Abundance.

If you need to spark your creative juices, and want to believe in spontaneity, fun and joy, diffuse wild orange oil. This will help inspire you to solve writing problems, such as how to start a chapter or figuring out the perfect ending be.

Wild orange oil gives you confidence that you have the answer inside just waiting to come out.

Whenever you feel stuck or like you’re not writing up to your potential, use these common scents to get your juices flowing!

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Have you ever used essential oils? What was your experience like? If not, which scent are you most interested in trying?

About the Author: Cindy Coons is a corporate convert, natural healthcare advocate, mother, wife, lmt and overall free spirit trying to find her way in the world and share her gifts. She is currently working on her first book. She believes anything is possible and she enjoys educating and mentoring others on how to achieve the naturally abundant life they always dreamed of. Cindy lives in Rochester, NY with her family. You can follow her at http://cindysessentials.com or https://www.facebook.com/cindy.coons.714. She personally recommends that you use doTERRA CPTG Essential Oils.

Image courtesy of Dennis Wong