My point of view, second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Dawdle and Plant Seeds

We’re almost done with the second draft. We’ve looked at how this draft is the place to strengthen our voice, build emotional muscle, knead a story into shape, and let go of things we may love, but which aren’t working. The final thing to do before finishing this draft is to dawdle and plant seeds.

Dawdle? Are you kidding? I’ve been working on this book absolutely forever. I want it done. Now! No way am I dawdling at this point.

Think again.

In the first draft, the focus was on two things

  • Goal, motivation, and disaster: Who wants what? Why do they want it? What’s preventing them from getting what they want, or if they do get it, how is it different than they thought it would be? This is the builder’s equivalent of preparing the lot, digging a basement, pouring concrete, framing, and roofing a house. It’s where the heavy lifting gets done.
  • Satisfying the demands of the genre. For mysteries, this means clues, red herrings, detective work, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Following the building analogy, this is all of those choices to be made. Carpet or hardwood floors? Paint, wallpaper, or paneling? Appliances? Faucets and taps? Lighting?

The second draft is where interior decorating happens

  • Enhance every chapter’s first and last lines.
  • Where can the story’s volume be adjusted up or down? When should the story go over the top? When should the story be a seductive whisper?
  • Sprinkle flash symbols through the book. A little hazy on flash symbols? Check here.
  • Mix and match characters, narrative lines, settings. Elements that serve more than one purpose or function enrich the story’s density. The rest of this list was taken from Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I strongly recommend this book to all mystery writers.

Deepen the context

  • Appeal to the senses
  • Establish a sense of place
  • Evoke mood
  • Provide texture
  • Sketch a description

Humanize the characters

  • Change sexual tension
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Ground or anchor characters (needs to be done periodically, not just once)
  • Increase a character’s insight
  • Increase what is known about a character

Offer a perspective or counter perspective

  • Juice up the plot
  • Change pacing, emotion, or suspense
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

Embellish with

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Foreshadowing
  • Comic relief
  • Irony
  • Surprise!

And, finally, there’s the landscaping: plant seeds for future books. This is especially important if the book is part of a series. We may know what seeds we’re planting, or we may have no idea at all. Knowing isn’t important. The idea is to plant possibilities than can be explored in subsequent books. Seeds may be as simple as a single line of dialog or a short description.

  • “I had a brother, but he died.”
  • Marcy had seen enough of Chicago, thank you very much. As far as she knew, the warrant for her was still outstanding.

That’s the second draft. When it’s done, take a break.

Put the manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks. Like making bread or aging fine wine, the material needs a chance to settle down before we begin the final content revision.

And that’s just what we’re going to do. Next week, November 11, will be a Remembrance Day blog. We’ll resume our writing the novel journey on Tuesday, November 18, with Final Content Revision. See you then.

second draft, Writing

Write the Novel – Letting Go

Writing a second draft isn’t a matter of tidying up. That comes later. The second draft is where we take things apart, cut away the dead wood, and reassemble the remaining pieces so that the seams hardly show. For the second draft, the questions for each sentence, scene, and chapter are not do we like this or is it fun to write?

Does it work?

The question is, is it working? Letting go of writing we love that isn’t working is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

Prologues don’t work. Neither do epilogues. For the second draft, ditch them both. Don’t panic. You still have copies of them and, if you decide later it’s absolutely necessary, add them back, but try at least one draft without them.

Here’s an unfortunate truth, the harder a scene is to write, the more likely it needs to be written that way. Other things that don’t work include long telephone conversations; scenes where people are cooking, eating or driving; monologues; too much back story; and expository lumps. All of those are writing the easy way out. Change backstory to context (See my earlier backstory blog), and rewrite everything else.

The Big Reveal

The big reveal in a mystery is two-fold: who did it, and, often more important, why they did it. We’re talking stakes. Large public stakes (what matters to the world in which the character lives) and large private stakes (what matters to the character). What’s wrong with these big reveals?

  • He forced me to end my pregnancy, and now I can’t have children.
  • I had to cover for him. He’s my real father (or fill in the relationship of your choice).
  • What no one knew was that there were two babies born that night. Identical twins, one destined to be raised with every advantage and one pushed aside to live in poverty.
  • I built this company from nothing. He was going to ruin it. I couldn’t let that happen.

If  your answer is the stakes aren’t high enough, you’re absolutely correct. All of these motivations have been used to the point of boredom. What we want is to keep the reader awake nights.

Is the ending untidy? — It should be.

I don’t mean those time we spend behind a closed bathroom door because we want to avoid keeping our significant other awake while we read until two or three in the morning. I mean those times we lie awake in the dark thinking of the implications the ending created for the character (private stakes) and the character’s world (public stakes). What we want to do is resolve the story without solving the issues.

Pro Se was an episode of Law and Order that I saw in 1996. That was what, eighteen years ago? It still keeps me awake.

A brilliant young man had a severe mental health condition. If he took his meds life was, as he described it, “I feel like I’m pawing through a wool blanket. I get so damn tired just holding on to reality.” He could go through a daily routine, washing, eating, etc., but he was incapable of any productive mental activity. He couldn’t concentrate enough work, read, or follow a television program.

