Story Arc … and I pose a question

July 29th, 2012

The Story Arc is the essential or main plot, the external conflict that becomes the focus of the hero or heroine through which all the conflict is played.

The external conflict involves the protagonist’s main goal and the obstacles that must be overcome.  A novel begins by establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, and then moves the action ahead with the Inciting Incident, the escalating conflict and turning points,  the black moment, and concludes with the climax, and resolution.

In my previous blog post about conflict (last week), I wrote that conflict unifies and drives the story.  Without conflict, without a unifying plot of some sort, there is no novel. By definition, a novel must have a plot.

The story arc is set up in Act One, by introducing all the story elements–characters, plot, setting, tone, Inciting Incident, POV. The setup orients the readers and focuses the story line.  The Inciting Incident should happen within the first 3 chapters.

But the setup of the story is not completed when the inciting incident happens. Here I’ll pose my question to readers of this blog: What element that starts with the letter C must be introduced to complete the setup? (I’ll answer the question in a future blog if the Comments don’t provide the answer.)

More about Story Arc: The story arc and suspense are powered by the turning points, obstacles, barriers, reversals and complications.  The suspense, as a function of that external conflict or story arc, should be strong enough to carry the reader through to the end of the book. If the story arc ends too soon, the novel, action and characters would then have no direction, no purpose.–the conflict ends, the suspense ends and you’ve lost the readers.


I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference, which is October 6th & 7th, with pre-conference workshops on Friday.

Have a wonderful week!!  And a happy and hot August!

Writing Conflict: some shoulds and shouldn’ts

July 21st, 2012

Conflict is a key ingredient of fiction. Conflict unifies and drives the story.  In fiction, you have some characters, you have a plot… but it is the characters enacting and reacting to the conflict–obstacles, reversals, complications, turning points–that makes up the plot.

Here are some shoulds and shouldn’ts:

Conflict Should be a part of every scene.

Conflict should build on what has happened previously–escalation.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something the protagonist could just walk away from.

The Conflict should involve something where the goals of the protagonist and villain are mutually exclusive–for example, the villain wants to do something and the protagonist wants to prevent whatever that is from happening.  Or the protagonist and the villain both want something or someone but their goals are in direct opposition and only one can achieve the goal–and thus, the conflict. They might want whatever/whoever it is for different reasons, but the objective is the same. But both cannot win.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something that could just be resolved with a conversation.

The conflict should have a sense of immediacy–the readers should feel the action happening as though they were a part of it, as it unfolds. It is partly this sense of immediacy that keeps the reader turning the pages.


For more on conflict and fiction, I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference in October.

Have a great weekend and week!!

Quick Tips on Usage

July 8th, 2012

Since I’m on deadline, I thought I’d write something quick on copyediting and usage, with some tips for more correct writing. The rules change from time to time, but generally remain the same.

When I’m working on editing or copyediting, I often make up what is called a style sheet of usage and words that a particular author uses.  I have accumulated most of these entries on one general style sheet which I use for everyone, with modifications.

(And since I work with romance writers, I do have “blow job” and “hard-on” on my Style Sheet.. 🙂 )

Here are some of those entries:

Some combinations of words are hyphenated as nouns or adjectives and not hyphenated as verbs, or vice versa. An example is the word buildup as a noun but build-up as the verb form. Cop-out as a noun but cop out as the verb. Dumb-ass is hyphenated, but shitload is not.  Fast track as a noun but fast-track as a verb and adjective. There’s once-over,  and pickup for the truck but pick up as the verb. Right-hand man but firsthand account, and to second-guess someone.

Further/ Farther: Further should be used for anything except distance. Farther is used for physical distance only. Examples: He thought further about the scheme and decided against it.  She moved the gun farther from the  cliff edge.

The phrase “for a while” is the correct usage (NOT “rested for awhile”).

Affect/ effect: In general, effect appears as a noun while affect does not. Affect can be remembered as a synonym for the word, influenced. Example: Her decision was affected by their conversation. The effect of that decision was that she didn’t go to the concert. The word effect is often a synonym for the word “result.” The word effect is also, to make something happen.

Neither/ either: “Neither” should be used with the word “nor,” and the word “either” is used with the word “or.”

Between/ Among: The word “between” is used to designate a relationship between 2 things, while the word “among” is used for more than 2 things.

Are there any usage tips you’d like to share?

The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: on my website]


Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?

Your eBook Public Library

June 1st, 2012

If you haven’t tried the ebooks at your local library, it’s a marvelous option. And you don’t have to have a Kindle or a Nook to take advantage of it. Keep reading…

Here’s a trip through one online ebook system at a local library.

