Posts Tagged ‘Donna Schlachter’

Tone Down the Drama – Please!

By: Donna Schlachter

Last month we talked about not having too much harmony in our story, and I shared ways to make sure the harmony we do have isn’t boring. Also, I shared about making sure the characters, the storyline, the plot, and the theme need to align so nothing and nobody is out of place. Readers sense that, even if they don’t know exactly what the problem is.

This month we’ll talk about having too much conflict, or tension, and not enough harmony, or downtime. Readers need a break once in a while. And we should give it to them. Not long enough for them to lose interest, yawn, and turn out the light, of course. Just enough to let them think we’re finally going to give the character a break.

Amp it Up!

And then we amp it up again.

But this isn’t about story arc, black moments, or crises. Or is it?

Every element of our story should play into and work on the story arc, the character’s journey, and all the elements of a good book. But too much of a good thing can detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story, leading to confusion and a desire to never read another of our books.

Conflict, as we know, is at the heart of every story. Even a simple romance needs conflict to keep the love interests apart until the end of the book.

That said, depending on which theory you subscribe to, there are five or six kinds of story conflict possible in any book. I’ll list the six below:

  • Person against person – the most common type of conflict; can be relational, romantic, emotional, theological, issue-related, political, or a host of other options. Both persons should be strong enough to overcome the other, with the hero/heroine possessing some trait that helps them win in the end.
  • Person against nature – often the character is on their own and has to find a way to overcome the situation; if in a group, the sum total of the character’s skills should be able to overcome the natural force, so long as they work together.
  • Person against self – could be a fear, an addiction, a difficult past, or a tendency to choose wrong relationships. There must be a desire to overcome their situation, and often a mentor or romantic interest comes alongside to help in the journey.
  • Person vs society – the hero/heroine comes to the aid of a victim of a real or perceived injustice
  • Person vs technology – we often see this in science-based fiction or world-building fiction; can be real (existing) technology, or futuristic; steam punk is often found in this conflict
  • Person vs supernatural – can include imagined supernatural such as shape-shifters, or it could include ghosts, demons, gods, goddesses, aliens, and the like.

Chicken Wings

I know there are some of you saying, “But I hate conflict, and I don’t like to write it.” I get it. When I think of conflict, I envision prima donas, shouting matches, snippy comebacks, and the like. Seinfeld on steroid.

However, conflict in books doesn’t have to be like that. You can write about conflict between characters while staying true to your character, which is actually very important.

I’ll use an example. We recently went to Lambert’s Café in Sikeston, Missouri. I wanted fried chicken wings, so I asked the server what constituted a heaping platter, as the menu advertised. She said four wings. I said that wasn’t a heaping platter where I come from (thinking ten or twelve wings. I was hungry.) She said she figured I’d be full because of the two sides and the pass arounds. I said I’d be the judge of that, thinking she was trying to fill me up with non-chicken wing things. Well, when the plate came, it had four wings not much smaller than my hand in length. Four full wings, eight pieces. And yes, I took home food that night.

All that to say, there’s chicken wings – which I discovered when I went to a buffet a few days later, and they were obviously substituting sparrow’s wings for chicken wings – and there’s Chicken Wings. Conflict doesn’t have to be a knock-em-down-drag-it-out fight. Conflict isn’t always a fight to the death. Sometimes, you can simply foreshadow that something bad might happen.

Or, you can have a character be really indecisive about a direction they need to take. That creates conflict for the reader as they worry through the choices along with the character. How they deal with this says something about them.

You can use setting (as in people vs. nature) to create tension by placing your character in a dangerous situation, and how they work out of that pickle helps them grow as a person.

End a scene or chapter with a question. That creates tension for your reader and your character. This keeps the reader reading and the character moving forward. If your main character isn’t motivated to solve a problem, you’re going to have a difficult time writing a book about nothing.

