Category Archives: behind the scenes

A Better Beta Read: Guest Post by Ev Maroon!

Since today is my birthday, I’m taking my Weekly Writing Workout day off. Everett Maroon has stepped up to put a post in my place.

I had the pleasure of working on Ev’s book The Unintentional Time Traveler, which is set to be released at the end of this month. It’s the story of an epileptic boy who begins to travel through time via his seizures, only to find himself in a completely different body—a girl, Jacqueline, who “defies the expectations of her era.” There’s some serious trouble brewing, and when he, as Jacqueline, falls unexpectedly in love with a boy in that past, Jack/Jacqueline is caught between two lives and epochs.


I really enjoyed working with Ev on his book and invited him to post in my absence. Have a great week!  

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A Better Beta Read by Everett Maroon

There’s a moment in every long form writing project of mine when words transform into vines, twirling around my thoughts like malevolent beanstalks. They obscure everything in the manuscript except the tiniest of details. Suddenly all I can take on is “How does this sentence sound? This syllable? Is this paragraph conveying the tension between these two characters?”

Although we must immerse ourselves in the universes we’ve built, as we drop further and further into our own creations we may stop asking the bigger questions that readers will ultimately require we answer as writers. While we’re parsing through the various nuances of using “threadbare,” “frayed,” or “worn,” and wondering how each conveys its own sense of mood and narration, the reader may be ready for the next plot point and frustrated that we’re dwelling on someone’s dress quality.

Beta readers are great for keeping us honest. If writing is about providing enough detail to sustain interest and leaving enough in the way of gaps for readers to fill in with their active imaginations, then beta reading helps ensure balance. Whatever grand plan we have for the Next Amazing Novel, if we’re losing our audience on the level of readability, none of our intelligence matters, nor the innovative characters, fresh word choice, nor witty banter between characters. Beta reading can tell us if the protagonist is likeable enough, even the flawed protagonist with an Achilles heel the size of Atlanta. Outside readers, at specific points in the revision process, can give us a 30,000-foot reaction to our work.

Framing what we need from them as writers of not-yet-completed manuscripts helps readers give us targeted feedback. I ask beta readers a series of questions that are of particular concern to me, but other authors may have their own preferences for these:

•    Was it interesting? Did you like the voice, the characters, the plot?

•    Does it slow down or move too fast?

•    Did any part of it kick you out of the book—awkward language, a scene you didn’t like, a character who wasn’t believable?

•    Did it have you on the edge of your seat at any point? Did you care about anyone in particular in the story?

•    Did it start fast enough? Did you like the ending, and if so/not, why/why not? Did it resolve enough details in the story for you?

•    Did it ever sound preachy?

•    Did it remind you of anything else you read, and if so, did it live up to that other book?

•    What would you tell me to work on and improve?

Reviews can be framed in any number of ways, but I use a question format because I find that they open up discussion rather than close down what kind of feedback beta readers can provide. They also hint at the writer’s priorities—it’s okay to know one’s strengths and weaknesses, writers—and where one thinks they could use the most help. Beta readers are happy to get a chance to roll these diamonds in the rough between their fingers, but they’re also combing through manuscripts because they’re interested in giving useful advice and responses. Helping readers hone in on what aspects of feedback to provide will help them have a good experience, and get writers the best content in response.

Other things to remember:

•    Give beta readers a reminder, about a week beforehand, when you’ll be sending out the manuscript for review. Don’t get fancy with the font or styles—keep it easy to read and in a format everyone is familiar with.

•    Keep a long window—like a month or so—for them to get back with their feedback. Life happens, and people are busy. Don’t expect to hear back in five hours or a week.

•    Don’t pester them while they’re reading. First, it’s annoying, and second, you don’t want to negatively bias your readers. Also remember that reading to give advice is a slower process than just reading, so they need more time than usual.

•    Thank the beta readers profusely for their time and attention. It’s a great service they’re providing.

Beta readers will likely come back with different, sometimes conflicting advice. If that’s the case, check out this post of mine for filtering through all of the responses.

