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 – 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: The First Complete Rewrite

We did it! Finished draft zero, the unfinished manuscript. Wrote all the way to The End, -30-, or Finished, whatever our choice of ending words were.

The first thing to do is celebrate because we’ve beaten the odds. Most people who say they want to write a novel never start. Most people who start, never finish. We’ve overcome tremendous odds by having a finished manuscript.

The second thing to do is to start the first complete rewrite. An unfinished manuscript, draft zero, is the skeleton. The first complete rewrite, which I call draft one,  is where we add muscle to the story. Here’s what most important in a first rewrite.

  • What we don’t write doesn’t exist.
  • We can not assume that readers knows the characters’ emotional reactions, unless we as the author, tell them what that emotion is.
  • We need action, reaction; action, reaction over and over. Create conflict, disaster, or micro-tension on each page.
  • Resist the urge to hurry: stay in the scene from second to second, from goal to disaster.
  • Layer in active voice sentences, strong verbs, dialogue, body language, leftover emotions from a previous scene, sensory texture.

I’m trying something new with this blog. Go here for an attachment that demonstrates a draft zero version of a scene; the same scene with critique comments added; and then a first draft rewrite, based on the comments. Feel free to print this for future use, if you find it helpful.

Note that the rewrite is about 45% longer than the zero draft skeleton. Here are two things that happen with length between the zero and first drafts

  • Outcome #1: word count stays about the same, but the quality of words increases tremendously. What’s happened here is that we’ve tightened our word budget. We’re now spending words only on essential items.
  • Outcome #2: word count increases by 33% to 50%. Not only is our budget tighter, but we’ve given ourselves a bigger budget to work with.
  • It’s all good.

Next week, I’m starting a six-part blog mini-series on key elements needed to write a fantastic first draft. Those six elements are using body language as a replacement for adverbs; stop telling, start showing; avoid perfectly nice syndrome; distill down to the essence; build better segues; and using violence as dialog.

Next Tuesday, July 8, we’ll start with WBL: what body language represents the action we’re trying to describe?

Two days from now, on July 3, I’ll be back with Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop.

Hope to see you again soon.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Sequels

Scene/sequel is only one of many ways to categorize different parts of a book, but it’s what I’m writing about today. Last week we looked at scenes. This week we’re completing the duo with sequels.

As I mentioned last week, Sherry Lewis, the writer, not the Sherry Lewis, the puppeteer and Lamb Chop’s mother. explained to me the difference between a scene and a sequel.


Here’s Sherry’s definition of a sequel: A sequel is a unit of transition that bridges one scene to another, but transition bridges are not always sequels. Sometimes a transition may simply indicated a passage of time. Sometimes a character may end a scene recognizing that he/she needs to make a decision but outside events intervene; the character is too stunned to do more than walk away; or the character’s pro/con reflections might lead him/her to want to gather more information.

What makes a sequel, a sequel is that it is also a dilemma that the character confronts. Sequels are unified by topic. Dilemma involves weighing pros and cons of each possible action and making a choice between two or more equally unsatisfactory choices. Each choice leads to a different goal. Each goal leads the story in a different direction.

Reaction, dilemma, and decision govern sequels. In a sequel, the character is preoccupied with one set of feelings. A sequel translates the disaster into goal, telescopes reality, and controls the tempo of our book. It exists to reveal our character’s reaction(s) to the previous scene and provide her with motivation as she moves into the next scene. Only when the character reaches a decision about which path to follow can the story logically proceed to the next scene.


To recap, every scene ends with a character going back to the drawing board. Laura is in Las Vegas, looking for her mother. A dicy casino character says, for a hefty fee, he will bring her mother to her. Laura has to reassess how important finding her mother really is. Does she trust this character? Is she willing to literally mortgage the family farm to get the money? Is it just possible that her mother had a logical, sensible reason, which is none of Laura’s business, for coming to Las Vegas? Each set of answers will lead Laura and the story in a different direction.

Novels do not bump along scene—sequel—scene—sequel—etc.

Let’s look at our Las Vegas cop, Wally.

  • Scene 1: Wally arrives at the scene of a double murder, gathers information, and is told there is an eye witness, who has been taken to hospital to be treated for shock. At this point Wally is not in a dilemma. His next step is clear: interview this witness.
  • Scene 2: Wally goes to the hospital and meets Laura. He expects her to come with him to the police station and give a statement. She says absolutely not. She has something else to do, but won’t tell him what. He leaves the emergency room cubicle so Laura can get dressed, and she sneaks out of the hospital. The hospital is searched, but no Laura.

