Tag: Capture Your Novel Idea

#Amwriting October 22: Writing Action

For our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, we are drilling into each of the components of scenes:  description, action, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. Today is action.


Action Is All About Verbs

The action part of a scene occurs when someone or something acts. They do something. It is all about verbs.

Action doesn’t imply, however, that your characters must be fighting, kicking, or running. They can drop a spoon, pet a dog, or kiss. That’s action, too.

Verb Are Complicated

I have a huge pet peeve about how writers talk about verbs. I cringe when I hear people who should know better say you should use “active” verbs and not “passive” verbs when they really mean “strong” versus “weak” verbs.

Why is calling verbs active and passive incorrect?

There is actually a case when active/passive is correct. In grammar, active and passive have specific meanings. If you do something, that is active voice. If something is done to you (by someone else), that is passive voice.


  • Active:  Janie hit the ball.
  • Passive:  Janie was hit by the ball.

Although passive voice does have its place, your main character should be as active as possible.

When is active/passive incorrectly applied?  The meaning gets stretched when it is applied to any verb with a “to be” form and -ing ending.


  • Active: Janie hits the ball.
  • Passive: Janie was hitting the ball yesterday.

Those verbs are not active and passive, but instead reflect the time when the actions occurred. Those verb forms are called tenses.

  • Simple Present: It happens today.
  • Present Perfect: It has happened before.
  • Simple Past: It happened yesterday.
  • Past Perfect: It had happened before yesterday.
  • Future: It will happen.
  • Future Perfect: It will have happened before tomorrow.
  • etc.

When the action is ongoing for a length of time, we use a “to be” verb plus -ing ending:   It is happening today.

My suggestion is that we call these verbs strong/weak instead. Whenever you use a “to be” verb or a “to be” verb plus -ing ending, that will be called weak.

  • Strong:  Janie hit the ball out of the park.
  • Weak:  Janie was hitting balls yesterday and is tired today.

Sometimes you need to use the “weak” verbs to be precise about the timing of events and that is perfectly okay. Avoid, however, overusing them throughout a scene when the stronger forms of the verb will work.

Rant over.

Exercise:  Write a paragraph reflecting action. Check your verbs to see if you can make them stronger. Also, look for synonyms that may make your verbs more precise.



A collision had snarled traffic on the freeway, making Neri Clausen more than twenty minutes late on her first day as a deputy U.S. Marshal. As she dashed toward the Federal Building in downtown Dallas, something squished under her shoe. No time to assess the damage. She sprinted across the street, through the glass doors, and headed for security. After she skidded to a halt behind the man with the enormous white cowboy hat waiting to pass through the metal detector, a bad odor assaulted her. Dog feces. A brown smear encircled her mirror-polished black Chelsea boot. The brand new one she had paid a nonexistent paycheck for because she needed something both stylish and practical.

Crud. Literally.

The elevator doors closed behind her. She peeked at her boot again. The brown goo went deep into the detailing on the toe. It wasn’t going to be easy to wash off. She had seconds to decide whether to present herself to her new boss wearing fetid shoes or with the battered flip-flops she carried in her bag for a trip to the swimming pool later. The two other people in the elevator wrinkled their noses in disgust and inched away. Flop-flops it was.



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

#Amwriting October 18: NaNo by the Numbers

If you are going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, you are going to write 50,000 words during the month of November.  Let’s check the numbers.


Slow and Steady

If you plan to write each and every day, then that is 1667 words for 30 days.

How much time you will need to set aside every day depends on how fast you type. Note that I didn’t say write, but type. Even if you’re feeling creative and the words are flowing like magic, it takes a certain amount of time to set them down on the page. If you are a slow typist like I am, it will physically take you longer than someone who can type fast. That is why I never win sprints or word wars. I – type – slowly.

Let’s do the numbers. I can type between 500 and 600 words in an hour. That means I will need three hours every day to achieve that goal. That doesn’t seem like much if you are thinking the average work day is eight hours, but I already have a busy life. Things are going to have to go.

Exercise:  Keep track of how many words you write per hour over the next few days. Then calculate how many hours you will need per day to write 1667 words. Make a schedule now for setting that time aside.

Tip:  To be even more organized, write the exact hours you are setting aside for NaNo on a calendar or into a planner.

Reverse NaNo

November is a tough month because of the holidays. There’s a lot going on at the end. If that is the case for you, consider doing a reverse NaNo. Start piling on the words at first, with roughly 3000 words a day for the first week, then gradually taper off (link shows exact number you will need per day). So, for me, that’s roughly 5 to 6 hours a day for the first few days.

Even if you don’t do a full reverse NaNo, piling on the words at the beginning may make it easier to achieve your goal.

The Scenic Route

Let’s take this number crunching one more step.  If the average length of a scene in a  novel is 750 to 2,500 words, you will be writing on average 1 to 2 scenes per day. That ends up being roughly 30 to 60 scenes over the full month.