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5759590Everett Maroon is a memoirist, pop culture commentator, and speculative fiction writer. His first book, Bumbling into Body Hair (Booktrope Editions), is a “comical memoir about a klutz’s sex change” and was a finalist in the 2010 PNWA literary contest for memoir. Everett has written for Bitch Magazine,, RH RealityCheck, Original Plumbing, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published by SPLIT Quarterly and Twisted Dreams Magazine, and has a short story, “Cursed” in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. You can find him at trans/plant/portation.



Filed under behind the scenes, on my bookshelf, Rewriting, Science Fiction

Weekly Writing Workout: Three Ring Circus Part Three – MUST

My post is a bit late this week, mostly because in British Columbia we were celebrating our new holiday: Family Day! Where the Family Day bunny comes down the chimney to hand out turkey wishbones to all the good kids, and we have a walnut cake eating contest. The first one done wins the golden carrot. (Okay, so we’re still working out the mythology around this one, give us a few years.)

In truth we just ate a lot of sweets, drank a lot of wine, and played games.

Onward… to MUST

A few years ago, I was working on a concept for a screenplay: a single hippie mom living out of her van for 15 years with her son decides to try to settle into the “normal” world.

It was really only half a concept, because I had no stakes for her yet. I needed to figure out what she MUST DO OR ELSE.

If you think about it, the entire Harry Potter series can be reduced to this: Harry Potter, a young wizard, must defeat Voldemort, an evil wizard, before he takes over the world. This must might not be so prevalent in the first book, but as it becomes exceedingly clear that if Harry doesn’t defeat him, he and all the people he loves will die. This is the basis for the entire series.

MUST is a great way to discover your story, whether it’s an epic fantasy or an indie dramedy screenplay. It’s HOW I found the basic plot for The Van Goes. I asked myself what was at stake for Shasta (the nomadic hippie mom). I started with – what’s the WORST thing that could happen to her?

Answer: She could lose her son. Not literally, but she could lose her relationship with him, and in this story, those were big enough stakes. 

So, I thought, what if she actually DOESN’T WANT to settle down? What if she wants to keep living nomadically from commune to commune, but HER SON wants to leave the road. He’s discovered computers and masturbation and wants access to technology and privacy. And what if they get in a big fight over this?

The result of this line of thinking: Shasta MUST figure out how to live a “normal and settled” life or else risk losing her relationship with her son.

by Gizem Vural

by Gizem Vural


1) SET YOUR TIMER for 7-10 minutes.

Start with the line: If my Character doesn’t act, she is in danger of losing the confidence/trust/loyalty of . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

2) SET YOUR TIMER for 10-12 minutes.

Start with the line: My Character fears what she must do because . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

3) SET YOUR TIMER for 15-20 minutes.

Start with the line: My Character must do this thing or else . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

And have a great (rest of your) week!

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If you are a blogger who would like to post your own weekly workout exercise with me every Monday, please write to info (at)


Filed under behind the scenes, weekly workout, writing exercises

Recovering From the NaNover

Another year, another NaNoWriMo gone by.

On the NaNo website it says that there were over 310,000 participants from all over the world (596 regions), though I’m curious as to how many crossed the finish line (if anyone can point me in that direction, please do). But even if someone wrote only 10,000 words, that’s still 10,000 more words that they didn’t have at beginning of the month. That’s something.


I’m also curious as to how the process went for others and what they do once they’ve finished. Editing is certainly as personal a process as the writing part is.

This year was COMPLETELY different than when I wrote my first NaNoWriMo (INTERGALACTIC) novel two years ago. In 2011, I had been mulling the story and characters over for a few months, I had written an outline (what I call a sequence and beat sheet) and some brainstorming exercises around it all, I had wound myself up, started off with a bang, kept up a steady pace, and even finished early. I also had enough time to hang out in the forum and see how everyone else was doing.