Wally’s Dilemma:

  • Does he go in search of her? If so, where does he start?
  • Does he issue a be on the lookout bulletin, and return to the murder scene?
  • Does the writer want to leave the Laura is missing angle hanging, and take Wally into a third scene in order to establish a sub-plot?

Here’s the key sequel question: is this the right place in the story for a character to confront a dilemma?

One scene may generate multiple sequels, especially if the story is being told from different points of view. While there may easily be several scenes in a row, it’s unusual to have several sequels in a row, but there may be multiple sequels from different POV spread throughout the book.

Sequels vary in length. Some may be very short: the scene ends with a man with a gun invading the protagonist’s house. The sequel is that she picks an escape route and uses it. Or they may be very long. The scene ends with a man learning that he is a prince of the demonic realm. The sequel? He’s going to want to think long and hard about this.

The details we need to know in order to write a sequel are somewhat the same as for a scene, namely season, weather, moon phase; character clothing; way characters move; physical props; and other sensual details that ground the characters in the setting, create texture, or evoke mood.

Avoid Death in the Coffee Shop (or at the kitchen table)

In scenes, physical action helps carry the story. Characters may be, literally, running for their lives or having an argument or trying to download the thumb drive before the security guard makes his rounds again. The problem with sequels is that they are more cerebral. Characters are weighing pros and cons and making a decision.

There is an overwhelming temptation to take them to the nearest coffee shop, or kitchen table, gym workout, or for a long drive where nothing physical happens. Resist those temptations.

Laura is now on the run in Las Vegas. Her rental car is still at the murder site, and her luggage is in the trunk. Does she dare use her credit cards or go to an ATM machine? Can she afford to rent another car? She told the police the hotel where she had a reservation. Does she dare go there? Where is she going to sleep tonight? Where is she going to get her next meal? All of these questions can be used to build tension while Laura decides, am I going to the police station or not?

We’re reaching that hard part, actually writing the novel, so I hope you’ll be back on Tuesday, June 3, for Establishing the skeleton or Draft Zero, the unfinished manuscript.

On Thursday, May 29, Level Thinking will be taking a look at book extras. A book isn’t just written words any more. Want additional readers? Go for value added.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom

Starting a piece of crocheting or knitting is easy: crochet a chain or cast on a certain number of stitches and we’re off and running. Setting up a piece of weaving takes more time, energy, and concentration. A weaver has to know the pattern both up and down and side to side. How many threads make a pattern? How are thread colors arranged within the pattern? Are patterns next to each other or is there plain cloth separating them? She also has to know the length to cut each warp thread.

Writing is a lot less precise than weaving. Most writers can’t say for certain that an event will happen on page 257. The only hard and fast rule is the gold standard that at least one character has to want something on every page. That in itself is not easy.

By convention and general usage, there are guidelines for some things. The object here is not rigidity, but these are things that are going to happen anyway, and we know that bringing them in at certain points works well. Why wear ourselves out swimming upstream?

  • Page 1: the protagonist is on-stage. This is the person the reader has come to see. Let them see her. One of the mistakes that mystery writers make is to start with the villain, often in a prologue, and then introduce the protagonist in Chapter 1. Readers are like baby ducks: they want to bond with the first person they read about. It’s not fair to them to introduce the villain, and then pull him or her out of the book for an extended period of time.
  • Page 1 (science fiction or fantasy): the reader needs to know right off that this is an alternative universe.
  • Page 3 to 5 (romance): the cute meet. The reader comes to the book to see the interactions between two people. Why make them wait?
  • Page 30 (mystery): there is a body. I’ve heard a range of numbers, from page 5 to page 100 for this, but 30 is a nice middle number. The reader wants a crime; give it to him.
  • No more than first 1/4 of the book: initial roadblocks get in the protagonist’s way: some are irritating, some may be funny, some may be confusing, but none of them advance the plot in great leaps and bounds. Their purpose is small developments in plot and larger developments in characters. For a 300 page book, this takes us to about page 75.
  • Page 100: the earliest that back story story should enter the book. For the difference between context (which should be there from page 1) and back story, see my earlier blog on the Dreaded Back Story.
  • At about 1/3 of the book: a second incident turns the protagonist’s onto a deeper path: it’s not a game any more. For a mystery, this is often a second body. For a romance, this is where the relationship stops going well for the couple. At this point their differences aren’t enough to drive them apart, but they are enough to make them uncomfortable and cautious with one another.
  • About 30 pages from the end of the book: the crisis: everything in the book has built to this moment
  • The last 3 to 5 pages: denouement: tying up loose ends

