Posts in Category: How-To

Every Helper a Hero (NaNo Prep 25)

We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up…. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it. —  Madeleine L’Engle

Be kind. Everyone is fighting their own secret battle.

Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing. No one to blame. — Erica Jong

Image courtesy of Simeon Tennant via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Simeon Tennant via stock.xchng

Helpers come in all shapes and sizes.
They can be Chekhov’s Gunman– a person met long ago (early in the story) who steps up with the needed information or protection at a critical point in the plot.

In the Hero’s Journey they can be the mentor and the friends gathered in the new world of the second act.

In the Heroine’s Journey they have their own stage (Support) where they prevent the heroine’s story from coming to an end, often reenforcing a story message about interdependence.

Image courtesy of Fergus Currie via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Fergus Currie via stock.xchng

Even the love interest can function as a helper. How many stories have you read where the LI makes a rousing speech or drops an offhand comment that meshes perfectly to close the gap in the MC’s mind and get the final action rolling?

However you identify them, helpers are critical to the story. Helpers serve the function of providing information, external motivation, practical, logistical helps, and emotional support (which matters a whole lot more than a lot of us want to admit, even in real life).

Knowing the kind of story we’re writing and the way we’re writing it will help us in expanding our cast of characters. Archetypes, for example, come into play even in thrillers or romances, and key characters can be identified by thinking back to the last couple movies you saw.

Image courtesy of Dimitris Petridis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Dimitris Petridis via stock.xchng

No matter what role you choose your walk-ons to fill, the important thing to remember is that even un-main characters (should) have their own lives, hopes and dreams. They have their own motivations that drive them to act, or prevent them from acting. They need to, or they will not be different enough from each other to justify their existance

Some people don’t give a cat’s sneeze about our MC or his/her goals. This does not make them evil or even mean people. It makes them somewhat normal.

So even as you determine your major characters’ motivations, you should decide why these helpers want to help.

Their profiles don’t have to be as deep and extensive as your major characters, but knowing how they think will help your readers with believability, and will help with your writing process when change (inevitably) takes over your story and bit parts have to respond to more than one thing, with more than one reaction.

There are generous, self-sacrificing people in real life, but even they have their own hopes and dreams.

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

Some want to take action/responsibility for these, and some don’t. And just as in real life, this willingness to accept responsibility ant act is a reflection on, and of, their character.

The way to keep your extras alive (and even let them surprise you with their depth beyond a playing piece), each helper, just like each person you meet in real life, is the hero of their own story.

Transport (NaNo Prep 24)

Image courtesy of the BBC One show site.

Image courtesy of the BBC One show site.

I enjoy the BBC Sherlock a great deal.

In fact, my novel this year is sort of a play off an imaginary spin-off of the show.  I have an affinity to the title character that has only been reinforced by a sweet friend who has an affinity to John Watson’s character.

She calls me Holmes. In public.

And I can’t say I mind. It fits in a lot of ways and it’s sort of fun to be open about it.

One of the show’s great exchanges happens in a restaurant when Sherlock urges John to eat, denying his own need or interest. Referring to his body, Sherlock says dismissively, “It’s transport.”

While I share Sherlock’s annoyance with having to eat yet again (what a waste of time!), I have learned well enough my need that I’ve worked through the denial and anger stages and skipped “acceptance” for the “how-can-I-minimize-the-tedium?” stage.

My path has been to learn what my best fuel is, and how to batch-process its preparation in order to minimize the extent of interruptions (aka, individual meal prep).

~ ~ ~

Now, I know I mentioned in my second post in this series that Baty (NaNo founder) recommends loading up on your favorite “vice” food, in order to free up some will-power to write daily.

My advice, in contrast is to know (or check) your nutritional type and then stock up on the stuff your body actually needs.  As I said yesterday, I have a persistent battle with depression that I can’t be lazy about fighting.

Image courtesy of Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski via stock.xchng

Nutrition is one of those ways to fight, and I often must use my story mind and imagination to hold in my body the memory of how some tasty or convenience food made me regret its indulgence.

My type is the protein type, which means that I have to go out of my way to maximize the amount of protein I get, if I want to function optimally.

I’m going to share some ideas and advice for functioning as a protein type, because about 1/3 of people are each type, and all the healthy eating lists focus on types one and two (avoid fat, maximize fruits, veggies, limit protein, especially to fish, skinless poultry, and fat-trimmed red meat—if you indulge in the stuff at all).

This is okay advice as far as it goes, it’s hard to go wrong maximizing food without lables, but for types like me it is inadequate.  I thrive on a high-protein, high-fat diet.  Counting protein grams is about the only way I remember to stay on top of it, and to answer the next question, the only way I can really balance the calorie equation with straight-up fats (I stick to the healthy ones– almost none liquid) is to minimize grains and almost completely cut sugar.

My type of fast-food is a ¼ pound chicken sausage nuked in a paper towel and eaten while I work.

Just today I stocked up on enough to get me through November– if my family doesn’t learn to like them too, which they are.

I’m trying to be glad for them instead of pouting for me.

