Before taking the plunge to write full-time, I often found myself imagining how wonderful it must be.
To be able to manage my own time, to work wherever and whenever I wanted.
To sit in coffee shops, looking fantastically artistic and observing the world passing by, while the inspiration for a new book just “came to me.”
To never have another pointless team meeting again, or create another project management document, or Excel spreadsheet, or be bossed around by my very bossy boss.
To have the unwavering support of family and friends, who would eagerly read everything I wrote.
To live my life knowing that I wasn’t just another sucker in the rat race, that I was true to myself, and inevitably, definitely, the universe would reward me for that by making me a celebrated, world-famous author in no time at all.
So when I plucked up the courage and gave my notice to my very bossy boss to begin this new journey, it was rather a shock to the system.
I quickly learned some valuable lessons:
A coffee shop is quite a distracting and uncomfortable place to work, and they sometimes don’t like it if you only buy one coffee and then expect to be allowed to remain there for four hours.
It’s amazing how many “important jobs” you suddenly realize need doing around the house when faced with a rather threatening-looking blank page.
It’s quite challenging to get published, particularly if you spend more time cleaning the bathroom than actually writing.
It’s a Sacrifice
To be a successful, dedicated, and motivated writer, you must make many sacrifices, and the more you are willing to sacrifice, the more productive and prolific you can become.
In this modern world, writers can no longer just be excellent at writing. It isn’t enough. They must also be highly organized, meticulous researchers; good with finances; able to make drastic businesses decisions; be social media and marketing savvy; and willing to take knocks, setbacks, and criticism and yet continue to persevere despite there being zero guarantee of any reward.
Here are just some of the sacrifices all writers must make:
Whether you write full-time or you are one of those inspiring individuals who manage to write while also holding down a day job, being a dedicated writer takes time. We all know how important it is to create a writing schedule, to give ourselves deadlines, and to write regularly.
However, finding time to write isn’t easy, and every writer soon enough comes to the realization that if she wants time to write, she has to make time. That means discovering when you are at your most productive, and rearranging, canceling, or giving up other things in your life to make room for it.
Maybe you’ll have to get up an hour earlier, go to bed an hour later, or cancel your gym membership. Maybe you’ll need to give up Friday night drinks or make your partner take charge of dinner despite knowing this means microwave meals every night for the next month. Whatever you need to do, creating time to write is your biggest priority.
Find a writing schedule you are happy with, one that challenges you but isn’t impossible to stick to, and this will ensure that you keep putting words on the page—and as a writer, there is nothing more important than that.
You have to accept that there may be times during your writing career when your relationships suffer. You may become a social hermit and have to endure your friends moaning at you because you never come out anymore.
It could see you once again denying your partner date night because you are at a crucial turning point in your book. You might notice your beloved dog start favoring your other half because you no longer have time to play with him, or you may have to tell your cheeky-faced children when they peep around the door that they have to leave you alone because it’s “Mummy’s writing time,” despite feeling your heart crack in your chest every time you do it.
It can be complicated and challenging to acknowledge that your relationships are suffering because of your writing. However, it is essential to find balance. If you can make it up to your nearest and dearest and make sure they understand how important your work is to them, you’ll feel much better.
Organize one a night out once a month with friends, make sure your partner knows you still love him or her, give the dog a bone, and remember to give your kids attention at least some of the time. If you can do that, then it’s OK not to be the best friend/partner/parent you can be some the time.
Want to be a great writer? It’s time to say good-bye to your ego! The best writers acknowledge how tough the writing game is. They understand that readers won’t just “happen” upon your work. That not all people will think you are a creative genius, that the majority of the population, unfortunately, doesn’t care about your hopes and dreams and will at best ignore you—and, at worst, they might tell you you are no good.
Bad reviews and rejection are only half of it. Getting people even to read your writing can be a massive uphill struggle that can leave you feeling exhausted and deflated. People have so many choices to make these days that stopping to pay attention to a writer they’ve never heard of before is a big ask.
By putting your reader first, you are acknowledging that if you want to be heard, you have to write for an audience. You have to realize it can’t be all about you. If you can do that, you have taken an important step. You may have to sacrifice your ego, but by doing so you’ll stand a much better chance of writing something that people want to read.
Finally, it is essential to let go of your romantic ideals. Being a writer can be cathartic, uplifting, and fulfilling, but it can be all too easy for writers to live with their heads in the clouds.
It’s vital to remember that writing takes hard work, and it’s up to you to produce something compelling, entertaining, and moving to entice readers in.
Understand that it’s not all about being artistic and creative and that you probably will still use spreadsheets from time to time.
Accept that you have to admit your shortcomings, and you can always learn more.
It is by hard graft and being committed to continue to work, learn, and improve that you will give you the best chance of finding success.
Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be a brilliant writer? As we learn from all good tales, if a person wants something, the stakes must be high, and many obstacles may lie in the way.
Writers are warriors and the real heroes of their stories. Their bravery, commitment, resourcefulness, and determination never ceases to amaze, and if you are willing to go all in, success could be yours for the taking.
So get out there, be prepared to make those sacrifices, and it will all be so worth it in the end.
Bethany Cadman is the author of Doctor Vanilla’s Sunflowers and is a freelance writer and blogger. She has an MA in creative writing and has just finished her second novel, SWAP which should be hitting the bookshelves soon! Learn more about her work at her website.
Guess what? I’m still not the best writer. Nor will I ever be. But that’s OK.
What I’ve learned is that persistence, a commitment to mastery, and good old-fashioned hard work are far more likely to determine success than inherent talent ever could.
The Power of “If” Questions
Do you struggle with knowing what to write?