This year I only had the seed of an idea (a location in space and time and 2 characters), had completed one brainstorming exercise, had a fuzzy direction with no sense of how the story would end, and I PANTSED it like crazy. I didn’t have much time early on, or in the middle, so with a week left to go I was still at 18,000 words. I wrote the last 32,000 in the final week. I didn’t have time to reread what I had written the previous day, just went for it. Also, the only contact I had with other NaNoWriMoers (NaNoWriMoists?) was on the @nanosprints twitter page where we encouraged each other to do things like write 1,000 words in 30 minutes.

Both times I was writing something out of my comfort zone. Trying on a new genre. In 2011 it was more plot-based genre fiction (a comedic YA sci fi), this time is was YA contemporary lit. Well, okay, I THOUGHT it was going to be magical realism, but it ended up more in the realm of “unreliable” narrator. The protagonist simply views the world differently than most folks and she’s a little mentally unstable. When it comes time to pitch it I think I’ll call it “The Perks of Being a Wallflower for Queer Girls.” Right now it’s called WINTERSPRING AND SUMMERFALL (although I’m thinking of changing that to Summerfall and Winterspring, whichever sounds better).

I am definitely more of a “planner” by nature when it comes to novel writing, though totally willing to go in new directions if inspired in the moment. I definitely let the magic happen during the creative process. The fascinating thing for me about “pantsing” it this year was that the story still emerged, even without the plan. It sprang from the ethers and I just had to trust. I had to let go of any expectations and just see where it took me.

One of my favourite aspects this time around was when a particular character emerged out of nowhere. A minor character (a gay teacher whose partner is dying from AIDS – this story takes place in the 80’s) turned up, who not only took the story in a wonderful new direction, he added drama, an ally for my protagonist, and a subplot that rounded out the story really magically at the end.

I keep saying that I have a “hot mess” on my hands, but I think when I finally read it (I’m setting it aside until my holiday break), it will be more cohesive than I believe it to be. That happens a lot to me and I have enough years of writing behind me for it to be so. Structure happens a bit intuitively for me due to my fabulous drill sergeant screenwriting instructors at the University of Washington.

So, how did you do? Did you pants it or plan it?

Are you going to give it a break or read it right away?

Set it aside to germinate or dive right into your edit?

And, most of all, what were some of your favourite magical moments?


Filed under behind the scenes, do something different, Intergalactic, NaNoWriMo, novel adventures, Pantsing, Rewriting, YA literature

How do authors make a living? (or, approaching the middle class of writerdom)

It surprises many people to learn (people not in the industry, anyway), that the majority of authors do not make a living off of their writing. Not exclusively, at least.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, or that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t happen for you. I honestly hope it does! Between advances, royalties, and options I’m sure Stephen King doesn’t have to consider whether to take that editing job or not.

I think it’s good to be aware, though, that most authors are in what Cory Doctorow refers to as “the middle class of writerdom.” i.e. they have day jobs. Same goes for every kind of artist: dancer, actor, musician, painter, etc.

Below, in an interview with Bill Kenower, Doctorow speaks of having been surrounded by “working authors” when he was young, which gave him an appreciation for where he is today.

Even though I have quit my day job, and I earn quite a good living writing, I never take it for granted, and I never assume that all writers will do it or that it’s just hard work and talent. I understand that what I’ve got is the combination of, yes, hard work and talent, but also a lot of luck.
~Cory Doctorow

I know authors who have gotten sweet advances, who have become self-published successes, who have optioned their books as movies, or who write 3 books a year and consistently end up on the best seller list. And those I know who live solely off of their writing work extremely hard to do so (they’ve also become marketing machines, which truthfully is time not spent writing, but part of the game these days).

But mostly, I know authors who are teachers, librarians, microsoft workers, A/V workers, and accountants. And I know other artists who are dog-walkers, bartenders, and event producers. As long as they find time for their creativity, they’re not going crazy.

Some people, like my husband, get panicky at the thought of not having a regular paycheck every 2 weeks, while the idea of having a 9-to-5 job makes me short of breath. For the past 20 years I have primarily lived my life contract to contract and pieced together a living for myself. My finances have always fluctuated.