Other make-aheads and quicks (relatively speaking, though straight-forwards might be the better term):

  • A cup of whole-fat vanilla yogurt with diced pineapple (from a can) and a handful of raw oatmeal—mixed together and eaten like cold-cereal
  • Vegetable nachos: raw veggies sliced thin and covered with shredded cheese. Before I nuke  it I sprinkle on some homemade ranch-flavored powder (I have a jar of this in readiness).
  • Salmon fillets (I’m an Alaskan, so I have a stocked freezer) sprinkled with salt and ranch seasoning
  • Skin-on chicken thighs (with seasoning of choice on the meat under the skin), put in oven preheated to 450-degrees. Cook for 30 minutes (crisps skin), then reduce temperature to 350. Cook for another 40-60 minutes, till the thermometer reads something that fits your comfort level (I slightly under cook mine so do your own googling ;)).  This counts as a quick-food because I’ll individually freeze them after cooking and grab one later to nuke when I need it.
    • Great plain or as the center of a simple salad.
  • Image courtesy of gulizars via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of gulizars via stock.xchng

    The crockpot is your friend: throw a couple frozen meat chunks in (a few chicken thighs, pork chops or a small roast), cover with broth, 1 ½ tsp. cumin, a cup of salsa and a couple cans of beans (salt to taste) and you’ve got  a generic chili/soup you can eat plain, mix in your favorite taco toppings, or (shred the meat with two forks once it’s cooked) serve it over greens and recreate Wendy’s Baja salad for a fraction of the cost.

  • Here’s one that works best if you have a food scale (at least for me, since I’m gluten free): blend 1 doz eggs (~24oz.) , 24 oz milk, and 12 oz flour.  In the preheating 400-degree oven, melt ½ cube of butter in each of two 9×13 pans – about the amount of time it take to combine your three ingredients (additional salt or sugar optional).  Cook at 400 for 20 minutes, lower oven temperature to 350 and finish another 20 minutes.
  • Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso via stock.xchng

    Spaghetti with meat sauce: cook whatever pasta you usually use and brown a pound of ground meat. Add a teaspoon of salt and tablespoon of taco seasoning.  While the meat browns, combine two (15.5 oz) cans tomato sauce, (8oz) can tomato paste, 1 T oregano, 1 ½ t garlic, 1t paprika and mix until smooth. Add the hot, seasoned meat and you’re ready to go. (Meat sauce can double as sloppy joes, or go over shredded cabbage instead of noodles.)

  • Finally, a major crowd-pleaser at our place is taco salad. Brown and season a pound of meat and combine with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, a can of beans, and crunched tortilla chips.  On the side optionals to add include sour cream, mushrooms, tomato, onion, extra cheese and salsa.

These ideas are mostly to get your own thinking rolling: whatever you already make will probably be faster to put together than someone else’s recipes. Even so, these are all things that come together under 20 minutes, or can be made in bulk and save meal prep for days (ask me how I know…).

So don’t feel that your health or sanity have to suffer because of your other goals.  We all have to eat anyway, so knowing how to maximize the time you already have committed can actually buy you more flexibility, later.

The Four-Arc Outline for a Thriller (NaNo Prep 19)

Mysteries and thrillers are not the same things, though they are literary siblings. Roughly put, I would say the distinction is that mysteries emphasize motive and psychology whereas thrillers rely more heavily on action and plot. — Jon Meacham

Thrillers provide the reader with a safe escape into a dangerous world where the stakes are as high as can be imagined with unpredictable outcomes. It’s a perfect genre in which to explore hard issues of good and evil, a mirror that allows the reader to see both the good and not so good in themselves. — Ted Dekker

In her book Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat offers a detailed outline that she calls “The Four-Arc System for Organizing Your Novel.”

It is roughly analogous to the 3-Act Structure, taking arcs 2 and 3 together to form the “middle half.”

Image courtesy of dimitri_c via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of dimitri_c via stock.xchng

Ten-Minute Hook

An opening scene or chapter that is self-contained and grabs the reader in some way, by either showing a “day in the life” of the character whose life is about to be turned upside down, or giving a mini-preview of things to come.

Arc One

  • Set up the conflict or problem, introduce the main character and opponent or mystery.
  • Establish character’s inner need which s/he may or may not be aware of
  • Start Subplot rolling– either main character’s or a secondary character’s or both
    • No flashbacks allowed — tell the reader only what s/he must know now
  • Make the contract with the reader through tone and style
  • Use a catalyst if appropriate to get the story started and to keep things moving

End Arc One at a crisis: the first turning point scene changes everything and sends the main character in pursuit of a new goal. A decision leads to a beginning level of commitment.