“I think a lot of novels begin as questions. For example, Handmaid’s Tale began as a question. Really, a couple of questions: “If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it?” “If women’s place isn’t the home, how are you going to get them back into the home now that they are not there?” —Margaret Atwood
Try to take Margaret Atwood’s advice. You have a truly unlimited source of story ideas, provided you are able to conceive interesting “if’” questions.
Ultimately, fiction should be captivating. There is no better way to produce this outcome than through the use of “if” questions.
These questions can range from the mundane to the mindblowing.
For example, on the one hand, you could ask a question as straightforward as “What would happen if X person won the presidency instead of Y person?”
On the other hand, you could ask a question as outlandish as “What would happen if everyone was allowed to see two years into their future, but only once during their lifetime?”
Chances are, if an “if’” question intrigues you, it will probably intrigue your readers too.
Your Life Experience Is Legitimate
A lot of people hold themselves back from writing the story they truly want to tell. This is often due to a false, limiting belief that their own range of experiences and interactions aren’t important enough to write about. Thanks to the new reality of self-publishing, there is no need to wait for a certain point.
Other people wait until a later time in their life, in terms of either experience or maturity.
While this perspective is understandable, it is also mistaken. In actual fact:
“The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.” —Margaret Atwood
The takeaway message from the above quotation, at least for me, is that everyone’s life experience is valid, interesting, and worthy of sharing, even if you later come to view events in a different life.
There’s no need to wait for a milestone to tell your tale. Get started, right now. Even if you eventually view things very differently!
The Limitation of Pedestals
We writers are insecure by nature. We often feel that no one will appreciate our work until we reach a certain level of fame and recognition. Similarly, we often hold ourselves back due to our own personal insecurities about our stature.
In fact, our lack of fame can act as a strength.
Consider the following take:
“If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.” —Margaret Atwood
Have you ever heard of a famous actor becoming typecast? Or a music artist failing to replicate their prior success due to a change of style?
If you’re an author who has not yet reached the status of “on a pedestal,” be grateful.
The lesser known you are, the more freedom you have to make and learn from mistakes. Your style isn’t yet set in stone, and neither are your audience expectations.
Enjoy this freedom and experiment to the fullest, before that place on the pedestal is finally yours.
Focus on Impact
As writers, we often let our ego interject too much. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I often worry too much about what I have to say rather than how other people will perceive it.
In actual fact, I’ve found the following quotation from Margaret Atwood to be very close to the truth:
“It actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel” —Margaret Atwood
Ultimately, it’s not about conveying your own thoughts and feelings, although this will inevitably happen.
You should avoid being bland and forgettable at all costs. Instead, aim to make the maximum impact on your readers.
After all, your readers are the ones who will be writing your reviews on Amazon, spreading the word about your book, and possibly signing up to your author mailing list to stay informed about future projects.
Neglect the feelings of others at your own peril. Conversely, tap into the feelings of others, speak to them, and even influence them. This is a recipe for true, long-term, sustainable success.
Lessons from Margaret Atwood – My Final Thoughts
I hope you’ve found at least one principle or idea from Margaret Atwood to put into practice in your own writing life. In summary:
Don’t place limits on yourself. It’s still more than possible to succeed, even if others don’t expect it.
Use imaginative “if’” questions to generate creative story concepts.
Your life experience, whatever it may be, is valid and well worth sharing.
If you’re an unknown author, your lack of profile gives you the freedom to explore and experiment.
Place more emphasis on what you make the reader feel as opposed to your own personal take.
Which is your favorite piece of advice from Margaret Atwood? How do you intend to apply it in your own writing life? Please let us know in the comments!
Note from C. S.: If you love Margaret Atwood as much as I do, be sure to check out her online class at MasterClass. I’m going to take it, and I hope you do too. While there, take a look at all the amazing courses they offer!
Dave Chesson runs Kindlepreneur.com, one of the largest book-marketing websites. When he’s not analyzing new book-marketing methods, he loves taking a practical approach to author tools, like his comparison of the best writing tools for authors.
Have you ever given a piece of writing to a friend to read and had butterflies in your stomach as you watched her read it?
Most writers know what I am talking about.
Whether we’re doubting our own abilities, dealing with criticism, or struggling with our first draft, insecurity is a common emotion that a lot of writers feel.
But I think insecurity is far more dangerous than a lot of us realize. From what I have seen, it isn’t just a bad feeling but is rather a serious leech on your storytelling abilities.
Today we’re going to look at three ways insecurity hurts your writing and what to do about this dangerous feeling.
#1 – Insecurity, the hidden root of unnecessary exposition?
If you’ve read enough books on writing, you’ll find warnings against unneeded exposition.
Exposition is the information that explains stuff to the reader, usually about backstory, world history, etc. The reader needs to know what’s going on, but most writers don’t suffer from having too little exposition. Most suffer from stuffing their stories with too much. When this happens the story gets bogged down. The reader gets bored and tends to skip whole paragraphs or even quits reading a book entirely.
Knowing you should avoid this is a good start, but if the root of the problem isn’t addressed, it’ll still influence your writing in a negative way.
An overuse of exposition often comes from insecurity. An insecure writer tends to think if he doesn’t explain every single detail, the reader will have no idea of what’s going on.
This is the quickest way to make your book unreadable.
When a writer instead operates out of confidence, he knows that the reader can pick up on information easily through implication and action.
Not only that, the confident writer knows that readers actually get a mental buzz when they are figuring things out for themselves, rather than when having it spoon-fed to them.
That’s just the first way insecurity can hurt your writing.
#2 – Flashy writing marks an amateur writer
Another way insecurity can express itself in your writing is with “flashy” writing. That’s writing that tries to draw attention to itself.
I remember quite recently that I began reading an article on Medium. I had to quit because the writer thought it was appropriate to fill every second line with a simile or a metaphor.
That did not make for easy reading.
