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Posts from the ‘Craft’ Category

Be your own writing judge: Six tips to help you win contests and attract agents

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is see your own work objectively.

The past few weeks, I’ve been reading entries in a writing contest. It’s always a great learning experience to analyze other writers’ work, which is one reason I always recommend writers join critique groups.

It’s interesting to see how many issues are common among the manuscripts I read. See if these ideas and tips can help you judge your own work more objectively.

1. Create mystery. Every story should have questions that will spark readers to turn the page so they can find the answers. What does the protagonist desperately want? Make the stakes big so readers absolutely must keep reading to find out how on earth the protagonist will succeed. And while you’re at it, deprive readers of the answer as long as possible.

2. Create active protagonists. I frequently see protagonists who are living in their heads too much or being the victims of the action instead of the ones acting.

3. Don’t put too much backstory up front. You’ve probably heard this advice before, but it still remains one of the most common manuscript problems. Don’t risk rejection. Readers and agents want to see action and trouble from the beginning. They really will keep reading to find out more and will be happy if you weave the backstory in as you go.

4. Pace your story. Alternate dramatic scenes with calmer narrative to give the readers breathing space.

5. Create characters that readers can identify with. Not every character has to be a hit with readers but you don’t want readers to finish your book — or worse — stop part way through and say, “Actually, I don’t like any of these characters!”

6. Don’t overdo description. Description is an art. It’s an opportunity to be creative and use sensory images that put the reader in the grip of the story. But make sure you weave it in so that it doesn’t bog down your story.

Four techniques to take your story to the next level

At the core of any successful story is a great idea. So what makes a great idea? What triggers tension? What moves the plot forward in a satisfying way?

Here are four tips for finding ideas to push your writing forward:

Find a moment of truth. Maybe you have a character floating around in your head. There is a sudden realization that marks a turning point or major change. A pivotal moment where nothing will be the same again. Now, figure out what came before and what will happen after.

Create a shocking twist. You’re writing along, minding your business and suddenly your character up and does something shocking. It is unexpected. It is inevitable. It suddenly changes your story from good to great. If you’re in a stuck place, or just casting about for a story idea, ask “What if” to find your shocking twist.

Find a haunting image. Have you ever seen a painting or photograph that punched you in the chest? Stuck in your mind? We write words to create visual images in readers’ minds, so it’s not surprising that images could spark a story idea or scene. Next time you see something striking, ask yourself why it resonates. Freewrite about it. See what bubbles up.

Write about something weird. I was chatting with a plumber recently who had come to my house to do some work. We got to talking about writing and he said he had done some writing but he was stumped because all of his ideas were “weird.” My response: “And how is that a problem? Weird is good. Go with it.”

For a related post about finding ideas, read Carol’s post Four questions to help you mine your life for story ideas.

Five clues to a great story from filmmaker Andrew Stanton

In his great Ted Talk, filmmaker (“Toy Story” & “WALL-E”) Andrew Stanton shares his thoughts on storytelling.

Stories tell us who we are and give our life affirmation and meaning, says Stanton. Here a few other ideas he has about story:

  • Stories make you care;
  • Stories are inevitable but not predictable;
  • Each character has a spine–an inner motor–a dominant unconscious goal they are always striving for;
  • Change is fundamental in story. Life is never static;
  • The secret sauce? The best stories infuse wonder.

To learn more about what story is, watch Stanton’s talk here:


Tips and best practices for writing young adult books

Do you ever wonder how to hit the mark in your manuscript to bring all the elements together that will resonate with readers and potential agents? The challenge of making everything work — from dialogue to setting to characters to plot and more — is what makes writing so appealing to me.

I’ve been judging a YA writing contest this month and in the process, it’s made me think about what works and what doesn’t work in writing young adult literature.

