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9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

I regularly see social media posts from aspiring fiction authors looking for tips on writing their first novel. But there is more to writing than just writing. At least, according to Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot - Stephen King

I’ve been reading Christian fiction for over twenty years.

I’ve seen trends come and trends go, which means I’ve got a good feel for the genre and have learned what publishers buy.

And I’ve been working as a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction for the last seven years, which means I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, good and bad, and have learned something about the craft of writing from each one. I’ve attended conferences featuring speakers such as James Scott Bell, Michael Hauge, and Damon Suede. I’ve undertaken online training courses from the Christian PEN, Author Accelerator, and Lawson Writer’s Academy, and I’ve completed a hands-on immersion course with international speaker and writing coach Margie Lawson.

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing craft and dozens more books on book marketing. Each has contributed to my understanding of how to write, edit, publish and market books in this new world. A world where aspiring authors don’t need an agent and a big-name publisher. A world where authors can self-publish without the stigma of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I’ve learned a thing or two.

So here are my nine keys to writing your first novel. Or your tenth.

1. Understand Genre

Publishers publish by genre, booksellers organise their stores by genre, and readers read by genre. Your book has a better chance of succeeding if you understand what genre it is, and meet the expectations of readers of that genre. For example, a romance novel has to have a happy ending in which the hero and heroine are together. If he dies at the end, it’s not a romance novel.

Yes, authors do can do genre mashups (Amish Vampires in Space springs to mind), but even that adheres to the expectations of each of the constituent genres (I think. I don’t read vampire novels, so don’t know how it stacks up against them).

Understand your genre, and write to the norms of that genre.

2. Write What You Love

If you love trashy romance, write romance novels. Don’t write highbrow literary fiction with beautiful language but where nothing much happens. Don’t write gung-ho action adventure novels in which the hero fights his way through innumerable blockages in order to reach his goal and get the girl. Conversely, if you read literary fiction, don’t write Amish romance because someone tells you that’s what sells.

Write what you love for two reasons. If you’re writing in a genre you love to read, you’ll know the conventions of the genre and what the reader is looking for. And your writing will flow better because it’s something you want to write (unlike so many of those creative writing assignments in school).

3. Read what you write

Read in your genre. Read outside your genre.

Read old books. Read new books.

Read novels which have won awards, and try to work out why they won. Read award-winning novels as judged by industry professionals (e.g. the Christy Awards), by writers (e.g. the Carol Awards) and by readers (e.g. the INSPY Awards). Read the Christian novels I review on my author website.

4. Study the Big Picture

The big picture element of writing is the relationship between plot and story and structure and characterisation. Most craft books focus on one or two of these aspects, but the more I read, the more I come to believe that you can’t look at any one of these in isolation. They all need to be considered as you’re writing your first novel.

Here are some books I recommend which examine these big picture elements:

5. Study the Technical Craft of Fiction

You also need to understand the basics of modern fiction. Yes, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were great writers, and you can look to them for insight into the big picture elements. But don’t try and emulate the way they wrote.

Novel writing has changed a lot in the two hundred years since Austen was first published. Writing your first novel in Jane Austen’s style won’t win you many fans. Even novels from the 1990’s might be too old-fashioned in terms of style to be of benefit in terms of their technical writing craft. (Although they will still be of benefit in terms of the big picture elements.)

The modern writer needs to understand:

  • Point of View
  • Showing not telling
  • Scene and sequel

For advice on these issues, try:

6. Understand the Mechanics of English

There is no point in knowing how to craft a great novel if you don’t have the technical writing skills to get it on the page so people can read and understand it. Christian editor (and founder of The Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network) Kathy Ide calls this the PUGS: Punctuation, (word) Usage, Grammar and Spelling. There is nothing worse than picking up a novel which is hard to read because the author doesn’t understand how to order words in a sentence for maximum reader impact.