The insecure writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, assumes that to write well she has to use all the language features she learned about in school. They believe that good writing is in the writing.
This is not true for genre fiction.
What the insecure writer forgets here is that the reader wants to read a story, not to read writing. Big difference. Every metaphor and simile should be used in the service of the story, not the other way around.
When used properly, clever writing heightens the experience the writer is creating for the reader.
Clarity is probably one of the most underrated aspects of good writing. Before you can use advanced writing techniques, the first concern of the confident writer is to make sure that she’s creating a clear vision in the reader’s mind.
Compare the following two paragraphs and see which one you enjoy more:
Tony detected the strange tingling sensation in his lower arm as he strode forward. He failed to recall what precise moment in the night the wound had been dealt to him. He gritted his teeth as the frosty fangs of the cold dug into his flesh, chomping at his bones. He looked like a furious bear who has been surprised by a pack of hunters. The drops of red life descended from the spot where he had been stabbed.
Tony felt a numbness in his arm as he walked ahead. He couldn’t remember how he’d been wounded. He gritted his teeth as the cold air cut into his body. The blood began to drip from the wound, and Tony knew that he might die tonight.
If you take your average reader, they’d have a much easier time with direct writing vs fluffy writing.
#3 – Possibly the biggest danger of insecurity
Here’s where I think insecurity is especially dangerous to writers.
When you are insecure about your writing, then you are vulnerable to feedback.
An insecure writer gets emotional about his work. He is afraid to let anyone read it. If he does let anyone read it, then he is in danger of getting emotionally crushed if the person has any reaction that isn’t glowing praise. The biggest problem here is putting your self-worth outside yourself and relying on someone else’s approval.
The confident writer only experiences anxiety as a twinge rather than an overwhelming force. The confident writer knows what she’s capable of. She knows that no matter what her friends or family think of her work, she can always improve and disregard criticism that isn’t useful.
This expression of insecurity really hurts a writer’s ability to improve because, like any skill, feedback is essential for growth.
A confident writer makes adjustments and changes and grows. An insecure writer tries to build a shabby shell around her broken skills by avoiding feedback.
The truth is that some people will not enjoy your work. Some people will find holes in your story that you didn’t expect. Some people won’t like your characters or think they are realistic.
The confident writer takes good advice and ignores bad advice. The insecure writer lashes out at any criticism that emotionally hurts him and becomes reluctant to make the needed changes.
Bringing It Together
When you write with confidence, when you are sure in your abilities, and when you can see your work objectively, the process is a lot more fun.
Being riddled with insecurity is an awful feeling no matter who you are. It just happens that with fiction it results in stories that become broken due to too much exposition, too much flashy writing, and not enough feedback.
If you want to improve your writing, I encourage you to work on removing any insecurity you have so you can boost your storytelling abilities.
Braeden Phillips is an entrepreneur and copywriter who lives in New Zealand. He’s been writing fiction seriously since he was sixteen years old, (he is now twenty-one.) Right now, he is editing the first book in his adventure-fantasy series. If you enjoyed this post, then check out his latest venture, Storykation—an online resource for writers who want to improve their storytelling abilities and create works of excellence. There you can download his free guide on Dialogue called Snap Dialogue. This guide will give you the principles you need to know to write great dialogue, and you can learn it all in less than forty-five minutes.
A killer first draft, the holy grail—who doesn’t want it?
Conventional wisdom says that you can’t write a good first draft. As Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
No doubt, he makes a valid point, but, as with everything, just because it sounds true, doesn’t mean it holds true all the time.
I don’t believe the first draft has to be shit, and I’ll show you the 6-step process I use to create killer first drafts.
Before going on, it makes sense to come to terms with what a “Killer First Draft” is.
First, what are the ways in which a first draft—or, rather, any draft—can be bad?
Narratively? -? most serious (flaw inherent in the story told)
Structurally ?-? easily fixable (flaw inherent in how the story is told/stitched together—it’s usually fixed by reordering scenes, chapters, or sequence of scenes)
Linguistically ?-? pet peeve (flaw in the language)
Having spent months working on your story, which problem would you rather have?
No one in their right minds would choose the first problem, but I’ve come across many writers whose process leads them to that very problem.
A story is a narrative, and if your first draft fails narratively, then it’s shit.
Structural problems aren’t so bad because they imply that the underlying story is already working, and the only problems are in how it’s stitched together.
Linguistic flaws don’t ruin a good story, but the best written prose won’t save a terrible story.
Hence, a killer first draft is a draft that has minimal narrative, structural, and linguistic problems.
The 6-step process is carefully constructed to help you tell the best version (or close to it) of your story the first time around by limiting all such problems.
Before we get to the steps in detail, we must take a detour to aid our future understanding of the process and why it works.
Two Types Of Writers
In my writing journey, I’ve found that there seems to be two main types of writers.
There are those who get an idea and run to the typewriter or computer, or in my case, an iPad. British novelist Zadie Smith calls them Micromanagers, of which she is one.
The second set are those who refrain from writing fade in or prologue until they have plotted the story to the end. Zadie Smith calls them Macro Planners.
The difference between both sets of writers is primarily in their method.
One writer doesn’t care about laying foundations, relying on the power of their subconscious to deliver a decent story the first time around, while the other ensures the story is alright before writing.
If you identify as a Micromanager and are unwilling to try something new, or are content with your method and the quality of first drafts produced, you may stop reading now.
Why may you want to become a Macro Planner if you’re naturally a Micromanager?
In Defense Of Macro Planning
I have a few friends who want to write but have found it difficult to get on with it.
It’s not that they don’t write, but, rather, they get an idea, get excited by it, and let it push them to begin the process.
At first everything is going great, and two chapters are churned out per day.
