Category Archives: BUILDING STORY

NEW SERIES: BUILDING BOOKS

This year I set a goal for myself to publish four teaching series on my blog to share knowledge with other authors and writers at all levels. The first was BUILDING STORY which ran every Saturday from January 1 to March 20.

You can find all those posts neatly linked together here. I also published these posts as a book with a lot of extra material I couldn’t fit in the 12 week format. The ebook is $2.99 to celebrate the release, and will go to $4.99 on April 2. You can find BUILDING STORY on Amazon here.

Now that the first class and book series is done, time for a new series. Now that we’ve built a story, let’s build a book. I’ve been looking for free software that could give anyone the ability to publish their work as an eBook or paperback. Not only did the software have to be free, but it needed to be simple to use and able to turn out decent looking publications. I finally found that in Papyrus Author.

Special shout out to A. F. Stewart for telling me about it. I’ve known Stewart as a friend and fellow author for over a decade and have been a fan of both her poetry and prose since we met. You can find Stewart and her books (a good many published with Papyrus Author) at afstewart.ca.

In the past two days I’ve used Papyrus Author to design both an ebook (Building Story), and a paperback (Dancing in the Shadows: A Tribute to Anne Rice Edited by Elaine Pascale and Rebecca Rowland). I’m confident that Papyrus Author is the accessible program I’ve been looking for.

Interested in learning to publish a book from start to finish? Join me next week where we will be BUILDING BOOKS. The series will include both videos and text this time as I’ll be doing a lot of visual demonstration. The first book will be a poetry book to celebrate National Poetry Month, ORDEAL IN FRENCH LIPSTICK by Amy Zoellers. That will be followed with a fiction book by me. Both books will be built from start to finish using all free software and art. This is simple work anyone can master.

The free programs we will be using:

Want to see exactly what we will be doing? Here’s the syllabus we will be following:

April 2 To Publish a Chapbook: Layout
April 9 Adding Art
April 16 Creating the Cover
April 23 ISBNs, BISACs and Beyond
April 30 Publishing your Chapbook as an ebook
May 7 Publishing your Chapbook for Print
May 14 To Publish a Novel: Layout
May 2 Adding Art
May 28 Creating the Cover
June 4 ISBNs, BISACs and Beyond
June 11 Publishing your Novel as an ebook
June 18 Publishing your Novel for Print
June 25 Building Books: Principles of Publishing released

The first series was a really pleasant experience for me. I hope you enjoyed it as well. Now, lets do it again. See you next week!

MARKETING YOUR WORDS

What do you do after you finally tap out those final words? The first and most important thing to realize is this is a first draft, and it most likely needs some work. As you hold that ream of printed paper in your hands and reflect on all the hard work it took to produce, know that you have plenty more hard work ahead. But the hardest part is done and you are well on your way to fame and fortune, or at least some fun. Time to take a break. Rest and step back.

Evaluate. Did the story stay true to the genre? If the answer is yes, you are golden. If the answer is no, you have some choices to make. When I wrote Soft Deadlines (available on Kindle Vella) I added in a gruesome nightmare scene that involved a giant silver praying mantis eating the heroine’s head. The book is paranormal romance, so it shouldn’t get too graphic. A demon incubus is fine, but no eating of brains. I had three choices: take it out, change the genre or leave it in and get angry reviews. I chose to take it out. If I had quite a few scenes like that, I probably would have tweaked the genre listing. I never want to mislead my readers. That’s not fair to them.

As you read through your story, put on your editor’s hat. Now it’s time to get hard on yourself. Evaluate story line for passive voice, flat plot and opportunities to ramp up the pain. Do your protagonists change? Do they experience growth or do they devolve? It doesn’t matter how they end up as long as they experience change. No one wants to read a story about a protagonist that remains unaffected by anything that transpires. Shake up their world and have them walk away differently. If they don’t, you have some rewrites to do. Now is also when you want to go look at that cover copy and elevator pitch you wrote. How much has changed? Update it…

Take it to beta readers. Once you’ve done your polish, time to hit the pavement with it and recruit some beta readers. Here’s where you get to practice that elevator speech. Hit up every bookworm you know. Query with elevator pitch. If they are interested, give them a copy with a deadline for when you need comments back. My friend Austin Gragg, editor-in-chief for Space & Time magazine uses an easy and effective Google Docs system. He sends an email with a link to the chapter and a link to the Google Form. Readers don’t have to look for anything, just click, read, critique.

Once critiques start coming in, evaluate your beta reader’s notes. Put the ego in a drawer and pay attention to their feedback. You are not obligated to use it all, and some you really may not agree with. Consider it everything though. Discount nothing. If a reader didn’t understand something, don’t blame their lack of comprehension. Explain it better. Make structural edits as needed.

Now, it’s time for second edits. This will be your line edits. Line edits and structural edits are two completely different beasts and not all editors do both. When you are looking for a good editor, make sure you know what type of editing they are best with. At this point, your manuscript should be polished enough to just be a matter of looking for typos, grammar and issues that spellcheck missed. Beg, borrow, barter or pay for a proofreader or two to make sure the end product is as clean as possible.

Notice how I don’t use the word-perfect? Even high-end publications from top publishing houses miss some small things. Strive for perfection but don’t be crippled by it. Books are works of art, just like any other creation. Sometimes you can see the brushstrokes.

MANUSCRIPT READY? NOW WHAT?

By now, you truly hold something lovely in your hands. This is no longer a rough draft. This is a carefully crafted story, fine-tuned and polished. It’s time to decide what to do with it.

Traditionally publish The good thing about being traditionally published is you have professionals on your team. They will take your polished manuscript to their editors and proofreaders and find a few missed things. A professional formatter will lay it out on the page and someone else will create an ebook. An artist will design your cover art and possibly some interior art. A cover formatter will design the cover using that art. The publisher will take care of publication, including handling your BISAC, ISBNs and other pesky details. You sign your contract, sit back and relax.

But don’t relax too much. You will most likely still need to do all your own marketing. Publishers have many books to take care of. They want your books to sell, but they want everyone’s books to sell, and they will focus most of their resources on the books that bring them a return on their investment. If you are marketing your own books, you are helping them to help you.

The downside is you will also be sharing all your sales with the publisher and you will have very little say in many of the details.

Self-publish You might also choose to self-publish. In this case you have all the control and you get all the money. You also have to pay for all the proofreaders, layout, art, cover formatting and still do the same amount of marketing, but without the help of a publisher. If you can learn to do many of those tasks yourself, you can save a lot of cash, and make money providing these services to others.