Yes, I still fantasize about that mega hit that will keep me afloat for years to come, but in the meantime, I’ve created my own “writer’s life.” It all depends upon your level of comfort and if others are financially dependent upon you. If you prefer the consistency of a 9-to-5 job, by all means, stay there while you carve out your writing life.

But I do encourage you to take risks. I believe if you reach toward a writing life, and allow space for it, if you’re willing to get creative with your lifestyle and career, you can do things that are related to your art and may fulfill you more than just another “job.”

My other two loves are teaching and performing, so I’ve been fortunate to be able to incorporate those into my career. Below is a list of all the things I’ve done to earn money to supplement my income since my first novel was published:

ESL tutor
creative writing tutor
story editor
script reviewer
studio teacher
creative writing instructor
school author visits
book club author visits
convention instructor / speaker

Other than ESL and studio teacher, everything else has been related to being an author, which makes me happy. If you assess your skills and passions, I’m sure you, too, could create a satisfying life that supplements your writing.

What have you done to create your author life? How have you gotten creative around your work?


Filed under behind the scenes, Reviews and Interviews, writing life

Weekend Workout: Prepping fo NaNo (or not)

I still haven’t decided whether I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, which begins, according to the ticking clock on their website, in 19 days, 12 hours, and 42 minutes, and 30 seconds (29… 28… 27…)

Regardless of whether you are going for NaNo 2012, starting a new project, or editing an old, I cannot stress enough the fabulousness of the Sequence and Beat Sheet. It is both inspirational and practical. I used to be much more of a “pantser” when it came to writing, but being organized beforehand has done wonders for my writing process AND saved heartache while editing.

I posted about this last year before NaNo and wanted to do so again for those about to begin. So, pardon the repeat post, although it has been edited and updated.


Basically, this is a form of outline for a story. Because of my screenwriting background, I tend to think of stories in sequences, beats, scenes, etc. Studying screenwriting is extremely helpful when learning about story structure.

After I’ve done copious amounts of prewriting (i.e. I basically know what the story is about and where I want to go), I write my first Sequence and Beat Sheet.

SEQUENCES are series of scenes that act as mini-movies. They have a set up and pay off and end in a change in status quo. Large “reversals” and “reveals” can happen at the end of a sequence to make the story go in a new direction (extremely important if you want readers to keep reading).

Writing out the sequences breaks a story down into manageable “chunks.”  In novels, those chunks usually turn into chapters, although you don’t really have to worry about that just yet.

Beats are the smaller steps inside each sequence that get you from the beginning to the end. For example, in one sequence these might be your beats:

-Anna gets a horse for her birthday.
-She starts riding lessons and has natural talent.
-Anna’s father loses his job.
-Parents can’t afford to keep the horse, or the lessons, Anna devastated.

See the change in status quo? Anna started happy and optimistic, praised for her natural talent, the world is her oyster. Then, boom, no more horse, no more lessons, no more rosy future, and new tensions in the home.

The next sequence might be like this:

-Anna convinces parents to wait one more week before selling the horse.
-Anna gets a job at the stables to support her horse-riding.
-Anna falls from a loft and breaks her leg.
-She learns her leg will never heal properly without surgery, which they can’t afford. Good-bye horse-riding.

In this sequence, Anna goes from a new optimistic and rosy-future, only to crash even farther than the first time (also important for storytelling, intensify the complications as the story enfolds). These changes from the character getting closer to her goal, and then the goal being yanked from sight, are called “reversals.” This is how we empathize with characters – we want them to get their goal, and something gets in their way.

Sometimes I know exactly what’s going to happen in a sequence and my beats are more detailed. Other times I get to the middle of a sequence and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I know something must happen, so I write something vague and add in some questions:

Anna makes an ally at the hospital (male/female? a love interest?)

