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Businessman rolling up sleeves

It’s been a while coming, but that excitement and enthusiasm that proceeds starting a new writing project has finally returned.  I felt it’s slow approach for quite some time, like a long winter portends the spring.

In fact, that’s exactly what it was like.  Last July, in the hottest part of the California summer, we packed up our possessions, loaded them onto trucks, and moved to the beautiful Pacific North West.  Practically Canada, in fact.  We were tired of the weather as Bill Hicks put it, “Every day, hot and sunny.”  Autumn arrived one afternoon, like literally one day it was colder and everywhere the trees started turning yellow and orange that day. Then shortly it was winter.  I mean actual winter.  Not like in California, where it rains a little and the wind blows a bit and you might have to put on a jacket.  Feet and feet of snow on the lawn and in the trees and on the roof and on the roads.  This February we piled up just about as much snow as this region usually gets all year.  And it went on and on and on.  And on.  Winter lasts about five months, up here.  I mean, intellectually, we knew spring must be coming.  But it felt like it was taking years to get here.  The snow just kept falling.  Then, just like autumn, one day in the middle of March spring arrived.  The temperature went up like 10 degrees, and in two weeks the snow was gone and we could see roads and lawns and flowerbeds again.

My muse returned the same way spring did.  I felt her approaching, knew she would get here at some point, made plans for that day, and … waited.  Like contemplating the impending dawn.  Like looking forward to an eighteenth birthday.  Like your anticipation that I will eventually get to the actual point.

Well, here it is: Inspiration is fickle, but eventual.  Some days it overwhelms you like a blizzard, and other days it is like trying to catch a soap bubble on a breezy day (you can’t; you have to let it land).  But that doesn’t mean that in the meantime you can’t buy a clean, new notebook and sharpen some pencils.

For me, it meant choosing my next project.  I had an embarrassment of ideas, any one of which might have become my next novel, but all of which needed research and consideration — a kind of feasibility study.  When I decided six years ago to get serious and write a novel fit for publication, I had to choose between completely rewriting the adult fantasy novel I had already written in high school and college, or starting a completely new children’s book.  I had to weigh all of the pros and cons, compare the amount of joy each prospect gave me, evaluate how much work each would be.  This time around I had two MG projects already started, and a third entirely new notion for adults.  Which should I pursue?

Here are the things you should know so you don’t waste valuable time when your muse swoops in and grabs you by the frontal lobe:

  • Who is your audience (age group, genres)?
  • Where does your story take place?
  • When does your story take place?
  • Who is your main character?
  • What is at stake in your character’s story?
  • Does this story excite you?

For me, the difference between this second book and the first one is that when I started the first one I didn’t really know the answers to all of these questions, except for the last one.  And as it turned out, passion alone was not sufficient to write a marketable book.

You don’t have to be in a writing mood or feel bound to produce a certain number of words-per-day as long as you are moving forward with your research and development.  Sketch in some backstory.  Color in your setting.  Research your time period.  Learn the local lingo, the local hangouts, the local weirdos — or make them up.  Nail your character’s conflict.  Write the perfect 35-word pitch (because if you can’t do that, you don’t have a clear handle on the stakes, yet).

So, don’t fret if your muse is a seldom or fair-weather friend; spend your time in between visits doing your research and getting ready. Such forethought might even make her stick around longer once she finally does arrive.



This is one of those Life Lessons that pop up in the course of going about one’s day, which perfectly illustrates a concept you have difficulty explaining to others:


The thing about cramming an entire concept as integral and complex as this into a six-word fortune cookie is that you loose the complexity. You loose the way the concept is meant to integrate into the rest of your story. So what you end up with is just a “rule” which inexperienced writers often treat like a law set in stone. Then, when they critique the work of other writers (which every writer should do as part of their education), they flag every instance when one of these “laws” is broken, without understanding how it is possible to break the rule and still write well.

