Eclectic Musings, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

On Luck and Writing

March 4, 2013

4-leaf-clover-jh1I do believe there is such a thing as luck in writing. It happens when . . .

  1. A writer’s manuscript hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has had a fantastic lunch, or just won a freebie trip to Paris, or just scored a date with a dreamboat, or is otherwise in a really good mood.
  2. A writer’s manuscript about XYZ hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has learned, observed, or been informed that books on subject XYZ are so hot they’re melting holes on bookstore shelves.
  3. An author’s book about XYZ is published just when subject XYZ tops a trend, or achieves peak news interest, or scores the #1 position in Google searches.
  4. A celebrity reads an author’s book and sheds tears (sorrow or laughter – your pick) talking it up on a top-rated talk show.
  5. A journalist finds an aspect of the author’s life/book (that will help sell the author’s book if broadcast) fascinating, writes an article about it – and the article is picked up for syndication by Reuters. Or, alternatively, the journalist writes the article for a top tier newspaper (LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) – and second and third tier newspapers take note and cascade their versions of the article.


Lucky instances 1 & 2 can help an author place a book with one of the Big Six Publishers. Lucky instances 3, 4 & 5 can make sure the book has “legs” – i.e., that it jumps off bookshelves and into readers’ arms – hopefully nestling close to their hearts.

But here’s the rub – in all of the above instances, one constant needs to be in play: the manuscript/book in question needs to be a top quality work.

Luck has a way of manisfesting itself on preparation.

Nonfiction books need to be well-written, researched, presented. Fiction books need to – well, look at some of the blog posts on this site about how to write reader-pleasing fiction.

When quality isn’t in place, an agent or editor will look for other options (or extensive revisions) – even if your subject matter is trending wildly. If your book does happen to get published, and it falls short of certain criteria for quality, it will languish on the bookstore shelves or readers may buy it but not be keen to buy your next offering. And for writers serious about making authorship a career, the goal is not one book sale, it’s loyal readers.

The takeaway for writers? Don’t worry too much about lucky breaks. They happen sooner or later to writers who focus on creating a body of excellent work – one book at a time. It may not be your first book, or your fifth, that brings your work to the attention of that larger audience hungry for just the kind of books you write. But it will happen sooner or later.

A small group of enthusiastic fans equals word of mouth endorsements – the best kind of marketing.

And if your larger audience discovers you when you produce Book Six, guess what happens? That’s right. They go back and buy the other five books you wrote as you built your ouevre.

In short, writers who stick to the basics – writing the best books they can – make their own luck.

On Creativity, On Writing, Plot & Structure

How to Storyboard Your Novel

February 6, 2013

Are you struggling with plotting your novel?

Here’s one approach that can help break a creative logjam – storyboard your plot.

What is storyboarding? It’s combining sketches of key action scenes with a brief description of what is going on in the action scene.

Take a look at the example.












Three key scenes (also known as “beats”) from the beginning of the novel Jaws are storyboarded. The scenes include: 1) A swimmer is attacked by a shark. 2) Body parts wash up on the beach. 3) The police chief wants to close the beach, but is opposed by the mayor who doesn’t want the town to lose tourist dollars.

For purposes of plotting a novel, you don’t need any particular skill as an artist. A writer can make stick figure thumbnail sketches, as shown. But the value add for the writer is that you now have a visual element to work with. For some of us, this is very helpful. I know it is for me.

Here are a few additional tips for taking a storyboard approach to writing your novel:

  • Start by creating eight one-sentence descriptions of your story’s eight key scenes (or, story “beats”). These are the Wow! scenes in your novel – when something spectacular/interesting/emotionally wrenching/gripping (well, you get the idea) happens. Movies are planned this way – around eight or so key scenes.


  • Next, “fill in the blanks” (i.e., add one-sentence descriptions of the remaining 50+ scenes that will make your eight “Wow” scenes flow together beautifully.) A typical novel has about 60 scenes of 4 to 5 pages in length, on average. Now that you’ve outlined your eight key absolutely amazing scenes, noodle out the 52 other scenes that weave those Big scenes together- that lead up to and out of each of those key scenes. Write a one-sentence description for each of these scenes, or beats. Can you see how taking this visual approach – storyboarding – offers your creativity additional good stuff with which to to work?


And there’s an additional “value add” to taking the storyboard approach to plotting: It’s fun!

