Monday: Give a Child a Treat Today--and enter to win a chapter critique!

Naomi on her first hayride.
Your doorbell might be ringing today. And if you've planned ahead, you may have a big bowl of candy to give away to little monsters and princesses. But I'd like to tell you about a little boy who isn't dressing up today.

His name is Jacob. He lives in an orphanage in the Philippines. He's the oldest one there. He has endured the heartache of watching family after family come to adopt children.

But never him.

Two years ago, his best friend Naomi enjoyed that wonderful experience. A family of five flew from Colorado to the orphanage, and embraced their daughter for the first time becoming a family of six.

Naomi made sure to introduce Jacob to her new family. And this is what Jacob said to them, "I love America. Take me with you."

Naomi picking her pumpkin. She brings a smile to everyone.
After years of paperwork, waiting, paying fees, and waiting some more, the Worthy's finally reached their goal of bringing Naomi home. She fits their family perfectly. But each of them couldn't stop thinking about Jacob, waiting in the orphanage. Lonelier than ever.

So they've decided to bring him home, too. No more being the oldest. No more separation from his best friend. No more having the label 'orphan'.

But here's the problem. The Worthey's are tapped out after the huge financial commitment of adopting Naomi. They've been matched with Jacob (a miracle in itself, since the government could have 'picked' another child for them). All they need is $12,000.

So, to give them a boost, I'm hosting a giveaway. I'm offering a manuscript critique of 4000 words. It can be chapters, a query, synopsis, whatever you'd like feedback on.

Here's how to enter. Head to the Worthy's blog, Empty the Orphanage, and click the 'Chip-in' icon where you can make a secure donation. Then leave a comment here, and I'll add your name to the hat (no need to tell me how much you donated--just say "I donated"). Any donation of $10 or more makes you eligible. And since I'll be doing the critique via email, your location doesn't matter. The winner will be selected by on Friday morning.

Would you give Jacob a treat today? Thank you so much!

Agent Friday: Peter Cox

Picture by John Buckman
Today we have a UK-based literary agent. Peter Cox is the founder of Redhammer LLC. He is also the published author of twenty books, and a former advertising executive.

Cox has written numerous articles on publishing, and writes a column for the trade publication, The Bookseller. Here are links to some of his articles:

In the new world of publishing, some agents are getting into the business of becoming publishers themselves. Cox weighs in on why your agent should not be your publisher. And he shares why he encourages other publishing professionals not to become literary agents. He also gives his own analysis of where the publishing industry might be heading.

On marketing: Cox lists ways that bookstores can increase sales, and the difficulties that publicists face. He shows how marketers who build a tribe have the most success.

Redhammer supports several sites for writers. One is Litopia, billed as the internet's oldest community for writers. It's free to join.

The other site is Radio Litopia, a site featuring free podcasts on a variety of topics for writers. You'll find all kinds of interesting topics to listen to on your computer, or to download to listen later.

Check out more Agent Friday posts here.

NaNoWriMo Countdown: Check out this free workbook

There are only a few days left to finish planning for your NaNoWriMo novel. You may be feeling overwhelmed at the amount of details you need to get together to start your story. I have a couple of free resources that may help you get a grip on your manuscript idea.

NaNoWriMo also hosts the Young Writers Program, where kids from elementary grades through high school are encouraged to set goals and write during the month of November. They've put together several free ebooks for kids of different ages. Though you're not likely a teenager, the high school version of the workbook is an excellent resource for writers.

You'll find helpful exercises and charts to walk you through characterization, plot, setting, and every issue you might encounter. Check out the 91-page book (remember, it's free) to see if it might help you pull your thoughts together.

There's another resource you might want to look at. Author Lazette Gifford has been doing NaNoWriMo since 2001, and she finishes every year--sometimes more than doubling the expected wordcount. She has written an ebook of her own, NaNo for the New and the Insane, and she gives it away on her website.

In Gifford's 131-page book, she shares how to prepare, how to break down the project into manageable goals, and all kinds of hints and tips from her many years of writing in November.

What resources are you using to get ready?

Book Review: The First 50 Pages, by Jeff Gerke (plus free webinar)

 The title of Jeff Gerke's book caught my eye. I'm working on polishing my manuscript's first 50 pages to send to interested agents, and I'm also working on writing the first few chapters of my next book for a contest submission. My goal is to grab those agents and contest judges with my first pages. Gerke's new book, The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors and Readers, and Set Your Novel Up For Success is exactly what I need.

Gerke is a novelist and publisher, and has worked as an acquisition editor in the past. He reads from the slush pile all the time, and has a great sense of which manuscripts will make it and which will not. One of his recent books on the craft of writing, Plot vs. Character is another you may want to pick up.

Though The First 50 Pages is being released in November, Jeff Gerke will host a free webinar with Writer's Digest at noon EDT on Friday, Nov. 4, entitled "Your Novel's First 50 Pages: Why They Count, What They Do, and How They Can Wow Agents, Editors, and Readers." Click the link to sign up. After the webinar, you can decide if you're ready for the book.

Things I like about The First 50 Pages:

* The foreword is written by amazing writing teacher James Scott Bell.