But then, one year later, they are on their fourth story, with the first three yet to be completed.
There are many reasons, but a lack of desire to write is not one of them. Somewhere along the line, they lost interest in the story or just couldn’t figure out what would happen next.
To be clear, there are best-selling authors who identified as Micromanagers—?Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, to name a few.
The problem with this method should be clear to see for anyone who has a basic understanding of how creation works.
You don’t start building a house the moment you conceive of the thought. You don’t build a car when the idea hits you. You don’t go on a vacation the moment you imagine it.
In all these things, planning is required.
Given the number of decisions required to be made in a story (characters, plot, and theme), it seems a bit insane to me to start writing without doing some groundwork.
When you engage yourself in writing an unknown/unplotted/unplanned story, you give yourself way too much work to do while writing, work you could have done prior.
Not to say that the 6-step process eradicates the importance of the subconscious and spontaneous creation. On the contrary, it magnifies its ability because it splits the creation process between the two sides of your mind, with each doing what it does best.
To understand how, let’s begin the process.
Step 1?-?God’s View
Primary agent: subconscious-conscious. Primary concern: creating/imagining the story
This is where it all begins. The moment the idea strikes. In this stage, you only want to gather ideas and take notes.
The primary advantage of this is you can be in this stage for several stories at the same time, for as long as possible.
Naturally, the longer you let the ideas ferment in your subconscious, the deeper they’ll blend with your experiences. And before long, you’ll have a lot of notes for what happens in your story.
The primary agent active in this process is the subconscious, and the subconscious is something that should never be rushed.
You know you’re ready to move on when you know, in general, what happens from beginning to end.
That’s the beauty of this process: the subconscious is given the time to deliver a million eureka moments, each time fixing the story and making it better or seeing clearer what was only vague months ago.
Another way to know if you’re ready is to use the following as anchor:
Inciting Incident? -?What sets your protagonist on the path to the big event?
Big event? -? The story’s hook—Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts, Avengers assemble
Mid-act climax ?-? What major event happens in the middle?
Crisis? – ?The worst thing that could happen to the protagonist
Resolution ?-? How does it resolve?
If you can see all of these events, then you’re most likely ready to proceed.
In this view you also get to decide or find what your theme is. At first, it may not be clear, but with time, as characters and plot develop, the theme will develop with them.
Step 2?-?Side Glances
Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concern: structuring the story
Once a general view of your story’s main events have been illuminated, you can then create/see it in more detail by zooming in to each individual scene that combines in telling the whole story.
It is best carried out by using a pack of index cards or sticky notes. Scribble scenes/chapter titles on them, and summarize what happens in the scantiest terms.
Step 3?-?Nine Narrations
Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: refining the story
Having glanced your story from beginning to end in scanty detail, the next thing to do is to narrate. There’s two main reasons you want to do this.
The first is to gauge how good a story you have and how well you have told it. You do this by getting feedback.
It’s much easier to ask someone for ten minutes of their time to narrate a story to them (your friends certainly won’t mind and some strangers too) than it is to ask them to read a 120-page script or a 60,000-word novel.
It’s also wise from a business standpoint. Why invest resources (time) in a commodity that hasn’t been market tested yet? It’s like releasing a film without doing a test-screening to gauge audience reaction.
The second reason, and most important, is that this helps you make the story better. When you begin narrating your story to your first audience, you’ll find that with each narration, you carry out nifty surgeries on the story, spotting defects and fixing them on the spot, mid-narration.
I was curious why this tended to happen and so I thought about it.
It made sense. When you’re actively telling the story, you’re in a creation state, though you’re creating from a pre-existing blueprint.
In this state, your subconscious and conscious are working in tandem as you create new words to convey familiar information.
Then you come across a part in the story that doesn’t really make sense, and there’s a disconnect.
Because of the momentum thus built up, necessity inspires innovation, and the story is reconnected in an ingenious way that makes it flow better.
When it happens, it’s like magic; it fills you with joy.
How many times do you have to do this?
I reckon nine is the magic number, because “Ten Narrations” doesn’t have such a nice ring to it.
Step 4?-?Under the Microscope
Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: telling the story
Traditionally, it’s called the treatment stage. Here you take your side-glanced story that’s been improved by the nine narrations under the microscope to jot down the information in more details.
You’ll write what happens, to whom it happens, how it happens, and why it happens.
It’s almost like writing the story but greatly differs because it doesn’t demand much in relation to prose styling or dialogue.
The aim is just to get the details of the story down. The characters, their motivations, their desires, their conflicts, the setting.
Again, no dialogue is required, so you don’t have to bother about what anyone said. Just look at them and take detailed notes.
It’s usually around a page or two per scene, or half a page, if laziness has a greater hold on you.
I’ve found you can cheat here, but know that you’re probably increasing the work you’re going to do later.
Remember, the idea is to do the groundwork, to lay the foundations.
Step 5?-?To the Computer (or tablet or pad)
Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: writing the story
If you didn’t cheat under the microscope, then this will not be as hard.
This is the moment you finally get to let your characters talk. And also the time I begin to dread the rigorous demands of prose styling.
Having gone through the last four steps, you’ll be able to breeze through chapters in days, depending on your writing style and how much you get in the way of the flow.
Step 6?-?The First Edit
Primary agent: conscious. Primary concerns: refining the story told
Basically what it says. You edit what you have into a first draft of your story. This is particularly useful for finding and fixing linguistic errors.
It’s called the first edit because no story is set after this stage. That is the reality of the job.
That said, all future edits will be dedicated to refinement (making the prose or script better) as opposed to reconstruction, or in some cases, construction.
If you’re writing a script, this is where you fine-tune your dialogue and descriptions.
Ideally, you should start the first edit sometime after finishing the prior step. The reason is to give you the chance to view the story with fresh eyes.
