Calling the Muse

scattered museHow many times have you started a story and gotten stuck partway through? You hit that wall and just don’t know where to go from there? Or maybe you write your way into a corner and don’t know how to get yourself out. Or you get all the way through to the revision process and find you have plot holes you don’t know how to fix?

You’re not alone.

I’m always exploring new ways to improve my own writing skills. Lately, I’ve been going through some courses created by author Patti Larsen on writing and outlining. (Yes, I just mentioned the dreaded outlining… which I happen to enjoy, thank you very much.) Patti is a prolific author and she’s come up with some pretty handy tips to avoid these pitfalls. Check out her site if you want and see for yourself.

But back to my topic. There are ways to court your muse. Being organized, as Patti suggests, is one of them. I find that is often one of my own problems when I write. I spend all day editing for clients (for whom I’m very grateful!), and by the time I get to work on my own writing, my brain feels rather scattered. I re-read what I’ve got so far, go over my notes, and basically have to start from scratch every time. By the time I do all the catch up, I’m tired and it’s time for bed, so I don’t get much writing done. That’s why I picked up her courses. I wanted to enhance my own organization skills so I could skip all the catch up and just get to writing. I figured there must be methods to keep my muse engaged to fit my limited writing time.

If you’re not into outlining, maybe you’re an imagery person. If images speak to you, perhaps keeping images handy (Scrivener lets you keep a file of images or other references in the same file you’re writing in) will help. When I was writing Titanic Deception with my husband John, I found it helpful to look up reference images. I had blueprints of the Titanic, photos of several of the state rooms, the dining rooms, the decks… photos of some of the key players who were on the ship, that sort of thing. I looked up information on clothing of the era, I looked up menus for the modern part of the story, chatspeak translation, bomb defusing, and all sorts of things. I could keep all this information handy for when I needed inspiration. That helped keep my muse at my side.

It helped me to have a sounding board. John provided that. Since he was the main idea guy on our team, we spent countless hours going over plot lines, ironing out wrinkles that caused me writing angst, and working out physical actions so I could describe them with words.

So, what do you do to keep your muse at hand? Please share your tips in the comments!

Apologies for being missing in action last week. A pesky spider bit me on a crucial finger and it got infected, greatly affecting my typing abilities due to pain and swelling. Went to the doctor and have been on antibiotics since. It’s finally beginning to look like it’s responding and I’m almost back to normal. Thank you for your kind patience! :)

Filling Up Those Boxes — Part One

Now that we’ve explained the four parts in your book, let’s fill them up. If you need a quick review, you can read through them again: The Setup, The Response, The Attack, and The Resolution.

Now, I said it would be easy to fill up those boxes once you understood them, so here’s what goes in box one. This should fill up about a quarter of your book and it has five things to accomplish. These things should be taken care of before your first plot point appears. If they appear after your plot point, chances are your story will be found wanting.

So, what are these mysterious things?

What’s the hook?

If you don’t capture your reader early, they may not stick around. Usually, the earlier you hook your reader, the better. The hook is not the plot point. It might be the inciting incident or it might not. As long as it captures the reader’s imagination and makes them want to find out more, you’re good. The hook should be emotional or intense. It promises a rewarding experience if the reader just keeps turning the page.

Who’s that interesting hero over there?

That’s right… introduce your hero. We want to get to know him or her. Within the first two or three scenes, ideally. We’re dropping in the middle of their lives … are they happy? Fulfilled? Working in a dead-end job? Stuck in a loveless marriage? What are they hiding? What are they afraid of? What? We want to know.

What’s at stake?

Once that plot point drops at the end of part one, everything we’ve come to know about our hero will be in jeopardy. Does he have a daughter he truly loves? Does she dream of a future with her one true love? Whatever it is, it might be gone once the plot point comes. Stakes are super important. The plot point will change everything, challenge our hero and all they hold dear. If the stakes aren’t worth it, there is no story.

Duh duh DUH… foreshadowing!

What’s coming up? Can we sense some kind of change in the wind? Foreshadowing does just that, whether you choose it to be sudden or subtle. Whether it’s something ill or good, foreshadowing can make the reader thunk themselves in the head and go, “Of course! I should have seen this coming when that thing happened on page 36.” Foreshadowing shouldn’t necessarily be understood at the moment, but it becomes clear as crystal later. All we know is we knew something was coming.