For an even more detailed post about the Sequence Approach, CLICK HERE

art by Jose Manuel Merello, click for source


When writing out my sequences and beats, the first thing I think about is how the “status quo” is going to change at the end of the sequence, then I write out the beats it will take to get there. I also name my sequences (what is the mini story I am telling here?)

I use this Sequence and Beat sheet as an outline when writing the story, AND I rewrite it before I do my first big edit.

Here’s the second sequence of Intergalactic (the YA Sci Fi story I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year). This is the rewritten version, not my original.

SEQUENCE 2The Rethulan Gig
For this sequence, I wanted IdoLL to start nervous and impressed with the palatial quality of this venue, only for something major to go wrong so that the gig is a bust.

I came up with main beats for this sequence:

*IdoLL and the Intergalactics land on Rethula and meet the intimidating queen, who immediately dislikes IdoLL.
*IdoLL learns that she playing a private birthday party for the princess, and she’s not the main act.
*When they arrive at the venue, it is filled with children.
*An obnoxious mini-com call interrupts her tribute to Rethula.
*IdoLL storms out of the concert.

If I need more information, I sometimes go back and fill in a few details (bitty beats), to make sure that each scene has TENSION (as well as set up and foreshadowing). For instance, in the scene where she meets the queen – I added the following smaller beats:

*IdoLL meets the Rethulan Queen:
-IdoLL is uber-impressed with the palace and all the pomp and circumstance
-The Queen appears and has a creepy way of gliding on one foot.
-She mauls IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes to make sure IdoLL is “non infectious.”
-She throws IdoLL and her bandmates into a cell-slash-greenroom and won’t let them leave due to security reasons.

The character of IdoLL is a bit of a brat, so I wanted to create a sequence where we would sympathize with her, where she is devastated and we are devastated with her. There are bits of unexpected foreshadowing with the way the queen moves and her mauling IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes, which come to fruition later in the story when the princess stows away on IdoLL’s ship. Everything here is intentional and serves a purpose in the larger story.

handwritten Sequence and Beat Sheet

Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be. But when I’m writing the story,  I’m always SO glad I have my beat sheet to follow. Even if there are some blank spaces and vague ideas. I can always fill them in when I get to that sequence.

Let me know if you have any questions about any of this! And let me know if you try your own beat sheet and, if so, how it goes.


Filed under behind the scenes, Intergalactic, NaNoWriMo, The Sequence Approach, weekend workout, writing exercises

Weekend Workout: Not Supposed (a Real Live Post)

Don’t you dislike the words “supposed to?” If I always did what I was “supposed” to do, I certainly wouldn’t be having as much fun.

On the career front, I am “supposed” to be working on Book Three of Faerie Tales from the White Forest, which is being released Fall 2013. Thank Cheese* for small presses who can publish books on shorter notice.

It’s not that I don’t want to finish it or won’t or think I can’t, I just had this other story nipping at my heels like a pack or wererats and could no longer ignore it.

I’ve been totally immersed in the White Forest for the past 5 years, filing away other shiny ideas. Those ideas hung out with each other, made friends, and eventually came knocking. They got too rowdy to ignore.

I had wanted to write a YA sci fi novel. I had wanted to write something light and goofy and funny to counter all the bleak dystopian literature out there. And for months I had had the phrase “Lady Gaga in space” running over and over in my head. I said it out loud to people and they laughed.

I finally decided it was okay to set aside Book Three. That I wasn’t procrastinating, that I would get it done, but first, I had to get Intergalactic out of my system. When I finished I thought it was either the most brilliant story or the stupidest story I’d ever written. I didn’t care. It was silly. It was irreverent. I’d never had so much fun writing anything in my life. I laughed, I cried, I decided I had something and that I would polish it up and pitch it.

And I’m having a blast editing it, too.


Rick Jarow states that as soon as someone says to him, “This is going to sound stupid, but I want . . .” then he knows they’ve come across an inspiring or important idea.