This should all sound familiar by now: The First Plot Point, the Inciting Incident, Crossing the Threshold. Whatever name you give it, your MC is now all in.
Arc Two
  • Here come the flashbacks — but only to illuminate the present
  • Main character is tested, trained, given tasks, tries and fails to reach goal
  • One step forward, two steps back
  • Each gain leads to a (greater) loss in the end
  • Subplots deepen, also move toward their crunch points
  • Discrepancy between character’s wants and needs grows larger
  • Establish deadline or ticking bomb, beyond which all will be lost
Image courtesy of jason - via stock.xchnge

Image courtesy of jason – via stock.xchnge

End Arc Two at a crisis:  the Midpoint scene may involve hitting rock bottom, being convinced there is no hope of success. Or the main character may move from reactive to proactive, from committed to fanatical, from objective to emotionally involved, from wrong goal to right goal. A line may well be crossed. Return to status quo is now impossible.  The character can only move forward, come what may.

Arc Three

  • Pace increases considerably; chapters and sentances are shorter
  • All threads begin coming together; all subplots will be resolved by end.
  • Ticking time bomb or other deadline becomes compelling
  • Build toward climax with ever-increasing conflicts and consequences
  • Character’s desire to reach goal increases exponentially
  • Disconnect between character’s need and want becomes clear even to him
  • Character tested and trained for the ultimate confrontation

End Arc Three at a crisis: The second turning point in which the character is forced to make a crucial decision.  This can be a low point (if the character hasn’t already hit bottom), or it can be a recognition that nothing short of a life-or-death confrontation will solve the problem.

Arc Four

  • The showdown at at last — Good faces Evil, and only one will survive
  • All the stakes are bet on a single hand; nothing is held back
  • Give the ending its full value– give the reader what you promised in Arc One
  • Image courtesy of Grzegorz Cio³czyk via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of Grzegorz Cio³czyk via stock.xchng

    Use all the elements you have set up in the earlier arcs for maximum pay-off now

  • Make sure character undergoes both internal and external transformation
  • Show an outer manifestation of internal change– Character does something in a way s/he couldn’t have done at the beginning of the story.
  • Make sure subplot resolution either supports or contrasts with main plot resolution for maximum thematic impact.
  • If at all possible, take characters full circle in some way, with a setting or situation that repeats and echoes the beginning.

All of this is (of course) expanded on in greater detail in the book, and I urge anyone interested in these genres to look past the (lame) cover and check out the great content.

Plot Structures: The Heroine’s Journey (NaNo Prep 14)

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong. — Sophia McDougall

(A castigation, not a complement. Whole article at the link.)

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. — Cardinal Suhard

Image courtesy of Maira Kouvara via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Maira Kouvara via stock.xchng

The Heroine’s Journey has not been codified the way The Hero’s Journey has, but it is still useful to consider gender differences in terms of roles and realism.

As much as we (especially me) may wish we live in an equal world, we know we don’t, and (especially if you are writing a character of the opposite gender) it is useful to look at the types of differences in the processes.

Several books I’ve found address (compare/contrast) the journey females take (contrasting it with a man’s experience).

45 Master Characters, in particular, underscores that a man can travel on a “feminine” journey, just as a woman can take the “masculine.” It’s just that the majority of males or females take their respective paths in stories, so that’s where Schmidt makes her distinctions.

Roughly put, the difference between the masculine and feminine journeys (according to Schimdt), is that the MJ ends (transitions at that magic 75% mark) with the hero’s awakening of consciousness. Connecting with his humanity, the greater good, the noble goal. This is The road back and Returning with the Elixir from yesterday, where we get to see how the ordeal has fundamentally changed him (that’s the consciousness part).

In the FJ the story begins (1st plot-point, that magical 25% mark) with the awakening of consciousness.

Here is the Feminine Journey as discussed (in much greater length and detail) in 45 Master Characters.

Image from

Image from

Step 0. The illusion of  the perfect world. A false sense of security or unhealthy coping mechanisms prevent the MC from seeing reality. (This has the opening of Cinderella all over it.) MC is accepting of the status quo.

  1. The Betrayal or Realization
    1. Her eyes are opened, coping mechanisms are no longer effective, and/or everything important to her is taken away.
    2. She can’t rationalize or make excuses anymore.
    3. She is pushed to the place of choice.
  2. The Awakening: Preparing for the journey
    1. She wants to reclaim her power
    2. She actively prepares for her journey (a mentor figure may help)
    3. Makes a life-altering decision to move forward
  3. The Descent: MC must face the consequences of her decision
    1. Stripped of the (external) things she thought would save her
    2. Must learn to trust her instincts (recognize Allies from Enemies)
    3. A time of raising the stakes
  4. Image courtesy of Jose Bernalte via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of Jose Bernalte via stock.xchng

    The Eye of the Storm

    1. A reprieve. A sense of victory and increased confidence
    2. May result in a false sense of security
    3. A small taste of success that may fuel her desire to succeed again.
    4. May help others or be told by old friends she’s ready to come home now: the journey is complete.
  5. Death. All is lost.
    1. This is where the what she thought she’d conquered comes back. Stronger, or else using full strength for the first time, because now she is recognized as a threat.
    2. #3 is echoed with intensity. All the fears and lies that have assaulted her til now seem like a crushingly overwhelming reality.
  6. Image courtesy of Maira Kouvara  via stock.xchnge

    Image courtesy of Maira Kouvara
    via stock.xchnge


    1. Connection & cooperation (elements traditionally associated with females) make a way to continue on. Without completely rescuing her or stealing her thunder.
      1. Think the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
      2. A significant divergence from the go-it-alone ethic of some stories– though not necessarily of the Hero’s Journey.
  7. Rebirth. The Moment of Truth.
    1. All doubts are gone. After death, any enemy can be overcome.
    2. “She has found her courage, used her brain and won her own heart. The three combined are needed to attain her goal.”
  8. Full Circle. Return to the Perfect World.
    1. Faces the final question of whether she will return to her original role.
    2. Has broader, deeper, sight to see the perfect world for what it really is.
    3. Considers whether her initiation means freedom is possible for the others as well (an intangible correlation to The Elixir of the Hero’s Journey).

