10 Tips to Make You Look Like the Smart Writer You Are!

I WAS READING AN EXCELLENT BLOG POST by a writing-industry professional (who will remain unnamed, here, because this is not a grammar-shaming post), when I stumbled over his use of the word “hone” where he meant “home.” The sentence went something like this: “You’ll improve your chances of garnering agent representation if you hone in on agents who are enthusiastic about your genre.”

Unfortunately, the verb “hone” means to sharpen, while the verb “home” means to aim for or close in on—which is what the writing pro intended: “We should home in on (aim for) agents who like what we’re writing.” (“Typo,” you’re thinking? Me, too! Until he repeated the mistake later in the post.) Admittedly, this particular misuse is a pet peeve of mine. Still, this is a guy who is giving aspiring authors high-level publishing advice on a regular basis. He should get this right.

But, you know, English is an odd language. And we English speakers may confuse words that are similar in sound and meaning. For instance,

  • home and hone
  • imply and infer
  • compose and comprise

As writers, we generally like to be precise in our use of language, though, as that is the raw ore we meld into the gold of our literary work. Also, we are smart folks! And, whenever possible, our smarts should shine like a halo around our brilliant heads—untarnished by avoidable usage errors. Hence, the following list.

10 tips to make you look like the smart writer you are

Tip 1: Take care with your use of commonly confused words. Amber Nasland wrote an article for MEDIUM that lists 31 commonly misused words to watch for.

Tip 2: Double-check for spelling errors—especially (because you’re a writer!!) misspelling the foreword of a book as “forward,” and the afterword as “afterward.” If you’re not 100% certain of a word’s spelling, google!

Tip 3: Get yourself a fun, readable editing guide and keep it at hand when questions of correctness arise. I like COPYEDITING & PROOFREADING FOR DUMMIES, by Suzanne Gilad.

Tip 4: Know your style guide. If you’re writing articles for publication in periodicals, you’re likely to be expected to follow AP (Associated Press) style. Non-scholarly book-length work? It’s Chicago style all the way (usually, lol). Style guides clarify things like which numbers to spell out and how to punctuate street addresses for your intended audience—among about a gazillion other arcane rules. Whether you like the idea of a style guide or not, though, your written work should adhere to one—unless you make a clearly defined house-style guide for yourself.

(Believe me, the pain you experience as you try to accept this professional requirement and figure out how to apply it to your own projects will be worthwhile: Your correct style usage will make you look smart to editorial eyes for years to come—which is the point of this entire post.)

Tip 5: Subscribe to THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE ONLINE. In their own words, “It is the indispensable reference for writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers.” A year’s subscription is (currently) $39. Knowing who to turn to in the middle of the night to help you avoid embarrassing usage mistakes? Priceless.

Tip 6: Unless you’re deliberately trying to create interest with an experimental approach, format text conventionally. (For dialogue, for instance, start a new indented paragraph with every new speaker.) Research or review the formatting requirements for your application. Good formatting makes you look like a hotshot right out of the box.

Tip 7: Keep language fresh! I generally have THESAURUS.COM open when I’m writing. It helps with spelling (yay!) and offers me new ways to express what I’m saying. (Fresh = reader interest. Good spelling = reader respect!)

Tip 8: Read your work out loud. And I don’t just mean your dialogue! When I read every word of a blog post aloud, I find sticky sentences, boring passages, repetitious use of language—and TYPOS! I don’t know why I can’t SEE all these things on the page. But evidently I can’t. Thus, reading my work aloud has saved the day (and my readers’ sensibilities) more times than I can count.

Tip 9: It’s easy to become word-blind to our own work. The more important a piece is to you, the more important it is that you have it professionally edited before publishing it or sending it out.

Tip 10: Enjoy the process of drafting. Let loose! Freewrite, explore, ignore all the rules of grammar, spelling, style, and anything else your English teacher (or I) taught you. But once you’ve got what you want on the page, make sure to polish that diamond to a high shine—using any of the tips above.