At this point you probably know whether you are a pantser (discovery writer) or if you outline ahead of time (planner or plotter). At the very least, you’ve probably heard proponents of both camps. The reality is, however, writing that many scenes is a daunting task, so a bit of planning now makes it more likely you will succeed.

Dear Plotter,

I’m not worried about you. Charge ahead with your outline. You probably had your outline written last month, right?

Dear Pantser,
No need to be scared. Don’t call it an outline, call it a plan. As you know, plans can change. Or call it a recipe. You always tweak recipes when you cook, right?


Exercise:  Get a calendar for the year(s) your novel covers. Start a timeline of events both during backstory and after the novel begins. Being able to picture the events unfolding over time will help keep the words flowing. Plus, you won’t end up with eight day weeks (has happened in real novels) or pregnancies that last three months.

Time to map out that novel!



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

#Amwriting October 16: The Research Bear

Research for a novel can be a real bear because it is critical to get the facts right for your readers, but too much can derail your writing completely. How much research do you need and when should you do it?


Maybe you think you don’t need to do research at all. It’s fiction after all. You make it all up in your head, right?

A few months ago while engrossed in a mystery novel, the main character stated the official language of Hong Kong was Mandarin. It popped me right out of the story like I’d hit the button of an ejector seat. The official language of Hong Kong is Cantonese (don’t ask how I remember that). How did the author make a mistake like that? I did finish reading the novel, but in a corner of my mind I started questioning everything about it. If the author was that sloppy, what else was wrong? It destroyed my enjoyment of the book.

What should you research prior to writing?

First of all, you should research the big items that move your plot.

For example, unless you are working in the same field as your protagonist, you will probably need to investigate the job description of whatever profession you chose for them. Find out what kind of education they would need, where they might work, jargon specific to the job, etc. If you have a friend or family member in that or a similar field, it might be a good time to write, text, or pick up the phone. You need to get it right or you will hear from every expert in that field.

Setting is important, so you need to review that. Do you have a concrete description of your setting in place?

Also, if you are going to add some special details to add depth to the story,  get those sorted. Yesterday I listened to a virtual talk by mystery author Ian Rankin about his new book, A Song for the Dark Times. He mentioned featuring a World War II internment camp in the book. If you are going to write about historic events or places, it would be a good idea to research those ahead of time, especially if your research will require trips to a university library for scholarly works.

Tip:  Looking for different ways to learn more about a topic? Consider podcasts. Find one or two podcasts by experts in a field and listen while you exercise or do housework. Yes, you can sometimes multitask successfully.

Should you research while writing?

Ever clicked on your browser to look up a synonym of a word and come back 45 minutes later after you found yourself watching cute cat videos? Yes, the internet can be a distracting place. For the most part, you should plan to limit the amount of internet research you do when writing for an intense deadline like NaNo. Many writers turn off their browsers completely.

If you have smaller points to fill in, there are ways to remind yourself to come back later and continue writing. Journalists use the abbreviation TK, which is shorthand for “to come.” You can also use your own code, but make it something that it is easy to locate via the “find” command.

“You’re going to Hong Kong? How will you communicate?”

“Don’t worry, I’m fluent in {{add language of Hong Kong}}.

Need to check something that is critical to your next scene, that you need to clarify to keep writing? Set a timer before you start your search.


1. If you enjoy research, sometimes you want to share all the exciting things you found. The problem is that sharing can turn into an information dump, which will clog up your story and turn off readers. All those wonderful things you find out should support your story, but not weigh it down.

Visualize an iceberg. Your readers should see the exposed tip as if that’s all you created. You see the entire thing, including all the massive amount of material hidden under the water. That hidden mass is what stabilizes the tip and makes it work properly, but they don’t need to know it is there.

2. Sometimes the true facts just won’t work. Then it is time to fabricate. Don’t be afraid to own that,

3. Nothing is finer than reading a well-researched book that help you learn something new in the midst of a satisfying story. On the other hand, if you spend years and years gathering the background material, it can get in the way of actually doing any writing. Only you can determine the balance, when you are done and when you are ready to write.


The next time you are reading a novel, pay attention to the facts and details that the author shares. Do they talk about downturns in the economy, nuclear power, or how to get fingerprints off a cell phone? You might want to even highlight those passages. Begin to be aware of how much fact goes into writing fiction.

Now go do some research!



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.

#Amwriting October 3: Exploring Your Setting

The next step in our series about preparing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is to consider your setting.


Why work on setting so early?

Some of you may be wondering why you should tackle setting so early in preparation. Isn’t it simply wallpaper behind the story?

Setting is a vital part of a novel. A good, concrete setting grounds the reader and can be a key element in driving the story. By evoking memories and feelings, it can influence the mood (think Hawaii versus Alcatraz.) You need to orient your readers to place and time right in the beginning of the book.

If the setting is from another era or a different world, such as for speculative fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction,  it will be critical to spend time worldbuilding before you put the first word on the page.



Start with brainstorming. Don’t forget to include time as well as place. Is the story going to be contemporary, historical or take place in the future? What year will your story be set in? How long does it last? Is all the action finished in 24 hours or 24 years? If your story idea feels like it is jelled, jot down a rough timeline.

