Tag: writing

Creating a Killer First Line

Creating a Killer First Line

The first line is the most examined line in your entire book. Make sure your’s is selling your story.

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

The secret to increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

A rare bonus post to announce I was interviewed on the Indie Tidbits Podcast by Dawn Husted. You can listen to me talk about opening lines and cliche’ beginnings.


Most of the information came straight from the post Engaging Readers from the First Sentence, so you can scan that and literally listen to me read off the page. (Because I don’t trust myself to go off script.)


Motivation-Reaction Unit

Motivation-Reaction Unit

Despite being decades old, Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction technique is still relevant. Every time something feels off in the prose, the improperly constructed MRU is usually to blame.

Worldbuilding: Not just for Fantasy

Worldbuilding: Not just for Fantasy

Using a fantasy-style worldbuilding worksheet will help you create an immersive setting no matter what your genre

Plot: the unbreakable chain

Plot: the unbreakable chain

Breaking your plot chain will turn your novel into a series of random events

There are plenty of great articles about how to construct a good plot. Rising/falling action. Three act structure, etc. With the amount of information available, novice writers can easily get overwhelmed. So take a moment and put your spreadsheets, charts, and bubble diagrams aside. The most common problem I see in plotting is breaking the plot chain.

What is a plot chain?

Harvey Chapman in his article How to Plot a Novel described plot as. “… a series of linked events. When Event A doesn’t cause Event B, you’re not creating a plot but a series of unrelated events.”

For a plot to work, it has to be a sequence of related events set up like dominos.

The first event must cause then next one, and if any of the events are removed, the story stops.

Let’s take the movie Inside Out. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only because it’s a great movie, but it’s a textbook example of a perfectly constructed plot.) In this movie, the conflict between Joy and Sadness begins right away and is the catalyst for the first plot point. Their fight over the console is the cause for the loss of the core memories, which is the cause for them leaving headquarters, which is the cause their journey back. Every event in this chain is necessary for them to finally return to headquarters.

But what about subplots?

A subplot must relate to the main plot, i.e. it must either spin out from the main plot or (better) begin as a parallel and then tie in. For example, in Inside Out, the character Bing Bong begins as a subplot. His interaction with Sadness isn’t part of the main action. It exists to teach Joy an important lesson, becoming a part of her character arc. If that had been the end of Bing Bong’s story, it would have been ok, but Bing Bong’s subplot eventually ties into the main action at the movie’s climax, making the subplot critical to the main structure and enriching the story.

If a subplot does not relate to the main plot, it doesn’t belong in the story.

It’s fine to have twin plotlines, but they must interplay with each other. A strong character arc (like Joy’s) can also work like a separate plot. Her transformation in the story also follows a chain of causation. What makes it so effective is how her transformation alters the action plot, and how the action affects her character arc. These work as twin plots, but the interplay between them is what makes them effective. If Joy’s transformation didn’t affect her ability to solve her external problem, the story wouldn’t work.

How do I know if I have broken my chain?

The easiest way is to make a list

Plotters/architects should already have one as an outline, but pansters/discovery writers will need to do this step as part of their editing process. Once you have an outline/list, look for cause and effect. In order for the chain to continue the effect must be the cause for the next event.

Joy and Sadness disagree about what’s best for Riley

Effect/new cause
They fight over the console

Effect/new cause
They create a sad core memory

Effect/new cause
Joy tries to stop the new core memory from taking effect

Effect/new cause
Sadness tries to stop her.

Effect/new cause
The fight accidently sends Joy, Sadness, and all the core memories to long-term storage

Notice how the effect of the previous event is the cause for the next one. There is a clear chain of causation that leads us from the beginning of the movie to the inciting incident. The other parts of the story: the missing moving van, broccoli pizza, etc. all support the main action by giving context and explaining the reason for the climax of the first act: the formation of a sad core memory. Without the supporting action, we wouldn’t know why Reily is having a hard time in her new environment. These small subplots tie into the main plot. The first act works so well because the main plot chain is never broken.

Once you have your plot chain mapped out, you will easily see common plot problems:

  1. Plot holes
  2. Places where the action slows
  3. Subplots that don’t go anywhere
  4. Starting in the wrong place.

Once you have streamlined your plot, then you can go back and make sure the action continually rises, has strong pacing, and the plot points fall in the correct positions. (Now you can get your spreadsheets, charts, and markers back out.)

