Writing from the Peak, PPW Blog

Conference Benefits

By: Catherine Dilts

When I began my writing journey, I listened closely to advice. One universal bit of guidance was to attend writers’ conferences. The Pikes Peak Writers Conference didn’t exist when I became serious about writing fiction. I didn’t have a clue about conferences, or their benefits.

Three Bits of Universal Writing Advice:

  1. Attend a writing conference
  2. Join (or create) a critique group
  3. Write

I began #3 with consistency when I took a creative writing course at UCCS. I learned about goals and deadlines in class. The instructor suggested students form critique groups when class ended. A few of us did, and I ticked off #2 from the advice list. One member became a lifelong friend. That group faded, but I learned the value of exchanging writing evaluations with other serious writers.

After that class, I felt adrift. I craved more professional guidance. A local chapter of Romance Writers of America was the only game in town. Many folks who didn’t write romance joined. It was a lively group of serious published and aspiring authors. The learning experience was valuable, even though it wasn’t my genre.

PPWC2022 logoThen the Pikes Peak Writers Conference began in 1993. I’m foggy on precisely which year was my first, but I was definitely there in 1995. I placed second in the writing contest. I was fortunate that one of the best conferences in the nation took place in my backyard. When I attended my first conference, it knocked my socks off. And checked #1 off the advice list.

I had not yet begun my professional career, and money was tight. The scholarship was a blessing. The welcoming atmosphere helped me believe I belonged. I hung out with my critique group. We fancied ourselves up-and-coming authors. We pursued agents and editors with our amazing stories. It was emotionally awesome.

I was certain I was on my way. I eagerly drank from the firehose of information, wisdom, and encouragement. Over twenty-five years ago, my world was small. The PPW Conference kicked in doors and opened windows I hadn’t even known existed.

Three Benefits of Attending a Conference:

  1. Education
  2. Encouragement
  3. Networking with professionals

Seventeen years later, I finally achieved my goal. I became a published author. I now have nine traditionally published novels, and a dozen published short stories. There are many reasons it took me that long to “arrive.” (Among them are the long stories behind my multiple name changes.) But the fact that I arrived at all, even after that length of time, owes a lot to my early dedication to PPWC.

If you have never attended a writers’ conference, I encourage you to consider PPWC. I wish for you the excitement I felt. Believing that all things are possible. Finding acceptance no matter where you are in your writing development. To make connections with people who understand your brand of crazy. To learn more than you ever thought possible.

Best Things I Got from Conferences:

  1. Friends – Julie was standing in the hallway at her first PPWC. My critique partner Joyce suggested we talk to her. So we did. Later Beth and Sharon attended PPWC with us. And we’ve all been friends ever since.
  2. Finding my tribe – realizing I belonged as a writer.
  3. Professionalism – learning to treat writing as a career, not a hobby.

At your first conference, you might feel like you’re drinking from a firehose. Some things may not apply to your journey. Others may not make sense the first time around. But I’m guessing you’ll feel the same exhilaration combined with exhaustion that I did. Conference might be the spark that gets you going, or keeps you going, to eventual publication.

My journey had a lot of detours and dead ends. I finally arrived, and I owe much of my determination to those early conferences. PPWC was a life-changing experience for me.


Catherine Dilts headshotCATHERINE DILTS prefers writing cozy mysteries and short stories surrounded by flowers on her sunny deck, but any day – and anywhere – spent writing is a good day. Author of the Rock Shop Mystery series, and the stand-alone Survive Or Die with Encircle Publications, Catherine also writes for Annie’s Publishing, contributing three books for the Secrets of the Castleton Manor Library and two for the new Annie’s Museum of Mysteries series. Her short story HazMat Holiday appears in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine January/February 2022 issue. Visit her website here.

Building Believable Characters Part 2:

Strong Secondary Characters

Last month we looked at why it’s important to create believable characters for our stories. You can check that out here if you missed it. Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to practice some of the pointers I mentioned in that article.

This month we’ll look at Strong Secondary Characters: why we need them; why they make a difference; and how to create then write them.

Put Away the Cookie Cutter

Just as with your main characters—usually, a hero and a heroine, perhaps an antagonist/villain and/or a protagonist/mentor—readers don’t want cookie-cutter characters. They want to say, “oh, yeah, I know somebody a lot like that” without really knowing one single person. As with our main characters, secondary characters should be a conglomeration of types who remain true to themselves.

Secondary characters should have some relationship to the main character(s). They don’t have to have a connection to both leads, but at least one. Otherwise, they aren’t a secondary character. They could be a walk-on, or a tertiary character, somebody you need in the story to check out groceries or teach a class or perform an operation—but these will be characters with minimal description.

A good secondary character impacts on the main character’s story arc, helps them through it, or prevents them from getting to their goal. They are involved in the life of your main character in some way, getting together, speaking, and sharing memories. The main story plot belongs to the lead, but a secondary character could be the subject of a subplot.

While the secondary character has a backstory, it usually isn’t as important to the plot and story arc as the main character’s is. However, you should know their backstory, even if it never appears on the page, because that’s what defines their reactions and inner turmoil. However, to justify their actions, a little insight into their history can be helpful.