Not Too Much Conflict

BUT – and there’s always one, isn’t there?—too much conflict will keep your character reacting instead of responding. Too much conflict will wear down your readers because they never get a chance to sit back and draw a breath, which, as we know, is the perfect place to then put them in more peril. Too much conflict makes the story something it isn’t, perhaps. Yes, thrillers and high concept books have lots of action, but it isn’t always conflict. It might lead to the next tense scene, and readers of these books expect that, but even those stories have moments where the characters settle down, have a meal, reminisce, or make a plan for the next big thing.

For example, while a shootout between the sheriff and the outlaws makes for good conflict, readers don’t want to stick in that scene for the entire book. Something must happen that leads the characters and the story on their arcs to the ultimate conclusion.

There is a difference between internal and external conflict, and each type impacts the main character(s) in different ways. We don’t only want our characters to grow in their skills, we want to see them grow as people. For the scoffer to find something to believe in. For the deadbeat to finally find a cause. For the sceptic to understand the meaning of whatever they’re seeking. For the cynic to find true love. For the loner to find family.

When it comes to internal and external conflict, remember that internal conflict changes the person, while external conflict changes the story world. We need both in our stories, because if there is only internal conflict, you’re making it emotionally harder for the character to resolve the story arc. Don’t focus on the internal conflict except as to how it keeps the character from overcoming the external conflict and achieving the external goal.

Next month, we’ll talk more about character arc and character change, particularly as it relates to Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

Resources:
6 Story Conflicts Possible in Your Book
Writing Conflict in Stories When You Hate Conflict


Donna Schlachter, Headshot

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; 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 humbly admits she doesn’t always get the number of characters perfect, so she often spends a lot of time re-writing.

Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!

www.DonnaSchlachter.com
www.DonnaSchlachter.com/blog

Harmony and Conflict – Different Sides of the Same Coin

By Donna Schlachter

Boy finds girl.
Boy falls in love with girl.
Boy marries girl.
The end.

Boring!

Anybody who’s ever told a joke knows that to keep the listener or reader interested, there has to be a problem, a question, or a problem raised so that the twist/conclusion/punch line offers a solution. In a joke, there is usually an unexpected outcome, which is what makes that short story version humorous. In a novel, while the reader wants a good ending, or at least one that’s unexpected given the circumstances, there has to be something that keeps the boy from getting the girl the first time. Or the second. Or even the third.

Harmony is what happens when we get our happily-ever-after (and yes, HEAs are not limited to romance stories. Readers want an HEA or at least the promise of one in every story where a romance exists. Unless, of course, your story is literary fiction or a tragedy.)

Conflict is what keeps the reader reading and the listener listening. Conflict doesn’t have to appear as bickering or even out-and-out street brawling. Conflict happens when one of the main characters isn’t getting what they want—or what they think they want.

Introduce Conflict and Harmony

We can introduce conflict and harmony into our stories in various ways. Here are a few:

  • Through spoken dialogue, where each character expresses their wants and desires which should be contrary to what the other person wants. Think back to your last discussion with your spouse or friend about where you wanted to eat that night. One wants Indian, the other wants pasta. Conflict. Harmony appears when you reach a compromise: a buffet. Or a salad bar.
  • Through internal dialogue, where you show us what the characters are thinking. The best conflict comes when their spoken dialogue and internal thoughts are contrary to each other. For example, if you say you want to eat pizza, but the other person says curry, you might say, “Okay. Curry is fine with me.” You always get your way. But I’m tired of fighting about it.
  • Through narrative, you can use the setting or surroundings to impact your point of view character. For example, ‘It was a dark and dreary night” could be perfect for a scene where your character planned to go for a walk, and now can’t because the weather isn’t cooperating. Downpouring rain could prevent your hero from rescuing your heroine, building conflict in himself. And in her, when she wonders why he won’t brave a few raindrops to save her. A bright sunny day could build conflict in a character whose mother is being buried today. Or harmony in a woman whose abusive husband is being buried today.
  • Through occupations or skill sets, you can have characters who solve problems (create harmony) using what they know. For example, if your hero is a race car driver, he could get the heroine away from bad guys by outdriving them. And if your heroine is a doctor, she could fix up the hero when he gets shot. But if your story is about finding lost gold in a hidden mine, none of their skills would help out. Which could create conflict. So then they invite somebody else in to help, who turns out to be a bad guy who shoots the hero and leaves them for dead. Now their skills can come in handy again. So you went from harmony to conflict to harmony again.