Check out my related blog post on How to Write a Pageturner Novel ‘Beat Sheet’ for more on how to plot your story, check for story holes, and ensure yourself that you’re creating a page-turning narrative, before you invest the time it will take to write the 40- to 60,000 words that comprise an average novel.

Storyboard art: Jessica Hatchigan

On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

Writing Is Rewriting: Two Oddly Inspirational Books for Writers

January 18, 2013
Writing is rewriting.

Writing is rewriting.

I just began reading The History of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien. It is a fascinating exploration of the genesis and development of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Aspiring writers will find it of interest, among other things, as proof of the often stated truism that “writing is rewriting.”

Few novels spring forth in final format the first go-round. Newbie writers quickly learn that writing a novel truly is not a matter of sitting down, banging at a keyboard, and getting up 10 chapters later with a masterpiece. They may find this frustrating, but in actuality, the need for patience and process in crafting a work of fiction is a blessing in disguise. It means writing is a skill, and a skill is learnable – something that can be exercised, honed and improved. Writers passionate about writing and willing to put in the time and effort will improve.

Which brings me back to The History of the Lord of the Rings. Did you know that in the earliest versions of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn (a.k.a. Strider), the romantic hero of The Lord of the Rings originally was a hobbit – one of the likable but homely and very small folk (with large hairy feet) who provide as much comedy as they do drama in the novel? Only in later revisions did J.R.R. Tolkien transform Aragorn into one of the tall kingly “men of the West” (a Dúnedain). Oh, and his name as a hobbit? It was Trotter. Strider, I think we’ll all agree, is a much cooler nickname for a romantic hero.

Another book aspiring writers will find of interest is John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. Culled from 73 of Agatha Christie’s notebooks, the book provides a glimpse of the process by which Christie – one of the best-selling authors of all time – crafted her meticulously plotted novels.  Readers can pretty much see the authorial wheels grinding in these jotted notes – Christie playing with several ideas, then deciding on the one she’ll use. An example: In her “notes to self” as she prepped to write Murder Made Easy, she jots down, “How about this,” “A good idea would be,” and the age-old questions Curran calls “the essence of detective fiction”: “Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which?”

The notebooks also show how she would think through several variations in plot lines and how she would make a list of suspects to decide on who the murderer would be. In planning for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, she noodled up nine possible murderers coded 1A, 1B up through 5A, 5B, etc. before settling on 1B.

Again: Writing is rewriting.

Screenwriter Hal Croasmun gave some very good advice on the rewriting/revision process in his article, “Take Control of Your Creative Process.” The advice he offers screenwriters – to go through a minimum of six drafts – applies to novelists as well. Draft 1 is where you get it on paper (after, of course, outlining your story – See “How to Write a Pageturner Novel: Step 3 – Write a ‘Beat Sheet’ “). In drafts 2 through 5, you fine tune different aspects of your work. Draft 6 is where you work to make it perfect.

Diamonds in the rough look like rocks, don’t they? It’s the skill of the diamond cutter that brings out the beauty of a polished gem. So too, a writer needs to apply patience and craft to Draft 1, his “diamond in the rough.”

Happy Writing!

Image: photosteve 101 via Flickr

On Writing

The Arc: Where Plot Meets Characterization

October 31, 2012

You’ve heard the terms “character arc” and “story arc”?

What exactly do they mean?

They mean that good story planning (structure) follows a trajectory.

In the beginning, an event causes your hero to take action against an antagonistic force.

Throughout the middle of the story, the stakes grow higher, and the hero struggles with greater intensity against the antagonist. (The antagonist counters each of the hero’s efforts with greater force.)

As the story concludes, the hero, temporarily overwhelmed by the antagonist’s fierce opposition, falters. But then he regroups and prepares (armed with insight he has gained via his struggles) for a last stand. He will either win or lose this final battle.

“Character arc” and “story arc” need to be organically intertwined. Your hero’s characterization needs to support the story arc, and vice-versa.

This means that your hero can’t be perfectly capable of foiling the antagonist from the start. In the opening pages of your novel, you need to show the reader why the hero is (initially) an easy mark for the antagonist. Show us what’s holding the hero back: his weaknesses or fears.

Then, up to the story’s midpoint: show how the hero’s weakness continues to keep him on the defensive against the antagonist. (See previous post on the Midpoint Shift.)