Make sure you create your secondary character with more than one personality trait, just as you would your main character. In truth, a secondary character is simply not the one the story is about—that’s your main character. But as in real life, we all need somebody to bounce ideas off of, to love, to hate, to spend time with.

A great secondary character isn’t a “yes” man to the main character. They can tell the story from their point of view at times, but the main character should hold the majority of the scenes. Limit the number of secondary characters so the reader doesn’t get confused, and make sure their names and characteristics are distinct from others in the story. If you find you need another secondary character, consider combining roles. For example, if you need a firefighter and a next door neighbor, make them the same person.

Secondary characters can be good, evil, or somewhere in between. Just as with creating main characters, nobody is all one way or the other. When thinking about secondary characters, look for at least one contrasting characteristic. For example, if he is loyal to the lead, show one way he is shallow or cowardly.

If you’re concerned the reader may get confused about who is who, you can limit a secondary character to one location. Perhaps she works with the lead, and they don’t socialize, so all their interaction is at the workplace. Maybe he lives next door to the lead, so they meet in their neighborhood. Or the secondary character could be a professional in the lead’s life, such as a doctor, lawyer, or librarian.

Crafting secondary characters might take up word count that’s not available, so one way to overcome that problem is to use tropes. Put a fresh spin on their character so readers will want to invest in them.

There are several kinds of secondary characters:

  • Dynamic – they change a lot throughout the story – but don’t let them change more than the lead
  • Static – they change little but have a substantial role throughout the story – readers will know how they will react
  • Round – they reveal your main character’s true colors, sometimes presenting obstacles, but they grow alongside the lead.
  • Flat – they have one unchanging trait throughout the entire story

In conclusion, like every element in our stories, secondary characters must serve a purpose. Use this checklist to make certain you have exactly the right number of supporting characters, and that they are in the scenes they need be in, and no more:

  • Does the character advance the plot in ways the lead cannot?
  • Are they creating conflict that keeps the lead from achieving their goals?
  • Are they revealing your lead’s characterization?
  • Does their presence deepen the discussion of a theme?
  • Are they motivating the lead?
  • Does their presence reveal elements about the story or lead?

Next month we’ll discuss how to craft convincing villains.

Resources:

https://www.well-storied.com/blog/how-to-craft-spectacular-secondary-characters

https://nybookeditors.com/2016/02/your-guide-to-creating-secondary-characters/

https://www.writerscookbook.com/secondary-characters/

 


Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published 50+ times in books under her name and that of her alter ego, Leeann Betts; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.

She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts. Follow Donna on her websiteblogGoodreadsBookbubTwitter, and Facebook.

 

Building Reader Loyalty

By: Kim Krisco

Like most writers, I have honed my writing skills by reading countless books, attending workshops, and joining writer’s groups – all with one goal: to get published. Then it happened, a London publisher accepted one of my novels. It wasn’t long after I popped a celebratory champagne cork that I recognized that I now had a different goal – one I should have had from the start . . . writing stories that keep readers coming back for more. These two goals are similar, differing primarily regarding where to put your emphasis and attention as you write.

Three Attributes to Garner Reader Loyalty

I hoped that there was one book or workshop that addressed reader loyalty. And while I found that many offerings touched on reader loyalty, no single article, book, or workshop focused on this topic. However, pieced together some of the best advice and condensed it to three attributes that garner reader loyalty:

  • Enriching subplots,
  • characters that readers relate to and
  • employing highly relevant themes.

As we explore these you will likely discover that you currently employ some or all of these in your stories. Congratulations! Now . . . if you can infuse your stories with all three attributes consciously and intentionally, your storytelling will become even more masterful.

Enriching Subplots

A subplot is a side story that runs parallel to the main plot, and it often involves a secondary character who plays a minor role in the main story. Subplots not only add richness and nuance to your tale but become a device for sharing background about your main protagonist that might otherwise come off as clumsy and contrived if you did it within the main story. In the Harry Potter anthology, a ripe example is Harry’s aunt and uncle, who believe Harry’s powers are evil. They enrich the “good versus evil” battle that is the central theme and reveal important character traits in Harry that come into play later in the story.

My primary protagonist, Tessa Wiggins, has reoccurring subplots that follow her through my novels: crushing guilt for having abandoned her little sister in an orphan asylum, an on-again/off-again love affair with Clark Button, and an ever-present belief she is ‘never good enough.’ Each story also introduces a new, unique subplot. For example, in The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, she struggles to find ways to repay the kindness of her childhood friend Sherlock Holmes. Of course, even the best subplot won’t be enough if you don’t have a protagonist that readers learn to love.

Characters With Which Readers Identify

One of the reasons we follow a particular author is that we become invested in one specific character – usually the primary protagonist. Think Mildred Wirt Benson’s Nancy Drew, or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (the most popular fictional character of all time). People tend to follow characters rather than authors, so how do you write characters that readers will invest in?

The formula, while logical, is multifaceted. People identify with characters who are likeable, are in jeopardy, flawed, vulnerable, courageous, and (here’s a big one) get in touch with their own power. The first five attributes are familiar, but the last is often glossed over or simply chalked up to “agency.” But characters who are or get in touch with their own power is more significant.

