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#Amwriting October 14: Journaling and NaNo

We are nearly half way through our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation series, and it might be time to set aside our novel for a moment and discuss journaling during NaNo.

You may ask, why would anyone want to keep a journal and produce even more words during the month you are supposed to be writing 50,000?

Back in 2008 when I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first time, I wrote a blog of my experiences. I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I had more fun blogging about writing a novel than actually doing it, so I kept quiet about it. That is, until last week when I attended a webinar where one of the speakers suggested journaling during NaNo. Turns out, what I was doing wasn’t as counterproductive as I had imagined.

Why Journal Before and During NaNo?

There are a number of reasons to consider it.

You can use a journal to process your thoughts on the page. Can’t decide between two similar choices? Write out your ideas and feelings about each. Many times the answer will emerge.  This method can be useful to work through problems from your novel as well as real life.

Keeping a written record can be a form of self care. In a recent article, The New York Times suggests, ” …writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.”

Journals also can be mined for your novel. Sometimes a quick glance through an old journal will spark an idea. Many authors record snippets of dialogue, descriptions, etc. to be used at some later date.

Use your diary to help remember past events and struggles, to learn from your own mistakes. For example, in my old blog I mentioned I had written 9000 words with no idea what my setting was going to be. It might have been why I failed. Therefore, many of my posts this month have been about developing a setting. (On the other hand, I said to never adopt a kitten during NaNo, but ended up with another kitten recently. I guess it doesn’t always work.)

You can use a journal to start a habit of writing each and every day and the momentum can help carry you through November. The webinar speaker mentioned she warms up each day with the journal and moves into the novel after ten minutes of so.

What’s the Best Format?

I wrote my first NaNo journal in a blog that I was sure nobody read, which had advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was that it was searchable and easy to add photographs. I like visuals. One of the disadvantages was that I felt obligated to use good grammar, spelling, etc. because it was “published” and therefore I spent more time on it than I would have scribbling in a private journal.

The webinar speaker said she kept her journal in the Scrivener file with her novel. She creates a folder where the research stuff goes, and thus it doesn’t go toward her novel word count. The advantage of writing in Scrivener is it also is searchable and if you decide to poach a piece of your journal writing, it is typed and ready to go. She didn’t mention this, but a disadvantage for me would be the temptation to click on my journal folder whenever I got stuck.

Over the years, I have returned to a composition notebook and pen for jotting notes and ideas.  An advantage is that it is easy to draw as well as write, so you can create diagrams, mind maps, etc. There’s something about the physical act of writing rather than typing that’s nice, too. A disadvantage, however, is that no matter how carefully I number the pages and keep a table of contents, I can never find that one paragraph I wanted to read again.

One Final Thought

Above I wrote that you might be tempted to journal rather than work on your novel. If that happens, turn lemons to lemonade and do a memoir instead.

Do you journal? Are you going to keep a journal during NaNo?



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 13: Setting in Layers

In our final post about setting for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation, let’s discuss how to show setting in your novel.


Setting is something that you should reveal early in the novel, preferably on the first page or even along with your character in the first few sentences. How you do so will depend on your character’s familiarity with their surroundings and what tone/mood you want to convey.

Setting in Layers

We haven’t discussed point of view yet, but it pays to keep it in mind when considering how to include setting.

Did you look into the Onion Theory of Characters from our previous post on protagonists? In review, the idea is that how someone describes someone else depends on their relationship. If one person sees another in a store that she doesn’t know, she will describe that person superficially, that is by what they look like, what they are wearing, etc. A colleague will understand more about a character, such as where they went to school, what kind of car they drive, and how often they are late to work. A character’s mom, on the other hand, can reveal truly deep and hidden things about them. So, the longer they know someone, the deeper their understanding goes.

I recently read the novel Devices and Desires by P. D. James and realized someone’s relationship with setting will lead to the opposite in terms of description. In her book, the protagonist Commander Adam Dalgliesh is visiting the Norfolk coast to settle his aunt’s estate. Because he just arrived, he notices many things with fresh eyes. He looks out the window and describes the surrounding land and the houses of his neighbors in detail. Another character, who has been there a bit over a year, notices the things that are different or what has changed since last time she looked. The characters who have lived there forever hardly notice the setting at all. Yes, they know the setting intimately, but they don’t register it as a newcomer would.