There are also embellishments, small details or turning points that can make a book deeper and richer. Having a rough plan of where to put them in the book is like planning a trip. We start out with a best guess of when we’re going to need more gas or where we’re likely to stop for supper.


  • Why does our protagonist’s life matter? Where do we want to put the moment when the protagonist recognizes this?
  • What can our main character(s) do that no one else can do? How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book, including one time that it fails or costs the character something important?
  • Find a tic or habit counter to everything the character believes. How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book. Know the explanation of why she does it, but hold that explanation well into the book. Make the explanation worth waiting for.
  • What’s the hardest thing to understand about our character? As with the tics or habits, know the explanation, make the explanation worthwhile, and hold the explanation in reserve until at least chapter 20.
  • Whom does the protagonist love the best? What characteristic does the love object have that’s not nice? When do we want to bring in that trait? How many times do we want to bring it in? How does the protagonist rationalize overlooking that trait? At what point does he/she stop overlooking that trait?
  • When do we want to have a secondary character suffer a small hurt or injustice that reflects a larger injustice in the world. The protagonist recognizes the larger perspective by witnessing the smaller incident.
  • When do we want the moment when the protagonist gets angry and instead of taking action, calmly walks away? Serenity in the face of provocation matters.

Computer tables are great for creating a threading list. Make a chart with two columns, the first date, the second notes. Plug in approximate page numbers or divisions of the book like 1/3 or 1/4 in the first column and what you want to happen around that point in the second column. You may already know details of an incident, or you might use very general terms, such as “Stacey and Gordon have a big fight.” In either case, a threading chart is a very useful thing to have as we begin our novel.

I hope to see you back on Thursday, May 1, for thoughts on writing under our own names.

Next Tuesday, May 6, we’re going to talk about Blurbs.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Character Introduction, Part 3 – Introducing the Genuine Hero

Today we’re finishing up with the third kind of character introduction, introducing the genuine hero.

The convention is that a genuine hero has a dangerous job such as police officer, soldier, firefighter, first responder, or spy. He or she is capable, brave, well-trained, and exactly the person we want next to us when things go horribly wrong. The genuine hero category isn’t restricted to humans. It includes paranormal and superheroes with special powers.

The myth is that the introduction for this kind of hero should start with an action opening in order to build rapport. The reader needs to see how hard the character’s job is and how brave they are. This fails to work because, at the beginning of a story, characters are ciphers and readers have no way to connect to them.

The reality is that readers bond to humanity, even in superhuman characters. They want to see the real person behind the badge, the medals, or the powers.

Avoid cutesy or trite: the decorated soldier who faints when he gets a flu shot, or the police negotiator who talks potential suicides off bridges, but makes a cock-up of talking to her kid’s second-grade class isn’t going to cut it. Go for real bravery, something no one else sees.

The situation should be a life-changing event, something that takes time and effort to resolve, something that causes the character to change who they are or how they view themselves. Bonus points if that change puts their hero status in jeopardy.

  • He’s estranged from his father, who is dying. He makes one last attempt at reconciliation, only to have his father reject him again.
  • Her gambling addiction is out of control and the bank is about to foreclose on her house, putting her and her kids on the street.
  • He’s just learned that someone close to him has a terminal diagnosis, or that his wife’s ultrasound is abnormal and they have to decide whether to carry the pregnancy to term.
  • Her fifteen year old daughter has just been arrested on a prostitution charge.

The difference between us and the hero is that the hero has to balance handling both things at once. We might think our job can’t do without us, but for genuine heroes that assessment is real. Imagine Batman not responding to the bat-signal because of a family crisis.

The nice thing about using a life-changing situation to introduce a character is that it becomes a thread that can run through the entire book. The outer threat (saving the world, or their corner of it) and the inner threat (that life-changing event) can be brought together at the end so that the hero emerges as a stronger, more flexible person.

