Helpful Hints

The Structure of Story

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Anyone who reads fiction regularly will realize that there is an established structure to the plot narrative. You may have heard of the three-act structure, and the seven-act structure, but overall these are both based on the some fundamentals: one is just longer!

This is, of course, not the only way you can structure your novel, and there have been some very creative variations on the theme, but when starting out as an author and learning the art, having a structure can help keep the plot on track.

The traditional three-act divides the story into three parts:

First Act (the Set-up):

This first act should establish:

  • Who: introduces the main character
  • Where: establishes the world/setting, and what is the neutral (ie: “normal”) for the character.
  • Inciting Incident: this is the event that causes a disruption from the character’s normal life and indicates that life may not be the same again.
    • For example: in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid’s arrival, announcing that Harry is a wizard
    • At this point, if the character were to ignore the inciting incident, their life would remain in the “normal” and there would be no story.
    • What the inciting incident is for your story will depend on the genre of the story: For a mystery, it could be the finding of a body, or the client approaching the protagonist with the case. For a romance, it could be the first time that she sees him and decides that he is The One. It can be dramatic, or subtle, but ultimately will change the protagonist’s life and set it on a different course.
  • First Turning Point: sometimes known as the “point of no return”, this is where the protagonist accepts the inciting incident, which will alter their life irrevocably. At this point, they cannot return to the period of normalcy without suffering in some way (socially, physically, emotionally). It also sets up the situation that needs to be resolved by the conclusion of the story. It makes the end of the First Act.
    • For Harry, this is when he first enters Hogwarts.

How long the first act should be is determined by the length of the novel and the genre. Crime thrillers are quite likely to begin with the inciting incident, whereas a literary or fantasy novel may spend more time in setting the scene. Some authors may choose to have the character reject the incident, or may make it more difficult for the protagonist to accept it – think of how many times the Dursleys foiled Harry’s attempts to get his invitation. But generally speaking it should not be drawn out too long, lest the reader become frustrated and set the book aside.

Second Act (Rising Action):

The second act is the longest act, comprising of approximately half the manuscript.

in the second act:

  • Midpoint: The protagonist attempts to deal with the situation, but fails and/or makes matters worse, because they do not, yet, have the skills or knowledge to deal with the situation.
  • The protagonist must attempt to address the skills that will help them succeed. In Harry’s case, he’s learning magic, and making allies. In a romance, the protagonist may be fighting against self-doubt and their own insecurities. In a mystery, the inspector is collecting evidence and studying the clues that will help them solve the case.
  • Do not make things too easy for your character. When they are facing an obstacle, even success should have ongoing, possibly worse, consequence. Always think, will my character succeed? “Yes, BUT…” (there’s another problem) or “No, AND…” (things get worse).
  • Tension should keep rising. Use subplots and character relationships to help hold up a saggy middle.
  • Second Turning Point: The tension is at its highest level, and the protagonist must make a decision that will – whether they win or lose – change their life forever. It is similar to the First Turning Point, except the cost for failure is much higher.

Third Act (Resolution):

This is the final quarter-or-so of your book, and the point in which you want to keep the reader fully hooked ad leave them satisfied.

  • Climax: everything that protagonist has learned and all the obstacles they have faced can help her deal with the main source of conflict.
  • Twists: any sudden reveals or twists to the plot should be “surprising but inevitable”. As a dedicated reader, I’ve found that if I spot a twist early in the book and it culminates to be the actual, I feel cheated, but if I unravel it 2-3 pages before it is revealed, then I feel satisfied (and clever). You do not want to leave the reader thinking, “Huh? How did that happen?” but “Of course! Why didn’t I notice that?”
  • Character Development: your character now should no longer be the same person they were at the start; the events of the story have helped reshape them.
  • Denouement: Untangling the more knotted parts of the story, and revealing (some of) the secrets and tying up (some of) the loose ends. If your story is in a series, you should always leave a few questions unanswered for the reader. Even if it’s not part of a series, it’s always fun to leave some of the “what comes next” to the reader’s imagination.

