Why You Need a Writing Community

Feeling all alone as a writer? It doesn't have to be that way! Learn how to find a writing community to support and encourage you during your novel journey!Writing a novel is a solitary task, and we writers tend to be introverted creatures who enjoy the seclusion and silence of our favorite activity. But sometimes, even introverts get lonely. It’s part of human nature; it’s our instinct to seek out the company of other human beings. It’s not good for us to be alone.

When I first started writing I didn’t know any other writers. My friends and family, though they supported me, didn’t understand my fascination with building plots or my enthusiasm for my characters. They didn’t understand the frustrations of plot holes and the misery of feeling as though my writing wasn’t any good. They didn’t understand why I would rather spend my evenings writing than going out to social events.

They just weren’t like me; I was a penguin among flamingos, waddling around awkwardly and feeling very out of place.

Though I loved writing, my flock of one was very lonely. I felt as though I was the only one who had experienced the excitement of writing a first novel, along with all of its fears and struggles. For years, I shuffled along this way on my own.

That is, until last year, when I entered the world of blogging and started Ink and Quills. It wasn’t until then that I discovered a community of fellow bloggers and writers—people who understood writing, understood me, were like me. An entire flock of beautiful, awkward, introverted penguins.

For the first time since I had started writing at the age of fourteen, I felt as though I had found a community where I belonged. And let me tell you, friends, it has changed my writing life! Just because the act of writing itself requires solitude doesn’t mean you should navigate your novel journey solo. No sir! This introvert will be the first to tell you—writing is so much better with community!

Benefits of a Writing Community

So why do you need a writing community? Meeting and befriending other writers online has been one of the best things to happen to me as a writer, and I wouldn’t trade these newfound friendships for anything. I’ve also been able to connect with writers from all over the world, which is pretty darn cool. But allow me to share some the benefits of building a writing tribe of your own.

1. Support and Encouragement

Writing is hard. Not just hard work, but hard emotionally and mentally. We’re plagued with all kinds of doubts, fears, and insecurities. Having writing friends I can express these concerns to—friends who have also experienced what I’m feeling and understand what I’m going through—makes a world of difference. Their kind words and encouragement help me pick myself back up again when I’m feeling down and keep writing.

2. Friendship

Having writing friends is just so. Much. Fun!

I finally have people I can nerd out with over how to construct perfect plots and characters and share my passion for story. It’s so nice to talk to people I have things in common with, and who can laugh at writing jokes and understand writer pet peeves (Such as being asked “What are you going to do with that Creative Writing degree?” Or “What’s your story about?” Or my person favorite, “How long is your story?”).

There’s nothing like being able to confide in, complain to, and converse with a fellow writer who just gets you.

3. Feedback

One of the best parts about having writing friends is having people who can give you constructive criticism about your novel (Because let’s face it, as much as your mom loved it, she doesn’t understand how to construct a story like a writer).

I was nervous when I asked my writing friends to beta read my current novel, as I had never let anyone outside of close friends and family read my work before. But it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a writer, and the feedback I received was invaluable!

4. Advice

Whether you’re uncertain if you should pursue traditional or self-publishing, or debating which direction you should take your plot, it’s great to have other writers to turn to for advice. Having writing friends who are more experienced, or who have experience in areas you don’t, is especially helpful since you can ask them for their expertise. Being able to turn to a friend for help is a great comfort to a writer!

How to Build a Writing Community

So where can you find fellow writers? Personally, I met all of my friends on Twitter. I had no idea what I was doing when I first joined Twitter or how to make friends, so I just started talking to people who seemed friendly, and who I was interested in getting to know. Some people chatted for a while only to vanish back into the Twitterverse, and that was that. Others I really hit it off with, and we continued to talk and haven’t stopped since!

It might feel awkward at first, but I’ve found that most people are friendly and enjoy talking about writing and meeting new people. You just have to be brave and take that leap to put yourself out there, which I know can be so hard for us introverts. But I promise you, the friendships you will gain are so worth stepping outside of your comfort zone!

Here are some ideas for places to meet other writers.

1. Local Writing Events

Is there anything writing-related going on near you like workshops, festivals, or conferences? What about any local meet-ups or critique groups? A quick Google search should help you uncover opportunities to meet writers in person in your area.

2. Twitter Chats

If you’re a little shy about chatting up random writers on Twitter, you could try participating in writing-related Twitter chats. That way, you can “meet” writers during the chat and then connect with them afterward if you like. A couple of chats I recommended (which are hosted by some of my own friends) are #StorySocial and #StoryCrafter, though there are many others out there!

3. NaNoWriMo

If you’ve never heard of it before NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month), is an annual “contest” held every November where participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. There’s also Camp NaNoWriMo, which is held in April and July, and allows participants to work on a project of any length.

You can connect with participants on Twitter with the hashtags #NaNoWriMo and #CampNaNoWriMo, and the websites for both contests offer forums and groups where writers can connect as well.

4. Writing Community Sites

Finally, there are lots of websites out there especially for writers where you can chat in forums, join groups, share your writing, and receive feedback. Sometimes these websites even run writing contests (One of which I’ve entered in the past, and won a signed copy of Sarah J. Mass’ Heir of Fire. Mass also got her start writing fiction on similar community sites. So they can be very worthwhile!).

Here are a few to check out: Wattpad, Penana, Figment, Story Bird, Booksie, and Story Wars.


I am so grateful for all of the amazing friends I’ve made online. My writing life feels so much more full because of them, and when I look back to the lonely beginnings of my novel journey I wonder how I survived so long without them. If you only ever follow one piece of writing advice, I ask you to make it this: Find a community, and journey with them as you write your novel.

Do you have a writing community? Have you ever felt like a penguin among flamingos? Let me know in the comments below!

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Writing 101: Choosing the Best Point of View for Your Story

Are you confused about which point of view would be the best fit for your story? Learn about the techniques involved in each one and which is the best fit for you!Years ago, I remember watching a film called Vantage Point. The plot revolved around an assassination attempt on the U.S. President, and in order to catch the would-be assassin government agents had to piece together clues from witnesses.

Each witness had a different point of view of the assassination attempt from their place in the crowd. Each one saw and experienced the moment differently. From a police officer to a news reporter to an ordinary bystander, each had a different story to tell of the same event.

And that, my friend, is point of view–the “lens” or perspective through which a story is told, and in whose voice. But just who is telling the story? In fiction, different points of view use varying techniques to give the reader a different experience. Let’s look at the options available to you as a writer.

First Person Point of View

You’ve probably come across this one before, as it’s one of the most popular points of view (POV) used in fiction, especially in Young Adult novels. In this point of view, the main character is the one telling the story. The story is written in the character’s voice using the pronouns I/me/my.

The advantage of this POV is that the reader is drawn right into the character’s head. We see the world through their eyes and hear their thoughts. It’s a very intimate perspective. As such, however, the reader is limited to what the main character knows or sees, which can be either an advantage or disadvantage depending on the story you’re trying to tell.

Examples: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Second Person Point of View

Second person point of view is when the author speaks directly to the reader using you/your. This places the reader directly into the story as though they are the main character and has a very engaging effect. Let’s look at an example from Leo Tolstoy’s short story trio, The Sevastopol Sketches:

Yes ! disenchantment certainly awaits you, if you are entering Sevastopol for the first time. In vain will you seek, on even a single countenance, for traces of anxiety, discomposure, or even of enthusiasm, readiness for death, decision, — there is nothing of the sort. You will see the tradespeople quietly engaged in the duties of their callings, so that, possibly, you may reproach yourself for superfluous raptures, you may entertain some doubt as to the justice of the ideas regarding the heroism of the defenders of Sevastopol which you have formed from stories, descriptions, and the sights and sounds on the northern side.

As you can see, second person almost turns the reader into a participant in the story.  It also makes the events more personal; it makes us feel as though we have a stake in the story and forces more internal reflection on our thoughts and feelings about what is happening.