After the midpoint, show the hero shifting from a passive defensive mode to effectively going after the antagonist. This shift should be due to the hero’s gaining new information and/or insight. The new information/insight puts lead in the hero’s pencil. The hero has new knowledge which makes him more effective. In other words, the hero begins to grow.

From the midpoint, the hero begins to have increasing insight into what has held him back. He continues to grow.

By the end of the story, the hero has overcome his weakness and can successfully face the antagonistic force.

So, to recap:

  • In the beginning, the hero is flawed in some way. For some reason he is unable to cope well. He may be unhappy for any variety of reasons. He may be grief-stricken, deeply angry, terrifically guilty, or swamped by some other strong emotion.
  • By the resolution, the hero has undergone a transformation, sparked by his struggles. He has grown, mastered his flaws, and is now able to plan and solve his problems. He is in control.


In short, the hero is different at the end. Well-structured stories are stories of how the hero met serious challenges and changed in order to deal with those challenges. The hero will either go down to noble defeat (in a tragedy) or win!

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

The Eyes Have It: Show Don’t Tell

October 30, 2012

Novels are a visual medium. This is true not only because readers scan pages to follow an author’s narrative flow.

It also is true because good authors paint word pictures for readers – animated word pictures, I might add.

One of my friends told me about his reaction to his first viewing of the classic movie Rebecca (based on Daphne du Maurier’s outstanding novel of the same name. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, run to the library and download the flick. Rebecca, which first saw the light of day in 1938, sets the standard for broody romantic suspense.)

My friend said the movie’s opening scenes, which show the hulking estate of Manderley in which most of the action is set, exactly matched the mental image he’d formed of the estate from the author’s detailed description. His response to the visuals presented by the movie underscore how powerfully du Maurier was able to “paint” her opening scene. sing only 26 letters of the alphabet and black ink on a white page she matched the work of set decorators, and a Hollywood budget. Friends, that’s writing!

Du Maurier’s detailed description of Manderley still works. One reason it does is the exquisite writing. Another reason is that the place itself is almost a character in the novel, as are all the other artifacts on which the hero’s dead wife left her imprint. I don’t think novelists today would want to nudge a reader’s patience with equally lengthy descriptive passages. That’s because leaders today have little patience with long-delays before the action of the novel starts. And that brings me to the point of this post: the need for “show – don’t tell” in characterization.

It’s fine to occasionally employ a tangential character to tell us the hero or heroine is selfless, or reckless, or courageous. But it’s best to show us what they are made of, by virtue of their actions.

Actions always speak louder than words. They especially do so in novels.

And actions are infinitely more interesting than character vouchers popped off by “friends of” the hero/heroine.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss boldly steps forward to volunteer herself as a gladiator in order to save her younger sister Prim from this ugly fate. To say, “Katniss was a loving and selfless older sibling,” might mean she gives her younger sister a larger portion of the pie. Nice – but not heroic. When she saves Prim, you need say no more. We visualize the scene and are in awe of her courage.

The same is true in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring of Power to Mordor. The Ring is an evil artifact that can only be destroyed in the volcanic fires of Mordor which lie in the heart of a demonic overlord’s kingdom – Frodo is risking everything by undertaking this mission.

And what about Frodo’s friend, Sam Gamgee? Sam refuses to let Frodo take on this dangerous mission alone. It’s one thing to say, “Sam was loyal and reliable.” But Sam sticking to Frodo’s side as he sets off on what may well be a suicidal mission becomes a moving visual portrayal of loyalty – one we not only grasp with our minds, but also feel in heart and gut.

So, whenever you can, opt to show us what your characters are all about by showing us what they do.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Novelists: Let’s Hear It for . . . the Villain

October 29, 2012

Spend some quality time characterizing your antagonist.

Novelists, as you create your story, keep in mind that your antagonist is just as important as your hero.

Without Darth Vader – there is no Star Wars franchise.

Without Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes isn’t challenged to fully utilize his formidable detecting powers.

Without Voldemort, Harry Potter’s life becomes a walk in the Hogwart’s park.

Your antagonist must be a force to be reckoned with. And he should not appear to be a cardboard construct. Just as you take care to create a hero that pops off the pages in life-like detail for your readers, so too take care to create an antagonist as fascinating  as your hero. The stronger your characterization of your antagonist, the better your story.

