Tag Archives: writing principles

Magic: Part III

The third rule of magic that I’m addressing in this small series of posts requires that it be limited.

Now, the word limited, plus all its synonyms and all their meanings, nearly always raises a writer’s hackles.

Who wants to restrict us? Who dares to constrict us? Who presumes to hold us back, keep us in, lock doors, set boundaries, inhibit our freedom, and otherwise stand in the way of our imagination and creativity? Our wildest instinct is to fight this, and yet we must learn the writing principle behind this rule of limitation and how/why it works for us if only we’ll let it.

Willful Writer has decided that Ms. Sagacious is less than competent to teach writing. Disappointed by her unfavorable reactions to his two previous stories, he’s convinced himself that she doesn’t understand fantasy or high concept. Therefore, Willful has decided to write a saga so big, so fabulous, so amazing that it will knock her nylon socks off.

This time, Willful promises himself, he’s going to reach for the stars and beyond to infinity. His newest protagonist, Wizard Warlord, can draw on the very energies of the cosmos. Wizard Warlord is a giant among other sorcerers. He can summon plasma bolts from the sun and fry enemies on the spot. No other character can withstand him. And not only is he all-powerful, but he is also possessed of a tender and forgiving heart. He is noble, self-sacrificing, and kind. Although he is certain to fry the puny villain Malicious Malton in a wizard-fire showdown, he intends to let Malicious Malton’s minions go free. This will prove how heroic and worthy he is.

Are you yawning yet?

You should be.

Willful’s story is going to last two pages, and most of the words he types will be description of the alley where the wizard battle will take place. Thinking he’s building anticipation by spinning things out, he lavishes minute attention on painting word pictures of the pavement, the buildings, the purple sky overhead, and the twittering of the birds in the trees at the end of the street. But at last, after much stalling and purple prose, he types the one-paragraph confrontation, showing Wizard Warlord strapping on his greaves and standing at the agreed dueling spot at the prearranged time. Wizard Warlord looks magnificent. He is charged with so much magical power that he glows in a nimbus of wizard fire. He is ready, ready, ready for the battle that can have only one outcome–his complete and total victory. Only, Malicious Malton doesn’t show. He isn’t there. Has he fled? Did he just stay home? After all, why bother to turn up? Oh, just imagine the joy that fills Wizard Warlord’s heart, for once again he has prevailed and won.

“Phooey!” says Ms. Sagacious, and slashes a line of red ink across Willful’s manuscript. “Too short! Too certain! No suspense! No hook! Nothing to hold reader interest.”

“But I’ve written flash fiction,” Willful protests. “It’s, like, over in a flash.”

“You have no story,” Ms. Sagacious insists.

Willful trudges out. Phooey, he thinks. She doesn’t understand my genius. My concept was so huge she missed it entirely.

Poor, bone-headed Willful. Once again, he has broken a rule of using magic in his fiction. He has refused to limit the magic his character draws on, and in doing so, he has created a sure-thing.

This is not only a suspense killer, but it leaves a plot nowhere to go. Magic without limitations, magic that can do anything and solve everything, leaves a story’s outcome absolutely dead certain. The story question is answered right away, leaving writers with nothing else to convey.

When we write fiction, the reason an antagonist is stronger than the hero or has the advantage over the hero is so that we can make the outcome uncertain. That, in turn, forces us to generate a longer story as our beleaguered hero tries one tactic after another with little to no success. Conflict, resistance, adversity, bad luck, betrayal, and trickery all play a role in blocking a hero’s easy path to success. That, in turn, pushes a protagonist into abandoning the easy path and stepping out of the box, taking bigger risks, leaving comfort zones behind, and embracing change in order to survive and win.

Magic that’s too powerful or too easy or carries no limitations at all is magic that unbalances a story and answers the question too soon. That destroys any suspense and does not entice readers to keep turning pages to see how it turns out.