This point of view is rarely used, and when it is, it’s usually found in short stories or parts of a novel. It’s extremely difficult to maintain second person throughout an entire novel and do it well. I would only recommend using second person in short stories or literary fiction, which experiments with the art of writing. For commercial fiction written for entertainment, it’s best to skip it.

Though it isn’t popular, authors can and have used second person successfully. For example, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller uses second person in alternating chapters, and William Faulkner uses it in sections of his novel Absalom, Absalom!. A few brave and talented authors have even written their entire novel in second person, such as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

Find the Right Point of View for Your Story

Third Person Point of View

Another popular point of view which you’re probably familiar with is third person. This is the point of view used most frequently in fiction. In this point of view, the reader becomes an outsider looking in on the story as it’s told from the main character’s perspective using he/she/they.

Although the story is told from the character’s perspective, it’s told in the author’s voice (though there is one exception to this which we’ll get to in a moment!). There are three types of third person: Third Person Omniscient, Third Person Limited, and Deep Point of View.

Third Person Omniscient

“Omciscient” means “all knowing” and that’s exactly what this point of view is.

The story is narrated to the reader in the disembodied voice of an all-knowing, all-seeing god who knows what all of the characters are thinking and feeling at all times. The narrator might even slip into second person occasionally and address the reader (a huge no-no in modern fiction!) or state his own opinions. Omniscient point of view is completely unlimited, and pretty much anything goes.

Here’s a quick example:

“Did you find your keys?” Mary asked, irritated at John’s carelessness. He was always losing everything. Why can’t he be more organized? she thought. He’s always wasting my time. Her jaw clenched in anger.

John ran a hand through his hair. “No. I could have sworn I left them on the kitchen table.” He turned away from her angry face, his own frustration mounting. She thinks I’m an idiot, he thought. Why can’t I remember where they are? Desperation began to creep over him.

Do you see how in omniscient point of view we are in both character’s heads at once? This style of writing was most popular in 19th century literature, but since then reader’s tastes have changes and it’s now less favored in modern-day fiction.

Today, we call this switching back and forth between multiple character’s thoughts within the same scene “head hopping,” and it’s often frowned upon. All of the jumping around can  be disorienting to the reader and leave them confused about whose story this is supposed to be.

But what if you need the perspectives of multiple characters to tell your story? There is another technique for this which is more popular and common modern fiction, which we’ll get to in the last section.

Examples of third person omniscient novels: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Third Person Limited

This is the style of third person that is more popular with modern readers. We remain in one character’s head throughout the story, only seeing things from their perspective. This means we only hear their thoughts, feel what they feel, and know what they know.

Let’s revisit our previous example of Mary and John, for a moment. This time, I’ll limit the point of view to Mary’s perspective only:

“Did you find your keys?” Mary asked, irritated at John’s carelessness. He was always losing everything. Why can’t he be more organized? she thought. He’s always wasting my time. Her jaw clenched in anger.

John ran a hand through his hair. “No. I could have sworn I left them on the kitchen table.” He turned away from her, his lips pressed in a flat line.

Mary sighed. He couldn’t even look her in the eye, he looked like a scolded, cowering dog. Maybe she shouldn’t look so angry. She drew in a deep breath and tried to soften her features. Lord, give me patience.

Do you see the difference? We don’t know what John is thinking or feeling. We experience everything from Mary’s POV and only know what’s going on inside her head. Unlike omniscient POV which is limitless, in this POV we are “limited” to Mary’s perspective.

Examples of limited third person: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin.

Deep Point of View

Deep point of view is a style of writing that is beginning to grow in popularity. It uses third person pronouns he/she/they, but instead of using the author’s voice the story is told in hero’s voice. This brings the reader deep into the hero’s head and allows them to experience the story through the hero, feeling what they feel.

Essentially, it’s like first person except with he/she instead of I. All “evidence” of the author’s hand (phrases like he said, she felt, he wondered, etc.) are also removed to erase the distance between the reader and hero.

Let’s look at this technique in action.

Example 1 (Third Person Limited):

Kali hurried though the village. She wondered if he was already waiting for her. She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She knew she should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on talking about the chickens.

Example 2 (Deep POV):

Kali hurried through the village. Was he already waiting for her? She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on and on about the chickens. Chickens this, and eggs that. Be sure to this, don’t do it like that. Kali’s fidgety impatience had driven the details from her memory. Hopefully they weren’t too important.

Notice the difference between the two examples. The second brings you into Kali’s head by removing “interruptions” by the author like “she wondered” or “she knew.” The second example also uses more of Kali’s voice to reveal her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions–it’s almost as though she is the narrator, yet we stay in third person point of view.

This point of view can be challenging to write and is still emerging in fiction, but it’s quickly gaining popularity in the writing world because of the intimacy it creates between the reader and character.

Multiple Point of View

When you have a story that needs to be told from multiple perspectives, you have two options: you can either use third person omniscient and head hop, or you can use multiple point of view.

Multiple point of view can use third person limited, deep point of view, or first person. It stays in one character’s head at a time per scene or chapter. When the writer needs to switch to a different character’s perspective, they skip a line between scenes or begin a new chapter to signal to the reader that they are changing to a new character. In modern fiction, this technique is the preferred way of telling a story with multiple characters.

Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.

Which POV is Right for Your Story?

Are you confused about which point of view would be the best fit for your story? Learn about the techniques involved in each one and which is the best fit for you!So now that we’ve explored your options, which one should you choose?

If you’re uncertain, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. How many perspectives do I need to tell this story?
  2. Do I want to create distance or intimacy between the reader and the character?
  3. Do I want to tell the story in my own voice, or the character’s?

If you need multiple perspectives to tell your story you might use multiple POV or experiment with third person omniscient.

If you want to create intimacy between your reader and character, first person or deep point of view are the way to go. Or, you could create intimacy between the author and reader with second person.

Need a little more distance? Try third person limited or omniscient point of view.

If you want your character’s voice to really come through in your story, you’ll want to employ first person or deep point of view. Or, if you prefer to use your own voice, third person limited & omniscient and second person will all allow you to do so.

As you can see, it all depends upon the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong” point of view, but for a new writer I would recommend  maybe starting with third person limited or first person as those as the most common and easiest of the bunch to write.

Many times, the point of view a writer chooses depends on personal preference. Some writers find first person too challenging or invasive, while others love it. Personally, I’ve always preferred third person limited (I’m now moving toward deep POV), but I do occasionally use first person. Sometimes the characters “speak” to me in first person, and sometimes I hear their story in third person.

The beauty of point of view is that each method gives the reader a different experience. As the author, it’s up to you to decide how you want your readers to experience your story. Do you want to draw them into the hero’s head? Make them a participant? Show them different perspectives through multiple characters? The power rests in your hands.

What’s your favorite point of view to read and write? Let me know in the comments below!

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Writing 101: Discover the Perfect Audience for Your Novel

Do you know who you're writing for? Discover your target audience to find the types of readers who will want to read your story!I’m going to ask you a question that writers loath even more than the dreaded “What is your story about?” Are you ready for this, writer? Brace yourself: Who is your novel for?

If your answer is somewhere between “Everyone” and “I don’t know,” it’s high time you identified your story’s target audience. You know, the readers who will find your story irresistibly appealing and snatch it right off bookstore shelves.

And spoiler alert: Your story will not appeal to every reader. It’s just not possible. As scary as it might sound, there will be readers who will hate your book and that’s okay! Your goal as an author is to delight your target readers and no one else.

So, just who did you write this story for anyways? Who would want to read your novel (besides your mom, that is)? To discover your target audience, there are two things you’ll want to consider: Reader Preferences and Reader Demographics.

Reader Preferences: the types of stories a reader most enjoys. What he/she likes to see in the stories they read.

Reader Demographics: specific readers who would enjoy, relate to, and connect with your story more so than others.

By layering elements of these two categories together, you will create your target audience. Let’s look at each one in more detail.

Reader Preferences

Genre and Sub-genre—Most readers have a preferred genre and sub-genre they enjoy. For example, my favorite genre is fantasy. Within that genre my favorite sub-genre is medieval/high fantasy, and I tend to avoid sub-genres such as paranormal or urban fantasy.