Serial publish Relatively new on the publishing circuit are serial publishers like Kindle Vella, Radish, and Wattpad. You publish your book by chapter, and readers pay to read more. Usually the first three chapters are free to read and then readers purchase tokens to spend on more chapters. I’ve heard romance and paranormal romance do very well in this format. I wrote Soft Deadlines, a paranormal romance, just to try it. So far it’s doing well. I’ve received payments from it and as of this publication date I only have the first 10 chapters up. You can see that for yourself on Kindle Vella here.

Serial publishing itself isn’t a new concept. The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were weekly newspaper installments, and there’s a reason David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is so long. It was all created in serial installments from May 1849 to November 1850. The longer Dickens could keep the story going, the longer he made a paycheck. The prevalence of cell phones and reading apps has given this old trend new life. To publish with serial apps, you will really just need a simple cover image and your marketing. You’ll want to target your marketing toward the newer social medias like TikTok.

Visual Novels Very new on the scene are visual novels. Two popular ones are Arcane and Choices. A visual novel looks a lot like a game, but the reader has limited ability to choose the story direction. The choices may be to go through the left door or the right, but in the end the next step will carry to the predetermined next part of the story. To do this, you’ll need some basic technical knowledge, art and you will have to write your book in a different format. It’s doable, however, and turns it into a separate but related work the same as a screenplay can be based on a novel. This means, if. you go this route, your visual and traditional novels will be working together to cross market each other.

Audiobooks Books in audio format have been outselling regular print books for a while, and our busy lifestyles can be blamed for the boon. We commute, walk, work out, clean house… and listen to books. Producing an audiobook isn’t easy and it can be expensive. It’s not just an author reading their work into a recording app. Specialized equipment is involved, sound booths are necessary unless you live in a cave and it’s exhausting work. Once the reading part is done, you need to produce it.

Fortunately, you can go through a company like ACX (https://www.acx.com/) and have your audiobook distributed with Audible, Amazon and iTunes. ACX is an Amazon company. You can choose to pay a producer up front, produce it yourself or share royalties with an audio producer through ACX and reduce or even eliminate your out-of-pocket expenses.

I don’t see a lot of cons with producing an audiobook with ACX. With royalty share options you can have your audiobook professionally produced and sold in all the right channels. You’ll still have to market it yourself, but that’s no different from your other options.

Offer as promo Sometimes your best value isn’t in dollars. There’s a reason why Costco and Sam’s Club lose money on their gas and rotisserie chickens. It’s called a loss-leader, meaning you lose money on something to lead people into your place of business in hopes they will buy something else. You may come in for the chicken, but you will most likely pick up a few more things on your way out.

The same can be true for this novel you’ve just created. If you have a series, offer the first book free if people will sign up for your newsletter. Even if you offer it free with no strings attached, anyone who enjoys the story will most likely go purchase the rest of the books to continue. It also advertises you, builds your reputation and opens doors. You go from being another author hawking a book to someone giving a gift. Best part, ebooks cost you nothing to give away. Whether you distribute 100 or 100,000 it costs nothing. You are definitely on the receiving end, though. Advertising costs you. Free gifts don’t.

You will still have to do all the work of publishing with editors, proofreaders, layout, art, cover formatting and marketing, but your rewards will return to you in exposure. Just make sure your gift is worth giving. I don’t know how many times I’ve shared this and have an author respond with “I have the perfect thing: the first book I ever wrote but I never sold a copy. I’ll give that away.” No. Just no.

Whatever you are giving away should be your best work. The idea is to share your brilliance with the world. People won’t be fooled by poor work even if it is free. Unfortunately, it will still advertise you, just in the wrong way. You don’t want that. If you do use something you can’t sell as your giveaway, don’t be mad at me when it brings you no returns.

An example of a good free download is a book I wrote with Lee Murray called Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and other Self-editing Tips. It’s a book of our combined notes for a class we’ve for the Horror Writer Association’s Horror University. What started out as a handout grew to be a 50,000 word instruction manual for how to surf the slush piles and boost your chances to get published.

Every time we teach a class, we give that book away for free as a PDF. In the first year I imagine we distributed hundreds of copies. Despite giving it away, we frequently wind up with sales from people who prefer a paperback copy. It boosts our professional reputations and it helps people get to know and find us. The best part? It’s actually a very useful book full of clear information and includes insight from dozens of other publishers and editors in our field. It’s a win-win for everyone.

This concludes the end of my 12 week series on BUILDING STORY. All these posts are available in a polished format in the ebook available here for $2.99 to celebrate the release. That price will be good until until April 2 when it will go to $4.99.

The ebook contains extra chapters. Here’s the complete Table of Contents:

WHY DO YOU WRITE?
YOU ARE THE SECRET PLOT TWIST
WHO WANTS TO BE READ FOREVER?
THE WHAT & WHO: GENRE & READER
OF JACKET COPY & ELEVATOR PITCHES
HURTING HEROES, HAPPY READERS
OUTLINE 101: OF PANTSERS & PLOTTERS
ADVANCED OUTLINES: LAYERING FOR DEPTH
NEVER SHUN THE SHUNN
BROKEN FIRST LINES MAKE GOOD HOOKS
STICK YOUR ENDING, STICK YOUR READERS
MARKETING YOUR WORDS
*THE POWER OF THE PRESS RELEASE
*TAMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
*SUPERNATURAL PRODUCTIVITY WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL
*BINAURAL BEATS FOR UNBEATABLE FOCUS
*WRAPPING UP: MY TOP 5 TIPS FOR BUILDING STORY

*Bonus Content

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free or
in an ebook (with extra material) available on Amazon.
Thank you for being here. 😊

STICK YOUR ENDING, STICK YOUR READERS

As tricky as it is to begin a story, it’s just as tricky to end it. Failure to stick your landing can lose your reader forever. They have gifted you with their time and attention. These are things they can’t ever get back, and they chose to invest them with you. Don’t pay them back with a shoddy ending. I speak from personal experience. 

Years ago I wanted to have an excuse to be friends with another author I knew, so I read their book. I wanted it to be well done so I could gush over their work, and I wasn’t disappointed. I loved everything about it and was caught up until the very last page… but it shouldn’t have been the last page. The story wasn’t over. Mid-action, no resolve, not even something ambiguous to ponder later—done. The lead protagonist was basically in mid-stride, fleeing for her life and then it was all over. I was so confused I thought my book was missing pages so I checked the table of contents. It was all there, but I no longer was. I was so disappointed I never read another book by that author, even after we did become friends. 

How many other readers had the same reaction when they hit that unfinished ending? That author still struggles to get their books out there, and they have a lot of talent. They just can’t stick their endings, and because of that, they can’t stick their readers either.