Clearly, the shark in Jaws, Voldemort, and Darth Vader contribute mightily to the success of the stories in which they appear.

That, of course, is because the more formidable the antagonist, the greater your hero’s heroism in standing up to him or her – and the better your story.

Give your antagonist a compelling motivation for his actions.

Keep in mind also that strong antagonists have strong motivations. A villain’s usual motivations? Greed, revenge and/or a desire for power – often with a touch of madness thrown in for good measure.

But, in some stories, the antagonist may technically be on the side of the angels.

Remember Lieutenant Gerard in The Fugitive? Gerard is the FBI agent who is determined to recapture Richard Kimble, a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murder and who has escaped. In his dogged efforts to enforce “justice,” Gerard hampers Kimble’s efforts to find the real murderer. Gerard is ostensibly motivated to do what’s right, but ego is a large part of his motivation as well, and his behavior appears obsessive/compulsive – which makes him a formidable, complex and interesting antagonist.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Create a ‘Residents File’ for Your Characters

October 28, 2012

Creating the characters who will populate your novel is a fun exercise.

One way to do it is to create a “Residents File” for your novel.

Here’s how:

Reserve a sheet of paper for each character.

On that paper, you will give each character the following:

  •  Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Standout ways of relating to others (two words that are the way most people would describe this character – friendly but phony, angry and sly, fretful and hardworking, worried and devout, calm and devious, thoughtful but officious, irritating but talented, etc.


Combine 3 and 4, and you have a four-word thumbnail sketch of your character: e.g., friendly but phony executive, arrogant but hardworking politician, worried but devout teacher, loud but talented chef, and so on.

Do this for each of the key characters that populate your novel. The end result will be your Residents File.

This will be helpful to you as you write your story because these character “sum ups” suggest plot lines and also help you make story choices more easily. A worried but devout teacher won’t make an unethical choice easily – but what if she were coerced into acting against her beliefs? What would be the consequences? For one thing, she would probably suffer pangs of guilt and might take action accordingly – action that might move the plot forward.

The above way of creating characters helps you create characters who are unique and distinct.

Another way to ensure your characters are distinct from one another, is to give each a few unique “bits of business.” “Bits of business” is a term actors use to describe small details they use to bring a stage or film character to life.

That can be: details of appearance or style (always wears a baseball cap, wears a favorite pair of sneakers everywhere, etc.); speech (accent, education, nasal, gruff, etc.); talents, skills and knowledge areas (wine connoisseur, golf, other sports, hobbies, special training, etc.); habits (good or bad), eccentricities, and/or nervous mannerisms. It also is useful to give a character something physical that makes him/her stand out: aviator glasses, toupee, whisky and cigarettes voice, and so on.

The one thing you need to do is avoid creating cliche characters like the brilliant but absent-minded professor, the strong but dumb jock, etc.

Unique and fresh characters make your plot come alive.

Can you create more complicated files on each of your characters? Certainly. You can write complicated biographies for each of them, if you wish. But the Residents File method of thinking through your characters is a useful exercise – whether or not you later opt for greater complexity. And you may find that this shorthand method of characterization is all you need.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Characterization: Start with the Shoes

October 27, 2012


The cast of M*A*S*H

Alan Alda who played Hawkeye Pierce in the ueber-successful television series M*A*S*H, credits dog tags and a pair of army boots supplied to him by the show’s costume department with helping him clinch the character of Hawkeye.

Both the dog tags and the army boots had actually been worn by soldiers. (The tags bore the names of two different G.I.s.) Something about these items helped him bring Hawkeye to life. When he put on the uncomfortable army issue footwear, the challenges of being a surgeon in a Korean zone of war in the 50’s became real for him.

As authors faced with the challenge of bringing our characters to life, it’s not a bad idea for us to “start with the shoes” – that is, to start with a character’s shoes.

There’s a reason so many people are fascinated with shoes. They can reveal so much:

  • Are they newish, clean, polished to a fare-thee-well? Or, ripped at the seams, down at the heel, and spattered with dubious substances?
  • Are they the latest nosebleed-priced designer pumps/sneakers/lace-ups? Or Soles-for-Less specials guaranteed to last a month or two and to dissolve in a rainstorm?
  • Are they sandals dyed to match a pale lavender outfit worn on a night on the town? Or are they sensible black shoes meant to last a lifetime? Well, you get the picture.