* Gerke's introduction is so motivating and encouraging, I may make myself read it every month. If you'd like to check it out, you can read sample pages on Amazon or Scribd. You won't be disappointed.

* The first part of the book explains the submission process, and helps authors understand what editors and agents think and want and what makes them keep reading. Gerke also has a great perspective on the current shifts in publishing, and why this is a great time to be a struggling author. 

*  Ten separate chapters detail the key things your manuscript must contain in order to keep the attention of publishing professionals. From introducing your main character (and his normal world), to starting the inner journey, Gerke shares exactly what to do and how to do it.

* There's also a chapter devoted to how writers can keep the momentum going and engage agents and editors so they'll read past page fifty. 

If you're interested in checking out more, Gerke has a First 50 Pages Checklist to help writers diagnose problems with their manuscript. And Writers Digest has posted an excerpt where Gerke explains how to identify and fix stilted dialogue.

How do you make your first pages the best they can be? Do you use a critique group? A hired editor? Read books or blogs? And don't forget to sign up for Gerke's free seminar! I just did.

Genre Cliches to Avoid

The other day I came across a list of science fiction cliches. The extensive list, which brought to mind several novels I've read, made me wonder about cliches in other genres. Thanks to the wonders of search engines, I came up with sites for several popular genres. Check them out to make sure your plots are fresh, and not like every other manuscript out there.

Science Fiction Cliches
The list that started this post, is from Dragon Writing Prompts. The sci-fi list is comprehensive. You  might want to click on the label 'lists' for more like this.

Fantasy Cliches
Also from Dragon Writing Prompts is a list of fantasy cliches in four different categories. Also, Obsidian Bookshelf has another list of most-hated fantasy cliches.

Mystery Cliches
Confessions of a Starving Mystery Writer lists detective cliches to avoid, along with links to two other lists. And the Answer Bank solicited reader's opinions on murder mystery cliches.

Romance Cliches
Writing World has a fully-explained list of romance cliches to stay away from--or retool into something unique. The Queen of Swords posted the 'semi-grand list of overused romance cliches'. And though it focuses on movies, the Mutant Reviewers site lists some hilarious romantic movie cliches, like the 'l'-shaped blanket.

Horror Cliches
Read about Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often on Strange Horizons. Horror Factor offers 10 Cliches Horror Writers Should Try to Avoid.

Thriller/Crime Fiction Cliches
William Miekle shares ten cliches to avoid in crime fiction. And over at Petrona, you'll find another list with links to some more sites.

Literary Cliches
Are there cliches in literary fiction? Apparently so. Sean Lovelace describes what he thinks they are, and Mumsnet has an interesting thread where readers interact about their least favorite literary cliches.

Paranormal/Urban Fantasy Cliches
Writing Hood explains some of the most common urban fantasy cliches, while Geek Speak Magazine lists the top 13 paranormal cliches (with examples from current books).

Young Adult Cliches
Skerricks has a top-twenty-five countdown. I guarantee you'll find something you're seen before.

Have you found any cliches that resemble your plot? Maybe these lists have made you aware of different ones. If you're interested in other kinds of cliches, check out the post here.

The Downside of the Kindle

For those of you with e-readers, I'm wondering if you have the same "problem" I do--the temptation to read instead of write. Like many others, having an e-reader is making me read more.

The convenience of having hundreds of books in my purse allows me to snatch moments to read during the day when I might have wasted my time. Waiting rooms, during car repairs and kids' music lessons--I can spend this time reading.

I have access to more books than I normally would. I've bought many, downloaded some for free, and also read electronic galleys for review. It seems I'll never run out of books to read.

And therein lies the problem. Some of my reading is taking the place of moments when I used to write. Yes, I could argue that reading broadly is helping me as a writer, but if I'm really honest, there are days when I'd rather read than write. It's easier. And I can convince myself I'm accomplishing something.

If I ever get the chance to get away to a lonely cabin to write. I'd better not bring my Kindle. How about you? How do you resist the temptation to read (or something else) instead of write? (by the way, I was good this weekend. I got down several thousand new words.)

Free Resources to Plot Your Novel

If you're plotting for NaNoWriMo, you'll be excited about today's free resource. I still adore Rubik's Cube Plotting, and Holly Lisle's Free Plot Outline Mini-Course, but Martha Alderson, who goes by the name of The Plot Whisperer, is offering her valuable whispers. For free.

Alderson, who consults with novelists, memoir writers, and screenplay writers, is posting her advice, bit by bit on YouTube. She has her own YouTube channel, which to date contains twenty-seven short videos giving writers the keys to perfect plotting. Over the weekend, as I nursed a cold, I watched all the videos, taking copious notes as I did. And while I've learned a lot about plotting in the past several years, the Plot Whisperer taught me even more.

One of the things I liked about Alderson's tips are how she shares when to employ your plot points, not just the fact that you need them. You've probably heard about planning your first turning point. But do you know exactly where to place it within the pages of your manuscript? Likewise the crisis and the climax (which, in case you didn't know, are two separate events that Alderson explains clearly).