Don’t get me wrong—harmony and conflict belong in the same story—even in the same scene. You might even treat a scene like a mini-story – harmony (current world) to conflict (inciting incident) to new harmony (resolution). However, while you don’t want to write every scene like that, these mini-breaks from the conflict are a place where readers will exhale, relax, and continue reading. That’s a great place to slap them in the face again with another problem, question, or serious choice to be made.

Readers want to be satisfied with the ending, yet surprised. Like a punchline in a joke, they like to look at the world differently because of your story. Keep them reading by employing some of these harmony and conflict techniques, and they’ll come back for more.

Resources:

Conflict is the Driving Force of a Good Story

Character and Background: Harmony and Conflict


Donna Schlachter, Headshot

About Donna:

A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; 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.

www.DonnaSchlachter.com Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!
www.DonnaSchlachter.com/blog
Check out previous blog posts at www.HiStoryThruTheAges.wordpress.com and www.AllBettsAreOff.wordpress.com
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Building Believable Characters, Part 4

Determining the Perfect Number of Characters

By: Donna Schlachter

Now that you have your cast of characters, you’ll want to be sure they’re all necessary. And that they won’t overwhelm the reader. Or bog down the plot lines.

There are several other reasons not to have too many characters. Too large a cast, and you won’t have enough words per character to round them out and develop their personal arc, which can leave the reader feeling unfulfilled. Another reason to cut or consolidate characters is because your word count is too high. On average, each character other than the hero and heroine will add another ten thousand words to your manuscript.

Distill the Numbers

So before discussing how to consolidate your cast, let’s look at how the act of distilling the numbers will strengthen your stories.

  1. You can simplify your story by reusing story elements, keeping your story elements closely linked, and maintains familiar tropes and plots so your readers don’t have to learn anything new.
  2. Fewer characters usually means your story is more efficient when it comes to writing your story and staying on track.
  3. Limiting or reducing the number of characters will mean you spend more time on each character.
  4. Oftentimes, cutting the cast will keep the players in the same place, limiting the number of settings a reader has to recall.
  5. Using fewer characters also means reducing the number of points-of-view, so readers feel like they get to know characters better and there’s less hopping from scene to scene. Don’t overwhelm readers by introducing all the characters in the first few pages.
  6. With fewer characters, you can have characters involved in scenes more often, so readers don’t forget who is who.

So how can you know when you have the perfect number of characters? When you can put any two individuals in a situation and still hold the reader’s interest. That’s right. All of the characters should be so connected that it won’t be a huge leap to pick two from a hat and write a scene that makes perfect sense.

Some argue that seven characters is the best number, while others insist on fewer. However, if each of your seven characters fulfills a particular role, then that might be a number to aim for. While they might be labeled differently depending on the genre, here is a list of typical characters to choose from. Please note: you don’t need two of any of these as main or secondary characters, except if there are a hero and a heroine.

  1. The hero/heroine – the character the story is most about and who has the most to lose if they don’t achieve their goal
  2. The lancer – shares goal with hero/heroine, but proceeds in a different way.
  3. The Big One – often physically impressive and doesn’t mind throwing his/her weight around. But they aren’t long term overcomers. Minor victories are theirs; they don’t have the skills to win.
  4. The Smart One – foil to the Big One. Uses brain to overcome, not brawn. Skills are specialties and used only in that sense.
  5. The Old One – wealth of experience, but damaged as a result. Can come close to winning, but not quite by themselves.
  6. The Young One – has a lot to learn; makes everyone else look good. Good reason for another character to explain the jargon a reader might not catch first time around.
  7. The Funny One – manipulates the mood of the reader and other characters. Relieves tension after a scary scene.
  8. The Spiritual One – a peacemaker, sometimes with a unique outlook to diffuse tension or educate the other characters. Often is formed from a conglomeration of The Funny One and the Old One. But sometimes is just plain weird.

One thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t matter what each character does individually, but how they work together.  That process starts with the hero/heroine. When you define them skillfully, contrasting them to other characters, you will see ways to up the ante between the characters. Defining other characters through the hero/heroine also provides areas where they’re in agreement, and highlights places where they disagree. This tension is important to keep the story moving, make sure characters are changing along their story arc, and also to give you opportunities to set up those danger points that will ultimately lead to the Black Moment.

Sometimes authors conjure up a character they absolutely love. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the character serves a purpose. Giving them a point of view doesn’t give them purpose. Every character must help or hinder the hero/heroine in reaching (or not) their goal. When we love that character, we write them into more scenes. Sometimes, without realizing it, that secondary (non-main) character ends up having more scenes than the main character(s). This leads to a loss of focus, too many plot tangents, and an unfulfilling story.

How Many Characters Do We Need?

That depends on the story. But here’s a check list:

  • Word count – shorter stories need one or two main characters, and one antagonist. Along with a main plot and perhaps one small subplot, there’s a 30,000-50,000 story. For a sweeping epic drama, of course, you’ll need more secondary characters and subplots.
  • Genre – mystery readers expect the sleuth, the antagonist/villain, a victim, and several suspects as secondary characters. One or two related subplots along with their own secondary characters will bring the book to 65,00-85,000 words. Historical books often have the hero/heroine, antagonist/villain, perhaps a handful of secondary characters, and a host of walk-on characters with minor roles. Other genres have their own rules. Read books in the genre you want to write in and take notes.
  • Style – romance and cozy mysteries like to create a sense of intimacy, which requires a smaller-scale cast, while a fantasy or international thriller requires more characters to create that sweeping or far-reaching mood.

How Many Point of View Characters?

Of course, your hero/heroine will always have a point of view in your—their—story. Choosing whether the antagonist/villain has a point of view depends on the genre. In romance, usually not. In mystery and thriller – yes.

Eliminate any viewpoint characters who don’t have anything to do with each other. Make the characters serve multiple purposes.

Make sure each point of view characters has a unique voice so the reader knows who is talking without having to attribute. Having too many might leave you struggling to differentiate between them.

Kill Your Darlings

So you’ve done your best, but you have too many characters. What to do?

Ask yourself:

  • is this character necessary to the story?
  • Am I telling the story from the proper point of view?
  • Is this character more important than the lead?

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, you need to cut the character. Or you could combine them with another character and serve two purposes. For example, the Lancer could also be the firefighter with the karate skills needed to help the hero escape the locked room.

Conclusion

Sometimes you’ll just know when you have the right number of characters. And sometimes you’ll need to cut or consolidate the secondary characters so each one has the proper amount of time on the page; doesn’t overtake the hero/heroine; and contributes to the hero/heroine’s story arc.

Donna Schlachter, Headshot

About Donna:

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; 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 humbly admits she doesn’t always get the number of characters perfect, so she often spends a lot of time re-writing.

Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!

www.DonnaSchlachter.com

www.DonnaSchlachter.com/blog

Resources:

Building Believable Characters, Part 3

Craft a Convincing Villain

By: Donna Schlachter

So far we’ve talked about the importance of building believable characters and why that’s so critical to the foundation for any story. Last month, strong secondary characters were discussed, and we learned that not only do these secondary characters support—or oppose—our main characters, they also assist them—or deter them—along their journey of emotional, physical, and spiritual growth.

This month, we’ll talk a little about villains. The bad guys. Sometimes called the antagonist. These are the characters who have the most to lose if the main character accomplishes his/her goal. Or, said another way, they have the most to win if the main character fails.

We’ve all watched movies and read books where we hate the villain, where we cheer for his/her demise and leave feeling very satisfied and smug when they do lose. If they do, that is. Somehow justice seems to have been served, and when that’s the basis of the story, it’s the ending we want.