Just for a while, set aside whatever it is you’re “supposed” to be doing, and do something stupid, silly, and irreverent just for fun. It doesn’t have to be writing-related. It could be that you’re supposed to be grocery shopping and you decide to go into the toy store and blow bubbles instead. It could be that you’re supposed to do the laundry and instead you make a collage of smiles cut out of magazines (I’ve actually done that one, it’s fun).

If you are writing, put aside your novel edits and write that wacky short story you keep thinking is dumb. You know, the one about the robot mermaid that get sent back in time and befriends a fishermen. Or write whatever is is that’s niggling in the background and don’t care about what it’s for or why or the result.

I find doing things like this reconnects me with my child-like excitement around imagination and creativity.

So go forth and have fun. And if you feel so inclined to share what you did, I’d love to hear about it.


*Once in a workshop some kids asked what we could say instead of “Thank God” for people who were not religions. A 10-year-old girl came up with “Thank Cheese.”



Filed under behind the scenes, Intergalactic, serious play, weekend workout, writing life

NaNo Workout: Coming in for a landing, aka Beat Sheet It!

Okay, so I meant to keep up with my NaNo AND blogging about NaNo, but that second part seems to have gotten away from me. As if doing NaNo isn’t ambitious enough on it’s own. And life has a tendency to place things in our way sometimes (like getting sick or having to go to WORK or make a birthday cake for a family member, sheesh.).

Hopefully, most people are “coming in for a landing” this week and have less than 10,000 words left (If not, this could still work. you can still do it. Just buy lots of snacks and frozen meals, hole yourself up somewhere, barricade yourself into an Internet free zone and leave a note for your family not to disturb you until Dec 1).

By the time the end is in sight (somewhere around 3/4 through), usually my story looks not much like my original outline/beat sheet. So, even through I’m still glancing at it for reference, it’s pretty useless.

When I’m looking down at the last bit of hiking trail, but the trailhead still seems pretty far away, I do what I call an “in story” beat sheet / outline. I find that this gives me the last bit of energy, insight, and momentum I need to finish the story. It makes the ending, and how to get there, more clear. And it makes it all seem possible.

I think it works best when you’re leading up to the climax of your story. That part can be a little intimidating b/c we so want it to bring all the elements together so perfectly.

All this means is taking some time to write out the beats until the end of your story INSIDE your manuscript. So simple, yet so effective.

So, go to the last thing that you wrote, and just type out the rest of your story in beats. Don’t worry about full sentences or punctuation or anything like that. It’s basically just a list, in chronological order, of the things that have to happen in the rest of your story. If inspired to do so, add a few notes to yourself (I usually put these in parentheses)

Then, as you write, just follow along, fill in the details, etc. It’s very inspiring to be able to see it all laid out in front of you. Yes, it takes a little bit of your NaNo writing time to do it, but I guarantee it will be worth it.

It might look a little something like this:

-The two warring planets come together and threaten everyone on the asteroid, pull it out of the neutral zone with a tractor beam (see! idoLL says, I knew someone had invented that)

-IdoLL can’t sit by and watch her friends get destroyed (she feels guilty, responsible for the whole thing)

-She contacts the Rethulans and says to take her, and her alone, instead – they agree.

-idoLL and the princess have a bonding moment in the shuttle (first time idoLL hasn’t been an asshat to her) while they’re floating towards the Rethulan ship

-idoLL punches “auto pilot” and they get stuck in a space stalemate

-idoLL’s parents show up! and negotiate with Rethulans, yay! they are very diplomatic (Queen has soft spot for AIP’s)

-idoLL takes princess to TREND to show her “something” (i.e. the purple planet)

-Jettison meets them there, she’s depressed because she now thinks she’s a fraud

etc. etc. etc.

Like I said, once you have this typed out into your manuscript, it makes getting to the end see doable. I always find it gives me that last motivational push to plow through to the end.

NaNo on!


Filed under behind the scenes, NaNoWriMo, novel adventures, weekend workout, writing exercises

Weekend Workout: Handy Dandy Fallback Exercise

Weekend Workouts are exercises that I use on a regular basis when writing and in the classroom when teaching.