Alderson highlights her points by sharing how the techniques have been used in books of all kinds--from classic literature, to modern novels, to picture books. Picture books have a turning point? The answer is yes. In the last few days I've tested her advice, flipping through novels to see at what pages they place specific plot points. And you know what? Alderson knows what she's talking about.

Alderson has written a book with Writers Digest, titled The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. But she also shares even more information on her website, Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and she blogs frequently with more plotting tips. You may also want to sign up for her free newsletter or follow her additional tips on Twitter. It's no wonder her site has earned a spot in Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers two years running.

After watching Alderson's plot videos, I've been able to tighten my plot in some areas it was lacking, and I feel more confident about the chapters I've written. Try listening to Alderson's whispers--they could make a big difference for you.

What helps you most in your plotting?

Guest Post~Character Names: Have You Heard This One? by Kenda Turner

Today we have a fantastic guest post from Kenda Turner. If you haven't visited her blog, Words and Such, don't wait. This article will come in handy if you're in the middle of naming your NaNoWriMo characters. Kenda includes lots of resources at the end!
Character Names: Have You Heard This One? by Kenda Turner 
"Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry."
                                                                                                                                 --Bill Cosby

I recently came across the following statement in a book on novel writing. I'd never heard this "rule" before. Have you? 

"Choose names with long vowel sounds for principal characters, shorter for lesser."

No discussion of why followed. And since I'd never heard this before (and with apologies to the author for not accepting the idea at face value), I decided to put the theory to the test by conducting an informal poll on main character names. I took the names from books I have on my shelf, particularly classics and Newbery award winning authors since they've stood the test of time. Here's my list:

                         Long                                                                            Short
Jo, Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)                                             Scarlett, Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
Mary, The Secret Garden (Frances H. Burnett)                    Meg, A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
Andi, Revolution (Jennifer Donelly)                                           Anne, Anne of Green Gables (Luci Maud Montgomery)   
Tilly, The River Between Us (Richard Peck)                        Miranda, When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)
Zola, The Unfinished Angel (Sharon Creech)                       Jess, Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson)
Abilene, Moon Over Manifest (Clare Vanderpool)             Mibs, Savvy (Ingrid Law)
Jethro, Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt)                                    Kit, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Spears)

As you can see, the results ended in a tie.

After this, I went back and checked the last names on the short-vowel list, and found that four of  the seven carried long-vowel sounds, three short. Not quite a tie there, but close.

So I asked myself, do vowel sounds carry that much weight? Or are there other considerations for choosing character names?

Actually there are. One of the best ways is get to know the characters--their personalities, quirks, and backgrounds. This way, the "ear" will be more open to the name that fits. Not only that, but names should be chosen with an ear to historical and cultural accuracy. Also, ideas for names can come from a variety of sources, like baby name books, lists of names popular to an era, movie and tv credits, business directories, old yearbooks, phone books--sometimes even cemeteries. For some writers, the name's meaning is important, for others it is simply a matter of what "feels" right. Yes, it boils down to how a name sounds, but not only because of long or short vowels.

And, unlike Bill Cosby's reason for choosing a child's name ending in a vowel, if we utilize other resources, we'll have no reason to yell. The name will carry itself.

At least that's what I think. What do you think?

p.s. for some good guidelines (not rules!) to aid in choosing character names, you might want to check out these sources:
How To Give Your Character the Perfect Name, Writer's Digest
Name That Character, Top Ten Tips, The Script Lab
Tips for Writers on Naming Fictional Characters, Baby Names
Eight Things to Keep in Mind When Naming Characters, Jody Hedlund
Name That Character, Writing World

*photo courtesy of
is a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother for whom the writing bug took hold early on and won't shake loose. She likes books (of course), walks in all seasons, photography, local history. She would like to see her children's books published. She'd also like to learn Spanish and Portuguese since her grandkids are being raised in bilingual homes--but that might be a greater challenge than getting published.

How do you come up with character names? Any more resources we should know about?

Guest Post: Characters in Conflict, by Randy Ingermanson

This article by writing teacher Randy 
Ingermanson may very well revolutionize 
the plot of your novel. Read all the way 
through to discover how to make your 
fiction as gripping as a NYT bestseller.

Creating: Nothing is More Important Than...

Long ago when I began learning to write, I 
picked up this handy definition of fiction:

Fiction is "characters in conflict."

That's a good rule of thumb, and yet it isn't 
the whole truth, nor is it always strictly true. 
Let me give you a couple of counterexamples:

Imagine a novel about two thugs, each trying to 
kill the other. These thugs are mindless brutes. 
Neither one much cares about anything. Neither 
one even cares whether he himself lives or dies.

Therefore, neither does the author. Therefore, neither does the reader. The entire story is 
nothing but pointless violence.

Are there "characters in conflict" in this story? Yes.

Is this fiction? No.

This is not the sort of story anyone would want to read. Having "characters in conflict" 
is not enough.

Imagine a second novel about a lone character, the last survivor of an ill-fated run 
to the South Pole in 1901. Our hero's goal is to make it home alive, bringing important 
scientific data gathered along the way. But lugging those rocks slows him down and 
makes it far more difficult to survive.

