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#5780 A Smart Dose of Antagonistic Force Plots the Line

Posted EditorAdmin on 13 July 2012 - 01:43 AM

Antagonists Who Light The Drama and Transform Writing Into Great Literature
Links: Posted Image The 50 Greatest Villains in Literature; Posted Image Comment by Author Barbara Kyle

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Antagonists are often the most memorable characters in literature, without whom many of the best selling novels of all time would simply cease to exist, their supporting beams cut away, the shell of remaining "story" quietly imploding to ignominy and self-publication ... And consider the impact on a scene, any scene, as soon as the author moves the particular chess piece of antagonist onto the page. The mere presence of a Javert from "Les Misérables," Assef from "The Kite Runner," or even Marilla from "Anne of Green Gables," immediately energizes the environment. The narrative and dialogue literally crackle and groan with antagonist.

What chances do you as a writer have of getting your novel manuscript, regardless of genre, commercially published if the story and narrative therein fail to meet reader demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict? Answer: none. But what major factor makes for a quiet or dull manuscript brimming with insipid characters and a story that cascades from chapter to chapter with tens of thousands of words, all of them combining irresistibly to produce an audible thudding sound in the mind, rather like a fist hitting a side of cold beef?


#3183 WYCAAN MASTER in Amazon Quarter Finals - Alon Shalev Scores

Posted EditorAdmin on 30 March 2012 - 08:51 PM

After working his project on Author Salon, getting a new title and developing his plot lines with a new character (a Wycaan Master female!), Alon Shalev's epic fantasy novel, Wycaan Master, has just reached the Quarter Final Stages of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012.

From 5,000 entries in the Young Adult category, Shalev's novel is one of only 250 remaining contestants.

Bravo, Alon! God bless Author Salon!

AS Staff and Editors

#18683 HOLLYWOOD WANTS BLACK PANTHERS - A Story of Race, War, and Courage by G.M. Di...

Posted MichaelNeff on 09 August 2016 - 07:29 PM

Actor/producer Morgan Freeman and REVELATIONS ENTERTAINMENT have optioned, "The Black Panthers: A Story of Race, War, and Courage. The 761st Tank Battalion in World War II," for a feature film. The project has interested Mr. Freeman for some time and he has finally found his right book. Gina M. DiNicolo, an Author Salon and New York Pitch Conference alum, authored the work. And how did this come about?

In 2012, she had the "misfortune" to ride the rails to New York with conference organizer Michael Neff. He took interest in her work, sat horrified at what she'd planned to pitch, and insisted that she conceive and pitch the book on the 761st, THE FIRST BLACK TANK UNIT IN COMBAT.

Miss DiNicolo is now working on her next project - a narrative nonfiction on a bloody World War I battle.

Viva Gina! We love you!


#9932 a: The Great Book Synopsis Dilemma

Posted AgentModX on 08 August 2013 - 10:00 AM

Surely, one of these books would have an example of the perfect book synopsis!

I swear sometimes if it weren’t for grant applications and writing conference deadlines, I wouldn’t push myself to complete tasks related to selling my fiction. I know it sounds crazy. When you’ve poured your heart and soul into creating the perfect story and spent countless hours revising, you should want to complete any and all steps necessary to make sure your book gets noticed. Right?


The problem is, for me at least, developing a story idea is enjoyable. Trying to come up with an elevator speech and one-page query letter or synopsis? Not so fun. For me, personally, I think I struggle with the mere thought of condensing the gist of an entire book into one or two pages.

This past weekend, I was preparing pages for an upcoming manuscript query I’ve paid for at an upcoming SCBWI Conference. Polishing up the first ten pages for submission? Easy Peasy. Writing a one-page synopsis on said submission? Not so easy for some reason. My voice of reason husband kept repeating the same phrase over and over(“You need to come up with a positioning statement for the book!")to which I simply growled and laid my head upon my desk. I couldn’t figure out if I should lean more toward writing something that sounded like book jacket copy or a straightforward condensed synopsis of the book. Finally, I ended up with a combination of both that I think worked pretty well.

I found this great post by Jane Friedman on the basics of writing a synopsis. Of course, I found it after I already sent my submission off, but those are the breaks. I feel like I probably didn't explain all my characters and their conflicts as well as I could have but in this case, I had a limited word count. A few months ago I had to write a synopsis of a middle-grade novel I'm working on and was able to summarize each chapter of the book, which helped me tremendously.