Exercise:

The three-act structure is frequently used in screenplays and theater. Next time you are watching a movie, see if you can identify the:

  • Inciting Incident
  • First Turning Point
  • Midpoint
  • Second Turning Point
  • Climax

TalkWrite: Where Do Stories Come From?

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Where do writers get their ideas? We discussed the theme at our first Monday evening TalkWrite group for 2018.

Inspiration can come from the world around you:

  • Locations: a creepy house; an idyllic location can inspire thoughts such as “what happened there?” or “what could happen there?”
    • ie: “What if there was a body?”
  • Experiences: for a lot of writers, their day-to-day lives may influence the stories they want to write. It might be funny anecdotes around your work, or you might visit a place or have some sort of experience that you wish to share – either through fiction or as a memoir.
    • ie: what sort of interesting/weird things could happen at a science fiction convention?
  • Something that makes you wonder:
    • companies with interesting names
      • ie, Merlin’s Couriers (what do they deliver?)
    • advertisements
      • ie, car advertisement, costs $19,999 plus ORC (What if your new car actually came with an orc?)
  • Newspaper articles: often they only tell you the outcome of an event – so what caused it? Why would someone act in such a way?
    • Also Newspaper headlines: sometimes these sound more interesting than the actual story proves to be. So, write the more interesting one!
  • Conversations: either overheard, or that you have participated in.
  • Historic events/people: if you have a passion for a particular period or figure from history, that works as a great starting point for a story and fictionalised stories around real people are quite popular.
  • Dreams: keep a notebook beside your bed, and remember, that’s where Stephenie Meyer found Edward.
  • Songs: either the lyrics or the general theme of a song can prove inspiration to writing, just beware of breaching copyright by following or quoting the lyrics too closely.

Write the story you would enjoy reading

If you’re really stuck on what to write, sit down and make a list of the things that you enjoy the most in the books you’re reading and the movies you watch. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a shape of a fresh, new story within them. A prime example of this is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It has elements of Tolkien, Star Wars, and, whilst being somewhat generic, became phenomenally popular and was actually a really good read (although I confess, I never finished the series). Do you enjoy cozy murder mysteries and like to knit? Well, why not combine the two? (This is a surprisingly populated genre).

Twists on Familiar Stories/Ideas

  • Retell a fairy tale with a new setting, time period or from a different character’s perspective.
  • Write the story of a side character in an out-of-copyright classic novel (ie: Captain Hook).
  • Take a fairly standard/cliched plot and twist or parody it
    • ie: the standard “quest for the McGuffin” narrative of some fantasy novels
  • Social or political commentary can also be used to create a powerful fantasy novel, a heart-breaking romance, a tense thriller, or a black comedy, depending on your personal genre tastes.

Many stories begin with a “What If?”

  • What if cats really ruled the world?
  • What if my neighbour began worshipping me as a god?
  • What if aliens have been amongst us all this time?

Writing Prompts and Word Lists

There are various resources on the internet for finding inspiration. These may work for some authors – particularly those who just wish to ignite their writing fire.

  • Images: they do say a picture paints a thousand words. Spend some time on pinterest looking up your favourite themes (or just “Story ideas”), but I’d recommend setting a timer. Find a picture that inspires you and see what questions you can create around it that might be turned into a story.
  • Writing Prompts: these are generally a sentence or two about a situation ending with a few questions. Great for getting inspired to write a short story – or possibly taking it all the way to a novel!
  • Word Lists: We did an exercise in a writing class where we were given three words (which included “rickshaw” and “encyclopedia”) and asked to write a short story around them. It was fun – and everyone’s story was completely different! Random word lists can be found on the Internet.
  • There are also numerous dice and card decks available to make you think and create.
    • Rory’s Story Cubes
    • The Reckless Deck: to create spec-fic mash-ups
    • The Storymatic: Pick up a card and watch the story unfold before your eyes!
    • Dixit: Not specifically for writing inspiration, but has plenty of strange and beautiful illustrations.
    • Once Upon a Time: Another game that can be used for inspiration, they even have a book available with how to use it to write your own fairytales.