Next Tuesday, April 29th, on Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom – we know a lot of stuff about our characters. How do we translate that into starting a book?

I also hope you’ll also come back Thursday, April 24 for Level Thinking: Why Mysteries Run on a Closed Track or how to answer that inevitable question, “Why do you write mysteries?”

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Introduction, Part 2 – The Wounded Hero

Last week I blogged about introducing the ordinary Joe or Jane who is about to begin an extraordinary adventure. What about the other end of the process, introducing a character who has already had the extraordinary adventure, and is the worse for it?

Think Bilbo Baggings at the beginning of Lord of The Rings. He’s turning eleventy-one and 111 years is old, even for a Hobbit. He’s tired. He describes himself as, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” In the sixty years since his great adventure, he’s never left the shire, never married, and spent decades working on his memoirs. No one, including Frodo, knows that he intends to disappear from his birthday party, and never be seen again in Hobbiton.

We tend to think of wounded heros as soldiers, police, first responders; in short, people who have been in situations where they were shot at or where things go boom. Over the past few years, we’ve enlarged that definition to people who suffered abuse, particularly when they were children. In fact, any character who has been in a situation that taxed their resources to the maximum can be wounded from the experience.

Ten things writers can use to build ambiguity and tension around wounded heroes

These are dark characters. They were wounded accepting a burden for society. What they want most is to change, be a peace, stop their own suffering, or have hope.

Angst is a poor glue. Blood and suffering does not bond characters and readers. What does bond is hope and the desire for change for the better.

Flashbacks and dream sequences are weak beginnings. It is a myth that readers need or want to see the actual event, so they can appreciate the rest of the book. At the beginning of a book, all readers are disoriented and uncommitted. Like rock climbers they are desperate for finger and toe holds. Toe hold: we’re in rural Ohio in the nineteen eighties. Lois is a fourteen year old girl, whose brother is pinned under a tractor, and she has to cross a flood-swollen river on a rickety wooden bridge to get help. Next chapter: No wait, it’s 2013. We’re in Cleveland. Lois is a middle-aged corporate lawyer who has a phobia about bridges. Which one is it? Am I supposed to bond with the fourteen year old or the middle-aged woman? Start with Lois hoping she’ll have the courage to cross a bridge. Have her fail. Have that failure cost her something, perhaps not arriving for an important meeting. The reader will be right there with Lois.

Not all people who go through really tough times develop post traumatic stress disorder. The most protective measures are having developed good coping skills before the event, no family history of mental illness, no personal history of mental illness, no history of prior substance abuse; and having insight and the ability to express and work through feelings. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be wounded, but it does mean they may be able to put up a more valiant fight. The braver the fighter, the more the reader is with them.

An area of ambiguity is, is it essential and a deterrent to later problems to provide extensive debriefing in the first twenty-four hours after an event? This idea was so pervasive that it spawned a raft of professional debriefers. Some are highly trained. Some do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some get caught up in the cachet of being allowed past the police lines and having first access to traumatized people. Some do more harm than good. Want to conflict your wounded character? Give him or her a professional debriefer. I’ll leave it up to you if this will be a character who does harm or good. Incidentally, further research has suggested that a large part of the average population, particularly those with the protective measures listed in the last paragraph, does well without any counselling, and that immediate counselling may cause a problem to develop.

Triggers for re-experiencing traumatic events include noises, images, words, and smells. Smells are particularly pervasive and they don’t have to be nasty, icky things. Someone who saw a person eating a strawberry ice cream cone run over may have their memory triggered by strawberry ice cream cones.

Memories of traumatic events are intrusive. That means they interfere with the ability to carry on normal life activities. This is great burden with which to laden characters, especially if they try to conceal their shortcomings from others.

Memories of the event are accompanied by intense physical reactions such nausea and vomiting, cardiovascular changes, tension, sweating, loss of ability to focus, loss of ability to make decisions or to make logical decisions. The more the character tries to conceal these, the more opportunity to build tension.

Bureaucracy and medical controversy are the writers’ friends. In a pluralistic society trying to embrace both traditional and alternative treatments, options for how to heal a wounded hero are many and confusing. They are not only often at odds with one another, but also expensive. It takes a strong character to wade through this treatment morass, and to deal with government and private agencies which, after all, have policies and procedures that must be followed.