I wanted to share my story with everyone here as validation that this is something many writers struggle with. Yes or no? Is it crazy that I stress out about query letters and book synopses? Am I overthinking the process? Is it foolish for me to spend time thumbing through books on the writing craft trying to find the perfect example of what I’m looking for? Help!

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer who loves to blog about books, movies, music, celebrity gossip and writing at Renee's Pages.
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#7994 a: Plot vs Story

Posted EditorAdmin on 18 January 2013 - 11:00 AM

I just watched this very interesting clip of an interview with Martin Scorsese, in which he talks about the distinction between story and plot. (Go ahead and watch it; it’s only 2 minutes). Essentially he defines plot as the bare bones of what happens in a movie–the basic outline. Story involves the characters, the cinematography [...]

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#5606 a: Is What You Do Different from What You Are?

Posted EditorAdmin on 04 July 2012 - 04:12 AM

Growing up, defining my parents was very easy. My father was an electrician and had been for my entire life. My mother was a teacher. That, as they say, was that. Recently, I began wondering what my children say if they are asked about me. There are so many options. I do many things.

First, I work as a Marketing and Community Services Department Assistant for my local newspaper. Sounds fancy, doesn't it? But I'm more like the secretary who does a little bit of everything...write the employee newsletter, help organize contests for subscribers, even sort books donated for the annual book sale to raise funds for programs the newspaper organizes for local students. It is also the type of job that has all those lovely things like medical insurance, pension plans, and paid vacation.

Second, I organize WOW Blog Tours which is grand fun but which most people (read: my mother) don't really understand unless they are in the publishing industry.

Third, I do freelance writing. Everything from magazine writing to paid blogging to book reviews. Even the occasional teaching or speaking gig sharing my writing expertise.

Fourth, I weave worlds of adventure. Of course the problem is there never seems to be enough time after the first three to focus on this fourth love. Because yes, that is what I love. That is truly what I AM. So why is so much of my time spent doing other things? I've asked myself that a thousand times.

It is time to begin putting my writing first. If I don't, who will? I want to soon be at the place where the immediate answer to

"What do you do?"


"I am a writer."

It is time to set real goals. Goals like: By the end of the year I will be actively sending out my YA novel to agents and publishers and working on my mystery.

What goals have you set lately? How will you reach them?

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#5560 Two Awards for AS Writers

Posted EditorAdmin on 30 June 2012 - 07:32 PM

Janice MacDonald's THE WHALE TALKER is a finalist in the 2012 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. The contest received more than 1,000 entries from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Winners will be announced at an awards banquet, July 21.


Bill Dougherty's LUCIUS AND THE ONLYS has placed 3rd in the Jesse Stuart Prize for Young Adult Fiction at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.

#526 Cary Tennis of Salon.Com Joins Author Salon Faculty

Posted EditorAdmin on 10 January 2012 - 08:31 PM

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Cary Tennis

Cary is a former writer for the SF Weekly, and now writer-chief of Salon.Com's famous SINCE YOU ASKED advice column which boasts a readership of over half a million readers per month. The fiction side of Cary attended the masters program in creative writing at SF State and is currently working on an upmarket novel entitled BURNING THE RAIN GIRL. He runs fiction writer workshops in Point Reyes employing The Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method.

#490 a: 8 Busy Moms Who Published Novels

Posted EditorAdmin on 08 January 2012 - 12:00 PM

By all accounts, I’m a busy mom. I gave up my teaching career a couple of years ago so I could stay home with my children—one school-aged, and one who has just turned two. Soon, I’ll no longer be a mom of two, but a mom of four. We’re expecting a set of twins in [...]

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#4780 Author Carla Norton's EDGE OF NORMAL Signed by Liza Dawson Associates

Posted EditorAdmin on 23 May 2012 - 12:28 AM

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Author Carla Norton's EDGE OF NORMAL Signed by Liza Dawson Associates
Reeve drives north from San Francisco to the rugged town of Jefferson, where she meets Tilly’s family and establishes an instant bond. But gaining the girl’s trust has a price. Tilly swears Reeve to secrecy and reveals that the real mastermind of the crime isn't known to the police and is lurking nearby, watching, waiting patiently for Tilly to make a mistake.
- THE EDGE OF NORMAL by Carla Norton
Once a neophyte in the world of competitive fiction writing, bestselling nonfiction author Carla Norton joined Author Salon and her first writer workshop group, made excellent use of the AS Critique Guide, and together with writers and professional editors in the AS community, honed the many elements of her novel, THE EDGE OF NORMAL, into a competitive manuscript that was just picked up by Liza Dawson Associates. AS is sharing publishing contacts with LDA gained from the Author Salon Literary Showcase, contacts which include acquisition editors from Random House, Harper Collins, and Penguin who asked for fulls and partials.