There's only one character in this story, so we don't exactly have "characters (plural) 
in conflict."

But is this fiction? Yes, and it could make a gripping tale. (It would be similar in spirit 
to the real-life Scott expedition of 1911, which had no survivors.)

Clearly, "characters in conflict" is not even necessary.

So the old definition of fiction as "characters in conflict" seems to need a little revision.

What is fiction, really?

I've been thinking about this lately and my conclusion is that a better definition of 
fiction is "values in conflict."

I define a "value" as a "core truth" for a character, which can be phrased in this form:

"Nothing is more important than ________."

A "value" is any word or phrase your character would use to fill in the blank. Most 
characters will have several values. Good characters will have several conflicting values.

In the first counterexample I gave above, neither of the thugs have any values that 
your reader can identify with. Most characters in most novels could at least say, "Nothing 
is more important than survival." But the two thugs in question lack even that basic value.

No values. No story. It's that simple.

In the second counterexample, our hero is all alone in his world, but he has two powerful 

* "Nothing is nore important than survival."

* "Nothing is more important than scientific discovery."

These values are at odds with each other. The character can dump his load of rocks and 
improve his chances of getting home alive. Or he can risk his life for the sake of science. 
When the going gets rough, which will he choose?

Fiction is about making hard choices between conflicting values.

We should note that one particular value, "Nothing is more important than survival," 
is practically universal. Virtually all characters in fiction have this value. Virtually 
all readers have it too.

Deep fiction comes when a character has one or more values that rival the survival instinct.

At a recent conference, I analyzed THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, to 
see what made it work. I found that the strength of conflict between the values of the 
main characters drove the novel.

Here's a quick summary of the story:

A 16-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take her sister's place in an arena 
where 24 teens will battle each other to the death. One of the other competitors, Peeta 
Mellark, has been secretly in love with Katniss since they were five years old.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a deep and powerful story. The reason is very simple. Each 
of the two main characters has three values that are in conflict.

Let's look at Katniss's central values:

* "Nothing is more important than survival."

* "Nothing is more important than my sister."

* "Nothing is more important than avoiding love, because the more people you love, 
the more you have to lose."

Each of these values is in conflict with the other two. Katniss decides early in the story 
that she values her sister more than her own survival.

The ongoing conflict in the story comes as she feels a growing attraction to Peeta. Can
she dare to return his love, when she knows with certainty that they can't both survive 
the arena?

Likewise, Peeta has three central values:

* "Nothing is more important than survival."

* "Nothing is more important than protecting Katniss."

* "Nothing is more important than being true to who you are."

For Peeta, these values are in massive conflict.

Like Katniss, he decides early in the story that his survival is the least important of his 
three main values. He goes into the arena planning to sacrifice himself to keep Katniss alive.

The problem for Peeta is that he's a genuinely good, decent, and caring person. In the 
arena, it won't be enough for him to fight merely to protect Katniss. Defense alone won't 
save her. If Katniss is to live, the other 22 must die.

To save the girl he loves, Peeta is going to have to kill. He must steel himself to be ruthless. 
To be somebody he is not. To violate his identity and therefore to trample one of his primary 
values. Can he do that?

There's a reason THE HUNGER GAMES works so well with readers. The novel is packed 
full of value-conflicts. Hard choices. Moral dilemmas.

If you've read THE HUNGER GAMES, think about some of the other principal characters:

Katniss and Peeta have a coach, a drunkard named Haymitch. What are Haymitch's values 
and how are they in conflict?

Katniss is lucky to get an amazing stylist who deeply cares about her, Cinna. What are 
Cinna's conflicting values?

There's a massive brute named Cato in the Games who is obviously the guy to beat. 
Does Cato have values? Can you guess what they must be? How do they create conflict 
for him -- and for Katniss and Peeta?

Values are critical to great fiction because values determine what your characters do. 
Values make your characters' actions believable. Conflicting values make your characters' 
actions unpredictable.

So how about that novel you're working on? Is it ripping your heart out because 
each one of the central characters has to make an impossible choice between two values?

If so, what are those values?

If not, then it might be time to change your game plan. Look into your characters.
Push them against the wall and make them fill in the sentence, "Nothing is more 
important than _________."

Take what they tell you and run with it.

For the novelist, nothing is more important than values in conflict.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 28,000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing
and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Did you just have a light-bulb moment? I sure did. My NaNoWriMo novel 
will be far stronger having applied Randy's ideas. How about you?

Book Review: The Tehran Initiative, by Joel C. Rosenberg

Called by some a 'modern-day Nostradamus', Joel C. Rosenberg's latest novel, The Tehran Initiative, has been making headlines even before its release. The reason? The author's almost uncanny ability to write about events that become headlines.

Recent events involving Iran, like the country's growing ability to produce nuclear weapons, and seeming involvement in assassination attempts are some of the issues Rosenberg addresses in The Tehran Initiative. What intrigues the media outlets is that he wrote the novel many months ago.