Google how to end a story and you will find pages and pages of advice. How many ways are there to end a book? The list ranges anywhere from 4-6 ways. Why is it so difficult to pin down an exact number? Because stories aren’t manufactured, factory-style. I’m not going to claim I have a definitive list because I don’t think there are a finite number of ways to end a book. They are crafted, every one. Even stories created by AI are unique and surprising. 

For instance, what if you have a classic hero’s journey storyline. In the end, the hero has returned home, but so changed by his adventure he is no longer the same individual. Nice and resolved with all loose ends tied into a tidy bow. But you’d like to show the reader a glimpse into his future, so now it’s resolved but also expanded with an epilogue. Maybe the reader is a little too comfortable, so you decide to give a whisper of threat in that ending. The villain has been defeated… or has he? Now it’s unresolved. 

If you haven’t read the Lord of the Rings books, spoiler alert. At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are saved from the brink of death on the slopes of Mount Doom after a tearful farewell (unexpected). They are welcomed as heroes in Gondor and attend a grand wedding (resolved). Eventually they leave the party and take the meandering route home (not an epilogue, but expanded) only to find The Shire has been ruined by vengeful deeds. The hero hobbits once again save the day, but not for poor Frodo. Haunted by all the horror he has witnessed, he can’t take part in the peace he has earned. Sad, but resolved… for a few years. Then Frodo hops ship with the elves to the Undying Lands to vanish on the horizon (ambiguous). So what kind of ending did Tolkien use? His own, a blend of many, and it works.

My point is, don’t feel locked into an ending type. Listen to your story and let the ending (and the word count) be exactly what it needs to be. The story knows, and if you listen it will tell you. If you do feel stuck, here is a brief overview of some types of endings, but by all means not all. Your finale does depend on one thing, however: the end justifies the preceding events. It closes the story with relevance and adds meaning. 

There are four primary ways to accomplish this:

The hero wins his goal (happy ending).
The hero loses his goal (unhappy ending).
The hero wins his goal but loses something of great value. (tragic ending)
The hero could win, but sacrifices his goal for a greater good. (inspirational ending)

These, and endless variations of these plot pillars become endings:

  1. Resolved ending: no loose ends.
  2. Unresolved ending: cliffhanger, good for series.
  3. Expanded ending: as in an epilogue.
  4. Unexpected ending: a surprise twist or reveal.
  5. Ambiguous ending: open to interpretation. 
  6. Circular ending: ends where the story began.

Despite there being no finish to the infinite variations of potential endings, being familiar with the basics can help your story structure from the first page. Whether the story keeps winding on or feels abrupt, you can try on different finishes and see what feels right. There could be an issue at play in the plot you, as the writer, were unaware of. Sometimes characters can shift in their ethical alignments without the writer being aware. Lawful good slides into chaotic good with just a few sarcastic remarks. That would be enough to invalidate a classic hero’s journey finale and make it hard to close. However your story ends, ultimately it has to feel right to you. Certainly ask your beta readers how it sits with them, but remember whose story this is and stay true to it.

You are the magician creating an incredible illusion. To let the ending flop is like promising doves and then pulling old feathers out of your sleeve. Unless you are a comedy act, you audience won’t appreciate it, or be likely to return.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Grab some books off your shelf and read the endings with this list beside you. Try to pick out the different elements, or combination of, that lead a story to its finish. Then think of alternative endings and experiment with how that affects the entire piece. The ending may seem like nothing more than a last page to turn, but it’s one of the most important parts of your story.

BROKEN FIRST LINES MAKE GOOD HOOKS

In fiction, a first sentence should entangle the reader in lies without misleading.

Hopefully, my first sentence to this post did exactly that—entangle you. If I did my job right, you want to know what I meant and where this is going. Your brain is pondering how being caught in a web of lies can be anything but misleading. 

What sticks with your more… that perfect date or the beautiful disaster? Same thing with the first line, your book’s pick up line. Perfect is nice, but something broken we remember.

That first sentence can be the hardest of the whole book. There is a lot of pressure on those initial words. They have to set a tone for the entire story. They should be memorable. Most important, your opening has to hook the reader with honest intent. Let’s break this down.

SETTING A TONE

From my first sentence, you could expect this post to be concise and to the point. I cut out a lot of words I could have used. Instead of using the tired out “web of lies,” I implied this with the verb entangled. You might expect it to be informational, surprising and maybe even a little poetic. I could have easily just said The first sentence of your story should hook your reader while setting the tone, but I like to play with words and I hope you, as my reader, do as well.

My intent was to project that this is going to be a surprising, intelligent piece that will give you something to think about. Let’s see if I can follow through.

STRIVE FOR IMPERFECTION

While my first line can’t possibly compete with the greats like Tolkien, Dickens and Orwell, hopefully by next week you will still remember the gist of it if it came up in conversation. What makes a first line memorable? The best first lines have something that doesn’t belong. It’s human nature to seek perfection, but perfection dams us to mediocrity. 

Think about these memorable first lines:

“I am an invisible man”
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison  (1952)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

‘Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure’
The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’
1984 by George Orwell (1949)

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

In each of these iconic first lines, something doesn’t fit. A man can’t be invisible, times can’t be best and worst, you must know when your mother died, clocks don’t strike thirteen… but it’s exactly this inconsistency, the wrongness, that hooks the brain and holds it captive. As writers, that is our goal.

To create your own memorable first lines, just write the perfect line, and then break it. If your book starts with a thirsty character in a desert you could begin with Bob is thirsty. Or, Bob was tired of drinking sand. As a reader, the first line might remind me that I’m also thirsty and I put the book down. The second, broken line has me appalled. What? People don’t drink sand. What is this writer on about? I continue reading. This is exactly what I did at the beginning of my 2018 novella, Bitter Suites:

“It was my 18th birthday, and I was finally going to die in a safe, monitored environment.”

I don’t have to break down all the things that don’t belong in that sentence, but it worked. Bitter Suites was my first Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. 

LIE WITHOUT MISLEADING

If your story is fiction, you are lying. Fiction is make believe, fantasy, speculative… it’s not real. It’s all a lie built of many truths… but if you mislead your reader you will lose their trust and attention.

Even though a fiction writer is technically telling something not true, that first sentence still has to give the reader a promise of what’s to come. How disappointing would it be to read George Orwell’s creepy line about clocks striking thirteen, only to have it turn out to be a sweet romance? Close the book. What if Albert Camus caught your attention with his ambiguous statement of maternal death only to follow up with jokes? Close the book. Of Dickens following the best and worst of times with a happy story about a little girl that lives on the prairie? Close. The. Book.