*  *  *

Because of my screenwriting background, I always think of writing in terms of scenes and sequences. I think it’s a very useful way to write because it breaks things down into manageable chunks.

A “scene” is something that takes place at a certain place at a certain time. If you change locations or go forward or backward in time, it’s a new scene. If a character has an argument with her spouse in the kitchen, and then in the next paragraph she’s fuming in the car while she drives to work, it’s a new scene.

A sequence can contain several scenes and involves a larger change in status quo. i.e. at the beginning of the sequence, the spy enters the compound, at the end of the sequence, she has been captured and put into a cell. The end of a sequence might be the end of a chapter, or at least a pause and breath of some sort. (To learn about the “sequence” approach to writing, CLICK HERE).

If you’re ever up against an important “scene,” one you’ve been avoiding (That argument in the kitchen!), or just the next scene you want to work on, this handy exercise is a great way to start. It works for me every time, and being a competent procrastinator, it’s a super way to get me back into the story.

Set your timer for 5-7 minutes and begin with this line:

The scene that needs to be written is . . . (or is about)

(You can vary this, such as: The scene that comes next . . . The scene I want to write next is about . . . )

Write without stopping, editing, or judging – whatever comes to the page (even if you stray into other parts of the story – what needs to come out will come out).

When you are done, fun stuff, go to the CENTER of this piece of writing and pull that sentence out (it’s your exercise, if you aren’t excited about that line, chose the one above or below it). Set your timer for another 5-7 minutes and use THAT line as your next start line. Do this a third time if you can. Each time you do this, you’ll go a little deeper and discover a bit more.

After you’ve done this three times you’ll be itching to write that scene and it will come to you much easier. Plus, you’ll probably write the next scene, too.


Filed under behind the scenes, weekend workout, writing exercises

Weekend Workout: Make Your Characters Messy

One of my pet peeves as a reader (and movie goer) is characters that are too perfect. Who can relate to that? Humans are not perfect. We are messy. We carry a lot of baggage, have fears and secrets, do the right things for the wrong reason, the wrong things for the right reason. We sabotage ourselves, hurt the ones we love, and agonize over decisions.

It doesn’t matter whether our characters are 16 year old vampires, robots, or train conductors (or all three). Whether you’re writing steampunk, a contemporary romance, or a future fantasy it’s your characters who bring the work to life. When we care about the characters, when we sympathize with their bad decisions, we care about the story.

Good people can do “bad” things. And it’s when our good* hero does something wrong due to fear or ignorance that brings about their own undeserved misfortune that we empathize most of all. This leaves the opportunity for our heroes to redeem themselves, which is ultimately satisfying.

(*what I mean is “striving toward goodness” – that we see the good in them, even as they behave badly, or even as they don’t see the good in themselves)

In the Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, the protagonist Tally struggles with doing the right thing under tremendous pressure, educated in a society controlled by propaganda, and ends up betraying everyone she cares about through her own actions. It makes me angry with her, but I still sympathize, and am moved later when she redeems herself through a great sacrifice. Ultimately, a satisfying emotional roller coaster ride for the reader.

On a subtler note, but just as emotionally satisfying, one of the most heart-breaking scenes in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (the only movie I’ve ever liked better than the book, both written by Peter Hedges) is when Gilbert hits his younger, mentally disabled, brother. Throughout the whole story, Gilbert is constantly striving to be good and to support his dysfunctional family. He has a lot of pressure, for a teenager, to take care of them all. All the while we’re rooting for him to somehow escape the mess. He loves his brother, has taken care of him over the years, and threatens anyone who even jokes about doing him harm. But the tension builds up so beautifully in this story until Gilbert acts in a way he never thought himself capable, so that when he strikes his brother we actually feel sorry for Gilbert!

And btw, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing comedy or drama. Comedy is generally one undeserved misfortune after another!