See how smart you are?!

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Permission? Denied: A Frustrating Writing Prompt!

TAROT’S EMPEROR IS MY NEMESIS. Committed to authority, structure, systems, and patriarchy, he’s the STOP sign, the NO ACCESS barricade, the guy manning every single freakin’ security checkpoint. Ask him for permission, and your request is likely to be stamped: DENIED.

The Emperor makes the rules and hires minions to enforce them. He’s the senator voting on the speed-limit bill, which the police uphold. He’s the president of your homeowners’ association, who, having established how short you need to keep your grass, has his secretary send you threatening letters if it’s grown over a half-inch. He’s the manager of the hair salon at the far end of the waterfront, where there are no public restrooms, who instructs the receptionist no to let you in to use theirs—no matter that you’re about to pee your pants.

All of which is fine. I mean, someone’s got to keep chaos at bay. But, dammit, when I’m faced with one of the Emperor’s implacable minions? When I need something just one toenail across their seemingly arbitrary line? For instance, when the stern librarian turns down my request for a measly three-day extension on THE SECRET LIFE OF OWLS? Then, I’m not a fan. Nope.

(FRUSTRATING) WRITING PROMPT

Perhaps, like me, your character just wants an extension on a library loan—or permission to paint a butterfly mural on her garage. Or maybe she’s facing something more serious. Temporarily strapped, she might be seeking food assistance to tide her over. Or coverage for critical medical treatment. Or political asylum! Whatever her need, the resounding “no” she receives from the Emperor or one of his representatives may seem like the final, defeating word.

Unless she’s prepared to take matters into her own hands, that is.

So, what do you think? Do some brainstorming, pen in hand, about:

  • what your character might need,
  • what rides on her getting it,
  • whether she’ll buck authority if she has to,
  • and, if so (yay!) what bold steps she’ll take in her bid to govern her own life.
(IMPERIOUS) WRITING INSPIRATION

WENDY AND LUCY, 2008 drama, starring Michelle Williams, adapted from “Train Choir,” by Jon Raymond

BUCKING THE SARGE, by Christopher Paul Curtis

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, by George Orwell

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

***

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of The Emperor from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

 

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The Flip Side of Writing

READING is the flip side of writing. Every author, teacher, or writing coach worth their salt will suggest you read widely in your genre if you want to publish—Stephen King* not least among them! We’ll say this (often) because we know you’ll learn as much about structure and style from considering how your favorite authors artfully construct their stories as you will from even the most instructive books about the writing craft.

Further, reading—in one’s genre or out of it—reliably restocks our pond of creativity, so that, when we go angling for new ideas and approaches, there are always plenty of fish to choose from.

Also, as poet W. H. Auden is reported to have said, “We read to learn more of what it means to be human.” And it does seem that often we are—consciously or unconsciously—seeking wisdom of some sort when we pick up a book.

There are a gazillion or so lists of books to consider adding to your reading pile. Among them, THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review, BookBub, and Goodreads.

A little closer to home (like, here, on this blog!) are a couple of reading lists you might want to peruse. The first, 20 (or so) Novels That Have Impacted Our Lives and Imaginations, was compiled during a very literary walk with my best pal Jill. The second, a post titled Support Black Writers, has a list of lists—Black-authored books that PBS, Penguin Random House, and HuffPost consider must-reads.

*And, as you may know, Stephen King, who reads voraciously, widely, and well, includes a list of 96 books he considers important in his ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT. You’ll find that list on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.

Wherever you are in your reading life, keep turning those pages. Reading not only fills the creative well—it fills our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our imaginations.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Nine of Pentacles card from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT

Two Sticks of Story Dynamite for Novelists and Short Story Writers

USED TO BE, I’D FIND GREAT STORY IDEAS in the newspaper that got tossed at my door each morning. Recently, though, I haven’t even had to get out of bed to gather inspirational goodness. That’s because a couple of bloggers have been delivering fresh literary fodder to my inbox on the regular. Here are two such ideas. Either could blast a humdrum story out of its complacency!