If he stopped his meds he’d have a few productive weeks before he spiralled downward. By the time his spiral began, he was no longer capable of choosing to resume his meds.

He became so unstable that he picked a clothing store at random, and attacked everyone inside with a bayonet. The public stakes were huge: commit him to a mental hospital and, when he was released — as he inevitably would be — he’d eventually go off his meds and likely kill again. The private stakes were huge, too: the longer her was confined to a mental ward, the longer he took his meds, the less likely he’d be to function when he was released. It was a completely no-win situation.

In the end, he was ordered confined, with no possibility of early release to a mental hospital for between 6 and 18 years.

Story resolved, issues not resolved. A great story often has an untidy ending.

Next Tuesday, November 4, we finish up this second draft series with Dawdle and Plant Seeds. The final purpose of a second draft is to slow down in some places and plant seeds for either future books, or for untidy endings if this is a stand-alone.

second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Kneading the Details

Here we are plowing through our second drafts. We’re working on strengthening our voice and building emotional muscle throughout the story. What are we going to do about those ragged lumps?

Ragged lumps

Chances are that we wrote a lot of our first draft without close attention to detail. We liked a character’s name or made up a business name, and used it. Perhaps we have a character with an easily misspelled name and have a sprinkling of Johnsons and Johnsens and Jonsons, all referring to the same character. We set a scene in whatever place occurred to us: a coffee shop, an office, a service station and so on. Likely, we also have notes to ourselves to check facts [Can penthouses still be rented rent on the Chicago Loop or are they now all condos?]

The second draft is where we knead these ragged details into something smooth and shiny, just as bread dough is kneaded.


  • Set up a table with first and last name columns. List each character, with their name correctly spelled. How many characters have first names beginning with the same letter? With the same last letter? If there are two characters with the same name — first, last, or both — is that an accident or an intentional choice, made because it is intended to increase confusion. If needed, rename characters, spreading their names throughout the alphabet so there aren’t, say, five characters whose last names begin with L.
  • Have we inadvertently created a series of names? I read a story recently in which the three main characters were named Sears, Macy, and Bloomingdale. It was very distracting.
  • Do a quick Internet search for each character’s name. Quick means to look at the first 1 to 2 pages of results. What we’re looking for is to make sure we haven’t inadvertently used the name of a sports star, performer, politician, CEO of a major company, etc. That my protagonist has the same name as a woman running a flower shop in Cincinnati won’t stop me from using that name. However, I’d seriously consider changing a character’s name if it turned out he is a well-known quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals or a U. S. Senator from Ohio.
  • Do the same kind of quick search for any businesses for which we created a name. Turns out that there are at least six Longhorn Construction Companies, in four different states. This is not a really good name for my fictional company, which is about to unleash an ecological nightmare.


Rather than using random locations, if we set scenes in places that reinforce our theme, we have a subtle and powerful way of focusing readers’ attention. Let’s imagine that our story is about greed. Where would we find greedy people? Where would we find the opposite, altruistic people or needy people? Instead of the random coffee shop, office, and service station, let’s relocate the scenes to a downtown mission kitchen, a bank president’s office, and a Mercedes-Benz dealership. The locations are essentially the same — an eatery, an office, a car place — but by tweaking them slightly we add texture to the story.

It’s also a good idea, if we can, to reuse locations, having each visit serve a different purpose and a different outcome. Have our protagonist visit that bank president’s office three times. The first time he’s in awe of how palatial it is, and he gets asked to leave. The second time, he comes with more clout, maybe a warrant, and realizes it’s just an office with great carpet. The third time, the previous bank president is no longer there and his successor is having it redecorated. It’s going to be even more palatial, but now the protagonist can distance himself from the greed represented by the decor and walk away.

Killer research

The second draft is the place to tie up all of those niggling research questions because when we move into the third draft, we will be spending our time dealing with nitty-gritty editing details. It pays to have the story as right as possible by the end of the second draft.

Yes, it is possible to rent a penthouse in the Chicago Loop. My character is paying $6,500 a month in rent for one. Hmm, wonder where he’s getting all that money?

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 28th, for Second Draft — Making Hard Choices. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but some of our favorite parts are likely on their way out.

second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Build Emotional Muscle

If real estate is location, location, location, a novel’s second draft is emotion, emotion, emotion. Many writers, myself included, write the first draft focused on what comes next. The second draft is where we need to spend more time on why does what come next matter?

My heroine is a young woman, Marcie, whose best friend, Lorraine, recently died from a poisonous spider bite while on a Caribbean vacation. The island’s police department’s opinion is that her death was a tragic and unavoidable accident.  Neither Lorraine’s mother nor Marcie believe that. Marcie has been interviewing Lorraine’s co-workers who were on vacation with her, and she’s sure Lorraine’s death had something to do with a research project Lorraine’s company is doing.

A sub-plot is Marcie ditching her current boyfriend, who’s a jerk, and getting involved with a police constable she meets in the course of her investigation.


I’m working on the second draft of the scene where she breaks up with the boyfriend. Here’s how it played out in the first draft:

Marcie works at a small manufacturing company in an industrial area. She has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone, so she calls a couple of friends who live close to where she works, but neither of them can come and help her. She calls her boy friend, whose watching a hockey game, and can’t be bothered. This makes Marcie so mad that she throws caution to the wind and leaves.