That is why, in many stories, we see a confident character dealing with a spell that suddenly goes wrong, or meeting a terrifying, more-powerful mage that scorches her. It’s okay to jerk the magical rug out from beneath your fantasy characters, and in fact readers are hoping something terrible and unexpected will happen. Because when things go wrong for your protagonist, or when the unexpected flips her upside-down, the story has to move forward, and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On the other hand, if the antagonist is too powerful, possessing magic, spells, warding protections, and demonic assistance to the point that the hero has no chance whatsoever of prevailing, then why show up? Why not forfeit the contest, like Malicious Malton did, and just surrender? It’s not very heroic, granted, but it’s safer.

A story with a fateful situation, with an antagonistic force that’s unbeatable, is pointless. The hero is doomed before he starts. Cheering him on is futile. And readers don’t want to vicariously pretend to be a doomed character.

What readers want instead is a hero that only seems to be doomed. They want an antagonist that only seems to be unbeatable. Then they can experience the hero’s attempts, struggles, and hard-won victories with great enjoyment. A chance–no matter how small or risky–makes all the difference. And limiting the magic helps provide that chance.




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Dreaming of Pink

Well, as if the recent computer-purchase crisis wasn’t enough to send my blood pressure shooting to the moon, guess what?

It’s time to replace my university computer as well.


Now the trauma truly is much, much less for several reasons:  1) I’m not emotionally attached to the university equipment–well, not much; 2) I have complete and competent IT support; 3) I don’t have to so much as plug in a cable because everything is unboxed, carried to my campus office, set up, and tested for me; and 4) I’m not paying for it.

Can you tell I should have been a princess?

Still, according to that old but trusty writing principle, change is threatening. I’ve really enjoyed my campus laptop. It’s tiny, lightweight, and cute. It’s easier to carry than a heavy briefcase, although I usually end up lugging both to and from my day job. So although Pippin is an Apple and there’s no right-click mouse command, leaving me frequently baffled, I’ve enjoyed it. Replacing it, when it seems perfectly fine, hadn’t crossed my mind.

However, it has to go and because it doesn’t belong to me I shan’t be clinging to it, weeping and pleading, when IT comes to take it away.

After notification came, I consoled myself immediately with the brilliant notion that I would ask for another one exactly like Pippin.

Except there have been changes. Nothing techy is ever left alone. Sigh. So my cute 11″ laptop that I could tuck under my arm is growing to a 13″ version. Which means I’ll have to go shopping for a new case to protect it. It will take up more room on my crowded desk when I bring it home, and New Guy (still officially unnamed) will feel even more cramped in my limited space.

Still, it is what it is. I was asked to look over the options and choose which version I wanted, and I was told there were two colors: “silver” and “space gray.” Woo.

So I was following links and watching the swanky product videos without, however, any delusion that I was conducting real product research, when suddenly there it was … a pink laptop.

Not garish magenta, not baby ballerina, but something luscious and tasteful and faintly metallic called “rose gold.” It is precisely that shade of soft pink with yellow undertones that I most love. Delight exploded in my heart. The world was suddenly a better place.

Now, I am admittedly picky. Finicky. Hard to please. A perfectionist. I am also champion among ditherers. I can agonize endlessly over choices, but that’s always when and because the available choices don’t suit me. But place the right thing in front of me, and BAM! I make a decision instantly.

BAM! I saw “rose gold” and knew immediately it was the color for me. Who said computers have to come in dreary colors? I don’t work in a bank. I’m not trying to reassure anxious customers that I won’t abscond with their life’s savings.

Remember those bright, kicky colors that Apple came out with a few years ago? Vivid blue, bold orange, and … um, maybe hot pink. They were fun and youthful, but then they went away. Presently, one of my graduate students carries a bold red laptop that I think is a Dell. So I know computer color is out there, but it’s so hidden, so oppressed, so hard to find.

With “rose gold” spinning in my mind, I eagerly reread my IT guy’s email. It said firmly, color choices are “silver” or “space gray.”


“Space gray” is dull, dark, dismal, and depressing. Granted, it fits the current color trend of gray, gray, drab, or gray that is our world. Gray cars on the road. Gray paint on our walls. Gray cats on gray sofas. Walk into any Restoration Hardware store and you might well ask yourself, “Does Chairman Mao live here?” When I was a child, I watched TV news images of people in China, all dressed alike in gray. Drab, uniform conformity where no one was allowed to stand out.