With all this work done, you should have a first draft that works narratively, structurally, and linguistically—a killer first draft.
Which aspect of your draft do you struggle most with? Share in the comments!
Gilbert Bassey is a writer and story consultant who is dedicated to telling great stories and helping other writers do the same. You can follow his writings on medium and subscribe to his storycraft newsletter to get a free copy of the Ultimate Guide To Compelling Antagonism.
If you need help with your drafts, consider coming to a Scene Mastery Boot Camp! There are four scheduled in beautiful California locations this year! Read all about them HERE!
If you’re not familiar with the site MasterClass, I want to encourage you to check it out. In addition to terrific writing classes with top writers, they offer a whole lot of neat classes, including basketball with Steph Curry (how cool is that?), Serena Williams teaching tennis, and cooking classes with expert chefs.
Yes, this is a plug for a site of which I’m an affiliate. But I don’t promote many companies. I think MasterClass is classy! I’ve taken a few of their classes so far, including James Patterson’s and Steve Martin’s (comedy) classes. They are all lifetime access and $180.
They’ve recently added a whole lot more courses, including ones on filmmaking (the one with Jodie Foster is on my list!).
I’m posting below the descriptions of some of the great writing courses I would encourage you to check out. Just go to MasterClass HERE and scroll through the many courses available. Their platform, design, course structure, and videos are top-notch!
Dan Brown – thrillers! – Packed with secret symbols and high-stakes suspense, Dan Brown’s thrillers have sold more than 250 million copies, including one of the world’s best-selling novels, The Da Vinci Code. In his MasterClass, Dan unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives. Learn his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.
Judy Blume – Judy Blume broke the rules. Her refreshingly honest children’s books were banned by hundreds of libraries—and loved by generations of readers, who bought 85 million copies of classics like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Superfudge. In her first online class, the award-winning author teaches you how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.
Margaret Atwood– Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories—from historical to speculative fiction—that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.
Margaret Atwood has long been a favorite author of mine, and I’m definitely taking this class!
R. L. Stine – Award-winning novelist R. L. Stine wrote jokes and funny stories for 20 years before he switched gears and became a horror-writing legend. Since then, the author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series has sold more than 400 million copies. In his first-ever online class, Bob takes the fear out of fiction writing. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, you’ll learn new ways to conquer writer’s block, develop plots, and build nail-biting suspense that will thrill young readers.
I got to listen to Bob Stine at Thrillerfest last summer. He is pretty hilarious, with a dry, wry sense of humor that is highly entertaining. If you are interested in writing for kids, he’s your guy.
James Patterson – James Patterson, the author of 19 consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, reveals his tricks of the trade for the very first time. In this course, he guides you through every part of the book writing process.
I’ve taken this course, and I learned a lot. I really enjoy his humble, friendly approach, giving insight into not just writing craft but the writing life.
I hope you check out these fun courses. Have you taken any? Share your thoughts in the comments! Check out MasterClass HERE!
Plotting is complex, and whether you “wing it” or plot extensively, there are 5 key steps that will help you stay on track when brainstorming a scene. I’m reprinting a blog post I wrote a few years back to bring attention to these basic steps all novelists should consider when putting a scene together.
Writing scenes can be daunting, but, as with all novel components, it just takes time and effort to learn how to become a master scene crafter. The first step is getting the big picture of a scene.
What do I mean by that? Instead of thinking about the minute details you want to put in a scene, you first want to step back and consider a few things.
Each scene in your novel should be moving the plot forward. Each scene should reveal some new information, but not just anything—the information needs to help move the plot forward. The bottom line? Every scene must have a point to it or it shouldn’t be in your novel.
If you’ve been following my blog for some time, or you’ve read my writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox series, you’ve heard me spout this. When brainstorming your scene ideas, it’s crucial that you first consider the point of your scene.
Ask: What do I need to have happen in this scene that moves the plot forward?
Depending on where this scene is going to come in your novel, that answer will vary. Opening scenes in a novel should be setting up your protagonist in his ordinary life. Around the 10 percent mark of your novel, some incident or opportunity should occur that shifts the character’s direction and/or focus. It interrupts that ordinary world. Through a series of events, the character is then moved into position by the 25% mark to launch his goal. From then on, all scenes orbit around this one purpose: to aid or hinder or complicate the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal.
So when considering the point to your scene, you need to know exactly where in the story that scene will occur. Instead of thinking “I wonder what I should have happen to my character next?” first consider what section (some think in terms of acts) of your novel this scene is going to be placed.
For example, the second act of your novel involves progress and setbacks for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. As you build to the big climax, you are making it harder and more hopeless for him, with more obstacles and complications. Keeping this in mind helps you determine exactly what the purpose of your scene will be.
Take Time to Learn Plot Structure
If you aren’t aware of basic novel structure and the essential plot points and where they are positioned in a story, you should take the time to learn this. Why? Because if you don’t get novel structure clear, your scenes aren’t going to serve the plot’s interest. They will wander about aimlessly, confusing readers and accomplishing little to nothing of importance.
The best way to ensure your structure is solid is to get a thorough critique of either your rough or polished full draft or of your scene outline. If you haven’t finished writing your novel, you don’t have to wait to get help. I work with many authors at the outline stage. You can hire me to critique just the first few chapters to give an assessment of how the premise and characters are being set up.
If you’re struggling or unsure you’re on track, hire me! Contact me here to discuss your project and what concerns you have about your structure.
5 Essential Components
Let’s say you know exactly what the purpose of your scene will be. You may have your protagonist’s best friend turn on him. You may want to introduce an accident or some violence to upend things. You may be bringing a love interest on stage, or have an ally try to stop your character from making a bad decision.
Now that you have the purpose in mind for your scene, what next? Let’s look at the first five key components to crafting that scene.
The high moment. Your scene has to have a key moment that encapsulates the point of your scene. Think carefully about what that moment should be. It’s usually a reveal—a clue, a new bit of information, a reveal of character that impacts the story. It can be big or subtle.Moments aren’t about big action but about significance. What is significant to your POV character for that scene. A high moment can be a complication that shows up, a reversal (something happens opposite to what the character expected), or a surprise twist to the plot.
Start in the middle of action. Last year on this blog we spend a month covering the fatal flaw of “nothin’ happenin’.” The popular term in medias res means starting in the middle of something. If your character John is waking up and getting dressed, then heading to work, that may sound as if the scene is starting in the middle of things. John is waking up and getting going in his day, right?Nope. The idea here is to start in the middle of something interesting that’s going on. Something that makes the reader wonder just what has been happening up till now.Imagine walking into a room to find two people in the midst of an argument. You know you’ve missed something, but you’re intrigued to find out just what. That’s the feeling you want to get with your scene openings.I suggest thinking about that high moment, then starting about 15-20 minutes of screen time earlier. That time factor will vary depending on your scene, certainly, but it’s a good rule of thumb when considering at what moment to open with.
Establish the POV character and stay in that POV. Make sure to be clear whose POV this scene is in by the first or second paragraph. It may be obvious, such as when writing in first-person POV. But even with first person, it can be easy to fall into explanation and lengthy narrative that feels out of POV.So make that character present to the reader right away. “Rule” is: only one POV per scene. So stick with that one character, showing only what she can see, think, or feel. If you need to get into another character’s head, wrap up that scene, do a scene break (put a # in the middle of a blank line), and then start the new scene.
Establish the setting. This is one component that is frequently ignored. Make it clear where this scene is taking place. Don’t do an info dump of details, but rather show the setting through the POV character. I’ve written dozens of posts on the importance of setting, and I have to emphasize here—it’s almost always undertreated in every manuscript I critique.You don’t need much, but it’s essential.That includes a feel for the weather, time of day and year. Sensory detail is critical in order to bring a scene alive, and the most evocative details are those dealing with setting.
Consider the conflict. Conflict is story. Ideally, you want conflict oozing out of every page. So take some time to think about the conflict inherent in your premise and plot.
The character arc requires inner conflict, which is really the character’s struggle as he is forced to grow and learn and change through the story. The outer conflict is embodied by antagonists and nemesis characters who create interference and obstacles for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. Outer conflict can be incidents that impact any or all of your characters.
Just know this: if your scene is lacking conflict, it will fall flat.
James Bell likes to teach that every scene should have a death in it: the death of a dream, a job, a friendship, a hope, or maybe even a literal death. This is the essence of conflict and complication.
So for starters, drill these five essential scene components into your head, and as you are plotting out your next potential scenes, or revisiting ones you already have, be sure you’re including these.
Thoughts? Which one of the above five scene essentials do you struggle with? Which is the most important to you?
Want to master scene structure? Then come to one of our 4 Scene Mastery Boot Camps in 2019!
In three full days, you’ll learn all you need to know about mastering scene structure. In a small group setting, with intense instruction, you’ll work on your scenes to perfect them! Check out all the California Scene Mastery Boot Camp locations HERE!
Do you know how many books are on the market today? Neither do I; I can’t count that high. I do know that in 2015 alone, over a million books were published.
This is awesome for readers, but it creates a problem for authors looking to create a fan base. Not only do we need customers to find our books, we need them to love them—enough to finish them and go on to consume everything else we have to offer.
To make it in this crowded space, we need to attract readers who are obsessed with our work. We want them staying up late and oversleeping because they couldn’t put our book down, texting friends to tell them how awesome it is, and running to the computer when they’re done to see if there are more coming out.
Basically, we want raving fans—customers who read all of our stuff and do the word-of-mouth marketing for us. But how do we get this kind of response to our books?
We do it by generating empathy.
When readers start to care about the main character, they’re going to be invested in what happens to him. And they’re going to keep reading to make sure everything turns out okay.
Jason tapped on the door frame. The battle-axe didn’t look up, just kept slashing through numbers on her sales report.
“Um, Mrs. Swanson?” No response. He shifted his weight, wondering how to proceed. He couldn’t mess this up. He couldn’t miss another of Kristina’s games.
Jason shuffled half a step into her office. “Um … about this weekend? I know your email said I needed to work, but … Well, I kind of already have plans—”
“Cancel them,” she said in a tone that was as forgiving as her Sharpie. When he didn’t answer, she looked up.
His gaze dropped to the rug.
In this example, it’s easy to see what the character is feeling without it having to be stated. The body language cues (the tentative tap on the door, his shuffling steps) combined with his speech hesitations and unsettled thoughts convey uncertainty and nervousness. This is an example of emotion that has been shown rather than told, and it works for building character empathy for a few reasons.
It Makes the Reader an Active Participant
Showing emotion is effective because it pulls the reader in close to what’s happening. When readers are simply told what the character’s feeling (Jason was nervous), they’re not involved; they’re put at a distance, just sitting back and listening to someone tell them what’s going on.
But when the character’s emotions are shown through body language, vocal cues, thoughts, and dialogue, readers are able to infer what’s happening for themselves.
This process of figuring things out is part of what makes reading such a satisfying experience. We don’t want everything explained to us; it’s rewarding to be able to follow the clues and put the pieces together, even if we don’t know that’s what we’re doing. Showing emotion gives readers that opportunity.
It Engages the Reader’s Emotions
Emotions are universal—meaning, whatever your character is feeling, the reader has most likely felt it too. When we’re able to show that emotion in an evocative way, it can evoke a hint of that same feeling for the reader, because they’ve experienced what the character is going through.
