On Writing

Hello & . . .

December 14, 2013

Typewriter What is Your StoryHello and Welcome to this Website. is mostly dedicated to creative writing how to’s – specifically it offers a step-by-step approach to writing a pageturner novel. is named after my daughter Jenny who once joked that a Website with a name like “” would be a great counterpoint to other very serious and somber-sounding “- soft.coms” out there. 

Please check out the drop down Categories list at right to search for topics that may interest you.

Related to the above, also please know I will not be updating this site for a while. Two reasons: 1) I think I’ve pretty much covered the basic topics on writing for publication I wished to cover. The posts now available online provide a good starting point for novelists who aim to write a novel via a tried and true structured approach. 2) I  launched a new enterprise last year, and my blogging time has been curtailed as a result.

I am leaving several of my posts in place because, hopefully, newbie writers will find some of these tips and how-to’s handy and helpful.


Cheers & Happy Writing,


Jessica Hatchigan, December 14, 2013



Characterization, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Writers, Keep It (Your Style) Simple

November 2, 2013

Novelists aiming to write popular fiction* need to develop a style that does not call attention to itself. If you’re writing for a wide audience, a straightforward narrative style – bare and spare – lets your story and characters take center stage.

Why? Because you don’t want your reader thinking about your writing style. That jars the reader from the imaginary world of the novel. It slows down the pace of the story.

If your intention is to write a literary novel,** go for it. Polish that style to a fare thee well. But if you’re aiming to write popular fiction, the advice to “keep it simple” applies.

Agents and editors overwhelmingly prefer spare prose. Ask any reader of a slush pile. Writers who “try too hard” in the stylistic department often do so to cover up a yawner plot and cardboard characters.

A good example of good spare prose that lets plot and character shine through is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Collins’s prose is not yrical. It’s workmanlike. It does its job. It keeps a reader turning pages.

Collins’s readers are turning those pages not because they enjoy how she can bend a gerund, but because her story and her characters are compelling.

Had she written The Hunger Games in a style that made the reader stop every few sentences to wipe away a rhapsodical tear (at the beauty of the words), but ignored honing plot and character The Hunger Games would have languished on bookstore shelves.

It is common for newbie writers who are honestly striving to do their best to think a “literary” voice is the way to go. They may not yet have mastered characterization, plot and structure, but think, “My writing style sings, so I’ll get published.”

Well, no. Agents and editors want simplicity in the writing, and a darn good story, with great characters. Why? Because that’s what readers want too.

So, keep it simple.


* Work that sells like gangbusters today – and may well become a classic in twenty years time. (Time alone decides who becomes tomorrow’s “literary author.” Shakespeare wrote aiming at popular success – and we all know how that turned out.)

** Fiction of the type English majors study in college classes.


On Writing

When a Plot Changes as You Are Writing

October 5, 2013

Do I change my plot as I work on my first draft? Yes, I do.

I change my plot when a better idea suggests itself. The extraordinary thing about writing is that this seems to happen naturally as you move into the world of your story.

How do I square changing my plot with using my trusty plotting aids (the one-sheet, the two- or three-page synopsis, the beat sheet, and the outline that I’ve written about in various previous posts)?

Simple: as I tweak my plot, I handwrite the updates onto printed copies of my plotting aids – and later keystroke in the changes. I also will make a notation in the text of the first draft (if I’ve already printed a hard copy of a scene that may need to be changed). The notation will alert me to go back and change anything I’ve previously written that needs to be changed so that the scene will align with the new developments in the story flow. I don’t trust my memory – not when I’m dealing with a 400+ page manuscript.

What do my notations look like? They’re notes such as: “[Set this up earlier],” “[Transition here]”, or “[Amend scene – see beat sheet].”

With the changes to the plotting aids and any necessary notations jotted on what I have completed to date of the first draft, I can happily continue with completing the first draft.

Yes, I work out story logic with meticulous care. Why? for me, the first draft is when I fine-tune the story line and makes sure the story logic works. Sloppy logic in a story leaves readers puzzled and dissatisfied. The resolution is a let down. And to paraphrase what one bestselling author said about novels: It’s the ending of your latest novel that sells your next novel. A powerful ending results when an author weaves her story with care.

In short, a novel just won’t work if the story logic doesn’t make sense. (All right, there are exceptions: Raymond Chandler comes to mind.* That’s the subject for another blog post. In the meantime, if your goal – like mine – is to create a pageturner novel, a book readers find enthralling, then, aim for a first draft which is a model of tight story logic.)