For advice on actual writing, I recommend:

7. Join a Community

You’ll learn as much from your fellow writers as you will from books, so join a community of writers. This could be online (e.g. Facebook groups such as Australasian Christian Writers). It could be a formal organisation (e.g. Romance Writers of America or Australia or New Zealand, American Christian Fiction Writers or Omega Writers or New Zealand Christian Writers). It could be a Christian group or a general market group. It could be for fiction writers or all writers. Just find a group, join it, participate, and learn.

8. Write

You can study too much. It was true when Ecclesiastes was written and it is true today. Study, but ensure you get words down on paper as well. Or get pixels on a computer screen.

9. Learn to Self-Edit

Yes, I’m a freelance editor so you’d think I’d have a vested interest in people not editing their own work, to give me more to do. But correcting simple mistakes the author could have corrected for themselves isn’t much fun, and means I might get too focussed on correcting commas and hyphens at the expense of more fundamental questions of plot and style. And anyway, the cleaner the manuscript in terms of writing mechanics, the cheaper the edit.

Tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help with the most technical side of this self-editing, identifying things like passive voice and overused words and commonly misused words.

But you need a human to pick up that your heroine’s hair colour changes three times without her ever visiting a hairdresser, or that there is headhopping in Chapter Four or that you have a nasty habit of structuring every sentence the same or that your mute minor character actually had a couple of lines before she miraculously started talking again.

For advice on how to self-edit your novel, I recommend:

Do you have any questions about writing? Ask in the comments.

Finally …

This is my last post for 2018. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family, and will be back on Wednesday 9 January. I wish you all the best for a blessed Christmas and a happy and productive 2019!

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character have to be Likeable?

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character Have to be Likeable?

I often see writers discussing whether their characters have to be likeable. Obviously not all characters have to be likeable: the role of the antagonist is often to be unlikeable. But what about our main character? Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice?

Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice? Click To Tweet

In my manuscript assessments, I often refer to James Scot Bell’s LOCK elements of a novel. It says that in order to fulfill reader expectations, every plot has to have:

  • Lead
  • Opposition
  • Conflict
  • Knockout

The Lead has to be a character readers can bond with, and there are four ways writers can create this bond. The Lead needs to be a character we can identify with, someone we care about, someone who is likeable, and someone facing an emotional struggle.

But does the Lead have to be likeable?

Not necessarily. Michael Hague says writers (and screenwriters) need to create characters readers can engage with emotionally, and creating a likeable character is one way to achieve that aim. But characters don’t have to be likeable if they have other qualities that will engage the reader (or viewer). For instance, a character could be someone we feel sympathy for, or someone who we worry about because they are facing some kind of physical, financial, or emotional threat.

Bell agrees. He says:

Not all Leads are likeable, of course. When rendering a negative Lead (someone who does things we don’t like), substitute power. Characters who have power over their world and other characters—because of charm, intelligence, or competence in their field—fascinate.

Hague agrees:

Powerful heroes hold a fascination for an audience and elicit empathy on an almost fantasy level.

Hague cites four forms of power:

  • Power over other people
  • Power to do what needs to be done
  • Power to express one’s feelings
  • Superpowers

Well, I guess that explains Lex Luthor, The Joker, and other cartoon evildoers. They might not be likeable … but there is something compelling, something fascinating, about even the most unlikeable characters. The same could be said for popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

So, no, your characters don’t have to be likeable. They can be crazed, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

But does this mean you can make your main character unlikeable?

That depends on your genre and target reader.

I read a lot of romance, and I believe romance demands likeable characters.

There are two essential factors in a a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America):

  • The novel must focus on a central love story.
  • The novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a happy-ever-after ending).

I find that I have to like both the hero and the heroine in order to believe in that central love story, and to want the characters to have that required happy-ever-after ending. Give me two likeable characters, even characters who appear to be polar opposites, and I’ll be wanting them to get together from the moment they meet.