Don’t underestimate or overestimate your audience. Consider the age range of your target reader. The language and style of writing for a 12- to 14-year-old may vary slightly from that of a 14- to 17-year-old. These kids are smart and often have flashes of maturity beyond their ages. That said, they are still who they are and will revert back to moments of immaturity. You might be writing a scene where a child is showing wisdom beyond her years, but the next moment have a meltdown. Think about how you can use this knowledge of your audience to create authentic characters who act their emotional age. Also, ask yourself if by the end of your story, your characters have evolved. They should have changed by the end in some way, gaining maturity and insight as a result of the conflict they’ve been through.

Create a gripping plot. YA writing is no different than adult fiction when it comes to writing strong plots with action, consequences and tension. Are you creating obstacles, amping up the action, and pushing the action forward in each scene to its conclusion?

Create a compelling narrative voice. You’ll engage the reader quickly if they can latch on to a voice they connect with. Think about how your reader might identify with the narrator and how the narrator says what she says.

Resist the impulse to have a strong “moral message.” Don’t be preachy. These readers are smart and savvy and that kind of writing will knock them out of the story world you’re trying to create. Let the themes and messages of your story organically reveal themselves through your characters and the progression of the plot.

Read more

Writing nonverbal cues to enrich your characters’ lives

I just finished a fantastic online class with Margie Lawson called, “Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist.” I highly recommend any of Margie’s classes–they’re like taking a Ph.D level course in how to empower your character’s emotions with tons of hands-on practice.

One of the tools she shared at the end of class is The Center for Nonverbal Studies. It’s a fabulous site that includes a nonverbal dictionary, a page on the nonverbal brain, and even an in-depth explanation of the “adam’s apple jump,” which, according to the site, is “an unconscious sign of emotional anxiety, embarrassment, or stress. At a business meeting, e.g., a listener’s Adam’s apple may inadvertently jump should he or she dislike or strongly disagree with a speaker’s suggestion, perspective, or point of view.”

The nonverbal dictionary lists gestures, signs, and body language cues. I’m reading through the lists and making notes of anything that catches my interest or that I can see one of my character’s doing. For example, under “Jaw-Droop” I found this usage explanation:

The jaw-droop is a reliable sign of surprisepuzzlement, or uncertainty. The expression is often seen in adults and children who a. have lost their way (e.g., in airports), or b. are entering or walking through unfamiliar, crowded, or potentially threatening places (e.g., darkened restaurants, taverns, and bars).

You’ll even find a bit of history in the nonverbal dictionary. Under Lawn Display: “Lawns mark territory and betoken status. Each year, Americans buy an estimated 500,000 plastic pink flamingo ornaments to mark their yard space–and to provide tangible evidence that, “This land is mine.” Read more

Add a spark to your writing: Three posts to celebrate National Poetry Month

Here at One Wild Word, we love poetry. To celebrate National Poetry Month, we’re sharing three poetry posts that we hope will inspire you to read and write poetry.

In How to draw from life to write poetry, you’ll find ideas for creative inspiration that could lead to a poem and more.

Do you want to go deep into an idea as you write a novel or essay? Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “poet,” consider writing a poem to get at the emotional core of your manuscript. Learn more in Using poetry to enrich your prose.

Learn from your poetry writing efforts by documenting your process. See more in Two reasons to keep a poetry or writing journal.

Watch for more ways in upcoming posts to celebrate poetry.

Learn more about National Poetry Month at

Understanding the art of lying to create believable characters

Recently, I was writing a scene where my protagonist is trying to decide if the man she is talking to is lying to her or not. This made we wonder: can you tell when someone is lying to you? And how? Is it a telling gesture or look that gives them away? Or, is your character more complicated than that? And do you know them enough to even know if they are lying?

Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator with years of experience who has sat across from some of the best liars in the world. Lofland has been a sheriff’s deputy, patrol officer,  and detective and has worked in prisons, as an undercover officer and in narcotics, among other areas of law enforcement.

He has also written a book for writers, “Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit),” that is a treasure trove of information on how the police work. Authors from Jeffery Deaver to J.A. Jance to Hallie Ephron give Lofland’s guide a thumbs up. Read more


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