Preparing for Liftoff

All the scenes in part one need to unfold so they lead to the first plot point. This includes their pacing, their focus, and their context. If we need to understand how jet propulsion works, this may be a good place to lay the groundwork in some manner… but make it part of the story.

Keeping these things in mind will fill your part one and keep it on track toward your first plot point.


The Resolution

Welcome back to our discussion on story structure. If you’re joining in for the first time, you can read about the first three parts here, here, and here. Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get to it.

Here we are at the resolution. The second plot point has happened and we’re rushing toward the finish line. Our hero must now step up and be heroic. No new information should enter the story after the second plot point. Our hero should have all the clues s/he needs now to solve the mystery/rescue the person in distress/get the bad guys/win the heart of their true love/save the world.

This is the thing: make sure your hero/heroine is the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but you’ll find that if you give the readers what they crave, they’ll tend to do their part and recommend your book. Put your hero right in the middle of it all, not off to the side as some namby pamby wuss who doesn’t step up and earn their keep.

Can heroes die? Sure they can. It’s up to you whether your hero dies as s/he solves the major dilemma of the story and saves the town from being swept away when the dam bursts, or whatever the crisis is in your story. If your hero dies, make sure its because they saved others and that it has maximum impact on your readers. You don’t want a dry eye in the house. Your hero becomes the martyr in the last act, whether they die or not. They’re willing to die to reach their goal. Most of the time, they don’t… who wants to read a romance that ends with the couple torn apart by death, right? That’s where the willingness comes in handy.

Let’s take one last look at Billie Jean. She faced her mysterious antagonist, put her life on the line, maybe even went to Egypt against his/her direct instructions to get to the bottom of things… and wins. How she does all that– well, I haven’t figured it all out yet. Billie Jean’s story may not really ever make it into a book, but as the protagonist, she can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait for some other person to save her. She has to step up and solve the riddles herself. After all, what would her inspiration, Indiana Jones, do?

The Attack

Okay… part three. If you’re catching up, you can read parts one and two first. Our hero has been stumbling around blindly, responding to the crisis dropped in her lap. Probably not looking much like a hero in any way, shape, or form. You know how you get in life when you finally decide you’ve had enough and it’s time to fix things? This is it. It’s time to fix things. Billie Jean is going to get proactive, get her courage on and get to work.

Is she afraid? Of course she is, but screw that. She’s going to not only conquer her fear, she’s going after this SOB who’s getting in her way. So what makes her change from cowering co-ed to roaring lioness? Some new information has to enter the story as a catalyst. This is the midpoint… the Great Wall of China, if you will, that marks the middle of the story. The plot thickens, the antagonist moves forward with their own devices, and the hero’s minuscule little pushes aren’t enough. She must become Billie Jean, Warrior Princess.

This works in an action thriller, a romance novel, or a mystery. Apply it to your genre and fill in the scenes.

The pursued now becomes the pursuer as she gathers her intel and goes after the antagonist. Suspense builds. Tension mounts. Stakes rise. The story continues as we hurtle headlong at breakneck speed toward the second plot point at the end of part three.

The Response

If you missed Part One, it’s here. Today, we’re talking about Part Two… the response, the second quarter of your story. How does your character respond to the first plot point? All Billie Jean’s dreams and goals were turned upside down when the first plot point occurred at the end of part one. Now… how does she respond? Part two is all about what she does. Does she run away? Hide? Plot? Research? Observe? Ask for help? A combination of these?

Part two is all about your character reacting to the situation that s/he has just been thrown into. S/he shouldn’t have all the answers yet, but now there is a purpose that must be pursued. How your character figures out addressing the issue is what part two is all about.

Let’s say Billie Jean has just started college. She wants to be an archeologist (she just loves Indiana Jones). Suddenly, at the end of part one, she receives a mysterious letter, begging her to change her major, and whatever else she may do, never to go to Egypt. Well, Billie Jean laughs it off at first. Must be a prank, right? But then her apartment is broken into and all her archeology books are stolen. A cryptic message is left in their place, warning her that she’d better take it seriously or she may come to personal harm. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a prank. But who would do such a thing? Why?