1) Inventing narratives

Hip biz guru Seth Godin wrote recently about inventing narratives. He said, That story in your head? It’s invented. It has to be. It might be based on some things that actually happened…. But it can’t possibly be a complete and detailed understanding of everything.

Seth sees this creative interpretation as problematic. That’s because Seth is not a novelist! Novelists are probably especially prone to inventing narratives—and probably particularly good at it! They might tell stories about everyday occurrences, family history, or the big issues life flings at us. For instance, a novelist could make up a story to explain the behavior of someone who snatched a parking spot from her, the reasons her parents favor her sister, or why one person got a terrifying diagnosis but she did not.

Which is actually pretty awesome! (Maybe not in real life—but in our literary lives, for sure.) That’s because it’s a short trip from misinterpreting a situation to taking misguided action on it—which, in fiction, can lead to exactly the sort of trouble needed to drive our story full speed ahead!

Got a dead spot in your plot? A place where not enough is happening? Play with this idea:

  • Your main character misunderstands another person’s motivations—believing them to be acting out of malice, when that is far from the truth!
  • Even worse, your MC takes vindictive action in response to the story she’s concocted.
  • What bad stuff comes tumbling down the hill to complicate her life as a result?
  • How the heck is she going to dig herself out of this mess?

2) Alter egos

Clever tarot writer Kate at DailyTarotGirl.com has been promoting the subversive advice of her “evil twin,” Veronica, for years. As I pondered a fresh approach to complicating a story I was working on, I thought about Veronica and realized the damage an alter ego could do to a plot!

Just imagine it! What if your main character had an alter ego? A persona she allowed to say, eat, or do whatever her daily persona was constrained against? That alternative personality might be braver, stronger, or kinder than she is in her regular guise. Or that other personality might be sneaky and underhanded. Or, if you’re writing a thriller, she might even be murderous!

And that’s just a start! What kinds of literary trouble might such a character generate? The possibilities seem endless—and fascinatingly, conflict-inducing-ly, complicatedly fraught!

So, that’s it for this week. Now, go forth and blow up your plot with these or any other trouble-inducing ideas. Just light the fuse and stick your fingers in your ears. After it gets over the shock, your story will thank you for it!

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Moon card from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT

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The Dreaded Writing Project: A Writing Coach’s Easy-Peasy, Lemon-Squeezy Solution!

FACING A DREADED WRITING PROJECT? School paper, report for work, difficult email, tricky scene in a story? Try this: Mentally choose a person you know (in real life or any fictional hero/ine or historical figure) who would be sympathetic and/or interested in your material or plight.

Now, for the moment, forget the (seemingly impossible) formal requirements of your project. Instead, focus on your imagined friend and start by writing them a letter in which you share with them all your thoughts and ideas and concerns about the topic at hand. (This would be in the nature of a personalized data dump. No pretty turns of phrase required!)

So, for example: If I were feeling stuck explaining the directions to this particular exercise, I might first write it as a note to my friend Jill. As one of my BFFs, Jill is almost always sympathetic. As a writer, she’s almost always interested. (At least in my imagination, which is really all that counts at this moment of my deep stuck-ed-ness!)

Here we go . . .

Dear Jill,

I’ve got a great exercise to help folks when they’re overwhelmed by a daunting writing assignment or project. I want to tell them they can get tons of words and ideas on the page if they’ll just write everything that comes to mind as if they were writing a friend a free-wheeling letter about the project.

I don’t know if you remember, but I used to do exactly this when we were in college and I was stuck with a deadline on a paper I didn’t want to write! For instance, I might have to report on THE CANTERBURY TALES, and not have a clue about how to start—so I’d write a letter about it to you!

In that quck-scribbled note, I’d dump everything I knew about Chaucer, willy-nilly, including my attitude about him and his wild, winding parade of pilgrims—and my thoughts about my dratted professor.