To oversimply, the act of claiming personal power requires overcoming character defects such as crippling low self-esteem, overpowering ego, crushing fear(s), etc. While readers do not necessarily possess these character defects in the extreme, everyone is familiar with them to some degree because it shows up in negative self-talk. This internal battle within your protagonist is, in some ways, the actual conflict that takes place within a story. The proof that your hero has won this battle comes in the climax when they risk it all to achieve the goal motivating their actions from the start.

All these characteristics come together for me in my protagonist Tessa Wiggins, a turn of the twentieth-century Irish lass who grew up in the impoverished, crime-ridden borough of Spitalfields in London’s East Side. With that beginning, it is easy for me to create sympathy for Tessa, who struggles against all odds to become a hero with which everyone can identify.

The final attribute needed to gain reader loyalty, if mentioned at all, is usually done as an aside; but I believe it may be most important.

Highly Relevant Themes

Great authors had great themes that resonated with the times they wrote. Charles Dickens’ themes were the misery of the proletarian classes and the exploitation of child labor coming into the public’s consciousness during the industrial revolution. Jane Austen’s works revolved around the theme of self-improvement through courageous self-examination and education. Her novels were written when women were beginning to stand up to the patriarchy that had been smothering them for centuries.

Let me propose that relevant and timely themes woven within the core story are one of the primary things that engages and maintains loyal readers. Like the ones noted above, the themes were relevant in their time, but may or may not resonate with today’s readers. My chosen themes are gender equality (particularly women’s rights) and environmental sustainability. I hope we can agree that these are relevant today.

The wonderful thing is that consciously and intentionally employing relevant themes help shape your story in new and surprising ways. For example, my commitment to building my stories around women’s rights and environmental sustainability led me to research Celtic history because the Celts enjoyed a harmony between the roles and rights or men and women that is not based upon the superiority of one sex over another. In the world of the Celts, women were warriors, poets, and even Druids — the latter being more powerful than any monarch. While I might have written stories set in the time of the Celts, it was more impactful to bring the Celtic ethics and beliefs into a more modern era to draw a sharper contrast. I picked the post-WWI period because women’s suffrage was taking root then.

My last three novels: Irregular Lives, The Celtic Phoenix, and The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, roll out chronologically as Tessa grows from a London street urchin into a powerful Celtic woman and Druid priestess. Within these three stories, readers are introduced to the Celtic ethos, and through magical realism, readers meet a diverse cadre of formidable women. Not all of them are good or perfect, but all are powerful in their own way. I hope that the next century will be one in which men and women no longer need to indulge in an unwholesome gender rivalry that has undermined all of us for centuries.

In conclusion, nothing offered here is meant to discount the importance of a great story or well-crafted prose, but rather point toward the kind of fiction that keeps readers coming back for more: enriching subplots, characters that readers relate to, and highly relevant themes. Keeping all those literary balls in the air is what makes writing so challenging and rewarding.


Kim Krisco

Kim Krisco is the author of four novels: Sherlock Holmes—The Golden YearsIrregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, and The Celtic Phoenix— published by MX Publishing in London.  His latest release, The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, features a formidable 1920’s Irish lass from the London slums who strives to become a Druid priestess.

Prior to writing full-time, Kim served as a consultant, trainer, and coach for business and non-profit organizations and their leaders.  You can find out more about Kim and his books on his website.

He and his wife, Sararose Ferguson, live in the Rocky Mountains in tiny homes that they built themselves on the North Fork of the Purgatory River.  Kim likes to say that “living on the Purgatory River may not be heaven, but it’s a writer’s paradise.”

Off the Grid

Disconnecting to Stay Motivated & Ward off Procrastination

By: Jenny Kate

Did you know, Americans spend an average of 6.5 hours a day on the internet. Pew Research found that most of us spend almost a full day on the internet a week. That’s nuts!

Does the internet help you procrastinate? Does it distract you from writing? Do you ever get sick of being online?

For me, yes to all of the above.

Going to Costa Rica

A year ago, we had to cancel plans to Costa Rica because of COVID. This year, we finally went. And I’ve been thinking about the positive effects of being off the grid. Especially for writers.

I was off the grid, completely, for ten days. No phone. No tablet. No internet. In those ten days, I read five paper books. I slept. I meditated. I swam, surfed and hiked. I ate good food. Took some Spanish lessons on the beach. I wrote by hand.

But I was in Costa Rica.

Get off the Grid!

Back in the day, that would have mattered because we really were unreachable. These days, we’re completely reachable no matter where we are. I had to deliberately put myself off the grid.

So, could I do this at home?

We live our lives online. My day job is spent on the computer. And because I’m in marketing and communications, it’s also spent on social media and news sites. The other day, I was in two meetings – at the same time. One on Zoom and one on Microsoft Teams AND I was answering emails and watching my phone in case a text came in.

How ridiculous is that? Am I supposed to write after that? Um, no. After that, all I want is a stiff drink and some mindless television.

But I don’t have that kind of day on the weekend or holidays. So could I go off the grid in some sense, and rejuvenate without having to fly across the planet to do it?