Then there are those stories and movies where we want to cheer for the character that we know is bad, has bad intentions, and makes bad choices because maybe—just maybe—there’s a little bit of a redeeming hope within them. We don’t really want them to change, but simply knowing perhaps they could is enough.

To craft believable villains, we must keep these things in mind:

  • Nobody is all bad. Not even the worst villain you can think of. Just as nobody is all good, even bad guys have a mother they love, a dog they’d never kick, and a flicker of empathy occasionally.
  • Bad guys don’t see that what they do is bad. It’s simply the way they view the world. Most are narcissists who believe they deserve to have whatever they want because they want it. Some are sociopaths, with little to no empathy for others, so they don’t understand that their actions are harming other people. In fact, most villains believe that their choices will make their world a better place.
  • All villains have a story, a backstory, if you will, that explains their current actions. Figure that out, and you can find all sorts of ways to endear your villain to your reader. For example, if you decide your villain was sexually abused as a child, you can see why he progresses from pulling wings off flies to killing kittens to physical and sexual abuse of other characters. Perhaps your villain was abandoned as a child. Had a domineering woman. Read resource books about mental illness and personality disorders and come up with a unique combination of backstory and how your villain tries to diminish his pain.

As you develop your villain, you must make sure that his/her strengths equal but don’t exceed your main character’s. In this way, overcoming the villain is a difficult struggle for your main character, but it can be accomplished when your main character grows in their story arc, but not before that point.

Just as with your main character, reveal your villain’s backstory a little at a time. Your goal isn’t for your reader to like your villain—but to understand why they are they way they are.


Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; 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.

www.DonnaSchlachter.com Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!

www.DonnaSchlachter.com/blog

 

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 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.

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.

Writing in the Midst of Life

By: Donna Schlachter

Sometimes it seems as though we are inundated with writing help, encouragement to write, conferences to attend, deadlines to meet. And all of those are good. They keep us focused, energized, equipped, and reminded of what’s important.

But what happens when life gets in the way?

No amount of cajoling, criticism (from ourselves or someone else), or chafing will keep our backside in the chair and our fingers on the keys when something else comes between us and our story.

True, sometimes the stuff that distracts us is simply that: stuff. We could choose to ignore it, like the laundry that piles up and multiplies like bunnies in the dark recesses of our laundry room. We could choose to delegate it, like asking our spouse to make dinner tonight while we finish this chapter. We could choose to turn off the email buzzer or silence our phones for an afternoon or ask a neighbor kid to walk the dog this week.

That stuff will always be there, and we can make arrangements for that.

But what about the big stuff? The life-changing things that happen? Those events that cannot be rescheduled, must not be ignored, should not be delayed.

We all have those.

When life gets in the way of our best laid plans, here are some suggestions as to how to get through them without losing your sanity and without feeling you are abandoning your writing:

● Stop and seek counsel. Whether you are a person of faith or a person with some great friends, share what’s going on and seek answers. Perhaps there is a change you need to make. 

● Stop and breathe. Think about the situation for a moment. Perhaps whatever has come up isn’t as much of an emergency as you first thought. Can someone else take it on? Can you call a friend and ask them for help?

● Release the situation. If you know in your heart that this is something you must do yourself, unclench your hands from your writing and get it done. This is a time when having some margin in your schedule will relieve a lot of stress. 

● Do what you need to do. Sometimes we’re faced with a sudden death, or an illness, or the birth of a child, or the loss of a job. All of these are life-changing events that will need your attention for a period of time. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. You aren’t putting your writing aside because you don’t have what it takes. It just means you need to do what my husband calls “a priority interrupt”. In most cases, these situations will not permanently stop you from writing.

● Call in some support. Whether you’re under a contract deadline, a critique group commitment, or you need to cancel your next writer’s meeting, ask a friend to help communicate the situation. Ask for help.

● Keep the story in your head. No matter how stressful or hectic our lives become, there are still a few times during each day where we can focus on something other than the situation at hand. Keep a notebook with you to jot down ideas when you get a spare moment. A small digital recorder works great. Most phones and iPads come with a voice recorder. Save these thoughts wherever and whenever you can to put into place later on.