Once I’d “told” you everything I had in my head, THEN I’d begin to write in earnest. Reviewing what I’d shared with (imagined) you, I’d sort out what was relevant from what wasn’t. Next, I’d organize what was left and add in anything that was missing. And, voila! I had a solid draft. All because I was just writing to you….

Thanks for “listening”! I think I can take it from here!

Love,
Jamie

Even if this feels simplistic, so easy it’s unlikely to unstick your massive writer’s block, I still suggest you give it a shot. Apply this easy-peasy method to a frustrating scene in your novel, a letter of reference that you have to write but don’t really want to, marketing copy, or the currently-awkward outline of your non-fiction book proposal.

I swear by this method to turn my mountainous writer’s block into an easily shifted molehill.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Mountain illustration from the ANNA.K LENORMAND.

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Writing/Not Writing: With 2 Non-Ironic Writing Prompts

IT’S FRIDAY. I’m talking to my friend Mary, who is an excellent writer—but who no longer writes. I actually have several friends like that. But it’s okay. She’s a wonderful human being, anyway. Still, it makes me wonder why writers stop writing. Have you ever put down your pen (or the electronic version thereof) and simply walked away from your literary endeavors?

If so, have you returned to the life of the word?

And if you have, how long did your hiatus last? Do you know why you stopped? What did you learn about your relationship to writing while you and it were on a break (Ross and Rachel reference: sorry/not sorry). What made you come back? Are you a better writer for stepping away? Did you change genres? What about your writing changed since you quit for a while?

If you’re anything like me, when you’re not writing, your life just isn’t complete. While I may be relieved at not having to show up at my keyboard on the regular, the hole writing leaves is a gaping one. And like most gaping holes, the writing hole has a prodigious gravitational pull. So (like you? but not like Mary—yet), I always get sucked back in.

Writing prompts

1) Wherever you are on the writing/not-writing continuum, you might want to journal a bit about your relationship with the word-hungry beast. Use any of the questions posed above as a starting point for your personal exploration regarding your love/love-hate relationship with writing.

2) You might also want to take your experience of writing/not writing and put it to fictional use. In that case, here’s a prompt for you:

Write about a character who steps away from an art form (writing, painting, trumpeting …) that has had great significance for her. Perhaps she gives it up for a more practical path—accounting or nursing or parenting, for instance. Or because she loses her connection to her muse. Or because she feels like she’ll never achieve greatness in her field. Or….

Write a series of scenes about your character’s return to the pen/fiddle/garden. Start with the moment in which she first realizes will never feel fulfilled until she gets back to her keyboard/easel/pastry board. Next, have her act on that epiphany: Does she just walk away from her current life? At what expense? Or does she try to integrate her art into her non-art circumstances? And how does that work out? (Use this opportunity to create big trouble for your character, as someone in her life is likely to rise up and complicate her new-found decision, if not block her creative path altogether!)

Personally, I’m not big on writing (or reading) about romance. But I am deeply interested in how people—fictional and actual—conduct their creative lives. So, if this idea sounds good to you, and you find it has legs, let me know when your novel or memoir about reviving a creative life is published. I’ll be first in the pre-order line at Amazon. Because I am always delighted to read a tale about the hot, sweaty pursuit of a tall, dark, handsome life in the arts.

Writing inspiration

OLD IN ART SCHOOL (a memoir about a writer/historian enrolling in art school at an advanced age), by Nell Painter

A WORK OF ART (a novel about a young artist who gets stopped in her creative tracks by life), by Melody Maysonet

UTOPIA AVENUE (a novel about a band’s “Faustian pact and stardom’s wobbly ladder…. of music, madness, and idealism.”), by David Mitchell

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Giving the Wrong Character the Benefit of a Doubt: A Novel-Writing Tip

IN REAL LIFE, IT’S GREAT TO GIVE SOMEONE THE BENEFIT OF A DOUBT. (For instance, while you know Janice might be hiding your pearl necklace somewhere in her room, because she’s your best friend, you’re willing to give her the benefit of a doubt and accept her claim that she hasn’t seen it since you wore it to Sarah’s wedding.) Giving people the benefit of a doubt allows them the chance for a do-over or to make amends. (You know, like sneak your pearl necklace back into your jewelry box while you’re not looking.) But unless they actually change their (bad) behavior, the amends are pretty much null, right?