An Experiment

A little experiment told me yes. But it’s not off the grid in the way living in the Alaskan bush is off the grid. It’s more like deliberate breaks from my devices.

My experiment lasted three weeks. Here’s what I did:

  • Logged off the internet by 5:30 every day during the week.
  • Left my phone to charge downstairs (not by my bed). Every night.
  • Left my tablet downstairs and read paper books instead of watching TV before I went to bed. Every night.
  • Turned off all notifications on my phone after 5:30pm and all weekend. (I did have an exception for my daughter and my husband. They have their own ringtones for calls and texts).
  • Wrote by hand on a yellow notepad. Then transferred that to my Atticus program during the week.
  • Continued my daily walk habit (this has been a gamechanger for me the past two years).

The Results

I felt less overwhelmed and less anxious. And way more productive in my writing over the weekend than I have in quite some time.

Will this work for you?

Maybe not this exact scenario, but think about your life and where you can experiment with being off the grid. Maybe it’s an internet blocker while you’re writing? Apps like Freedom, Cold Turkey, or AntiSocial are good ones to block internet distractions and let you focus on writing. Business Insider found Fortune 500 company execs were way more productive when they used these types of apps.

How about taking all social off your tablet and use it only to read your Kindle books? Leave the social for your phone and designate a time to scroll. Then stick with it.

Or put a reminder on your phone to get up and walk around every hour?

One of the reasons I think it was so easy in Costa Rica was because there was a lot to do other than being on my phone.

So what can you do that is motivating and fun offline?

Well, one thing is write. We’re writers. That’s what we do. The minute you feel the itch, ask yourself is there something you could be doing to advance your story instead? Create a story bible. Do a character sketch. Draw a map of your setting. Create a family tree. None of these have to be done online.

Another thing is live your life. It’s a little hard to write about life if we really aren’t living it anywhere but on a 4×5-inch computer in our hands. Become a tourist in your hometown. Visit museums, parks, other attractions you’ve saved for “one day” and haven’t gotten around to. Take up tennis or hiking or sailing. Whatever. Find a weird, fun, quirky habit you enjoy. My daughter paints. I cook. We both like to make soap.

Whatever you decide, let it feed your soul and keep you motivated.


Jenny Kate

Jenny Kate is the founder of Writer Nation, an online space dedicated to helping writers market their work. With 19 years communications experience, she regularly writes on social media, internet marketing and face-to-face publicity. You can find her on her WebsiteFacebook, and  Instagram

  

 

Could A Scene List Help You Write Better?

By: Kim Olgren

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you need to know about scene lists. This is a tool that can change your life as a writer. Pantsers don’t run away. I promise I’m not trying to convert you I’m trying to help you. Don’t be afraid of the big, bad spreadsheet program.

What Is a Scene List?

A scene list can be as simple or as thorough as you want it to be. As a pantser, you might just make a simple list of scenes in a spreadsheet program like Excel or Google Docs just for quick reference as to where something happened. Especially if you’re writing in a program like Word where you looking at one, large, running document. I mean, scrolling through a 100k Word document to see where you first hinted at that smoking gun has to be one of the most tedious and unnecessary actions one can be bored to tears doing. On the flip side, plotters, you’re probably already thinking about tracking all those pesky little details floating around outside of your beautiful outline.

What Can a Scene List Do for You?

Your scene list can be so useful that it can assist you from the maze of the (gasp) outline and first draft, all the way through the bog of revisions, bypassing the junk fields altogether, and right up to publishing castle. A scene list can help with everything from character traits to timelines.

Here’s the hand-written scene list from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

Looks complicated? It’s not. Remember all these squares were filled in over a long period of time. As writers we all know this stuff takes time and odds are it’s not going to look the same as when you first started. However, a scene list can help keep you on track. Especially when you’re wandering around in the purgatory of the soggy middle. Your scene list can put you back on track and moving forward.

Finally, you’re down to the nitty-gritty. It’s time for editing. But wait! You know there’s some missing scenes and some that need to be sent to the abyss. But which ones? Never fear! Your handy scene list is here! Need to drop that meaningful backstory comment that foreshadows why Jane is so afraid to let anyone get close? Browse your scene list. You know you have to pull that scene where that one thing happens that, as it turns out, is totally irrelevant to the story? Browse your scene list. You can highlight what you want to keep or toss in different colors, or highlight POV so you can track how much page-time your characters are getting. The possibilities are endless.

Get the most from your scene list

Here’s some information you might want to include to get the most out of your scene list (you can do more or less, or do it completely differently, it’s all up to you):

  • Scene number
  • Chapter the scene is found in
  • Estimated word count
  • Actual word count
  • A short scene summary
  • POV
  • Other characters involved
  • The scene’s structure
  • Date the scene takes place within the story
  • The setting in which the scene takes place

You can use a spreadsheet, some kind of outline form in a word processing program, the cork board in Scrivener, sticky notes on a wall or in a folder, graphing paper, or some other helpful writing tool you prefer. Your scene list can be the map to your novel, showing you all corners of the world you’re building and everything within it at a glance. Your all-seeing eye gazing into your newly forming world.

May your pen be swift, prolific, and true!