Where as the Male hero usually gets the girl, the glory or the gold (external, tangible validations), the Female’s mark is often deeply internal and ongoing.

Image courtesy of Oana Ema via stock.xchnge

Image courtesy of Oana Ema via stock.xchnge

One significant observation is that this heroine being transformed does not mean that society is. There are still ogres and tyrants surrounding her, but she is better equipped now both to face those enemies, and to guide others into their own strength, even one by one.

Both heroes and heroine, in continuing stories, may find their treasures at risk of being stolen, but that is the way of all valuable things in a world with selfish people.

We must continue to be vigilant.

Plot Structures: The Hero’s Journey (NaNo Prep 13)

We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are. — Madeleine L’Engle

Image courtesy of S Braswell via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of S Braswell via stock.xchng

Frequently we use the word hero interchangeably with main character, and that is what will happen here today. For an excellent excellent discussion of What makes a Hero, click that link.

Even though I say I’m using Hero “just” as MC, I think we should all understand the the reason there’s a story about these people is that they are heroic: proactive, admirable and/or memorable.

~ ~ ~

At it’s worst, “The Hero’s Journey” is an OCD checklist that results in a story as bloated as a cat fed “exactly what the bag says she needs” that has to waddle from place to place.

At it’s best The Hero’s Journey is a psychological map that you can look at next to your story and decide if the terrain is relevant enough for the map to be useful.

Laid out by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (which is quite the slog to read, I’ve heard, totally giving you bragging rights if you get through the whole thing), the hero’s journey is often described as a circle, punctuated by tasks or gateways or individuals that shape the story and the aforementioned hero.

For anyone who wants to explore this venerable (and useful, despite my tone 😉 ) structure, the better work to read would be Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. This I have read and can heartily recomend as a reference work. It lays out the whole concept and shows how it can apply to the writers life as well as the storyline s/he is working on.

The cycle is as follows, but remember, it is shaped as a circle, not a line like this.

One of the philosophical differences I take to this structure is that the stories I enjoy most are about progression and trajectory. The core idea I see here is that you belong where you were, just as a different person. That you can only become through tragedy.

Maybe that’s true, but I’m not going to play that way today.

Um, nothing yet. (Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng)

Um, nothing yet.
(Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng)

Step 0. The ordinary world. The “before” pic for your before-and-after shoot.

  1. Call to Adventure
    1. Refusal of the call
    2. ultimate acceptance of the call (or the story wouldn’t move on).
  2. Helpers appear
    1. provide training, trajectory, motivation or simply new thoughts that prepare him to overcome
  3. Resistance (aka Threshold Guardians) shows up.
    1. This feels like the biggest fight of the young hero’s life– and maybe, but really it’s just the fight to let him enter the arena.
  4. Cross the threshold (about 25% into your story).
    1. This is when the story premise really begins: Dorothy is in Oz, Frodo is on the move. This is the action we picked up this story for.
  5. Tests, Allies and Enemies
    1. Our hero meets a bit of everything and has to learn to sort through them
  6. With his band of true friends the hero approaches the Midpoint of the story and his Great-Good Goal
  7. The Ordeal (Midpoint climax and half-way point of your story)
    1. also called Belly of the Whale– facing death and/or one’s deepest fears
  8. The Reward — The hero collects what he came for, but it (and he) is not completely secure yet.
    1. This can be a physical object, a relationship, an epiphany, now available because he survived the ordeal.
  9. The Road Back (seems to me that most of The Odyssey is this step. In any case it’s a vivid example of how the road back isn’t a cakewalk.) 75% mark comes somewhere in here.
  10. Image courtesy of Gilbert Tremblay via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of Gilbert Tremblay via stock.xchng



      This is the climax-climax. The hero faces death/his greatest fears again, but this time, because of the journey, he is different. The moment of victory is the Hero and the rest of the world realizing that he is made new, transformed by his experiences.

  11. Returning with the Elixar — The hero finishes his journey home, with some tangible element of his journey that will benefit his world has he has benefited.


For a beautiful list with all sorts of clickable trails to get lost in for hours of NT (you know who you are) entertainment, please please click here to visit the Hero’s Journey Page on

And if you’ve never heard of or never visited TVTropes before, be prepared to lose yourself down the rabbit hole.  For a story-centric person (like myself) it is one of the most delightful ways to lose time on the internet. The bonus (if you’re a writer) is that none of your time will be wasted. It is all research.