But give me a whining female lead, and I wonder what the hero sees in her. The same for stupid women—I like my heroines to be intelligent. I don’t do lazy. Or angry, or focusing on career over family and relationships (that’s a valid life choice for some women. But not women who want to be heroines in romance novels).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an equal opportunity hater. I also don’t like whining men (yeah, yeah. Men don’t whine. Except when they do). I don’t like stupid men, lazy men, or men with anger issues, or men who are focused on their careers more than their families and relationships.

Male characters like that make me wonder why the female is pursuing him. Grow some self-respect, ditch this guy, and find a good Christian man who values you for who you are. Yes, it’s so much easier to make these judgments with fictional characters than in real life.

Of course, if neither character is likeable, then I’m inclined to think they deserve each other and abandon the book.

So in romance novels, I insist on likeable characters.

What about other genres?

Likeability might matter less in genres where the focus is less on the likeability of the main character and more on his or her skills.

For example, in a legal thriller, we want to see a competent lawyer, someone who will use his or her legal skills to best the evildoer in court. The same often holds true in other suspense genres: medical thriller (think of the TV show, House), thrillers, or police procedurals. We’re less concerned with whether the main character is likeable in the traditional sense, and more with whether justice will be served through the action of the (unlikeable) main character.

Likeability takes second place to ability.

We can respect a competent main character even if they aren’t necessarily likeable.

But there are limits. I remember reading one speculative thriller, the first in a series of four. I gave up about halfway through the first book when I realised the too-stupid-to-live character wasn’t going to die a fast, horrible death. No. She was being set up to be the main character across the whole series.

I prefer to read about characters who are likeable. I also like to read novels with a low body count, and where it’s easy to tell the goodies from the evildoers. But that is more a reflection of my personal reading preferences rather than a you-must-create-likeable-characters rule.

It might also be that many writers choose to create a likeable character who we feel sympathy towards because she is facing some kind of threat—ticking all three of Hauge’s boxes, and all four of Bell’s elements. It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that’s what sells.

Do our characters have to be likeable? It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that's what sells #WriteTip Click To Tweet

What do you think? Do you prefer to read about likeable characters? What exceptions can you think of?

Can My Characters Have Secrets?

Can My Characters Have Secrets? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Today I’m talking about secrets.

I was recently browsing through Facebook when an interesting question caught my eye. An author was asking if characters can keep secrets from the reader.

There are two parts to this question. The first is this: Can a character have a secret?

Yes. A character with a secret is a good character:

Any character with a credible, interesting secret has a good chance of coming alive.

– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, Chapter Five

That is especially true if the character is one of the main characters, a point of view character. We want the character to have secrets. And we want to know those secrets, because that’s how we get to know the character:

Bonding with characters is achieved through intimacy … the greatest intimacy is achieved when we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. When we get to go inside their heads.

– James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, Chapter Two

But that leads us to the second part of the question: Can the point of view character hold secrets back from the reader?

Yes, but then you’re placing an artificial barrier between the reader and your character. If we were truly inside their heads, we’d know their secrets. Withholding secrets prevents intimacy. And point of view is all about intimacy.

Are you prepared to trade secrets for intimacy?

Let’s use some examples.

I’ve recently read the Criss Cross trilogy by CC Warrens. The three novels are all in first person, from the point of view of Holly, a tramatised twenty-eight-year-old photographer living as close to off the grid as anyone can live in modern New York. Holly has intimacy issues. So it works that Holly keeps secrets from those around her … and from the reader.

We find out more about Holly as the stories progress, as she begins to face her fears, make friends, and trust others with her secrets. That’s why she’s keeping secrets from the reader (and from her newfound friends). It’s a protection mechanism. She can’t cope with remembering how she’s been “hurt”.

Holly’s secrets drive the tension which drive the novels forward. And that’s what makes this a brilliant series.

But this is the exception.