That would be misleading, and your reader will not only close the book, but they might never pick up another one of yours. 

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Look up first lines that have stuck with you and see if they are somehow broken. Pick up random books and see how those lines sit with you. Would you remember this in a week? Would you tell a friend about it? How do the lines make you feel… like reading on or making a sandwich? Then write down some of your own lines and play. 

Finally, do you have any first lines that have stuck in your own head? I’d love to hear them.


This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free or
in an ebook (with extra material) available on Amazon.
Thank you for being here. 😊

OF JACKET COPY & ELEVATOR PITCHES

You might be wondering why you would write jacket copy and your elevator pitch when your story isn’t written yet? This is valid. It may seem early in the game, but doing this helps you be ahead of the game from the start. The jacket copy is more than a mini-plot on the back of your dust jacket. It’s also a handy but often overlooked developmental tool. When written first, this small block of text can show you where your story falls flat. It’s also just nice to have it done. I find it harder to do after the story is done because, by then, I’m over it.

Having the jacket copy written helps you define the focus of your story. It helps you see where your story may have plot holes or overused tropes. When you have to distill your entire story arc into a few paragraphs, there’s an extra layer of focus during the creativity process to help an author stay on track. Just remember, once written, nothing is set in stone. Feel free to tweak, add and delete parts of the story that aren’t working. As a side benefit, this also sets you up for success in case you get an opportunity to talk to an agent or editor about your book—and that can happen when you least expect it.

This is another good reason to have your elevator pitch nailed down early. Every reader and potential reader is important, and during the writing process there are plenty of opportunities to convert casual conversations into future fans… if you are prepared.

When I first started my career as a fiction author, I was unprepared. Someone would ask me what I do and I would mention that I write, usually while trying to shrink into my clothes and be invisible. If I could vanish I’d have extra time to think of words as my inner imposter screamed at me. If the someone persisted and asked me what I wrote I always had a terrible answer: 

Potential reader: Oh, you are a writer? How exciting! What do you write?

Me: Oh, just some story about a girl who ran into the devil, but she didn’t really have any faith so I kind of just wanted to see what happens. You know, it’s fun. It passes the time. 

Awkward pause 

Me: I’m just playing with fiction. It’s not very good. There are worse things I can be doing, right? I’ll give you a free copy if you want… 

Said person walks away as they make a mental note to never mention writing to me again.

By the time I was working on Bitter Suites I was better prepared. Someone would ask me what I was working on and I would answer this, my practiced elevator pitch:

This novella takes place in a hotel that specializes in recreational suicide, but not in a negative way. The question I wanted to answer was what if advanced technology could give us the ability to make it a return trip after death? Maybe we could get the urge to self-harm out of our system. If we could prove to ourselves how devastating the act is and how it changes nothing, I’d hope we could move forward to a healthier place. So that’s why I’m writing this book. The Bitter Suites is the hotel where I hope people can explore their self destructive impulses in a safe place—fiction. 

I never had a person walk away from that elevator pitch. That novella went on to be the only self-published novel on the Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist ballot and had an incredible agent and two well established, award winning publishers interested in the second book in the series, Suite & Sour

Feel free to ask me to ask me anytime why I didn’t land that awesome agent and publishing deal. That needs to be a chapter all on its own in a different book, but the short answer is I became convinced I would die in the pandemic and panic-published towards the end of 2020. Lesson learned. That went on my list of things not to do.. 

But back to being prepared and polished. I hope I’ve made a good case for why you should write your jacket copy and elevator pitch before you write your book. Even if you are just doing a short story, an elevator pitch is good to have ready. Potential readers are everywhere. They can be disguised as neighbors, cashiers or the person next to you on the bus. Get other people excited about your story and you will have a line of readers waiting.

Ultimately you, as the author, are the product you are trying to promote. As the Golden Goose, you have many stories to tell in a lifetime. Don’t turn off future readers by stuttering lukewarm nonsense when they ask what your story is about. I’ve been there, done that and I don’t recommend it.

Now that you know why to write jacket copy and an elevator pitch before you write your story, here’s how. For such short pieces of wordage, we writers have all sorts of anxiety when creating them. There are thousands of blog posts, videos, essays and forums to tell you the nuts and bolts of creating these, but they primarily say the same thing.

Jacket Copy: No more than 200 words, max. This is the text that goes on the back of your book and most likely will be used as the book description online. It should cover the exciting points of your story without giving away spoilers. Short, the entire point of this small block of text is to excite, so don’t bother describing a heroine’s brilliant blue eyes and lustrous locks unless they have something to do with the story. You will often see jacket copy end with a cliffhanger question. There’s a reason for that. It’s a call to action that directs the reader to explore more. Will our heroine make it through the zombie apocalypse to find undead true love on the other side? Invite the reader to find out.

Elevator Pitch: Short and concise is key here. The elevator pitch got its name from being about the length of an elevator ride with a captive agent or editor. Narrow your pitch down to the things that strike a nerve. This is bait on the end of a hook. The fish doesn’t ask the worm for a resume. It just wants to know if he’s tasty. Same thing with your pitch. This is the hook you drop when someone asks you in the coffee line what you are working on. This is more than just reciting what your story is about. In that case, my Bitter Suites pitch would have been:

My story is about a recreational suicide hotel run by a woman named Azrael. Her guests can choose what kind of death they want from a variety of package deals. While the hotel guests change from chapter to chapter, there is a central, unnamed character that continues on in a connected narrative that demonstrates how addictive behavior can destroy self esteem and ruin our lives. The purpose of the story is to allow people entertaining the idea of self harm to safely roleplay what the real consequences are in hopes it may prompt them to reconsider. This is a story meant to take the glamor away from death.

That’s what the story is about, essentially, but I don’t think the guy in line with me will be caught by that. He needs to know the mic drop details: recreational suicide. Those two things don’t go together. The two contrast, negative and positive. Curiosity engaged. Potential reader hooked.

While there is a certain amount of value in shock, use it sparingly. Don’t come in so edgy you have your listener backing away and looking for the nearest exit. This is why I would quickly add “but not in a negative way.” The listener is engaged because they want to find out what could possibly be positive about something so horrible. So I tell them, only with fictional technology is this currently possible and I emphasize (because it is a dangerous topic) that the hope with this story is that it will be a therapeutic exploration, not a glorification. It’s important to be honest in your pitch as well. If someone is looking for a book that romanticizes self harm, they won’t like the book I wrote. It also doesn’t hurt to add any positive mentions you’ve gotten from other authors. Please never say your friends or mother liked it, even if they do. 