So begins part two. How does Billie Jean react? Well, at first, she could be afraid. She could hide. She could rethink her major and consider following the advice of the mysterious letter. She could call the police. Would they shrug it off or take it seriously? She could talk about the situation with her BFF. She could get angry… how dare this unknown person take away her dream! She could get curious… What’s the big deal about going to Egypt? Why shouldn’t she go? Who is this person, anyway?

As you can see, there’s a lot of ground that can be covered in part two. This section lays the infrastructure for what is to come… the midpoint, and Billie Jean’s plan of action. Don’t jump the gun on this… let it play out.

The Setup

Welcome to the first part of our little series on story structure. Remember those four boxes we mentioned last Friday? Today we’re going to fill up the first one. Box One. Knowing what goes in this box will make your writing easier, it will satisfy your readers, and it will make your work far more marketable.

The first quarter of your story is the setup. This is where we learn the stakes, the backstory, we empathize with your characters, we get a taste of what’s to come. This is where we meet Billie Jean and find out her neat, tidy corner of the world is going to implode. While I fully encourage you to begin the story as late as you can, the first plot point doesn’t arrive until the end of Part One. You can have an inciting incident that sweeps her along for the ride, but don’t confuse it with the first plot point. More on that later. Right now, we want the reader to care about Billie Jean and what happens to her. The more we care about Billie Jean, the better. We need to empathize with what she has at stake. What does she need or want in her life? What does she face before the main conflict arrives? This is what will affect how much we care about her when the caca hits the fan. And why should you care how much we care? Because the more we care, the more effective your story is.

Now that we’re falling all over ourselves with caring, our dashing heroine gets hit in the face with the first plot point, and the reader gets rewarded with meaning. Ta da! Cue the angelic spotlight from the ceiling. The antagonistic force has come into play and either the main character, the reader, or both are hit straight in the eyes with what’s happening. Before this, we don’t know what it all means, even if we’re scared out of our wits or if we find it arousing.

So, what’s the difference between an inciting incident and the first plot point? An inciting incident is definitely something big that happens. It’s huge and dramatic. It can be a game changer. It can also be part of the set up. While a plot point can be all those things, it also defines the changes and the path the character takes. An inciting incident creates an obstacle, but the plot point gives meaning and implications to the hero’s journey.

So, the setup has to bring your character to the transition point. We do that using scenes. This part ends when Billie Jean realizes she needs to step up. Part one has revealed something new… a decision, an action, an obstacle that has created a situation that must be addressed. It may be challenging or scary. She has to accomplish something. If she was already working towards this accomplishment in Part One, the plot point alters it somehow or clarifies what is at stake or the nature of her challenge. Alternatively, the first plot point can be completely unexpected; a moment in which everything changes.

At the very end of Part One, the first plot point, the reader gets the first full look at the antagonist. That doesn’t mean everything is explained about the antagonist, but now the reader gets to understand what his or her desire is and how he or she opposes our hero. Conflict. This is where the story really gets interesting.

4 Parts of Story Structure

Story structure. There are four parts (three if you’re talking about a play… three acts). Each part has its own reason for being there and its own place in the story. Each part tells you what it needs to contain.

I can already hear you screaming generic and formula. Stop it. Stop jumping up and down. Stop holding your breath… you’re turning red. Every art form has structure. Every one. Even writing. Even abstract painting. Without the proper structure, we humans just don’t react to it properly. We don’t gaze into the depths of the painting, we lose interest quickly and move on. We don’t get lost in the book and want to live in it, we drop it in a corner and forget about it. Have you noticed the similarities between the words generic and genre? Yeah. Same root. Genre fiction lives on in bestselling books the world over, and often has fairly rigid structures for authors to follow (read a good mystery lately?).  So take a deep breath and read on.

Before you throw around that generic label, look at yourself. You’re a human. A torso, a head, two legs, two arms. Pretty generic, right? That could describe any one of us seven billion people on the planet. However, none of us is exactly like another. Our stories are different. Our lives diverge and change. Our experiences change how we react, what we choose to do. So it is with story structure. The structure is the body, but what you do with it makes it unique. The characters, the situations, how the plot affects the characters, how they react… that’s what makes it your story. The structure is what helps us readers stay glued to the pages until we reach the end. Think about that for a while. I’ll wait.