I think we’ve all met that person. Heck, we may have all been that person! Sometimes, a habitual way of being—however detrimental to self or others—simply overrides the impulse to change. In that case, no matter how many benefits of a doubt they receive, some folks aren’t going to head down a better path anytime soon.

This is tough when it applies to someone close to us—in real life. But what if the recalcitrant person is a character in your novel? Well, then! You either have an excellent, if weasel-y, antagonist. Or you might have a deeply flawed protagonist. In either case, you’re in possession of literary trouble of the most excellent kind!

So what could that benefit of a doubt look like?

  • allowing for the possibility that she didn’t really shove that boy from the monkey bars—maybe she was just reaching out to grab the kid when he fell
  • allowing for the possibility that his hitting her was a one-time occurrence
  • allowing for the possibility that the circumstantial evidence tying her to the murder is just that: purely circumstantial
  • allowing for the possibility that he really didn’t know the gun was loaded
  • that he really, truly, honestly didn’t know that the “gift” constituted a bribe

Pick one of these—or any of the myriad other benefit-of-a-doubt-eliciting situations that would give a character one more chance to “slip out the back, Jack”—and you’ll find yourself tumbling into a veritable rat’s-nest of plot development.

You see, giving the wrong character the benefit of a doubt can ratchet up your story to such a level that your beneficent protagonist will be forced take a stand. On the other hand, if it’s your flawed protagonist who has been handed one benefit-of-a-doubt too many—received yet another several-thousand-dollar loan from her parents; gotten a pass from his boss when yet another co-worker has filed a complaint about his sexist remarks; had the accusation about yet another nasty incident at the dog park waived—then it’s clear her story is going to back her into a stakes-filled corner and keep her there until she cries “uncle!” and makes a change.

What is simply unacceptable behavior in real life can prove invaluable in turning up the heat in your fictional world. So, go ahead. Give that questionable character the benefit of a doubt and let the good (story-telling) times roll.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Swords from the ANNA.K TAROT.

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5 Fun Ways to Use Lists to Enhance Your Writing: A Writing Prompt

IN FICTION, LISTS CAN INFLUENCE A READER’S experience in a million ways. Here are five to get you started.

1) A list of items can lend specific flavor to a scene:

On the table, a bowl of fruit – a mango, three ripe papayas, two tiny pineapples, and the kiwis

On the table, a bowl of fruit – two fading apples, one bruised pear, one shriveled tangerine

2) A list of possessions can distinguish between characters, providing insight into habits, faults, aspirations:

In Jen’s purse: one bottle “I’m Not Really a Waitress” crimson nail polish, an eyelash curler, two Trojan Extra Pleasure condoms, eighty-six cents, a baby’s teething ring.

In Wendy’s purse: a commuter-rail ticket, an empty, wadded sandwich bag, dental floss, a half-empty pack of Virginia Slims, a matchbook with Sam 555-227-3629 scribbled on it.*

3) A list of verbs can create action in a scene:

Chasing a lizard, the cat leapt from the kitchen counter, galloped over the sofa, banged against the window, ricocheted into the antique vase, and crashed with it to the floor.

4) A list can provide motivation for a character:

Jim’s hunger prods him. It aches his bones, creaks his stomach around its empty core. Jim’s hunger gurgles at Lori, munching a Beefy King, just a foot, a quick leap, a single grab away.

5) A list can create history for a character:

High school, John boxed pumps, loafers at the shoe factory. College, he delivered clogs to the outlet malls. Senior year, he measured feet. Grad school, he sketched for Jimmy Choo.