Do you want to have your characters stay in one place or travel widely?  How are your characters going to react to the place? Do they love it or can’t wait to get away? How can the physical location add to the story? Can they do their job in that location?

Think about places you’ve lived, visited, or want to visit and jot them down. You are going to be living with the setting you choose for a long time if you write a novel, so pick one that you can be passionate about. It can help to choose a familiar time and place because you already know how it looks, smells, and sounds, but in reality, anything goes.


For contemporary novels, once you have an idea of place(s), investigate them. Look at maps and search the internet. Ideally, you should visit the location(s), but that isn’t as easy as it once was. For specific suggestions, see my previous post, Seven Awesome Internet Tools for Writing Realistic Settings.

If you are thinking of historical fiction, Anne R. Allen has tips for historical writers that will help get you started (thanks Shan).

Science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy can be more challenging. A resource that can help with worldbuilding is Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook (Revised and Expanded): The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction*. I recommend it not so much for the text — although it can give you some useful tips — but more for the incredibly imaginative illustrations that will be sure to jump start your creativity. See the cover, for example.

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

If you a creating your own world, get familiar with some of the random place name generators. Mithril Mages has a bunch of name generators, including a Natural Terrain Feature Name GeneratorMuddles also has random name and place generators.

Tip:  Be sure to save the information you uncover. Make a list of links you visit, take screenshots of locations, save articles either as PDF or print or both.  You can save your research notes in a folder, in Scrivener,  or if you are going to use a three-ring binder, now is the time to begin organizing it. Start a tab for “setting.”

Write a Description

Before you finish for the day, write a brief description of your setting.

If you are stuck, try this helpful PDF mind map template for a descriptive essay about place from EslFlow.

What setting(s) did you choose?


I wish my novel could be set here, but it wouldn’t fit the story.

Tomorrow: The Antagonist – What or whom your protagonist is struggling with.


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

#Amwriting October 1: Capture Your Novel Idea

Are you going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year? If you haven’t heard of it before, that’s the challenge to write 50,000 words as a beginning or part of a novel during the month of November.  If you are interested, now is the time to get ready.


Why Prepare?

If you are planning to write a novel for NaNo, it is a good idea to start preparations in October — or even earlier. Why? If you:

  1. Set aside a time think about your project each and every day
  2. Organize and prepare the background materials each and every day
  3. Start a habit of writing each and every day

the momentum can help carry you through November to success.

October 1:  Capture Your Idea

I. Start by gathering your basic writing materials.

You will obviously need a word processing program of some sort. Many writers use Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Scrivener. Take the time now to pick one and set it up. Figure out how you are going to back up your files as well.

Setting up Scrivener


Unless you are completely a tech addict, you will also want some sort of notebook. I put pen to paper when I’m starting a new novel as a place to do mind maps or brainstorm, to jot down those notes that come in the middle of the night or while I’m driving down the road, and to experiment with ideas when I’m stuck on a plot point. I use it to draw maps, buildings, etc. for settings, too.

Personally, I need a three-ring binder for my projects as well as a notebook. I use the binder to hold hard copies of research from newspapers or magazines, in addition to paper copies of the manuscript, if I print them.

Don’t spend too much time on this on the first day. Organize, put titles on your materials, and personalize or decorate as you go along. Save these tasks for the days when you need a mental break or as a reward after you’ve done good work.

II. Use your materials to write down your glimmer of an idea.

Now is the time to commit that idea you’ve been throwing around in your head onto the page.  Yes, now. Type or write the words, no matter how raw.

For fiction, try to include a rough idea for a protagonist, the event or person who started them on this path (inciting incident), what their goal is, and what the conflict is. You will also need an antagonist, but depending on your genre, you may or may not want to reveal them in the premise. For example, in a mystery you would never reveal the murderer in the premise, but in a romance you can reveal who is stopping the wedding.

If you don’t have an idea for your project, you might want to consult the NaNo Prep 101 Guide (sign in and look under resources). They show how to “borrow” a premise from a favorite novel, then tweak it to make it your own. If that doesn’t appeal, you can be adventurous and type “random plot generator” into your favorite search engine. There many different kinds. Some are specific to genre and others are general, like this one at Writing Exercises for example. Caveat:  you should probably set a timer beforehand so you don’t go down a rabbit hole.

Once you have jotted down some words, shape them into a rough premise. Think of it as the baby version of the book blurb that entices readers on the back of the book. Here’s a made up one:

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.

If you need help, K.M. Weiland has a post about finding your premise. (We’ll use her 6-Must Have Elements of a “Wow” Story Premise post to tweak it later when we are ready to start an outline.)

How does your premise look? If you want to make it fresher, try a mind map or other visual aid to help mix things up.


See how intentionally mixing things up led to the idea it is a horse and buggy instead of a car that is involved in the accident?  That takes the story in a novel direction.

If you have a premise you’d like to share or tweak, be sure and leave it in the comments.

Up next:  Developing Your Protagonist


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


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