Plot vs. Character—Some readers enjoy stories that are fast-paced, full of action, and are driven by the events of the plot. Other readers enjoy stories that are driven by the characters and delve deep into character development.

Setting—Some readers might be drawn to stories set in a specific country and/or time period. For example, one reader might devour anything set in ancient Egypt while another might find stories set in modern-day Scotland irresistible.

Writing Style—Some readers like clean, straight-forward writing often found in commercial fiction, while others may enjoy the lush, poetic prose usually found in literary fiction. Additionally, some readers prefer the story to be told in third person in the author’s “voice” while others enjoy first-person stories that allow them to slip right into the character’s head.

So, for example, a target audience for The Lord of the Rings would be readers who enjoy epic high fantasy, complex fantasy worlds, and a plot-driven story with a lush literary writing style.

Or, the target audience for The Help would be readers who enjoy historical fiction that explores racial issues, settings in the Deep South, character-driven stories, and a writing style that uses the characters’ voices to tell the story.

Reader Demographics

Age—Fiction is divided into different categories according to age: Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult. It’s important to know what age you’re writing for so you can make your story relatable to the experiences and struggles of that age group. For example, a novel about high school cyber bullying is going to be more relatable to a teen than a novel about woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis.

Gender—Gender usually doesn’t matter when it comes to enjoying a story, but occasionally a book might appeal more to males or females. For example, romance writers tend to target a female audience. On the other hand, an author might write a novel that is more appealing to a predominantly male audience, such as a gritty war story about the bond between brothers in arms.

Of course, either of these stories could appeal to either gender. I’ve known guys who enjoyed a good chick flick, and I myself tend to enjoy war stories. Just ask yourself if your story might appeal significantly more to one gender than the other and target that gender, but keep in mind any story can be enjoyed by both genders.

Ethnicity—Readers of all cultures and races should be able to see themselves in the heroes and heroines populating fiction. We also often better relate to characters who share our race and culture. If you have a diverse cast of characters in your novel it will appeal more strongly to readers of the same race.

So, for example, if you wrote a story about a Hispanic woman who immigrated to the U.S., your story would appeal to the Hispanic demographic as well as other immigrants who could relate to the character’s experience.

Religion—Sometimes, an author might want to write a faith-based story targeted to readers of a specific religion such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. Even if the plot or overall tone of your book is not overtly religious, having a character who is Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, etc. could attract readers of that faith.

Profession & Life Experiences—Readers are drawn to characters they can relate to. If you have characters with a disease or disability, a character who is a cop, musician, nurse, etc., or characters who are struggling with family issues, racism, divorce, parenting a difficult child, readjusting to civilian life after a war, etc. it will appeal to readers who have had/are having similar experiences.

Why Identify Your Target Audience?

All of this being said, this doesn’t mean that people outside of your target audience can’t enjoy your book. Harry Potter is a terrific example of this—it originally was targeted to a Middle Grade audience, but readers of all ages have fallen in love with the story. So if that’s the case, then why should you bother identifying your target audience to begin with?

For one thing, knowing who you’re writing for and what they are looking for in a story makes it easier for you as a writer to please those readers. You can tailor your story to feel as though it was written just for them. You will be able to write a story they can relate to, and even impact them so deeply it could have a positive effect on their life. And that’s pretty powerful stuff.

Secondly, your publisher will expect you to know your book’s audience. The last thing a publisher wants is to be handed a novel you claim teen readers will love but is filled with gratuitous swearing, explicit sex scenes, and a seventeen-year-old who is having an affair with a married man. How on earth is a publisher supposed to market and sell that? You’re going to get a rejection letter.

On the other hand, if you present a publisher with a New Adult novel about the emotional struggles of a heroine who watches all of her college friends become engaged and get married while she remains single, they’ll realize that you’ve put the time into thinking about your audience. The story fits the audience, which means the publisher can market it easily.

Even if you decide to self-publish, you will still need to know your target audience. Self-publishing means marketing your book yourself, and knowing your target audience will help you to figure out where your readers hang out in real life and online, what blogs or magazines/e-zines they read, and what social media outlets they use most.

If figuring out your target audience is still making you stress, relax! Sometimes your audience doesn’t become clear until your story begins to take shape. You might start writing a Middle Grade novel only to realize halfway through you have a Young Adult novel on your hands. While knowing your audience beforehand is helpful, you can always go back and tweak your story to fit your audience.

Just continue to ask yourself: Who would enjoy this story? Who am I writing for? I promise you, there are readers out there waiting for your story. Once you are able to define your target audience, you will be able to find, delight, and reach the perfect readers for your story. And that, friend, is a huge advantage well worth having.

What do you find challenging or confusing about identifying your target audience? Let me know in the comments below!

Previous Posts in the Writing 101 Series:

Part 1: The Fundamentals of Story, Part 2: Writing Term Glossary, Part 3: Creating a Successful Hero & Villain, Part 4: Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot, Part 5: Let’s Talk Dialogue, Part 6: Setting and World-building, Part 7: Creating Effective Description, and Part 8: Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist.

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Writing 101: Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist

Don't let bad grammar stand between you and writing your novel! Check out these grammar resources and tips to improve your skills!Ah, grammar. The red-headed stepchild of the novel-writing process that we would much rather forget  about. Yet our dangling modifiers and askew apostrophes glare up at us from the page like brilliant eyesores, demanding we admit defeat.

Talk about sucking all the fun out of your creativity.

Writers want to be free to frolic through the fields of their imaginations, not chained down by the stuffy rules your English teacher droned on about. Who cares about past participles or semicolon placement? But our readers expect flawless grammar. And at times, it’s enough to make even the most seasoned of writers want to bash their head against their keyboard and hope for the best.

Please don’t bash your head against the keyboard.

Though a lot of anxieties and frustrations can arise over grammar, I don’t want you to let it stand between you and the novel you want to write. Fear not my grammatically challenged friend–you can learn how to wield grammar just as you can learn how to write a story.

Shall we begin?

Do You Need Good Grammar to Write a Novel?

First, I feel that there is a misconception I must clear up. I’ve had several new writers express their concerns to me about their lack of grammar savvy. They’ll say things along the lines of: “I suck at grammar, I’m worried I won’t be able to get my story published” or, “My grammar is awful, can I still write a book and become an author?”

Sound familiar? Well, I have some good news for you, friend! You don’t have to be a grammar whiz to write–and publish–a novel. I think new writers often tend to confuse good grammar with good writing, but one does not necessarily equal the other!

Good writing is knowing how to choose the most effective words, write descriptively, vividly, and concisely, and create realistic worlds, characters, and dialogue. Sure, correct grammar and spelling help, but they’re not what I use to judge the quality of a story.  Why? Because mistakes like that usually don’t survive to see the published draft.

You see, bad grammar can easily be fixed with editing; bad storytelling, however, can’t. Your skills as a storyteller are far more important than your grammar skills. An agent or publisher may overlook poor grammar if you have a fantastic story–after all, that’s why they have editors.

So my advice is this: Don’t stress yourself out over your grammar. Do the best you can, but put the majority of your efforts into building your storytelling skills.

Now, that being said, of course this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your grammar! Good grammar does help. Agents and publishers like to see well-polished writing because it means less work for them (or rather, their editors). Good grammar also helps make you look more professional, intelligent, and experienced.

So how can you improve your grammar skills? Keep reading for my favorite grammar resources and tips!

1. Have a Grammar Guide for Review and Reference

Buying a book (or two) on grammar to refresh your memory is a great starting point. It also helps to have one on hand for reference for those moments when you get hung up on tricky words or sentences! Here are some fantastic grammar handbooks to consider:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
  3. Merriam Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style
  4. The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar Usage

2. Use a Grammar/Spelling Checker

Most word processing programs have a built-in grammar and spelling checker that does all the work for you–underlining your mistakes and then providing suggestions for corrections which you can then fix in a couple simple clicks.

So make sure these options are turned on and you’re taking advantage of them! To turn on your grammar and spelling checker in Word go to File>Options>Proofreading and check the boxes according to your preferences.