What’s more common is that an untold secret robs the story of tension. For example, I once read a novel where a young woman moves from Ireland to the United States. She’s hiding from something or someone, but we don’t know who or what. All we know is that she has a secret which has sent her into hiding.

Hint: if you don’t want the evildoers to find you, don’t leave a paper trail wider than the Amazon. Between the passport, the airline tickets, the marriage licence, the gym membership, the library membership (all in her own name), there was never any doubt the evildoer would find her.

Anyway, the story goes on and on with references to this secret and how horrible it will be if the unknown evildoer finds her. Every mention of the unknown secret made it bigger and bigger, until I’m thinking this woman must have some ginormous secret. Maybe she’s the secret love child of two ultra-famous people. Maybe she’s got the US nuclear launch codes tattoed on her back. Maybe she’s the only person who knows who committed the crime of the century.

I didn’t know what her secret was, but it was obviously big and unique. Something that had never happened to anyone else in all of human history, or in any novel previously published.

But no. It turned out she’d fallen pregnant after being raped, and was forced to give up the baby. That actually made a lot of sense given her actions in the novel (e.g. joining the gym to get rid of the baby fat, and her fear of her marriage-of-convenience husband). But it was a complete letdown as a plot point, because it felt anticlimactic. Unfortunately, women being raped, falling pregnant, and not keeping their babies is all too common, both in real life and in fiction.

I’m convinced it would have been a stronger story if we’d known her secret from page one. Then we could have empathised with her situation, cheered as she achieved small victories on the road to normal. And there still would have been plenty of tension: would she allow herself to recover? Could she learn to trust men again? Could she fall in love with her marriage-of-convenience husband? Would she tell him her secret?

Keeping the secret turned the climax into an anticlimax.

Readers allow the narrator to withhold the ending, as long as he tells us at each stage in the story all that the character knew at that point in time … [not] hold back information until the end of the story … The author who does this usually thinks she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense by decreasing the readers’ involvement with and trust in the narrator.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter 16

Sharing the secret with the reader is a great way to enhance the conflict and add to the tension.

The other characters don’t need to know the point of view character’s secrets. But the reader does.

A good recent example of this is Shadows of Hope by Georgiana Daniels. The main character, Marissa, is infertile but works in a pregnancy crisis centre. One of her clients is pregnant to Marissa’s husband—except only the reader knows this (well, Kaitlyn obviously knows she’s pregnant to Colin, but Kaitlyn doesn’t even know Colin is married, let alone who he is married to).

Marissa, Kaitlyn, and Colin are all point of view characters. We know what they know, and we also know the secrets they don’t know. This tension keeps the story moving forward as we wait for the inevitable dust-up when everyone discovers what we already know. The story would have no power or tension if it was told entirely from Marissa’s point of view (or Kaitlyn’s, or Colin’s).

The secrets drove the story.

And the result was I could feel and empathise with both Marissa and Kaitlyn. (Colin? Not so much.) Marissa knew her marriage was in trouble, but infertility isn’t an easy problem with a quick fix like, say, a root canal. Kaitlyn believed Colin loved her, and that he’d man up and marry her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. As a reader, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, because I knew about Marissa. But Kaitlyn didn’t know, and that enhanced the suspense.

So can a character keep secrets from the reader?

Yes.

But keeping secrets comes at a price—intimacy, empathy, tension, and conflict.

Is having your character keep their secret worth the price?

Six-Stage Structure

Plot and Structure: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure since attending his all-day session at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August 2016. I did write a summary post (Identity, Essence, and God), but I didn’t cover the detail of his approach to writing novels and screenplays.

I couldn’t. Because it can’t be boiled down to a 600-word blog post. But over the last year I have come across some free and paid resources where Michael Hauge explains his approach to plot. So I’m going to share those instead of trying to cover everything myself.