How do you use this revelation?

If your character is in a familiar place, consider what they might notice. They would probably note the lighting, which changes daily and possibly the temperature of the room. They would definitely look at the new piece of art they put up the day before or the bulletin board they cleaned off. Maybe they would register the smell of cleaning supplies if they cleaned the bathroom or the lingering odor of the garlic bread from lunch. The bottom line is that they would pay attention to the things new or different from the day before.

What do you do if you need a deeper description of a place than your main character would realistically supply?

1. Create a character who has never visited the setting you want to describe. You don’t necessarily have write the scene from their point of view, but you can have the novice character ask about things she or he sees or hears, bringing the setting into a conversation.

Example:  In a recent television series, the protagonist invited a woman to his apartment for the first time. She immediately commented on the flashing neon sign outside the window, which he didn’t even register. He explained that was why his rent was so cheap, revealing something about his economic status.

2. Have your main character have a flashback, allowing them to describe a scene from when they might have first encountered it, as well as the emotions linked to the events that happened at that time.

“He remembered it from his childhood…on those long dark afternoons in winter before the Sunday school was released, when the outside light was fading and the small Adam Dalgliesh was already dreading those last twenty yards of his walk home, where the rectory drive curved and the bushes grew thickest. Night was different from bright day, smelled different, sounded different; ordinary things assumed different shapes; an alien and more sinister power ruled the night. Those twenty yards of crunching gravel, where the lights of the house were momentarily screened, were a weekly horror.”

As you might suspect, the chilling fear this passage evokes has to do with other things that are going on in the story, namely some grisly murders. Adult Adam would not express those feelings, but childhood Adam could.


Go to a familiar place that might serve as a setting for your novel. Spend some time taking in the details, making sure to consider all the senses. Write down what you notice first, second, third. Describe the place. How does it make you feel?

Now, if possible, visit a place you’ve never been before. Again, look, listen, smell, touch. What do you notice first, second, third? Write a description. Include how the new place makes you feel.

Go back to your notes a few days later. Do you notice and similarities in how you described the places? How about differences?

Tip:  If you are writing science, speculative, historical fiction or fantasy, Writing Excuses podcasts has a slew of information about world building. Unfortunately the episodes are listed under two separate tags which will give you different resullts: Worldbuilding (one word) and World Building (two words).

For example, for historical, one episode gives a great suggestion of printing out a calendar from the year your novel is set in order to develop your timeline. Yes, there are old calendars online.



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 12: Setting at Home and Work

You should have already chosen your overall setting for your NaNoWriMo novel. Now let’s plan the specifics of where your protagonist lives and works.

Once again, the work you need to do for your setting will depend on your genre, but here are some general suggestions.

Where does your main character call home?

Where does your main character sleep and eat? Do they live in a home, apartment, spaceship, or are they homeless? What does where they live say about your character?

If you are writing speculative fiction, historical fiction, or fantasy, it is time to do some serious world building. It is possible to use some of the techniques for developing a contemporary setting to help you create your otherworldly one.

Ask some questions.

  • What kind of architecture is appropriate for the time and place?
  • What sort of building materials are used?
  • When were the homes built?

Research contemporary places to live.

  1. Visit real estate websites. These days you can take a virtual tour of homes anywhere in the world. Pick some locations in the area you’ve chosen as a setting and see where your main character should live.
  2.  Take screenshots or download images to record the look of the home.
  3. If there’s one available, download a blueprint. Otherwise, draw your own rough house plan to keep on file. You don’t want your bathroom to be upstairs in one chapter and downstairs in the next.

This is a public domain floor plan of an historic house.

Have fun with this part. Add furniture and amenities. You can even decide your character’s decor, down to the art on the wall, the style of coffee maker, and color of the fridge.

Where does your main character work?

Your characters will likely spend more time at work than at home. Plan the spaces accordingly, using some of the same tools as above. For example, if your character works in a police station, use Google Maps to see what the police stations in that setting look like.

Other tips:

Write down details you love from places you visit. Love the brushed metal door at the library? Take a photo with your phone and write down how the sound it makes  when it closes.  Does the mid-century modern house in the neighborhood catch your eye? Convert it into the office where your character works and add your favorite landscaping.