Want to try and write a story based on prompts? Find below a picture (from Pixabay and a Creative Common) and a list of random words I’ve generated using an online generator.

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Cemetery, cave, stem, compartment, suntan, candle, solid, rib, courage, constitution

If you write a story based on one, or both, let us know in the comments below!

Or if you have other ways of “finding your story”, we’d love to hear it.

Character Creation: Occupation & Role

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There is a strong chance that your character will have a life before their story starts. She* will have hobbies, passions, and fill a specific role, or niche, in society.  In all likelihood, she will have an occupation, or some way in which she spends her regular, mundane, pre-story day. Under the typical narrative structure, the plot will begin with her living that normal** life, before the occurrence of the inciting incident that  will set her on her journey through the plot.

There are some factors to take into consideration when deciding how your character would spend her pre-story days:

1. Intended Audience/Genre

Readers wish to identify with the characters, and although we may read diversely, there is a general trend to write characters that bear some similarity to their readers. This is especially prevalent in children and young adult literature – how many children’s books can you name where the protagonist is an adult?

Therefore, when writing for children, your characters will likely be children themselves. A lot of children’s books are set in school (ie: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants) and even the fantastical ones generally have them learning their skills from a mentor or tutor (ie: Ranger’s Apprentice, Spirit Animals).

Obviously genre will also determine the role your character plays in society. In science fiction, engineers and linguists might be more prevalent than retail clerks or telephone operators. In fantasy, wizards and knights may prevail over accountants and IT consultants. Of course, it’s also fun to break from tradition and do something fresh and original too (just look at Terry Pratchett).

2. Write What You Know

There is, I suspect, a reason why many characters in adult fiction work in bookstores, are authors, journalists, editors or otherwise feature somewhere in the publishing industry; it requires less research for the author if their protagonist’s occupation is something intrinsically familiar to them. Here’s where extra-curriculum study is useful, and a previously unused degree could come in handy.

Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving your character an occupation you are entirely unfamiliar with, bear in mind that you should engage in indepth research, because if you put in inaccurate facts, someone will know – and reviewers are not kind. You can, perhaps, get away with a little more improvisation in fantasy (especially if your character is a wizard) or space opera. Still, tread wary.

3. What does your story need?

This is probably the most important one to consider. Your character will face many trials throughout the plot and may require specialist skills to face them. Whilst a protagonist can never be a Jack-of-all-trades, they should have at least one core level of expertise that can justify them being the main character.

Think about what your story needs: does your main character need to hack computers? Will they be called upon to heal another character? Will strenuous physical activity be required? This doesn’t need to relate specifically to the character’s occupation, she could have attended a first aid course for work. Think creatively too: need someone with physical agility or endurance? Maybe she could be a soccer player or a cheerleader.

In a fantastical setting, she may be required to ride horses, hunt or forage for food, or survive in a hostile environment. Giving her a rural background may make this easier, but there is a certain charm in her being of noble blood, and thus forced into a situation where she is entirely out of her depth.

4. Break the stereotypes

Alternately, you can approach this from the exact opposite direction. Who would be the least expected to face the challenges of the plot? After all, we’ve had a perky cheerleader that fights supernatural monsters, and there are numerous middle-aged women (with no police training) who regularly solve mysteries. So, who’s to say that an accountant cannot save the world from the alien invasion? Or an elderly lady should not fall in love with a rock star?

No-one. So if you want to write it, write it!

5. Who will the plot impact the most?

There are some people that are more likely to be in a direct line of fire from the threat you’re about to unleash. Let’s say, for example, you want to write a story about monsters creeping into the world, possibly through the sewage system. Who is likely to notice this first? Home owners, perhaps, who will call in a plumber to investigate the situation. Supernatural events occurring after dark? What sort of people are likely to be out in the wee small hours? Street sweepers, criminals, someone sneaking home after an illicit tryst. A ‘flu virus has mutated and will begin the next pandemic? A doctor or nurse, or perhaps a laboratory technician or intern, could be the first to make the connection.