What’s with our current besottedness with gray?

Because it’s safe?

Because it’s neutral?


Give me color! Give me imagination, joy, life, spontaneity, and fun! How sad that opting for color costs more these days. An acquaintance of mine waited a week and spent an extra thousand to obtain a commercial van in red because he didn’t want to look like he was driving a utility company truck.

When I was a youngster, I remember my parents buying a car that they special ordered. After specifying all the options for the auto itself, like headlights that opened and electric windows, they sat in the dealership office with huge bundles of cloth samples spread out on the desk, and chose the seat upholstery they wanted. Mom eventually selected burgundy damask. The car proved to be a mechanical dud that the family hated, and the electric windows failed about every two or three weeks, but it looked beautiful. These days–no doubt to cut manufacturing costs–car interiors typically come in dark gray or light gray regardless of the exterior color. Mom’s burgundy upholstery exactly matched the rich burgundy hue of the car’s body paint. Before that vehicle, I think they owned a teal-green car with matching interior. Then there was the red car with the red seats. Oh yes, once upon a time car seats matched car colors. It was great.

But getting back to computers, I have to say that New Guy is pretty dashing (not!) because he’s two-toned: black enlivened by gunmetal gray. So boring. If my printers weren’t white I might run screaming from the desk. As it is, I’m frequently tempted to paint my home office walls red just to wake things up.

Are you thinking, yep there she is wailing about drab colors but she’s afraid to paint her office? Not at all! I’m too lazy to shift two tall wooden filing cabinets, a massive desk, two bookcases, and a long computer table that requires unbolting to move. Not to mention the fabulous solid-maple card catalogue plunked in the middle of the room that took me ages to acquire. But oh someday, when I have hired muscle to help and no book deadline, then look out. My home office is gonna achieve some verve.

Meanwhile, I have put in my official request to the IT guys on campus: “rose gold” please, please, please.

I am dreaming of pink. I am longing for pink.

But I may have to compromise with “silver.”


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If Dogs Could Write

Last night, I was making tuna salad for my work lunch. For a treat, I usually allow my dogs to lick the can the fish comes from, and I also give them the water the fish is packed in. Typically one dog commandeers the can–considered to be the most special and important aspect of this treat, and his brother has to make do with lapping up the juice and then circling anxiously until he’s finally allowed his chance at the by-now polished container.

The rule in my house is that no furry individual gets a people-food treat until after the people in the house have finished dining and left the table. Moreover, dogs aren’t allowed in the kitchen while I’m preparing supper. It’s a safety issue. No one handling hot pans or kitchen knives needs to trip over a fur-faced moocher.

However, last night, the rules went out the window. When I opened the can of yellowfin packed in olive oil, something I don’t usually have, the dogs swarmed my kitchen. They would not leave and only reluctantly moved out of the way each time I needed access to the refrigerator. The fish was on the island, and they remained as close to the island as they could get. They were focused, determined, goal-oriented, motivated, and passionate about getting that tuna can. (Incidentally, no, I did not give anyone the drained olive oil. A substitute was found.)

So what does my culinary incident have to do with writing fiction? Let’s consider 10 things a writer can learn from dogs.