My main character has a service job that takes her into other people’s homes as well as businesses. I will need to nail down a few of the spaces she visits regularly.

Other places your character visits.

Do your characters have hobbies? Run regularly in the park? Meet (pre-Covid) on Wednesday nights at the library or local community center?

Start a running list of these places and what the spaces look like. You might even start a map of the town or city where your main character lives, marking the places she visits most often.


You likely won’t use all or even many of the details you develop, but this preparation will come in handy when you begin to write scenes.

How is your setting planning going? Do you have any tips?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 11: Character Development 2.0

If you are following along with our series to prepare for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), you should have already started working on your protagonist, plus other characters. Now is the time to fill in more details.




How do you go from a rough sketch to a fully-rounded character? You can add goals, motivations, character arcs, secrets, lies the character believes, faults, and behavioral quirks, among other things.

Character’s Goal

The character’s goal is what they want to happen (in the future). It is imperative to have a strong goal because it will drive your entire story. Goals can be positive, like wanting to stop a killer or save the town or find a husband. Goals can also be negative, like keeping something secret.

If you are struggling with your character’s goals, K.M. Weiland has a good article about how to clarify your character’s goals.  If you don’t have any ideas at all, try one of a number of character goal generators.


The character’s motivation is why he/she/they want the goal.

I recently started playing around with idea for a novel about an amateur sleuth who is called to a crime scene because of his expertise. He is reluctant to get involved in the investigation and in fact, has good reasons not to get involved, but the lead investigator keeps drawing him in. The conflict between the two carried the story for about four chapters or so. Then I got stuck. After trying a few different things, I realized my main character wasn’t motivated enough to see the problem through. He could easily walk away and there would be no consequences.

The bottom line is you want to have your character highly motivated to struggle with all the problems you are going to throw at her. There has to be a compelling reason why she doesn’t just forget about it and take a long bath instead.

Character Arcs

How is your character going to change through the story? Is your character going to discover some inner strength or superpower and become more confident (a positive character arc)? Is she going to be traumatized and spiral into addiction (a negative character arc)?

When I started writing, I read article after article that suggested a character absolutely, positively must change through the course of the story. It was a rule. Change or there is no story. That is law.

Except, as many things you learn about writing, it really isn’t true. If you have a pretty cool, together character, it might be that she changes the world rather being changed by it. Some people call this a “flat character arc” or a “static character,” both of which sound a bit negative. In truth, this is a great character to have (think Sherlock Holmes). Caveat:  It is likely some of your other characters are going to have to change.

Which arcs do you like better?

A: A somewhat immature character gains confidence and matures.

When Character A’s friends dismiss her suspicions about the accidental death of a local artist, she is driven to investigate. After uncovering more mysterious deaths, Character A must find the link and prove they are murders before someone else — possibly herself — is silenced.

B: A mature character reacts to life’s circumstances.

When a car crashes off the side of a mountain and kills his boss’s daughter, Character B must prove it wasn’t his fault before he’s sent to jail and loses everything.


Having secrets can add tension and conflict to a story. Characters may behave weirdly if they have a deep secret to hide.

Make sure your character’s secrets add to the story and aren’t dead ends. Remember my reluctant amateur sleuth above? He had a really good reason for not getting involved in an investigation. It turned out he was in witness protection and needed to keep out of the spotlight to protect his identity. It was a great secret, but killed the story.

Self-Delusion (Lies the Character Believes)

We all protect ourselves by denying truths. Scour those mistaken beliefs for conflict and tension. For example, a character may believe she wants justice, but what she’s really seeking is revenge. Another character believes his friend will come through for him in his time of need, but in reality the friend is selfish and lazy.

Katherine Grubb at 10 Minute Novelists has a whole article of how to develop mistaken beliefs into story gems.

Quirks and Inconsistencies

Although we rarely notice it, real humans are inconsistent. For example, when I was in college a group of friends and I used to go to a vigorous aerobics class, then afterwards meet at the ice cream shop for desert and consume a bunch of calories. My husband regulates the thermostat with an iron fist, then leaves the refrigerator door open for 15 minutes while he makes a sandwich.