6. Give your character a talent or passion

Giving your character hobbies, talents, or interests, or something they are passionate about, all help the reader to connect with your character. These may not necessarily have a powerful impact on the plot, but they will more help cement the character as a “real” person. They can also be used to help the plot in small but subtle ways, both to the character’s benefit or to their downfall.

However, be wary of making your character’s passion so powerful that it distracts from the plot. If she must examine and identify every flower that she comes across, the reader’s interest may begin to wander. She need only identify the ones which can be used later in the story (ie: working out who had the means to poison the bishop), or a couple of others as “red herrings”.

Hopefully these suggestions have given you a goodly basis on where your character may begin. In the next few weeks we will look into personality, family, and the way your character relates to people around them.

If you have any suggestions or feedback for this blog, please let us know in the comments below.

~ * ~

* or he, or they, or whatever pronoun you have selected for your protagonist.

** even novels set in alternate, or dystopic, worlds tend to start with the character in a relative status quo-type situation. It may not be “normal” to us – but it is normal to them.

Character Creation: What’s in a name?

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Characters are one of the defining features that make a novel memorable, and help it stand out from others in the same genre.

As writers, we need to capture the reader’s attention, engage their emotions, and hook them into the tale. We need to create a protagonist that one can emphasize with, or at the very least, feel a connection to.

Do they need to be likeable? No!
Do they need to feel real? Yes!

We will work our way through a series of blog posts on how one can create a character, flesh them out, and bring them to life on the page. One important thing to note though, is the Iceberg Principal. Essentially, whilst you – as the writer – needs to know as much about the character as you feasibly can, the reader only needs to see what is relevant to the story – the tip of the iceberg.

We will begin with names. Now, you may like to leave the naming of your character until you know them a little better, in which case, refer back to this post at a later date, but I think we can all agree that, in most stories*, names are important. And names are more than just “something to call your character by”.

Names can also indicate:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Social status
  • Personality

There are numerous things to consider when choosing names for your characters, and these will vary according to genre. For a historical novel, for example, you will wish to choose names relevant or typical to that period, a modern name or non-traditional spelling will really stand out.  Also, many readers will make a subconscious connection between a name and personality; this can be fun to play with – for example, we have Bill the vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse series – but certain names will generally have specific connotations. This may, of course, vary depending on who is reading the book, and is culture dependent.

There are numerous resources for names, here are a few:

  • baby name books: These generally contain the name’s origin and meaning, and thus can be used to subtly reference the character’s personality.
  • baby name websites: as above, only digital.
  • people you know, or names you overhear. Carry a notebook, note them down. (Be wary of using the names of friends or family though, as they may grow suspicious of your character’s origin).
  • the phone book: great for surnames!
  • name generator websites: Google it, there are hundreds!

If you are wanting non-traditional names, say for example you are writing speculative fiction, or for non-human characters, then you can have some fun creating your own names:

  • portmanteaus are always fun: Sunstar, Rainflower, Goldenleaf.
  • look into nature: plants, animals, and minerals often have appealing names that can say a lot about a character (Hemlock for example, is not likely to be someone cute and cuddly).
  • colours: ie: Cerulean, Cyan, Magenta, Scarlet, Sable.
  • mythology and folklore
  • combine together pleasantly sounding syllables (I’d recommend no more than 3  syllables).

Make sure you say your character’s name out loud, to make sure that it doesn’t clash with the character’s intended personality (Annaki, for example, is likely to cause chaos). If you are writing a multi-racial specfic adventure, you will find it extremely helpful to base each different race’s naming patterns on the same distinct origin. That way the reader will be able to immediately determine if they’re a dwarf, an elf, or a specific alien species. Consistency is important.

Some things to look out for:

  • character names all beginning with the same letter: this isn’t too confusing but can look lazy.
  • similar sounding names: you probably don’t want a Raina and a Riana in your story. Either you or the reader will get the two confused!
  • characters with the same name: this is fairly common in real life, but in stories it’s best avoided to prevent confusion.
  • unpronounceable or long, complex names. For both the reader’s sake and yours – since you will probably mis-spell them at least once – I’d recommend keeping these to a minimum, or for peripheral characters.
  • avoid subconsciously using the name of someone famous or infamous, or someone else’s character. Google it first!