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Write the jacket copy and share with anyone that will read it and note their reactions. Were they interested, confused or bored? You don’t want that friend that will tell you this is the best sounding book they’ve ever heard of. You want someone that will give you honest, constructive feedback. If you receive comments suggesting they’ve already heard stories like this, you might need to tweak your ideas to be more original and engaging. This is easy right now, before you’ve written a word. The jacket copy is like the address of your story. It informs the reader where this story lives, and in what part of town. It invites them to visit.

With your elevator pitch, practice this until you can say it naturally and out of order if needed. It should sound spontaneous, like you just thought of it. The idea isn’t to repeat the 30 seconds verbatim. It’s to generate interest. Make it a game with your friends to repeat your pitch often and in answer to unrelated questions. Say it in the mirror, record yourself and then start practicing on strangers any chance you get. It’s better to freeze up with the lady next to you on the bus than a potential publisher. If the jacket copy is the address, the elevator pitch is the key that unlocks the door for the reader. Not only do you need to have it ready, you need to know how to make it click.

This is part of my free series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

WHAT & WHO: GENRE & READER

This is one of those topics that suffers from the Popular Girl Paradox—no one asks her to the party because everyone assumes she’s been asked to the party. I see a lot of questions concerning reader preferences, genre and what defines genre which reminds me it wasn’t that long ago I was asking these questions myself.

The first time someone referred to me as a “speculative author” I had to go look the term up, and even then I had questions. Did they mean I wasn’t a real writer because I was speculative, or did that mean I was a risky investment? That led me down the rabbit hole of genre and I think at one point my “genre” had turned into something like “paranormal conflict relationship with supernatural and vampiric involvement.” Wait… was this a genre or a terrible blurb?

It’s as important to understand the what we write—the genre—as it is to understand the why we covered in WHY DO YOU WRITE? Equally important is the who are we writing for—the reader. It all seems pretty simple once understood, but until then we spend a lot of time pushing the wrong pages under the wrong noses.

An important thing to know and remember about genre is excellent writing doesn’t trump reader preference. A personal example: I don’t care for romance. I’ve been married twice but I’ve never owned a wedding dress. I’m happily married but we don’t do anything for Valentine’s Day. I’m happy. In my reading, I want to explore what I don’t know. What is the monster, how does it operate, what motivates it? This has me turning pages. Will this couple hook up and find true love? Sorry, did you say something? My attention was elsewhere.

Because of this, the best written romance book in the world will probably not lure me in. Trying to convince me to read a romance novel is like telling a vegan they will enjoy meat if they can just be open to the experience. You know that old joke about the guy trying to convince a lesbian she just hasn’t had the right man? Trying to foist your book on someone who doesn’t read your genre is almost as cringeworthy.

We are who we are and, after our adolescent years, we know what we want. It’s not a judgment on a genre when someone doesn’t prefer it. It’s not a judgment on you as a writer when someone doesn’t appreciate your genre. It’s not personal, it’s a personal preference.

Step one to planning your story, before you start in your outline, is to know what you’re writing, the genre, and for who, the reader. If you are writing something in the romance genre, you might lose your reader when your protagonist turns out to have the rotting corpse of her ex lover in the basement… but if you are writing horror you will lose your reader by not having that well spoiled relationship hidden in the crawl space.

In conjunction with knowing your genre, it’s just as important to know your reader. I found this out the hard way when I worked as a librarian. A teenager asked me for a horror book, something that would really terrify him—his own words. I gave him Clive Barker. He never talked to me again, turned the book in half read and mentioned to a few of the other librarians I shouldn’t be making book recommendations. I could argue that he asked for something to terrify him, but that can mean something very different to a preschooler, adult or high schooler. I should have asked more questions and really gotten to know the reader before I just gave him a nightmare inducing book.

When you start trying to define genre, it can get tricky. I’ve seen people claim there are anywhere from 5 to 14 main genre categories with a plethora of subcategories and they tend to go all over. Here’s a pretty common organizational list of some the main genres:

  • Fiction, which includes:
    • Speculative—Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy
    • Literary
    • Romance/Chick Lit
    • Western
    • Historical
    • Mystery
    • Thriller
  • Nonfiction, which includes:
    • Biography/Autobiography/Memoir
    • Review
    • Teaching/How To
    • Philosophy/Religion
    • Self Help
    • Journal
    • Guide
  • Poetry, which includes:
    • Speculative—Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy
    • Epic
    • Satirical
    • Political/Revolutionary
    • Narrative
    • Prose
    • Lyrical

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Think about the story you want to write* and define the genre as closely as you can. If you think you are writing a horror book but there is a prominent relationship aspect, you might be creating a paranormal romance. Horror fans will be disappointed, and paranormal fans won’t pick up your book because it looks horror. Be honest with yourself and your work. No genre is better than the other, so there is no reason to force yourself in one or the other.

After you have your genre nailed down and have familiarized yourself with the parameters, think of the reader you are writing for. There is a helpful practice in marketing where a product team will make up a hypothetical customer. They list the attributes, education levels and even come up with a name to encapsulate who that individual represents.

It’s not a bad idea to do that for your readers until you establish your audience in your mind. If you are writing for young horror readers, you might gloss over some of the gore. If you are writing for older horror readers, the gore will be your gloss. Next week I’ll get into elevator pitches and jacket copy, and the benefits to having these written before you start your book.

*in the ebook, this chapter will be before writing outlines.

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

NEVER SHUN THE SHUNN

Welcome to the best kept secret all the editors want you to know: formatting. Simply knowing how to format your work dramatically increases your story’s chance of making it out of the slush pile and onto the shelf. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any editor or publisher—a main reason stories get rejected is because they are improperly formatted.

A well formatted story uses Shunn, unless the editor specifies otherwise. The good news is not only is Shunn formatting free, but you can save a formatted template in your word processing program and always have submission ready work as soon as you hit THE END (after you go back to spell check and edit, of course). First, find a free Shunn formatting template online here: shunn.net/format/classic.

When I was first scolded for submitting an improperly formatted manuscript, I thought the editor was being an anal retentive jerk on a power trip. Who cares about this formatting stuff, I thought. Words is words, man. If it’s readable, it should be good enough. 

A few years later when I became a fiction editor myself I learned just how important proper formatting is. To illustrate, let me tell you a small horror story to highlight the importance of why you must never shun the Shunn (unless the submissions editor tells you to).

HOW I BECAME AN ANAL RETENTIVE EDITOR

I was in the final selection stage for Space & Time magazine and we had just started using a submissions grinder (Duotrope). Because I was unfamiliar with the system, I didn’t realize I could ask for emails to be included with submissions. I also didn’t realize I had no way of contacting the submitter after I hit accept or deny. And I was tired. The First Readers and Gerard Hourner, our Fictions Editor, had already done most of the work, combing through somewhere around 200 short stories. I only had about 20 to read, but I was still tired.