You’re welcome.

Terrific links to see actual diagrams and examples are TV Tropes, like I already mentioned, and here, where the author of The Writer’s Journey lays out his interpretation and some application.

Capture Your Information (NaNo Prep 5)

BeethovenThen let us all do what is right, strive with all our might toward the unattainable, develop as fully as we can the gifts God has given us, and never stop learning. — Ludwig van Beethoven

This is a mammoth task, creating a whole new world. How will you keep track of your details? How will you be sure names don’t evolve?  How will you know what visual or verbal markers go with which character for the length of a novel?

My Novels' TOCThere are varying levels of tools at our disposal.

Since my story idea solidified in August, I have been jotting my discoveries in Evernote, on my phone. It’s almost always with me, it’s often what I’m listening to music on, and music is a big part of my preparation process (more on music later in the month). Apparently there are all sorts of bells and whistles to Evernote. I just use it as a notebook: I have a “pad” for each of my novels so I can capture an idea and put it in the right story from go.

Stolen's Storyboard, act OneRoz Morris of Nail Your Novel urges you to scribble a line on half an index card– keep it short and sweet– so you have physical objects to lay out in different orders as you determine the flow of action.

Stolen's CharactersJames V. Smith Jr. of You Can Write a Novel suggests index cards in a manila folder, taped only on one side, with the name of each character all that shows. You can note pertinent details (height, age, weight, visual or verbal tics) and keep them at your fingertips. You can even a glue a pic of an actor or model/magazine-random to the back of the card, allowing a quick remainder for visual continuity as you write.

There’s also Randy Ingermanson‘s Snowflake Pro software that gives you places for all the details you can come up with in a database and/or process-based format.

Scrivener is another detail-collector, with a variety of features that I’ve found very helpful.  This program has an active Table of Contents down the side and allows you to drag and drop whole scenes, allowing you to rearrange your novel without any cut-and-pasting.

I also find it helpful to create a folder in Scrivener for each character. I can include an interview sheet and digitally paste things like actor images that fit the look of a character so I can keep description consistent.

~  ~  ~

Organizing and ordering though, isn’t completely necessary this early in the process (if you’re just getting started now). The first stage is merely to capture. You shouldn’t expect to keep everything in your head all the time, or if you do, you risk rejecting new ideas so they don’t crowd out the established one.

Get everything out of your head and you level the playing field: earlier ideas are not better or more sacred because they’ve been around longer.

So here’s the rundown of what I’m using:

  1. Early/rough capture: Emailing myself or Evernote — one long run-on broken only by line breaks. Captures (never worry about losing something) but only an intermediate stage– always has to be transcribed into a more permanent/orderly/grouped (findable) format.
  2. Notecards for character tracking and action points.
  3. Three-Ring binder with cardstock storyboard (I use Sticky Tack to let me secure and still move things around as I work through my process).
  4. Snowflake Pro (because I got it crazy cheap when it was brand new) as the mass of my project shifts onto the computer. I gradually transfer the card contents into the database so I have less to carry around.
  5. On November 1 I open Scrivener, title a “scene” page with the heading of an index card, and write. I move to a new page when I move to a new index card (this lets me de-tangle and rearrange if I find a different order works better). This system lets me work as out-of-order as I like, wherever inspiration draws me in the writing hour.

Stolen's Storyboard, act two part-2The storyboard is a way to get my kinesthetic mind involved early in the process (like now).

I actually keep my more-developed novels ordered in Excel (that’s another useful tool, as is Word, and paper, and pencil). In the spreadsheet I can track content and action with additional columns for point of view, scene purpose, and sometimes more.

Speaking of Excel, it is awesome for laying out names, attributes and varying motivations.  If you’ve already got a Microsoft Office Suite you can keep track of a whole novel between Word and Excel. That’s how I managed my first two novels.

And if you or a friend are an Excel genius, you can make a formula-based calendar to keep track of names, dates and ages.

My first two novels are somewhat in the Epic category, with a timeline (history/backstory not in the book) that spans over twenty years. A friend from college wrote me a formula that lets me insert event-dates and the spreadsheet will populate the ages of some 75 named characters. Only 2 or 3 might be relevant at a time, but this is a magical time-saver.

Image courtesy of PLRANG Images for design via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of PLRANG Images for design via stock.xchng

These are all tools I’ve migrated to for various reasons. I was an early adopter/beta tester, so the price tag wasn’t a barrier. Would I use all these if I had to pay for them? I don’t know.  And I’m glad I don’t need to find out 😉  When making your own choices, do Google the product and get the opinion of people more (or less) in-love than me.

And Always-always paper and pen are legit and useful. Use what you have, upgrade as you get the chance, just never trust your mind to hold on to something.

I am a firm believer in the idea that we never really forget anything, but we do need the correct hook to bring it back.  Writing it down means we never have to hunt for the right hook.