Here’s an example: DON’T START YOUR BOOK WITH DIALOGUE. This is a good recommendation.  It often gets misquoted as “Never Start Your Book with Dialogue.”*  The reason for this advice is pretty compelling and common-sense, once you understand it. Without any reference or character description or setting established, your reader can’t hear whatever voice you are writing or hear whatever emotion is supposed to be there. Writers are engaged in a constant juggling act, balancing between describing details and leaving details for the reader to fill in. Its like creating a coloring book with hints built in letting your reader know what colors to use where.  When you describe a turbulent ocean, you don’t necessarily need to describe the whitecaps and the spray and the tang of salt in the air.  You can — many writers do, and more, but if you suggest them, the reader will visualize the parts you leave out. But if the first words in your book are: “Hi. How are you, today?” your reader won’t know if the speaker is male or female, young or old, pleasant or sarcastic.  You can tell them in the very next sentence, but by then your reader will have already tried to fill in the missing details, and more than likely, they will have gotten them wrong. When that happens and your reader is forced to revise their mental picture, it takes them out the moment. It is irritating to have to go back and read it again with the new information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make dialogue-first work.  Here are some examples I came up with on the fly:

“Touch her again, señor, and you’re a dead man.”

“Ma’am,” the morgue officer prodded gently, “can you identify that little girl?”

“Take us to your fishing line!” The translation matrix was on the fritz again.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said for the last time, but the elevator doors had already closed.

“Grab the shotgun, Billy — that fox is creepin’ around the henhouse agin.”

“Play with me, Sarah,” said the ventriloquist dummy, even though I was the only one in the room.

“But Mommy, why do we have to slaughter Henrietta?”

“Tell your brother I—” The grenade exploded, taking half of my dad with it.

The reason these work (if, in fact, they do), it is because I made it clear how the voice should sound before the end of the first sentence. Thus, the coloring book has hints about what colors to use.  Robert Heinlein opened several of his very popular stories with dialogue (proving there are real-life exceptions to the “rule”):

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.” — Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

“He’s a mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.” — Number of the Beast (1980)

“We need you to kill a man.” — The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1988)

Okay. So, rules can be broken if you understand the reasons behind them and follow the spirit of the rule. That first one I mentioned above, about starting with action. This is possibly the most misunderstood piece of advice.  The advice, ALWAYS START WITH ACTION does not mean there has to be a car chase, a shootout, or a sword fight in paragraph one.  In fact, all of those things are bad ideas (in general), for precisely the same reason starting with dialogue is generally a bad idea — you don’t know who the players are or who you are supposed to cheer for, and you don’t know what everyone is feeling.

No, by “action” they mean “activity.” Avoid beginning with long descriptions, backstory, or other set-up. Start with the main character doing something.  The action doesn’t have to be extra action-y, it just has to be activity, not description. The other part of the “rule” that often gets misinterpreted is the word “start.” This does not mean only the first paragraph or the first scene (here comes the learn-y part, where I discover something in my own writing that illustrates this point, hence the reason I’m writing about this in the first place). “Start” means the first part of your story, or your book.  That might mean the first three chapters.  That might mean everything up to the inciting incident. And it doesn’t mean you stop there.

In my daughter’s and my middle grade book, we did a pretty fair job of keeping the momentum going all the way to the end of chapter three, when our hero learns she must go on a quest. And then, inexplicably, we stopped pedaling.  The rest of the book is a quest, and yet our hero stumbles from one step to the next, and the adults she meets hand her whatever she is looking for. Well, in fact they give her just enough to make her move to the next step, which draws out the quest and drives the story. But what has been missing is that the hero is not active in accomplishing each step.  She just shows up.

We’re going to change that.

Another “rule” you may have run afoul of in your own writing is: ALWAYS USE ACTIVE VOICE, NEVER PASSIVE VOICE. Most new writers I’ve interacted with take that to mean just replace all of your passive verbs with active verbs. Nope.  I mean, sure, do that; it will make your book more interesting and stuff, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you don’t have to become the verb police. What the suggestion actually means is make sure there are things going on in your story, that you move from one scene to the next through activity, rather than by telling us about activity.  “Show, don’t tell” means just that.  Rather than say, “They played basketball while they talked,” have them actually moving the ball around during their dialogue. That’s active voice.