Don’t let a break in the action be the reason a reader puts your book down. Making sure you keep your plot chain intact will keep your reader engaged through your entire story. A good strong plot chain will keep a reader turning the pages. It will keep your characters focused on their goals and make them more compelling to your reader.

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Writing mistakes ruining your prose

Writing mistakes ruining your prose

No matter how great your plot is, bad prose will sink it fast.

Engaging readers from the First Sentence part 2

Engaging readers from the First Sentence part 2

There are plenty of ways to ruin your first chapter. Avoiding these common problems will get your opening pages one step closer to that coveted request

Pitch Contests: why you should get picky

Pitch Contests: why you should get picky

Is an online pitch contest really worth your time?

Online pitch contests are huge right now. They generate a flurry of activity and excitement. Nothing is more gratifying to an aspiring novelist than the phone dinging with an “I want you,” at regular intervals. And they’re easy to enter. Most of them follow a similar format: 140 character pitch or a 35-word pitch/ first 250 for a blog, so once you have the basics you can just recycle the same material over and over for every contest. And there are so many of them. I counted six in January alone.


Because they are popular. Probably too popular. Anyone who was in last June’s #SFFpit or anything hosted by Brenda Drake will know these contests can get more chaotic than the trading floor of the NYSE. The chaos has gotten so bad that it has inspired a huge number of contests to change the rules. While has helped tame the insanity, it doesn’t solve the real issue: is Twitter really the best place to pitch your book?

While there are many people who do find their perfect match, all these pitch contests take up your precious writing time. For working writers like me getting my novel published is a dream, but ultimately, one that isn’t paying the bills. Every minute I spend glued to my Twitter feed is a minute I’m not writing articles, and not getting paid. Time is your most precious commodity. If you are going to spend it with pitch contests make sure you get something from it.

Before you enter a contest make sure you actually want to win.

If you hate monster truck rallies, you wouldn’t enter a contest to win tickets. The same goes for pitch contests. If your goal is to sign with an agent, don’t enter a publisher-only contest. Likewise, if you really want the flexibility of working with a small publisher, then agent contests will not help you get to your goal.

How do I decide whether to enter a pitch contest? Research

Every contest host does a great job of posting who will be watching the feeds. Check them out before you pitch. No matter how awesome your cozy mystery is, it won’t do well at a romance pitch contest, and you will annoy the editors who will know you didn’t do your research. Even if it’s the right genre for your novel, read through the list and make sure there are publishers/agents who you want to work with. I also recommend that you go back through your query list. If every agent/editor in the contest has already sent you a rejection, then sit this one out as well. This person has already given your MS their undivided attention, and it was not a good fit before. Unless you have made substantial changes (a new opening, moved the inciting incident, changed the voice, something more than a simple line edit) then it’s likely the project will get another rejection. Your time is precious.

When should I enter a pitch contest?

A checklist:

1.     My MS is finished. (Really. Although most requests from pitch contests are a query and a partial, there are some who want the full. You do not want to be scrambling at the last minute or lose an opportunity because your last chapter isn’t there yet.)

2.     I know what my publishing goal is: I want an agent, or I want to do small presses.

3.     This contest represents my genre.

4.     This contest matches my publishing goal: agent/direct to publisher

5.     I want to work with the agents/publishers in this list

6.     The agents/publishers have not seen/rejected my query.

What about blog contests with feedback rounds?

These are gold mines. Of all the contests happening online, these are the best for an aspiring author. This is less like a pitch contest and more like a mentoring contest. In these contests, the real prize is an editorial partner who will work with you to shine up your MS and get your submission materials in order. Many of these have pre-rounds where you can publish your materials on blogs and get instant feedback, even before you submit to the contest. I recommend entering these if your genre is allowed in the contest, especially at the beginning of your submission process. It won’t do you much good if you’ve already gotten rejections from everyone on your list.

Contest organizers want to see you get published

The online writing community is filled with generous, supportive people. Nearly everyone I have met wants to help other writers achieve their goals. Most of the editors/slush readers in these contests are volunteers. Be respectful of their time, and think about what you are trying to accomplish before you fling your next project into the pitch pile.

Want more about pitching?

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Plot Convenience

Plot Convenience

Who’s in charge of your character’s life? It might not be who you think.