Shoes help an author get a foot in a character’s door.

Imagine the shoes your character collects, and you can imagine his or her socioeconomic status (or financial challenges), sense of taste, and attitude to fashion, to fitting in, to work, to play, to romance, and so on.

Do you need to tell the reader what’s helping your hero navigate the streets of your story? Sure – it might be one of the details you wish to share. In other words, you can if you want to – but you don’t need to. The point is: you should know.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.


Characterization, On Writing

Why a Hero Shouldn’t be Perfect

October 26, 2012

A hero needs to be imperfect.


For one thing, how many absolutely perfect people do you know? (No, you can’t count people you have just fallen in love with. Get back to me in a year.)

We all know that there are precious few saints walking among us. So a character who is perfect just isn’t going to seem real. Nor is he a character with whom the reader can identify.

That’s why movie hero Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes and has issues with his father, it’s why Superman can’t deal with Kryptonite, and it’s why Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary is – well, Bridget is a mass of imperfections – and that’s exactly why we love her (and what drives her story).

And Story is the other reason a hero needs imperfections.

Here’s why:

  • If a hero is perfect, there is no suspense. We know he is going to win.
  • A hero’s weaknesses can spark decisions and actions that keep the story moving in an interesting direction.


So an author needs to create heroes with weaknesses and flaws.

In some stories – a hero can be Flawed Lite, as with Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. In other stories the flaws are a large part of who the hero is, as with Bridget Jones – or with Adrian Monk in the detective series Monk. While Monk is a brilliant detective, he also suffers from OCD, and seems to be afraid of everything.

And remember: we need to show versus tell a reader about our hero’s flaws – or positive traits.

So, we won’t say hero is daring or thoughtful. We’ll show him leading a charge in combat, or buying flowers for his administrative assistant.

Same with flaws: we won’t just say a hero can be insensitive or that he’s rash. We’ll show him forgetting his girlfriend’s birthday, or drunkenly signing up for a skydive or a bungee jump.

One caveat: don’t saddle your hero with unforgiveable flaws. A “hero” who steals candy from babies or money from the church till is crossing the hero line. He isn’t “flawed” in a human, understandable way. He is demonstrating a mean, amoral streak that takes him out of hero territory. (You will need to use your authorial judgment in deciding on your hero’s shortcomings.)

So, with the above caveat in mind, add an imperfection or two to the heroic paragon who leads the action of your novel, and he becomes more real, likable – and compelling.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Novelists: How to Create a Compelling Protagonist

October 25, 2012

Creating a hero? Here are the ‘Dont’s’

You need to make your hero engaging (likable and/or interesting) from the start of your narrative.

After all, he needs to capture our interest from his first appearance – and then be someone who can hold our attention for 200+ pages.

You can do this by making your hero funny in an endearing or fascinating way. In the television series Monk, for example, the title character is cheap, socially inept, and suffers from OCD. But his quirks give rise to various comical situations and the actor who plays him makes him very watchable.

A common way to make the hero engaging is to show what a great guy he is. Good writers do this in  interesting and creative ways.

But your hero doesn’t always need to be an admirably good person.

It’s more of a challenge to create an antihero – but Scarlett O’Hara is one example of how it’s done. Scarlett does not fulfill the typical requirements for a halo – but she fascinates readers. Impetuous, passionate, daring, and driven, it’s mesmerizing to follow her various exploits.

Beyond being engaging, your hero also needs to fulfill certain requirements, if he aims to keep a reader’s attention for the span of a novel. Specifically, most heroes need to be:

  • goal oriented – actively pursues a goal, makes things happen, is not afraid to engage in conflict in pursuit of what he deems is right
  • passionate – if he doesn’t care deeply about achieving his goal, why should the reader?
  • real – he should have some flaws and shortcomings
  • unique – use your creativity and make him memorable in his own right
  • decent – does the right thing, stands up for what’s right
  • admirable – courageous, someone we can respect, someone who acts boldly and takes risks


Remember: a bold hero is a vulnerable hero (one willing to take risks). And vulnerability equates to story tension and suspense. A hero can still be admirable, even if he’s an underdog or down on his luck, so long as he isn’t dumb or a loser or a jerk. The reason for this is the reader would lose respect for the hero. When that happens, the reader closes the book and walks away.

Happy writing!


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