Another grammar and spelling checker worth looking into is Grammarly. This program claims to catch even more errors than Word’s built-in proofreader!

A word of warning, however: these automatic proofreaders are a fantastic help, but they’re not perfect. I’ve noticed that occasionally they make incorrect suggestions, or miss a mistake. It doesn’t happen often but it does still happen, which is why it’s good to know your stuff and proofread your story on your own!

3. Put Your Dictionary to Use

A dictionary is a good resource to have if you find yourself frequently needing to check the spelling, definition, and proper usage of various words. My favorite dictionary resources are:

  1. Dictionary.com
  2. The Dictionary.com app
  3. The Merriam Webster Dictionary

3. Be Aware of Common Mistakes

Everyone has trouble with different words. Know which words you tend to mix up, misspell, and misuse, and be on the lookout for them. Better yet, make yourself a “cheat sheet” of your trouble words for easy reference so you can look up the correct usage quickly. Here are some resources to help you out:

  1. Common Errors in English Usage complied by English professor Paul Brians of Washington State University, and also available in e-book format for Kindle
  2. Commonly Misused Words and Phrases
  3. Commonly Misspelled Words

4. Grammar Girl is Your Friend

Stuck and need a quick answer? Search for your answer on Grammar Girl to get an easy-to-understand, simple yet thorough explanation with examples! This is my go-to resource when I get hung up on confusing things like whether to use who or whom, or where to place a tricky apostrophe or hyphen.

5. Hire an Editor

If you’ve done the best you can and you’re still worried about the grammar in your novel, you may want to consider hiring an editor before submitting it for publication. I would only recommend this if your novel is extremely rough as these services are pricey, and if your novel gets picked up by a publisher their editors will clean it up anyways.

The only exception to this is if you are self-publishing instead of going through a publisher who will provide the editors for you. Then hiring a professional editor is a must. The last thing you want is to publish a book riddled with grammar and spelling errors. Not only will it frustrate readers, but it will make you look sloppy and unprofessional.

6. Read, read, read! Write, write, write!

Finally, keep reading and writing as much as you can! The more you write and put your grammar into practice, the more you will learn. And the more you read, the more you will begin to develop a “feel” for how sentences should be constructed. Eventually, writing grammatically correct will become instinctive.

What do you find most challenging about grammar? Let me know in the comments!

Previous Posts in the Writing 101 Series:

Part 1: The Fundamentals of Story, Part 2: Writing Term Glossary, Part 3: Creating a Successful Hero & Villain, Part 4: Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot, Part 5: Let’s Talk Dialogue, Part 6: Setting and World-building, and Part 7: Creating Effective Description.

Ready for Part 9? Click here to read about Discovering the Perfect Audience for Your Novel!

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Writing 101: Creating Effective Description

Writing description can be overwhelming at first. What do you choose to describe? How do you describe it clearly? How can you make your reader experience your setting? Find the answers with these techniques!The purpose of description is to help readers experience your story both with their senses and emotions. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not there to look pretty or be flowery. Sure some writers can write very beautifully, but pretty prose isn’t necessary to bring your story to life. Sometimes, beautiful writing can even get in the way of or distract from the story itself!

So what tools do writers possess for bringing a setting to life through description? Let’s break down the different techniques.

Sensory Details

First, the senses. You’re probably familiar with them: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. Sight is the easiest to write and the one we think of first when setting up a scene, but you want to get into the habit of putting yourself into a scene and feeling it with all your senses.

What might your character be hearing? Like the whistle of a kettle or a dripping faucet? What about physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun on his skin or the feel of damp sand between his toes?

Readers want to experience what your hero is experiencing. Going beyond sight grounds readers in the story and makes the setting feel rich with detail in their minds—and this in turn makes your fictional world feel more realistic.

Manipulating Mood through Word Choice

Now that we know how to make readers experience a story with their senses, how can we make them experience it emotionally using description? This writer’s magic trick is accomplished through the subtle power of word choice.

That’s right, friend, by being intentional about the words you choose you can make the reader feel whatever you want them too—without them even realizing it! Pretty neat, huh?

But you don’t want to choose any mood for your scene. Whenever you introduce a setting, your hero should have an emotional reaction to it, and this should influence the words you use to describe it. After all, readers want to experience what the hero is experiencing, right? This means his feelings about his surroundings too.

Does the hero find this place scary? Beautiful? Peaceful? Choose words that communicate what the hero is feeling—or even better, ask yourself, “What words would my hero use to describe this?”

Let’s take a look at the power of word choice with this quick example:

The castle loomed atop the cliff, its sharp spires slicing through the clouds. The iron bars of the gate had been wrenched open and now resembled the mangled ribs of a skeleton.

Notice how I didn’t say the castle was scary or creepy, though that’s likely the impression/feeling you got. Instead, I used words like loomed, sharp, slicing, wrenched, mangled, and the comparison to a skeleton’s ribs all help create a creepy, foreboding mood.

This is also an example of showing vs.telling. Instead of telling you the castle was creepy, I showed you through my word choice. Whenever you can, opt for showing over telling when appropriate.

Film Shots

“Wait, why are we talking about film?” you ask. “What does this have to do with writing?”

Allow me to explain.

A story plays out like a film in the mind, yes? Because of this, we can steal a few film tricks and apply them to our descriptions.

When you watch a movie and a new setting is introduced, it will usually be done with an extreme long shot that includes a large amount of the landscape such as a city or farm so the viewer can see where the action will take place. This is also called an establishing shot.

Then, the camera will narrow its focus to a normal long shot, which might show something like a house, kitchen, train station, etc. where the scene will take place.

Narrow the focus again to a full shot, and this allows the viewer to see more details of the character’s costumes and their surroundings.

Narrow the focus yet again to a mid-shot and we see the characters from the waist-up, allowing us to focus on their facial expressions and emotional reactions.

Narrow the focus one more time and we have a close-up of characters facial expressions or important objects.

So how does this translate into writing? We can use this technique to organize our descriptions and help them flow clearly in the reader’s mind. You do this by starting your description with a wide “establishing” shot, and then narrowing your focus.

For example:

The barn was tucked away in a meadow between two oaks, its tin roof rusted and black paint peeling. Sam shoved open the door and glanced over the rows of empty stalls and then upward at the vaulted loft filled with moldy hay. He kicked aside a rotting bucket and a mouse darted into the shadows. Wrinkling his nose, he crouched to examine the droplets of blood soaked into the earth among the spilled grain and mouse droppings.

Notice how I started with an establishing shot and kept narrowing the focus until we had a close-up description of the blood splatters. This not only helps the reader get their bearings in the scene, but it follows the natural way we experience a place—we notice the overall picture before we begin to zero-in on tiny details.

Specific Nouns

Getting as specific as possible with nouns in your description will make your world feel more realistic and create a much sharper image in the reader’s head.

Instead of “red flowers” say “poppies,” and instead of “fancy car” say “Lamborghini.”

Also, this requires you do your research. You should be able to specifically name things in your story no matter the culture or time period, such as the character’s clothing, the food they eat, the weapons used, etc.

If you’re writing a sci-fi story and your hero walks into a room full of “scientific equipment” not only is this a lousy mental image for the reader, but its lazy writing. What sort of equipment are they using? What is it called? What does it look like? It’s your job to find out.

Balance

Finally, one of the important parts of good description is balance, or knowing what to describe and when.

For example, the middle of an intense action scene is not a good time to unload a bunch of description. The reader simply won’t care and it will just get in the way. Save the description for the slower parts of your story where you are setting up a scene or introducing a new setting, character, important object, or what-have-you.

Also, you need to be discerning about what you choose to describe because you can’t (and shouldn’t!) describe everything. You’ll end up overwhelming the reader and weakening the description because they won’t be able to remember it all. So what should you focus on?

Here are 3 things to consider:

1) Choose the most important details, or the details that make the place interesting or different.

2) Choose specific details in order to set a certain mood.