But it isn’t always enough, as I’ve recently learned. You can have a very active voice and still not have your character doing anything. My point is this: you can’t just collect a stone tablet full of writing commandments and prop them up and look at them when you write. You need to understand the reason behind the advice and know when it is acceptable — or even appropriate — to ignore it. No “rule” is correct 100% of the time. Learn about that 2% when it’s not.

*Any advice that contains “never” or “always” is probably suspect. You will be able to find countless books where the author blatantly broke that rule, and did so successfully.  It’s like evolution; the ways in which we tell stories are always changing.

I Got Nothing

Posted: November 9, 2016 in Uncategorized



Last week I talked about the importance of stakes in your fiction.  Basically: get some.

Fine, but how do you find them?  Where do you put them?  How do you make them work?  To clarify, “stakes” are the thing the hero of your story is after.  The thing they are invested in.  The thing that makes your reader want to turn the page to find out if they succeed.  Most tension is derived from the stakes, because if we don’t care about them, roadblocks won’t bother us.

There are two basic kinds of stakes: Personal Stakes and Public Stakes.

At first glance, you might think Public Stakes are automatically bigger, and therefor better for your story.  Saving the world, or the town, or even just the clock tower are bigger than your character, and so the obstacles are naturally bigger as well.  However Personal Stakes are often more emotional, and if you have a character in which your reader can identify, those personal stakes become magnified.  An orphan boy who is forced to live under the stairs is automatically more sympathetic than a local official.  So if that boy’s stakes are to become a wizard, say, your reader might be more interested than the governor trying to save the town from bankruptcy.  Surely, keeping thousands of people from ruin is bigger than one boy becoming a wizard, but which do you prefer to read about?

Of course, of you can include both kinds of stakes in your story, that much better.  But if you have to pick just one, stories with strong personal stakes tend to be more popular and sell better.

So you have your stakes.  Where do you put them?  My advice — as close to the beginning as possible. Certainly within the first 50 pages.  It’s not absolutely necessary to put them on page 1, but the earlier the better.  Getting readers (and agents) to turn the page once they are invested is easy (well easier). But how do you get them invested in the first place?  Your stakes.  They have to want it as much as your character.  So if you can build you stakes into your hook, you’re golden.  The natural place to define the stakes is the Inciting Incident, which is the first major plot point, but stakes = tension, and tension = suspense, and all of those = reader interest.  So if you’re struggling to find a way to make your opening irresistible, consider introducing your stakes early.

Okay, you’ve gotten your stakes and introduced them.  Now, how do you make them work for you?  Simple: you add suspense.  That boy who wants to be a wizard?  Make his family block his efforts, introduce a bully, make him powerless to pursue his dream.  Oh, and put him in the dark about his past and any advantage he might have.  Create roadblocks.  Add time limits.  Let him fail and lose faith and momentum.  Build the tension and suspense.  The purpose of all this is to force your character to act, and give him/her opportunities to fail, which in turn further raise the stakes.  And the purpose of all of that is to make your reader unable to put your book down, because they need to know what happens next and what happens in the end.

And that’s all there is to it.  Easy as becoming a wizard.



Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go.  I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too.  It was really quite a game-changer.

What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.

  1. something that is wagered in a game, race, or contest.
  2. a monetary or commercial interest, investment, share, or involvement in something, as in hope of gain: I have a big stake in the success of the firm.
  3. a personal or emotional concern, interest, involvement, or share: Parents have a big stake in their children’s happiness.
  4. the funds with which a gambler operates.


In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal?  Another word for this is “suspense.”

To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end.  And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.

This is, apparently, not sufficient.

Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch.  For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.

We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed.  In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story.  In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.

It needs to be.  In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails.  And remember, failure is an option.  It depends on what kind of book you want to write.