● Come back to the project with a joyful heart. Regardless of whether the interruption lasted an hour or a year, return to the project knowing that you are a writer, even when life gets in the way.

Takeaway: There is no shame in pausing in your writing because life throws you a curve ball.

Exercises:

1. Have you hit a roadblock in your writing because of something that’s happened, or are you afraid of something? Look back over the time you haven’t been writing until you get to when you stopped, and honestly assess the situation.

2. If life has gotten in the way, is it a legitimate reason not to write or an excuse?

3. If it’s an excuse, resolve the problem today.

****

(This article was previously published in Nuggets of Writing Gold)


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, Capitol Christian Writers Fellowship, Christian Women Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly for Heroes, Heroines, and History; and judges in writing contests. www.HiStoryThruTheAges.com

A Passion for THIS Story

By: Donna Schlachter (previously published in Writing Nuggets of Gold)

In a recent conversation with my agent, she mentioned she talks to editors occasionally who are looking for a specific book to fit a particular publishing slot. My response? “If you get any requests, let me know. Maybe I can write that book.”

As I thought about this later, I wondered if I’d spoken hastily or foolishly. After all, what if they wanted a (gulp) bonnet story? Or a (double gulp) category romance? Did I really think I could write such a book? I came up with lots of reasons why I couldn’t – not my genre, not my area of specialty or knowledge, never wrote one before.

And then I was reminded of the wise words spoken to me at one time, not in this context, but which I will paraphrase: Don’t look for a reason not to write the story; look for a reason to write the story.

Passion to Keep Writing

So I put on my thinking cap again. Why would I want to write a bonnet story or a category romance or a western or a sci-fi or any of the other genres I don’t write? And the answer I came up with was: passion. And I’m not talking about relationship-type passion.

The kind of passion I’m talking about is the essence that starts a writer’s creative juices flowing, forcing us to work past the first What if? And deeper into the next, Then What? And the next.

I would need a passion for the setting, for the characters, or for the story.

That passion would ignite the story ideas, flesh out the characters, and help me choose (or create) a believable setting. That passion would keep me writing when the words seemed blah, would keep me plotting when I didn’t think anybody would want to read this story, would keep me enthused enough to press on until I typed, “The End”.

Passion has nothing to do with the book as a whole, but everything to do with the components of the story. Passion is also called our Muse, that je ne sais quoi that propels us to our computer and causes our fingers to fly over the keys, the words appearing on the screen as if by osmosis.

Take that Teensy Idea and Expand

Passion also helps us take a teensy idea and expand the details into a full-length novel. Let’s take an example. Cinderella is a short story fairy tale, yet in the hands of another, become the basis for over 30 movies (based on an article on Wikipedia). No doubt each one of these movies contained details that were not included in the original story.

If we take the Cinderella story, let’s go through some What If? Questions to come out to a completely different story: What if Cinderella lived with her father and siblings instead of her step-mother and step-sisters, but they were jealous of her? We’d have a story like Joseph and his coat of many colors. What if Cinderella was an orphan? We’d have a story like Oliver Twist. What if Cinderella was raised in a happy family but went her own way and left home? Prodigal son story.

So let’s take the example of the (gulp) bonnet story. First, I need to remember what my passion is: writing stories that show a God who is bigger than our past. My story might be about a woman journalist who decided to do a story on the Amish, falls in love with an Amish man, and marries him. “Accidentally Amish”. In another story, maybe my character flees to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, because she’s on the run from the mob. “Sister Act”.

What is the Common Thread in your Stories?

Your passion for the story, characters, and setting will be different than mine, because your writing passion, that thing inside you that keeps you writing, is different. Take a few minutes and look at the theme of the stories you write and the stories you want to write. What is the common thread running through these stories? Summarize that theme, or passion, in a single sentence.

My story is about a girl who runs away from home and gets involved in drugs and then gets saved. Your passion might be: I write stories about prodigals and their families.