3) Choose the details your character would notice. (For example, a hunter might admire a collection of rifles while a bookworm might admire a bookshelf in the same room. Different people notice different things).

But how much description is too much? This will vary based on your writing style and the type of story you’re telling.

For example, literary fiction can have longer passages of description because readers of that genre will expect and even enjoy it. But in a Young Adult action novel you’re going to want to go light on the description because your audience will have less patience.

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to tell the audience just enough to give them a clear picture and avoid any confusion. How much detail that entails, however, is up to you.

What’s your biggest challenge when writing description? What sorts of details bring a story to life for you? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue), and Part 6 (Setting and Worldbuilding).

Ready for Part 8? Click here to learn about Tips and Resources for the Grammatically Challenged Novelist!

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Writing 101: Setting and Worldbuilding

Writers often tend to overlook setting, but a vivid, well-developed setting can be a powerful part of your story and bring it to life for readers. Learn how to set your story apart with setting and worldbuilding!What was the setting of the last book you read? New York City? Dublin? The wilds of Africa? Outer space? Where did the author take you?

Now, let me ask you another question: Did the author succeed in taking you there?

Sometimes, I read books where the setting is such an integrated part of the story and so detailed that I feel as though I’m really there.

But other times, I’ll read a book that says it’s set in Montana but the setting is so empty that it feels as though it could be taking place anywhere. Or, even worse, I’ll pick up a book and have no idea where the setting is or forget where I’m supposed to be halfway through.

When we read, we love to be taken on a journey to somewhere new where we can experience that place and its culture without ever having to leave the comfort of our home. So it’s a shame that we writers often tend to neglect setting in our stories.

Maybe it’s because we’re overwhelmed with all the other details of plot and character. Or, maybe it’s because we don’t think that setting could be that important or make that big of a difference. But don’t be fooled–setting plays an important role in your novel just like your plot and characters!

What is Setting?

A setting is the place where the story’s events unfold. Novels contain multiple settings, which can be categorized a little something like this:

  • Big picture location—the country, state, world, etc. in which your primary and small picture locations are contained.
  • Primary location—where most of the story takes place.
  • Small picture locations—additional settings where scenes take place.

Let’s look at a couple examples. First, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

  • Big picture location—The United Kingdom
  • Primary location—Hogwarts
  • Small picture locations—The Dursley’s house, the shack by the sea, Diagon Alley, Platform 9 ¾, the Forbidden Forest, the Gryffindor dormitory within Hogwarts, etc.

What about The Hunger Games?

  • Big picture location—Panem
  • Primary location—The Arena
  • Small picture locations—District 13, the Tribute’s train, the training center, the Capitol, the cornucopia within the arena, etc.

When you’re trying to figure out your story’s setting, first start the the “big picture” location. This could be a real place like Russia or California, or somewhere fictional like Westeros or Middle Earth.

Next, narrow your focus to the primary location. Where within this big picture will most of the story take place? This might be tricky to pin down if your story is split between locations, or if you have multiple story lines with characters in different locations.

For example, in Lord of the Rings the characters are on a journey and visit a variety of settings along the way. And in Game of Thrones you have many different story lines with characters spread out across a number of primary settings like the Night’s Watch, King’s Landing, Meereen, etc.

After you figure out your primary location, start exploring other settings your characters might visit during your story. These will be both within the primary location, and beyond it.

When done well, setting will make a story colorful and memorable. This is because the author is creating a place that feels real and that the reader wants to return to over and over again each time she picks up the book. You don’t want your setting to be a blank in the reader’s mind because this takes away from one of the pleasures and expectations of reading—to be taken to another place.

You should treat your setting like you would treat any other character in your story. Characters need to be developed or they will end up feeling like flat pieces of cardboard. The same goes for your setting! Take some time to sit down and get to know your setting, researching or thinking about things like:

  • The layout/geography
  • What’s beyond in the outlying areas
  • Politics, laws, and governing system
  • Culture and traditions
  • Weather
  • Local plants and animals
  • Jobs, economy, inports/exports
  • History, enemies, and allies
  • Folklore, urban legends, etc.
  • Details only locals would know
  • The hero’s feelings and opinions about the place

But now this brings us to the second point I wanted to talk about: worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding

The term “worldbuilding” is usually used when talking about fantasy and sci-fi novels. It’s the process of creating a fictional world from scratch that still feels realistic. This process could include creating races, religions, histories, currencies, mythologies, cultures, traditions, and so on.

Worldbuilding is an important part of fantasy because the reader is being taken to an unfamiliar place that doesn’t exist. That means the author needs to make it feel realistic by weaving a web of details so complex that we begin to feel that there’s no way the author could be making this all up, that this place must really exist somewhere.

One example of fantastic worldbuilding is J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in the Harry Potter series. Her attention to detail is phenomenal—she gives the wizarding world its own currency (galleons and knuts), sweet treats (Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, anyone?), newspaper (The Daily Prophet), drinks (Butterbeer), transportation (The Knight Bus), and sport (Quidditch), just to name a few of the many details.

Rowling creates a world that is so fleshed out that you can become completely lost in it to the point where if someone came along and told you she made it all up, you’d probably call them a liar (let’s admit it, how many of us are still waiting for our Hogwarts acceptance letters?).

That is how powerful worldbuilding can be, when done well. But a word of warning: although you can get away without too much damage from lack of setting in most genres, in fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding is critical to your story. It’s an expectation of the genre since readers turn to fantasy to be taken to a new, magical world. If you only have a cardboard world to offer, your story is going to suffer.

Worldbuilding Isn’t Just for Fantasy

Now, even though we mainly associate worldbuilding with fantasy and sci-fi, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to other genres. There is an element of worldbuilding within any story you write. The only difference is, when the story is set in the real world rather than a fantasy world, we are working with fact rather than fiction.

What do I mean? To use my own hometown as an example, let’s say your story is set in Louisville Kentucky and your hero is a jockey who will ride in the Kentucky Derby. You have two worlds to explore and build here: 1) The physical setting of Louisville Kentucky and the Churchill Downs racetrack where the Derby takes place, and 2) The culture of jockeys and horseracing.

First, your physical setting. Whereas in fantasy you would make everything up, in this type of story you’ll need to do research to learn about the layout of the city and Churchill downs, the history of these places, famous landmarks, the climate of Kentucky, how the locals speak, and so on. You’ll also need to uncover details that will bring your story to life.

For example, there are details about my hometown that outsiders likely wouldn’t know. Like we’re very picky about how you pronounce Louisville (it’s Loo-uh-vul, not Lewis-ville or Looey-ville, in case you were wondering). And even if you’re a local and you’ve never been to the Derby, you still know that Derby hats and Mint Julips are a big thing because the local news will inevitably run stories on both of these every year around Derby time.

Your job as a writer is to uncover all these quirky little details to bring the setting to life. Every place has its own culture, and your readers want to experience it. These are the details that are going to give your setting character and make it stand out.

The second “world” you’d need to delve into is that of the horse racing culture, and also the life of a jockey. You would need to get the inside information about these worlds so they’re accurate and believable.

“Worlds” like this exist all around us, and everyone belongs to one world or another. For example, you and I belong to the “world” of fiction writing. We have our own lingo, jokes, processes, etc. that outsiders wouldn’t know. Your job is to bring the reader into whatever specialized world you choose so that by the end of the story, they feel like an insider.

Either Way, There Will be Work Involved

As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a fantasy, contemporary, or even historical fiction novel—there’s going to be a fair amount of work involved to develop a realistic setting, whether you’re making up all the details or researching them.

Having written both fantasy and historical fiction, I don’t know that one tactic or the other is really “easier.” With research it can be challenging to find the information you need, especially if you’re writing about something set in the past where you can’t visit the place at that time period or ask locals for inside information. On the other hand, creating an original, interesting fantasy world that’s detailed and realistic is no small task.

Whatever genre of story you write, take the time to put the extra effort into worldbuilding. Not only will help your story come alive and give your setting character, but it will make readers want to return to your book time and time again for a visit.

What books have you read that created believable, detailed settings that made you feel as though you were there? Tell me in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), and Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue).