Readers who feel a sense of doubt or fear or elation are going to be far more engaged than ones who sit back and watch other people feeling those emotions.
Showing Emotion Creates a Sense of Shared Experience
When readers recognize the character’s emotional state as one they’ve experienced in the past, it creates a sense of shared experience. Readers will connect with the character, even on a subconscious level, because of this thing they have in common. This is a common way for empathy to begin.
When we master the art of showing emotion, readers become active participants in the story, their emotions are engaged, and they feel a sense of kinship with the character. All of this can lead to increased empathy and the reader being invested enough in the character to keep reading. If we can accomplish this in all of our books, it just might result in customers who keep coming back for more.
is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
One reason writers procrastinate is they haven’t taken the time to master the skills. If we attempt to do something—like change the oil in our car or build a bookcase—and we haven’t first learned what’s needed to attempt such a task, it may cost us a whole lot of wasted time.
Just as with learning anything, you’ll do well if you first master, step-by-step, the skills needed. If I have a hankering to build a desk and I don’t know the first thing about working with wood, and have never used any of the needed tools, I’m going to flounder.
This really applies to a career as a novelist. I’m stunned by how many writers waste years—many years—floundering around trying to write novels and don’t know what they’re doing.
Take the time to learn your craft well.
Recently I did an editing job for a guy who told me he’d written numerous novels and stated one of his novels had won some award (not sure what that award was). I was expecting a fairly well-constructed story but was disappointed to see the writing at a bare-bones amateur level.
The writing itself was weak, clunky, and repetitive, but the bigger problem was the structure—or lack thereof. I worked through pages and pages that had little happening, that lacked a strong setup of character, locale, premise.
The problems, to me, were glaring, but this writer, of course, couldn’t see that. His attitude hinted at smugness. He’s a man with a lot of initials after his name. The purple prose throughout attested to his fancy vocabulary—but the characters he created wouldn’t know such words and phrases. And the scenes were mostly author narrative, telling about the story.
I often find my mind cycling back to those four corner pillars and why writers really need to get those under their belt. If this writer understood the need for a strong concept, an empathetic protagonist with a clearly visible goal, conflict and high stakes, and a theme or two with heart, he wouldn’t have wasted so much time trying to write this novel.
I only edited a few chapters, and I explained to him why I didn’t feel it wise to continue. I don’t believe novels should be edited for grammar and punctuation when they are fatally flawed.
It’s the writer’s choice, of course, as to whether he wants to take such advice, and, granted, this was my personal subjective advice to him. My guess is he’ll go find another editor willing to complete the job so he can hurry to publish this novel to add to his list of published books.
But at what cost?
I also recently was surprised to hear a previous client interviewed extensively (over many episodes) on a podcast. She was one of the most unpleasant writers I’ve ever worked with. Argumentative, unteachable, and insistent that she knew best. About everything.
She paid me a lot of money to critique her massive (800-page) first novel. Needless to say, it was a complete train wreck, but I did my best to help teach her basic things about scene structure, showing instead of telling, and the need to chop out huge sections of boring explanation. In the end, she was ungrateful and downright hostile to my efforts to help her.
Fast-forward five years. She finally self-published her novel, explaining on the podcast how she went through numerous editors until she found “the right one,” then went on to praise this editor for teaching her all the important things about novel structure that she had no clue about (and which I had thoroughly explained to her in my critique).
She loved that the editor, basically, let her do what she wanted, allowing her to write her book her way. I noticed on Amazon not only the few reviews and low rankings (though that doesn’t mean it’s a failure as a novel) but the book was still nearly 600 pages long. A glance at the opening pages confirmed she still had a penchant for “telling” and overwriting.
She seems very happy with her novel and her success so far, and I don’t begrudge her either. I do feel, though, her attitude may have prevented her from seeing earlier and greater success. And by “success,” I don’t mean just huge sales. Success, to me, is all about writing a terrifically structure story, whether you sell it or not.
I wasted a lot of years writing novels that didn’t hold together. I wrote The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction for one reason: to help aspiring novelists avoid wasting time like I did. To avoid making these amateur mistakes.
It takes a measure of humility to be teachable, to say “I don’t know everything,” and to be willing to have a professional critique your work. It’s scary at times, because it’s easy to attach our self-worth to our work.
But don’t do that. You aren’t your work. It’s your work ethic that speaks to who you are. Being willing to learn, grow, and improve speaks well of you.
I asked one of my favorite editing clients why all my super successful competitive trial lawyer clients were the most humble. Seriously. I would think lawyers would tend to be arrogant and unwilling to take advice (my bad).
He said something like “When studying to be a lawyer, I had to quickly determine what I knew and what I didn’t know. Things I didn’t know, I had to dive in and work hard to master them. Lawyers are quick to admit what they don’t know and want as much help as possible to learn what’s needed to be successful.”
I liked what he said. You figure out what you don’t know, find someone to teach you, then humbly allow that person to teach it to you. That’s the way to fast-track to success.
My point? Don’t get all caught up in your personal feelings when it comes to your writing. Don’t let them be an obstacle to improvement. Have an open mind as you read writing craft books and blog posts and get professional help with editing and critiquing.
It’s a new year. How about making the choice to be proactive in learning the craft and getting help to be the best writer you can be? Attend conferences (come to the San Francisco Writers’ Conference in February! I’m the fiction track coordinator, and we are going to have some amazing tracks and speakers!), listen to podcasts, study craft books and blogs like mine, and apply what you learn.
Yes, it’s hard work. But it is fun to be creative and challenge yourself. You can do it.
Share in the comments what your writing goals are for 2019!
Grammar mistakes make you laugh . . . except when someone points one out in your novel.