Ways of Writing (NaNo Prep 4)

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov

The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing. — Isaac Asimov

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I respect the man who knows distinctly what he wishes. The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard. — Neil Gaiman

Madeline L'Engle

Madeleine L’Engle

I knew that the moment I started worrying about whether or not I was good enough for the job, I wouldn’t be able to do it. — Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

There are two major contingents of writers, according to many discussions.

These consist of “Pantsters” (as in, seat-of-your-pants) and “Planners.”

In contrast, what you hear from these writers I opened with is that there is more to the process than planning or flying free.

There is also the discipline of doing the work, and the psychological readiness to take on the weight of creation.

The most important thing I wish to communicate is that you stand your ground, take hold of the spirit in L’Engle’s words, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.  If your method works, you’re doing well. But also remember that there is usually a place where the work becomes work and that is not a shame or a sign you’ve screwed things up.

The inspiration will fade at times, and you’ll have to slog on in the assurance, the confidence, that you’re headed in the right direction. But the delight will come back, like the tide. And in those ebbs and flows of creative energy you will learn new things, just as you see more in tide pools, once the ocean has retreated, so pressing on will allow you to understand more than you might in the white heat of inspired creation.

By all means take some of your research time to experiment with other methods that fit you and your personality, but if something hurts and never brings joy, don’t stick with it like vegetables when you could be having ice cream.

As withyesterday’s likes and dislikes, there is a possibility that your history and wiring nudges you toward the dislikes and the discomfort just because it feels more virtuous. Unless it actually improves the work or the process, you get to choose the ice cream!

This might be one of the only places where you always get to choose what you enjoy– Relish it!

The bonus advice I suggest is to pick up Dorthea Brande’s book, Becoming a Writer. Preferably the 1981 version with John Gardner’s introduction.

Brande does a wonderful job stepping back from the questions and techniques of process or outlines and focuses on the writer him/herself.

I suppose there are writers without personal insecurities, and nothing between them and the page but those questions of technique.  For the rest of us there’s Dorthea Brande.

In the words of Gardner’s introduction,

The root problems [in writing] are the problems of confidence, self-respect, freedom.

What the stalled or not-started-yet writer needs is some magic for getting in touch with himself, some key. The writer needs to know what kinds of habits of thought and action impede progress, what unnoticed forces undermine confidence.

Of course, the answers to these riddles will be unique to each writer, but in my experience just having this list in front of me has helped in applying their truth.

So if you feel more secure with an outline, make an outline. Don’t let that inspired writer you know tell you it has to “just come” to be any good.

There are loads of resources for the googling. Just put in “how to write a novel” or “story structure” for starters. Scads of stuff for the browsing.

If you feel tied down at the very thought of knowing anything ahead of time, by all means, roll with it.  Chris Baty’s book could be especially useful to you.

Most of us though, at least from the people I’ve talked to, are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

I call what I do, “Driving by the headlights.”

Image courtesy of Mark Robson via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Mark Robson via stock.xchng

Since I (at least loosely) base most of my novels on fairy tales or existing narrative structures, I follow the path and the destination without having to invent the outline myself.  But I “pants” it as I go along the road, picking up hitchhikers (new characters) and off-roading a bit (sub-plots as I discover them).

Do what you can to get ready, especially if that makes you more excited about the novel you will write, but use the time to tell yourself this is real, and trust that you will figure it out.

Create Your Like-Lists (NaNo Prep 3)

Chris Batty wrote a short book about NaNoWriMo, designed to encourage the first-time novelist to dive in, whether or not s/he has a sound story idea yet.

There are things people can do, he urges, even if they don’t have a story idea yet.

I am one of those who needs more structure or substance to commit to the process (more than cheer-leaders and personal enthusiasm, I mean), but one big thing I learned from his book I recommend to any aspiring Novelist.

Get honest about your preferences.

Image courtesy of Davide Guglielmo via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Davide Guglielmo via stock.xchng

Now, I talk about preferences in terms of personality, and I mean the word in the same way here: You have things that straight-up fit better and come easier for you. These are things you out-right LOVE.

The important thing about “doing what you love” isn’t necessarily that you’re better at it.

The important thing about “doing what you love” is that you will want to keep doing it, and do more, and stick with it when you hit a rough patch. It is such persistence that leads to being better. To being actually really good.

This is true in your noveling as well.

Take a break and make a list. Two lists, ultimately, so knowing yourself, decide if you’ll do this better sequentially (one after the other) or at the same time.

List 1: Things I like in a novel.

List 2: Things I don’t like in a novel.

This is crazy-important, even if you already have your story idea.

First, it’s important that your writing please you.

Many many writers describe their start as writing the book they always wanted to read, and quite often it was a book their newly discovered fans wanted to read as well.

Second, if you’ve already determined that ______________ makes you crazy in a story, you will (if you are ready to be both honest and challenged) become a better writer as you find other way to meet your story goals.

What do I mean?

An example:

I Hate (hate-hate-hate) conflict without motivation. And I can’t stand “misunderstandings” that exist only to advance the plot, that could be resolved by a simple, open conversation between the two descent people involved.

And I write fantasy with a romance element.