Ready for Part 7? Click here to read about Creating Effective Description!

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Writing 101: Let’s Talk Dialogue

Part 5 in the Writing 101 series for new writers! Today, we're discussing the basics of dialogue. Learn the best speech tag to use, how to punctuate dialogue correctly, and the difference between spoken and written dialogue!Dialogue is a tricky little beast when you’re a new writer. From punctuation to making it sound realistic, there’s a lot that can go wrong. When done well, dialogue can be a true delight for the reader and make a story shine. But mess it up and, well…it can really put a damper on things.

Today, we’re going to look at some dialogue basics to get you started off on the right track. If you’re confused about punctuation, speech tags, or the difference between spoken and written dialogue fear not–keep reading and we’ll tackle them together!

Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), and Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot).

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is the spoken words between two or more characters, which is signaled with quotation ” ” marks. Most of your story will consist of dialogue. Dialogue not only moves your story along, but it also helps reveal who your characters are.

However, dialogue in fiction is not the same as dialogue in real life. When we write dialogue for a story we are actually creating an artistic imitation of real speech.

Why? Because no one would want to read real-life dialogue. In real speech, people stammer, um and uh, talk over and interrupt each other, get distracted, forget what they were going to say, bring up random stuff, chit chat about the weather… Trust me, no one wants to read that! It would be a mess.

To really see the difference between real and written dialogue, take a look at this piece of dialogue I’ve transcribed from an interview with Doctor Who actor David Tennant:

“Obviously it’s–it’s eh every exciting to be around for eh the big celebration episode, you know. Ehm, it–it–it’s something that’s being talked about (sighs)–I mean the–the expectation has been I–I think since I left eh that I’d end up in this somehow because there is the precedent I guess for old Doctors coming back for a visit around the anniversary time. But ehm, but it was really only relatively recently that–that it-it became a definite thing so uh I-I-I was thrilled cause it’s a huge–it’s a huge thing for Doctor Who.”

You can watch the interview here if you’d like to hear it spoken. Now, can you imagine reading an entire book like that? And in a conversation with two people there would be even more interruptions and overlapping speech.

So how might the above dialogue look in a story? Probably something like this:

“Obviously it’s very exciting to be around for the big celebration episode. Since I’ve left the expectation, I think, has been that I’d end up in the episode somehow. There’s a precedent for old Doctors coming back for the anniversary but it wasn’t until recently it became definite. I was thrilled–it’s a huge thing for Doctor Who.”

See the difference? It reads smoother and easier while still sounding like real speech. Some of the wording and sentence structure has been altered, and the stammering and ums have been omitted.

I would highly recommend hopping on Youtube and watching a few interviews, paying attention to the flow of real conversations. Listen to how people talk in real life, and then grab a book and study the dialogue to see the differences.

In short, dialogue in fiction is carefully crafted with purpose in mind. That purpose is to: 1) Move the story forward, and 2) Characterize your hero and supporting cast with what they say and how they say it.

Speech Tags

As you learn more about writing, you might come across the term “speech tags.” A speech tag identifies which character is speaking. It usually involves words like said, asked, shouted, or whispered. Like so:

“Can we go to the movies?” Sara asked.

“Not until you’ve finished your chores,” her mother said.

New writers often fall into the mistake of thinking said is too boring and repetitive. They try to make their writing more colorful by using speech tags like bawled, affirmed, intoned, inquired, fumed, etc. The problem is, most of the time these words are redundant or unnecessary and only clutter the writing. We should be able to tell from the dialogue that a character is fuming, you shouldn’t need to tell us.

I highly recommend using said whenever possible because it’s invisible. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and readers don’t notice it because it’s used so often. This will also make your writing seem more professional. For a more in-depth discussion on why said is the best speech tag to use, check out my article here.

Punctuating Dialogue

When I first started writing, I was confused and intimidated by how to punctuate dialogue. Since I’ve always found books to be the best teachers, I grabbed books off my shelf and studied how the dialogue was formatted. I still remember scouring the pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone wondering, does the comma go inside the quotations or outside?

Ah, memories.

Now I can punctuate dialogue with a thought–and eventually you will be able to do the same. With practice, it will come as natural as breathing. I’ve written a more in-depth post on formatting dialogue which you can read here, but for this post we’re just going to cover the basics.

Rule #1: Quotation marks are for spoken words only. A quotation mark signals to the reader that someone is speaking, so don’t use them for a character’s thoughts!

Rule #2: Ending punctuation, such as a comma, period, question mark, or exclamation point, always go inside the quotation marks. Like so:

“I don’t think we should go that way,” Jane said.

“Are you sure about that?” Ethan asked.

“I’m positive.”

Also, only use one punctuation mark at the end of a line of dialogue.

WRONG: “Is that the new dress you bought?,” he asked.

Rule #3: The first word after a line of dialogue is capitalized if  1) It’s a name 2) It does not describe who is speaking or how the dialogue is being spoken (aka a speech tag). Observe:

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ryan shouted.

“I was just trying to help.” The girl backed away.

WRONG: “I was just trying to help,” the girl backed away.

The first word after a line of dialogue is lower case if it’s indicating the speaker using an improper noun (he, she, it) and/or describing how something was said.

“Hand me that paint brush,” he said.

“You could at least say please,” the girl said with a huff.

Now It’s Your Turn

Now that you know the dialogue basics, it’s time to put them to work in your own writing. The best way to learn how to write better dialogue is with practice! Keep at it and you’ll be a pro in no time 😉 Have any questions about dialogue? Post them below!

P.S. Ready for the next part in the Writing 101 series? Click here for Part 6, Setting and Worldbuilding!

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Writing 101: Unraveling Conflict, Tension, and Your Plot

Part 4 in the Writing 101 series for beginning writers! Confused about conflict, tension, and plot? Learn what they are, how they relate, and how you can use them to create a page-turning story.Creating a story is a challenge. Creating one that readers actually complete from beginning to end? That’s even more challenging.

As a beginning writer, it took me years to understand how plot worked, but today I’m going to help you start off on the right foot! We’re going to untangle your plot, conflict, and tension and examine how they all relate. And most importantly, how you can use them to design a page-turning story.

Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), and Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain).

What is Conflict?

Conflict: a clash between two opposing sides.

Conflict is the foundation of any novel. Without it, you have no story. So how do you create conflict? First, you must give your hero a goal. Only when you know what he is trying to achieve can you put obstacles in his path to keep him from getting what he wants. This clash of the hero’s desire and the forces standing against him are your conflict.

For example, look at the fairy tale Cinderella. What does Cinderella want? To attend the ball. What forces oppose her? Her stepmother. Their opposing goals create the conflict of the story, and the reader will have to keep reading to see who wins in the end.

But, here’s the thing–a hero with a goal isn’t enough to carry your story, no matter how amazing it is. In order for the reader to stick through your entire novel, they must care about your hero. Otherwise, the hero’s goal won’t matter. The reader won’t care if they win or fail.

But with Cinderella, we sympathize with her for several reasons–her father’s death, her stepmother and stepsister’s cruelty, and her days of endless chores. Some readers might even be able to relate to her in some ways. And despite all the abuse, she remains strong and kind and dreams of a better life. We want to see her achieve her goal of attending the ball.

So spend the time developing your hero into a life-like human being we can care about and cheer for!

What is Plot?

When I first started writing, my definition of plot was very vague. I thought a plot was just all the exciting stuff that happened in a story. You know, car chases, kidnappings, murders, sword fights, and all that jazz.

But since then I’ve learned that you can’t string together a bunch of random events together and call it a story, no matter how epic they may be. Your story will lack direction and focus, and it won’t be much of a story at all.

Let me paint you a picture. Your plot is like a ship sailing on the churning, choppy waves of conflict. It could go anywhere; it could easily become lost, or even crash upon the rocks of the shore. Your hero’s goal is the guiding light, the lighthouse that ensures the ships stays on course and reaches its destination safely.

In other words, your plot is the vehicle through which the conflict plays out, and your hero’s goal gives meaning to the conflict and guides the plot.

