Posts Tagged ‘craft’

Why Hire a Book Coach: Jen’s Story

Perhaps you’re wondering, Why hire a book coach? Jen’s story, below, will give you a novel writer’s first-hand experience of working with a professional book coach.

When Jen first contacted me, she’d completed a Young Adult (YA) novel and had already been under contract with a literary agent for a year. Unfortunately, the agent was not able to sell the book. The editors rejecting Jen’s manuscript said things like: “The plot was slow-moving,” “I found my interest waning by the third chapter,” and “I couldn’t quite connect with the main character.”

Finally, mutually frustrated, Jen and her agent parted ways. This brought Jen to a come-to-Jesus moment with her literary career—and led her to hire a writing coach. I’m delighted that coach was me! And I’m so happy to share Jen’s thoughts on our process together.

Why hire a book coach: Jen shares her story

If you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time in your own head. If you’re not a writer, that might sound weird to you, but trust me—it’s fun! There are people in there, and they’re doing interesting things: falling in love, learning magic, murdering their families. Writers’ heads hold maps of cities and castles and the location of quicksand. They’re populated by talking animals, ghosts who refuse to speak their needs clearly, and, maybe, if we’re really good planners, several generations of violent family trauma.

See? Fun!

Writers, however, aren’t content to hang around in their own brains by themselves forever. We writers want to show-n-tell the insides of our brains to the world. And we want the world to love what they see. And pay us for it.

So we sit down to our laptops and we type for many years. And then we send our manuscripts to our friends and family and wait for them to say they like it. And then we email our manuscripts to carefully researched agents in New York who we’re sure are going to love it. And then we die when we receive piles of rejection letters.

But we revive ourselves and do it again. And again. Maybe we do it three times before we stand in front of our haggard reflections and ask ourselves if we should stop—forever.

We don’t, though, either because we really loved show-n-tell (and we’re still mad that Mrs. Walsh mismanaged her time and missed our turn on the last week of second grade) or because there’s something in our bones that won’t let us stop.

When to hire a book coach

After all those rounds of rejection, we realize it’s time to do something different. If we’ve got several years of free time on our hands—not to mention a spare $50,000—maybe we go back to school for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing.

If we don’t have that luxury—and I didn’t—I highly recommend hiring a book coach.

If you’re intimidated by the cost of a writing coach, you might want to research the cost of a three-credit graduate class on novel writing. Then consider the fact that you’d be sharing your professor with your classmates. Not only that, but your class will likely end long before you finish a first draft, let alone your second.

When I found Jamie, I was in the middle of my MA in Special Education, and it put the cost in perspective. By the age of 35, I had invested tens of thousands of dollars on myself as a teacher and only a few hundred dollars on myself as a writer. I decided it was time to change that.

Why hire a book coach if you have a finished manuscript

I came to Jamie with a finished manuscript—my first foray into writing adult fiction, rather than my seemingly unmarketable YA novels. But no matter how many times I revised it, it wasn’t working.

We decided to go back to the beginning of the process—back to story concept. That meant I had to trust Jamie with the raw contents of my brain, and it wasn’t easy. Jamie, however, is a big fan of raw brain. She’s an idea zombie, if you will—deeply interested in the process. I learned to trust her to help me untangle the contents of my gray matter and weave them into a cohesive story, one that connects with readers.

Not show-n-tell

Writing a novel is inherently a lonely process. While it may not be show-n-tell, writing is a way to make a human connection. (Maybe AI is going to write the next novel. And maybe it will be entertaining. But I daresay readers want satisfying connections with characters, understanding that another human designed that character and her journey.)

Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” Writing 400 pages of the secrets of your soul just to receive a “no thanks” earns you membership in an especially sad club.

You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you—something about your secrets that really are uncommon.

And then you meet Jamie, who tells you that’s crazy, to get back to work. The issue isn’t that you’re too weird, she’ll say. It’s that you’re not being weird enough. From there, you discover the secret to connecting to readers is mastering the craft. It’s a skill. It’s hard work. That narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey—the one that’s been in literally every story ever since the dawn of human language—it exists for a reason.

No, it’s not easy to master. But Jamie is a plotting expert with a keen eye for characterization. She’s a voracious reader with a book recommendation for exactly what you need to work on this month. She’s a cheerleader and a tough-love distributor. Family and friends will pretend to like your work when it’s bad. Jamie will not. She’s your personal trainer who’s going to tell you that you need to work harder, but she’s also going to make sure you’re not wasting your valuable time working harder on the wrong things.