Your second, third, etc. drafts can address all the other elements that go into creating the kind of story readers deserve to enjoy.

More on that in future posts.

* “Trying to decipher Chandler’s plots can be like trying to interpret Finnegans Wake. I have now read The Big Sleep three times, and I’m no closer to figuring out who killed who than I was before I started. ” – Allen Barra, The Case for Raymond Chandler.

On Writing

Switchbacks and Writing

October 5, 2013

When my husband and I joined a tour group to travel through Norway a few years ago, our group was fortunate enough to stay at the beautifully situated Stalheim Hotel. The Stalheim overlooks the Nærøy Valley – and offers a breathtaking view.

Memorable as that view was, the road to the Stalheim was just as memorable. The bus that took us up the mountain to the hotel with its wonderful view is one of the steepest in Northern Europe.

It  features 13 “switchbacks,” or hairpin bends. Here’s a photo of a similar, though less steep, switchback road in Norway:

Kvassdalen Switchback Road - Norway

Kvassdalen Switchback Road – Norway

Working on my current novel sometimes makes me think of the road to the Stalheim.

For me, the equivalent of those switchbacks, in writing, are my planning aids – the one-sheet, the two- or three-page synopsis, the beat sheet, and the outline. I’ve written about these in various previous posts. As I’m writing the first draft of my current novel, I find that having these plot outlines handy keeps me focused on staying true to the overall shape of my story.

As I dive into a story and let my characters come to life in the first draft, I sometimes stop and think: Is this conversation or interaction or conflict – interesting as it is – tied into the larger picture? 

That’s where those planning aids come in in handy; I refer to them. If I find my story is veering off track, I switch it back; I make sure the scene and the characters behave in alignment with story logic. It’s okay to let your characters take on a life of their own, but at some point their thoughts and actions need to get them back on the road to journey’s end.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Business, Eclectic Musings

What Is Professionalism?

October 2, 2013

What exactly is professionalism? Well, here’s what professionalism means to me:

  • You know your stuff. You have mastered your craft or, if you are a journeyman (still learning), you are serious about learning.
  • You listen carefully. You are focused on my business need (product or service). You are alert, smart, and resourceful in the way you supply that product or provide that service.
  • You are on time. My time is valuable to me. Your time should be valuable to you. Assets of value deserve to be treated with respect.
  • You present yourself professionally. You are dressed appropriately for the product or service you provide. You don’t need to be a fashion plate but it should be clear you made an effort to look presentable – i.e., you are neat and clean.
  • You are honest. I want to trust the people I do business with.
  • You are reliable. Integrity is important. If you say you’ll do something, I want to count on you doing it. I know glitches and snafus happen. That’s okay – just keep me updated.
  • You instill confidence. If I hire you to perform a service, I want to feel I’m in good hands.
  • You are courteous. I may sound a bit British here, but courtesy also means you are polite without being familiar.
  • You are pleasant. Brash, irresponsible, sarcastic people are compelling and amusing characters – in books and movies. But they are also the kinds of people you’d avoid in business situations. I like doing business with nice people. I think most other people do too.
On Writing

Why a Writer Needs a ‘Tribe’

September 27, 2013

Your “tribe” in writer-ly terms is your audience. Specifically, it is the group of people you can depend on to find your work interesting enough, and to like it so well, that they plunk down their hard-earned cash to actually buy a copy of your latest book when it is published.

audienceI like the word “tribe.” It conveys people who share your enjoyments, are open to your world view, get where you’re coming from, and welcome your insights — people who would invite you to the pub, a cup of tea (or coffee, depending on what continent you’re on), or lunch or dinner – just so you could chat.

A book, after all, is a long conversation with a reader – and not as one-sided as you might think. Trust me. No reader is going to plow through two or three hundred pages of a novel without pausing now and again to think – if not say out loud – “That’s right,” or “Yes!” Or turn a page without thinking, “Tell me more!”

How many people does a writer need in her tribe?

I remember once reading some statistic to the effect that to make a decent living at writing a writer needed to count on 5,000 readers purchasing his or her book. The article or book or whatever it was I read didn’t go on to say how often a writer needed to produce such a book and I can’t remember what the earnings were supposed to be. But I think the basic idea of aiming to please and to accrue X number of readers is sound.