  1.  Dogs understand goals. They may be hardwired to instinctively beg for any food in your hand, but they know what they want without any ambivalence or apology. A story protagonist should be focused on a clear, easy-to-understand goal.
  2. Dogs are strongly motivated to achieve their objective. Call it instinct if you wish, but they aren’t giving up until they succeed. Both the protagonist and antagonist should be powerfully motivated and determined.
  3. Dogs have a plan. If just showing up doesn’t get the morsel, then how about bumping Master’s leg? If that doesn’t work, what about giving Master THE LOOK? If that doesn’t work, what about whining? If that doesn’t work, any cute tricks to try? The dance? The leap? The back flip? The balancing on the haunches while waving forepaws? If tricks don’t work, send in Brother who has the angelic face and succeeds best in begging. If that doesn’t work, what about the supreme risk of tripping Master?
  4. Dogs understand that sneaky antagonists generate conflict. Ever try persuading a begging dog to leave the premises? The command is ignored. A louder order achieves a temporary flattening of the ears but the dog doesn’t move. A shout will drive the dog out of the way, but the dog immediately circles and takes up a new position even more in the way, preferably one that requires Master to step over the dog.
  5. Dogs feel a gamut of emotions. The divine temptation of tuna fragrance hitting the nostrils. The watering of the mouth. The desire. The anticipation and hope. The crash of disappointment. The leap of new hope. Bigger crash of disappointment. The stubborn intensity of trying again. The agony of waiting. That sense of Master wavering. Master is picking up the can. Master is walking toward the utility room. Master is calling. The joy, the ecstasy, the delight of success! Ah, yes, dogs know the rollercoaster of emotions, whether they are spinning in a circle to earn a piece of popcorn or growling at the Fed-Ex guy. And so should your protagonist. Stories aren’t merely reports of character actions. Through viewpoint, your protagonist should feel a variety of emotional reactions–positive and negative–to whatever is happening in the story.
  6. Dogs believe in what works. Repetition doesn’t faze them. If begging a certain way achieves a laugh and cave-in of rules from Master, then the dog will repeat what was successful. Find writing principles that work and use them again and again. Your characters in each story will be different. The story situation or problem your characters are dealing with are different. But your approach as a writer–the setting up of the story situation, the introduction of a goal-focused protagonist, the clarity of the story’s goal, the determination of the antagonist, and a climatic showdown at the end that resolves the issue–should be the same. Trust writing principles and use them every time.
  7. Dogs keep things simple. Every time they run outside, it’s their favorite thing to do. Every time they run inside, it’s their favorite thing to do. They live in the moment. They forgive easily. They lavish love with generous hearts. All they ask is Master filling their food bowl on time, Master filling their water bowl when it’s dry, Master remembering there is a cookie at lunch, a cookie after supper, and a cookie at bedtime, and Master scratching tummies and tickling ears occasionally. So should your plot be kept simple. What does your protagonist want? Who wants to stop your protagonist? How will your protagonist overcome opposition to win? Any time you find yourself wound into an excessively complicated plot that has you baffled, simplify it. Clear, direct, easy to understand, exciting.
  8. Dogs know there’s a time to play ball. Or Frisbee. Or fetch. If your scene is stuck, take a walk. Let the breeze ruffle your hair and blow the cobwebs from your mind. Take some deep breaths and increase the oxygen flow to your brain. For twenty minutes or so don’t gnaw at the problem that has you stymied. Just let your thoughts float freely. Enjoy the pretty sky. Stretch your legs. Take a moment to watch Canada geese putter in the park. And while your dog barks at them, snap a photo. Pause to greet a young mother out strolling with her children. Connect with the real world. You and your dog have shared a pleasant, simple experience outdoors. When you come inside, chances are you’ll feel refreshed and that Gordian knot of a plot problem will be something you can solve.
  9. Dogs have fun. Optimistic and generally upbeat, they are always ready for adventure. Even better, they believe–with a few exceptions, such as bath-time–that anything and everything will be enjoyable. Writing, too, should be fun. It’s challenging and hard work, but it should never be dreary drudgery. If it is and if you dread sitting down at your keyboard, something is wrong.
  10. Dogs keep their minds open. New experiences. New days. New people to love. New toys. New treats. Writers need to be receptive to what’s new and believe that almost anything can become fodder for a story, or inspiration for a character or setting.


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Beware the Cavalry!

ATTENTION! This post contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks grew bored with staring at each other and the mountain scenery around them. They decided to tell stories. Then they decided to write stories. That was so much fun they decided to perform stories on the stage, (inventing stone theater seating and acoustics along the way.)

They were clever, those Greeks. Thanks to a guy called Aristotle, rules of writing guided the slightly less-clever writers that followed. (You know, rules such as “Anything that doesn’t advance the story should be cut.” And that means you, too, Euripides!)