Kim OlgrenK.A. Olgren has voraciously read anything she could get her hands on for as far back as she can remember. She’s always been a sucker for a good mystery in any form. By the time she’d entered elementary school she was writing her own stories and squirreling them away for her own eyes only. She’s worn many hats but writing has been her constant companion. When not wrestling with words or curled up with them (it’s a complicated love/hate relationship), she can be found flipping houses with her husband, volunteering within the local writing community, crocheting badly, traveling sporadically, or hanging out with her family and faithful German shepherd/lab mix in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Visit the author’s website.   

Building Believable Characters

By: Donna Schlachter

As writers, we understand the importance of plot—the action of the story. Without it, nothing happens. With a bad plot, we’ll bore our readers, or confuse them, and they’ll do the unthinkable—toss our book aside and never buy another.

Along with plots go subplots, those extras to the main story that keep things rolling along when the main story is off the page. Important to have the exact right number—not one too many or too few. Keeps our characters busy with the other things going on in their lives, because face it—we all do more than one thing.

We might also spend a lot of time deciding on setting—real or fictional—as well as themes, foreshadowing, and more. Every genre has its expectations. For example, in a romance, the reader expects a reason why the love interests can’t or won’t get together. In a mystery, red herrings and suspects and motives are of interest. In fantasy, world-building is critical.

Develop Believable Characters

Sometimes we can be so focused on these other parts of the story structure that we neglect to develop believable characters, so when we start writing, we simply get going on the story.

But often what happens then is that our characters start to talk and act like stereotypes, which is not what we want. Sure, we don’t want them so weird that they’re unbelievable. Or so evil the reader can’t relate to them. Or so wishy-washy our audience hates them.

No, what we want are characters who are different, yet the same.

I know, that sounds contradictory. So let me give you an example.

In my first mystery series, penned under my alter ego of Leeann Betts, my main character was a forensic accountant. YAWN! Accountants. In fact, the first editor I approached with my series flat out told me “nobody wants to read about accountants. They’re boring.” Probably not her fault that I didn’t explain my story better.

My accountant is a woman. In her fifties. Always ten to fifteen pounds overweight, no matter how much she tries. Favorite outfit are sweatpants and a t-shirt. Dressing up involves jeans. Married for the second time. Step-kids she loves. Living in a small town for the first time in her life. For over ten years. Still feels like an outsider. Loves mysteries, and hates to leave one unsolved. In fact, the first one she ever got involved in, she was almost killed. Hence my prequel story, Roasted Bean Counter. As you can tell from the title, she tries not to take herself too seriously. She hates exercise and subscribes to the theory that each person is given a certain number of heartbeats to use before they die. Once they’re gone, you’re gone. So she’s not going to shorten her life by increasing her heart rate simply so she can sweat. She also jumps to conclusions, or so her husband says. Not to mention that she hates change. Her motto is: I can be as spontaneous as anybody if I’m given enough time. Oh, and she tries not to take anybody else too seriously, either. Her sassy mouth and quick comebacks have often gotten her into trouble.

Did you notice something about my description? Not once did I mention the color of her hair, her height, her eyes, if she has a dimple or a mole on her cheek. Nothing about her apart from her age and her slight weight problem. Yet I bet you saw her in your mind as I was describing her.

Avoid the Traps

One trap writers often fall into is describing their character as though they’re reading off their driver’s license. Sure, we might disguise it a little: Her blue eyes contrasted nicely with her dark, shoulder-length, wavy hair, and at five ten and a hundred and twenty pounds, she was svelte but not scrawny.

If her physical description isn’t important to the story, we don’t need to know. So, for example, if her blue eyes made her the only kid in her family that didn’t have brown eyes, and her parents are both brown-eyed, this might make her wonder if she was adopted. Or illegitimate.

Dichotomies in physical build from her siblings or others in her family might also cause her to question her lineage. Being tall and slender might allow her to hide in a narrow space, which could be helpful if she was being chased by the bad guy. But bring that out early in the story—don’t just spring it on the reader when she needs to hide.

What does your character know?

In my mystery series, my character’s understanding of accounting, banking, and the court system are often used to help her solve the crime. In addition, because she needs to hold an expert status in forensic accounting, she must always act with honesty and integrity. Poor credit rating and issues such as overdrawing her bank account will figure negatively in that regard. I use both the question of integrity and of fiscal responsibility in two of the books to create tension between her and the crime.

I mentioned she loves her step-kids, so you can expect her to respond like a Mama bear when her kids are threatened in any way. Several books in the series center around family and the need to clear them of suspicion in various crimes.

Once you create a character sketch for your story, you must strive to ensure that every decision either goes along with who that character is, or you’d better have a good reason for it not to be. Unbelievable characters are those who act contrary to the information you’ve already told the reader. While you can put your character in a position to be forced to choose between two bad outcomes, there must be something the reader already knows about the character so the choice isn’t unbelievable.

Next month, we’ll talk about creating a strong secondary character to complement and challenge your main character.


Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published 50+ times in books under her name and that of her alter ego, Leeann Betts; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.

She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts. Follow Donna on her website, blog, Goodreads, Bookbub, Twitter, and Facebook.

Writing Habits from the Best of Us

By Jenny Kate

As we embark on a new year, tons of folks are thinking about how to develop new habits.