Writing prompt

Try this: as with the examples above …

  • flavor a scene by listing items in it,
  • distinguish between two characters by listing their respective possessions,
  • liven a scene with a list of verbs,
  •  illuminate a character’s history or motivations with a list.

What do you think? What other narrative heavy-lifting could a list perform? Create an example!

*Bonus tip! Always be as specific as possible when adding items to a list.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Swords from THE DRUIDCRAFT TAROT, by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, art by Will Worthington.

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YOU Are a Collector’s Item: A Really Excellent Writing Prompt!

POET ELLEN DORÉ WATSON starts her poem “The Body Speaks” from her collection WE LIVE IN BODIES, like this:

So? I’m a collection of oversized bones, blind in so much
casing, I’m a pair of lonely shoulders and a snip of a nose
turned up at the word cute. 

This made me wonder: What am I a collection of? Cats? Years of memos jotted on sticky notes? My father’s anger? My mother’s early orphan-hood? The fairy tales I read by the faint light let in by the narrow crack in the door when I was supposed to be asleep? College courses? Jobs? Friends? My paternal grandmother’s heavy breasts? My maternal grandmother’s shapely calves?

Writing prompt

And what are you a collection of—for better or worse? Family stories? Genes? Body parts? Or are you made up of memories? Books you’ve read? Relationships? Write about the collection that is you—or use this question to explore a fictional character.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Cups from the GOLDEN TAROT by Kat Black.

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5 Fabulous Tips for Plotting Your Novel

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL CAN BE CONFUSING. If you don’t have a guidance system to help you navigate, you might find yourself asking questions like these: Where do I start my story for greatest impact? What events will force my main character to undergo the change they so desperately need to make? How do I construct stakes that are high enough to keep my main character engaged with their quest all the way to the end?

If you, like me, need some help to deal effectively with these and other pressing plot questions, read on. I’ve compiled a short list of tips, approaches, and resources that demonstrate ways to successfully traverse the rough terrain you and your main character must travel to create a compelling tale.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #1: Explore a myriad of plotting methods.

Fortunately, for those of us who are writing novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, or memoirs—basically, anything that tells a story and develops a character arc—many writers have gone before us and have generously blazed a trail through the wild woods of plot for us to follow.

So which of these many plotting methods is the best? I think that depends on your learning style.

When I immersed myself in the mysteries of plot, I read book after book on the subject. But I always felt I was missing something. Then Joyce Sweeney and I started developing the plot clock—and everything fell into place! The plot clock’s approach made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, I saw how exactly how plot can create a character arc—and what steps to take to make that happen.

For years, Joyce and I taught the plot clock at workshops, writing conferences, and to our clients one-on-one (which I still do).

But now, we’ve also written the book! As you’re browsing Amazon looking for good books on plot, check out our PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK. It’s short—just seventy pages! And yet it explains how to accomplish the two most important tasks you face when writing a novel or memoir: 1) relating a dynamic set of story events and 2) making your character changes in response to those events.

Of course, as I said, this is just the method that works best for my brain. You might love any one of a number of other more linear takes on plot, like SAVE THE CAT  WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Or you might enjoy diving really deep in story theory with a book like THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.

This choice is personal. Take the time to find what plotting approach works best for you—even if you have to experiment with several styles to do so. It will be worth it. Because once you find what fits, that method will be your trusted guide through the rest of your story-writing journey.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #2: Start with the basics.

Here are five quick, handy reference points to help you think about how to get your story started and where you’re going to take it. Considering your plot in these simple terms allows you to see if your basic idea has enough oomph to carry the story to the finish line.

Once upon a time there was … (Describe your main character.)

Every day … (This is a glimpse at your main character’s “ordinary world,” before the inciting incident changes their life.)

One day … (Aha! Inciting incident!!)