Develop those quirks and inconsistencies. A perfect character without any inconsistencies is boring to read about.


Construct lists of your character’s faults, quirks, and mistaken beliefs. Try to mix them up and think outside of the box. When you have a few different ones, brainstorm how they will improve your story. Cross out the ones that reduce tension or take your character out of the story.

  • Is she afraid of butterflies?
  • Does he get hiccups when he has to lie?
  • Do they secretly love cats even though they have a dog?
  • Does she never clean out her email and has 16000 messages?
  • Does he write notes on pizza boxes, then throw them out?
  • Do they think their kids are terrible, when they are really pretty great?



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 10: Consider Subplots

Before we move on from plot and structure, let’s consider adding a subplot or two.


What is a subplot?

A subplot is a secondary or side story that supports the main plot.

Why Add Subplots?

Subplots can serve a couple different purposes, but the main one is to add depth and interest to a novel.


  • Reveal more about primary and secondary characters, making them more three-dimensional
  • Provide times of reflection or comic relief
  • Can drive certain plot points
  • Supply conflict or complications to test the main character
  • Are a way to show backstory organically


Let’s go back to the premise we created in the first post:

When he’s called in to investigate a hit-and-run accident, expert consultant John Smith discovers the death is intentional. He must find out the victim’s identity before the murderer strikes again.

One of the side branches of the mind map revealed that John Smith was called in because his uncle is the chief of police. A subplot might be that John’s uncle wants him to say the crash was an accident. Before long, John’s mom asks him to come to a family dinner. John knows it is a ploy to get him to listen to his uncle. John makes an excuse and dodges the dinner by going to question a witness.

This subplot serves multiple purposes. It adds tension. It shows John tends to avoid conflict, thus revealing his character. It also strengthens his resolve to prove his uncle wrong.

Maybe his mom tries to get him to come to dinner again later in the story to keep the subplot going, revealing more.

Some Subplots to Consider

1. Drama with Protagonist’s Day Job

My protagonist is an amateur sleuth trying to solve a crime. I’m going to have her unrelated day job get in the way.

Think of all the times school work interferes with Harry Potter’s progress toward his goal.

2. Romantic Interest

Your protagonist’s love life can either offer relief from the main plot’s tension or make them vulnerable (be a test).

3. Health Issues

I recently read a novel with a pregnant protagonist. The subplot included visits to various doctors and conflict with the baby daddy, both which slowed down her progress and increased tension.

4. Family

Thank goodness for family to add complexity to any story.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character has an eccentric family that offers comic relief after she has a hard day battling bad guys.

Family can also drive plot points. In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth’s sister runs off with an illicit lover, Darcy, who Elizabeth has previously spurned, comes to her rescue. This changes Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy and moves the plot toward resolution.

5. Past Trauma

Was your main character a victim? Do they have fears or emotional scars that make them vulnerable or hobble their ability to accomplish their goal?


Look through your list of secondary characters. Do any have the possibility of being developed into a subplot? How can they add to the main plot?

If you don’t have any likely candidates, consider adding secondary characters who would drive a subplot, such as coworkers at their day job or a psychologist your protagonist visits to discuss his/her/their past trauma.

Don’t be afraid to have more than one subplot. Harry Potter has not only his teachers and school work to consider, but also his past trauma of losing his parents.

Are you going to include a subplot in your NaNoWriMo novel?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 9: Structure 2: Formula or Flexible

We’ve covered The Hero’s Journey and  three act story structure. Now let’s spend one more day on structure and look at some other options.

As we discussed, for NaNoWriMo you might not have a lot of time to think about structure because you are writing like crazy. Plus, you can certainly add structure during your revision. On the other hand, if you get stuck wandering in a swampy middle, knowing some structural destination points might be the lifeline you need to succeed.

Here are a few of the more common structures. Some are rigid templates and some are more flexible. See if one works for you.

Four Act Structure

The four act structure is an extension of the three act structure that works well for mysteries. John P. Murphy’s article describes how it works.  He calls it a “two body plot” because the discovery of the body of a victim is a major turning point. Finding the second body changes things again. The third turn comes at the reveal, when the murderer is caught. Otherwise, it is a pretty loose structure.

Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure

Modified from the Hero’s Journey structure, this one holds your hand as it walks you through your novel. Michael Hague includes specific numbers in the form of percentages to indicate where the structural elements should be added. For example, he says turning point one should occur 10% into the novel. He calls the stages:

  1. Set up
  2. New situation
  3. Progress
  4. Complications and higher stakes
  5. Final push
  6. Aftermath

Janice Hardy explains that the Six Stage Structure can be good for people who don’t want to outline.

Seven Point Structure

The points are:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot turn 2
  7. Resolution


Dan Wells of Writing Excuses Podcast explains this structure in series of videos ( playlist). He uses clear examples to demonstrate how it works.

Tip:  Dan suggests starting at the end — at the resolution — rather than at the beginning. Great idea.

Eight Point Story Arc

Daily Writing Tips has a brief discussion of the eight point arc (developed by Nigel Watts and S. May), naming each step. Some of the steps are similar to the seven point structure, but have different names, which may make them easier to understand. For example, what is called “plot turn 1” in the seven point structure is called a “trigger” in the eight point.

The eight points  are:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

Save the Cat Beat Sheets

Save the Cat came out of screenwriting, but people have found it works for novels, too.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need* by Jessica Brody

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

Janice Hardy discusses the main steps. In this case the turning point events are called ‘beats.” Each one is pretty specific.

Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock

Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock is a four act roadmap for a novel set up in quarters, like a clock. It has some of the same elements as the others, but the timing is a bit different.


Yesterday you worked on your inciting incident, a common element in most of these structures. Now take Dan Wells’ advice and work on your resolution. Do you want a happy ending? A not so happy ending? Does the couple live happily ever after? Are the space nodules defeated? Is the serial killer caught?

Note:  Not everyone wants to know how their novel is going to turn out. That’s okay, too. Spend your time watching the Dan Wells videos instead.

Now that you know about structure, do you think you will use one? If so, which structure intrigues you?



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 8: Discussing Plot and Structure

Continuing our  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation series, it is time to explore the differences between Plot and Structure and look at some examples.

Do you need to know your plot and structure before starting NaNoWriMo? Of course not.

It does help, however, to have an idea what plot and structure are and what some of your choices might be. Then if you get stuck in the middle, you have some ideas of where you should go next.


People often use the words plot and story structure interchangeably (I have been guilty of that myself), but there are distinctions.

Plot is what happens in the story, or saying it another way, the events that make up the story.

Structure is the mechanics or how you lay out your story. It is the design.

To use an analogy of a tent, plot is like the cloth, which can be made up of different colors, patterns, and types of material. Structure is the underlying frame, the supports and poles and such. Using the same cloth, but different structures, you might end up with a pup tent, a dome tent, a geodesic tent, a circus tent, party tent, bell tent, etc. I think you get the idea.



Plot 101

Although in reality there can be any number of plots, scholars have come up with general plot types or categories. Studying these general plot types can help you understand the reader’s expectations for your story. You can decide either to include all the traditional elements and ensure your plot meets those expectations, or if you are brave, you can blow them up by defying the expectations and turn them on their head.

One of the more popular way to label plots is from The Seven Basic Plot Points: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker.

  1. Rags to Riches (Cinderella)
  2. Overcoming the Monster (Jaws) -also called Underdog
  3. The Quest (Indiana Jones)
  4. The Voyage and Return (Lord of the Rings) – Hero’s Journey fits this
  5. Rebirth (A Christmas Carol)
  6. Comedy (Any novel with humor and a happy ending)
  7. Tragedy (MacBeth)

Mark Nichol has a good general discussion of “Types of Plots” at Daily Writing Tips. There are many more articles online, but Darcy Pattison has a list of 29 Plots that can get you started.

Plotto by William Wallace Cook (1928) has a complicated system to generate any number of plots, mostly romances. The language is dense and somewhat outdated, but could be a gold mine for story ideas if you have the time.

Structure 101

Structure Tip:  The most important thing to keep in mind is don’t try to support your plot with a structure that doesn’t fit. Plot and structure should go together easily.

Some Examples:

The simplest structure for a story is the Three Act Structure.