Ready to proceed? Here’s a box. You can put all the parts of your story in it. Words. Sentences. Plot points. Characters. Scenes. Now close the box and shake it up. There’s your story. :) Did it work out the way you hoped? Oh. Not quite, huh? Well, you can pour all that stuff out and try again. Maybe it will work better this time. I know writers who do it this way. It does eventually work out for them, but it’s a lot of work. Every time they need to rework something, they have to wade through to find the part that isn’t working.

What if I told you there’s an easier way? This is where story structure comes in. Sneaky, aren’t I? Oh, you saw that coming? Well, I did kind of give it away by the title, didn’t I? Okay, think of your big box filled with four smaller boxes. Ta da! Each of those smaller boxes holds 1/4 of your story. Each quarter of your story contains exactly what it needs to feed into the next quarter of the story, so say box #1 only has scenes that are designed to introduce and lead up to what happens in box #2. Now if you need to fix something, not only is it easy to find, you can probably pinpoint it exactly.

Not only that, but each of these four parts has a mission, so you know what goes in each box. Not only will the story be easier to tell, you’ll be able to pick out if something crucial is missing, and your character arcs will all fall into place. I don’t know about you, but when I first discovered this, the light bulb definitely went on.

But wait. Even with the boxes, it’s so easy to mess things up. Writers put box one stuff in box four, box two stuff in box three… argh! Stop the madness! No matter how good the idea is, it’s not going to be as good as it could be as long as this happens! If you get this right, your stories will work… every time. So are you ready? Next week… we explore those boxes one by one.

Story is Everything

So what do you need to tell your story? Structure. Conflict. Character. Clean writing. Sure, we all appreciate that well-written sentence that grabs us by the collar and punches us in the soul, but not every sentence needs to be that way. In fact, it would be pretty hard, if not impossible, to write an entire book like that. As long as you have a good story with the right components to get it across, all you really need is clean, functional writing to tell it. Let those lovely dramatic sentences fall where they have the most impact and concentrate on telling the story. Don’t get hooked on creating that narrative voice throughout your entire book.

Think of the big picture. The most important thing you need to support your story is structure. It will give your story a firm foundation and the architecture to pull it off. Every successful story has it, whether you personally enjoyed the book or not. Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, the Dresden Files… all these authors know how to build a story.

Fortunately, anyone can learn to use story structure. It may take practice to get it right like any craft, but once you understand how it can improve your writing, you’ll never go back to chance. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to outline… that’s just one type of process. Just like a house has to start with a concept and then a plan, so too your story must have a concept and a plan. It helps you make the most of your story… to get the most important plot points in the right places for the most impact. This structure will help build the momentum in the story until the right moment, to keep that big picture in place while the reader is focusing in on the details.

For the next few posts, we’ll be exploring this in depth, so stay tuned. :)

Know Your Psychology

Last week I talked about the three dimensions of characterization. This time I’m going to go a bit deeper and talk about the psychology of characterization. Do you remember anything from psychology class? If not, it may be time to brush up. Psychology deals with how we behave and why. That’s what you need to utilize when you’re building a character. It all works with the dimensions of character we discussed earlier.

You’ll find that a lot of people are driven by resentment. Sounds petty, but it’s true. Someone hurts your feelings. Even if you’ve forgiven him for it, unless you’ve really dealt with it, you may still harbor some resentment, even years later. What do we do with resentment? We resist. If we resent someone or something, we resist it. We won’t use a product associated with someone or some organization we resent. If your best friend from school that stole your boyfriend makes overtures of friendship years later, you may rebuff her because of what happened due to your resentment. Resentment is a powerful motivator.

Resentment can even make us look for ways to get revenge. What happens when one spouse finds out the other has been cheating? The first one often decides they should also have an affair to get even. Is one spending too much on clothes? The other may go out and buy too much of something they like to get back at them. This gives them the feeling of exacting revenge, even though it really doesn’t solve anything.

The consequences of resentment and revenge are third dimension decisions which are motivated by second dimension issues. People usually dress all this up in first dimension fluff that may either try to hide it or flaunt it.