Which means that we’re-both-male-leaders-therefore-we-must-fight (I’m looking at YOU Prince Caspian!) and something-has-to-keep-us-to-of-bed-so-I-don’t-like-you-and-won’t-say-why (cliché problem to keep couple apart without threatening their imagined perfection) are both off the table.

I call those things lazy writing— taking the easy route– half defiantly, and half wistfully.

But it makes me work harder, better, to be true to myself and the sort of story I want to give my readers.

So, to get your juices flowing, here’s an example of my likes. I try to get as many likes in my story as possible, and, well, work around the dis likes as much as possible.


  1. Physical (especially trans-species) transformation
  2. Music as part of story
  3. Well behaved animals (impeccably trained or sentient)
  4. “Convenient” sleeping and awake times from the babies/kids
  5. Mysteries that go deep into folklore
  6. Making necessary elements of folk/fairy tales natural
  7. Genuine peril
  8. Threatening villain
  9. Uncertainty of friends (sometimes)
  10. Genuine friends (other times)
  11. Inside jokes, terms and secret codes.
  12. A thinking character watching the process of his or her thought.
  13. Mixing folk elements from various cultures and seeing it “work”
  14. Complexity (lack of obvious predictability)
  15. Surprising twists and secrets that the reader discovers with the protagonist
  16. Cleverness
  17. Characters out-thinking one another
  18. Courtesy among enemies
  19. Truth-telling as a form of riddling and testing
  20. Witty banter
  21. Good conversations
  22. The protective defender
  23. Dramatic rescues
  24. Endurance through fear
  25. Acts of evil are shocking offenses to the way things should be.
  26. Misunderstood identity/”fish out of water”
  27. Build on characteristics the protagonist(s) have to begin with, but doesn’t imagine any of them are already complete
  28. Overcoming an old enemy through what they’ve learned on their journey
  29. More than one character changes
  30. Acknowledge (and explore to some extent) the power of relationship
  31. Thought-provoking observations


  1. Conflict without motivation
  2. Not-talking being the reason something bad happens
  3. Smart characters acting clueless
  4. Any character changing to serve the plot, rather than because of the plot.
  5. Sex without significance (i.e., without the benefits or the consequences)
  6. Defiant/disobedient/“mischievous” children being portrayed as cute and entertaining (I find them irritating)
  7. Unremitting *Angst*
  8. Daily details that don’t advance the story (setting is fine, day-in-the-life-of, not interested).
  9. Over-hinting
  10. Dragging the There’s-something-important-you-don’t-know wait too long
  11. *Everything* stacked against the protagonist (They exist to be miserable)
  12. Too much time is spent on the meaningless, to no end
  13. I can tell where this is going, it will end badly (and frequently was utterly avoidable)
  14. Cruelty (a villain chooses a particular evil *because* it strikes so hard and deeply into his/her victim’s psyche) — honestly I go back and forth on this one; I see its usefulness, too.
  15. The fate/destiny/end of the characters is utterly outside of their own control–can’t be changed or improved by wise choices or good counsel

Image courtesy of Davide Guglielmo via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Davide Guglielmo via stock.xchng

How do your likes/dislikes line up?  Any must-haves or must-avoids you want to share?

Why NaNo? (NaNo Prep 2)

Image courtesy of yenhoon via stock.xchnge

Image courtesy of yenhoon via stock.xchnge

I think (as a writer and a perfectionist) that perfectionism and writing go together better than most things.

That is, everything else you do, you just DO (or don’t, because you know it won’t be perfect).

With writing, everything you do is part of the process. You can always remind yourself that “Now isn’t forever.” It is a fabulous step away from crippling perfectionism without surrendering that important part of you that desires excellence.

The familiar mantra, “real writing is re-writing” can remind us the great freedom we have as writers: we are not bound to what we first see. This trains us in the great freedom available in the rest of life as well, a freedom to explore and experiment and remember/realize that LIFE isn’t a finished product either!

So with that in mind (and as a reiteration of yesterday’s urging) Make the decision NOW to leave your critical, editing, perféct-as-you-go mind locked. up.

This doesn’t mean you have no standards at all!

For example, speaking (as I was yesterday) about momentum in your month of novel-writing, if you’re bored and slowing down, that’s a fabulous clue your reader will feel the same way. If the scene you’re “supposed” to work on isn’t exciting enough, and you don’t immediately know how to change that, working out of order is completely acceptable.

I started my first NaNo novel in 2006 by describing the transformation of the wicked stepmother into a water dragon, whose own weight then drags her into the sea.  It was a postlogue if anything, but it was the most vivid image in my mind, starting out.  I wanted that woman to get the power she always wanted, and have it not be what she expected. I wanted that image in my mind as I described (and endured) her cruelty in other parts of the book.

So: 50,000 words, on a new work of fiction, in 30 days.

The main point of “30 days” is to invoke the power of deadline.  Many people perform best (or at least they think they perform best) when there is some external motivation providing a framework or structure for the goal in front of them.

The truth is that willpower is a muscle. It is a limited resource, and the less it needs to be exerted in one area, like decision-making (Will I write?), the more you have to apply in other areas.