In Act 1, we have the set-up where we learn about the character(s), the setting, and the character’s desire. Usually there is also some sort of inciting incident to get the protagonist on the move.

Act 2 is often the longest of the three acts (they don’t have to be equal length). It is typically filled with conflict, giving rise to a big crisis.

The conclusion arrives in Act 3. There may be a final push or revelation, but the ending is resolution of some sort.

You may have learned Freytag’s Pyramid in school. It is a type of Three Act Structure.

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising action, climax, falling action
  3. Denouement or resolution

Some structures are genre specific, such as for a mystery or romance, and won’t work well for other genres. We’ll discuss some genre-specific structures later.

Exercise:  Regardless of what structure you choose, it will likely contain an inciting incident, which is an event towards the beginning of the story that starts your protagonist on his/her/their way. Think of it as a door or gateway that once the protagonist goes through, there is no turning back or stopping, for that matter.

Think about what might be inciting incidents in your story. Make a list of 5 or more possibilities (because we often list the most obvious first and the more creative ones after those are written down). Pick one or two to develop into a scene.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 7: Hero’s Journey and Beyond

Where is your story going? Perhaps it is going on a Hero’s Journey.

Writers arrive at their stories in many ways. Some writers construct a detailed outline in advance (plotters) and others begin to write and see where it leads them (commonly called pantsers). No matter what kind of writer you are, it helps to have an idea of how others have structured their stories before you start. Today we’re going to take a look at the Hero’s Journey, then how to go well beyond.

Hero’s Journey

Studied and popularized by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a commonly-touted story structure. Usually it involves a linear story with one protagonist who goes through a series of challenges. This narrative arc shows up most often in the adventure, road trip, and heroic fantasy genres (think Lord of the Rings).


Public Domain Illustration


If you haven’t heard of it before and want to learn more try:

1. Writing Excuses has a good overview podcast (episode 8.2) that explains what The Hero’s Journey is, how it can be misinterpreted, and how it can be useful. They suggest The Hero’s Journey can be a good guide, but advise against using it as a checklist. (If you prefer to read, there is a transcript of the episode).

2. Start with the references in this wikipedia article.

Simplified Version

Dan Harmon has simplified the arc into its essentials. Basically he says the character starts out in his/her/their comfort zone, but because they want something, they move into the unfamiliar. They adjust to the new normal and get whatever it is they wanted, but pay some sort of heavy price. When they return to their comfort zone, they are changed. Follow the links at the end of each article to learn more.

Going Well Beyond

Earlier this year at SinC NorCal August 1, 2020 meeting, Vanitha Sankaran spoke on Revolutionizing the Hero’s Journey. She follows storytelling around the world and reveals some interesting ways that cultures differ. Because it was a virtual conference, you get to see it, too.

It is well worth the time and be sure to have a notebook handy!


I’m going to watch it again today.

What do you think? Are you considering using some aspect of The Hero’s Journey?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 6: Reflection

If you have been following along our  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation series, now is time for some reflection. Let’s mull over not only what we have accomplished so far, but also how we might apply reflective moments to our novel.


Time to Gather Your Thoughts

We’ve done a lot of work over the last few days, so let’s take a bit of a breather. Look over your notes. If you’d like,  complete the character sheets, file your research notes, and take a few minutes to organize. Evaluate what you’ve done, and jot down your thoughts and feelings about your novel so far. After you’ve done that, plan what you personally need to do before your start writing on November 1, like prepare meals, clean the house, stock up on supplies, etc.

How is your planning going? Please let me know if you have questions or if you’d like to see a particular topic covered.

Tip:  Organizing not your strength? The Colorado Writer’s Collaborative recently posted a video about keeping up with your writing goals via sticky notes. Basically, you write your goals on sticky notes and then prioritize them. The woman had a board organized into three rows:  do now, do soon, and do later. As she complete the “do now” row, she removed those stickies and moved up the others, adding as needed.  I’ve used it for a few weeks for my to-do list and it is a pretty useful system. The only problem I’ve had is that sometimes I forget to break big projects into smaller, doable steps.

Unfortunately, they have removed the video.

Reflection in Your Novel

Now that you have some idea how useful reflection can be, it is time to apply it to your manuscript.