A Dialogue With Crime Writer Carla Norton

Carla Norton is a seasoned true crime writer whose nonfiction, PERFECT VICTIM, became a New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Best Seller, spending four months on the list and four weeks in the #1 spot. It was later put on the reading list for the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. Carla has twice served as a judge for the Edgar Awards and has been a guest speaker at conferences, as well on “Geraldo” and “Larry King Live.” She has an MFA, and this is her first novel.

1. What inspired you to write your story? What do you love about the genre?

When my first book was published, people would ask, “How can you write this stuff? Doesn’t it give you nightmares?” And the answer is yes, if you’re doing it right, it absolutely does. Colleen Stan’s incredible ordeal of kidnapping and captivity just kept buzzing in my head. It haunted me, and I wanted to transform that true crime story into crime fiction.

I love fast-paced, juicy thrillers, especially SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which seems more brilliant with each reading. Structure is the key to writing in this genre, but most thrillers are excessively testosterone-driven, and I wasn’t interested in another protagonist who happens to be a weapons expert with muscles of steel. Instead, I set out to write a plot-driven story about a survivor of kidnapping who is not a cop or a karate expert, a damaged young woman who is outmatched by a clever criminal.

2. Prior to being included in the Author Salon Literary Showcase, how did your project and/or your writing evolve here at Author Salon? What have you learned that has brought your novel closer to publication?

I’d actually thought my novel was finished before I started with Author Salon, but the writer peer group I met there gave me great feedback based on the Author Salon critique criteria, and I went back to work. The group was supportive and insightful and they helped me fine-tune the novel elements in my profile as well as my first 50 pages. Also, the whole process sharpened my pitch considerably and strengthened my prose. It gave me the edge I needed.

The critiques of other novels actually took more time and effort than I’d expected, but one unexpected and lasting benefit was that critiquing my peers’ work helped me look more critically at my own, identify weak spots, and improve my entire novel. I became a better editor as a result.

No writer can afford to just hand over a manuscript and expect an agent or editor to see the underlying potential. It has to shine. And Author Salon provides a meaningful and unique way for writers to polish their work and improve their chances for publication.

#4163 Comparables: Whether Author Salon or Classic Query, Aspiring Authors MUST Use...

Posted EditorAdmin on 30 April 2012 - 06:43 PM

Whether you are a member of Author Salon or sending out agent query letters on your own, you need to follow the professional rules when it comes to choosing the right comparables to include in your novel or nonfiction pitch. Comparables that are inaccurate or overused will signal that you are an amateur who does not understand the market.

Caitlin Alexander, former senior editor at Random House, and now resident faculty at Author Salon, has generously donated her time to provide you with guidelines for discovering ideal comparables. This is the best advice you are going to receive on this critical issue of providing proper comps in agent query letters. If necessary, allow it to substitute for any other advice you've received in the past that might seem contrary.

As follows:

Keep it recent: Watch the bestseller lists and follow industry news. If you can (legitimately) comp your book to something that's been a recent smash, you'll have a leg up. Bestsellers are hard to predict, and often take everyone by surprise (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey)--once something's been proven a hit, publishers are going to be looking for more, instantly. After 3-6 months, though, they're all going to have seen a dozen comps to The Help!

Keep it fresh: Stay away from comparing your book to the ubiquitous bestsellers--Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich--because they are their own brands and impossible to duplicate ... [ more  on the Author Salon Craft Site ]

#219 a: The No. 1 Overlooked Skill for Every Author

Posted EditorAdmin on 30 November 2011 - 12:00 PM

I wish they taught this skill to students in high school or college. Creative writing students especially need to spend a semester on it, but never do. You’d think publishers would deliver a 101 guide on it for their authors, though I’m not sure the publishers themselves always know anything about it. The skill is [...]

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#2049 Face-Lift 990

Posted EditorAdmin on 09 February 2012 - 01:33 PM

Guess the Plot

King's Mark

1. 26 generations of royal, first-born sons have had a crown-shaped birthmark over their hearts. When Ardolf is born with an elephant on his left butt-cheek and his twin sister, Aelfhild, has the crown over her heart, the kingdom is divided over who should rule. War ensues.

