Oct 28, 2015

So You Want to Plot

To create a plot that will hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end, we need to begin at the tip of the iceberg, not at the summit, not on the downhill slope. We begin at the tip and then force out characters to go up, over and across the iceberg, not around it where the going is easy.

We make them face every dangerous moment as they traverse the obstacle that’s in their way. We don’t lessen the danger. We don’t send help. We don’t toss them a rope or put a ladder under their feet.

Start with what each of the characters in your story wants. Make sure it’s something they can’t achieve or acquire easily. It should be something they can’t ask another person for and can’t run out and buy. It took me a long, long time to realize that a character who doesn’t really want something—and want it badly—is next to impossible to motivate in difficult situations. As a result, I ended up putting those characters into contrived situations, and then wrote myself into very deep corners I had trouble getting out of.

To avoid my mistake, make sure your character wants something so badly he’ll do almost anything to get it. Make it something he aches for or something upon which his future, or the future of others, depends. The character’s motivation must be strong enough to propel the story forward, even when you’ve boxed him into a corner.

Does that concept make you recoil? Do you think it’s too extreme?

You want to write about simpler things. Stakes that aren’t quite so high. Passion that’s a little less ... passionate. Wants that are less earth-shaking, less life-altering.

But do you really?

If the people you’re writing about aren’t one-hundred percent committed to pursuing their goals, willingly or not, they’re going to be too easily discouraged when things get rough. They’re more likely to back down, turn away, give up, move on, shift goals, and go after something else until things get rough.

Once you give a character an out, he’ll probably take it. If he doesn’t, what comes next may feel contrived.

To write really compelling fiction, you must write about people who are completely committed. Passionate people who are willing to fight for what they want and keep going after it in the face of obstacles, right or wrong, wise or foolish. Just keep your idea in view, your motivation appropriate, and the people in your story behaving in character.

A word of warning (another lesson learned by doing it the other way): Characters who want to achieve a negative goal, to avoid something, to prevent something, to run from something, also make for unworkable (or very tough) fiction.

If you create a man who wants, for example, specifically, not to fall in love, anything you put into your plot that makes him fall in love is likely to feel forced. Why would a person who truly wants to avoid the opposite sex open the door, even a little, for that perky Heroine you’ve just shoved under his nose?

People who want negative goals (who want to avoid creating something new in their lives) don’t have to actually do anything to accomplish their goal. In fact, all they really have to do is keep doing the same thing they’re doing now. Creating a character arc for someone with a negative goal is difficult and painful because making that character move and change requires you, the author, to lie, Readers can always, always, always feel a lie, even if they can’t identify it as one.

Books about people who don’t change, move, grow, or step outside their comfort zones are generally not well received. Books about people who make changes, move, grow and step outside their comfort zones unrealistically also get a lackluster response from the reading public.

We want to read about someone with a problem he can’t avoid, a plan for getting around it, and the courage to take active steps toward succeeding with the plan.

Instead of having your romance hero wake up in the morning vowing never to fall in love again, let him want something instead—something that gets him moving forward. He’s accepted the fact that he won’t find love again, but he wants desperately to regain the respect he once had from people in his chosen field. Because he wants a positive (respect) rather than a negative (to not fall in love) he may reluctantly open the door for that perky Heroine he views as a negative because she offers the means to the end he seeks.

Thinking about your plot in those terms can give you goals for your characters, motivation that keeps the story moving, and believable conflict all in one! 

Oct 15, 2015

Thoughts From a First-Time Conference Attendee

While sorting through some files on my computer, I came across an article I wrote 20 years ago after attending my first-ever Bouchercon. I was a newly published author, venturing into the world of other published authors for the first time. I'd never been to any large writer's conference at the time, so the whole thing was a new experience to me. 

In the years since, I've been to several large writer's conferences and even presided over one during my year as President of Romance Writers of America. I've written 30-something books and seen many of them published around the world. I'm pleased to say that most of my observations have stood the test of time. And so, here they are, seeing the light of day for the first time in two decades: 

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Seattle.  This was my first national convention of any kind, and I don't mind admitting the idea of attending this convention of over 1600 authors, agents, editors and fans--of which I knew not one living soul--made me a little nervous. But I'd spent a lot of money on airline tickets and hotel reservations, and I decided not to let it go to waste. 

As I battled my fear of the unknown, I realized that unless I brought something back, the trip would be a waste. So I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and acted like a big girl. 

I had a wonderful time. I spent a lot of time watching others, much energy meeting new people, many hours smiling--and even more money. I met Marcia Muller in the Dealers' Room. I met Tony Hillerman in the lobby. I met my agent, my publisher, and several editors from my publishing house. I smiled for pictures, ate too much for dinner, plugged my book and admired the view from various places. 

I met wonderful, exciting new authors who've written wonderful, interesting books. And I started a list. Things I want to remember. Things I'll do differently next time. One or two things I'll do the same. In case you're interested, I'll share my list with you:


Register early enough to get a room at the conference hotel.