It can be very useful to create lists of names, especially if you are writing in a world with specific naming technique (ie: all from the same cultural origin), so when you need to give the name of a peripheral character you can refer to the list, rather than spend 20 minutes trying to find something appropriate, which will stall your writing.

* there are always exceptions to the rule: in a first-person narrative one can fairly easily avoid ever naming the main protagonist, and you are unlikely to use them in a second-person narrative, and there are of course several famous authors that have never given their characters a unique moniker (ie: The Road by Cormac McCarthy). But you’ll generally find it easier if you have something to call your characters, trust me.

Another day in the life of a NaNo-Nut: Plotting

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The creative perspective

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As I embark on this fourth NaNo journey, I’ve found myself dwelling on how, as a writer, my craft and the experience of writing have changed since those early days.  I still find it fun, but over the years I’ve become more introspective about the way I work. You’ll find that too. 

That first journey saw me throw myself into a lifelong dream. The desire to simply write that novel motivating me to just write, and write, and write. Which is just what NaNo is about. But along the journey, I’ve realised that to complete my manuscripts, I need to have a direction. Some signposts along the way. Of course that won’t be the same for everybody.  

As a result, you find yourself considering what type of writer you are.

Plotter or pantser?

For anyone new to writing, you’ll find there appear to be three general kinds of writer. 

1) The Plotter – somebody who meticulously plans their entire project, so that when NaNo starts they have an outline, their structure, know their plot, their characters and what their end goal is.

2) The Pantser – somebody who quite literally writes by the seat of their pants. No real direction, just the ability to follow the plot and characters wherever they may lead. 

3) The Hybrid – somebody who combines both plotting and panting to their novel-writing journey. 

When embarking on  NaNo, it’s worth considering what kind of writer you are.

As I mentioned before, I’ve always been a pantser. Literally writing by the seat of my pants. Letting the characters develop the stories as I go. To the extent that I’d find my characters talking to me (I know, you think I’m mad). Driving in the car, carrying out my own interviews with them to learn who they were, how they’d react to things, who they’d vote for the next American president! All things that gave me an insight into the people I was creating, and the direction my story was taking.

However, this year, I’ve decided to embark on the NaNo journey with a plan. A result of which has seen me methodically planned my book from beginning to end. I’ve researched my backstory, and all of the key points throughout the novel and have reams of notes as a result. I’ve filled out character worksheets, setting worksheets, created picture boards, and even organised a road trip to Mackenzie which is the setting for the vast part of my story.

This is not because I’ve decided that pantsing is wrong, but because I’m open to new ways of doing this. 

What type are you? It’s well worth considering before you embark on your NaNo journey. If you’re new to NaNo. Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem is an awesome read, giving some insight into what the National Novel Writing Month is. As well as giving you some insights into how to go about it (from well-learned experience). 

If you’re not a NaNo, but want to look at ways of plotting and planning, then I thoroughly recommend the following books for helping with writing craft in so far as structuring and planning your novel: 

1) Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – a comprehensive, easy to read guide to structuring your story. 

2) Michael Hauge’s

Writing Screenplays That Sell, New Twentieth Anniversary Edition: The Complete Guide to Tur

ning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals 

3) Jack M Bickman’sScene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)

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I’ve found these three books invaluable in helping me plan for NaNo, and perhaps because I want to take my writing to the next level, I’ve enjoyed investing in craft books that have opened my eyes to the whole concept of plotting and planning for my writing journey. 

Another aspect of the planning that I’ve come to think of as vital for writing development is surrounding yourself with likeminded people. 

Use the Writing Community

Writing is a solitary activity, and can be really lonely. Particularly when you hit the wall often called writers block, or self-doubt.  During NaNo, the goal is to hit that 50,000 word target. A goal that is completely achievable. However, it is inevitable that during NaNo, you’ll have peaks and troughs. Some days, you’ll fly. Others you’ll wonder just what on earth you are doing. By surrounding yourself with people with that same objective, you give yourself not only a sounding board, but also a support network. It can become competitive. I love a challenge, and going to our Tuesday ‘Night Owls’ write in, I find myself challenging myself to keep up with some of the more prolific writers (some of whom have achieved 160,000 words during NaNo in the past – yikes!). 