  • Go to the gym.
  • Eat better.
  • Write more.

Habits and goals are important. They give us purpose. And purpose gives us longevity. I’ve been thinking a lot about Blue Zones. These are the locations in the world with the most people aged 100 or more. One is a place close to my heart. The Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. We go for Christmas every few years. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. Surfing. Jungle. Sun. I’m off the grid for two weeks. I read paper books. And I just get to be. As I was there this past year, I was thinking, why do these people live so long?

Writing Habits from Centenarians

Their longevity seems to boil down to four things: diet, exercise, community, and purpose.

Diet & Exercise – duh

We’ve all heard it a million times. Eat healthier and move. Honestly, I can’t help you with your diet. Although I can tell you most of the folks in Nicoya eat a crap ton of fruits and veggies and some fish. Lots of rice and beans and plantains too.

They also live in a place where being outside is part of the culture. Beach every morning to surf or swim or walk. Beach at sunset for obvious reasons. Walk everywhere.

During the pandemic, I got in the habit of a daily walk. Kurt Vonnegut did pushups and sit ups all the time. Nora Roberts works out every day. What can you do to get yourself moving? Feeling better keeps you motivated to keep writing.

Community

The importance of community can’t be overstated. Writing is a solitary business. But producing books is all about community. Beta readers, street teams, agents, editors, proofreaders, critique partners.

Whether it’s in person or virtual, you are not alone in this writing endeavor. And community can keep you motivated to stick to your daily writing habits. Your community can be whoever supports your writing: immediate family, friends, colleagues at work, or writing buds. It just has to be a group of people that provide a positive environment for you.

Purpose

Purpose is the one aspect of this I think we control the most and might be the hardest. What is our writing purpose? To create wonderful worlds for our readers? To entertain, excite, scare?

How do you maintain that purpose when things like imposter syndrome sneak in?

This is where daily writing habits can be helpful.

  • Specific amount of writing time
  • Specific number of words written
  • Specific chapters finished in a certain time period
  • Specific timeframe work is due to the editor

Daily writing habits can be helpful if you have your community to hold you accountable. Whether it’s pages to your critique partners or chapters to your proofreader, a deadline to a human being can be motivating.

If this doesn’t motivate you enough to create your writing habits, then maybe some of the famous among us can.

Writing Habits from Famous Authors

Several bestsellers repeat the same mantra: “It’s our job.” If a doctor said he didn’t feel like it today, a life could be lost. A bit dramatic, but the point is, it’s our job. We sit down and we write. We produce stories. No one’s habit or process will be the same. But having that habit or process is what puts books on the shelves.

Ernest Hemingway: “I write every morning.”

Jodi Picoult: “I don’t believe in writer’s block. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page.”

Khaled Hosseini: “You have to write whether you feel like it or not.”

Toni Morrison: “I am able to write regularly. I have a nine-to-five job. I write either in between those hours or spend a lot of the weekend and predawn time writing.”

Henry Miller: “Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema – all these come after.”

Nora Roberts: “I write every day. It’s my job. Routine is my life.” and “Stop whining and write.”

Joe Lansdale: “I write every morning at 9, and I’m done by noon.”

Maya Angelou: “I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.”  

Whether you take it from the Centenarians or the Famous Writers, find the writing habit that works for you. Stick with it for a month and see what happens.

Happy writing!


Jenny Kate

Jenny Kate is the founder of Writer Nation, an online space dedicated to helping writers market their work. With 19 years communications experience, she regularly writes on social media, internet marketing and face-to-face publicity. You can find her on her WebsiteFacebook, and  Instagram

Pantser Versus Plotter

By: Catherine Dilts

Pantsers and Plotters often view each other with disdain. In the Plotter’s view, Pantsers are disorganized, chasing after the spark of an idea at the sacrifice of crafting a coherent story.  Pantsers see the Plotter’s methods as excessively neat and controlling, at the sacrifice of releasing genuine creativity.

First, the definitions.

Pantser – A writer who has a seat-of-the-pants approach, also referred to as “organic writing.” Applied to fiction writing, this means beginning a project without an outline, perhaps with no plan at all. Starting with a blank page, you plunge in. You may have an idea of where you want to end up, but planning would ruin the journey from original inspiration to finished project.

Pitfalls of Pantsing – Writing yourself into a dead end, realizing after thousands of words that the story just isn’t going to work. Author J. S. Ellis says, “I wrote the rest of the pile of manuscripts that are gathering dust by pantsing.” 

Plotter – A writer who creates an outline before beginning a fiction project. One famous plotter is thriller author Jeffery Deaver. At a talk, he described spending eight months creating an outline. A Plotter’s outline may vary from a single page to a chapter-by-chapter, or even a scene-by-scene outline.

Pitfalls of Plotting – The original spark goes stale in the process of creating structure. Sticking relentlessly to your outline might crush new ideas that could make your story better.

What is the solution to the battle between Pantsers and Plotters?

Be flexible. Some stories may benefit from the free-wheeling creative process of Pantsing. Others are better suited to Plotting. Author Janalyn Voigt applies both to her writing, using a hybrid approach. She states some projects lend themselves more to one technique or the other, and sometimes combining the two is the best solution.