Interested? Here's the jacket copy:
The world is on the brink of disaster and the clock is ticking. Iran has just conducted its first atomic weapons test. Millions of Muslims around the world are convinced their messiah—known as “the Twelfth Imam”—has just arrived on earth. Israeli leaders fear Tehran, under the Twelfth Imam’s spell, will soon launch a nuclear attack that could bring about a second holocaust and the annihilation of Israel. The White House fears Jerusalem will strike first, launching a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities that could cause the entire Middle East to go up in flames, oil prices to skyrocket, and the global economy to collapse. With the stakes high and few viable options left, the president of the United States orders CIA operative David Shirazi and his team to track down and sabotage Iran’s nuclear warheads before Iran or Israel can launch a devastating first strike. But will they be too late?

My review:
Rosenberg's seventh novel, like the previous ones, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and above all believable. It's easy to tell he's knowledgeable about the topics, the cultures, and the places, as the reader travels the world with the main character.

David Shirazi is an American CIA operative of Iranian descent. His looks and language allow him to penetrate the Iranian infrastructure and become friends with prominent Iranians, the most important of which is an Iranian physicist, a secret Christian. Shirazi must get the physicist out of Iran and destroy the nuclear weapons being built.

If you like gripping novels with espionage, world travel, and politics, this is the one for you.

For more on Joel C. Rosenberg, check out his website and his blog. The publisher's page also has videos, interviews, excerpts and other resources.

Note: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes.

Get 'em while they're hot: Fresh #NaNoWriMo Resources

The fever is building. NaNoWriMo is everywhere. Maybe you're ready. Maybe you've signed up, but your plot is in tatters. Maybe you're just now thinking about jumping on the train.

I planned to collect helpful NaNoWriMo resources to post today, but someone has beaten me to it! So I invite you to check out Wrimos FTW!, where writer Lyn Midnight and friends keep writers rolling in 'Wrimo resources.

The blog began recently, and one of the features I like best is the weekly roundup of NaNoWriMo resources around the web.

The first collection alerted me to the wonderful StoryFix NaNoWriMo workshop that's going on right now.

The second collection mentions some free ebooks and cheat sheets, and even lists one of my posts! (thanks, Lyn!)

One post reveals the mindset of a writer who has never tackled a novel before.

If you're wondering what you can do now to warm up for NaNoWriMo, this post is a good one.

And what if you're a NaNo Rebel? (meaning you're working on manuscript you've already started) That's ok, and here's why.

I spent the weekend working on the plot for my NaNoWriMo story. It really helped to spend some time brainstorming with my critique group. Many minds make better plots. 

How about you? What are you doing to prepare for November 1st?

Agent Friday: Andrew Zack

Andrew Zack is the president and founder of The Zack Company, Inc. Zack has been a literary agent since 1993, and has an extensive background in publishing and bookstore management. He is primarily looking for non-fiction (see his extensive list of topics), but also takes fiction.

Zack has been blogging for several years at All Thats New(s) From A to Z. He is definitely interested in author rights, and is a former chairperson of the Association of Author Representatives Royalty Committee, working to keep things fair for authors.

Here's a sampling of his posts:

On queries: Zack provides links to several excellent articles on effective query letters.

On ebooks: Zack's Huffington Post article discusses the 'beginning of the end' of traditional books.

On formatting: How to format your electronic submission so agents and editors can read it easily on their ereaders.

On requests: Believe it or not, some authors who have gotten requests from agents don't actually send the chapters. Zack talks about why this happens.

On self-publishing: An interesting analysis of the quality of indie books. See if you agree with Zack.

On royalties: Zack details ebook royalty rates, and what you need to know.

If you queried an agent and he requested chapters, would you be prepared to hit 'send' right away? Why or why not?

Become a Better Writer

I know that to become a better writer, I have to write. So that's what I'm going to do today. I'm deep in revisions and plotting, and I'm determined to spend as much time as I can getting them done.

But I don't want to leave you hanging. My daughter (a Creative Writing major) recently sent me this link to 25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer. It offers advice on motivation, routine, organization, discipline, and fear, among many others. All the quotes are short, so it's a great way to jumpstart your day!

Do you have days where you clear the calendar just to write? How do you manage it?

#Revision and #Writing Hand in Hand

I'm feeling schizophrenic these days. In the writing sense. I'm revising one novel, and plotting another (for NaNoWriMo). But I've found a kind of synergy in this double-minded activity.

When I work on finding plot holes in my revision, it reminds me to keep that from happening in my new novel.

When I deepen character motivations in my revision, I'm conscious of working on the backstories of my emerging characters.

When I brainstorm plot points in my new story, I check to see if I did that effectively with my written novel.

When I plan research for NaNoWriMo, it forces me to check if I've done enough research for my previous novel to sound coherent.

Basically, what I do with one project, I try to do with the other. And I'm finding that both are becoming stronger as a result.

At the moment, I'm using three books in my revision and planning.

Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon is one of my favorites, and I'm finding her advice on revision just as effective in planning a new project as it is in reviewing a completed one. One of my favorite sections is her advice on creating backstory wounds for characters, and her "riff writing" exercises.