First, you don’t have to log in to scan the books they offer.

The link to the ebooks is on the Home page and once you log in–of course, you do have to have a library card–then the first page you will see offers the following  list of options.

My Cart
Lending Period
My Bookshelf
My Holds
Wish List
Rated Titles: titles you have rated and allows you to change ratings.

The basic rules are that you can check out 5 ebooks at a time, and have 5 ebook holds at a time. Any number of ebooks may be added to the Wish List–as you might assume. Ebooks may be checked out for 21 days, and when due, they just disappear from your device or computer. When ebooks placed on hold become available, the system emails you and then you have 5 days to check them out.  The formats available are Kindle and ePub & epub/PDF, and from 1 to 6 of each title is available for check out–for each title, the screen shows how many copies are available and how many total library copies there are. If you don’t have a Nook or a Kindle for reading ebooks, there is  also Adobe Digital Editions for use on your PC, as well as Apps for reading on Mobile devices–all available for download, right there.

Beginning on the browsing pages, there are several windows: fiction, nonfiction and teen/kids sections. There are also sections to browse, such as:

New ebook Additions
Most Popular
Suggested Titles
Recently Returned
All Subjects
All ebooks 

For the almost 3,000 titles of fiction, the categories are Classical Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mystery & Suspense, Romance, Sci Fi & Fantasy, and View All Fiction. 

The categories for the approximately 1,000 nonfiction titles are Bio & Autobio, Cooking & Food, Health & Wellness, History, Humor, Family & Relationships, Religion & Spirituality, Self-Improvement, and Travel.  For Kids, there are about 250 titles; for teens, about 100 titles.

Once you have your titles in My Cart, you have 30 minutes to check them out. Checking them out requires that you log in to your Amazon account, where they will be available for download to your account and then to your ereading device.  The books you have checked out will then be listed in the My BookShelf of your ebook library account.

Some of the fiction authors available on the system include:

Lisa Jackson, James Patterson, Janet Evanovitch, Heather Graham, Karen Robards, George R.R. Martin, Danielle Steel, Terry Brooks, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, Anne Perry, Nora Roberts, Alexander McCall Smith, Tami Hoag, Barbara Freethy, Rita Mae Brown, Toni Morrison, John Case, James Lee Burke, Ted Dexter, Tess Gerritson, Lisa Unger, Suzanne Brockmann, Robert Crais, Lee Child, Iris Johansen, Linda Howard, and Michael Connelly, Jonathan Kellerman, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Susan Mallery,  Fern Michaels, and so on….

So, what’s on your wish list?

Conversation. Breaking rules in fiction

May 19th, 2012

For dialogue, at least in fiction, breaking the rules of conversation can be a good thing.

First, the three rules of rule breaking, as best-selling author Bob Mayer will tell you (applied to writing), are (1) know the rules; (2) have a good reason for breaking the rules; and (3) take responsibility for breaking them. (These rules and other great info can be found in his book, Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. ) This is excellent advice. And that can certainly be applied to dialogue.

What are some of the rules of Conversation?  From an old Linguistics course textbook*, which fell into my lap this week, I found a page covering H. Paul Grice’s Maxims of Conversation**. I thought I’d apply these to writing dialogue. These are some of the rules you’ll want to break in your fictional dialogue.  (Be aware, though, that conversations should probably still make sense, for those who write experimental fiction.) This is just one way of looking at dialogue, a different perspective, to help writers “think outside of the box,” though we usually don’t think in terms of rules of conversation,  except in specific cases, like the rule to not interrupt, and so on. These maxims have been criticized, but are useful as general guides to politeness–they don’t represent the full range of human communication.

What are Grice’s Conversational Maxims?  ***  And how can they be applied to writing dialogue.

There are 4 kind of  Maxims/ Rules.

Maxims of Quantity:  (1) make your contribution to the conversation as information as necessary, which means don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing; (2)  but at the same time, do not make it more informative than necessary

This first part of the Maxim should be followed for storytelling–don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing.  But they can be broken, for example, when the character is responding from a different perspective, or when that kind of comment is the character’s MO–when avoiding a topic or when frustrated, and so on. For this second part, a run-on sentence of dialogue would be the example of more information than necessary. This could be done to add conflict or humor. Though be cautious of anything that doesn’t add to the storytelling.