The math, after all, is fairly simple. You  figure out what amount per book, plus  royalties (if you go with a trad publisher) provides you with what you consider a living wage. Doing the math is even simpler if you self-publish – you just figure out what amount you’d earn in royalties, after deducting any self-publishing expenses (which in today’s print-on-demand and ebook world can be minimal). And you figure out how often you need to publish to keep the inflow of income where you need it to be.

Aiming to sell 5,000 books each time you produce a new novel sounds like the right goal for an aspiring writer. Barring luck or a huge marketing budget, it takes time to build to an audience of 5,000 – but it’s not so lofty a goal that it seems undo-able.

Our tribe truly becomes a part of our work. We literally could not find the time to continue in the craft we love without them. We own them our unfailing gratitude – and our best work.

I am truly and humbly grateful for my tribe. Thank you, to each and every one of you who has bought a copy of a book I’ve written.

Image courtesy of  Wikimania2009 Damián Buonamico; Wikimania2009 Damián Buonamico are not affiliated with

Eclectic Musings, On Writing

Eight Things Breadmaking Can Teach Writers

June 6, 2013
Rustic Dark Bread - My Fave!

Rustic Dark Bread – My Fave!

Recently I took up making my own bread from scratch. No mixes. No breadmakers. Just flour, yeast, salt and whatever else a particular recipe calls for.

Why did I take up baking bread? Because I love good crispy fragrant dark bread, the kind made from whole wheat and especially rye flours. While I can find excellent bakery products a short drive from my home, with the right aroma, crunchiness, and look, I felt that–baking my own bread–I would, 1) know exactly what is going into each loaf, and, 2) eliminate the occasional trips to the store that ended up with me finding my fave bread out of stock.

I’ve been baking for about a month now. I’ve experimented with different recipes. I haven’t yet achieved my vision of the perfect loaf–but I’m getting there. And even my “misses” are quite good, if I do say so myself. (Actually my hubby says so too. He even happily ate my first failed rye loaf, the one which turned out more like a giant rye cracker.) I continue to experiment with recipes, ingredients, and the mixing, kneading, and baking processes. I read books on baking bread and watch videos. The bread is getting progressively better.

As I worked with the process of transmuting base ingredients – flour, water, yeast, and salt – into leavened bread (bread that rises versus flat bread), it occurred to me that there is an analogy between this kind of breadmaking and writing. As writers, our base ingredients are imagination, feeling, and the desire to communicate and connect with our audiences. Once we sit down to write, it becomes clear that we can’t just throw those raw ingredients hodge-podge into the hearth fires and bake them. Breadmaking is a process.

So what are the lessons breadmaking can teach a writer?

  1. All writers start with raw ingredients. It’s how you combine and work the ingredients that ensures success.
  2. Expect struggle. Bread dough is an amazing substance. It truly is alive and almost seems to enjoy “fighting back” against the baker. Watch baking videos and note how bakers seem to relish beating the dough into submission, literally, with their fists and rolling pins. As writers shape their novels, the ideas that seemed so brilliant at the outset often lose their luster. A writer needs to beat that material into submission. See the next point.
  3. The baker who prevails produces great loaves. There are times in the baking process that a newbie baker is sure she is doing everything wrong, when the dough looks like a gloppy mess, sticks to everything except the kneading board, and simply refuses to behave. The baker who keeps going witnesses a magical transformation. The dough literally shapes up, guided by patient fingers. For a writer, thinking time that employs her resourcefulness and creativity are the yeast and the kneading that gets the “dough” of a story to behave.
  4. At critical points, the yeast takes over. We are not in it alone. Call it the Muse. Call it what you will, but writers who stick with their stories experience breakthroughs in plot and characterization and pacing. The universe loves the writer who is a patient and cheerful plugger.
  5. Bread is very forgiving. Despite its feistiness, it becomes apparent that the bread you’re shaping wants to work with you – if only you persist. Good bread, as a matter of fact, is more a result of persistence than of perfection. In the same way, those books you have envisioned want to be written. You don’t need to be perfect as an author, but you do need to stick with your writing.
  6. The loaf is done when it’s done. You want to make sure that your bread has been thoroughly baked. You can’t tell just by looking at the crust. The recommended test is to thump it – rap at the bottom center of the crust. You want to hear a nice hollow sound which means that the dough in the center has cooked as well as the dough on the outer edges. Writing is re-writing. Don’t stop working on your project until it’s properly “baked.” (At the same time, don’t over-work it. Bread can be spoiled by letting it rise one time too many.)
  7. There is no one right way. You only need to take a look at the huge variety of breads that are out there to realize there are a zillion and one ways to create great bread. Ditto for writing a novel.
  8. Finally, with each loaf she shapes and produces, a newbie baker gets better and better. It’s the same with writers. The more you write (and read), the better (and faster) you get as a writer.