So here’s some suggestions. 

Visit the NaNoWriMo website: 

Find out who your Municipal Liaison is ( http://nanowrimo.org/regions)

Find out where write-ins are planned with other writers in your local community – these can offer invaluable support, and potentially create lifelong friendships.

Join NaNo to make the most of the webinar’s and support it offers during November. 

Visit your Local Library:

Is there any information on local groups?

Do they have activities or workshops for writers?

Local writing organisations: 

In our case, we’re lucky to have a vibrant community of writers locally. The Christchurch Writers Guild ( https://chchwriters.org ), New Zealand Society of Authors ( http://authors.org.nz/about/branches/canterbury/ ), and the Romance Writers of New Zealand ( http://www.romancewriters.co.nz/about/regional-meetings/ ). The latter of which have local chapters who organise workshops, monthly meetings, and local write ins. Investigate if there is anything like that near you.

This may all seem a little much for the writer who’s new to this, but these lessons have been learned over four years. And if I’m completely honest, I’ll undoubtedly learn more lessons this year. 

Furthermore, there are two more things to remember during NaNo:

The first: Switch off that inner-critic. That little niggle of self-doubt is the worst thing for creativity. He/ she will whisper in your ear as you write, telling you you’re taking the wrong direction, that your writing is crap, that this is a waste of time. He’s a pain in the ass, and needs to be told that. My first year I let him really get at me. Kept re-reading what I’d written, questioning whether I was made for the whole writing thing. So the second year, I made a poster. “Inner-critic you’re banned from my study for a month.”

Childish perhaps, but psychologically, I refused to listen to anything the rotten demon. He had no part in my NaNo journey, or any writing journey from that day on. 

The second: is to enjoy. Have fun. Creativity and writing are a truly exciting opportunity to explore something that few of us ever do. People will poo-poo you, “Gah, why would you write? There’s no money in it? Why waste the time?”

If it’s something you truly want to do – then do it. Enjoy it. Lose yourself in your own fantasy world. Whether it be crime, mystery, fantasy, a children’s story or a romance, NaNo is the one time of the year you can say “Okay, I’m gonna do this.”

Whether you have a PC, or a rudimentary paper and pen. Let your imagination run wild for the month. You never know where it might take you. 

I hope this helps, and that you enjoy your NaNo journey. 

Emma jottermonster


emlowe2Emma Lowe moved to North Canterbury from Dunedin three years ago. She promptly joined the CWG and was overwhelmed to discover not only a network of writers, but a group of people who have become close personal friends. She has been focusing on her writing ever since (at least when she’s not juggling kids and the family business). She predominantly writes romance, and is also a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, amongst other writing organisations.

Monthly Theme: Pantsing VS Plotting

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Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.

Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.

Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.

Benefits:

Discovery Writing:

  • The characters develop organically and will generally drive the story.
  • Excitement as you explore and experience the world you, as the writer, are creating.
  • The delight of discovering hidden secrets or stumbling upon an unexpected plot twist.

Plotting:

  • Because you know where the story is going, it is easier to keep on track.
  • Scenes can be written out of sequence and pieced together; you can write that scene you’re passionate about.
  • Plotting can help you solve problems with the storyline or characters.
  • Knowing the plot twists and red herrings allows for successful foreshadowing and set-up.

Drawbacks:

Discovery Writing:

  • Without a goal – where is the plot going?
  • The story can run off on a wild tangent.
  • The completed first draft will need further, sometimes multiple, revisions (which will undoubtedly result in sacrificing significant portions of the story).

Plotting:

  • It is easier to get bored of the story as you already know where it is leading.
  • Characters may end up railroaded into following the plot.

Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:

  • It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
  • Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
  • Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
  • Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
  • Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.

What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!

Monthly Theme: What Makes a Compelling Blurb?