Blockbuster Plots, by Martha Alderson is a crash course in getting a new plot laid out that moves the story along. But I also like to consult it after the story is written, to make sure I didn't get off track in my enthusiasm.

Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson contains comprehensive advice. His Snowflake Method of planning a novel can't be beat. And he's funny, too.

So I'm plugging away with my brain stuck in two different stories. Are you single minded or double minded? Would it work for you?

Rubik's Cube Plotting in 9 Easy Steps (for #NaNoWriMo participants)

I repost this technique every year for those of us getting ready for NaNoWriMo. This is one of the most popular posts on the blog. It's a quick way to see the structure of your novel idea, and pinpoint the areas you might need to brainstorm further. Give it a try. I'd love to hear if it works for you.

So, perhaps you've decided to participate in Nanowrimo. Or you've just been struck with a new story idea, and you'd like to see if it has what it takes to become a novel. Maybe you've got a story partly or completely written, and you wonder if you've left out something important.

I've got the perfect thing.

This plotting method has been discussed widely over at Verla Kay's Message Board. If you have not been there, you absolutely need to check it out. It is not clear who came up with it first.

Sometimes it's called the 9 Steps for Plotting Fiction, or the Plotting Matrix. Since this plotting method starts with nine squares, and since this year is the 30th birthday of the Rubik's Cube, I'll just call it Rubik's Cube Plotting.

To start this process, take a sheet of paper and draw nine boxes, like one side of a Rubik's Cube. Number the boxes starting at the top left (1,2,3). The second row will be 4,5,6 (left to right), and the bottom row will be 7,8,9. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for a link to a great printable sheet with all the info)

The following descriptions of the contents of each box comes from this page on Verla Kay's site.

1 Triggering event

First thing's first. What happens? Why have you bothered to write a book, and more importantly, why should a reader invest time flipping through its pages. Your triggering event is the answer to those
questions, so make it a good one. Also, don't make the reader wait very long for it. First page, first paragraph, first sentence. These are good spots for a triggering event.

2 Characterization

Generally, books succeed or fail on the strength of their characters more so than on the strength of their plots. The second box is where you explore what makes your protagonist tick. No, this isn't an excuse for drawn out exposition, history, or back story. If your triggering event is captivating, the reader will discover enough about the protagonist in Box Two simply by reading how he or she reacts to the event.

3 First major turning point

By now, your plot is picking up steam, and because of Box Two, the reader is invested in the ride. Time to throw a curve ball. This turning point can be either a positive event for your protagonist, or a negative one, but it should lay the groundwork for the negative turning point in the sixth square. There is a reason these boxes are touching one another; they interrelate. For example, Box Three may introduce the motivation of the antagonist, which then justifies the events in the sixth square.

4 Exposition

You've earned some time to fill the reader in on important data. Since this box touches the first square, here's where you shed some light on that triggering event. Since it also touches Box Seven, you get to foreshadow your protagonist's darkest hour. Box Four often reveals a relationship, character flaw, or personal history that contributes to the dark times in ahead.

5 Connect the dots

Here is where many plots fall apart. Box Five represents the trickiest part of fiction and since Box Five is the center of the book it must connect to all the squares around it. Kind of like the nucleus at the center of a bomb, Box Five should tick systematically upon elements introduced in Box Two and Four. And like the calm before the storm, the fifth square should give the false impression of resolution before heading like a freight train to Box Six. Most importantly, it needs to provide foreshadowing for the protagonist's revelation in Box Eight. That's a lot for a little box to do, but focus on efficient prose to get it right. Your plot depends upon it.

6 Negative turning point

Here's where that bomb explodes and all (word censored) breaks loose. Good thing you laid the groundwork in Box Three. Good thing, too, that Box Nine will deliver some just desserts.

7 Antagonist wins

The protagonist is defeated here, and the antagonist apparently wins. How the protagonist deals with the darkest hour of defeat depend upon the traits and/or story developed in Box Four, which leads to his or her revelation in the next square.

8 Revelation

Of course! The protagonist's revelation turns the tide. Here is where the protagonist connects the dots and overcomes the obstacles of Boxes Six and Seven via the device introduced in Box Five.

9 Protagonist wins

The negative turning point in Box Six is rectified while the character's resolve from Box Eight is brought into full bloom. Congratulations! Another great tale told greatly.

Amazing, isn't it? Your whole story in nine little boxes. A great visual of the entire plot, and how each part relates to the others. If, like me, you'd like to see this in a diagram, there used to be a great chart made by one of the members of Verla Kay's site. I highly recommend this download. It's only one sheet, but the writer includes arrows showing the relationship of one box to another, and incorporates the Hero's Journey and the three-act structure. 

This method helped me discover some holes in my plot, and made me realize I needed to deepen some character motivation. Give it a look. I'd love to know what you think.

Writing Despite the Unexpected: Let it inspire you.

This is what I woke up to on Saturday morning. Not what you normally expect for early October, but I do live a mile and a half high in the Rocky Mountains. Thankfully, it was a Saturday, and we had already changed our original plans due to the forecast. It turned into a stay-in-pajamas, make-a-hearty-breakfast, go-sledding kind of day.