The business has an alarm system, with a time lock and an over-ride code, so people working late can get out, but once the door has closed, they can’t get back in again. When Marcie gets to her car she discovers she has a flat tire. She has to walk all the way home. By the time she gets there, she’s so angry at her boyfriend that they have a fight and break up, thus paving the way for her to meet the constable a couple of chapters later.


How did I do in the first draft?

  • Does this scene connect in any way to my main plot, solving Lorraine’s murder? Not really.
  • Are there high stakes here? Breaking up with her boyfriend is important to her, but will the reader really care?
  • Is Marcie behaving consistently? No. She’s afraid to walk across a parking lot alone, but willing to walk several miles to get home?
  • Is Marcie showing that she’s a tough, smart heroine? Not really. She has a cell phone. Why doesn’t she call a cab? Or AAA or a garage to come and fix her tire? Come to think of it, if she’s that worried, why does she leave the building in the first place? Spending the night on the receptionist’s couch might not be comfortable, but at least it would be safe.
  • How’s the emotional quotient? Not terrific. She gets mad and does something stupid. Then she gets mad and does something likely stupid. Not much range there.
  • Is there anything else about this scene I don’t like? Phone conversations are notorious tension killers and I have three of them – two with friends and one with the boyfriend.
  • Is there anything about this scene I like? I do like the one-way alarm, that she can get out of the building, but not back in. That forces her to take action.

Fixes for the second draft

  • Find a way to relate this to the main plot.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Expect Marcie to behave consistently, and act like a tough, smart heroine.
  • Raise the emotional quotient: give her more an emotional range, and varied responses.
  • Make the phone calls much less a part of the scene or delete them all together.
  • Keep the one-way alarm.

Second draft rewrite

Marcie has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone. She considers spending the night on the receptionist’s couch, but she’s emotionally drained after spending all day talking about Lorraine, and she wants the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. It’s a wide open parking lot and her car is parked under a light. She could see if anyone approached her. She calls 911, explains the situation to the dispatcher, and asks her to stay on the line until she’s safely in her car. The dispatcher isn’t keen to do this, but Marcie stands up for what she needs, and the dispatcher agrees.

When Marcie gets to her car, she’s horrified to discover that her car is full of snakes. She screams.

The police dispatcher gets a lot more interested in what’s happening. She’s sending a patrol car and advises Marcie to go back inside the building, which she can’t do because of the one-way alarm. She sees an unmarked car turning into the gate at the far end of the parking lot. It has a flashing red light on it’s dashboard. Relieved, Marcie commends the dispatcher for getting a car to her so quickly.

The dispatcher says she hasn’t yet dispatched a car and, in any case, it would be a patrol car, not an unmarked.

Marcie runs for her life. The car speeds up and aims straight for her. She manages to hide and hears a siren approaching. The person in the unmarked car pulls a U-turn in the parking lot, and crashes through a wooden barrier to get away. The patrol car tries to follow, but the car gets away. The patrol car returns.

The dispatcher convinces Marcie that this is the officer she dispatched, so Marcie comes out of her hiding place. The officer, who’s going to be the new boyfriend, is very kind to her. Together they go back to look at her car. Not only is it full of snakes, but there’s a note taped to the steering wheel. “There are a lot more where these came from. Stop asking questions.”

Now that has emotional muscle.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 21, for our next instalment about second drafts — how to knead a story like a baker kneads bread. It’s vital to make raggedy bits come together.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Flash Symbols

We select ties, scarves, jewelry, shoes, and socks or stockings to bring clothes together into a look. We need to do the same thing with flash symbols, also called associative devices. These are micro-details that reinforce theme, plot, character, or other major story elements. They may appear as props, analogues, parallels, reversals, setting reuse, and sense of time.

Flash symbols should appear early in the story—bonus points if we get one into the first paragraph—and reappear frequently.

Don’t worry too much about flash symbols in our first, unfinished draft. The first complete rewrite is a good place to add them.


Physical objects to which the characters relate in a special way. Cliches: coffee machine used as comic relief; junker cars that break down at the crucial moment. Ditto: electrical devices that aren’t charged and unlovable animals taken home by the protagonist, with which they form a love-hate relationship.

For a list of props that can be used in new ways, see Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.


Analogues are stand-ins. In their most basic form they become cliches. Hot red sports cars stand in for sex. A chocolate malt stands in for innocence. When their meanings are woven deeper into the story, they become more effective.

In Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses geography. Mountain are pure, clean, affirming places; plains and valleys are the struggle of being human. Whenever Frederic and Catherine are in mountains, good things happen to them. When they descend into valleys, bad things.

Parallels and Reversals

Parallels are the symbol equivalent of sub-plots, running alongside the main plot. They often involve secondary characters, and contain reversals. One couple gets engaged; another couple breaks up.

Major events at the climax should be woven in, in microcosm throughout the novel. Parallels and reversals need to be used to preview the climax. There’s a fine line between previewing the climax and telegraphing the ending.