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What is a blurb?

A blurb is a brief description of your story, a text-based advertisement to attract a future reader. It either appears on the back cover or inside the front cover on a printed book, or is the second piece of information you will find on a website (after the cover and the title).

Why is it important?

Because, after the potential reader has admired your cover and clever title, they want to know what the book is about. If your blurb does not entice them, then they’re going to put it back on the shelf, or move on to the next option.

How can I write a compelling blurb?

  • Keep it short, generally between 100-150 characters.
  • Write in third person, present tense (generally, however, exceptions may apply).
  • Be true to your genre and use words that cater to your audience. ie: If you are writing a romance, your blurb shouldn’t make it sound like a thriller.
  • Your first sentence has to hook the reader, most easily done by getting them interested in the character or intrigued by the setting.
  • Once the attention has been gained, it must be maintained. One easy way to do this is by following the basic formula below:

Basic Formula

Introduce:

A. the main character (generally including one defining feature).

Here are some examples randomly selected from my book case.

  • Nine-year old Bruno has a lot of things on his mind.
  • When the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice…
  • Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper has a fervent love of stories…

OR: the setting

  • London is on the move again.
  • Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.
  • In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive…

With the character, you are seeking a way to connect with the reader, establishing the main protagonist as someone they wish to learn more about, and with the setting you are establishing a mystery: ie: is London literally moving? (yes, yes it is). You are endeavouring to engage with the reader and hook them in.

Tip: When trying to decide whether to focus on character or setting, ask yourself: which is more interesting? If unsure, write both and ask your friends/writing buddies/random strangers which they prefer.

Follow up with:

B. The problem

What goes wrong?

Tip: This is likely to be connected to the inciting incident of your story: it is the situation that takes your character from their previously predictable and reliable life and plunges them into the plot.

  • Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.

And connect this with your protagonist and the actions he (or she) will have to take:

  • Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land?

You must end with mystery – don’t spoil the end!

Tip: Although many blurbs do end with a question, if the answer is simply “yes” then your blurb may have more power if, instead, the reader is made aware of the cost to the protagonist should they fail, or the price they will have to pay to succeed.

C. The Mood

Finally, many blurbs choose to conclude with a final paragraph conveying the Mood and indicating the intended genre or audience. Here, if you have not previously, the setting can be mentioned.

  • Set in a modern-day London controlled by magicians, this hilarious, electrifying thriller will enthral readers of all ages.

Tip: Whilst it may seem logical (and is perfectly permissible) to start with the mood, you do run the risk of the reader going “oh, it’s a thriller, I don’t read thrillers” and proceed no further. Also, some readers may read the first sentence and the final paragraph before determining whether to read the middle.

What about Non-fiction?

Non-fiction blurbs are very diverse, depending on the genre.

  • Memoirs and biographies can be written in much the same way as fiction blurbs.
  • Manuals or guides for specialised topics can begin with:
    • the author and their credentials (third person, present tense).
    • with a series of questions (second person).
    • by informing you (the reader) why you might like this book (second person).

Important things to note about writing non-fiction blurbs:

  • Reach out to your intended audience and make your premise clear.
  • Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (list credentials/give an example).
  • Include testimonials if you have them. Of not, it won’t hurt to get some!

Tip: If you can make an outrageous, but substantiated claim, then that is a great way to attract the reader’s attention. However, never lie or mislead your reader!

I intend to publish traditionally;  do I still need a blurb?

Whilst it is true that, if traditionally published through a reputable publishing house, it is unlikely you will be writing your own blurb, first you have to get that publishing contract! Therefore, you still need a brief and enticing advertisement for your book.

Tip: Read a lot of blurbs before writing your own! Pick some randomly from your bookshelf or the library (or browse Amazon) and look at the structure. Try to determine what makes you pick them up or put them back. Specifically target books written in the same genre as yours: what do they have in common with each other, what are the differences? Are some more compelling than others?

Also, TEST your blurb, write several attempts, share them on a writers’ forum or with your friends, get feedback and make alterations accordingly.

Favourite first (or last) sentence in a blurb?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
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