The creator of NaNoWriMo, Chris Batty, urges participants to load up on coffee, chocolate or any other “motivating” or “vice” food they want for the duration of the project. Psychologically this is good advice: by removing the effort one may have applied to healthy eating, you’ve essentially freed up that much more mental muscle to apply to this other, short-term goal.

The short-term nature of this goal is another reason for the 30 days.

Writing a novel is an intense, I have to say God-like experience. You are creating a world. Not out of nothing, so we don’t match God there, but out of a Frankensteinian collection of hungers and memories and myths.

I have never had as much writing-compassion from the non-writing people around me as I do in November. They try to understand that I’ve got a leg in fairyland. It makes more sense that I’m pulled away, that I’m not all here.

The years I mentioning it ahead of time I got a pass to be hyper-focused on this “extracurricular” project, just because it was November and I made it clear how important this project was to me.

Revisions are a challenge for this same reason: I’m a generally responsible person with a pretty solid set of expectations when it comes to food and sanitation. And my children’s behavior and language-development.

Finding the time to leave this world and immerse myself in the one I created—that will not happen. I have to create that time.

But that comes later—with the releasing of the inner editor from its box of confinement when November is over.

30-days also gives the people in my vicinity a count-down of their own.

So maybe meals aren’t quite on time, maybe the bathroom didn’t get cleaned this month. Not to worry: Mama will be back soon. Just watch the calendar– count the days!

Image courtesy of yenhoon via stock.xchnge

Image courtesy of yenhoon via stock.xchnge

For now, if you ever get approached by a wild-eyed individual garbling on about NaNoWriMo (sometimes insisting that you should join in), you should understand the basic outline:

The goal is 50,000 words on a new work of fiction in the 30 days of November. It is not something you win without dedication, but it is imminently, and fantastically, doable.

Take the jump. It only seems scary.

Share your title in the comments if you have one.

The story I’m working on this year will be called Stolen.

What is NaNo? (NaNo Prep 1)

~ ~ ~

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page. — Anne Enright

~ ~ ~

National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, is a (now international) challenge to write 50,000 words on a new work of fiction during the 30 days of November.

First of all, why 50,000 words—

  • Today, novels for people out of grade-school are usually 70-100,000 words, but 50,000 is usually enough space to sketch a well-planned outline of whole story.

Even so I came across a few recognizable titles that are novels near 50,000 words:

    • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
    • The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
    • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • It’s mathematically doable while still maintaining a life.
    • 50,000 words in 30 days works out to about 1,667 words/day
    • If you use the Wikipedia-cited average for “composition” speed of WPM (19) that works out to less than 1.5 hours of work each night to keep up. And I’ve been known—and know others—who end up in a creative heat that goes both longer and faster than that.
      • Best nights for me have between 2-3,000 words after I put the kids to bed.

In 2010, my husband Jay bought me an illuminated keyboard for my laptop—a noble gesture and romantic gift—as soon as they were available for the PC: My children all shared a single room, and would sit with them, typing in the dark, until after they fell asleep.

Such working ahead was critical because my worst days were only 300-800, and the last three days of the month were always a flurry of putting everything aside to find out what happens to my characters (and reach that 50,000).

So that’s the 50,000 words.

Next is the phrase “on a new work of fiction.”

You’re really not supposed to use this race of “literary abandon” as the chance to round out and finish the 50,000 words you wrote last year, even if that would, in theory, give you one “complete” 100,000-word book.

This is because you’re too invested by that point to “let” the work be horrible.

There is a famous truism in the writing world that says you have to write a manky first-draft. (Actually the original phrase from Anne Lamott is “shitty first draft,” but I first presented this information as a speech, and found another word to play it safe. Now I’m kind of in love with “manky” both as a word and as a concept, so I’ve continued to hang onto it.)

You have to do this (write horribly) because you have to write a first-draft, and if you’re not prepared ahead of time for it to be *horrible* you will despair (and likely give up) before you’re three days or three pages in. You will try to make every word count, or fit perfectly from GO, and you will make yourself into an anxious wreck before anything useful can take root.

What all successful writers will tell you is that good writing isn’t about sitting down and being brilliant, good writing is re-writing.

This could be why I talk so much about personal growth, self-awareness or self-improvement: this is the orientation writers work from. Our goal is to find problems before someone else does. We are our own first critics. Our own first defense.

But we are not (the best of us) trying to be our own saviors. There is a point at which we take this baby we have formed from the scraps and jewels of our minds, and set it into the hands of some other word-lover. Another storylover. And we give them permission to speak freely about imperfection and improvement.

But that all comes much later. For these thirty days, that inner editor, the one we apply before sending our baby to the unfeeling world, it is locked in a box. It is not allowed to poke its useful, ugly head out for the entire 30 days.

Because if you start to wonder before day-31 why Sally would care if Betsy borrowed the dog’s ninja to go grocery shopping, you will lose momentum, and in NaNoWriMo the name of the game is momentum.

You tell me: Have you ever wanted to write a novel?


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