Slapstick comedy telegraphs. As soon as the huge, cream-covered birthday cake appears, the audience knows someone is either going to fall into it, or throw it at someone.

Setting Reuse

Avoid settings there for the writer’s convenience. The most over-used settings are people sitting at a table talking and/or eating and the protagonist alone in a car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Settings like these are boring, made doubly so by the character lapsing into internal musings.

Revisit the same places throughout the book and twist the setting each time so that it means something different. This is particularly important for the place where our climax takes place. The climax isn’t just the big thing. It’s also small things that will never be the same again.

In the final scene there should be a memorable object. Plant the same object or its analog at least twice elsewhere in the novel. If twice is good, how many more times could we plant it? Give its meaning a slightly different twist each time? Allow the protagonist to see something in that final setting that others miss. He or she alone — and the reader, of course — recognize the significance.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t just draw the mountain, he sculpts it in mashed potatoes. At the movie’s climax, it’s essential that he knows the mountain in three dimensions.

Sense of time

Do characters in historical books have values and behave consistently with how people believed and acted in their particular time? It’s critical that they do. Time periods that a reader knows or is interested in attract them. They will know when we get it wrong and it will turn them off. Fortunately, many writers chose time settings that they lived through or know well. If that’s not the case, the solution is research, research, research.

When writing in another era, it’s far more important to know how people thought or acted than it is to know product brand names or television shows. Use primary sources whenever possible. A primary source is one written, filmed, or made by people living at a certain time. They include diaries, works published at the time, scrapbooks, postcards, photographs, films, and physical objects. Interviewing people who lived through the time is also good, but be sure to allow for memory distortion.

In the same way, once we’ve written a good character introduction, determined theme, or tuned into what props, analogs, and settings work for this book, we’ve set ourselves on a path. We know that it’s highly likely we’re going to stray from this path as the book unfolds, but at least we’ve taken the first step out of the door.

For further exploration

I’d love to write about black moments and managing micro-tension next. Learning about them moved my writing to a new level. However, all of my notes come straight from a Donald Maass workshop, and I’d rather you let him explain it to you. Once more, I recommend  The Fire in Fiction.

Hope to see you back on Thursday, September 18, for the third part of our habits’ discussion — Habits for Ending: we’ve finished a huge project. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!

Strangely enough, next Tuesday, September 23, there is a companion blog We’ve Finished Draft Zero — Now what? How to tidy up and get ready for the next draft.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 2

Last week I wrote about how many primary, secondary, and tertiary plots are needed for a book. The short answer is start with one of each, and see how it goes.

In genre fiction, the primary plot is a given

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Mystery — solving a crime, usually murder
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Thriller — save the world, or some portion of it
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

Primary plots are always about opposition

  • Adventure — think Samwise Gamgee taking one more step away from the Shire than he’s ever taken before
  • Mystery — good versus evil
  • Romance — love versus obstacles
  • Science fiction/fantasy — keeping the status quo versus, sometimes literally, reaching for the stars
  • Thriller — destruction versus salvation
  • Western — ranchers versus farmers, water versus drought, order versus chaos


Do we really need a secondary plot?

In most cases, yes. A primary plot sets up two dimensions, something versus something else. The next step is to turn that into three dimensions, by adding depth. That’s were secondary plots come in. These are some ways that secondary plots add depth to a story.

Explore the primary problem from a different angle, with a different outcome

Our story is about familiar abduction: relatives who haven’t been awarded custody or have been prevented by the court from seeing a child kidnap that child. Our secondary plot is that the protagonist’s best friend confesses she was kidnapped as a child. This might be used to give more depth to the search for the missing child. Or it might be used for humor, the best friend was kidnapped by a free-spirited relative. Her stories about her and her aunt on the run become funnier and more bizarre as the book progresses.

Avoid mismatching tones of primary and secondary plots. If this is a dark story with significant danger, even the possibility of death, for the kidnapped child, matching it with the zany aunt on the run won’t do either plot any good.

Link two stories, separated by geography or time

Vicki Lane is absolutely wonderful in doing this with her Elizabeth Goodweather series. One plot line is current day, one is in the past, and what links them is the geography. Both stories happen in the same place.

The trick here is that the secondary plot can’t be all back story, one person telling other people about what happened. We have to actually take the reader to the different location and/or the different time. This usually involves having more than one point of view character.

In a series, bring forward a tertiary plot

Our story is about being killed for not paying gambling debts. During the series, one of the background characters is known to have a gambling problem. This is the book where he gets a larger role, so that by the end of the book, he’s admitted he has a problem and is seeking help.


Tertiary plots fill in holes

While secondary plots are almost always needed, tertiary plots are optional. They add a bit of sparkle. In quilting, this is known as a zest strip, which is a thin line of cloth, often no wider than 1/2 inch, which picks up one of the colors in other fabrics and adds zest or pop to the quilt. Uses for tertiary plots include

Thread a background plot forward through a series

This is the gambler above. His problem gets to hover in the background until we need it.

Thread the source of a vital piece of information through the book so it doesn’t appear out of nowhere

In the last episode of Magnum, the primary plot is Magnum reuniting with his daughter, Lilly. The secondary plot is Rick getting married. Akin to the secondary plot is Magnum, a member of the wedding party, missing every fitting appointment for his wedding clothes.

Viewers assumed this was a comic tertiary plot, and that Magnum would get to the last fitting with seconds to spare; that Higgings would produce a perfectly fitting tuxedo out of thin air; or that Magnum would show up for the formal wedding dressed in his usual Hawaiian shirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Just in case there is a single person on the planet who hasn’t seen this episode and still plans to, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say that what he shows up wearing is a total surprise, which carried the final episode to a new level.

Increase the word count

We’ve written a great book, but our editor says it’s 5,000 words too short. In all likelihood, we’ve said what needs to be said about our primary and secondary plots. Rather than try to pad, throw in a small, third-level plot.


How much is enough?

I’m wearing my personal opinion hat. These figures aren’t scientific. This is my best educated guess, honed over a decade and a half of serious writing. Feel free to debate with me.

  • The primary plot needs to be in every chapter. Period. If it’s not there, what is that chapter doing in the book?
  • The secondary plot should not be more than 1/5 to 1/4 of the book; for a 330 page book, that’s 66 to 82 pages. Any longer than that and it threatens to overwhelm the primary plot.
  • The tertiary plot should not be more than 1/10 of the book; even 1/20 may be enough. For the same size book, that 16 to 33 pages.

How do we know how much secondary and tertiary plot we’ve written?

We count the number of pages. That’s not as onerous as it sounds. First, we skip counting occasional two or three lines of dialog. So if our Magnum episode were a book, an exchange like this wouldn’t need to be counted.

“You missed another appointment with the tailor.”

“I know, I know. Later, Rick.”

Count no earlier than the second draft; third draft might be even better. I’m assuming we’re working in either Word or Scrivener.

  • Pick two bright highlight colors, one for the secondary plot, one for the tertiary plot. Let’s say blue for secondary; and yellow for tertiary.
  • Scroll through the document, looking for secondary and tertiary scenes. Highlight the first and last lines of those scene.
  • Once we’ve been through the entire document, set the view so multiple pages are seen at one time. The blue and yellow lines will stick out. Estimate the number of pages for each scene.
  • Look at not only the number of pages, but spacing as well. Do the blue and yellow colors pop up with some regularity, or does the tertiary plot disappear for 200 pages, then suddenly reappear. Not good; needs fixing.

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 9, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Thursday, September 4th, because we’re all trying to get back in the school year habits, Level Thinking will discuss forming new habits.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 1

I am so red-faced. This ended up in draft status last week, instead of queueing for posting. My sincere apologies.

Last week I wrote about the primary plot, the thing that drives a story. Secondary plots are smaller threads that weave themselves through and around the primary plot. Tertiary plots are grace notes, which pick up highlights, the way beading picks up highlights in embroidery.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.

Consider an imaginary mystery, Devil at the Dinner Table. The theme is how a couple in their fifties cope with major changes.

Minette and Dougie Shaw live in Drumheller, Alberta. Dougie owns a feed-and-hardware store. Minette is assistant manager at a local grocery.

Primary Plots

  • The RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, so to clear her husband, Minette solves the murder.

Secondary and Tertiary Plots

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt, and in addition to working at the grocery, she starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes and that his poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays, and since Minette is desperate for money to start her business, she begs Eustacia to be her partner.
  • When their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break, Minette tells her there’s no more money for tuition.
  • It’s a combination Christmas story/family reunion.

Consider this

Gone with the Wind had one primary plot and one secondary plot.

  • Primary plot: Scarlet O’Hara learns that men are real people, not toys.
  • Secondary plot: She survives the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • Everything in the book’s 1,024 pages relates to those two plots.

In contrast, Devil at the Dinner Table has so many primary plots, secondary, and tertiary plots that it’s unlikely any author could finish writing it or any reader would want to read it.

As I wrote last week, the primary plot in any mystery novel is solve the murder. We’ve got that, so we’re okay there.

At first glance, it appears that there are a walloping six secondary and tertiary plots. Look again. See how many sentences have and, so, but, because, in addition to or semi-colons? Keep in mind one simple sentence equals one plot. Every time one of those conjunction words or punctuation marks appear, we’ve slid into another plot.

Breaking down our original list

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt.
  • She starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes.
  • Poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays.
  • Minette begs Eustacia to be her business partner.
  • Their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break.
  • Jade discovers there is no money for tuition.
  • It’s a Christmas story.
  • It’s a family reunion story.

Trust me, eleven subplots are too many. Ways to winnow down subplots include determining the difference between an incident and a subplot; refusing to two-step in plot development, and focusing only on the subplots that relate directly to the main plots.

An incident is one emotionally-charged event, which may be crucial to the story, but the reader doesn’t follow it as a thread throughout the book. In Gone with the Wind, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death was an incident, not a subplot. Incidents both turn the current plot, and sow seeds for future books.

Jade learning there is no money her tuition is an incident, rather than a secondary plot. Jade can either be emotionally supportive to her parents, or flounce out in heated anger. In either case, in a series, no resolution is needed in this book. Let the unanswered question of what will Jade do now hang there, and pick it up in the next book.

On the other hand, a good secondary plot runs through not only a single book, but the entire series, like a ripple of pink fabric running through an otherwise blue-and-green quilt.

Two-stepping belongs on the dance floor, not in subplots. Minette learns that Dougie’s business is failing, and convinces Eustacia to be her partner, and founds her own business is not only two-stepping, it’s three-stepping. Each element could be the focus of one book. It’s important to bring series characters along using baby steps. Finding out the business is in trouble is enough for one book. Stay there. Dive deep into all the implications of a fifty-something wife, learning her financial security just disappeared. Look at it from different angles. Wring it out for all it is worth. Let it fill the entire book.

Finally, focus only on secondary and tertiary plots that relate directly to the main plot. How much does Dougie’s diabetes contribute to the story? More important, how much of the book’s word budget will the author spend on visits to the doctor, Minette learning to cook diabetic meals, conflicts between Minette and Dougie about is he or isn’t he doing what the doctor said, and the inevitable diabetic reaction at the book’s climax? The likely return on investment won’t be worth it.

Books set in December can’t help but be holiday stories, but adding a family reunion to everything else pushes the book over the top.

A revised, and manageable, plot list for Devil at the Dinner Table might look like this.

Primary Plot

  • When the RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, Minette clear her husband by solving the murder.

Secondary Plot

  • Minette discovers her financial security has disappeared.

Tertiary Plot

  • Eustacia, Minette’s cousin-from-heck, arrives unexpectedly to spend Christmas.

Next Tuesday, September 9, I hope you’ll be back for Secondary and Tertiary Plots – Part 2. We’ll look at how to recognize secondary and tertiary plots and how much of a book should be devoted to each plot.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Primary Plot

In any book, the primary plot is where the heavy lifting gets done. It’s what the book is about. Those of us who write genre fiction know there are both restrictions and freedoms. Genre stories are always about a single theme.

  • Adventure — salvation quest
  • Romance — overcome obstacles to find love
  • Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
  • Western — land, water, and a chance to start over

For mystery novels, it’s solving murder. Period. No, it wasn’t always like that, and there may come a future time when it’s different again, but for right now, it’s murder. There is a little more leeway in mystery short stories. Some are about revenge, theft, or uncovering secrets. For thrillers, it’s how much damage will be done, and to whom, before threat is quelled.

Here’s the primary plot of any mystery novel

  • Someone dies.
  • Someone investigates.
  • A limited number of suspects are identified.
  • Clues, red herrings, and obstructions confuse the issue.
  • Likely, a second person dies. This death strikes the investigator closer to home than the first one.
  • Danger rises; prices are paid. There may be additional deaths.
  • The final clue is uncovered.
  • There is a show down between good and evil.
  • The characters resume changed lives.

Keeping all those balls in the air is a lot of work. It’s what we writers lose sleep over, discuss endlessly, and buy writing software programs to help us do. Learning how to do manage our primary plot is what our lifetime commitment to writing is all about. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. If there were, I’d put it in this blog and we could all meet on some restaurant patio to eat nachos and the adult beverages of our choice. Instead of the magic bullet, here are two thoughts I had recently while attending a great writers’ convention.

To plot or not to plot

Each writer has a different take on how much of the book to plot out in advance. I once met a writer who claimed to have a 150 page outline for a 300 page book. That seemed excessive.

The shortest premise for a book was, “I met someone who has an idea for a mystery about a dinosaur detective in Los Angeles. He doesn’t quite know where it’s going yet.”

At first I thought she meant the protagonist was an old-styled, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking LAPD detective. No, she meant he was a Velociraptor named Vincent, and that idea evolved into Anonymous Rex and two other books by Eric Garcia.

Is it better to plot extensively or not? This question surfaced once again at that writers’ convention. My take on this we need to learn to do both. It’s like having different tools in a tool box. Sometimes we need a hammer; sometimes we need a screwdriver. The two are not interchangeable. Plotting and not plotting are not interchangeable. At some point in the story we need to be able to plot down to minute details. At other points, we need the confidence to wing it and trust that the writing gods will smile on us.

Plotting has nothing to do with what comes next

At the writers’ conference, I had lunch with a fellow writer. In answer to the question, “What are you’re working on?” I received a long list of “and thens.” . . . “and then she decides she has to go back to Vancouver . . . and then she runs into an old school friend . . . and then they try to find out why Harold divorced his wife . . . and then . . .”

I found it hard to care, and then, going home I tried to decide why. It was because after the entire recitation I had no clue what was happening inside the character. What motivated her? What internal struggles did she face? How had she grown because of the experience?

“What are you working on?”

  • Answer #1 starts: “University student Jo Fleming survives by driving a cab at night.”
  • Answer #2 starts: “Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life.”
  • Which one grabs you? #2 would certainly grab me more. In fact, it might evolve into an entire book blurb.

A Week to Kill

Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life. When she finally meets the man of her nightmares, they are both a long way from the corner of Bloor and Dundas. With a week to kill in a posh resort where three Canadians have already died, Jo revels in the opportunity to plan a perfect murder. But, she, not her quarry, may be the fourth Canadian tourist to die. Desperately running from an attack, she is horrified to realize the only person who can save her is the man she hates enough to kill.

The primary plot is about what challenges the protagonist, and how her life unravels. Stop plotting what comes next, and try working on how life gets worse and worse for the characters. It’s a great way to approach our primary plots.

There’s more. I hope to see you back on August 26th for secondary and tertiary plots.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Violence as Dialog (VAD)

This is the fourth of our five discussions about critique comments that show up over and over. Today I’m writing about VAD: Violence as dialog.

Think love scenes are hard to write? Try getting violent down on paper. Writing authentic violence is like making authentic Cajun food. A lot of people who think they know how to do it, don’t. My mother, born and raised in south Louisiana, never intentionally blackened a fish and, were she still with us, the average restaurant offering called Jambalaya would send her into hysterics.

Writing violence is one of the times I leave the computer and write in longhand. There is something about pen on paper that lets me get closer to the subject.

Much of what I learned about writing violence came from F. Braun Mcash, a television and movie fight choreographer; and from my husband, who practices a western martial art.

Build to a violent confrontation slowly

Violence should flow out of the story. It is a dialog in which physical actions replace words. Plant seeds early and often that show characters’ abilities to meet violence with violence. The character doesn’t have to be a martial artist expert or have super strength, but if a ninety-pound weakling takes on a motorcycle gang single-handed, with no foreshadowing, it won’t read true.

Start with a small event: a character taking a swing at an inanimate object, or squashing a bug, or getting red-faced, uncontrollably furious when life frustrates him to the max. Show that he has a potential for rage. Also show if he gets off on violence or not. Bonus points if we build in something in his past where violence went horribly wrong.

Build in a physical component. Give her regular exercise, and a reasonable diet. We don’t have to send her to the gun range or the dojo in every other scene, but the reader needs to know that she has a reasonable chance of winning a physical fight.

Violence and setting

In a series, as the character develops, the stakes go up when he is exposed to violence. Part of the power in a violent scene has to do with where it takes place. ~unattributed quote from a panel member, Lover is Murder Conference

Very few violent scenes take place in the front yard of a vine-covered pink cottage. Place can be used to build in an emotional component, too. Maybe it’s a fear of heights. If our character doesn’t like high places, we can get a lot more emotional mileage out of setting the final, violent confrontation on a swinging bridge, or the glass-floor of the Calgary tower, where there seems to be nothing but air and a sheer drop under her feet.

Violence as dialog

Violence may be one of the lines our characters won’t cross, which we all know, really means they won’t cross until this book. Being the crafty authors we are, we’ll poke and prod and twist both the situation and the character until they MUST resort to violence. Watch High Noon, which is a wonderful example of how people behave when faced with violence.

Be as sparing with physical dialog as we are with verbal dialog. It may help to write a verbal exchange, then convert each statement to a physical action.

“Get out of my way.”

“Not this time.”

“I said get out of my way.”

“Make me.”


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Once action begins, dialog stops.

Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Gerard sneered. “Get out of my way.”

First of all, words stop the flow of action. Second, we have such a hard time resisting throwing in words like sneered, demanded, hissed, and so on, which are likely physically impossible. Try to sneer dialog some time. It’s not easy.


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest. Gerard tried to go around him. Michael shifted his weight and blocked him. Gerard’s pulled back his fist. They had taken each other down so many times in training, Michael knew Gerard’s body as well as he knew his lovers. As Gerard’s fist came towards his jaw, he moved his upper body to one side, caught Gerard’s arm, found the vulnerable notch in his wrist, and spun his partner around pinning his arm behind his back. With a practiced hand Michael extracted handcuffs from his belt pouch. The first cuff clicked closed around Gerard’s wrist; a louder click sounded as the second cuff encircled the water pipe. He made sure to take Gerard’s handcuff key before he left. Gerard was still cursing when the elevator door closed.


Violence costs

All violence should advance the plot. Match the actions consequences to how importance the violent act is in advancing the plot. Violence on which the story’s resolution turns should have the most emotional and/or physical costs. All violence should be a turning point in a character’s emotional life. A character may discover she loves violence, or hates it, but she should not come away emotionally unaffected.

When violence happens, the body kicks into a flight-or-fight reaction. Time slows down. Senses become more acute. In extreme cases, beserker rage takes over and the person may not remember details. This is also known as a fugue or dissociative state and may cause the person to selectively forget the violent encounter.

If our character goes into a true fugue state, she may not have the capacity to remember because the chemicals coursing through her body may have prevented memory from being laid down. And no, she won’t get her memory back at a convenient point later in the story because the memory was never built in the first place. She will, however, retain the emotional reactions to something she can neither remember nor understand.

All violence has physical costs. It must cost the character something, even if it is only having to buy a new shirt or make a quick trip to the doctor. Physical effects may take hours or days to appear after a fight. This is especially true with a blow to the head. Injuries may not be painful at first. Vomiting and the shakes are common a few minutes after a fight, as is an intense desire to eat uncontrollably and/or to have sex.

The effects of violence linger. It may take days or weeks to recover emotionally from a violent act, even if the physical consequences were minimal. Nightmares after a fight are a common reaction.