An article at Jackal Editing explodes the plotting versus pantsing debate. After presenting the pros and cons of each writing method, the article ends with a sensible conclusion. “Neither process is better than the other. Instead of trying to define the perfect writing process, why don’t we just accept that everyone’s different and what works for you might not work for the person next to you?” 

How do you learn which technique works best for you?

Experimentation.

Author Henry Miller said “You have to write a million words before you find your voice as a writer.” This applies to finding your method of writing, too.

I began my writing life firmly committed to being a Pantser. Today I’m a published cozy mystery author. The opportunity came up to write for multi-author series. A detailed outline is a requirement. I found outlining grueling unhappy work at first. Now I plot heavily for all my projects. Trust me, it gets easier with practice.

Plotting is vital to creating a mystery story, in my opinion. That plot outline has to be flexible, though. In the writing process, a great plot twist may present itself. An additional red herring or suspect. You can’t surprise the reader unless you’re surprised. Don’t become trapped by your outline. Be open to revision.

Maybe instead of falling into one camp or the other, writers exist at varying points along a spectrum. Rare few people are strictly Pantsers or Plotters. You’re probably already using a combination of the two techniques. The main thing is to keep going. Write your million words.


CATHERINE DILTS prefers writing cozy mysteries and short stories surrounded by flowers on her sunny deck, but any day – and anywhere – spent writing is a good day. Author of the Rock Shop Mystery series, and the stand-alone Survive Or Die with Encircle Publications, Catherine also writes for Annie’s Publishing, contributing three books for the Secrets of the Castleton Manor Library and two for the new Annie’s Museum of Mysteries series. Her short story HazMat Holiday appears in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine January/February 2022 issue. Visit her website.

 

Writing from an Animal Character’s Point of View

By: G.G. Hall

About a dozen years ago, I embarked on a journey to write a children’s tale about a rabbit who was a pet, living in a home, and having some big adventures. The novel was to be told from a rabbit’s point of view, including the use of the first person singular. Having worked for 8 years with pet rabbits and various rescued Easter bunnies, I figured it would be a snap to just assume my favorite pet’s character and the words would flow.

I was quite wrong.

It was soon very obvious that in order to think, act, eat and see like a rabbit, you had to really become a rabbit. Since this was obviously impossible unless I found some witch in a castle somewhere who would feed me a potion made of things no one wants to hear about, I would have to come up with a plan B.

My father worked for 30 years as a police officer who investigated crimes- mostly homicides but often armed robberies as well.  In many cases, the culprit was not known and the evidence was limited, so my father devised a method that resulted in solving 30 homicides out of 32. He once simply stated, “Get into the mind of the criminal. Think like he thinks. Sit where he would have sat.” And so, I decided to use his proven method to “get into” the mind of a pet rabbit.

Get into Character

Starting out with many questions, I played the role of “Hershey” and his pals. What does the living room really look like from his perspective? I laid down on the floor and looked around at the couch, coffee table, and the paintings on the wall. The world above is probably very initimidating to a “ground creature” such as a rabbit. Writing down my observations from the “floor perspective,” the story suddenly became easier. Crawl under the couch and find dust balls that were thick and abundant. This would probably make me or any other creature sneeze- so why not write it into the story? But then again, would the rabbit even know what these objects were? What would a large chair or coffee table look like to a small creature? Would he understand paintings of the sky were, in fact, paintings or would he assume they were openings to the real thing?

What’s for Lunch?

Once the surroundings were established, a second task was upon me. Food. I knew very well what my rabbits loved to eat- green stuff, herbs of all kinds and, of course carrots and apples. But how in the world do you describe the taste of their main staple- hay? Obviously it would taste different to a human than a rabbit. So I used my sense of smell to guide my writing. No, I did not eat hay. But I did try cilantro, parsley and dill in order to experience the tastes. Bitter? Sweet? Decadent? Herby? To many rescued rabbits, like my character, these tastes are new when they go to an adoptive home. What emotions would I have in tasting these for the first time?

The Adventure Begins

My third task was the plot, which was to be a series of adventures. What would a rabbit get into? And how would he be able to do these things? I recalled that little bunnies in exercise pens had one great gift. The ability to push off their hind legs and clear the fence. Or, even easier, the same little rabbit could just jump up onto a cardboard box in his pen and take it from there. But my rabbits had another advantage. One of their friends was the pet parrot in the house. So what if the parrot helped them out of the pen by unfastening the clips that held the pen together? Excellent! Escape was much easier and now a team effort. This gave the plot another dimension and added a character that could help the protagonist in many ways.

As the adventures unfolded, again I sat on my floor and studied things such as stairs, Christmas trees, and yes, the refrigerator. In each case, I had to figure out how a mischievous rabbit or two would explore, climb up or open these objects. And what fun it would be to knock over the Christmas tree!

Getting Around

One last obstacle in writing about an animal was locomotion. How did they move? Sometimes they ran and other times they were content to hop. But a very excited happy rabbit would often leap into the air and make a little twist. This hilarious movement was called a “binky” by rabbit people. How would it feel to actually do these things?