Happy Writing!

Image: courtesy of Moyan Brenn via Flickr

On Writing

On Writing and Persistence

May 23, 2013


What does a writer need to succeed? In addition to talent and hard work, I’d say persistence – and supportive friends – are key ingredients to “making the magic happen.”

With this in mind, here are two sports anecdotes for aspiring writers:

The 2006 Dodgers versus Padres game – It was the 9th inning and the Padres were winning 9-5. What was at stake? First place in the National League West.

It looked so bad for the Dodgers that Dodgers fans started to leave the stadium. But, as hopeless as the situation appeared at the bottom of the 9th, the Dodgers weren’t up for defeat. From that point on, they hit a near impossible four consecutive home runs to win 11-10. There were four batters, and four home runs; there were three pitches, and three home runs. The 9th inning comeback was only the fourth time in Major League history that a team hit four consecutive home runs. The last time it had happened was in 1964 – 42 years prior!


Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Ángel Firpo

Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Ángel Firpo

The Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Ángel Firpo fight – On September 14, 1923, Jack Dempsey fought Luis Ángel Firpo for the World Heavyweight Boxing title. At the start of the first round, Firpo – known as the Bull of the Pampas –  dropped Dempsey with a right hand. Dempsey bounced back, but Firpo dropped him seven more times before Round One was over. (This was before the “three knockdown” rule was in effect.) Toward the end of Round One, Firpo trapped Dempsey against the ropes, and landed a right on his chin – a blow that hurled Dempsey out of the ring. A photographer snapped a photo of the fighter, legs upward, hurtling into the arena. Dempsey’s friends helped him back into the ring just before the referee called a victory for Firpo.

Despite sustaining a severe cut in the fall he’d taken, Dempsey came back slugging, dropped Firpo twice in Round Two, and knocked him out in that round to win the match.

The takeaway for writers – The Dodgers versus Padres story illustrates the need for persistence, persistence, persistence no matter what “appears” to be the reality. Are the fans walking out of the stadium as far as your writing is concerned? Tough. If you know in your heart you “have the stuff,” keep at it even if success hasn’t arrived “by the 9th inning.” Trust me. The fans will scurry back to their seats once you find your stride – no matter how late in the inning.

Fate constructs a unique timetable for each writer. Some writers advance from success to success. Their numbers are few. Most writers’ timetables feature switchbacks and loop de loops.

I love the Dempsey/Firpo story because it illustrates another truth about persistence. Each of us needs a friend or two for those times we get knocked out of the ring – receiving one rejection too many, say. It’s invaluable to have friends* who believe in our talent and lift us back into the fray. No matter how ruggedly individual a writer may believe herself to be, no one achieves success without a little help from a friend, or two or three.

A final sports thought. Legendary football coach Knute Rockne said, “I’ve found that prayer works best when I have big players.” In other words, it helps to have players who have been equipped by nature to play the game. I do believe that some of us are “born to write.” But it bears repeating: Natural talent will take you only so far; writers who aim to succeed need to do their part to further “equip themselves to win.” How does a writer equip herself to win? By reading constantly, by practicing the Craft, and by – you got it – persistence.

* By the way, lest my more curmudgeonly writer buds despair, I count spouses, significant others, supportive family members, teachers, coaches (including those who “speak” from the pages of books on writing), and anyone who knows how to boost a writer’s spirits in the “friends” category.


On Writing

Productivity Tip for Writers: How to Get Unwanted Visitors to Leave

May 1, 2013

mug copyThe Problem (and all writers have faced it): You are seated at your PC or your laptop or your desk. You are tip-tapping or scribbling away at your Next Masterpiece of Writer-ly Wonderfulness when in comes a Visitor. This is not just any Visitor either. You could easily get rid of a normal Visitor. Normal Visitors pick up on clues (lack of eye contact, your intense concentration, your pained look at their intrusion) and back off. Oh no. this is That Kind of Visitor – Clueless. To complicate matters, the Clueless Visitor is also someone you Like or Love. (Otherwise, you could snippily tell them: “Please leave. I am working on a Masterpiece and you are destroying my Concentration and I am ticked off in that quiet way writers have that you are obviously too Clueless to pick up on.)