Because of that … (Here, we see how the main character responds to the inciting incident—and we establish stakes [see Fabulous Novel-Plotting Tip #5, below] that propel them forward into the main events of their story.)

Until finally … (This actually takes you past most of what happens after your character commits to their story—their trials and challenges; their low point; their lessons learned—and brings them to the climax, the battle to end all battles, the inevitable high point of your tale!)

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #3: Let the three C’s catapult your plot.

Raindance, an independent film festival and film school that operates in major cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Budapest, Berlin and Brussels, offers up a helpful article on the “The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II).”

The “three C’s” of this approach are conflict, choice, and consequence. Having a handle on these major story drivers will assure that your plot has the traction it needs to keep readers deeply engaged.

Further, in the above-mentioned article, writer Jurgen Wolff says, “{While] you can use these [the three C’s] to develop your main plot … they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story-–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle, or Act II.”

Learn about this concept at the Raindance site.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #4: “Yes, and …”

This improv acting tenet offers an easy-peasy way to allow your character to engage dynamically with the events of their plot. Every time the plot makes your character an “offer,” be sure she “accepts” that offer (says “Yes” to it), and then adds to the situation (or, better still, complicates it!) by adding an “and …”

For example, let’s say your character is walking down a crowded street and notices someone running from a store, having just robbed it. In improv, we’d call this an “offer.” In other words, the story has brought something to your character’s attention that she can act upon. Taking action in response to the “offer” is your character’s way of saying “Yes, and …”

Rather than allowing your character to just ignore the commotion—which can slow the story and make plotting more difficult—consistently require she make a “Yes, and” response to whatever happens in her story. In this case, she might give chase (the “Yes” being her acknowledgement of the thief escaping and the “and,” her taking off after the person). Alternatively, she could rush into the store to try to help anyone who was injured in the incident—or she could rush into the store to take advantage of the confusion and steal something herself!

In any one of these examples, your character’s active response to a situation raised by the story allows more and increasingly complex interactions with other characters to unfold. These interactions will drive her character arc and her plot forward.

This technique is particularly useful when you’re writing your first draft, as it keeps you from stalling out in the shallow waters of character ennui and unwillingness. Once you’ve “Yes, and-ed” your way through the entire plot, you can always revise to rein in or eliminate any excessive reactions on the part of your main character.

To learn more about improv and how “Yes-and” creates lively story-telling and a lively life, I suggest YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City.

To learn more about how to apply this improv precept to life off the stage, take a look at this MEDIUM article titled “Saying ‘Yes, and’—A principle for improv, business and life” by Mary Elisabeth.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #5: Create compelling stakes.

Stakes. They’re what gets your character off her duff and involved with a plot that, let’s face it, is likely to end up being a pain in her butt!

According to the Institute for Literature, “One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is ‘What is going to be at stake for my main character?’ By this, we mean, ‘What is the cost of quitting?'”

These are great questions!

If your character can quit the demands of your plot with few or no consequences, you’re likely to lose your reader early on. You see, we readers like to see a character struggle with conflict. It helps us understand better how to do so in our own lives!

So, how do you make sure you’re getting your character into a situation that has sink-or-swim urgency? Consider my four-question “stakes squared” approach.

Jamie’s Stakes Square: Your character is faced with a significant choice. You’ve backed her into a corner. She MUST say yes or no, not delay the decision—because her decision will set a significant plot point into motion! To establish the stakes inherent in the choice, ask yourself these four questions:

Question 1: What might your character GAIN if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 2: What might your character LOSE if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 3: What might your character GAIN if she says NO to the choice on offer?
Question 4: What might your character LOSE if she says NO to the choice on offer?

If you make sure that all of these potential outcomes create problems for your character—problems that are in proportion to the overall intensity of your story—you’ll be well on your way to creating plot-driving stakes that will hook a reader and not let them go!

(Be sure to consider how this stakes-setting technique impacts the perhaps-impulsive choices your character makes when you require that she say “Yes, and …” to everything the story offers her!)

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