Not long ago I took a class from C.S. Lakin and she discussed what she calls the “Action-Reaction Cycle.”  It was one of those moments when I said, “That is so obvious, so intuitive, why didn’t I ever think of it?” Once you grasp the idea that for every action/event in your novel, you need to allow some time for your characters (and at the same time readers), to react emotionally, reflect on, and process what happened, it fundamentally changes how you write. For the better.

If you’d like to read a novel that does this well, try The Hit by David Baldacci (review).


Reel did not do the obvious…

She counted to three and slammed not the gas, but the brakes.
Smoke poured from her rear wheels as traffic veered around her.

Once Reel checks into a hotel, she takes stock.

For now, Reel continued to stare outside as the rain fell.
It was a gloomy day. It perfectly matched her life.
They had clearly won this round. She had to hope it would be their only victory against her.

Exercise:  Visualize an action scene that would fit your novel. Now, picture your protagonist taking a break to react, perhaps talking through what happened and how they feel about it with family, friends, or even their irritating colleague.

In a few days we will start to prepare the structure for the novel, then start a rough outline (only rough, you pantsers who panic at the thought of outlines). Plan to leave room for quiet time and reaction/reflection.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.


#Amwriting October 5: Adding Secondary Characters

For today’s  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation post, let’s add secondary characters to our story.


How Many Secondary Characters?

Beginning novelists are often told to pare down the number of characters in their books. They are advised to combine characters or cut some out. As a result debut novels may have a more limited cast of characters than novels by experienced writers. However, after reading a bunch of bestsellers,  I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as you can introduce each person in a memorable way (so the reader doesn’t have to go back and re-read to figure out who they are), and each has a purpose, then the more the merrier.

Books that handled many secondary characters well:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (review)

Easy Prey by John Sandford (review)

John Sandford creates many, many characters in this novel, including multiple victims, friends and relatives associated with the victims, suspects, police, sheriffs, assistant medical examiners, medical examiners, computer hacks who assist the police, etc. etc. The sheer number of characters is fascinating, especially the duplication. There isn’t one love interest, but three strong candidates and Lucas notices a couple of other women. There isn’t one initial victim, but two, and many more pile up. Lucas regularly reports to not one boss, but both the Chief of Police and the Mayor, who seem to travel in pairs.

Books that could have done better:

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (review)

Almost everyone in the [library book club] discussion group commented on how difficult it was to remember the cast of characters. I finally had to write down a list of names and their roles to keep them straight.

The bottom line:

Include as many secondary characters as you feel add to the story, but make each one stand out as an individual and make sure the reader knows who they are.

Secondary Character Roles

Like the protagonist and antagonist, secondary characters often fill expected roles. You may have heard of the sidekick, the love interest, the mentor, etc. TV Tropes has a list of characters and their tropes. Click through each for even more lists. The page for love interest is particularly illuminating.

Public domain image from Wikimedia

One of my favorites is the contagonist, who might appear to help the protagonist, but who is actually leading them astray. They don’t block the goal entirely, but merely delay it, which can be a useful character to include.

How do you figure out which characters you will need to create? Start to picture a few of the scenes in your story. Who is your main character talking to? Who do they encounter as they move toward their goal? Who supports them? Who gets in their way? Does the antagonist have a henchman who does his or her dirty work?  Does your main character have a spouse? A family?

Going back to John Smith from our earlier premise, we know he has an uncle who is the police chief, plus he will talk to other members of the police force at times.  The victim will need a name and backstory, as well as friends and family to interview. There might be witnesses. In a mystery, the reader expects suspects that turn out to be red herrings.  The list grows in a hurry.


Start writing down secondary character roles and figuring out names, ages, appearances, jobs, etc.

You may wonder how much time to invest in each one. My suggestion is to really develop those who have potential to have big roles. For everyone else, write down enough so you don’t mix them up half way through the novel.

There is a balance between developing secondary characters enough to be satisfying and realistic, and investing too much time on material that won’t add to your story. How much do you personally need to have sorted out in advance to put your character on the page effectively?  If you are under a time crunch, like when writing for NaNoWriMo, it pays to have the research and backstory done in advance.

Tip:  Many authors base their characters, particularly their secondary characters, loosely on people they have encountered in real life.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

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