Let’s say you go to the wedding of an old friend. While you’re there, you see an ex who blatantly cheated on you with one of your other friends, flaunting it for all to see. He hurt you badly. He’s there with his wife… the very friend he cheated on you with, and she’s eight months pregnant and glowingly happy. Your heart begins to pound and your blood pressure rises. What do you do? Here is where your third dimension steps up to the plate and reveals your true character. Are you politely cool? Do you ignore them? Give them a piece of your mind and storm out? Embrace them and wish them well, meaning every word?

If you were writing this scene, you would be able to orchestrate exactly how your character would try to appear (first dimension), how her emotions were running amuck (second dimension), and her final decision (third dimension). The second dimension doesn’t make the character’s choice, it only shines the spotlight on their motivation. This is the psychology of what happened: it hurt, it hasn’t healed, it hasn’t been dealt with in any way. In this moment, the character must be pressed to act, amidst her pain, in front of everyone. Without the second dimension’s motivations, the reader wouldn’t be able to understand the meaning behind the character’s third dimension decision.


OMG–I Can’t Stress This Enough

I’ve written on the topic of the importance of editing before, but OMG guys, it really is.

I love indie authors, I really do. Heck, I’m one myself. Some of my best online friends are, too. Some of what I’m hearing from indie authors is alarming. I’m hearing that editing is a luxury, an expense they can do without. Yes, it can be expensive. I’m sorry about that, but if you tell me that How to Train Your Catfish in Three Easy Lessons is 175,000 words long–well, I know you want to hear it’s only going to cost you $50, but any manuscript that long is going to cost you some bucks. Editing carefully, I can average about 1,250 words an hour, assuming I’m not spending that hour answering your emails asking why I haven’t finished your book yet or what did I think of the chapter on earning your catfish’s trust. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions… I encourage you to do so. This is a working partnership on your book. But back to our make believe scenario. So your 175,000 word manuscript on training catfish is going to take about 140 hours of my time. I wish I could do it for free (if I were rich, I would… I enjoy it that much!).  So why should you pay this *luxury tax*?

Case in point: Step into my time machine and we’re going to travel back several years. At this point in time I was doing reviews of birth-related books. (Cue spooky time travel music.) Ah. Here’s one. Take a look at this. Not only is the text so riddled with errors that it gets in the way of their wonderful message, but their formatting for the book was way off. The title page was actually on the left side! It made me wonder if they’d ever even seen a book before. Needless to say, all the money they spent printing all those copies was wasted. I couldn’t review it… there was nothing good I could say about the book. I contacted the author privately and suggested nicely that she get an editor to go through the book and then a book designer to set it up properly. I never heard back from her so I don’t know if she did or not.

As I said at the beginning, I love indie authors. I want them to succeed. However, it’s getting to the point that I hesitate to buy ebooks unless I’m already familiar with the author. I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash on a book that may be full of errors. Before I push that Buy button, I wonder if they had the book edited. Will it be full of errors? I read books full of errors for a living… I don’t want to do it in my pleasure reading. If I find the first chapter full of mistakes, I don’t read the rest of the book, no matter how good the story was. I know I’m not alone in this.

A lot of readers are returning their ebooks for errors or complaining to Amazon, who then reports the errors to the authors for fixing. Amazon will report a few of them, then recommend to the author to check for more. If you get an email like this from Amazon, will you follow up and fix them? Will you look for more? Do you even know what to look for since you let them go through the first time? This means spending time going through your book again and then re-publishing.

Some of those readers will go so far as to write a review criticizing your editing errors for all the world to see and giving you a low rating for them. This brings down your overall rating. Even if you do find every error and fix them later, those reviews will still be there for other potential readers to see. I’m currently editing a book that had this problem. Yes, the errors will be fixed, but the old reviews will still color the perception of the improved book once it’s done.

Others will request their money back, and Amazon cheerfully refunds it, taking it out of your royalties each time a reader does this for the life of your book. Still think skipping the editing was a good idea?

Do it right the first time and hire an editor. Most of us are willing to work with our clients. I offer a payment plan… I’m sure many other editors do as well. I even offer a discount to those who can pay in full. I love books. I always have, ever since I learned that when letters are put together to form words they could tell a story. I got into this business to help authors make their books the best they could be. When the spotlight is on you, I want you to shine.