I found one I really liked—we will call the author Bob Smith—and sent him the automatic acceptance letter. This is where it gets horrible. I hadn’t paid attention to his formatting. My thoughts at the time were if I can read it, good enough for me to consider. I wasn’t going to be one of those stick-in-the-mud editors. Spoiler: I am now. I copied up the acceptance email with a list of what I needed and realized… I didn’t know where to send his email. He had no contact information on his document. Duotrope didn’t have a way for me to contact him either, at least not that I could figure out.

No worries, I thought. I’ll look on Facebook. This probably would have worked, except that he was a very new author and there were a lot of Bob Smiths. I started sending messages. I tried all the socials and found a lot of Bob Smiths, but none were the one I was looking for. In the meantime, I was making friends. One Bob Smith tried to sell me a gym membership in Australia. Another tried to sell me insurance. There were quite a few that were also authors, but not the one I was looking for. I answered questions about our magazine and writing in general but didn’t find the right Bob Smith. If I hadn’t already sent him an automatic acceptance letter, I would have tossed his story in the bin and selected someone else even though I liked it.

I think it took me about two weeks to find the right author. In the process I spent a lot of time and stress searching. This was time I needed to spend on other magazine duties and my own writing. The ending turned out fine and Bob Smith and I both learned some valuable things. He received a lecture on Shunn formatting and I learned why it was so important.

THE MORE YOU KNOW

“No one knows how many good stories are passed over because the manuscripts containing them are poorly formatted,” writes William Shunn. “We can be certain, however, that editors will more eagerly read a cleanly formatted manuscript than a cluttered and clumsy one.”

Thousands of manuscripts are rejected everyday because they lack formatting, but it’s one of the easiest and best things to do to boost your chances. Sadly, many of the rejected stories are probably excellent and worthy of publishing—they just lacked the formatting. At the end of this post I have an example screenshot of what I use myself with my actual contact information, which is public. You are absolutely invited to send me an email or a snail mail letter to let me know what you think of this book, if it’s helped you at all or ask questions.

If I were asked what is the number one, best way an author can boost their chances of getting published my answer would be to properly format your work. An experienced editor can see at a glance who is new, and possibly going to be a lot of extra work. On the other hand, a well formatted document is a joy and an editor will pull it out of the slush on that merit alone and give it a closer read. 

A HAPPY EDIT ENDING STORY

I can’t share the potential sad story of Bob Smith without sharing a positive example to support my soapbox platform. A few issues after the Bob Smith incident I got another submission from a Leonard Spieser. This was a properly formatted manuscript down to the Times New Roman 12 point font. I read it, loved it. Not only was the formatting done right but so was the story. Plenty of interior and exterior conflict, believable dialogue and it was a highly innovative perspective that handled some delicate social justice issues without fanning any unnecessary flames. Then I found out this was Speiser’s first fiction story. I was so impressed, I interviewed him as a success story and brought him on as a columnist. The story is well worth checking out: “interference” by Leonard Speiser in Space & Time, Issue #139–Winter 2020.

It’s your choice whether you want to impress the editors or annoy them, but I strongly suggest you go for the first option. Editors are people. While they are reading your work they have dishes stacking up, kids yelling in the next room and their own deadlines. They are often doing this to help other writers, which means they are probably doing it for free. The easier you can make things for them, the more they will appreciate you. As an author hoping to sell your story, that is a good place to be.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

If you haven’t already, go to shunn.net/format/classic. Open your word processing software and create a blank page. Copy and paste the Shunn example just past the first few lines and paste it in your blank document. Personalize it with your own information. Now save it with a name you will remember. Mine has “template” in the file name so I can just use my search bar to find it. Whenever I start a new story, the first thing I do is copy and paste my Shunn template text into a new document. I update the title if I know it and I start typing. Begin your own Shunn template now and don’t be a Bob Smith. 

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

ADVANCED OUTLINES: LAYERING FOR DEPTH

So now you have a basic story outline. A protagonist gets from Point A to Point B and some things happen in between. At this point, I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. Her book reveals the cognitive secrets of what hooks us into any given story. I’m going to cover some of the basics that I’ve built into my personal methodology but Lisa Cron’s book is a brilliant study of how the human brain works and how it reacts to elements of story—and why.

But right now, a demonstration of how layering around your basic outline creates depth without pulling your hair out. I’m going to use a minimal outline as an example: Poor Boy meets Rich Girl. Poor Boy must defeat insurmountable odds to date Rich Girl. Poor Boy changes his fate and dates Rich Girl.

  1. Poor Boy meets Rich Girl.
  2. Poor Boy must defeat insurmountable odds to win Rich Girl.
  3. Poor Boy changes his fate and dates Rich Girl. 

This is a very basic plot that’s been played out a million times. Because it’s so basic, it’s easy to customize. Writers take this simple plot and add layers and depth to it. If they do that well, the story line stands alone, individual and intoxicating. Examples of stories like this are A Knight’s Tale, The Princess Bride, Dirty Dancing, Grease and Aladdin. I used movies so you can quickly go watch these to break out the different story elements that keep you hooked. Would you say any of these movies are like each other other than being about a poor boy falling in love above his station? I wouldn’t.

STICK THE PROTAGONIST, HOOK THE READER

Onions have layers.

Now to add the layering. To hook readers, every story must elicit emotion, follow cause and effect, and have difficult trials to overcome. The reader must be able to have empathy with the protagonist so they care about the consequences. Bad things must happen to your protagonist repeatedly. Let them get out of their frying pans by jumping into their fires. And then have hot oil splat on them followed by the cat catching them, a good mauling and then the ultimate indignity of being spat out, half-digested in a hairball. 

That’s all external conflict, but a story must elicit emotion as well. If the reader isn’t caring, they aren’t sharing in the experience and will lose interest. A good way to get emotional attachment is with internal conflict. If a man jumps out of a moving car to escape a serial killer it’s interesting. If a man jumps out of a moving car to escape a serial killer in spite of his clinical road rash phobia, the reader forms an emotional bond. I mean, it’s logical. Who isn’t a little afraid of road rash?

Going back to the protagonist in the pan, if they have a phobia of fire, it would be almost impossible to get them to jump out of that pan. Imagine the agony of fear and sizzling feet. When they finally do jump, they make it just past the flames… only to be splashed in the hot oil. The reason they had a phobia of fires was because their poor mother was disfigured by a terrible cooking oil accident and your protagonist grew up affected by Mother’s shame of her appearance. We covered how important it is to hurt your protagonists physically and emotionally in HURTING HEROES, HAPPY READERS. That post tells you why you should hurt your heroes. Now we learn how to hurt our heroes. 