Maxims of Quality:

The two maxims of quality are (1) do not say what you believe to be false; and (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Both of these rules can obviously be broken to good effect in fiction–for example, to add conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

Maxim of Relation:

The Maxim is to be relevant. Being relevant in dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, if doing so for a character is actually part of the character or character’s behavior. Or it may be a way for a character to deal with a specific person or situation.

Maxims of Manner:

The four Maxims of Manner are (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; and (4) be orderly.

As far as the form of dialogue, I would be careful about breaking the rules. For content,  so much could be done. Some ways to break these rules in fiction are when the expression is fresh; the ambiguity provides conflict; and the long-winded character has a specific reason for tending to be that way–though again, I’d suggest caution, for any writing that doesn’t add to the storytelling. As for orderliness, human relations and conversation in real life aren’t always orderly–except maybe if you’re at a dinner party where conversation is the objective–and conflict  and dynamic dialogue are the goals in fiction, not necessarily orderliness. 😉

I hope this has helped you think from a different perspective about your approach to writing dialogue . Some writers who are noted for great dialogue and their use of dialect are Amy Tan, Susan Straight, and Elmore Leonard.

For writing fiction, what are your thoughts on creating great dialogue and on rule-breaking?


*An Introduction to Language (4th Edit.) by Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, pg 225.

** From “Logic and Conversation.”


Submissions tips

May 5th, 2012

When you submit a submissions package to an agent and/or editor, there are some important things to keep in mind. First and foremost, always check the Agent’s or Editor’s Submissions Guidelines. These can be found online. Take into consideration what they’re looking for and what kinds of books they’ve signed in the past.

Most submissions require a query, synopsis and the first 3 chapters. For the chapters, include the first three in the novel, not the chapters you think are the best, or that you think represent your writing the best. If you do feel that way, then it’s time to reassess your first three chapters.

Below are some quick tips for the query and synopsis.

Tips for the Query:

The query is a business letter, so it should be a formal letter. It’s also a selling tool. But remember that you’re selling the book, not yourself (secondarily yourself).

The query letter should not include the ending.

Include any marketing hooks.

The query should be one page.

Have a great hook that relates what your novel is about.

Tips for the Synopsis:

Always introduce your most important character first.

Write in present tense.

Focus on major plot points, not a scene by scene summary.

Reveal the novel’s ending.

The rule for length is the shorter, the better, usually about one to two pages, but it depends on the length of your novel and the complexity of the plot.

And always proofread.

Review: “Catch Me,” by Lisa Gardner

April 28th, 2012

Back from maternity leave and investigating a murder scene, Detective D. D. Warren is confronted by Charlene (Charlie) Grant, who tries to recruit D.D. to investigate her upcoming murder—over the past two years, two of Charlie’s friends were murdered on January 21st of each year, and Charlie expects she’s next. That’s just 4 days away.

The story is Charlie’s, though it’s told primarily through both Charlie and Detective Warren. As Charlie prepares—she has all the details from the two previous murders—she sweats bullets when her present collides with some startling events in her past, and she’s faced with difficult choices.

D.D. Warren is a charming mixture of new mother and talented, hard-nosed detective, experiencing the softness and demands of motherhood against the starkness of real life as a big-city detective, pursuing a killer.

Gardner’s great opening had me interested and into the story immediately. Terrific story, terrific storytelling. While the story had a few upsetting details—that is life and great fiction—the stand-out characters were very much worth getting to know and read about. In addition to unusual characters, this novel had some great twists and surprises—a can’t-put-it-down suspenseful plot—everything a reader could hope for in a very good read.

I sometimes compare certain things to great meals—like great lectures and great conversation. This was like going to an excellent restaurant, ordering a wonderful meal and having it be really surprisingly great. Calling this novel “a very engaging book” is an understatement.

Lisa Gardner is a New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels.
Her Detective D.D. Warren novels include Catch Me, Love You More, Live to Tell, The Neighbor, Hide, and Alone.
Her FBI Profiler novels include Say Goodbye, Gone, The Killing Hour, The Next Accident, and The Third Victim.


National Writers Union – benefits for writers

April 21st, 2012

This organization of writers is an activist group For writers, working together to share information, to speak out collectively, to improve the working and economic lives of all writers, in all genres. I am a member.

Some of the benefits of NWU membership:

1.) Organizing and Advocacy. With 16 chapters nationwide, they advocate for writers through legislative action for things like: copyright, unfair publisher practices, rights to free expression (both here in the U.S. and elsewhere).