Welcome to the book coach reality show

Working with Jamie hasn’t exactly been the show-n-tell I’ve wished for; it’s more like being a contestant on one of those reality TV shows. You know. The ones where the straight-shooting declutterer holds your hand as you tearfully toss four of your five chipped Teflon pans into a distended garbage bag. Just like that host, though, Jamie reassures you that, somewhere, behind those dutch ovens and glass casseroles, there’s going to be a story people—editors included—will love.

And I believe her.

—Jen Russ

Struggling to get published? A top book coach might help! Let’s chat.

Writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you learn how to self-publish your book. I love story—and the characters that live through their stories. I’ve helped many novelists develop their plots in ways that make them more engaging and more marketable. If you’re working on a novel and wonder how to make it more successful, schedule a free writing consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Book Coach Tips for Writing a Successful Novel

As a professional writing coach, I always want to support writers in their quest for success. This month, my post “Book Coach Tips for Writing a Successful Novel” focuses on the most important aspects of novel writing. I also include resources that will help you level up your novel-writing game.

Tips for writing a successful novel: Voice + character

Job one, connect your reader to your main character (MC). While we often think that readers are more interested in the plot of our stories than our characters, that’s not quite true. What’s funny, perhaps ironic, is that while readers generally think plot is the main draw for them, they’re actually wrong! (Most of the time. Generally speaking. In this book coach’s experience.)

In fact, what pulls a reader into a story first is voice. While the back jacket copy’s catchy synopsis of your story is what gets a reader to open your book, the voice your potential reader meets on page one must hook them.

Voice conveys attitude—usually, your main character’s attitude. It’s how you introduce your character, and it sets the tone for your reader’s experience. (It’s similar to a vacation destination: Some readers hate the snow. They won’t book a ski vacation! But another reader might love the crisp chill of your character’s voice.)

If the voice is engaging, you will keep your reader’s attention long enough to reveal your character’s need, goal, dilemma—those elements of story that integrate character with plot. If your reader finds your character sympathetic, they’ll tumble down the rabbit hole of your story, committed to seeing how your character fares.

Tips for writing a successful novel: Plot

As mentioned, readers tend to think that plot drives their reading choices. And a well-turned plot with a strong hook will certainly get your book “read-more” clicks! Whether your story is high concept or not, your plot should drag your main character into situations, environments, and relationships that, in her ordinary world, she would avoid at all costs.

Convince your reader that your MC has no choice but to involve herself in the dire circumstances you’ve built for her. Do this by creating irresistibly compelling stakes: putting her loved ones in danger, perhaps, or forcing her to face illness, financial ruin, or loss of her hard-won reputation.

Once your MC has embarked on the roller-coaster ride of her story, make sure there are no exit ramps along the way (sorry, mixed metaphors). In fact, you want to keep escalating the stakes! Push your MC to continually face new challenges as she tries (desperately!) to either meet her initial goal or to succeed in whatever glass-mountain-climbing task your story has provided her.

However you play it, for your main character, there must be no way out but through. And  every plot point you create should enforce this. (My deepest sympathies to your main character!)

Resources for novel writers

There are many masters of the novel-writers’ craft. And, fortunately for us, quite a few of them have written books to guide us on our writing path. As a long-time writing coach, I’ve found several that I recommend quite often. Here’s a short list for you.

THE SECRETS OF STORY, by Matt Bird

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, by Jamie Morris, et al

HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, by James N. Frey

PLOT & STRUCTURE: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish, by James Scott Bell

SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, by Jessica Brody

You might also enjoy my article “How to Write a Novel”  or be interested to learn more about how successful authors have used my Plot Clock method to get their novels agented and published.

Interested in receiving personalized book coach tips for writing a successful novel? A free chat with a top writing coach can offer just that!

Writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you learn how to self-publish your book. Novels and their authors are near and dear to my heart. Over the last decade, as a professional writing coach, I’ve helped many novelists take their books to the next level. If you’re working on a novel and wonder how to make it more successful in the current market, let’s chat. Schedule a free writing consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

How Long Should a Novel Be?

IN THE BOOK WRITERS’ CRITIQUE GROUP I LEAD, we recently discussed the differences between works of narrative fiction. While word count is not the only distinguishing feature, it’s certainly the easiest to grasp. Perhaps you’re wondering, “How long should a novel be?”

As a professional writing coach, I’m asked about book lengths quite often. That’s why I compiled this quick guide to word count—and a few distinguishing features of long fiction forms, as well.

Word counts for novels, novellas, and novelettes

We call all of the above—novels, novellas, and novelettes—book-length fiction. But they actually vary wildly in length.There are typically other differences in these forms, as well.