Plot: the account of the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal, and the obstacles he must overcome along the way.

Remember back in Part I when we defined story?:

A story is about someone (hero) who wants something (goal), sets out on a journey to attain it (plot), and grows or learns something along the way (change).

Your plot is you hero’s journey. The steps he takes to attain what he wants, the obstacles he meets along the way, and how he fights to overcome them. A ship navigating a treacherous sea, trying to reach its destination.

Together, your hero’s goal and your story’s conflict create tension.

What is Tension?

Tension: the anticipation of what will happen next in a story. Driven by concern and/or curiosity in the reader.

While conflict is the foundation of story, tension is what keeps readers turning pages. Your hero’s goal + your story’s conflict create a question that must be answered throughout the course of the novel. Broadly speaking, that question is: Will the hero achieve his goal? This question creates your novel’s tension, forcing readers to turn pages to find the answer, to discover what will happen to a character they care about.

But that’s very vague, so let’s look at a specific example. In Cinderella, her goal is to attend the royal ball, but her wicked stepmother is the conflict opposing her. This creates the question: Will Cinderella attend the ball?

But good stories create more than one question, aka source of tension. Your goal is to look for ways to get your hero into trouble–to keep him from reaching his goal–and make the trouble increasingly worse as the story goes along.

Cinderella faces several obstacles. First, her stepmother destroys her gown and bans her from attending the ball. The situation seems pretty hopeless, causing readers to wonder if the stepmother has won. How can Cinderella possibly attend the ball now?

Then the fairy godmother shows up, and creates a gown and carriage for Cinderella. That could be the end of the story, but there’s a catch–Cinderella must return home before midnight or the magic will wear off. Now we have a new source of tension: Will Cinderella make it home in time? Will her stepmother or stepsisters will recognize her at the ball?

When Cinderella finally arrives at the ball, she dances with prince. But then the clock begins to strike midnight and she has to make a run for it, leaving her glass slipper behind. Again, a new source of tension is introduced as the prince decides to find the slipper’s owner: Will the prince find Cinderella? Will her stepmother manage to trick him into thinking the slipper belongs to one of Cinderella’s stepsisters? Will Cinderella marry the prince and live happily ever after?

The reader continues to turn the pages out of both worry for Cinderella, a character they love and who they want to win, and curiosity over what will happen next. To create tension throughout your story you must continually create questions. As soon as one question is answered, create another. This will carry your readers through your story and create a page-turner of a novel!

 What’s your biggest struggle with plot or tension? Let me know in the comments below!

P.S. Ready for Part 5? Click here to learn the basics of dialogue!

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Writing 101: Creating a Successful Hero and Villain

Part 3 in the Writing 101 series for beginning writers. Learn the roles your hero and villain play in your story, and the elements you need in each one to create successful characters! Welcome to Part 3 of the Writing 101 series for beginning writers! Are you a bit behind? You can catch Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story) here, and Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary) here.

Today, we’re talking characters. In order to craft a successful, compelling story, you need to understand a) the roles your hero and villain play, and b) what you need to make them work. Let’s get started, shall we?

The Protagonist’s Role

In Part 1 of this series, we said that a story is:

About someone (hero) who wants something (goal), sets out on a journey to attain it (plot), and grows or learns something along the way (change).

Reading a story is about sharing an experience, so you have to decide whose story it is and whose experience we’ll be sharing. Your hero is the character whom your story centers around. He or she offers your readers a point of access to your story by allowing them to  experience events from his/her point of view rather than as a neutral outsider. The hero invites us in and lets us become a part of the story.

Think of your story as the track of a roller coaster–it has ups and downs, twists and turns, and maybe a couple stomach-dropping loops. Your hero is the car of the roller coaster the reader enters to experience the thrills you’ve created. If you don’t let your readers get up close and personal with the hero, then they’ll just be someone standing in line watching the roller coaster go by from a distance but not getting to experience it for themselves.

There are 4 main “ingredients” you need to successfully create a hero: goal, likability, realism, and change.

1. Goal

Your hero’s goal is what drives your story. What does he want? What is he trying to achieve? How your hero sets out to get what he wants becomes your plot. If your hero doesn’t have a goal, your story has no direction. Actually, without a goal you don’t have a story at all. A goal unifies your story’s events and gives them purpose. And if you don’t know what your hero is trying to achieve, you won’t be able to create compelling conflict that stands in his way.

2. Likability

One of the most important parts of creating your hero is to make readers care about him. We don’t stick through a 200+ page story to read about a character we hate! It doesn’t matter how awesome your plot is, if we don’t like your hero we won’t care about whether or not he achieves his goal. And that means game over for your novel.

3. Realism

In order for your hero to feel like a real person, you need to give him flaws, strengths, a personality, a past, etc. The biggest mistake beginning writers make is creating a hero who is too perfect or too strong. Your hero needs flaws and weaknesses to seem human. If he’s handsome, perfect, super smart, and can kick ass like a freaking ninja, your readers won’t be able to identify with him. We relate to flawed characters far more than we relate to perfect characters. And flawed characters are always far more interesting.

4. Change

Most new writers get so wrapped up focusing on getting their hero through the external plot that they tend to forget about the internal. But change is an important part of a satisfying story. Your hero should be different in some way at the end of the novel versus how he was at the beginning. If he was rich, prejudiced, or cowardly on page one and he’s still rich, prejudiced, or cowardly when we read The End, there’s a problem. When people go through big experiences in real life, it changes them. You need to reflect this in your novel.

The Antagonist’s Role

The main role of your story’s villain is to provide your story with conflict. Whatever it is your hero wants, the villain is standing in the way. Actually, your villain wants the opposite of what the hero wants. Both forces are trying their hardest to achieve their goals, which causes them to clash.

The hero wants to save the city. The villain wants to destroy it. The hero wants to destroy the object of the villain’s power. The villain wants to save it. The hero wants to overthrow the villain’s rule. The villain wants to squash the hero’s rebellion.

Your story is about the conflict between the hero and the villain. Your plot shows us how the hero tries to achieve his goal, how the villain tries to stop him, and who wins out in the end.

Similar to creating a hero, there are 4 main “ingredients” you need to create a successful villain: Goal, Loathing, Realism, and Credibility.

1.Goal

Just as with your hero, your villain needs a goal. You need to figure out what he wants and why. He can’t be trying to take over the world or destroy New York City “just because he’s evil.” He needs an actual reason that justifies him going through all the trouble. His goal should oppose your hero’s to create conflict.

2. Loathing

While with your hero you need to create likability, with your villain your aim is to do the opposite. You need readers to hate and fear your villain to get them on that emotional roller coaster, and so it will be satisfying when the hero finally defeats him. But don’t just tell us that he’s evil–show us through his words and actions.

3. Realism

In order for readers to fear your villain, he needs to feel like a real person. That mean giving him strengths, flaws, a past, etc. just like you would with your hero. The biggest mistake new writers make with their villains is making them too evil. In real life, people aren’t so black and white. You want to make your villain (and hero) more grey by giving them a mix of both good and bad qualities.

4. Credibility

Your villain in the main source of conflict in your novel, and therefore  also a huge source of tension. You want to keep readers wondering if the hero will win–if things seem too easy the reader will feel they know the answer, so they’ll stop turning pages. This means you need to create a strong villain who backs up his threats so readers will know he means business. And most importantly, you need to let your hero lose some battles to keep readers anxious!

Need more help with villains? I know they’re the most difficult character to write, so I’ve created a free e-book to help you out!

Ready for Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot)? Click here!

What elements do you think go into creating a successful hero and villain?

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Writing 101: A Glossary of Writing Terms

Part 2 in the writing 101 series for beginning writers. Click to browse a handy glossary of 74 writing terms for novelists. Plus, download a free PDF of the glossary!Welcome to Part 2 of my series for new writers, Writing 101! Miss Part 1 on the Fundamentals of Story? You can catch up here. Ready for Part 3? Click here to learn how to create a successful hero and villain!