And writing, of course.

It got me thinking about how life throws unexpected things at us. It's up to us as writers to make sure we take advantage of them, instead of getting derailed by them.

A couple of things came to mind.

This photo was taken at 5 inches. We ended up with 8.
Get inspired by your interruption. Whatever event has tossed your life like a salad bowl, channel it into writing. Whether a grief, a loss, a change in plans or career, taking a few minutes each day to journal your feelings as you walk through it can not only help you vent and process it, but leaves a record you can refer to one day. These words might inspire a memoir, or give depth to a future character going through something similar.

Fight to write. Some of my best writing has come during those times when I don't have time. When I deliberately make a decision to write, despite having the best excuses imaginable. Maybe I tap into some different level of creativity when I know I have only a few minutes before someone demands my attention. Desperate writing forces me to leave off flowery descriptions and meandering thoughts. Just the basics on the page.

Do your interruptions inspire you or derail you? Sad to say, I get distracted more often than not. Any advice on how you stay on track?

Agent Friday: Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent is the founder of The Bent Agency, and has been in the business for 15 years. She blogs over at Bent on Books, and is fabulous not only for being a fantastic agent, but she lives in Brooklyn, where I grew up.

Here's a quote from Bent: “This sounds trite, but you cannot give up and you cannot stop believing in yourself. So many incredibly successful writers spent years and years trying to break into this business and you should take inspiration from how hard they worked and how they never stopped trying. That, and brush up on online promotion—increasingly it is essential for publishing success, both for published and unpublished authors.”

Jenny Bent has lots of great posts on her blog, including a series from her clients on how they got an agent. Here are some highlights:
Sometimes a little stalking is a good thing: how getting to know an agent can increase your query chances.

"Overnight Success": the agent story of Bent's client Lori Roy, who didn't write a good query letter. She shares the timeline of querying through publication.

On agent regrets: how agents feel about passing on particular manuscripts.

Think of me as a conduit, not a gatekeeper: Bent has a refreshing view of how important agents and editors are in the publishing process.

How writers disqualify themselves with their query letters: one of Bent's interns shares what she's learned reading piles of slush.

How I sold three 'first' novels in three different genres: Bent's client Jennifer Archer broke the 'rules' of writing different genres, and shares how it worked out.

Social media: Bent showcases her authors who do a great job with social media.

Even nepotism isn't enough: Wish you had a niece who was a literary agent? Read the story of Bent's aunt, Marta McDowell, and how she fought for representation.

There are lots more Agent Friday posts to check out. Don't miss them. And today is the last day of the Muse Online Writing Confrerence!

Free Resources from How to Write a Book Now

Whether you're just starting out, or have been in the writing game for a while, it's nice to find good writing instruction in one place. Happily, Glen Strathy has done just that. A fiction and non-fiction writer, trained in theater, Strathy compiles a huge amount of writing advice on his site, How to Write a Book Now.

I found Strathy's site while browsing around the internet, and I'm glad I did. Readers will find not only a blog full of helpful writing articles, but pages dedicated to topics like:

This is a site you'll want to bookmark and browse from time to time. It's like a handful of writing books all in one place. 

What are your most-visited writing sites?

I've been told that some readers are having trouble leaving comments. If it's a problem, please let me know via email, and I'll work on it (dallenco[at]gmail[dot]com). Thanks!

Writing Advice from Randy Ingermanson

Randy Ingermanson is an award-winning novelist and writing teacher. I've reviewed his Writing Fiction for Dummies, and posted several of his excellent articles here on the blog.

Ingermanson and coauthor John Olson won the coveted Christy Award for their novel, Oxygen. It's being re-released now, and the authors have added some amazing resources. Not only that, but for a few more days, the novel with 21,000 words of writing advice is only 99 cents.

Here's what Ingermanson says:

Over the years, I've mentored a large number of writers who wanted to write fiction.

Not one of them ever wanted to write mediocre fiction.

Every single one of them wanted to write powerful fiction. Compelling fiction. Fiction that grabs you by the hair and pulls you through each scene.

The good news is that I know a powerful technique that can catapult your fiction forward.

The bad news is that it takes some hard work to master.

The great news is that I'm willing to teach it to you for only 99 cents.


I learned this technique years ago from the legendary fiction teacher Dwight Swain. He called his method "Motivation-Reaction Units." There's a whole chapter in his book on these so-called "MRUs".

I spent months learning how those pesky MRUs work.

I tore into my own writing, ripping apart every paragraph, finding the MRUs, throwing away the fluff,
and then putting it all back together.

It was a hellish few months, but when it was over, my fiction-writing craft had improved dramatically.

I was no longer a wannabe novelist. I was a gonnabe novelist.

MRUs, in my opinion, are the best-kept secret in fiction-writing lore. Hardly anyone teaches them. Even published authors often don't understand them well.

Not long ago, I realized that I didn't have any teaching products that analyzed an entire scene from a
real published novel, paragraph by paragraph, showing exactly how the MRUs work.

That's about to change.


I'm about to release an e-book, the new and improved edition of my award-winning novel, OXYGEN, which I coauthored years ago with my best buddy, John Olson.