Timed writing exercises, goodie! Set your timer for 7-10 minutes. Using any (or all) of the start lines below, allow yourself to develop your character’s messy bits through your writing. Just write as fast as you can. Don’t worry about complete sentences, run-on sentences, or proper grammar. (You know the drill! No stopping, no judging, no editing, no crossing out!)

My protagonist’s deepest fear is . . .

My protagonist’s fatal flaw is . . .

My protagonist’s fatal flaw stems from . . .

My protagonist doesn’t want his friends to know . . .

My protagonist feels guilty when . . .

My protagonist causes his/her own undeserved misfortune when . . .

In order to redeem himself/herself, my protagonist must . . .

Have a great weekend!


Filed under behind the scenes, random poop, weekend workout, writing exercises

Weekend Workout: Unsticking the Stuck

At some point during a rewrite I always get stuck. Some momentous *thing* must happen, some important mystery revealed, some great payoff has to come for the set up and it’s got to be just right. It’s got to be satisfying.

Having notes from the publisher and a deadline (woosh – there it goes!) does not mean the answers come any faster, but through my rewrite of The Ruins of Noe, I’ve developed a little trick and, so far, it’s worked every time. But it takes discipline.

In the past, getting nervous about my story meant procrastinating to the page. Sometimes I’d end in a stuck place and resist coming back to it the next day.

In the last few months, though, I have become much more disciplined with my writing routine. I write first thing in the morning (well, after a little coffee and personal time), and if I’m in a stuck place (and sometimes even when I’m not), I start with a pre-writing brain dump.

When I free-write like this, there’s no commitment to what comes out. If I don’t like the idea, it stays in my notebook. But exploring all the ideas is what leads to the answer.

I keep a big blank spiral notebook on my desk and at the point of stuckness, I turn to the next page and write the person, magical item, plot point, whatever it is I need to figure out at the top of the page and put a box around it. (Later, after I’ve finished my draft, I’ll go through this notebook and add any pertinent information into my World Book)

For example, this is the one I did today. Sometimes it takes two or three pages until I get there. Today, it came pretty quickly, which was extra super.

(NOTE 1: this won’t make much sense to anyone but me, but you’ll get the idea)

(NOTE 2: a little spoiler alert for anyone who doesn’t want to know anything about Book Two)

The Whisper Light

Narine’s energy was dispersed into the 5 whisper lights. The one that appears @ Mabbe’s is the one to open the purview in Noe. It now speaks to Brigitta – but what does it say? Somehow she realizes Mabbe is an Ancient b/c of it. Dos she have a vision instead of hear a voice? Does it have a message for Mabbe? Does Mabbe recognize Narine’s energy? Do they both exclaim “Narine!” (is Narine mentioned before? This could definitely startle Mabbe) Does Narine speak through the whisper light? What would she say? The Ancients have not abandonded you. Gather your energy my faerie kin. Narine has not abandoned you. Narine has come. Narine is back. “I’m back” Brigitta says, not realizing. “We’re back”? Strange voice. Mabbe trembles. “Narine?” She asks. “Impossible!” There was something else – something that belonged and didn’t belong.

You’ll notice I ask a lot of questions. That’s extremely helpful. I also use shorthand and run everything together, not even worrying about paragraphs. Whatever emerges, emerges as it does.

If you ever have trouble starting, a “What if…” list is a perfect place to begin.

Write until the answer comes. Don’t stop, don’t cross out, don’t edit.

Circle what works. Get back to your edit and go for it!


Pick a number of days you want to commit to writing IN A ROW. Let’s say 10. For 10 days in a row, when it’s writing time, start with a new blank notebook page, put the “scene” you are working on at the top of the page. (I always use the term “scene” for whatever is happening in a certain place during a certain timeframe)

Then write: In this scene… and simply free write (no stopping, no crossing out, no editing) about it, asking as many questions as  you need to get what you want to know. Throw in some “What if’s…” if you are unsure what’s about to happen. Keep writing until the AHA light comes on. DING!


Filed under behind the scenes, weekend workout, writing exercises, writing life