Clueless Visitors know you Like/Love them. That is probably part of the reason they are so Clueless. They are sure the Skull and Crossbones on the “Do Not Enter – This Means You” sign you have posted at eye level on the closed side of your Writing Place door is Not Meant for Them. (It is.) They are sure that their news (latest baseball score, junk mail arrived, need to buy more dip for the chips) is more important to you than completing your Next Masterpiece. (It isn’t.)

Long Conversations and Heart-to-Hearts do not get through to the Clueless Visitors. Neither do hissy fits or tears. (“She must be in a bad mood. Probably needs to take a break and chat.”) They are Clueless, remember?

The Solution (and this actually works like a charm): Every time they interrupt you when you have asked for privacy, closed your door, and posted your Skull and Crossbones sign, hand out a chore. Important: Do it as charmingly as they interrupt you – i.e., with the innocent (heh heh) assumption that they have stepped in to add to the delight of your day – and since they have so much affection for you, would welcome any chore you hand them. Next, give them a chore that will 1) remove them from your office, 2) keep them removed from your office for a good long while, and 3) be onerous enough that they will begin to associate: Interruption of Writer = Onerous Chore. Even the Clueless put this together – if only subconsciously – after they keep getting the same results from their interruptions.

It takes a bit of work and planning on your part: i.e., you will need to think up a list of chores and keep them handy along with reasons why the chore can’t wait. Depending on the intractability of your Clueless One, this can take some ingenuity. (“I need you to go to this one particular spice store in the next county because I need Ceylonese Coriander which only they carry. It is the essential ingredient in that roast you love so much and that I plan to make tomorrow.” Adapt the chore and the justification to the specs of your Clueless One. As a writer, you’ll figure this out.)

You will note that the tip applies basically to driving-age Clueless Ones. I have a soft heart and childhood passes by way too quickly. For kids, the Masterpiece can wait. All others: Get your car keys.

Business, Eclectic Musings, On Writing

Writing as a Business

March 6, 2013

Being an English major, the thought of writing as a business always went against the grain for me. At the liberal arts college where I pursued my B.A., and then my M.A. in English, writers were demigods. Shakespeare, of course, led the Pantheon, and all the other bright lights of literature, since the Elizabethan Age, trailed glory in his path.

I now believe this kind of thinking belongs to the horse and buggy era. Writers of today need to discard outdated and romantic notions about writing – and to pay serious attention to the very important need for a writer to make a living.

Personally, I am saddened by stories of great artists and writers who lived in garrets. Even as an undergrad, I always knew I wasn’t up for a garret-style writer-ly life.* In fact, I was peculiarly heartened when I heard Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum – “”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

* I actually never knew what a garret was until recently. I just knew it sounded sad and not like a place where Macy’s made deliveries. When I finally looked it up, I found that it meant a floor at the top of a building, just below the roof, usually used for storage – i.e., an attic or some other unappealing living place.

Writing is work, and everyone who works expects to get paid a fair wage. As Samuel Johnson succinctly put it, writers should write for money.

Now, even with this as a given, the glorious and confounding thing about writing is that it also is entrepreneurial.

In fact, if entrepreneurship was a sport, writing would be an extreme sport. Why? Because the results of any given writer’s output are so darn unpredictable.  You can work for two weeks and complete a book, as Robert James Waller did ( The Bridges of Madison County ) and make a few million-plus and get a movie deal. (“Once Waller had his core idea in place, he went on a non-stop writing binge, completing the book’s manuscript in about two weeks.”) Or you can slave for years to produce what becomes a world classic, Moby-Dick, as Herman Melville did, and earn less than $700 from it and see it go out of print in your lifetime, and die without earning a Pulitzer or a Nobel, or making your mother-in-law realize you really are awesome!

That is why I encourage all aspiring writers new to the game, whether the writing bug has bitten them early on or later in their day, to be practical in pursuit of their dreams. Keep a good day job, with a decent wage and benefits. Find the time to write on the evenings and weekends. Educate yourself about the business aspects of marketing – why editors buy and promote certain manuscripts and ignore others, and let them languish.

In Early Career mode, a writer needs to be his or her own best friend. If you find a significant other who believes in you and cheers you on – great! But, friended or not, think in ten-, and twenty-, and thirty-year chunks of time. Hedge your bets to ensure that – if you have written another Moby Dick (that won’t be discovered until decades hence) – you can live comfortably, and work on the sequel even when there’s snow on the roof – literally and metaphorically. Writing is its own reward, yes – but I believe all rewarding activities should be pursued in what Hemigway would have called clean, well-lighted places, not in garrets.