2. 735 AD. Brother Harald has been tasked with illuminating the Gospel of St Mark for the King. He feels unworthy of the commission--until St Mark himself appears to pose for his portrait.

3. Stone carver Leti is kidnapped by traders who've seen his otter birthmarks. They turn him over to the criminal mastermind known only as The Steward. Escaping, Leti finds his home destroyed and his people killed, and vows to instigate change throughout the land.

4. Katrian is a King's Mark, a man who stands in for King Junius for mundane tasks like fitting clothes. When he stumbles upon an assassination plot led by the Queen, can he save the King without becoming a marked man?

5. Rupprecht Luitpold would have been King of Bavaria but the monarchy was dissolved at the end of WWI. Hitler offers to restore Rupprecht’s crown but he spurns Hitler so The NAZIs seize the Luitpold estate and property. As Rupprecht flees, he spends his last Deutsch Mark on a beer and curses the coin. This is the story of that coin.

6. The last princess of Gorune gave birth to identical triplet sons, each bearing the birthmark that identifies them as king. A mix-up means nobody's sure which was born first. Now the brothers, enjoying their playboy lifestyles must battle to the death, the victor to be King. Why can't they just pull a sword from a stone?

Original Version

Dear Evil Editor,

There is nothing Leti loves better than hunting along the river and practicing his stone carving. [In the game of stone/carving knife/roast turkey, stone beats carving knife.] Until now, his clan’s protection has allowed him to do just that.

But when visiting traders discover the otter-print birthmarks on Leti’s hands, [Otter print.] they kidnap and smuggle him into a hostile city where the King’s Mark is the sign of a traitor. [This guy has the mark of a traitor. Should we kill him, leave him here trying to carve a stone with a knife, or bring him to our home city?] And the Steward doesn’t tolerate traitors. [The Steward? That's the nickname your supervillain has chosen to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies?]

Instead of being executed, Leti is sold to a rebel leader, who plans to use Leti’s existence as a rallying point.

[Trader: We have captured this simple stone carver and brought him to you. He must be executed, for these marks on his hands prove he will one day betray someone, possibly us.

The Steward: I have a better idea. I'll sell him to the leader of the rebellion. What harm can come from that? Besides, I can use the cash.]

Leti escapes [by carving a boulder into a war club], only to find his home destroyed and his clan scattered, killed, or sold into slavery. Instigating change suddenly becomes personal. [Instigating change?

Leti: WTF? I'm gone three weeks and my home is destroyed and my people killed or enslaved?

Old man sitting by the side of the road: Hey, it happens.

Leti: Not any more, it doesn't. It's time someone . . . instigated change!]

Aided by another Marked, a ruthless, charismatic guttersnipe-turned-revolutionary [with beaver prints on his feet], Leti begins to work with the insurgency. [In real life, the ruthless, charismatic revolutionary doesn't aid the rock sculptor. He forces the rock sculptor to aid him.] [Is the insurgency the rebels he escaped from?] Little does he know that the Steward is the least of his worries – another enemy hides in the shadows, [An enemy known as . . . The Custodian!] and the rebellion is playing right into his hands.

KING’S MARK, complete at 90,000 words, is a fast-paced epic fantasy. Additional material is available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration,


What are these rebels the Steward sells Leti to rebelling against? Surely not the Steward. You don't sell a Marked to your enemy. Or does the Mark mean he'll be a traitor to whomever has him?

For those minions who inevitably will ask what makes this different from all the other sculptor-vows-revenge-on-evil-overlord stories out there, I have two words: otter prints.

The writing is okay, but maybe you need to clear up some of the points that seem a little off.

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#18941 SWISS VENDETTA by Tracee de Hahn on Amazon

Posted EditorAdmin on 28 September 2016 - 06:15 PM

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Another novel successfully workshopped and agented as a result of an Algonkian "intervention"

SWISS VENDETTA by Tracee de Hahn

Inspector Agnes Lüthi, a Swiss-American police officer in Lausanne, Switzerland, has just transferred to the Violent Crimes unit from Financial Crimes to try to shed all reminders of her old life following her husband's death. Now, on the eve of the worst blizzard Lausanne has seen in centuries, Agnes has been called to investigate her very first homicide case. On the lawn of the grand Château Vallotton, at the edge of Lac Léman, a young woman has been found stabbed to death. The woman, an appraiser for a London auction house, had been taking inventory at the château, a medieval fortress dripping in priceless works of art and historical treasures.

