Instead of sharing advice about what writers should be doing, author Janice Hardy explains how to apply the industry’s advice to your work, including tips on how to plan, write, edit and publish a novel. She also pulls back the curtain on how other successful authors and writers manage their creative processes.
Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.
If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.
Submissions currently in the queue: Four Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 14.
This week’s questions:
Was the opening paragraph a good hook? Are there any show/tell issues in the first person POV? Is there really conflict here or is it an improved character study?
This week's Refresher Friday revisits an oldie but a goodie, on the difference between the idea, premise, plot, and story of a novel.
Ideas come to us every day, from big bolt-from-the-blue inspiration to smaller “what if” musings. What's sneaky about ideas is that they're easy--it’s figuring out the story behind the idea that can be the hard part. I’ve had many a premise get me excited, only to discover later that I didn’t have a story, much less a plot, that would go with it.
This is one of the reasons some novels stall after fifty or a hundred pages. The writer gets an idea, dives in too soon, and then the story go splat. Read more »
$74,000. There’s the number. It’s tax time, so numbers are what we’re all about this time of year, and that one’s mine. That is my income for 2017. It’s a decent number for my part of the world, enough to live on and pay the bills for a family of two with one income. It isn’t the million dollars that some folks make, but it also is a nice, steady increase over my income of previous years. It’s about what a teacher in my school district makes, if they have a Master’s Degree, National Board Certification, and 30 years of experience. So it’s a solid, professional-level salary.
I make my living from my writing. This is my day job, and my side hustle. I don’t have a safety net, and I don’t have a Plan B. This is all I’ve got, and I’m both happy and a little proud to be able to make a full-time living from my work. I published my first book, a collection of poetry and short stories, in 2009, so eight years into this career, that’s where I am. Not bad, since eight years into my first career I was sitting at around $32K/year. That was also 2003, so there’s a slightly different lens we use when looking through the wayback machine. Read more »
When we’re developing characters, there’s a lot to think about. We need to create names, backgrounds, personalities, likes, dislikes, flaws, strengths, the list can go on and on. But at the center of all those traits is a guiding force that influences them all.
The character’s emotional core.
Although people (and thus characters) can be complicated creatures, the emotional core is a simple thing.
It’s the primary driving emotion behind a character’s thoughts and behavior. Read more »
JH: Not every writer writes the same way, and it's our creative diversity that brings out the best stories from all of us. Joyce Scarbrough visits the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on process and how to find yours.
Joyce Scarbrough is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies á la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. The former senior editor for Champagne Books, Joyce now does freelance editing in addition to writing full time. She writes both adult and YA fiction and has seven published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. Joyce loves hanging out with other writers and stays active in her local writers’ guild as well as her regional chapter of SCBWI. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 35 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.
By Damon Suede, @DamonSuede Part of the How They Do It Series JH: Keeping all the moving parts of a story together can be rough. One detail gets forgotten or remembered incorrectly, and it can throw off an entire story arc. Luckily, Damon Suede visits the lecture hall today to share some tips and insights and keeping your characters and your stories in perfect alignment.
Damon grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year.
As independent authors, one of the challenges we face is that everything lands on us. Even when we hire freelancers to design our covers or edit our work, we make the final decisions. Even when we reach the point where we might hire a personal assistant, we’re still in charge.
That means we have to consider certain things that traditionally published authors never have to think about. One of those things is the security of our retailer accounts.
Our retailer accounts contain the information necessary for us to receive our payments for book sales. If those accounts are hacked, the hacker can change the bank account information so that our money ends up in their bank. Not only that, but we instantly lose access to all our books and we can’t upload new ones. That alone can be disastrous for an indie author. Read more »
I was chatting with a fellow author recently, and we were commiserating over manuscripts that drove us crazy and were hard to write. I’m in the middle of rewriting one of those manuscripts right now, but this time around, the writing is going really well. It made me think about what changed, why some books are harder to write than others, and what we can do when we’re faced with a book that makes us want to yank out our hair and throw away our keyboards.
I’ve loved and wanted to write this particular YA fantasy idea for close to ten years, but it’s been a hard book to write. The core of it has stayed the same—an undercover spy and the emotional stress it causes—but the plot and the character arcs of the two main characters has changed over and over. Draft after draft just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. Read more »
Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)
Have you ever read a book that you just couldn't put down? The whole time you were turning pages, you were probably desperate to discover the answer to a burning question. That's the essence of suspense, and it makes readers devour your book. So how do you build suspense in your novel? Start by avoiding these four suspense-destroying mistakes.
Mistake #1: Answering all of the questions. At or near the beginning of every scene in your book, you need to fix a question firmly in the reader’s mind. Give them something to worry about.
Who committed the murder?
Does he really love her?
Will she get the job
Is someone really trying to kill him?
It doesn't have to be a huge, dangerous question. It could be as simple as, “Will she make it to work on time?” Readers will worry about almost any question, if—and this is a big if—you make it clear that the question is crucial to the outcome of the story.