They figured out that the hero should take on forces of antagonism and wade into deeper and deeper trouble, but the ancient writers were a bit shaky on how to get said hero out of said corner. So they invented deus ex machina, aka the god machine.

You know about that, don’t you? A statue of Zeus was wheeled out on a little wooden cart. (Can’t you hear that primitive axle creaking as it bumped across the stage?) And Zeus dispensed poetic justice.

Big hit!

Audiences loved it. Everyone got what he deserved. The damsel was saved. The hero was rewarded. The villain took one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and fell in a puff of smoke. Ah, yes, the dawning of special effects.

Fast forward to the modern era and twentieth-century movie-making: at least in the early days of film, deus ex machina was still in use. Zeus had been put out to Olympian pasture, but lots of substitutes took his place. The white-hatted sheriff could burst into a saloon just in time to save our hero from being killed by a gang of outlaws in black Stetsons. Pauline could be saved from peril–whether an oncoming train or a giant buzz-saw–by her hero. The G-men could arrive in the nick of time to save the hero from Putty Nose and his gang. Et cetera. All characters had to do was hang on long enough for help to arrive.

One of the most popular genres in film became the Western. What’s not to love? Lots of action, whooping, shooting, and galloping horses. Even my Scottish terrier likes to watch that sort of excitement on television. (He’s bored, however, whenever John Wayne gets soft-voiced and kisses Maureen O’Hara.) In the early westerns, the cavalry was going to come if you could just wait for them.

Supreme among the early western films is a black-and-white masterpiece from 1939 called STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford. It made John Wayne a star. It also presented in-depth character studies of the cast members, something most westerns of that era didn’t bother with. The third act of the film involves a long chase scene of the stagecoach hurtling across the desert badlands, with screaming Apaches in pursuit. There are stunts a-plenty–astonishing for their day and notable now because they created the imitators that followed. You have the daring leap off the stagecoach onto the backs of the galloping horses. You have the bullets slowly running out until there’s only one left in the Colt of the last able-bodied male passenger. A bullet that he’s saving for the young lady saying her prayers, so she won’t be taken captive. And then, a bugle sounds and here comes the cavalry. They vanquish Geronimo’s warriors and save the day.

If we watch this classic film today, it’s easy to be caught up in the story until the finish. Then we tilt our head to one side and feel confused. Deus ex machina doesn’t quite work for us anymore. We’re left thinking, who sent the text message so the cavalry knew to arrive in this square mile of Arizona?

Try watching the Errol Flynn movie, ROBIN HOOD. It builds up to a rousing battle scene in Prince John’s castle. Robin and his merry men are fighting with all they have, but they’re hopelessly outnumbered.

Hark! A trumpet sounds, and suddenly here’s King Richard the Lionhearted and his army galloping over the drawbridge to save the day. He’s escaped captivity in Austria and returned from Europe at the very moment Robin most needs him. Woe to Prince John and his fellow traitors. Hurrah for Robin! Boo to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Make way for lovely Maid Marian!

As a child, watching justice return to ye olde England, I was happy with this outcome. As an adult, I watch happily until the end and then I sigh, thinking of how it’s grown a bit hokey there. A bit too convenient and contrived. A bit too coincidental for belief.

Modern audiences have become used to seeing the protagonist save herself just seconds before the FBI agents arrive to rescue her. We want our heroes to be more daring, more capable, and more successful. If the cavalry shows up, it’s only because our hero sent for them.

Are you thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this writing principle already. What’s the point?

The point is that every time I tell myself that by now surely every aspiring writer out there knows the cavalry can’t come anymore, I see it in use. Only this afternoon, I found myself correcting yet another student manuscript where the protagonist is rescued from danger multiple times during the story.

No! No! No!

The protagonist must find the solution. The protagonist must locate the means of escape and have the daring to try it. The protagonist must not fold his hands and sit tamely in place, hoping a dear friend whom he’s never met until this moment in story time will show up to save his neck from the guillotine.