We see them everywhere: on signs in storefronts, on menus (especially), and building marquees. We just can’t believe some of the things people accidentally write (for, surely, they aren’t making those gaffes on purpose)!
“The average North American consumes more than 4,000 Africans.” (Hearty appetites?)
“Toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children.” (See many of those around?)
Does this make you cringe?
Uh . . . no comment.
“Violators will be towed and find $50.” (Hmmm, punishment and reward?)
And then there’s the line on the McDonald’s marquee: “Over 10 billion severed.” Maybe that’s where Soylent Green‘s inspiration came from.
I could go on all day. Maybe even all year and never even scratch the surface of all the mangling of language evident in the world.
We writers want to wield, craft, and cleverly (not cleaver-ly . . . sorry, that severed thing is rattling in my brain) use language. Not mangle it.
Maybe your novels feature characters who mangle their words. That’s fine, so long as it’s clear they’re doing the mangling and not you, the uninformed writer.
Here are a couple of excerpts from my handy grammar guide Say What?:
Are You Infamous or More Than Famous?
I couldn’t resist devoting one entry on this since one of my favorite bits in the movie The Three Amigos (although there are so many good bits!) is when the three actors get the urgent telegram requesting them to come down to Mexico to face the infamous El Guapo.
What follows is a little explanation from one amigo to the other, saying that “infamous means ‘more than famous.’”
For the record, in case you don’t know the meaning of the word, infamous means having an evil reputation, or, when describing an act—an infamous crime—you would be emphasizing the disgrace this act brings upon the one perpetrating it.
There is a slight difference, also, between infamous and notorious. Both mean “well-known for some disreputable or wicked quality, deed, or event,” but check out this difference:
Notorious emphasizes the “well-known” aspect and is often misused to just apply to famous (not infamous) individuals or events.
Infamous emphasizes the wickedness aspect, and the person doesn’t have to be well known. You can have infamous behavior and be a nobody.
And if you want to delve into another “amigo” word explanation, the bit on the meaning of plethora between El Guapo and his sidekick is too funny. Trust me and just watch the movie.
I May Be Wrong, Maybe . . .
It seems a lot of writers use maybe in the place of “may be” a bit too often, maybe.
The word maybe is an adverb (do you remember what those are? They modify a verb). It means perhaps. So anytime you can use perhaps in the spot you want to write maybe, you are A-OK.
When are you not supposed to use maybe and should use may be instead? Remember, may is a verb. If you can replace may with might, you need to use may be.
You may go outside if I say so.
You may do it anyway.
You may be a bit belligerent.
You may be tuning me out. But I’m used to it.
Just think “might be” or “could be.” Or maybe not.
You just might need this book. Get it here, and impress all your friends with all the cool grammar and usage tips you learn!
Want to point out some fun gaffes you’ve seen lately? Share in the comments.
Laughing at gaffes is fun, but we don’t want our work ridiculed! Study Say What? The Handy Fiction Writer’s Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage to avoid embarrassment.
For the last five years, I’ve been teaching writing retreats in gorgeous South Lake Tahoe, CA. And each year I keep expanding. New retreats. More instuctors. More instruction!
My co-instructor, Catharine Bramkamp, and I offering writers a very special limited-time offer:
If you come to either two or all three of our Tahoe boot camps this fall, and you sign up before January 31, you will get HALF OFF your boot camp cost.
While every house we’ve rented has been drop-dead gorgeous, we’ve had our eye on this property for some years. In order to rent it, we need to get writers on board ASAP to commit to coming so we can pay for the house and lock it in.
Why is this house so special? Take a look! Consider how fun it will be to do a writing boot camp in this modern mansion with an indoor pool, spa, movie theater, and all those fireplaces!
Think about it. You can get a pretty plain hotel room in South Lake Tahoe for that rate. Here, you not only get a gorgeous room in a mansion, you get full gourmet breakfast, lunch, snacks, wine, desserts and so much more. Did I mention the indoor pool and hot tub? A movie theater too?
If you want to bring a spouse (and/or any kids 10 and over) for an extra fee, we’re great with that! We want you to make this your ideal, ultimate “write-cation”!
Here are the pertinent dates:
Plotting Madness Boot Camp: Arrive Sunday Sept. 22. Boot Camp runs Monday-Wednesday Sept. 23-25. Check-out Sept. 26. (But stay on for the next camps!) You must book all 4 nights for this boot camp.
Self-Publishing Boot Camp with Carla King: Arrive Thursday noon Sept. 26. Boot Camp starts that afternoon and runs through Saturday evening Sept. 28. You must book all 3 nights for this boot camp. Check-out Sunday Sept. 29.
Scene Mastery Boot Camp: Arrive Sunday Sept. 29. Boot camp runs Monday-Wednesday Sept. 30 – Oct. 3. Check-out Thursday Oct. 4. You must book all 4 nights.
Remember: You can stay any number of extra nights you like! Spend some time enjoying Lake Tahoe. If you love to hike, this is the place and the best time of year!
NOTE: Payment for your room is due in full at time of reserving your space. If you cancel anytime after booking, you will not get a refund unless we can subsequently fill your space. All cancellations incur a $50 handling fee.
We will not secure the rental until we fill it, so if you book your room,please do NOT make any travel plans until we confirm we have the house rented.
The other boot camps we will be holding are in other gorgeous areas:
You can book your boot camps at our new event site, Writing for Life Workshops. Go ahead and reserve your spaces and pay, then contact us to discuss what nights you want to stay. We’ll apply the boot camps discount to your room (and the room discount) and get you locked in.
If you want to read more about the boot camps, click HERE.
This discount offer is only good for Tahoe, and it’s only good until Jan. 31. Space is limited. So work out your schedule and get signed up!
Hope to see you at one (or many!) of our 2019 boot camps!