[ more ]

#16142 Neff and Macmillan Sync on "Magicians Impossible"

Posted EditorAdmin on 13 February 2016 - 07:00 AM

NYC pitch workshop leader and Algonkian director, Michael Neff, worked in 2015 with NYC faculty editor Brendan Deneen from Macmillan to develop a new fantasy project known as MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE. The book will be published by Macmillan in 2016 and Fox Studios has signed a contract for a new television series based on the novel.

Algonkian Writer Conferences director, Michael Neff, also a development executive with AEI Films and Books in Los Angeles, is not only workshop-leading in New York, but also on the search for high-concept SF/F, mystery/thrillers, historicals, and generally darn good fiction, upmarket or otherwise. Michael edits and publishes several highly acclaimed national literary magazines including The Potomac Review, as well as the "Paris Review of the Internet," Del Sol Review. His own work has appeared in such classic literary publications as The Literary Review, North American Review, Mudlark, Quarterly West, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Conjunctions, and American Way Magazine. More about him can be found on the Algonkian Writer Conferences website.

#14186 Richard Hacker Signed by AEI Films and Books

Posted EditorAdmin on 14 February 2015 - 04:12 PM

We are happy to announce that Richard Hacker, a long time Algonkian Author Salon member, has been signed by AEI Films and Books/Story Merchant in October 2014 for representation to major publishers and possible film production. This was made possible through diligent work with AAS editors and peers. Congrats to all involved!

Eighteen year old Ethan Adlar inherits a fountain pen and a destiny from his father, Thomas. Unknown to Ethan, Thomas led a secret alchemist league fighting an ancient war across the centuries to protect history from the future.

   - THE FIVE PENS OF JOHANNES by Richard Hacker

#13758 Wendy Eckel's MURDER AT BARCLAY MEADOW Available for Pre-Order

Posted MichaelNeff on 24 November 2014 - 06:45 PM

Author Wendy Eckel, a veteran of Algonkian Writer Conferences, joined Author Salon in October, 2011, and worked closely with AS editors, including advisory editors Michael Neff, Penny Warner, and Ken Atchity, to hone her "social media cozy" novel, KILLER ON THE WALL, into a competitive manuscript that was signed by AEI FILMS AND BOOKS in Los Angeles in 2012, and sold to Thomas Dunne Books in 2013.


Wendy Eckel's MURDER AT BARCLAY MEADOW (formerly "Killer on The Wall"), in which a woman sets out to solve a murder, and with the help of a Facebook group composed of amateur sleuths known as "The What Ifs," she begins the search for evidence and clues; after friending suspects on Facebook and working with a nervous programmer living in mortal fear of Mark Zuckerberg, she hacks into the dead girl's Facebook account and assumes her identity, only to discover a dark underbelly to what had originally seemed a charmed and effortless life, and THE DAY LILY CAFE, to Anne Brewer at Thomas Dunne Books, in a nice deal, for publication in 2015, by Ken Atchity and Michael Neff at Story Merchant (World Rights).


#13261 Ingrid Seymour Ignites a Few Shadows

Posted EditorAdmin on 19 September 2014 - 04:59 PM

Give a big hand for one of Author Salon's own: Ingrid Seymour.

You will be expected to describe the hook, conflict, stakes, protagonist, antagonist, climax, etc. You will also be required to provide samples of your dialogue, opening, characters, and setting. And you’d better do a good job, because your profile will determine your project status. If your hook, doesn’t hook and your narrative doesn’t pop. Forget it!

- Ingrid Seymour (talking about Author Salon)

Ingrid Seymour is the author of "Ignite The Shadows" (Harper Voyager, February 2015). When she’s not writing books, she spends her time working as a software engineer, cooking exotic recipes, hanging out with her family and working out. She writes young adult and new adult fiction in a variety of genres, including Sci-Fi, urban fantasy, romance, paranormal and horror.

#12799 a: Doubt, Fear and Constipation

Posted EditorAdmin on 09 July 2014 - 11:00 AM

bananasOnce upon a time, I didn’t believe in monsters under the bed. Boogeymen were also make-believe, and hostile, big-eyed aliens were only real in movies. I didn’t want to believe in scary stuff so I chose not to believe in it. Behold, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . da Queen of de Nial!