Always Wear Your Name Tag

Use Your Pseudonym. That's the name you want people to remember. 

Writers who have achieved true success don't talk about how well-liked they are or how talented they are or how well-liked their books are.

Many writers who haven't, achieved real success do talk about those things--a lot..
Even million-sellers are insecure about their work.

Many authors refuse to show their work to anyone except a spouse or significant other. (At the time, I thought it was because they were afraid someone would tell them their plotting or characterization was weak. That might be the case with some authors, but having gone through several different seasons in my own work, it may also just be that they are in a place with their career where they need to pull back and keep their work to themselves.

Editors are anxious to find good books. 

Nobody can clearly define what a "good book" is. 

Published authors don't attend many workshop sessions. 

Work the Dealers' Room. (Or whatever they call the bookseller area of your conference. Meet the people who will be selling your books.

Be on a panel (or give a workshop. Like anything else in life, ultimately you'll get out of the experience just what you put in.)

Go to everything your publisher sponsors--they'll usually notice if you're not there.

Don't believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.

Don't tell editors how nice it is to discover they're "real people". They don't seem to like this much. 

Read everything your publisher puts out in your line.

Make friends with writers who are at the same stage of their career as you are. (Don't try to crash the "big kid" table. Just like school, if you stick with it, one day you and your colleagues will be the big kids.)

Don't be shy. (Yes, I know that most of us are introverts and it's often painful to act extroverted, but being a wallflower won't accomplish anything. Show an interest in other people. Don't waste so much time thinking about yourself. It's not all about you.

Don't be pushy. (It's still not all about you.)

Invest time and effort in your career.  Arrange signings, attend conferences, accept speaking engagements. 

Mystery writers can't agree on technique or style any more than any other group of writers can.

The private parties are the best.

Make an appearance everywhere. Your editors will be looking for you.

Readers and most unpublished authors are willing to listen to anyone speak. They'll listen to you, too. They're anxious for tips, insight into the writer's world, and in technique.

Published authors only really listen to authors who sell more books than they do.

And even then they don't pay much attention--they've got an editor who likes their work and they're not real anxious to fix what's not broken.

The people at your publishing house want your books to sell as much as you do.

I heard a vicious rumor that some publishing houses are going start to requiring video tapes of potential authors to see how promotable you are. (I don't know if anyone ever did this, but being promotable is still a thing

People judge your work by the image you project.

Be approachable and accessible. People will remember you next time.

Be familiar with other peoples' work. (Again, not all about you.

Spend time in the hospitality suite.

Sell yourself -- tastefully.

Remember names!

Send thank you cards to everyone.


Have I followed every bit of this advice over the years? No, but I still think most of it is valid and I'll review it before I go to my next conference. So there it is for you, whatever it's worth.

Oct 8, 2015

Bringing Characters to Life Through Emotion

To bring a scene to life, your characters need to come fully to life. One thing that will kill a scene faster than almost anything is an author so obviously intent on getting the characters to pose here, say that, and do the other the characters never become real people and never actually connect with each other. Characters that don’t connect with each other on the page have very little chance of connecting with the reader.

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the need to drop witty one-liners, a piece of research, or an exciting fight sequence onto the page that you keep your characters from reacting honestly. Don’t be so concerned about getting a line of dialogue into a scene that you write cardboard characters who talk at each other rather than real people who talk to one another.

Forgetting that our characters are supposed to be in the same room engaging in conversation with one another is a common mistake. It's actually a form of telling rather than showing because the author is so focused on her own part in the story that she’s not letting the characters live the story. As a result, the reader ends up wading through several paragraphs or pages of narrative explanation or paragraphs full of uninteresting dialogue when what she really wants is to get on with the story.

Getting the mix of emotion right isn’t easy. If it were, none of us would struggle with it. While we want to make sure we include enough emotion, there are times when less is more.

Be careful not to confuse emotion with sentimentality. Sentimentality is simplistic, surface emotion. It’s clich├ęd, affected emotion, which shows only the surface without foundation. Editors are looking for real emotion, even if—especially if—it’s raw and painful. With the increase in technology, I think more people are writing and submitting today than ever before. Years ago, only the most dedicated writers were willing to mess around with carbon paper and typewriter erasers. Now that we can all point and click, cut and paste, the competition has exploded.

Your characters’ emotions are one of the few things that will make them stand out in that vast sea of similar characters out there. In the past two months, I’ve judged two contests for published writers. I’ve read 16 books for the two contests, all of which obviously made it past slush-pile readers, onto an editor’s desk, and through the editorial process.

Of those 16 books, 10 had plots so similar it would boggle your minds. (It still boggles mine.) Luckily, the books for one contest were final round picks, so they were above-the-norm when it came to the writing, the plotting, the motivation, and conflict, but those elements were also very similar. The only thing that set the books apart from one another were the different casts of characters in each book. Unfortunately, since the books were also eerily similar, their perspectives on life—their emotions—were the one true thing that made the characters unique in each book. 