Now, back to the plotting board. Let’s see. A (double gulp) category romance. My female lead is a bounty hunter sent to bring back a bail jumper. My male lead is the bail jumper, an angry man, who recognizes my bounty hunter as the woman seen driving away from the scene of a bank robbery that led to a fatal car crash twenty years before where his wife was killed. Nobody was ever prosecuted for this terrible accident or for the robbery. Will she be able to convince him she isn’t the person she was back then? Will he be able to see the grace and mercy of God in his own life and extend forgiveness to the woman he blames for ruining his life?

Hmmm. Might be able to make that work……

Takeaway:

If you don’t have a burning passion to write a particular story, the idea will likely fizzle out like a candle in the rain.

Exercises:

1. List the top five topics/genres you like to read.
2. Look at your most recent work in progress — does it fit with what you like to read?
3. Dig out an old project that fizzled. Did it fit with what you like to read?


Donna Schlachter

Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, Capitol Christian Writers Fellowship, Christian Women Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly for Heroes, Heroines, and History; and judges in writing contests. www.HiStoryThruTheAges.com

Writing Under Deadlines

By; Donna Schlachter (previously published in Writing Nuggets of Gold)

There are two kinds of deadlines.

In the writing world, there are two kinds of deadlines: the ones imposed by others; and the ones imposed by you. The deadlines that others set for you in your writing might include a contest entry date; a critique group submission due date; a time frame for the submission of a proposal and first three chapters to an editor or agent following a contact at a writing conference such as the ACFW National Conference; a request for a full manuscript; the acceptance and signing of a contract; first draft approval; intermediate revisions; and final revisions prior to publication. Each one of these deadlines is critical to writing, of keeping everything flowing, and of ultimately achieving the goal, whether that be winning a contest, being a productive member of a critique group, acquiring an agent, or publication.

And there are the self-imposed deadlines, the ones you set for yourself. And whether or not you realize it, you set deadlines every day, some that are related to writing and some that are not. For example, you get up at a certain time of the day. You have set the deadline on how long you’re going to spend sleeping. If you have children, you get them off to school. Each deadline, while not specifically adding words or pages to your work in process, is a practice at meeting a deadline.

How do you set a self-imposed deadline?

So how do you set self-imposed writing deadlines when there is no agent, no editor, no promise of an advance or a royalty looming over your head?

Treat your writing seriously, or you won’t set goals. Look at the book you’re working on, look at your schedule–because face it, we all have a life outside of writing–and determine how much time you can spend on writing, and how much you can reasonably expect to get done in that time. For example, I was working on a novella. When I started the book, I was excited about the story, excited about where the characters were going. I figured this book would just leap out of my mind, through my fingers, and into the computer.

That didn’t happen. I was so convinced I could have this done in no time, that’s exactly what I spent writing–no time. Suddenly the story was boring, and the laundry looked more interesting.

So, around the middle of the third month of not writing, I decided enough was enough. I set a goal for the end of the month to have the story finished. I was about 20,000 words from the end. Still didn’t happen. Seemed I had all the time in the world. For other things. I buckled down and started writing seriously three days before the end of the month. I wrote 2,500 words the first day, 1,500 words the second, and 4,500 words the last day. I didn’t quite make my goal because I hadn’t quite finished the story. But I was on a roll. Spending every day in the story made the story more real to me. And setting a deadline made me feel like a proper writer.

Did I set a bad deadline? No. I wasn’t serious enough about the work required.

Should I simply dump the story and move on? No. Writing every day kept me in the story and opened new plot points and backstory points, and that’s exciting for me.

How do I learn from this experience? I won’t take the next deadline for granted. I will treat the deadline as if a contract, an advance, or publication depend on it.

Takeaway:
I will act like I am a writer under a deadline imposed by someone else.

Exercises:

1. What work in process would you like to finish?
2. Take out the story, read through it to ground yourself again, and set a deadline.
3. Write every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes, to keep yourself grounded in the story.


Donna Schlachter

Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, Capitol Christian Writers Fellowship, Christian Women Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly for Heroes, Heroines, and History; and judges in writing contests. www.HiStoryThruTheAges.com