What does this look like?  Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it.  Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome.  Before midnight tomorrow.  Now you have some suspense.  Can you do it?  How will you do it in time?  How will you get past security?  Do you have the skill and equipment?  What if you get caught?

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic.  A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man.  But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister.  A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.

So how do you sharpen the stakes?  Pour on the pressure.  The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too.  But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation.  And when he gets jealous he drinks.  The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family.  If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.

For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him.  That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal.  It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire.  The kitten has to be personally important to the hero.  Ask yourself this question:  What would happen to your hero if he/she fails?  If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.

This’s what was missing from our book.  We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough.  It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life.  Not enough suspense.  But now we know how to fix that.  We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes.  But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.


Rejection always sucks.  No doubt about it.

Our dream agent — the one who was so enthusiastic and speedy in her praise and interest — has decided to pass on THE LAST PRINCESS, despite our revision.  She did say that our efforts were very good, and that we satisfied many of her concerns.  Interestingly enough, the major reason she stated for deciding not to represent this book was not one she had mentioned in her previous comments.  So I’m not sure how she expected that aspect to change.

It really doesn’t matter. She said no; there’s no point in begging or pleading or asking why.

December and January are notoriously dead months for agents, so we won’t be renewing our querying efforts again until February.  This is probably a good thing, because I don’t want to try to compose query letters feeling down.  Time will heal.

I’m philosophical.  We’ve had rejections before; this is not much different.  Sure, we got our hopes up.  It happens.  That just means there was more than ordinary interest.  There’s nothing bad about that.  But there are two other very positive things about this experience. First, it didn’t take very long.  It would be fairly standard to wait three months to hear back on a query, then another several months to evaluate a full manuscript and provide the kind of detailed feedback we received.  We got through that in little over a week.  Some authors take six months to complete an R&R.  We did it in less than two.  And we had our final answer less than a month after that.  So this could have taken over a year, and we got through it all in about three months.  Second, we got excellent professional feedback on our manuscript, and as a result of our revision, we have a much more marketable and appealing book.  So this one step back is really kind of two steps forward.

In the meantime, we’re moving forward on our second book.  And the more of that we have finished, the better we look when an agent does take an interest.


My daughter and I are in the final stages (knock on wood!) of querying our middle grade contemporary fantasy novel, The Last Princess.  In case you’re new to this blog, the story is basically this:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie folk crown her their princess. But she must embrace the heartbreak of her Trollish heritage to rescue her kidnapped BFF, because nobody wants a troll for a princess.

Cat goes on to become Princess of the Fae-born and discovers some amazing truths about herself and her family, and makes a whole royal court full of new friends.

Now, however, we are starting on our second book, the sequel to the first, and we’re faced with a question: How much backstory do we need to provide at the beginning of the second book?

A lot happens in the first book.  It would not be easy (or particularly interesting) to recount all of it for new readers. But if I don’t the sequel cannot be a stand-alone book.  How important is that, for middle grade readers?

There are other layers to consider. At the very minimum, we need to remind the reader of how our universe works — who are the fae-born and where did they come from, and what kind of magic do they have.  Also, it might be good to remind them of the important insights Cat gained as a result of her adventures.

What we want to avoid (if we can) is explaining who everybody is in a large cast of characters. Who they are, how Cat knows them, their shared history, etc. We’ll never get this book off the ground if we have to explain all of this.

Do you think we are on the right track, or do we need to step back and rethink the opening — or ad a descriptive prologue — to bring everybody up-to-speed?  As it is now, we pick up where we left off, with some fun action. But it won’t really make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the characters.

Please discuss.

Gym shoes isolated [with clipping path]

NEWS FLASH: We received a partial request from one of the participating editors in Pitch to Publication!

The request did not, alas, come from the editor who had previously short-listed me. So there is a bit of disappointment there. This request came quite out of the blue, from one of the other editors we had submitted to. So it was rather heart-stopping to see that e-mail in my inbox.