As long as the answer to that question is important, the reader will keep worrying about it until you answer it.
And you do need to answer it, sooner or later. Smaller questions should be answered by the end of the scene. Bigger questions can take the whole book.
But here's the trick: never, ever answer all of the questions. Always make sure there are at least one or two questions in the reader’s mind at any given time. Before you answer one question, ask a new one. Keep those questions coming, and readers will keep reading.
Mistake #2: Giving the main character a vague goal. Vague goals are the next biggest killer of suspense. If the reader doesn't know exactly what the main character is trying to do, then they won't worry about whether or not she will succeed. No worrying means no suspense.
A suspenseful story goal needs to meet three specific criteria:
1. The goal needs to be personally important to the main character.
2. The main character can only reach the goal by taking action.
3. Reaching the goal needs to be a specific event that you can visualize, like crossing a finish line or planting a flag on top of a mountain. It needs to be something that you could photograph. Otherwise, the reader won't necessarily know when the goal has been achieved.
Here's an example. In my novel A Kiss Before Doomsday (the Dru Jasper series, book 2), one of the main characters, Greyson, has gone missing and is presumed dead. But Dru has reason to believe the man she loves is still alive. Her goal is crystal clear: find Greyson.
That goal meets all three of the criteria. It’s personal, because she loves him. It’s active, because she has to go out looking for him. And you can visualize it: the moment she finds him, you'll see it happen.
For your novel, write down your main character’s goal in a single sentence, like this:
CHARACTER must VERB the OBJECT.
Example: Dru must find Greyson.
Use your character's name, plus a verb such as find, win, deliver, escape, stop, etc. And then finish the sentence with what he or she is after.
By using a verb, you're automatically making the goal active, because the hero has to take some kind of action to achieve it.
Next, check to make sure that the goal is personally important to the main character. It has to directly affect the main character’s life in a powerful way. (Note: in your story, make sure to show the reader why this is important.)
Finally, make sure the reader would be able to visualize the specific moment when the goal is achieved. In your notebook, write down a few sentences describing what happens in that moment.
If you can't describe a specific event, then it's a sign that your goal is not specific enough. Take a close look at the verb you used in the sentence (find, escape, etc.). Is it active enough? Keep working on it until you know what that winning moment looks like.
Once you have it, you'll be able to keep readers in suspense as they wait for it to happen.
Mistake #3: Making the stakes too low. There's a lot of talk out there about the “stakes” in the story. But what are the stakes, exactly?
What's at “stake” is what the main character will gain by achieving the goal, or lose by failing to achieve the goal. Here's an easy way to think about it:
Imagine two tables playing poker. At one table, the players each have to stake a single dollar. At the other table, the players each have to stake a million dollars. Which game is more exciting?
Now, imagine that in the back room, there's a third table full of gun-toting criminal masterminds, and the players each have to stake their very lives.
Those are high stakes.
How high do the stakes need to be in your story? It doesn't necessarily have to be a matter of life or death. But some important part of the main character's life needs to be at stake, and it will literally or metaphorically die if she fails to achieve the goal.
Some example elements that could be at stake in your story: the main character's life, her career, her marriage, her family, her reputation. You get the idea.
In my novel It Happened One Doomsday (the Dru Jasper series, book 1), the story starts with Dru trying to help a handsome hot rod mechanic named Greyson. The guy has been afflicted with an ancient curse, and unless Dru can break it, he will lose his mortal soul. So right from the get-go, the stakes are high.
Do the same thing in your book. You don't have to endanger someone's mortal soul, necessarily. But you do have to make sure that something life-changing is at stake. If the main character fails in their quest, he or she will pay a steep price.
Mistake #4: Not raising the stakes. The stakes should not only start out high, they need to actually get higher during your story. That ups the tension, which builds the suspense.
How do you do it? In your notebook, write down your original stakes, then add the phrase “even worse” and come up with something, well, even worse.
Here's an example. Halfway through It Happened One Doomsday, Dru discovers the nature of Greyson’s curse: he will not only lose his soul, he will also become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If Dru can't break his curse, she'll lose Greyson—and, even worse, the Four Horsemen will ride forth to bring about doomsday. The entire world will come to a fiery end.
That's definitely worse. The stakes are raised, the suspense builds, and the second half of the book just flies by.
In the beginning of your book, let your reader know what's at stake. How will the main character suffers if he or she doesn't succeed? Then, somewhere in the middle of your book, raise the stakes even higher. Not only will the main character suffer, but something else will happen that’s even worse.
Remember: suspense is all about asking questions.
Building suspense in your novel is not a one-time event. It's a constant process. You have to continually pose crucial questions throughout your book, starting in the very beginning, and keep the reader asking questions faster than you answer them. Make your readers worry about a burning question, and they'll keep turning the pages to find the answer. That's how you create page-turning suspense.
Do you struggle with building suspense, especially in the middle of your book?
When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…