Novelettes: Sometimes a term that is used derogatorally. The word count for a novelette is between 7,500 and17,000. In addition to their short length, novelettes are characterized by their sentimental style and, often, on a romantic focus.

Novellas: Not to be confused with telenovelas, a term given to dramatic, primarily Latin American, television series. Novellas have an approximate word count between 17,000 and 40,000. A novella will typically have fewer (if any) subplots than a novel. It will also generally take place in a shorter, more contained time frame and a single location.

Novels: Starting at 40,000 words (except for children’s fiction), with no cap other than what agents, editors, and readers will accept. Given its length, a novel has room for a writer to develop subplots, use multiple points of view, and explore multiple locations—and even multiple periods in time. (Think, time travel novels or family sagas.)

Word counts for novels by genre

Middle Grade: 25,000 – 50,000

Young Adult: 45,000 – 100,000

Fantasy: 50,000 – 150,000

Sci-fi: 50,000 – 150,000.

Romance: 50,000 – 90,000.

Mystery: 40,000 – 80,000.

Horror: 40,000 – 80,000.

Dystopian: 60,000 – 120,000

Thriller: 90,000 – 120,000

I hope this quick look at word counts and genres helps as you prepare to write your novel. You might also like this article: “How to Write a Novel.” It’s an exciting journey—and I wish you all the best as you get underway!

How long should your novel be? A chat with a top novel writing coach can help you navigate the word-count waters!

Fiction writing coach Jamie Morris knows how long a novel should be. As a top novel writing coach, I help book writers decide how long their novel—or novella, or novelette—should be. We can address practical questions like this and much more in a no-cost phone chat. Schedule a free initial consultation with me, now. And read THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach,” too! 

Plotting Your Novel: 5 Fabulous Tips!

Plotting your novel can be confusing!

I compiled these 5 fabulous tips for plotting your novel because, 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! How to plot your novelAs 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 change 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!)

Do you need a writing coach?

Do you think you may need help with your book? I’m available to be your professional writing coach. Schedule your free consultation and check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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

Top 10 editing tips for writers

I’ve created a list of my top 10 editing tips because, chances are, you’re a really good writer—and your readers shouldn’t get tripped up on the small stuff! Which, unfortunately, can happen all too easily.

For example, 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, for this writer’s cred, 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 editing 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. 10 editing tips

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

I’m not just a font of editing tips! I’m a writing coach who can help with your novel, nonfiction book, or memoir.  Let’s chat about your writing project! And you might check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine, too.

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

Novel Writing Tip: Benefit of a Doubt

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.) Yes, a novel writing tip is 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!

Here is a novel writing tip: 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.

Novel Writing coach

Want to know how to write a novel? 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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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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Young Adult Fiction Writers Connect!

A young adult (YA) fiction writer is seeking other writers for connection and camaraderie.

I want to introduce you to someone! Young adult fiction writer Alina Smith and I have worked together since November of 2017—three awesome years and counting!* In that time, I’ve seen this committed writer dig in and learn how to plot the heck out of a story … then dig even deeper to find truthful motivations for her characters. Those motivations, in turn, lead to powerful arcs that give her stories real guts (and will deliver true satisfaction to her readers!).

I count myself lucky to be on Team Alina and am so happy to pass on her invitation to connect with you. So, without further ado, I give you Ms. Alina Smith!

What’s up guys! I’m Alina. Although I have a pretty sweet day job—I’m a songwriter and producer in a music team LYRE, which has worked with artists and bands across genres, from Fall Out Boy to K-pop girl group Red Velvet-–over the past few years, I’ve gotten excited about writing stories. Particularly futuristic YA stories with chilling twists on current technology: think BLACK MIRROR populated by hormonal teenagers.

I started writing my first Young Adult Fiction novel three years ago and got about two-thirds of the way in before being pulled into a new direction, one which merges my music career and my literary passion. You see, in the last few years, LYRE has become known for working with digital creators: influencers with millions of followers across all social media platforms. young adult fiction writerAs my music partner, Elli, and I wrote songs with these YouTube and Instagram stars, I felt myself getting immersed in their world: a world where your worth depends solely on the numbers of likes and followers on your socials. It got me thinking: What if this world was exacerbated further? What if the numbers on your socials meant life or death? That’s how the idea for my latest book was born. It’s called “Influencer.”

As I’ve been writing “Influencer” (one-and-a-half years and counting!), I’ve done plenty of Google searches. I’ve checked out writers’ blogs, advice columns, and YouTube channels. It’s been fun watching published authors share bits and pieces of their journeys. But it got me wondering: Are there any not-yet-published writers sharing their process with the world? Their aha! moments and their blocks, their triumphs and fails, their I-just-finished-this-act underwear dances, and the moments when they just wanna throw their laptop through the wall? I poked around, but there didn’t seem to be much: no hungry new writers diving into their process and allowing others to snorkel beside them.