That, my friends, is weak plotting. Check every danger point in your story for the cavalry and send them back to their fort at once.



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Digging Holes Without Shovels

I’m back in the classroom after a long, lovely leave of absence. For the past four weeks, I’ve met with students and sent them–one after another–back to the drawing board when they’ve brought me plot outlines.

I feel like a gardener who’s returned home to find the flowerbeds choked with weeds. Earlier this month, I finally got around to pruning two of my crepe myrtles, shrubs that I’m training into trees. They’d developed numerous side sprouts and were growing into the wrong shapes. As soon as I snipped and shaped, it was perhaps less than a week before new shoots were sprouting where I’d pruned.

My students are exactly like these rebellious sprouts. They’re trying to plot while assiduously ignoring one of the most basic tenets of fiction writing.

A. You need a protagonist.

Not just any character in the cast will do. You need someone to stand up, stand out, take action, and by-golly DO something, right or wrong.

B. You need an antagonist.

Not just a guy with a dark mustache who lives in a remote castle and broods over the townspeople he wants to harm. But an antagonist to the protagonist.

This means an opponent, someone actively thwarting whatever the protagonist is trying to do.

Without this competitor, this obstacle, this individual who’s really in the way, we have no hope of cooking up a viable story.

So why do the inexperienced writers want to dispense with this individual?

Is it because I’ve said the antagonistic character must exist, and a little rebellion is at work?

Is it because newbie writers no longer understand the concept of a villain? How can that be when the world is filled with villains? We see them on the news every day.

Is it because there’s a misunderstanding about the way stories work through opposition?

Ah ha! Perhaps that’s the reason.

You think up a protagonist. You even figure out what the character wants.

Good, so far!

But then, why shouldn’t we want the protagonist to achieve that aim, that desire?

Because it’s dull. There’s no adventure, no excitement, no suspense, no entertainment if Biff the Hero proclaims, “I’m in love with the princess and I want to marry her and live happily ever after.” And the princess’s father says, “Biff, you look like a handsome young man. My blessings on you both.”

End of story in three sentences.

A story needs conflict in order to move from start to finish. It can’t achieve conflict without the antagonist. It’s that simple, that basic.

Are we as a society so entitled, so privileged these days that the concept of having to work toward something, of having to strive for delayed gratification is simply inconceivable?

I don’t know. Story construction–once the veil of mystery is parted–is so simple. You just have to trust it, and if you do, you can write stories.

Without the conflict between two directly opposing characters, there’s no uncertainty of outcome that spins the story across twenty pages … or two-hundred.

“But I’m writing a romance story,” someone might protest. “I don’t have a Snidely Whiplash villain to carry off the girl. There’s just my heroine and the hero, and if they don’t like each other how can they fall in love?”

Well, duh. Let’s consider the construction a moment. Girl meets guy. She likes him. Her inner voice whispers, He’s THE ONE. She smiles at him in encouragement, hoping he’ll show interest in her and ask her out. She may even be bold enough to ask him out to dinner.

Where’s the conflict? Where’s the opposing goal?

From the guy, of course. If she’s thinking, He’s THE ONE, then he should be thinking, Cute girl, but I won’t be caught. I don’t want to be THE ONE to anybody.

There we are. The goals are in direct opposition, and as the story progresses the characters are struggling between that conflict plus a growing attraction despite all the setbacks.

Or it can be the guy who’s smitten and the girl who’s uninterested at first. Think of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, where they both take an instant superficial dislike to each other. Then Mr. Darcy is the first to reconsider. Think of GONE WITH THE WIND, where Scarlett and Rhett are made for each other but so rarely in sync. Think of the Tracy/Hepburn film, ADAM’S RIB, where they’re deeply in love and happily married, until they take opposing sides in a trial.

Now, if we’re writing a mystery, what are we to do? It’s not a thriller, where good guy and bad guy are face-to-face, waving guns and shouting at each other. We don’t even know who the bad guy is!

Well, let’s see. An off-stage villain, a hidden, shadowy character.

This is the perpetrator, the one whodunnit. This individual doesn’t want to be caught, and so this character is concealing evidence, lying, and manipulating.