Violence is cumulative. There is a huge body of research that shows physical trauma, even as something as innocent appearing as hitting a soccer ball with the head, leads to micro damage. If the action continues over time, it leads to macro damage. The same is true of emotional reactions.

Two Central America proverbs sum it up: Whether the pitcher strike the stone or the stone the pitcher, the pitcher suffers. Dip the pitcher into the water enough and it finally breaks.

Thursday, August 7th, we’re continuing with our Merit Badges for Writers. This week we have Series Maven, Book Tour Survivor, and Extreme Research.

Next Tuesday, August 12th, we finish up our critique series with BBS – Build a Better Segue: ways to glue those pesky story fragments together.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS)

This is the third in our mini-series of critique abbreviations. Today let’s look at Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS).

A fellow writer once described to me her elaborate plot, which involved jealousy, revenge, and a woman’s ruined reputation. I was enthralled until she said, “Of course, at the end, it turns out to be all a misunderstanding. None of the characters are really bad; it’s just a case of mistaken identity.”

Her characters suffered from a bad case of perfectly nice syndrome and, in the end, it killed her book. She was never able to publish it.

Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, referred to this as TANSTAAFL, pronounced tan-staffle. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)—a term I learned from the writer Sherry Lewis—is much shorter to write.

Free lunches served in bars was popularized in the United States in the last quarter of the 1800s. The Spanish had been doing for centuries with tapas. We see it today in the bowl of chips or pretzels found in many bars, pubs, and taverns.

Whether the free lunch was the oyster soup, roast meat, and buttered bread found in high-end New Orleans clubs or the sausages, pickles, and cheese in less lofty establishments, free food had one thing in common. Salt: a hidden invitation to purchase more drinks.

In the same way, getting rid of PNS invites the reader to be more involved with the characters and to keep reading. PNS shows up in three ways.

The isn’t really bait-and-switch

An easy way to spot it is isn’t really as in, the protagonist’s landlord isn’t really going to evict her; or boss isn’t really that mean; or the protagonist isn’t really in danger here. We can wring so much more drama out of her really being evicted, or his boss being really that mean, or him really being in danger.

If, as my friend wanted to write, none of the characters are really bad and everything was a case of mistaken identity, what we’re pulling on the reader is a bait-and-switch scam. We lead the reader through a series of events designed to make them mistrust the protagonist’s boyfriend only to discover that the women he escorted around town was not only his cousin, but a nun to boot. The final revelation is akin to Orson Wells coming out of character at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast to say he’d dressed up in a sheet and said “Boo” to the listeners.

Bad things happen to good people

If the character’s coffee is always hot and tasty; there’s always a parking spot; people always cooperate with interviews; and, most especially, the protagonist always dodges consequences, our character has PNS.

Actions should have consequences, and characters should have flaws. Yes, the boyfriend really was cheating on the protagonist. Yes, he did go to bed with the other woman. Yes, she did catch a sexually-transmitted disease from him. Now the protagonist and boyfriend have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they will learn to trust one another again, maybe they won’t, but in either case, the writer has a lot more to work with than an actor, popping out to say, “Boo.”

No reaction to significant events

The third flavor of Perfectly Nice Syndrome is when we, as writers, have our eyes so firmly set on plot that we glosses over significant moments. Suppose our character is in heavy traffic and a guy cuts in front of her.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


What? No reaction to almost creaming into the back of a pickup?

A significant moment tests a character’s perception of herself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most of us have dozens of significant moments every day. A guy changes lanes too fast and we almost slam into his rear bumper. A co-workers makes an comment that angers or hurt us. Our child’s school sends an e-mail that says, “Please make an appointment with the principal as soon as possible.”

Do we react? Of course we do. We might curse the driver or pray for his safety. We might turn on the co-worker or fume silently at our desk. We might grab the phone and demand to see the principal in the next ten minutes, or delete the e-mail, hoping if we pretend that we never got it, the problem, whatever it is, will blow over.

Does that mean our characters must react to each significant event, even a broken fingernail?

Pretty much.

The obvious thing is to leave out events that aren’t significant. Why have the protagonist break a fingernail unless it will lead her to the manicurist who leads her to the victim’s aunt, who knows a clue the protagonist didn’t even know she needed?

The good thing is most reactions can be short.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. Her heart pounded. She bent her forehead to touch the steering wheel. “Lord, slow that crazy fool down and keep him safe until he has the good sense to listen to You.”

The pick-up turned right, fading out of Pearl’s sight and thought. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


Pearl’s reaction added four sentences, but we learned a lot about her from that short addition. She has good reflexes for a 72-year-old woman. She’s more religious than spiteful, she prays for her enemies, and she has a sense of humor.

Every rose has a thorn. Every beautiful sunset includes bats swarming out of the old mill. Every favor demands payback—preferably at the most inopportune time. For writers and their characters, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Next Tuesday, July 28th, we’re doing the fourth critique abbreviation — VSOP, or Very Special Old Port. This one is not quite as obvious as the three we’ve already done, so I’ll let you guess for a week what it means.

I’m having such a good time with this mini-series that I’m going to do one on Level Thinking, too. Starting in two days, on July 24, we’ll be doing merit badges for adults. After all, it’s summer. Time to go to camp and earn badges.