Michael Hauge is best known as a screenwriting consultant, and his books do tend to focus on screenplays. But (as he argues), the essential elements of fiction are the same, whether the medium is novel or film or TV. And many writers would like to see their novels adapted into a film—it seems to me that we give ourselves the best chance of making that possible if we start by writing a novel that is structured like a film.

Yes, structure is the key.

A lot of writing instructors focus entirely on plot or structure. It’s not that they ignore character. It’s more that they place structure first. Plot then falls out of that, then character. But if you’ve tried to write a book like that, you’ve probably found it more difficult than it sounds. I think the reason is that it’s easy to explain structure: it’s a formula (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s engineering, and there is a right way to build a story.

Character is harder. Everyone is unique, and our characters also have to be unique. But trying to develop unique characters can’t be reduced to a formula. And that’s where Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Structure can help. (Click here to download a copy.)

Hauge’s methodology complements the work of many other leading writing teachers, e.g.

Here are a few key lessons from Michael Hauge:

  • Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.
  • The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader (or viewer) and gets them to care.
  • You can manipulate conflict using techniques such as a ticking close, or superior knowledge.
  • All stories are about a character who wants something, but something stands in their way. This must be a visible goal.
  • All characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome, and the best way to reveal the wound is through dialogue i.e. show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid multiple-hero stories.

For more information:

Film Courage Interview

Film Courage interviewed Michael in January 2017, and the 90-minute recording is available on YouTube. It’s their most-viewed interview of 2017, and I can see why.

Udemy Course

The interview references some work Michael Hauge did with Chris Vogler, integrating Hauge’s Story Structure with Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. This is available via Udemy. The full course includes over six hours of video. The full price is $175, but Udemy hold regular sales (I got it for $10). I suggest signing up for Udemy’s newsletter so you get notified when they hold a sale.

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Michael Hauge has several books. I’ve read Writing Screenplays That Sell, which I recommend. Hauge goes into a lot of detail about character development, theme, and structure, then moves into how to write and format a screenplay. This section is of less use to novelists but is still worth reading for the occasional relevant nugget. But the book is worth the price for the information in the first section.

You can read the introduction below:

Best of the Blogs: 8 April 2017

Best of the Blogs from Christian Editing Services

Best of the blogs: the best posts I’ve found this week on writing, editing, and marketing your books. Plus two I wrote. In case you missed them.

Writing

Mike Duran has a new project in the works: a companion to his non-fiction book Christian Horror, this one examining Christian Science Fiction. I love shows like Star Trek, Stargate and Star Wars (see a theme, anyone?), and I’d welcome more quality science fiction that reflects Christian beliefs. What about you?

Donald Maass visits Writer Unboxed to share Casting the Spell—a new way to look at look at your opening lines and ensure they hook your reader.

James Scott Bell visits The Kill Zone blog to give us advice that’s halfway between writing and editing: Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

Editing

I guest posted at Seekerville this week, sharing steps in revising and self-editing your fiction manuscript: Creating Diamonds from Coal. The first step is putting on the pressure.

The second step is examining the stone—especially your use of point of view. I shared on Understanding Point of View here on Wednesday, and I’ll be looking at interior monologue and showing, not telling next week.

If you’re one of those readers who don’t like waiting for the end of a series, then I’ve got you covered: sign up to my mailing list via the link at Seekerville, and I’ll send you a free pdf with the full series of blog posts.

Marketing

Author newsletters. We all have one (or think we should have one). But what do we write about? In this week’s Business Musings, Kristine Kathryn Rusch discusses what she sees as the two major types of newsletter—the chatty fan newsletter and what she calls the ad circular. Which do you write?

Perhaps more important, which do you prefer to read?

By the way, if you’re interested in my author newsletter, here is the signup link: Iola Goulton Author. I email about once a quarter.

Inspiration

Kathy Harris visits the American Christian Fiction Writers blog to ask Do You Have Unrealistic Expectations? She encourages us to focus on what we have achieved, rather than on the endless to-do list we’re stressing over.