The point of this is to show how adding a little internal conflict (phobia of fire, childhood trauma) makes for a richer and more engaging plot. Back to our Poor Boy story. Let’s layer in some of the elements we just talked about.

  1. Poor Boy meets Rich Girl.
    1. Shame at his lack of means prompts him to fake his wealth.
  2. Poor Boy must defeat insurmountable odds to win Rich Girl.
    1. Needing money to afford the date, Poor Boy keeps a wallet he finds in the bathroom, despite being an honest guy.
  3. Poor Boy changes his fate and dates Rich Girl.
    1. Poor Boy takes Rich Girl on a nice date.

Better, but now let’s add in some more pain and conflict.

  1. Poor Boy meets Rich Girl.
    1. Shame at his lack of means prompts him to fake his wealth.
    2. His gross bravado makes Rich Girl think he’s a jerk. She agrees to go out with him with the intention of humiliating him.
  2. Poor Boy must defeat insurmountable odds to win Rich Girl.
    1. Needing money to afford the date, Poor Boy keeps a wallet he finds in the bathroom despite being an honest guy.
    2. As he’s flashing his ill gotten cash he runs into his poor friend, a waiter, who asked for a loan earlier but Poor Boy said he had nothing to give him.
  3. Poor Boy changes his fate and dates Rich Girl.
    1. Poor Boy takes Rich Girl on a nice date.
    2. Date is tainted when the angry friend/waiter points out what a jerk and a liar Rich Boy is to his date.
Cakes have layers.

You can see where this is going, and it’s nowhere good for Poor Boy until he winds up as a hero, performing an ultimate act of selflessness in the face of abject loss… and the tables get turned. I can see all sorts of room for more conflict and inner turmoil. What if Poor Boy had just written an essay on honesty to try for a scholarship? To appease the angry waiter friend, he tries to give him some cash but Rich Girl recognizes her dad’s wallet. Poor Boy goes to jail. When the dad comes to pick up his wallet and confront the thief (who could have been a hero had he chosen the honest path) Poor Boy realizes the man is on the scholarship committee. All is lost: no girl, no friend, no scholarship. Every time he jumps out of the pan, the flames get hotter.

Layering in the conflicts around a basic story makes for an effective, engaging plot that gives a reader an emotional bond with the protagonist and keeps them turning pages. It makes it easy to see where emotional conflict can be added in, where the story might be sagging and keep track of subplots.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Watch one of the movies I named earlier and see if you can pick out the layers of internal and external conflict, the cause and effect logic and how many times the protagonist jumps out of the pan only to get burned worse. Then go over the basic outline you created last week and start adding in those layers.

If your protagonist needs to get in a boat to escape something, create a solid reason they can’t do it without internal struggle—leaving loved ones behind, fear of water, a monster is hunting, distrust of shipmates, leaky boat, premonition of doom… theepossibilities are as wide as your imagination. Then rinse and repeat.

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

OUTLINE 101: OF PANTSERS & PLOTTERS

Which is better, pantsers or plotters? 

There’s arguments for both sides. Among famous and successful plotters we have John Grisham and R.L. Stein. On the pantser side we have the likes of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. Both sides have prominent champions and valid arguments

But this is me assuming that you are familiar with the writer terms pantser and plotter. If not, you aren’t alone. The first time I heard them I hit up Google.

Simply put, a plotter is someone that makes a detailed outline of their book before they write it. A pantser just runs with it by the seat of their pants, allowing their muse to guide them. So now that we are clear on what they are, let’s hear some arguments for both.

PANTSER VS PLOTTER

Representing Team Pro-Plotter

“The more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book.” —John Grisham

“If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline.” —R.L. Stein

You can’t argue with that logic, can you? And both writers have the track record to back them. But what about the other side of the coin?

Speaking for Team Pro-pantser

[A story begins with] “an image, scene, or voice…I couldn’t write the other way round with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.” —Margaret Atwood

“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” —Stephen King

Also good points. So which is better? Pantsing or plotting? The answer is… it depends. Whatever works for you on your current project. And yes, that does sound like a cop-out. 

The bottom line is writing is hard, and whatever gets the right words to the page is what you should do. Something important to realize is that nothing about writing (or creating in general) is static. What worked for you today may not work tomorrow. What worked for a short story may not work for a novel. 

The best answer I have is to allow yourself to be flexible. Don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t make an outline if it’s working for you. And if you start deviating from your outline, that’s okay too as long as it’s working. I can’t tell you what to do because I’m not you. I can only tell you what works for me. I’ve been both pantser and plotter and I tend to produce my best work with a hybrid approach of the two. 

FANCY PANTSING & PLOTTY HUMOR

My first book (End of Mae) was pure pantsing. I decided to write a fiction book and it began with me wondering what would happen if someone who didn’t believe in Satan actually met Satan? And with that, I started writing. It took me many years to write that novella. Halfway through I realized one of my subplots was boring so I chopped out a complete storyline. Three quarters of the way through I realized I had no idea what the point was anymore, and by the time I got to the end I was relieved.

The benefit was letting the characters have their own life. They constantly surprised me with their decisions during the creation. On the other hand, I wasted a lot of time writing useless sections only to delete them later. I could never make a living as a pure pantser because it just wasn’t efficient for me.

Flash forward to Suite & Sour, the follow up to Bitter Suites. I had a glorious outline. I wrote the book in two weeks. I also didn’t enjoy it as much. As Atwood put it, it did feel like painting-by-numbers. I was a director of someone else’s story. “In this scene, Azrael needs to discover the betrayal and shatter a bottle of absinthe so we can justify using the pun as the chapter title. Okay… action” It turned out fine, but the process wasn’t as enjoyable for me. If I don’t have fun then it means I’m actually working for a living. I’ve tried that and I don’t like it.

PLANNING PANTSERS—PLANTSERS?

Flash forward to now. What works well for me currently is a hybrid of pantser and plotter. Maybe I need to coin a new term: plantser? A planning pantser? This is what I use currently and I’m turning out my best work efficiently and with much joy. As a note, this is how I approach longer fiction. For nonfiction, I have a much stricter outline. For short fiction I have more of a Post-It note scribble thing.

So for longer fiction, the focus of this class: 

First I think of my general idea. I might need a story about a fictional war that makes a statement on current issues but without clubbing the reader to death with a soapbox. I start jotting ideas. Who is my protagonist. What do they need? Where is their pain? Where do I start with that pain? And then I start jotting down where the story starts. It’s full of misspellings, half-baked concepts and is a grammatical nightmare. After I get that first start down, I ask the magic question: and then?