I applied the same head-in-sand mentality to Writer’s Block. When my high school English students claimed Writer’s Block rendered them unable to write their Hamlet essays, I rolled my eyes and called them pribbling, beef-witted pollywockers. When, in 2005, I had the pleasure of hearing Dorothy Allison speak about her paralyzing, three-year Writer’s Block, I didn’t yell Shakespearean insults, but I didn’t quite believe her either. Lionel Messi doesn’t suddenly find himself unable to play soccer. Meryl Streep doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to act. Barbara Walters doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to ask nosy, semi-inappropriate questions. And three years? Surely Dorothy Allison wrote something over those three years.

But let’s get back to the monsters.

While I didn’t want to believe in monsters, deep down I have always known that they exist. They come in the form of pediatric cancer, domestic violence and chronic mental illness. They look exactly like political leaders who don’t care that their country’s people are hungry and voiceless. They are the terrorists who lob bombs into crowded public spaces. They may not live under my bed, but they do exist.

And, as I have been writing over the past fifteen years, I see Writer’s Block is equally real. My students did feel paralyzed. Dorothy Allison was unable to write for three years. It’s a monster that resides under my bed after all . . . under your bed too.

How do I know? Because Writer’s Block is almost always the result of doubt, and doubt loiters and lollygags in the heart and head of every serious writer.

Let me share some examples: Finding yourself stuck in the murky bog of a problematic plot? Doubt. Wanting to give up—no, I mean seriously give up . . . for real this time? Doubt. Feeling paralyzed by the fear of success? Feeling paralyzed by the fear of failure? Worrying that, perhaps, you are a lousy writer who’s been wasting time and money honing your craft? That’s all doubt, and left unchecked, it’ll push open the door so Writer’s Block can stride in like it owns the place.

But don’t panic!

Doubt, like bananas, is healthy! Too many bananas (and too much doubt) will stop you right up. But a banana a day? Yes sir.

Writer’s Block is just a less-gross term for Literary Constipation. It is not going to kill us. It is simply a time where our writing course is altered, or as Dorothy Allison calls it, a “correction.” Writer’s Block is just a correction. A disruption. A few speed bumps. Corrections make our stories (and our skills) more correct. That’s a good thing.

Still, Dorothy Allison was paralyzed by Writer’s Block for three years. THREE YEARS!  Three years of staring at blank paper and screen. Three years of sitting on the literary loo and being able to produce nada. Not even crap-ola. Ack!

May I share what works for me when I’m blocked?

First, I try to figure out why I am blocked. Am I listening to Ron, the all-in-my-head voice that tells me what a crummy writer I am? Am I writing to please and impress the whole wide world? Am I missing something important in my story? Oh, right . . . like PLOT?

Once I determine why I am blocked, I deal with the blockage. Sometimes it’s simple; I spend a few days taking better care of myself. I eat fewer bananas. Drink more water. Increase my fiber.

You have heard all the standard solutions: Go for a long walk. Draw your story on really big piece of paper. Read your writing aloud. Write a scene from the perspective of another character. Vent to a trusted writing partner. Take a break. Work on another project. Organize your junk drawers. Go through old photo albums. Clean your house. Write a letter of resignation, carefully detailing why you will never write again. Sign it, then mail it–snail mail–to your writing partner. By the time she receives it, you’ll probably be writing again.

But sometimes nothing works.

That’s right. Complicated blockage requires calling in the big guns. Two big guns.

Gun #1: When I get really mired in the muck, I remind myself to be kind to myself. (As opposed to screaming, “WRITE, YOU IDIOT! WRITE! NO, SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T STINK!”) Kindness is paramount.

Gun #2: While Writer’s Block is the result of doubt, of tunnel vision and the apparent absence of creativity, it’s also the result of feeling cornered. Boxed in. When I need to free myself and tickle my brain, I read Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Neruda’s poem-questions remind me that words and language are playful, that I am not at the mercy of the world . . . nor at the mercy of Publishing. I’m also not constrained by the world’s (or Publishing’s) constraints.

A few examples of Neruda’s words:

Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal the splendor of their roots?

Who hears the regrets of the thieving automobile?

Is there anything in the world sadder than a train standing in the rain?

How many churches are there in heaven?

Why does the hat of night fly so full of holes?

How many bees are there in a day?

I am not suggesting that Dorothy Allison could have unstuck herself with a few Neruda poems. I am not suggesting that poetry is the solution to an AWOL plot. I am simply consoled and invigorated as I witness others playing with language.