The future for the wounded character often seems limited. He doesn’t expect normal life events, like getting married, having a career or owning a house to happen to him. For a character to go through life hoping one of these normal things happens to her, but doubting that it will sets up instant conflict. A person who hopes to own a house, but doesn’t think it’s going to happen will behave differently around people who own houses, are house-hunting, etc. Suppose that person is a detective, and the murder occurred at a Home and Garden Show? Her wound is going to show up in all sorts of non-traditional ways. That’s what we’re looking for as writers, different and interesting ways of showing both how badly damaged the character is, and how much that hope for a new beginning keeps them going.

I hope to see you back on Thursday, April 17th for Level Thinking: Easing the Writer’s Uphill Struggle.

Next Tuesday, April 22, I’ll be writing about Part 3 of Character Introduction — Introducing the true hero.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Introduction, Part 1 – The Ordinary Joe

She’s a ordinary Jane; he’s an everyday Joe, but they are just about to be forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances. The problem is how to introduce being ordinary. Last week I blogged about why I think it’s a bad idea to introduce a character by showing them going through their mundane, ordinary existence. The myth is that readers identify with people like themselves. Actually, they don’t. Readers relate to strong characters, who display goodness, who act on hard choices because it’s the right thing to do.

We need to introduce a character acting far better than the reader is likely to act. Being like the reader wishes he or she would be on their best day. Screen writer and producer Blake Snyder calls this save the cat.

We all have situations that drive us crazy. Yahoos who sit on their horn the microsecond the light turns green. Plastic packaging that requires a thermonuclear explosion to open. People cutting in front of us in lines. Homeless people asking for spare change.

We’re standing in a long line at the bank. An obviously harried mother, pushing one of those super-sized baby coaches, comes in. We realize how tired she looks, and allow her to take our place in line.

Yet another person asks, “Got any spare change?” We dig in our pocket or purse for a few coins.

Those are kind and generous acts in real life, but completely inadequate for character introduction.

Four Suggestions for introducing ordinary characters

  • The character may be ordinary, but the situation is extraordinary; the stakes are high.
  • The hero is decisive, brave, and human, all at the same time.
  • The outcome doesn’t have to be positive, but it does have to be moving, both in terms of moving the plot forward, and being a moving human experience.
  • The event sets something in motion. It may be a thread running through the story, a minor plot, or even the major plot.

Our heroine goes to a bank. The line is huge, so she decides to go to the washroom before getting in line. Just outside the Ladies Room is a mother settling an infant into that super-sized baby coach. From the bank they hear, “Hands up. This is a robbery.” On the wall is a metal ladder leading to the next floor and safety. Instead of saving herself, our heroine pushes the woman toward the ladder. “Go! Now! Call 911. I’ll protect your baby.” The woman scampers up the ladder, the police arrive, and the robbers are captured.

  • Positive outcome: the mother returns and collects her child. She praises our heroine to the media, and our heroine is suddenly in the public spotlight. As a result, the protagonist is beset by interviews and requests for media appearances through the book.
  • Negative outcome: not only doesn’t the woman call the police — they arrive because a bank employee tripped a silent alarm — but she never returns. Suddenly the protagonist has a child in her care she has no right to have. If we want to complicate matters further, it turns out that this child was kidnapped hours before. Now our heroine has to prove she’s not a kidnapper.

Our hero is fed up with homeless people asking, “Got any spare change?” The next time he gets that question, he grabs the person by the arm, marches him across the street to a high-class restaurant, and buys him for a  meal. “At least this way I know you’ll get fed instead of spending the money on booze or drugs.”

  • Positive outcome: He bonds with the homeless person over the meal, takes an interest in a shelter where the man sometimes sleeps, and falls in love with the woman who runs the shelter.
  • Negative outcome: The homeless person is embarrassed and begs to be allowed to leave. The hero insists he eat the meal. He chokes or has food allergies and ends up in Intensive Care. The lawyer is barred from his favorite restaurant, faces assault charges, and the person he manhandled sues him.

I  hope you’ll come back on Thursday, April 10 for Level Thinking: Remaining Human – are there levels of violence, grossness, and invasion of privacy that cross the line? Should writers respect that boundary?

Next Tuesday, April 15, Part 2 of character introductions — Introducing the Wounded Hero.