This leads me down a chain of cause and effect. I don’t worry if it sounds cliche, trite, unbelievable… that will all be polished out in the final step which I’ll be covering next week. At this point, what I’ve written down sounds like a half dozen stories I could name.  Then I go back to the start and I rework it a second time. I make sure that if in my third chapter she needs a boat, then she needs to procure a boat in chapter one or two. I read this over a few times and looking at it from above I can see where a baby brother may need to be added in. Because I’m outlining, I can easily pop that baby brother in, or delete him. This is a lot easier than deleting 20k words when you realize the homeless woman’s subplot just isn’t working.

At this point, it’s still very rough, and very loose. Actually, who am I kidding? It will remain rough and loose. For me, it’s more of a guideline than an outline. I know the events I need to have so this story can progress in a somewhat linear fashion from Point A to Point B. As I write, I often deviate. I know my protagonist needs to make a friend that dies in the next chapter so the guilt can factor into her actions. In my guide/outline, that individual is attacked by a beast. As I actually write, that character is caught in the friendly fire. The result is the same, the journey isn’t.

I’m not trapped in my outline, but because I know where I’m going, I can get there fast, somewhat stress free and effectively. But this is not the end of outlining.

The second half of the outlining process I cover next week is where the scientifically proven magic goes in. Since I started going over my guide/outlines a third time with a different purpose, my story quality has shot way up. And when I say I’m going over this outline three times, it’s usually pretty quick. A half hour tops, just to get the guts pinned down so I know where to start adding flesh.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

It’s finally time to put pen to paper and fingers to the keyboard. This week, think of your story and the best approach for it—pantsing or plotting. While you may decide this process isn’t for you, try a rough guide/outline to help you define your direction. It’s not meant to be a brilliant best seller at this point. Just put down who you want to get where and do what when. Make sure you add plenty of typos.

Next week we will be using this same outline and turning it into something special.

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.

HURTING HEROES, HAPPY READERS

Poor Frodo suffered the most of any of the Fellowship. Not only did he endure physical pain like cold, hunger and giant Shelob bites but he suffered emotionally as well. He was a reluctant adventurer. He didn’t want to leave the Shire, but if he hadn’t there would be no story.

HARDWIRED FOR RUBBERNECKING

Lisa Cron talks about this in her excellent book, Wired for Story. Backed by neuroscience, Cron breaks down the elements of story that keep a reader glued to the page, and a major hook is a protagonist’s pain. “It lets us sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us,” she says.

The brain uses story as roleplay. More than entertainment, a story is tasked with creating what if scenarios, and the more difficult the better. Watching a heroine defeat a dragon gives clues on how to defeat a bully. If Frodo can take on Mount Doom, then surely Monday is survivable. Growing up, stories are passed on to us as cautionary tales. Don’t stray too far—there are monsters in the forest.

As a writer it can be tempting to pull our punches with our own protagonists. Often they are a facet of us, their creator. We know Frodo has to get to Mount Doom but did the orcs have to steal his clothes? Few things are worse than being on an arduous quest… nude. According to Lisa Cron, “A story is an escalating dare, and its goal is to make sure your protagonist is worthy of her goal.”

KICK THEM WHEN THEY’RE DOWN

In Stephen King’s Carrie, the titular character has the odds stacked miles high against her: religious zealot for a mother, poor, adolescent, homely, awkward. Just when you think it can’t get any worse for this poor kid, she has her first period in a public  high school shower. But wait, there’s more. Because her mother is a zealot, she hasn’t been educated about this feminine coming of age moment so she panics and begs her classmates for help only to be bombed with sanitary pads and derision.

Whether or not a reader has ever experienced menstruation, we all feel the pain of humiliation, terror and being unloved. It’s the vulnerability and suffering of Carrie that draws us to the story. We empathize, we care and we want her to find justice. If King had let up on the poor girl, her story wouldn’t be remembered now, nearly five decades later.

Pain doesn’t have to be physical to be effective. When I read about poor Frodo stripped naked in front of his captors, as a body-shy teenage girl I cringed. To me, that was the worst thing imaginable. You could have burned me alive but I would bet money my adolescent defiance would have won. Make me stand naked before my enemies, however, and I would’ve spilled the location of my secret base in exchange for a baggy sweater. Tolkein was relentless in ratcheting up the pain for Frodo, even to the last scene. Because of this, generations all over the world are still reading about Hobbits..

LAYER THE PAIN

When your characters figure their way out of one terrible situation, make it a doorway into the next. Take their suffering, salt it and then slap on another layer. Readers will devour the results. A good example of this is The Natural by Bernard Malamud. The story centers around a gifted baseball player named Roy Hobbs. His worst fear is realized when he loses his spot in the big leagues through no fault of his own. Physically attacked, he loses his ability to play the game he loves, and the only thing he’s really good at. But wait, there’s more!

Malamud knew that was a surface level tragedy. To really keep the reader hooked, he layered the suffering. Later in life the down-and-out ball player has a chance to play again but it’s tainted when he’s offered a huge amount of money to throw the game. Guilt, shame, derision, disappointment…Hobbs suffers. At the last moment he has a redemptive moment. Perhaps a happy ending? Nope. His attempt at redemption fails as well and he walks away a completely broken man. No career, no possibility to regain his honor and one last, fat failure… and readers have been turning those pages since 1952.

Think about this whenever your own characters face discomfort. How can you ratchet it up? If your hero has been stabbed, twist their ankle as they evade. If they are hungry, let them find a box of cookies that turns out to be empty when they open it. Better, let it be their favorite cookie that brings back memories of the one time they were happy. The empty box is a soul crushing moment. Knock them down so low they can’t possibly go on… but they do. 

That’s what makes them a hero… and worth reading repeatedly.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Next week we will be ready to outline a story using all the things we’ve learned up to now. Start thinking of the type of story you would like to write and how it affects your career (WHY WRITE?). If your goal is to make money, research what’s trending right now to boost your product salability. If it’s to inspire or teach, consider how you can add that content into this project. Then consider what parts of you would make this story unique? There’s nothing new under the sun, but only you can tell your story (YOU ARE THE SECRET PLOT TWIST). Finally, decide if there is a way to weave significance into your story. Is there a message you’d like to pass on to the world to make it better? How about a warning, a judgment? When you shine a light on what you think should be seen, sometimes it can shine a lasting light on your work (WHO WANTS TO BE READ FOREVER?)

This is part of my series on BUILDING STORY, available online for free here. The ebook is available on Amazon here. Thank you for being here.