I had been following all of the editors participating in #PitchtoPublication, because many of them periodically tweeted comments about the queries they had been given, and such hints are very tantalizing:

PTP tweet

Is that tweet about us? Ours is funny, right? How many middle grade fantasies can she have received?

It’s torture, but you can’t not look. Of the five editors we had submitted to for this contest, only three of them were tweeting about it, and our partial request came from one of those who had not said a word. So, PLOP! that shoe just dropped into our lap out of nowhere. So we sent off our shiny new first 50 pages — newly rewritten and revised based on the amazing feedback we’ve been getting from our summer workshop.

What all of this really means is the rewrites are working.  We got noticed by two readers in a contest when we had never gotten noticed before. So even if we do not make it through in this highly competitive and subjective contest, we know our sample pages and first 250 words are working now, and can query with confidence.

Watch this space; the third shoe will drop next Monday, the 20th, and we’ll know if our editor chose our manuscript. I’ll announce the results here.


Before you get excited, let me clear something up. This is not about canning prunes.

Okay.  On to new business.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that for the last few weeks I have been talking about accepting that you may need to rewrite.  That it is okay to let go of your favorite bits when they are not working.  If you’re still struggling with this in your own writing, just know that I feel your pain.  I’d been nursing my chapter one for as long as I’ve been writing this novel with my daughter.  Many parts of it harken back to the very first draft written entirely by the seat of my pants — before we had a plot or an outline or even much of a story.  It was hard to let it go.  But I’m a better writer now, and I’ve come through the entire novel-writing process and out the other side, so I know these characters and their situation thoroughly, now. The chapter one I let go of had so much bondo and touch-up paint on it, it only seemed well-constructed to the most casual glance.  The new chapter one is the chapter our book deserves.

But replacing the old with the new is only one part of the process of editing your book.  There is another process that is just as important, and no less difficult.  Maybe even more difficult.

Cutting without the intent to replace it with something better.  Just cutting.

My rewrites were inspired by some recent critiques I received on chapter one of The Last Princess, and one of those comments was that the chapter was too long for a middle grade novel.  I accepted that; it’s a notion I’ve been flirting with for a year.  And having accepted that fact, I was natually able to see that chapter two — which is substantially longer — must also be too long.  At first I thought I might simply devide chapter two in half and make two shorter chapters, but that pushed the inciting incident all the way to chapter four, and that was too far.  No, I had to rewrite chapter two to be shorter, too. But completely aside from rewriting it, I actually just removed large chunks of the story — entire paragraphs at a time.

In fact, I cut half of the chapter and replaced it all with one short scene. Because I could now see that the whole point of that scene was to convey one fairly important idea. And I could convey that idea just as well, if not better, in a shorter scene without all of the unneeded filler.

When all was said and done, I’d actually cut over 3,000 words just in those first two chapters.  Ten pages. The first two chapters fairly catapult you into the story, now.  The pacing is so much better, now.  I guess all I needed was permission to cut. And the sun shines through so much better now that I have.  I didn’t kill the tree — oh, no!  By pruning I’ve given the tree new life and more energy than ever before.

So let me save you some anguish and time: Go ahead. Cut. I give you permission.


Just a little gif(t)* for those of my brother and sister writers wallowing in query hell right now. Courtesy of Rae Chang.

*See what I did, there?

Bleeding Ink, Inc

What? Another silly gif post, Rae? What’s the matter with you?


Don’t you have better things to do?

another excellent

Okay, I’ll be straight with you, I have a billion things I’m supposed to be doing right now. But I feel like a few people — very much including myself — can benefit from this. So . . .


You ready? Got your unicorn cup of (insert beverage here) ready? Grand.

Let’s have some straight talk, people.

Being a writer.

That’s what we all do. That’s why we’re here. Well, lemme tell you something that most of you already know. We are freaking masochists. On the first day of Brandon Sanderson’s class, he says something to effect of “If you are thinking of being a writer and would be happy doing anything else, do that instead.”

Is it because he hates you? Or writing? (My guess is . . . probably not.)

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