That’s when it hit me: I should share my own writing process! My struggles with beat sheets, my ever-evolving characters, what it’s like to find time for writing alongside another creative career—and all the other myriad aspects of the novel-writing process that I find fascinating. Whether I become a hit author or end up throwing my story in the trash and setting it on fire, I want to highlight what it’s like to be a first-time novelist. And I hope to connect with anyone else who’s going through the same thing.

So, please join me on this fun (and slightly terrifying journey) on my YouTube channel: Alina Writes a Book. And if you’re writing YA fiction, too? Please, drop me a line on Instagram or Twitter. I’d love to hear about your story and your journey creating it!

Writing coach

* Alina’s loving our collaboration, too! She recently wrote, Jamie is such a fantastic coach! Her approach is very intuitive. No matter what I’m working on, from plotting to character development, she always has an intelligent, unique perspective. If you’d like to take your writing to another level, I strongly recommend Jamie!

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

Bet You Can Do Better Than IKEA! (A Very Useful Writing Prompt)

WRITING CAN LIFT US TO FLIGHTS OF FANCY or, like a draft mule, it can pull the plow of practicality from one end of the field to the other. Here, we explore the mule end of the spectrum, with what’s called a “process essay.”

The process essay (which you might remember from your Comp 1 class) offers step-by-step directions to guide a reader through a task. Sure, it’s more about treading the well-tilled field of communication than lifting off into the wild blue of fantasy. But it can be a playful form as well as an informative one—and it’s a good exercise in organizing your thoughts on the page. (Sound too boring to even consider? Look below for some reasons you might want to give it a try!*)

Writing prompt: the process essay (which, with some clever packaging, can double as a holiday gift, if you’re well and truly stuck!*)

Start by identifying a skill at which you excel. It could be something simple, like writing an Amazon review, driving a stick shift, or grooming a standard poodle. On the more complex end of the spectrum, you might know exactly how to prepare for an Ironman Triathalon, paint the exterior of a house on the National Register of Historic Places, or outline a novel!

This is the stuff of YouTube video tutorials … but you’re going to slow it down, writing out each step in a way that a reader can follow. (Think IKEA assembly instructions—only with words … and humanly possible.)

*Why write a process essay?

Since ’tis the season, you might include a process essay as part of gift! For example, you could write out your mulled cider recipe and package it with the ingredients needed to brew up a pot. Or you might wrap up a few dreidels, with instructions about how to play the classic Hanukkah game. Or, if you’re a killer door-wreath creator, along with the wreath you give, share the details of how you fancy up those bauble-laden bad boys!

If you blog or teach or coach, you might want to use this opportunity to create written instructions for something your students or readers would benefit from, then use those instructions in a blog post or lesson. (Handouts, anyone?)

And if you write fiction, writing a process essay can take you deep into your main character’s area of expertise. Our fictional folks have entire lives gliding beneath the surface of the stories we tell about them. Knowing your stuff about what they do and how they do it will add depth and authority to your literary worlds!

Finally, if you really, really, REALLY like doing this exercise, you might have a calling as a technical writer.

Writing inspiration

Want some step-by-step directions to writing your step-by-step process essay? Check out this article on the BEST ESSAY TIPS website.

Travel essays often include aspects of process writing. For instance, the writer might explain how to get to a location, how to stay safe once you’re there, how to find the best bargains, or how to discover the most exotic meals. Check out the 2019 edition of the annual THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING, edited by Jason Wilson and Alexandra Fuller for examples.

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Lucky Number 7: Seven Flash Fiction Contests for Fall!

FLASH FICTION IS FUN! Requiring the snap of poetry and the arc of narrative, it challenges us to home in on elements of voice and story that will benefit even longer-form writers’ work.

To learn a bit more about flash fiction, check out my Writing Short post, where you’ll find links to some excellent flash resources. Otherwise, just fly your crafty little stories off to the following contests. May the micro force be with you!

Flash fiction contests (with deadlines)

1. October 1st: Stories Out of School Flash Fiction Contest, presented by the Academy for Teachers
This annual contest was created to inspire unsentimental stories about teachers and the complex world of schools. The story’s protagonist or narrator must be a K-12 teacher. Max 749 words. First-prize winner will receive $1000 and publication. The second-prize winner will receive $500.

2. October 15th: SMOKELONG QUARTERLY‘s Flash Fellowship

The SMOKELONG Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers is an award and year-long virtual residency for new and emerging writers. The winner of the 2020 Fellowship will be considered a virtual “writer in residence” at SMOKELONG for four quarterly issues. The winner will also receive $1000.00.