We have an investigator, the sleuth. This individual wants to catch the perpetrator and make him pay for his crime. This person is sniffing around, asking questions, seeking and searching, circling ever closer to an increasingly desperate villain.

Even in these two genres, the principle of opposition is still in play.

Directly opposing goals and their setup is not rocket science. It’s a basic foundation of plotting.

Ignore it, and you might as well be scratching at the hard ground with your bare hands, thinking you’re going to dig a hole without a shovel. You might achieve a slight depression, but you’ll never gain a well.


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Sparkle by Taking Risks

Over the years, I’ve observed the newbie writers who earnestly take notes, highlight key passages in their books on the writing craft, and ask questions of every working professional writer they meet. These individuals craft scenes and stories that follow the rules of writing technique, and they’re as devoid of life as a paint-by-numbers picture.

I’ve also encountered newbies who won’t be told a writing principle. They scoff at rules and bridle against changing one word they’ve written. They have what they think is a deep passion for writing, and they refuse to listen to anything an experienced, published writer might say. Such amateurs are often highly imaginative, but their stories are crazy, illogical, and always fall apart at the critical places.

Left-brained. Right-brained. The two extremes among people who have stories to share but can’t seem to get their ideas translated from their imaginations to the page.

The successful writer is someone who’s balanced between these polar opposites. A successful writer should know the principles of what makes stories work and what makes them appealing to readers. Above all, a successful writer needs the rules of the craft.

[If you were about to have a cavity filled, would you want a dentist who blew off her “Techniques of Drilling Tooth Enamel” class because she didn’t think it was important? Just wait until her drill hits that nerve!]

A successful writer must be willing to master the craft and then–only then–take risks with it. Taking risks is a key component to instilling verve in your copy.

During the last two weeks, I’ve been busy plotting a novel. Day after day, writing session after writing session, I’ve been carefully, methodically listing my story events in logical order from beginning to end.

With that in place, I’m now mentally laying the careful outline aside and taking down the safety chain. This morning, as I was lugging groceries from the garage into the utility room and pantry, I was thinking, Why not move Scene X forward to be the book’s opening? It’ll be a dark night, maybe raining, and the hero will come running from the shadows–half-naked–to collide with the heroine.

Immediately the old left hemisphere starts waving my outline. “Ahem!” it barks. “According to the plan, you should begin the book with the guy in anguish aboard the yacht.”

Right hemisphere screams in protest. “No, no, no! That’s so dull. The yacht incident is all internalization. It’s not exciting enough. He’s drinking Scotch and indulging in a pity party. Boring. Bad. Dull. Think instead of the night and all its mysteries; think of this man, running barefoot and bare-chested; think of the woman’s shock as she sees him partially clothed. (Shock mingled perhaps with feminine interest.) Soooo much better!”

“But the logical order of the story will be lost. You’ll have to write a flashback.”

Guess which section of my brain is going to win this argument?

You betcha! Right hemisphere takes the prize.

But only because the outline has been hammered out and I know how to pull it off without losing my story’s logic. Left hemisphere is already busily seeking a plausible motivation for the woman to be walking alone down a dangerous street at that hour.

Your imagination is going to feed you notions and glimmers and glimpses and rainbow bursts of what-ifs. Never shut it off, but learn instead how to judge these pinpoints of light sparkling in the dim mists of your brain. Evaluate which have merit and which won’t help your story read better.

Apply yourself to the mastery of your writing craft so that your imaginative leaps don’t drop you into a plot hole. Channel your creativity to make it useful.

And never be afraid to do something new. You may be slapped down. Your editor may not understand what you’re doing in a particular passage, but at least you will have tried. Or, your editor may say, “I love this section where the elephants dance under the jungle starlight. Let’s open Chapter Six with that.”

Risk taking for writers also includes a willingness to write an entire first novel on speculation, not knowing whether it will ever find a publisher. It also means a willingness to write an entire 45th novel on speculation after your literary agent has nixed it–just because you must.