Best of the Blogs: 18 March 2017

Best of the blogs: the best posts I’ve read this week on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing.

Best of the Blogs from Christian Editing Services

Writing

Plot vs. Character (the Rematch)

Last week I shared a blog post from James Scott Bell on why plot is more important than character. This week, Kristen Lamb takes the opposing view: that Character Determines Plot.

Discover Your Writing Voice

Jeff Goins tells us that the way we discover our writing voice is by reading and copying others. Lots of others. Who do you copy?

Editing

Do you use editing tools? I tried Grammarly for about a week, and while I liked the idea, it’s an online programme … which means it slowed down Word too much for me to work with, and I couldn’t use it at all when out of wifi range.

Anyway, April Bradley visited Writers Helping Writers to give an introduction to ProWritingAid, which sounds good–especially as it can apparently be used online, with Word, or as a separate desktop application.

Have you tried ProWritingAid? Do you recommend it? Read more here: ProWritingAid: A Useful Tool.

Publishing

Attorney Susan Spann visits Writers in the Storm to share 10 Questions to Ask before you sign a publishing contract.

I’ve covered several of these in Christian Publishing: A Guide to Publishers Specializing in Christian Fiction. If you don’t already have a copy, sign up for my monthly newsletter and I’ll send you a copy.

Networking

I’m an introvert, so I never felt comfortable networking in the corporate world. The writing and editing world suits me so much better, because it’s full of introverts, and most of the networking is done like this, using the written word. This week, Kaye Dacus has a post on the importance of Networking for Building Name Recognition in the writing world—especially important in the small world of Christian fiction.

I’ve come across several other writers who have been published because of their connections, for better or worse. Romantic suspense author Dani Pettrey thanks Dee Henderson in her acknowledgements. Forensic thriller author Carrie Stuart Parks thanks her BFF’s husband who coached her in writing until she earned a contract—a guy named Frank Peretti.

Marketing

Book Reviews

As a long-time Amazon reviewer, I try (try!) to keep up with what’s changing in the world of Amazon reviews. In fact, it’s something I must write a blog post on, because a lot of what I wrote in my last series of posts is now outdated. Anyway, here is Big Al at Indies Unlimited commenting on one of the changes: how customer reviews are displayed on Amazon.

Improving Your Reach

Nina Amir at How to Blog a Book posts on How to get Better Mileage Out of Your Blog Posts. Basically:

  • Deliver them in different formats (video, audio, written)
  • Make them shareable
  • Share your posts (you can automate some of this using a tool such as Buffer).

I haven’t yet tried video or audio. Would you watch a Facebook Live question-and-answer session? Let me know in the comments. And add your questions!

Best of the Blogs: 11 March 2017

Best of the blogs: the best posts I’ve read this week on writing, editing and marketing.

Best of the Blogs from Christian Editing Services

 

Writing

James Scott Bell on Plot

James Scott Bell visited Writers Helping Writers® to discuss the chicken-and-egg of fiction writing: Does character drive plot? Or does plot drive character? He’s the author of Plot and Structure and Write Your Novel from the Middle, so his answer is no surprise. Read Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Kind of Novel to find out why.

Bryn Grenwood on Productivity

Bryn Greenwood posted on Hot Bunking for Writers at Writer Unboxed. I read the post because the title caught my eye—what on earth did she mean? I’ll let you read the article and find out for yourself: Hot Bunking for Writers.

I love the idea. Productivity experts do recommend knuckling down into a task rather than flitting between a variety of tasks. Apparently, multi-tasking is not good for productivity. Who knew? Hot bunking is a solution which also addresses writers block—and anything that stops us staring at a blank screen is a great idea!

Editing

Kathy Edens on Writing Aids

Kathy Edens shares at LiveWriteThrive about her experiences using ProWritingAid, and what it’s taught her about how to improve her writing. Have you used a writing or editing tool like ProWritingAid? The free or paid version? What has it taught you? Would you recommend it?