2.) Member education. This includes the Grievance & Contract Division, but also events and trainings held nationwide, and Publications and resources online.  Some of the publications that are available to members are:

  • Freelance Writers Guide;
  • Copyright: A Guide for Freelancers;
  • Guide to Book Contracts;
  • Authors Network: making book promotion tours easier with 100 hosts and a list of reading venues and reviewers;
  • On the Road: A guide to book promotion & touring that was written by NWU members, with tips on pitching to the media, organizing local tour, and so on.
  • Standard Contracts & Guides (for Journalists);
  • Tips for Better Work-For-Hire Contracts;
  • And so on.

3.) Grievance Resolution & Contract Advice. Is the publisher refusing to pay you? Delaying the publication of timely work? Misreporting your royalties?  Or,  perhaps you don’t know how to negotiate — the NWU nationwide network of contract advisors assists members by reviewing contracts of all genres.  Contact the GCD at for FREE assistance.

4.) A Community of Writers.

5.) Journalism, Book and BizTech Division Activities & Resources.

6.) Union Plus. Go to directly to see how this program can save you money.

7.) Health Insurance.

8.) Press passes.

To read about NWU recent initiatives and advocacy on behalf of writers or to join, visit You can join online or download an application form.

Thoughts on rebirth at Easter

April 7th, 2012

Whatever one’s religion, and whether one celebrates it or not,  Easter is about rebirth and, I think, has something for everyone.

First,  I want to explore the holiday’s origins, to be inclusive. It’s interesting always that for most or all of what we believe, there are the threads of these stories–some version–through all of our cultures, a commonality that serves to unite all of us.  Its origins date back before the Christian form of the holiday, though the Christian holiday obviously stands on its own—-possible planning, to have the holiday be a part of the spring and the idea of renewal.. 

I’ve included some information about the origins of the holiday (from Wikipedia) in the next few paragraphs (but if you want to skip all of that, just scroll down 6 small paragraphs)**.

The origins of the holiday are linked to the Jewish Passover by its symbolism (See WikiPedia: Easter), and by its position on the calendar.

It’s also a secular holiday with the Easter bunny, egg decoration  and egg hunting. The Easter bunny is a kind of Santa Claus of the holiday, and the egg is a symbol of birth. Egg decorating symbolizes the ability to change and our uniqueness. There’s also the quandary or conundrum of which was first, the egg or the chicken–again implying change (Make of that what you will).

But further than that … before the Christian form of Easter, scholars propose there was a Germanic form, a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, Hausos. ((1) See Wikipedia: Hausos) “The dawn goddess was also the goddess of spring, involved in the mythology of the Indo-European new year, where the dawn goddess is liberated from imprisonment by a god (reflected in the Rigveda as Indra, in Greek mythology as Dionysus and Cronus).” (1)  

References to a dawn goddess also come from “the Sanskrit vanas “loveliness; desire,” in the Rigveda, and from the Latin name Venus and the Norse Vanir. “(1)

“The name indicates that the goddess was imagined as a beautiful nubile woman, who also had aspects of a love goddess. As a consequence, the love goddess aspect was separated from the personification of dawn in a number of traditions, including Roman Venus vs. Aurora, and Greek Aphrodite vs. Eos. ” (1)

“The Italic goddess Mater Matuta “Mother Morning” has been connected to Aurora by Roman authors (Lucretius, Priscianus)”; and the “abduction and imprisonment of the dawn goddess, and her liberation by a heroic god slaying the dragon who imprisons her, is a central myth of Indo-European religion, reflected in numerous traditions. Most notably, it is the central myth of the Rigveda, a collection of hymns surrounding the Soma rituals dedicated to Indra in the new year celebrations of the early Indo-Aryans.”(1)

**So, the common threads in most of the stories are a time of change, the season of spring, represented in previous times by a kind of Dawn Goddess, who is imprisoned but freed, a kind of rebirth. The dawn and spring are times of rebirth, of change, of things that were hidden coming to light, of seeing things that were of yesterday in a new light, of a brief time of fallowness but then new seeds taking root with new life. Of a new day and a new chance. (Some of you may remember Anne of Green Gables (Anne with an “e”  😉  ) who was taught that every new day was a new beginning.)

Change is the thing most stable in life. It is one of those rhythms of life. Easter is a holiday of change–among other things, it symbolizes dying and being reborn, which of course, applies to the creative process and to growing as a writer, as an artist. When we become, we kind of shed a part of our old self and embrace the new–the new as an expression of the potential self, our potential self. And the potential self is a well that never runs dry.

Have a very Happy Easter.

© Document Driven 2012

(1) Wikipedia: Hausos