Risk taking for writers means daring to reach deeper inside yourself and write to your truth, without looking over your shoulder in fear of what your granny or mom might say.

Risk taking for writers means crafting a fast, unpredictable plot. Or creating a slower novel with deeper characterization. It could mean changing your style to try a new setting or genre.

Risking taking for writers means trusting your story sense. First you have to learn to listen for it, to hear its small voice, and then you have to learn to listen to it.

Always, always do what it tells you to do.

Without question. Without fear. Without hesitation.

Even if everyone else in your writing critique group says otherwise.


Prepare yourself.



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O Frabjous Day! Uh … now what? Writing Diagnostics II

Bam! Your new plot idea hits your mind like a package dropped on your doorstep by FedEx.  You’re excited and eager to write, but then doubts start to nibble away your confidence.  Is this idea any good?  Is it worth working on?  Should I do this?  How do I know?

There are several criteria that I use when evaluating an idea for potential development.  I start with this one:

Is there any change with consequences impossible to ignore?

I’m sure most of us have read or heard several variations of this standard writing principle.  Start in the middle of things; start in the middle of action; start with a problem; throw your protagonist into trouble on the first page … etc.

Writers seek change for their characters because they know that change is threatening.  Change upsets us.  Change excites us.  Change scares or worries us.  Things will be different.  Will we like that difference?  What will happen?

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Whether positive or negative, change signals that new challenges lie ahead.  If I move to a bigger house and gain the extra space I need, will I get along with my new neighbors?  Will my children have to attend a different school?  What if the house affects Granny’s allergies?  Can we afford the larger mortgage?  What will we have to sacrifice?  How far will it be to shopping and amenities?  Will my commute to work be longer?

Avoidance of change keeps real people stuck in jobs they dislike.  It keeps some teens from leaving home to go to college.  It keeps some college students perpetually in graduate school.  It keeps some folks in abusive marriages.  It keeps others from taking risks to grow their business.  Some writers are hesitant to branch out into different genres.  Some artists dodge exhibiting their work.

Staying safe, staying where things are known, avoiding risk … all part of human nature.  Yet fiction should sweep characters out into the unknown, forcing them to cope with challenges.

So can you think of an upheaval to launch your story?  Of course you can!  Be careful, though.  It can’t be just any old kind of change stuck to the story with a piece of tape.

Example:  Say that the story is about a couple having marital difficulties.  Arthur Author doesn’t want to open with the pair sitting in the living room, glaring at each other.  Too static!  Instead, Arthur Author decides to open with the couple’s child — stressed by his parents’ spats — abruptly throwing his first tantrum on the carpet.

Hmmm ….

This is action, all right.  There’s character movement.  Little Johnny is breaking his toys, flailing, screaming, and turning very red in the face.  Chances are the parents will give him the attention he wants and stop bickering briefly while they cajole or punish him.  Once he’s in bed and out of the way, they’ll probably blame each other for his behavior and the arguments will start again.

There!  Arthur Author is happy.  He’s opened with a change and so he types happily for a few pages, only to wonder soon why his story is going nowhere.

What has Arthur Author done wrong?

He hasn’t written an opening of true change.  There are no real consequences to the tantrum.  The situation remains unaffected; status quo is maintained.  The arguments are circular.  Boredom sets in, and Arthur Author abandons the manuscript.

But if there is change with consequences, the story has a chance.

Example:  Let’s go back to that same miserable family.  The parents are unhappily married, busy with dual careers, and stressed.  Little Johnny takes the lighter from Dad’s barbeque supplies, goes upstairs, and sets fire to the bedroom curtains.  The house burns down.  Now the family is homeless, and DHS wants Little Johnny taken to counseling.  Are the parents going to pull together to help their young pyromaniac?  Where will they live?  Does the fire cause Mom to flub her big work presentation and lose her one shot at gaining promotion and a higher salary?  What will become of them all?

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Do you see how Arthur Author now has somewhere to go in dealing with the ramifications of his characters’ actions?  The story idea is starting to grow, and that’s always a very good sign.

Pick up a handful of novels, and look at the opening page.  See how many of them start with change.

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