Look, writing fiction is really hard work. Being a writer requires tremendous endurance and courage. During the correction times, we need to be kind to ourselves, we need to rediscover the beauty of language and the joy of story, we need to endure. We must, as Dorothy Allison said, “Write dirt until it becomes mud. Write mud until it becomes wine.”

How do you, dear readers, cope with paralyzing doubt? What do you do to unstick yourself when you are blocked? Please share so we know we’re not alone when monsters peek out from under the bed.


Photo compliments of Flickr’s Ian Ransley

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

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#10487 a: Story First, Writing Second – Especially Come November

Posted EditorAdmin on 10 October 2013 - 11:00 AM

photo by jakeliefer via Flickr

photo by jakeliefer via Flickr

I spent the morning working with a very talented writer. An extremely well-placed agent had recently rejected her manuscript, but told her that he’d be happy to consider a revision, or anything else she submits. This is rare praise.

I wasn’t surprised, either by the praise or the rejection. This writer has a great voice; she’s a wordsmith of the first order. Problem is, she can’t tell a story, so as the agent pointed out, the manuscript was meandering, aimless and didn’t add up to anything. And here’s the thing: the writer knew it. But she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.

Talking to her, I said, “Here’s what most writers do, and why they fail: They come up with an interesting character and an interesting situation, and then they start writing to see where it’ll go. They figure that both the story and the character will come clear to them as they write. What they end up with is a narrative that’s basically just a bunch of things that happen.”

“Yes,” she said, “That’s exactly what I did! And when I went back to rewrite, I didn’t know what to do, or how to make it better.”

“Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.

In fact, before we spoke, she’d written to tell me she was ready to chalk it up to a good try, and start over with something else. Which was heartbreaking, and happily, turned out to be unnecessary. Instead, she’s now going back to find the heart of the story was aiming for, and only then will she begin writing forward.

“Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.

November is a Terrible Month to Waste

Why am I telling you this now? Because next month is November, aka National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. It’s that time of year when writers across the country hunker down and let ‘er rip, the goal being to write 1,666 words a day for thirty days.

And then in December, all those writers will go back over those words to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. Which is when the vast majority of them very well might end up feeling like the woman I spoke with this morning. If they’re lucky. Others will spend months, if not years, trying to massage a bunch of things that happen into a story. They’ll send them off to agents who will say, “This didn’t add up to anything.” And then they’ll give up, maybe deciding they aren’t writers after all, and vowing to take up interpretive dance instead. Now, that is genuinely heartbreaking.

And utterly avoidable. How? By taking a little time before November to focus in on the story you’ll be writing – not the plot, but the underlying layer of story that most writers completely ignore before diving in, the layer where everything that really matters takes place: your protagonist’s evolving worldview. That is what readers come to experience.

Story Doesn’t Come Through Writing

Many writers – even established writers – start off with nothing more than a general sense of who their protagonist is, a rudimentary notion of what might happen in the plot, and a basic idea of what their story question will be. They believe that their protagonist’s internal struggle will come clear to them as they write.

This isn’t something you can write forward to figure out, because this inner struggle is what defines the story from the first page. It’s what you have to know before

 “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust

you create the plot. Because a story isn’t about the surface “plot” level events, regardless of how well rendered they are in accordance with any or all of the external story structure models that abound. Rather, a story is about how those events force the protagonist to overcome an internal misbelief in order to solve the story-problem and achieve her goal.

Can you see where this is going? The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue – fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief – that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about.

Make no mistake: readers intuitively know that story is about the protagonist’s inner struggle, even though chances are they can’t articulate it. It’s what we’re wired to track; we filter everything that happens through the protagonist’s evolving worldview. Don’t just take it from me, here are two august writers who articulate it perfectly:

 “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

 “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust

The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. 

Think about that for a minute. Feel it. Story is about an inner change.

How on earth can your protagonist end up with new eyes, unless she begins by seeing things through old eyes? How can she see something she already knows for the first time (meaning really see it), if we don’t know how she saw it to begin with?

The answer’s easy. She can’t.

The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page.

So if you don’t know what her worldview is going in – and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?

You won’t. Which means that chances are you’ll just write a bunch of things that happen.

Your Personal Decoder Ring

I want to hit hard on why nailing these specifics before you begin writing is this so crucially important, because it flies in the face of what a lot of us were taught to believe, not only about writing, but about life. To wit: there is an objective reality out there, and unless we’re really, really screwed up, we all see the same world.

We ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect. 

 Not so.

Here’s how the brain really rolls:

Day-by-day from birth on, we each build our own individual dictionary of meaning – think of it as a personal decoder ring. When we’re born it only has a few universal pre-set codes, geared to physical survival. For instance, we’re pretty good at instinctively interpreting the physical sensations that telegraph things like: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I’m dying to know if that cute guy over there likes me.

Just about everything else is learned. And here’s the game changer: it’s not learned “objectively,” so that everyone comes away with the exact same interpretation of what things mean. Rather, it’s all learned subjectively, based on personal experience, so everyone has a different interpretation of the same “objective” thing.

In other words, we ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect.

For instance – and this is from Benjamin K. Bergen’s revelatory new book LOUDER THAN WORDS: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning – if I say the words “barking dog,” we’re all, by definition, going to see a different image.

Some of us will see a German shepherd with loud terrifying bark, some that ubiquitous T-shirt from The Black Dog Tavern in Nantucket, some a yippy-yappy Chihuahua, and some our own loving, tail-wagging mutt who’s happy to see us at the end of the day.

And it’s not just the image we see that’s different – it’s also how it makes us feel, and what we do in response. If you were attacked by a dog when you were little, right now you might be under the bed in the fetal position, breathing into a paper bag and waiting for your pulse to slow.

Your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.

Or, you may have seen good ‘ol Lassie running in slo-mo through an amber field of grain, and now you’re sniffling as you revise your will to leave everything to PETA.

But there is one thing that I guarantee NO ONE ever sees upon hearing the words “barking dog”:

“A highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf.”

Which, of course, is the dictionary definition of a dog – aka an “objective” general fact. And with conceptual terms, the difference is even more acute. If I say, “torture chamber,” you might picture a medieval dungeon replete with an iron maiden, or a dark pit in a desert in Afghanistan, or you might think of being strapped into a dentist’s chair with Yani blaring on the headphones (or maybe that’s just me).

Point being, each of us sees – and feels — what life has taught us to expect in every situation we face. It’s how we make sense of everything. Which means that throughout your story, your protagonist will be calling up her past to make sense of what’s happening to her in the moment. And that, my friends, is precisely what readers come for: inside intel. So your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.

So What’s a Writer to Do?

Before you write word one, you must craft your character’s backstory. Not, mind you, a birth-to-death encyclopedic bio. That can be as paralyzing as knowing nothing. Here’s the secret: you’re only looking for information that affects the story you’re telling. If a story is about a problem, then what you’re looking for is the root of the problem that will kick into gear on page one.

First, you want to pinpoint two things:

  1. The specific event that knocked your protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief that drives the inner action.
  2. The event that triggered her desire for the goal itself, which tells us what it really means to her.

Next, the trick is to trace how those two competing forces shaped her life up to the moment when the story begins. Not trace them in general, but in scene form.

I know, I know. That sounds like work. And as one aghast writing instructor said to me: “My students would never do that. They all want to start writing right away!” To which I responded: “This is writing!”

Plus, if you do this first, your first draft won’t be one of those meandering, romping, collections of things that happen, but the first draft of an actual story.

This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot.

So chances are you won’t have to do as much rewriting later. What’s more, maybe, just maybe, you won’t face certain rejection from agents when it’s time to pitch. Or, if you decide to self-publish, rejection in the marketplace.

And believe it or not, working out a story’s inner logic is the fun part. You can write like crazy, and not have to worry a whit about how “well” you’re writing. You can test out myriad scenarios as you can dig deep into how and where your protagonist’s worldview got skewed. Because you know darn well that from the instant her misbelief took root, there have been specific signs she’s misread, and facts she’s misinterpreted, things she’s done that have made achieving her goal that much more difficult. And, voila! You have her “old eyes.”

Here’s the Brilliant Part

This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot. And as important, you’ll know the key players too – the people in her past who, for better or worse, helped facilitate that worldview. Chances are high they’ll play a part in the novel too, and now you’ll know when and why they’re at cross-purposes with your protagonist, what they’re hiding from each other, and when they’re woefully misreading each other.

In other words, you’ll have created the clay from which you can build your story. Which means that come November first, when the flag goes up, and you hear the announcer call out“Novelists, start your engines,” you’ll already have the keys in hand.

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

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Story First, Writing Second – Especially Come November was first posted on October 10, 2013 at 7:00 am.

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