For that reason, it's imperative to dig deep and discover what your characters really feel about their situations. Not what you think they might feel, or what similar characters usually feel by page ... whatever ... of your genre-specific work-in-progress, but what that unique individual you're writing about feels based on his background, his belief system, and the kind of day he's having.

Once you can tap into a character's genuine emotions, he or she will truly begin to come to life on the page of your manuscript. 

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Oct 1, 2015

To Plot or Not to Plot

No doubt you’ve heard (and probably participated in) debates over which is best—plotting in advance, or writing off into the mist. I have no doubt that you have a preference, because just about everyone does. 

Although we can sometimes get into heated debates, we all know that there really is no right or wrong way. No one-size-fits-all solution to the question of how to get from the beginning to the end of your novel. The important thing is to achieve the desired effect, to pull readers into our stories and keep them hooked from the first page to the last.

Whether you plot before you begin to write, as you begin each section of the book, or sit down every day with no conscious idea where your book will be going that day, we all plot. Even those who write into the mist plot in some way at some time, either consciously or unconsciously, or they wouldn’t end up with a story.

But let’s begin at the beginning.... What is plot? 

Plot is probably the most often-heard term when writers get together to discuss fiction. Most people consider it the essence of fiction. Without plot, there is no story. While some people begin with plot and then look for characters to enact that plot, others begin with interesting people and discover their plot by looking into the characters’ lives. Either way, plot is story.

There are many definitions of plot floating around out there. Plot is
  • an ordered structure of significant events;
  • the story of strong forces meeting and one of them triumphing over the other for better or worse;
  • a record of change.

 An ordered structure of significant events. Okay, I guess that’s true. If I’m describing my plot to an editor, an agent, or a potential reader, I’ll want to give an ordered structure of story’s significant events, so yeah. That describes plot as I know it. 

Plot is the record of strong forces meeting and one triumphing over the other, for better or worse. I agree with that, too. Plot is all about the conflict, about a person who wants something, meeting strong forces that keep him from getting what he wants, and his eventual triumph over or defeat by those forces. 

Plot is a record of change. I agree with that, too. Change alters people’s fortunes, their thoughts, and their beliefs—even if it’s only long-held beliefs about themselves. Change is what readers come to the book to find. I doubt you’ll ever run into a reader who picks up a book hoping for 400 pages in which everything in the characters’ lives remains exactly as it was on page 1.

Plot is also a force upon the people in your story, often called narrative drive. This drive is the relentless forward movement of events, and the details related to those events, that pile up until the whole teetering tower collapses into the final conflict—those climactic scenes that make the story worthwhile.

We need that force working on the people in our stories because, again, readers don’t come to the book to find out what happens in the life of someone who never experiences something beyond their control, never ends up with their back against the wall, or never has to fight their way out of a bad situation. So change isn’t enough. It needs to be a change that challenges the character to climb higher, dig deeper than s/he ever has before.

It’s a rare person who will stick with a book about nice people to whom nice things happen repeatedly until the story ends. As an author, I wouldn’t know when to stop writing if the people in my book had nothing to conquer or nothing to concede defeat to by the end. 

Readers need plot—that relentless forward movement—to keep them hooked. Authors need plot to know when and where to begin, and when and where to stop. 

In the past, I've worked with many confused writers who had no clear idea of how and when to begin the book they want to write, no clear idea where they’re going, and no clue where to end. This is a horrible feeling. It leaves a writer feeling unequal to the task they’re facing, which might be okay if they weren’t driven to face that task, tackle the book, and conquer it—a mini-plot in itself!

We’re all terribly afraid that our plots won’t work and worried that we are the rare thing among writers—the one and only author who can’t come up with a perfect plot.

Rest assured that there is no such thing as a perfect plot, but in Plotting the Organic Way, we'll focus on creating plots that are as close to perfect as humans are capable of creating—and, more importantly, plots that work.

To quote author Stella Cameron,
 “What doesn’t work in a plot is what doesn’t work. If the reader stops, frowns, re‑reads, and stops again—there’s something very wrong.”
There may be different causes that bring about the pause. Perhaps the inadvertent loss of viewpoint control throws the reader for a loop, or maybe it’s a slip in chronology, or maybe the author’s failure to create a setting the reader can see and feel. Maybe it’s an illogical or unbelievable reaction by one of the characters, or a decision no sane person would ever make. Or it could be a reaction, a situation, or a decision that was obviously contrived for the convenience of the author but which has nothing to do with reality. All too often it’s an inconsistency in plot ... which we'll have to discuss later. 

I've discovered that I'm neither plotter nor "pantser." My style falls somewhere in the middle, a plot style I like to call organic. What kind of plotter are you? 

Plotting the Organic Way: A Dancing on Coals Workshop for the Fiction Writer coming soon to a Kindle near you! 

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