Marketing

Kristan Higgins on Organic Marketing

I missed this post when it first came out, but  found it after it was shared in one of my Facebook groups. If you’re one of the many authors who loathes marketing because it brings to mind images of scammy, spammy and smarmy self-promotion, you’re in the right place. In this article, Kristan Higgins visits Romance University to share about Organic Marketing aka passive marketing. It’s about getting the foundations right.

She also makes a unique and funny distinction between a writer and an author—and reminds us there is a time and a place for each.

Penny Sansiveri on Amazon Author Pages

If you’re a published author, you should already have claimed your author page at Amazon Author Central. Did you know you can also claim your page on international Amazon sites as well? Book marketing expert Penny Sansiveri explains how in The Most Overlooked Amazon Sales Tool:

Inspiration

And finally, Laurie Tomlinson visits Novel Rocket with a challenge: are you a real writer? Or are you letting Impostor Syndrome lie to you and say you’re not?

 

An Introduction to Plot

Randy Ingermanson states the essentials of fiction are plot, character, theme and building a credible story world. Although this series of posts will focus on plot, it is inseparable from character, and the two must be considered together (as you will see over the coming weeks). Ronald Tobias says:

Plot and character. They work together and are inseparable. To understand why a character makes one particular choice as opposed to another, there must be a logical connection (action/reaction). At times the character’s behaviour should surprise us, but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened.

What is Plot?

Plot is the journey taken by the protagonist, a journey in which he or she must face a series of problems to arrive at a resolution, and experience personal growth in the journey.

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind. Plots of the body are action plots. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond). Plots of the mind are character-driven plots where the focus is on the inner workings of human nature, such as romance or women’s fiction.

Plot is not the same as telling a story:

Before there was plot there was story. Story was the narration of evens in the sequence that they happened. Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction. Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: “Why does this happen?” (Tobias).

Conflict

The basis of fiction is conflict.

All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills (Sol Stein).

Ideally, conflict should be a combination of internal and external conflict that drives both the external plot and the internal character arc:

We expect events to affect the main character in such a way that they force a change in his personality. Your main character should be a different person at the end of the book than at the beginning (Tobias).

Conflict produces character growth in real life—and in fiction. Testing our characters is the only way they can change and grow, and believable character change makes compelling fiction. This is a biblical principle:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)

A good plot has a combination of fast-paced scenes and slower-paced scenes. But there also need to be ups and downs in the plot. It can’t all be conflict, with the situation getting worse and worse for the protagonist, or the reader can start to find the book tiring (the opposite situation is a complete lack of conflict, which the reader is likely to find boring).

In order to be good to their readers, authors have to be willing to be pretty nasty to their characters. One of the first things any novelist learns is to raise the stakes. Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character, then make it worse (KM Weiland)

Equally, the reader needs to see some minor victories so they can believe the protagonist will triumph over the odds.

Structure

Novels need a structure to support the story . As a reader, I find it more enjoyable to read a novel with some editing errors but a solid plot and structure than an error-free manuscript with a plot that doesn’t engage me. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t necessarily notice the structure of the book, whether it exactly follows a standard three-act structure. What I notice is places where the plot begins to drag:

If a film or book seems to drag, it’s usually because it is off structurally (James Scott Bell).

Ronald Tobias describes the classic structure:

The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem that must be solved. The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character. Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. This want (or need) is called intent.

Once you’ve established the intent of your character(s), the story goes into the second phase, which Aristotle called the rising action. The character pursues her goal. The action clearly grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. But the protagonist runs into problems that keep her from successfully completing [her] intention … reversals. Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal.

The final stage is the end, the logical outcome of the events in the first two phases. Everything—who, what and where—is explained, and everything makes sense. (Tobias)

This is commonly referred to as the three-act structure, and will be the subject of a later post. Next week we will examine conflict in more detail using the GMC method.