Since John and I are the publishers, we get to decide what goes into the book.

We decided to add an appendix, just for aspiring authors, in which I rip apart every single MRU in the
first scene of our novel (which John wrote).

Then John took revenge by writing an appendix using his own methods of analysis on the second scene of the book (which I wrote).

Then we wrote an appendix telling exactly how we sold OXYGEN to a royalty-paying publisher in less than seven weeks -- without an agent.

Finally, we added an appendix showing the proposal we used to make the sale. (Our editor has used this proposal for years to teach workshops at writing conferences.)

The four appendices run to over 21,000 words. All meat. No gristle.

Those appendices don't change the price of the e-book one penny. But they change the value massively.

If I were to sell the appendices as a separate course, I'd charge at least $15.


The introductory price of the novel PLUS the appendices is only 99 cents, from now until Saturday, October 8, 2011, at midnight.

OXYGEN is a space adventure with a strong dose of romance, suspense, and humor. An explosion on the first mission to Mars leaves four astronauts with only enough oxygen for one to live. All evidence points to one of the four being a saboteur. One's unconscious. One's unstable. And the other two are falling in love.

We expect you'll like OXYGEN.

But even if you HATE the story, we think you'll find the appendices a heck of a great deal.

Oh, there's one more thing you may like. In the section for aspiring authors, we included an "Eternal Coupon". It's good for a discount of 50% on featured products on my web site.

We call it an "Eternal Coupon" because it never expires. It will always be good for some writing
product or another on my site, as long as I'm in business.

You can use it again and again because we'll change the featured product regularly.

We suspect you can do the math here. The total prices of all the writing products on my web site add up to several hundred dollars.

Spending 99 cents to get OXYGEN plus the appendices PLUS the "Eternal Coupon" is a crazy good deal.


You can find out more about OXYGEN and read some sample chapters here:

You can get OXYGEN for Kindle here on Amazon:

You can get OXYGEN for Nook here on Barnes & Noble:

OXYGEN is also available as an e-book at similar prices on and

We're sorry, but this edition of OXYGEN is NOT available on the Canadian site, We just didn't have that option.

John and I hope that this edition of Oxygen will help advance your writing to that pesky next level, but most importantly, we want you to have fun.
Me again. I bought a copy of Oxygen years ago, and though I don't read a lot of sci-fi, I loved the book. And I've just read through the appendices of this new version, and can tell you it's worth much more than the 99 cent price tag. I really like the detailed explanation of MRUs. If you master this technique, your fiction will be far stronger.

Write Your Novel with yWriter Software--it's free.

Writing a novel takes hard work, motivation, and organization. Sure, you can write on a legal pad, or type it into a Word document, but there are scenes, chapters, notes, research, photos, and timelines. It's easy to get overwhelmed with trying to find what you put where.

My favorite writing software costs $40. But there's an alternative. yWriter software is free. No registration, no time limit, no expiration date. Formatted for Windows PCs, you won't need an internet connection to use it. It's on your computer to use anytime. It was designed by Simon Haynes, a computer programmer and novelist.

While I haven't used the software myself, there are quite a few testimonials from satisfied users. And for those whose primary language is not English, the software can be used in several languages, including Chinese and Hebrew.

Here's a partial list of features from the website:
* Organise your novel using a 'project'.
* Add chapters to the project.
* Add scenes, characters, items and locations.
* Display the word count for every file in the project, along with a total.
* Saves a log file every day, showing words per file and the total. (Tracks your progress)
* Saves automatic backups at user-specified intervals.
* Allows multiple scenes within chapters
* Viewpoint character, goal, conflict and outcome fields for each scene.
* Multiple characters per scene.
* Storyboard view, a visual layout of your work.
* Re-order scenes within chapters.
* Drag and drop of chapters, scenes, characters, items and locations.
* Automatic chapter renumbering.

Check out the sample screenshots of the software, and a YouTube tutuorial of how it works. Who knows? This could be the tool that helps you conquer NaNoWriMo this year?

What software (if any) do you use for writing?

My Favorite Time of Year

This past Friday, we took our annual leaf drive. What an incredible year for color here in Colorado! The weather was perfect, and even though we hadn't thought through matching clothes, we snapped a photo of the six of us. If you saw the photo I posted on Friday, you'll see how much my kids have changed!
The aspens were absolutely brilliant this year. When the sun shines through them, they glow.
We drove to a beautiful spot overlooking South Park (that's where the TV show got its name). The valley below has herds of antelope and buffalo.
Aspens mostly turn gold, but some range into the oranges or reds, depending on the minerals in the soil. We found a few trees with variegated leaves.
One of our favorite parts of the day was relaxing along a mountain stream. We once camped on this river, so it brought back lots of good memories.
We found a huge boulder in the middle of the babbling water, with curvy 'seats' already built in. Notice the tree growing out of the boulder behind us. Its roots are secure in the tiniest of cracks, yet the tree is thriving. I'm sure there's a writer analogy in there!
After an incredible day, I'm ready to write. Don't forget about the Muse Online Writing Conference beginning today. I'll see you there!


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