3. October 31st: CRAFT‘s flash fiction contest
Judged by Benjamin Percy, three winners will be awarded $1000 each. (That’s a buck a word, since CRAFT’s word limit is 1000.)

4. November 2nd: Weird Christmas Flash Fiction Contest
350 word max. $50 first prize, $25 second prize. Stories should be weird or strange or odd: They can be “Haha!” weird or “Oh, Jesus, no!” weird. They can be genre weird or just off-kilter. They  must be related to any winter holiday (Christmas, Hannukha, Kwanza, solstice celebrations, etc.).

5. September 30th and December 31st: FLASH 500 Flash Fiction Competition
This quarterly open-themed competition has closing dates of September 30th and December 31st. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on this website. Entry fee: £5 for one story, £8 for two stories. Prizes: £300, £200, £100

6. December 31st: FICTION SOUTHEAST‘s Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize
Though many writers have helped to shape the history of flash fiction, Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, IN OUR TIME, easily makes him one of the form’s primary pioneers. For this reason, FICTION SOUTHEAST has chosen to honor his accomplishments through the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. Entries should be 1500 words or less. Entry fee is $10. All entries will be considered for publication in FICTION SOUTHEAST. Winner: $200 and publication.

Lucky Number 7. December 31st: RIVER STYX‘s Microfiction contest
500 words maximum. First, second, and third place winners will be published in Issue 104.

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The image of the Eight of Wands is from the ANNA.K TAROT, published by Llewellyn Worldwide and used with Llewellyn’s kind permission.

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A Short (Enough) Story with a Literary Moral (and Horses)

ONCE, AT A HORSE SHOW, I watched a pair of judges assess the relative merits of a ring full of huge, glossy Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and other warm-blood hunter-types in a conformation class. Unlike most skill-based horse-show events, conformation ribbons are awarded to those animals who best meet the standards of excellence for the physical characteristics of their breed. (More like the Westminster Dog Show than a canine agility event, in other words.)

On that afternoon, almost hidden in the forest of sixteen- and seventeen-hand-high bay- and chestnut-colored hunters, a tiny, black-and-white Shetland pony arched its short, chunky pony neck. “How cute,” the spectator closest to me murmured, “but how disappointed its little owner will be. There’s no chance for her to get even a look-in with that sort of competition.”

And yet, twenty minutes later, it was exactly that “little owner,” a six-year old girl dressed in black and white to match her pony, who paraded her Shetland around the perimeter of the ring, blue ribbon oh-so-proudly affixed to its bridle.

No sentimental decision, the judges had weighed the equine contestants’ attributes fairly. The Shetland pony, small and unassuming as it seemed amidst the tall, regal company, was in fact a perfect specimen of its type and well-deserving of the win.

So … what about writing?

Recently, I judged a short story contest. In four days, I read fifty-one stories that spanned a myriad of genres. Not Thoroughbreds and Shetlands, but fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, romance, and contemporary/realistic—as well as a single picture-book entry.

As a whole, the stories were competently constructed and smooth-surfaced. No doubt, these were writers who had studied their craft.

Yet, as I read through the three-thousand-words-or-less stories, I noticed some failed to engage my interest because they lacked a distinctive voice. Some delivered a strong voice, but the stories were so predictable I could tell where they were headed before they’d even left the barn. And those that did find a fresh approach did not, for the most part, make it all the way around the course to create a satisfying narrative arc.

But the picture book?!

In a quick, bright voice, the PB writer created an engaging pair of characters—a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter—who found themselves in an exciting and unexpected muddle over the destruction of the grandmother’s Sunday-best real-human-hair wig. Together, the characters struggled, they lost, they struggled some more—and then they triumphed!

In less than five hundred words, the lone PB writer managed to incorporate three elements vital for the success of even the shortest of narrative forms: a distinctive voice, a fresh, unexpected story element, and a complete narrative arc.

While the other competitors’ stories—like those big, beautiful Thoroughbreds I admired so many years ago—might have had size on their side, might have boasted weightier topics or more sophisticated story structures than the unassuming little picture book, not one of them made it to the finish line with all of three of those important elements in place.

If this were a horse show, make no mistake, Grandma’s real-hair wig would be sporting a brand-new, bright blue, First Place ribbon the next time she hoisted it atop her head and tottered up the aisle to her favorite pew.

* * *

This post was first published on a former blog, THOSE DARNED RUBY SLIPPERS, in which I wrote about the magic I saw around me—and about writing, a magical craft of its own.

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