This week, I’m providing you with a handy resource of all the terms you need to know to be novel savvy. This epic glossary of writing terms has a grand total of 74 entries (okay, so I might have gone a little overboard, don’t judge).

Don’t know the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist? Not sure what a hook is? Do you think a trope is a type of fish? Do you think you catch a trope on a hook? (Bless you, if you do). Read on to demystify all those puzzling writing terms!

BONUS: Because I’m awesome, I’ve created a PDF of this glossary you can download and print for handy reference. Hooray!

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Glossary of Writing Terms for Novelists

Active Voice: when the subject of the sentence performs the action, rather than being acted upon (Ex. “He kissed her” rather than “He was kissed by her”).

Antagonist: the villain of the story; the opposition to the hero.

Anti-hero: a dark hero who is riddled with flaws instead of the positive, noble traits we come to expect from heroes (Ex. Han Solo, Wolverine, Jack Sparrow).

Archetype: a recurring type of character in fiction found across multiple cultures, such as a trickster, mentor, healer, etc. (Ex. Yoda, Haymitch, and Dumbledore are all mentor archetypes).

Backstory: the details and background about a character’s past.

Beta Reader: someone who reads a writer’s story and provides them with feedback before publication.

Beat: the thoughts and actions of a character which comprise a scene. Often used between lines of dialogue for dramatic pause and to increase the emotion/tension of a scene.

Cardboard Character: a character who hasn’t been developed to feel realistic or like a unique individual.

Character Arc: the character’s inner journey throughout the story, and how they transform in some way by the end. Can either be a positive change or a negative change.

Character Trait: characteristics, behaviors, and attitudes that create a character’s personality.  Can either be positive or negative (Ex. Brave, pessimistic, honest, loyal, greedy, stubborn, etc.).

Character Quirk: a strange/interesting behavior, habit, hobby, or mannerism.

Characterization: the act of creating the specifics of a character such as traits, quirks, backstory, goal, etc.

Cliche: something that has been overused. In fiction this can mean a phrase, plot, character type, or dialogue.

Climax: the height of the story’s action before the ending. The final conflict where it is decided whether or not the hero will win and achieve his goal.

Conflict: any opposition that keeps a character from getting what they want. The main conflict of a story is that between the hero and villain.

Deep Point of View: a style of writing that strives to bring the reader deep into the hero’s head by eliminating “evidence” of the author’s hand such as speech tags, words like “felt,” “wondered,” and “thought,” and using more of the hero’s voice in the writing.

Denouement: the ending of a story where any loose ends are tied and all questions are answered.

Dialogue: the spoken conversation between characters, signaled by quotation marks.

Dialogue tags: the verb after a line of dialogue that signals how it is being spoken and who is speaking (said, exclaimed, shouted, asked, etc.)

Epilogue: a section after the main ending of the story that reveals what happened to the characters afterward.

External Conflict: the struggle between the hero and an outside force such as nature or the villain.

Falling Action: when the story begins to slow down after its climax as it heads into the ending.

First Person: when the character uses “I” to tell the story (Ex. I walked along the bridge at noon).

Fleshing Out a Character: the act of creating a realistic character with traits, quirks, backstory, goal, etc. (See also, Characterization).

Genre: the type of story (Fantasy, Historical, Romance, Science Fiction, etc.)

High Concept: a story with a unique or fresh premise that grabs attention and appeals to a large audience.

Hook: the first sentence of your novel, designed to grab the reader’s attention and arouse curiosity.

Info Dump: when the writer reveals a large amount of information or backstory all at once instead of spreading it out.

Imagery: descriptive, visual writing that often uses figurative language such as similes or metaphors.

Inciting Incident: the event that is the cause of the story. Without this event, no story would follow. (Ex. Katniss’ sister getting chosen at the reaping is the inciting incident of The Hunger Games).

Internal Conflict: the struggle of the hero against his own self. (Ex. a struggle against a fear, flaw, or vice).

Manuscript: a term used to refer to an unpublished novel.

Minor Character: characters who appear in the story but don’t play a large or significant role (Ex. Prim and Cinna in The Hunger Games).

Mood: the emotion a scene evokes in the reader.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): an annual contest held during the month of November in which participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Narrative: the written events of the story, as told by the viewpoint character in either first or third person.

Narrator: the person telling the story, either in first or third person.

Novel: a written work over 40,000 words in length.

Novella: a written work between 17,500-40,000 words in length.

Omniscient Point of View: a point of view where the narrator is god-like in that he knows the thoughts, feelings, secrets, backstories, etc. of all other characters and reveals them to the reader.

Pantsing: the act of writing a novel “by the seat of your pants” without any planning.

Passive Voice: when the subject is acted upon, rather than performing the action (Ex.  “He was kissed by her” rather than “He kissed her”).

Plot: the events that unfold in a story as the hero overcomes obstacles to try to achieve his goal, and how he changes along the way.

Plot Device: an object or character that moves the plot forward. Can sometimes be created in a way that feels too deliberate and unrealistic.

Plot Hole: an inconsistency, contradiction, or issue with the plot that makes it illogical or unbelievable.

Plot Point: 1) a significant event that moves the story forward; 2) a turning point; 3) the two moments of action and/or decision that lead from Act 1 into Act 2, and from Act 2 into Act 3 in a story.

Premise: a story’s main idea or concept (Ex. The premise of The Hunger Games is 24 teens forced to fight to the death in a televised event).

Prologue: events that take place before the main story, but have a significant connection to or impact upon the main story so that it is important for the reader to know them.

Point of View (POV): the perspective of a certain character who is telling the story.

Prose: ordinary, written language without rhyme or meter (Ex. What you’re reading right now is prose).

Protagonist: the hero of the story.

Purple Prose: writing that tries too hard to be descriptive, and in doing so overloads the reader (Also called flowery prose).

Rising Action: the events of the story leading up to the climax.

Secondary Character: characters who appear in the story but don’t play a large or significant role (Ex. Prim and Cinna in The Hunger Games).

Scene: a single event that takes place in a single setting in a set amount of time. A story is made up of many scenes.

Scene Break: the writer’s way of signaling a change in scene to the reader by leaving a blank line between the scenes or three asterisks centered in the page. The break signals a passage in time and/or a change in setting.

Setting: the place where the story and scenes occur.

Stakes: the consequences or reward for the hero’s success or failure of their goal.

Stereotype: a flat, undeveloped character that focuses on a single widely perceived trait or misconception associated with them

Subplot: a mini storyline in addition to the main plot. (Ex. The romance between Katniss and Peeta is a romantic subplot while the Hunger Games is the main plot).

Subtext: the underlying meaning in writing or dialogue that is hinted at but not plainly expressed.

Suspension of Disbelief: the willingness of the reader to set aside their judgement and believe the story they are being told.

Synopsis: a summary of the novel’s events, including its ending.

Tone: the attitude the writing expresses (Ex. Could be sarcastic, pessimistic, cheerful, etc.).

Theme: what your story is trying to say/prove about a topic (Ex. Love conquers all, the strong will always crush the weak, etc.).

Three Act Structure: the most common structure for plotting a story, with Act I representing the beginning, Act II the middle, and Act III the end.

Three Dimensional Character: a character who is realistic and has dimension like a real person.

Trope: another term for a cliche

Twist: an unexpected revelation or turn of events in a story.

Two Dimensional Character: a character who is flat and doesn’t feel real, and seems only to exist in the confines of the page.

Voice: the expression of the writing through the narrator, revealing their thoughts, opinions, and attitudes.

Word Count: how the length of a novel is measured. (The type of font, font size, line spacing, and page margins can all vary, which can add to or subtract from the number of pages. Word count doesn’t lie and is always accurate).

Word Sprint: a 30 minute writing session in which the participant writes as fast as they can.

World Building: the act of creating a world so that it resembles our own with details such as culture, government, geography, politics, religion, etc.

Phew! You made it! Did I miss anything you think should be in this glossary of writing terms? Let me know in the comments!

p.s. Don’t forget to check out Part 3 in the series, Creating a Successful Hero and Villain!

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