 As writers, many of us often have an animal or several as characters. Whether they are the pet of a main character or the main character themselves certainly means that we must do our best and our research to make them as real as possible. Will they talk? Will they only talk to each other? Will they wear clothing, fall in love, cry? What will they do? Who and what are they afraid of?

In sharing all of this, I encourage my fellow writers to explore the possibilities of their animal characters. And when in doubt, well, just lay on the floor. Just don’t eat the hay or the dog biscuits!


Georgiana Hall (“G.G. Hall”) is the author of the novel Hershey- A Tale of a Curious House Rabbit and the sequel, Trouble in the Attic. A retired physics and astronomy professor, she has written numerous editorials which have appeared in USA Today, the Miami Herald and others. She and her rabbit novels were featured in an article by pet columnist Sharon Peters in a USA Today article in January 2011.

She and husband Oren , also a retired professor, share their Colorado springs home with 2 cats, a rabbit and 3 birds. Currently, G.G. is  working on a third Hershey novel as well as several other young adult novels.

Crafting a Novella in 10 Easy Steps

By: Donna Schlachter

I used to think writing shorter would make the process easier. I started out penning greeting cards, devotionals, poetry, and take-home articles. Magazine articles. Children’s books. You name it. If it was less than two thousand words, I’ve probably done it.

Not surprisingly, I learned that writing short wasn’t easier than writing longer. In fact, it wasn’t simple at all. I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, in a letter to a friend, “I’d have written a shorter letter if I had more time.”

To be honest, the first time I was offered the opportunity to write a novella, I felt like I was cheating the reader in some way. At less than half the size of a regular novel, surely the story would be shallow. Unsatisfying. Unfulfilling. And how could I possibly get the main plot, three subplots, and eight primary characters into 30,000 words?

Well, I couldn’t. That’s the beauty of a novella. The main plot, one subplot, hero, heroine, bad person. A reader could pick up the book and read it in three hours or less. The perfect summer beach read or plane trip story. Or train. Or car. Or bedtime reading.

Ten Quick and Easy Steps:

Learning how to write a novella required me to change my mind set about the format. Not only was the number of words an issue, but even the number of chapters, characters, and subplots.

For those interested in learning how to pen a successful novella, here are the steps:

  1. Come up with a story that has two interesting people who find themselves in a sticky situation. Many novellas are romance based for this reason.
  2. Decide on a sub-plot that will be resolved in this book, or soon if this book is in a series. Nothing too complicated. But choose a sub-plot that relates in some way to the main plot.
  3. Limit your cast of characters. Hero, heroine, a bad person if needed. For other characters, consider combining them to keep the number required down. For example, if you need a next-door neighbor and a firefighter, make the neighbor a firefighter.
  4. Figure out your story arc. Just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean you can make it any less satisfying. Show your characters in their usual world, yank them out of it, force them into deciding.
  5. Limit the situations to two Black Moments or Crisis Points. You simply don’t have enough room in a novella to do more than that. The second Black Moment should be more difficult than the first, forcing your character to make a tougher decision.
  6. Offer your character alternatives to choosing the hard road, just as in a full-length novel.
  7. Force your character to making decisions that will be in direct contrast to their worldview. This will increase tension for the characters and the reader.
  8. Every book has a message or a theme, but readers don’t want it hitting them in the face. Instead, weave what you want your reader to take away throughout the dialogue, the internal thoughts, the choices the characters are forced to make, and foreshadowing.
  9. Consider your audience as you create your story. For example, if this is a sweet romance or a cozy mystery, readers won’t expect to see sex, cursing, or extreme violence on the page. If, however, you’re penning a steamy romance, gritty police procedural, or hard-boiled detective story, readers are more accustomed to these elements. Always write to your reader’s expectations.
  10. The best stories show the hero and/or heroine in a different frame of mind by the end of the story. They should have recognized their weaknesses and made choices to overcome them. They should have grown in the right direction, unless, of course, you’re writing a literary book. Relationships don’t have to be perfect, but if that’s the theme of the story, they should be moving ahead.

Publishing Opportunities

Novellas seem to work best in romantic genres, including contemporary and historical fiction. Cozy mysteries are popular venues for novellas, as is romantic suspense. Some publishers have developed a niche market for novellas by bundling them into collections of four to nine (or more) authors, with the stories having a common link. Sometimes the connection lies in the heroine’s name or occupation. Sometimes the characters live in the same town, or maybe they are friends out for an adventure. Whatever the link, readers like these collections, as sales testify, because they are able to sample multiple authors in the same collection. If they don’t prefer one story, they’re bound to find several that they do.

For independent authors who self-publish, novellas are a quick and easy way to keep readers satisfied until their next full-length novel releases.

Indie publishing sites, such as Amazon, encourages these shorter books through their algorithms because indie authors often are able to release more books in a year.

Contests and Awards

Most book awards now include novellas in their contests, and many have specific categories for these shorter novels. The writing world has come a long way in recent years. While novellas were once regarded by many as a second-best to full-length novels, savvy readers and judges now recognize that writing shorter can be more difficult.


Donna Schlachter

Donna writes historical and contemporary mysteries, and has been published more than 50 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of several writing communities; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly; and judges in writing contests. She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts.