Posts Tagged ‘Donna Schlachter’

Producing a Novel – Part 10

Writing a Series

By Donna Schlachter

As with all of the posts in this series, the information below is only a summary of how to write a series. As with all good books, most of the work comes at the beginning. In the case of penning an ongoing series, that beginning point is the first novel, and preferably before you write it.

However, that aside, my alter ego, Leeann Betts, just concluded a 12-book mystery series, and when she sat down to write, she had no idea (a) if she’d even finish one book, let alone a series, and (b) she didn’t know it would be a series until she wrote The End, realized she loved her characters and didn’t want to say good-bye, so resolved to write at least two more and see where that led.

So, despite what I say below, you can write the first book and not know you want it to be a series. However, before you publish or submit said book, read this article and make sure you’re ready for the next, because there are tough questions you should answer before you begin.

Ask Yourself…

  1. Is my genre suited to a series? The best genres are fantasy, sci-fi, crime/mystery, historical fiction, and children’s/young adult. Otherwise, a standalone is probably your best bet.
  2. Is my plot suited to a series? Plots told from multiple points of view that weave together are best, as are stories that happen over a longer period of time. If there is room for extensive character development, world building, and multiple subplots, your story could be a candidate for a series.
  3. Are my characters suited for a series? Again, characters who need to grow and change do this best over a long period of time. Also, if you have a huge cast of characters in mind, planning to introduce them one book at the time might avoid reader confusion.
  4. Can I commit to writing a series? Once you start, readers will expect at least one book every year, with two books being better, and three or four better yet. Readers of a series don’t want to wait two years for the next installment. They’ll go on to something else and forget about you in the meantime.
  5. How many books do I need in order to tell my story? That depends on the genre, the cast of characters, subplots, and your character arc. Please don’t try to drag a three-volume series out into seven or ten just to increase sales. Readers are not stupid. They’ll see right through you and quit reading.

Tips for Success

Once you’ve answered these questions, the following are a few pointers on making sure your series has a good chance of succeeding:

  1. Writing a series is different than writing multiple books with unique characters in each. It requires planning from the get-go. You need to have a story too big (not necessarily the same as too long) for just one book. Longer-term or series-wide developments such as character growth needs to be present. Generally in a series, there is some amount of time between the happenings of each book, ranging from a few weeks to several months to years.
  2. Make sure your central conflict is enough to sustain readers’ interest. In crime or mystery, the sleuth’s expertise or involvement is often enough, while in other genres, an ongoing battle with the villain, an ongoing character arc, or a generational saga can keep readers coming back.
  3. Create a world that readers want to come back to. Make it rich in imaginative detail without boring the reader; make it distinct yet familiar; and give each setting its own character.
  4. Some would advise outlining your series in advance. That would be helpful for pretty much all genres except crime/mystery, where a notion of what that particular book is about should keep you going.
  5. Establish the central characters early in the story but don’t reveal their entire backstory. Let the reader see the wounds that the protagonist overcomes, one at a time, and reveal the source of the wound in that book.
  6. Introduce new characters in each book to keep the series moving. Consider changing out the setting to afford that opportunity, if needed. Put your central characters in new or unexpected settings to force them to act and react.
  7. Stretch out each character’s developmental arc, healing wounds slowly. Give them faults they struggle to overcome, show how their environment impacts and changes them, and keep a list of how they change from book to book so you don’t repeat any.
  8. Each book in your series should have its own strong central event, just as a standalone would, the catalyst for the protagonist embarking on this journey.
  9. Make sure your middle books in the series are strong and exciting, or else readers will give up on you.
  10. Tie the series together with a compelling series name and tie the titles together in some way, such as a pattern of words or numbers. Think Sue Grafton’s ABC murders, A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, and so on. Or Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who. . .  series.

Writing a series can be a very rewarding endeavor, but at some point, it must end. The final installment should wrap up all the plot lines of this book, as well as any outstanding plot lines remaining from previous books. The character arc should be completed for all major characters, and the conclusion should be satisfying yet hopeful that these characters have a happily ever after ahead of them.

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Resources:
Ultimate guide: How to Write a Series
How to Write a Book Series – 10 Tips for Writing Smash Hits
How to Write a Series: 8 Novice Mistakes to Avoid


Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com

Producing a Novel – Part 9

Racing to the Finish

By: Donna Schlachter

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far as we discover the steps and craft elements needed to write a novel. However, we mustn’t relax now as we arrive at an important place in our book—writing a successful ending.

Quick Review

As a quick review, based on the Three-Act structure for a novel, your first act, or the opening/ hook/introduction, which comprises less than 25% of your story length, introduced your characters, setting, the problem, the lie, and the strengths and weaknesses of your hero and your villain.

Then the second act, or the middle of the story, which comprises the bulk of the book, the next 75% to 90% of the story, placed your characters into difficult situations, building in intensity, forcing them to make harder and harder decisions. You also introduced more characters and story lines, or subplots, in this part of your story.

And now you’ve arrived at the third act, where you’ll wrap up the plot lines, the character arcs, provide a satisfactory outcome (however that’s defined for the genre), and, if it’s a series, prepare the way for the next book. This third act should take up 15% to 25% of the book, but less is usually better.

One thing to remember about the three-act structure is that the first act will enable the reader to decide if they want to keep reading; the second act keeps them interested in the story and the character arc; but the third act will sell your next book. Resolving all the plot lines and questions creates a satisfying ending that gives the reader confidence that your next book will also be worth reading.

The Big Lie

What keeps readers reading is the Big Lie, what your character believes about themselves that wounds them so deeply and makes them question themselves and make poor choices, brings tension and conflict into their arc and the story. Alluding to the Big Lie in the first act, bringing it to the forefront and having it cause all kinds of problems in the second, naturally leads to the realization of the lie and the desire to overcome that belief by taking heroic measures in the final act. These actions should be based on what we already know about the character, which you would have told us previously, including any special abilities or talents. Don’t simply spring this on your reader in the final act.

Readers want your hero and heroine to confront the Big Lie and overcome it, but the process should elevate the stakes more than ever in the final act. Their final struggle is the Climax, which should take place in the final 5% to 10% of the story, where they have to make the toughest decisions and embark on the most dangerous journey to succeed. This victory isn’t all about external action; it should also include internal conflict. And it will solidify the story’s theme.

Regardless of the genre, this confrontation and victory must happen, or the reader won’t be satisfied with the outcome. They have been rooting for your hero and heroine to change, to meet the obstacle and overcome it, and to come out better on the other side for having done so.

Loose Ends

After the Climax, now is the time to tie up the loose ends. Make sure your hero and heroine have met their story goal, which might have changed from the beginning. If there were situations where the hero or heroine made a poor choice during their quest, now is the time to right those wrongs.

Once that is done, introduce your hero or heroine’s new normal, which should be a juxtaposition of where the story began. Show that they are different, they act different, and they’ll make different and better choices going forward.

Cover Your Bases

Here’s a list to double-check your ending to ensure you have covered all the bases:

  1. Don’t cheat – grow the ending from the seeds you planted along the way, and don’t rely on coincidence.
  2. Use callbacks and motifs – have a character repeat or restate something said earlier to tie the end to the beginning; thread a motif through the story, using the motif in a new and different way because of the changes in the character.
  3. Highlight the theme – while you should have alluded to the story’s theme throughout, now is the time to make that final point
  4. Wrap up any loose ends – keep a list throughout your writing of all the issues, topics raised, plot lines, and questions, and make sure you have resolved those. If you’re writing a series, you don’t have to solve every problem or resolve every issue, but at least give the reader the promise you’ll address it again soon.
  5. Don’t drag out the ending – the goal of the ending is to be unique, succinct, and satisfying. If you’re finding the ending, which should be less than 5% of the book, is long and convoluted, perhaps you have too much going on in the book. Cut some plot lines and save them for the sequel or another book.

The Final Act

One you enter the final act, no new characters and no new situations should be introduced unless you foreshadowed them earlier. Your hero and heroine should serve as the primary catalysts—they drive the climax, not simply respond to it. The hero and heroine should grow and change internally, learning from their past decisions, and emerging as a better person.

You want to emotionally vest the reader in the story right from the beginning so they feel the ending through the heroism of your characters.  To do that, plan the ending every bit as carefully as you’ve planned the rest of the book. Even if you’re not an outliner, make sure you’ve included all elements of a successful ending to ensure the reader wants to buy your next book. Folks love characters and settings, but it’s really the ending that they remember best. And that’s true whether they consider it a good or a bad ending. You want them to remember your book favorably.

Resources:
How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending
How to End Your Book: 5 Steps to Writing a Fantastic Final Chapter
The Third Act: How to Write a Climactic Sequence

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Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with her husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, devotional books, and books on the writing craft. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, Capital Christian Writers Fellowship, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.

Producing a Novel – Part 8

Overcoming the Middle Muddle

By: Donna Schlachter

The Middle of Your Novel

The middle of your novel comprises about 60% of your book and is the part of the story where stuff happens. The problem that happens in many books and movies—usually the ones we don’t finish watching or reading—is that the middle is boring. Unfortunately, the middle of our novel sometimes becomes a series of similar situations and circumstances that take up time and give the characters something to do, but doesn’t really move the story forward.

That’s the Middle Muddle.

Don't let your book suffer from Muddle in the Middle.

Causes:

  1. We don’t know where the story is going so we ramble on and on, revealing a little more of the character’s backstory here, explaining (or excusing) their behavior because of their past over there, alluding to what might happen, what could happen, what should happen.
  2. We write more about the past than the future, or more about possibilities than actualities, that’s a sure sign of a Middle Muddle.
  3. We spend a lot of time in the middle of the book trying to figure out what genre we’re really writing in.
  4. When we don’t start the story in the right place, we spend too many chapters getting to the First Choice or the First Turning Point.

Solution 1: Make the Goals Clear

Everybody has goals. Cinderella wanted to get to the ball to meet the Prince to get out of her life of drudgery. The ugly step-sisters wanted to get to the ball to meet the Prince and have him fall in love with them. The wicked step-mother wanted to get her daughters married off so she could enjoy a life of luxury. And the Prince wanted to find the woman of his dreams.

Even villains have goals. Few set out to destroy the world just for destruction’s sake. They usually want revenge, or power, or wealth, and they’re willing to do whatever they think it will take to accomplish that goal.

The power in every story is when the reader knows what the character’s goals are—even if the character hasn’t verbalized them or even acknowledge them—and then complications are thrown in to prevent them from reaching their goals easily or at all.

Complications can be internal, external, or spiritual. They can be evident to everybody but the character. They can involve only a personal struggle, or they can include the outside world, as in the case of overcoming an epidemic or a ticking bomb.

Solution 2: Add Tension

Begin each scene and chapter with a hook to catch readers’ interest, have a specific struggle or problem that is worked out in that scene or chapter, and reach a conclusion that propels the reader into the next scene or chapter.

Another technique is the cliff hanger, where the problem isn’t concluded at the end of the scene or chapter, but the reader is left hanging, and they want to keep reading to find out what happens. 

Repeated images, phrases, themes, and thoughts can also increase tension. So if every time a character asks, “What else can go wrong?” and something does, the reader wants to keep reading whenever that phrase is uttered.

Giving the reader a break from the action by ending a scene or chapter at a high point, and switching to another scene, perhaps of lesser intensity, with other characters, can also increase tension.

Solution 3: Add Subplots

A subplot is a secondary story within your story. It often uses some or all of the main characters, and explores another part of their lives. Just as we all have different overlapping circles of friends, family, and acquaintances in our lives, so do our characters.

While a subplot might feel like a rabbit trail, in reality, a new story actually enhances the telling of the original story, since the reader will wonder how the two (or three or four) are connected. Which they might be. Or not. These subplots should arise naturally from the characters and the circumstances, and should never be the destination—simply to scare or worry the reader. At the same time, subplots should delay and prolong that anticipation.

Introduce different subplots at varying times in the middle of your story, then resolve them at varying times and degrees of intensity, some before the third act, and some in the third act. All subplots will generally be resolved by the end of the story, however, for the reader to feel satisfied that all the “loose ends” were tied up.

Solution 4: Add Turning Points

A turning point could be the introduction of a new character, a new obstacle, new information. It could be a shift in attitude which alters how things happen. It could be a revelation—either internal or external—such as revealing a character’s secondary role or their realization that they aren’t willing to persevere to their original goal, or the understanding that they are going to be forced to do something they never thought they’d do. It could be a challenge or a disaster.

We can increase the impact of turning points by using strong verbs; introduce foretelling; give new meaning to ordinary objects; or put our character into an unfamiliar setting.

Conclusion:

Rule #1: Don’t think that you must incorporate everything in this article into every book.

Complete your first draft. Do a quick revision on it with regards to using stronger verbs, get rid of –ly adverbs, and tighten the writing, particularly dialogue.

Then ignore the first and third acts. Start reading where your first turning point happens. Are you still intrigued with what’s happening? If not, where can you interject tension or another subplot? Is the pattern of your intensity predictable? If so, how can you re-order your scenes to change that? Do you have enough turning points for each problem that faces the main character? If not, add some more.

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Resources:

I don’t know everything about the Middle Muddle, but I am happy to answer questions or offer insight, so feel free to contact me at donna@livebytheword.com  at any time.

I have written two books on writing, Nuggets of Writing Gold and More Nuggets of Writing Gold, comprised of articles on all aspects of the writing life as well as targeted exercises to apply the information in those articles. They’re available at Amazon and Smashwords.

I offer two quarterly newsletters, one for fans of historical novels and one for contemporary. When you subscribe, you’ll receive a free novel as a thank you, and you can also follow my historical blog and my contemporary blog for helpful articles from other authors, as well as book and author spotlights.

Here are books I used to develop this article:

  • Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis
  • Write Your Novel in a Month by Jeff
  • The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

And here are websites with great articles on writing in general:

Daily Writing Tips   
Writing to Make You Better
42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists
Writing Tips

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Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.

Producing a Novel – Part 7

By: Donna Schlachter

Outlining Your Book

I know. I can see some of you out there rolling your eyes at the title of this installment. Outlining. Plotting. Plodding. Taking all the fun out of the writing process.

Then there are those of you who are rolling up your sleeves, doing high-fives, and enjoying yourself before you ever get down to work.

For the former, I hope I can alter your perception of how outlining can benefit you and your writing. For the latter, perhaps I can add a new dimension to your process.

Confession Time

First, let me share a confession with you: when I wrote my first mystery novel, I didn’t have a clue. I joined NaNoWriMo, determined to write 50,000 in a month. I sat down on November 11th and started writing. I spent two chapters developing my main character, telling her complete backstory, and sharing a prequel story to boot—just so readers “got her”.

About three chapters from the end—or what should have been the end—I realized I didn’t know whodunit, or why. I had no suspects, no red herrings, no nothing except characters I loved or hated, depending on who they were, and a town I felt like I’d grown up in.

So I had to spend time, in the last five days of NaNoWriMo, when I should have been writing, to go back, write in the suspects, the clues, the motive, amp up the crooks, until I figured out who and why. Only then could I go back and finish the novel. Which I did, writing more than 7,500 on November 30th to complete the goal and get the badge.

I learned a huge lesson with that book: if I don’t know where I’m starting (not two chapters of backstory and prequel), and I don’t know where I’m ending (whodunit and why), and I don’t know how I got there (red herrings and suspects), how can I expect to complete the journey?

So let’s talk about Outlining.

What Outlining Is

  • outlining is a long or short summary of the story – you choose
  • outlining includes character descriptions, motivations, goals, and obstacles
  • a great start to your synopsis, which an agent or editor will ask for
  • a chronological record of how the story goes
  • a place to make note of foreshadowing points, secrets withheld, information learned

What Outlining Isn’t

  • a carved-in-stone document
  • a road map with every single twist and turn
  • a verbatim reciting of the story
  • dialogue record
  • a way to steal your joy of writing
  • the only possible way to tell the story
  • the concrete way you’re going to tell this story

Hopefully, the list above will have settled some of your concerns. An outline can be as simple as one sentence (or part of a sentence) about each scene in each chapter. Maybe you’re not even sure where the chapter breaks should be. That’s okay. Write down each scene as you envision it, then decide later where the breaks are.

How to Develop an Outline

There are many ways to develop an outline. Here are a few that I’ve used in the past and the one I use now.

  • Index cards – for those who don’t write their story chronologically, write a sentence or two on an index card for each scene. This lets you go back and rearrange the scenes without being hindered by paper or cutting-and-pasting on your computer
  • Chart – most stories are crafted either on the Three-Act structure or the very similar Normal World—Inciting Incident 1—Decision—Inciting Incident 2—Decision—Inciting Incident 3—Decision—Point of No Return—Climax—Resolution structure. Simply jot a few words about each scene in the squares. If you’d like a blank copy of the chart I have used in the past, email me at: donna AT livebytheword DOT com and I’ll send it to you.
  • Sticky Notes – works much the same as Index Cards, but you put them on a white board or window or wall and move them around to make your story flow as you want it to.
  • Four colored pen technique – on a sheet of paper, down the side of the page, list the number of chapters you anticipate your book will contain, for example 20 chapters. Then make 4 columns across: Plot, Emotional Arc, Spiritual, Romance (if there is any, and face it, most books have some amount of romance). I like to use Green ink for Plot; Black for Emotion; Blue for Spiritual; and Red for Romance. Write a few words or sentence about what happens in each scene/chapter, then it’s easy to check that you have every element covered in every scene and chapter.
  • Write (or type) the key elements in the story in a single document, with one paragraph per scene, deciding later where to make your chapter breaks. This lets you see the story in four or five pages, sets up your synopsis, is easy to change if your story veers off plan, and throws a spotlight on holes in your plot, emotional arc, spiritual thread, or romance. This is the system I currently use, because I got tired of having to re-read the book to compile a synopsis.

A Few Links

Needless to say, there are as many other ways to develop an outline as there are authors, so I’m including links to a number I found online. I can’t attest to their effectiveness or ease of use, but am providing for information only.

How to Outline Your Novel in 5 Steps: Master Novel Template
How do you Write an Outline for a Novel? 7 Easy Steps
How to Outline a Novel with Template
How to Outline a Novel (with Template) from Squibler
Book Outline (with chapter by chapter template)
How to Write an Outline for a Romance Novel
7 Steps for Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story


Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.

Producing a Novel – Part 6

Character and Story Arc

By Donna Schlachter

So, you have a story idea, a couple of characters that just won’t leave you alone. You’ve come up with the perfect opening line, and you even have an idea of where the story is going and how it will get to the end.

That’s all you need, right?
Wrong.
Now you need something to happen.
But that’s the job of the plot and subplots, isn’t it?
Not quite.

Give Characters Something to Do

Merely giving characters something to do doesn’t make a good novel. It doesn’t even make a good short story. Or a good television comedy. Unless you’re Seinfeld, which the majority of us are not. Thus, we cannot simply write a novel about nothing happening.

Action and activity don’t translate into something going on in the story. The reader doesn’t want to meet the main character or characters in the opening line, only to find out that while there was plenty of action and activity, the characters are exactly the same at the end.

That’s not real life, is it? Every single event, every word spoken to us or about us, every dream we have that we achieve—or we don’t—changes us in some way. And readers expect the same of our characters. Otherwise, why bother? If we want mindless entertainment with everything the same at the end for us and the participants as at the beginning, we might as well watch professional sports. They get paid whether they win or lose. And tomorrow, our lives will be the same as today, no matter the outcome.

Okay, no more sports bashing, promise.

Characters and Story Arc Need to Grow

A story where the character doesn’t change isn’t real. So we have to figure out how to make our character different at the end. Your story and character arc start in the character’s real ordinary world, and are propelled in an entirely different direction because of the circumstances and situations facing them, and their decisions and reactions to those changes.

Here is a series of questions to ask about your hero, heroine, and villain to ensure they are forced to change: (I am using the masculine pronoun only to keep it simple. These questions apply to whatever gender your characters inhabit or adopt)

  1. What does he want?
  2. What will he die for?
  3. What would he never do?
  4. What would he never say?
  5. What is one good thing about him?
  6. What are three bad things about him?
  7. What is his one redeeming feature?
  8. At the end of the story, what does he really want? What can he not live without?

When you have the answers to these questions, now you can place the characters in circumstances and events and situations that tear at the thread of their core, that threaten their stability, and that bring out the best and the worst in each character.

The Police Officer

For example, let’s look at a police officer who is squeaky clean but knows half of his department is taking bribes from the mob to look the other way. He says he’ll never accept dirty money, but:

  • What if someone close to him needs an operation or medical treatment? His mother? His wife? His daughter?
  • What if the police medical care insurer won’t cover the cost because they say it’s a pre-existing condition, or brought on by poor lifestyle choices?
  • What if he needs the money, but he can’t beg or borrow enough for the treatment to commence?
  • What will this good guy do to change the inevitable outcome? (Think Breaking Bad)

And once he steps over that line into the grey area, how will that change him? Will he apply this new thought process to his everyday beat cop duties? Will he try to stifle his rage over the unfairness of how he’s treated? Will he lash out? Will he give up?

Let’s look at another example: a group of retirees who can’t live on what their pension plan pays them. The bank threatens to foreclose on their homes. They stumble upon a bag of money, and realize that they can rob banks, nobody gets hurt, and they keep their houses and eat meat every day. (Think Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)

The Villain

Let’s look at your villain: a hitman who kills for money. BUT only as long as the target deserves to die. So he contracts out to abused women, ill-treated employees, victims of hit-and-runs and drive-by shootings so he can get them justice. But he would never shoot a man of the cloth. Except:

  • He learns about a televangelist who is on the run from the Columbian drug lords because of something in his past.
  • And he learns this televangelist, loved by millions, sells drugs to elementary school kids.
  • And he beats his dog.

Do you think this hitman might make an exception to his rule? And what will that do to him? Will he begin to question all of his decision-making parameters? Will it change what he does? How he thinks of himself?

Conclusion

As you can see, every choice our characters make changes them for better or for worse. Every time we put them between a rock and a hard place, they discover new strengths and new weaknesses about themselves that will now be reflected in their actions and thoughts. Usually what happens in a good story is that the main characters realize that what they thought they wanted at the beginning isn’t what they want now. Perhaps they’ve had to let something—or somebody—go. Perhaps they’ve had to admit that their dream wasn’t worth pursuing, but something else was. Perhaps they understand that dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

Whatever this discovery is, by the end of the story, the reader should find the outcome satisfying. They should have been able to see it coming, and it should resolve any questions they had about the character’s motivation.

In fact, the ending should feel like it really did happen, not simply that it could happen.


Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com

Producing a Novel – Part 5

Hooking Your Readers

By Donna Schlachter

Writing a novel is a lot like fly fishing: you tease, you tantalize, you toss your quarry a tidbit, and once they are so captivated by your offering, you reel them in.

And while our readers are a lot more intelligent than a fish, the principle works the same.

Readers want to get caught up in your story. They want to keep reading your book. They want to end with a huge sigh of relief because the story has concluded in a satisfying manner, answering all the questions that your opening paragraph, the cover, the genre, and the back cover copy promised.

If you don’t, they probably won’t read another of your books.

Unlike fishing for fish, hooks in books don’t just happen once—they’re an ongoing event. Every scene and chapter should begin and end with one. Readers won’t care about your characters and their predicaments unless you dangle a dilemma, pose a problem, or catapult a catastrophe at them.

So let’s look at hooks, their purpose, and their construction.

What is a Hook?

In literary terms, a hook is a sentence or paragraph, either at the beginning of a scene or chapter—the opening hook—or at the end of same—the closing hook—that makes the reader want to keep reading. We accomplish that goal by:

  • Asking a question
  • Suggesting a problem
  • Foreshadowing something to happen
  • Leaving our character in trouble (hence the old-fashioned term cliff hanger)

The form doesn’t really matter, but it’s wise to change up the structure so you don’t always begin with a problem and end with a question. That gets boring quick.

Opening Hook

The first opening hook, in either the Prologue or Chapter 1, is designed to draw your reader into reading the rest of the paragraph, the scene, the chapter, and ultimately, the entire book. This hook makes a promise to the reader that you will resolve the issue by the end of the book, in a satisfying manner.

Which is exactly why dream sequences are such a let down to the reader, since nothing is really resolved by starting the book with a dramatic nightmare. You get the reader wanting to know what’s happening, and why, but then CRASH! Ha, ha, it was all a dream.

The opening hook doesn’t have to be in the first line, but the sooner you grab the reader, the better. Absolutely the hook should be in the first paragraph. We get fifteen seconds from a reader for them to decide if they want to keep reading. They’ve already used some of that for the cover and back cover copy. Don’t waste time—let them know trouble is on the way.

That said, here are other ways to ensure the opening hook is well-constructed and reader-grabbing besides no dream sequences:

  • No weather, unless it’s used as a metaphor for the tone of the book.
  • No everyday stuff, like a character shopping, watching TV, making dinner, unless you get to the problem right away.
  • Anchor the reader immediately in the setting and time period.
  • No useless telephone chatter like, “Hi, how are you?” Go right to the punch line.
  • Make sure the tone and language is appropriate to reader expectations for the genre.
  • If possible, introduce the Point of View character for this scene immediately.

            Examples:

Bad: Mary stared out the window. It was raining. Would the rain never stop? She felt so bad because her husband just died.

Better: Mary turned from the window. Staring out there wasn’t going to get the laundry done. Or the kids fed. Or the bills paid. And she was the only one left to do all three.

Best: The rain buffeted the window like gunshot pellets. Mary jerked back, the image too raw. Too new. Sheets of water obscured her view of the pier where her husband’s fishing boat bobbed on raging waves. No, not her husband’s. Hers.

Here we see, in the Best example, showing, not telling. Rain buffeted. Gunshot. Sheets of water. And questions are raised: why did the sound of gunshot pellets upset her so much? And why is the boat now hers, not her husband’s? Is he dead? Did they divorce?

Closing Hooks

These are the sentences that end a scene or chapter, and are every bit as crucial to keep the reader reading. That’s our goal. We want to hear that our readers couldn’t put the book down, that they stayed up all night and slept in the next morning. Like the opening hook, closing hooks pose a problem, suggest a situation, or quicken our hearts with a question.

The closing hook can lead directly into the next scene or chapter, or the topic of the hook may not be addressed or resolved again for several scenes. However, once that point of view character comes back on the scene, the bigger the issue, the sooner it must be resolved. In real life, we don’t simply ignore problems and situations—we deal with them.

Examples:

Bad: She could do nothing about Tim’s love for her right now, so instead she went to the mall. Shopping always cheered her up. She didn’t need a man, right?

Better: Tim was a jerk, and the sooner she was rid of him, the better. Now, should she go shopping, or should she fix dinner? Shopping it was—fewer calories.

Best: She strode into the mall, her heels tapping an angry staccato. She passed a bridal shop but kept her eyes straight ahead. A month ago, she’d window shopped at this very store, envying the slim models and trying to figure out how to make even the least expensive frothy gown fit her budget. Well, no more worries about that. Not only wasn’t the gown worth it, neither was Tim. The jerk.

In the Best example, once again, we see the scene instead of just hearing about it. Strode, angry staccato. Kept her eyes. . . ahead. Envying . . . slim models. We hear her heels. We feel her anger. Her humiliation. A suggestion about her body image. Even a mention of her small budget. Then we see her determination to get over it and get on with her life.

Conclusion

The best hooks will do what good writing should: show, not tell. They will be full of description, strong nouns, and active verbs that convey the mood and emotions of the character. They will also quicken the reader’s heart rate and page turn rate, endearing you to them so they continue to purchase subsequent books.

Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
Find Donna on:  FacebookTwitterAmazonSmashwordsEtsy

Producing a Novel – Part 4

Character Sketches and Backstory

By: Donna Schlachter

Now that you have the foundation for your book that we covered in Parts 1, 2, and 3, you can begin the hard non-writing part of your book: deciding who your characters will be, and what their stories are.

Every Character has a Story

Yes, every single character in your book has their own story. That’s because, just like real people, everything that happened to your characters in the past affects who and what they are today or whenever your story is set.

The easy thing to do at this point is ignore this advice and move directly to the writing part of the story—but be advised: you’ll have to do this step at some point. Doing it now will save you time and heartache later on.

I made the mistake of skipping this step in my first full-length mystery novel, and I ended up three chapters from the end not knowing whodunit or why. I hadn’t written in any clues or red herrings, either, which meant I had to stop, figure out the criminal and their motivation, then go back and point my amateur sleuth in several wrong directions before revealing the real crook.

Not fun.
As I said, I suggest you do this now.

Where do you start?

Start with your main character. Ask a few questions, and make a note of the answers somewhere. I will discuss modes of information storage in another section, but how you keep the data is more about you and your preferences.

Some authors refer to this as their Bible—because it holds the truth about their story. I’ve found that deciding on a key element—such as the color of the character’s eyes or hair—is easier if I have a photo or image. You can download and print these pictures in color and keep them in a binder, a folder, or on your computer for quick reference and refreshing your memory.

But for those non-physical details, such as birthplace, schooling, first love, car preference, vacations, et cetera, you’ll want to write or type those somewhere. Again, images are good.

And while few of these details will make it into your story, they might aid in you deciding how the character would react in a given situation. For example, if you knew your character grew up in the Depression, the oldest of seven children, and their father died so your character had to drop out of school to work so the rest of the kids could eat, that might change your decision about whether your character would spend a year-end bonus or bank it.

What should you ask your characters?

You can find lists of interview questions for characters on various websites, which I will include below under Resources, but the primary questions to ask your character are:

Every Character has a Story
  • Name
  • Date and place of birth
  • Birth order
  • Siblings
  • Parent’s occupations
  • Parent’s ages at time of character’s birth
  • Parents’ education
  • First job
  • Pet preference
  • First memory
  • Did they live with grandparents?
  • Struggles in school, favorite subjects
  • Reason for being where they are now
  • Past wounds, including lost loves, marriages, relationships, etc.

Why is a character sketch important?

You might wonder how any of this is important to your story today. Let’s take parents’ education, for example. If the father is a college graduate and the mother is a high school dropout, depending on which parent your character was closer to could affect their attitude toward the importance of education. If they were closer to their mother, they might think education isn’t important since it wasn’t important to Mom. But what if Mom dropped out because she was pregnant, and has always wanted to return but there was never enough time or money? What if Mom was harassed at school by students, so she quit, then got her GED years later? That might change the character’s attitude.

The idea behind knowing who your character is will create a three-dimensional character. Don’t make your main character too much like you, because then this will become your story. Change up some details. If you decide your character dropped out of school because she was pregnant, talk to some women who made that choice. Ask them what their thoughts were at the time. Were they hoping for a happily-ever-after shotgun wedding? Or did they see their hopes and dreams sucked down the drain? Were they trying to escape a bad family situation, only to find themselves married to a man they hardly knew? Or was it the best thing they ever did? All of these will change your character’s responses to various situations.

Don’t stop at your main character.

Then do the same with your secondary character and your antagonist/villain. You want to know these three characters as well as you know your own family. Make certain to give each of them a different past. Be sure that your secondary character’s strength is opposite to your main character’s, and that their wounds are bound to bring them into conflict. And don’t neglect your antagonist/villain’s good point—everybody has at least one. Find something that your main and secondary characters can empathize with.

For any other characters, you don’t need to know much more about them than their name, occupation, one good quality, and one flaw, then play on those good qualities and flaws, using the flaws to create conflict and tension in your story.

Backstory is never dumped into the story.

As to backstory, that’s the compilation of all of this information about your primary characters. It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for your reader to know so they understand why a character says or does what they do. However, backstory is never to be dumped into a story like a biography. The best way is to reveal their backstory through internal dialogue.

Here’s an example: Your main character was bullied as a child in school. Now she’s dating a teacher who believes shouting is the way to get his point across.

Kevin slapped the table. “You need to listen to me on this!”
Sally sighed, stood, and walked away. For the final time.
Men, they’re all the same. On the playground. Or on the school board.

Do you see how we know something happened in her past without her having to say anything about the specific incident?

When you combine character sketches with backstory, now you have the building blocks to writing a powerful, multi-layered story that draws readers in.

Resources:
100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character
The Write Practice – 37 Questions to Ask Your Character
Making the Most of Character Interviews
The Writing – Get to Know Your Characters

Previous installments of Producing a Novel:
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books
Genre and Markets
Building Believable Characters


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, Sisters in Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Find her on: FacebookTwitterAmazonSmashwordsEtsy

Producing a Novel – Part 3

Building Believable Characters

By: Donna Schlachter

Welcome back to our mini-course on Producing a Novel. This month, we’ll look at how to build and develop believable characters. Did you miss the first two parts? Hop over and read the first two sessions as well: Part 1 and Part 2.

Who needs character? We all do and so do the characters in our stories.

Who Needs Characters?

Well, of course we all do. It’s who the story is about. Even a story like The Old Man and the Sea had characters—the old man, the ocean, the fish, the bird, the boat. He thought about his wife and family. Without the ocean, fish, bird, and boat, there was no story.

Describing Characters

This might be easiest to explain by saying how not to do it:

  • Don’t read off their driver’s license
  • Don’t have them look in a mirror or a plate glass window more than once (in total) in a book.
  • Don’t give so much detail that the reader can’t imagine the person for themselves.
  • Don’t have the character think about her own hair color, eye color, or body description.

DO:

  • Describe their physical appearance metaphorically. For example, “her translucent skin made her look like a ghost.”
  • Use clothing or other items. For example, “The rumpled raincoat shrouded him like a burial cloth.”
  • Use other people’s point of view. For example, “Tom eyed Bob up and down. Boy, he’s packed on the weight since college.

Character Backstory

Our character’s story explains who they are, why they believe what they believe, and why they do the things they do. It also explains why they wouldn’t make another choice in a similar situation.

Now we know all this information about our character, and the reader is going to want to know it, too, right? Right. They just don’t need to know it all at once. Have the character make a bad choice and relate it to something from their past, but don’t say exactly what. Just yet.

Backstory, like compliments and salt, is best used sparingly. We never want to have a character’s history splashed on the page. Instead, sprinkle it in judiciously. Allude to why they think the way they think in response to a comment or action of another character. Many well-published authors say no backstory in the first 50 pages.

Female Dialogue

In general, women talk about the same topics that men discuss, but will have a different perspective. That doesn’t mean they have more or less expertise, just that female brains process the information differently than male brains do.

When women communicate, they tend to share emotions, feelings, dreams, concerns, and they look for ways to extend compliments. Women like to help others, including making them feel comfortable. Women tend to nurture, to solve problems by offering advice, to sympathize by putting themselves into the situation of the person they’re talking with. Women use body language and facial expressions, so be sure to include that information as action beats. Without that detail, the reader could misconstrue the words.

Walk and Talk Like a Woman

Women process dialogue differently than men. To that end, I’ve summarized a list I found on a Writer’s Digest blog post about dialogue.

  • Women tend to sympathize and share experiences rather than give advice. Add empathy to your character’s reactions and have her talk about similar things that happened to her, rather than tell someone what they should do.
  • Women tend to talk about their accomplishments and themselves in a self-deprecating fashion rather than a boastful one. Rephrase her comments in order to make her laugh at herself.
  • Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions.
  • Women notice styles; they know what colors go together (and which don’t); and they know the right words to describe fashions, colors, and designs. Ramp up the level of specific detail.
  • Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, give her a really good reason for yelling.
  • Women notice and interpret facial expressions and body language, and they maintain eye contact. If you need your female character to not notice how others are acting, give her a good reason for being detached.

Walk and Talk Like a Man

Men use just as many words as women do, but they tend to divide and order them differently.

  • Men tend to request specific information, rather than ask rhetorical questions. Men also tend to reply to a tough question with one of their own. And if they don’t want to discuss a topic, they might use a question to change subjects.
  • Men tend to resist explaining; they generally don’t volunteer justification for what they do. If you need him to explain, give a reason why he must.
  • Men tend to share feelings only if stressed or forced; they’re more likely to show anger than any other emotion. If you need your hero to spill how he’s feeling, make it more painful for him to not talk than to share his emotions.
  • Men tend not to pay close attention to details unless it’s something they’re interested in. Men don’t usually notice expressions or body language; they stick to basics when describing colors and styles. Scale back the level of detail.
  • Men tend to avoid euphemisms, understatements, comparisons, and metaphors. Rephrase your hero’s dialogue in concrete terms.
  • Men tend to be direct rather than ask for validation or approval. Check for “pecking order displays” between men of same status, and between men of different statuses.

Pecking Order Displays in Men

When two men meet, they assess each other’s status which then dictates how they treat each other. For example, a doctor and a mechanic meet, and this pecking order kicks in while they’re talking, to the point where the doctor can make a joke about the mechanic’s work, perhaps saying something about choosing medicine over car repair because doctors get to wear gloves to keep their hands clean. Both men would laugh, neither feels slighted, but the mechanic wouldn’t respond with any comment that could be considered derogatory or mocking of medicine.

If two mechanics met and talked, they’d joke about grease monkeys and the like, and think nothing of it because they’d consider each other equals.

If a doctor and a mechanic met to talk about car repairs, the mechanic is now the professional with a higher status and knowledge base, so he would be “in charge” of the conversation.

Note: if a woman stepped in and made similar comments as the doctor made to the mechanic, the mechanic wouldn’t appreciate it. Not because she is a woman, but rather because she is outside the circle of influence these two have created. As a result, we must be careful our female characters don’t step into the established relationships between male characters and expect to be treated like “one of the boys”.

Did you miss Parts 1 or 2?

Read them now.
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books (Part 1)
Genre and Markets (Part 2)

Resources for Part 3:

Writing Gender Specific Dialog
How to Write Believable Characters
Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters: 8 Tactics
Writing Authentic Male Characters
How to Write from a Guy’s POV
Creating Interesting Characters: Characterization by Trait
A List of Character Traits
Character Development – Creating Memorable Characters


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Find her on: FacebookTwitterAmazonSmashwordsEtsy,

Producing a Novel – Part 2

Genre and Markets

By: Donna Schlachter

Writing a novel—or a book of any type—requires groundwork laid in advance. Last month we discussed how to identify your topic, idea, or plot line; how to identify what you’re most passionate about, which makes the project personal, relevant, and much easier to write; and how that translates into a plot line or book subject. If you missed that post, you can catch up here

This month, we’ll look at ways to build on the foundation begun last month and identify which genre your book fits into, and then which markets might be interested in your book.

Why is Genre Important?

— It tells your audience—agents, publishers, book distributors, bookstores, and readers—what kind of book this is.
— Publishers fill slots in their publishing calendar based on that information.
— Book distributors need it to sell your book to bookstores.
— Booksellers need to know where to put the book on the shelf to recommend to patrons.
— Readers look for books based on an expectation of the genre.

Genre Definitions

  • Romance – romance is the main plot element; many sub-genres, defined by the time period of the setting; heat of the romance; and subplots.
  • Mystery – solving of the mystery is the key plot line; many sub-genres; can be contemporary or historical.
  • Thriller & Suspense a.k.a. Action & Adventure – where the reader often knows who the villain is, and that person has somehow put either the main character or somebody important to the main character in danger; the main character has a limited amount of time to complete the assignment (ticking bomb) such as save the world, save himself or someone/something, or simply catch or stop the bad guy; many sub-genres.
  • Science Fiction – where the setting is a world constructed by the author which could be partly or wholly based in real science; many sub-genres.
  • Horror – where the prime purpose of the story is to evoke a strong emotional reaction of fear, and keep the reader immersed in the story through that fear; can be physical, psychological, and/or emotional fear, for the character, someone they care about, or a larger societal notion such as justice, freedom, or equality.
  • Fantasy – where magical, supernatural, or demonic forces act on the characters, either to their benefit or detriment, and where the main character couldn’t achieve their goal without it; many sub-genres.

Where Does Your Book Fit?

  • Setting – historical, contemporary, futuristic, time-slip (where the story starts in one time and ends in a different one);
  • Primary Plot – romance, mystery, thriller, and so on
  • Secondary Plot
  • Level of intimate contact on the page – from sweet to erotica

Markets for Your Book

  • What agent might represent it?
  • What Publisher will publish it?

— read the guidelines carefully – see the resource list at the end
— if they say they don’t represent your genre, don’t send it to them
— don’t choose the first agent or publisher who shows interest without checking them out first:  check out their websites. Talk to friends. Contact the authors listed on their website.
— Don’t respond to unsolicited emails offering you a contract.  
— Don’t agree to pay even one cent to an agent—not only is it simply not done, it’s illegal and predatory.
— Consider carefully any publisher offering a contract that requires you to pay money up-front. There is nothing wrong with publishing with a self-publishing company, but just understand you might well end up paying for additional services, such as editing, cover design, and marketing.

Your publishing model choice comes down to deciding:
— how much time and effort you want to invest in the process of publishing your book
— how long you might be willing to wait to see your book in print
— your level of expertise when it comes to the production of your book.  

Sources of information on agents and publishers

– writer’s market guides – often found in libraries
– writing magazines – subscribe to at least one writing magazine and share with friends
– writer’s websites and blogs – search online
– word of mouth – ask a represented or published author friend
-books in bookstores – find one like yours and look for the publisher’s name. Often the agent will be listed in the Acknowledgements or Dedication

Next month, we’ll discuss the process of building believable characters, so hope to see you back again.

Resources:

Writer’s Digest University

It’s Getting Hot in Here A Romance Writer’s Guide to Heat level

Top 101 Independent Book Publishers


Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Find her on: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Smashwords, Etsy,

Producing a Novel – Part 1

Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books

By: Donna Schlachter

Surveys suggest that, when asked, more than 80% of people said they’d love to write a book. Unfortunately, only about 25% ever do. Why is that? Whenever I tell folks, “I believe that everybody has at least one book in them”, most shake their head and deny my statement. When I ask why, they usually say something like, “I’m not famous”, “My life is boring”, “I can’t tell a joke let alone an entire story”, “I don’t have time”, “I don’t have anything interesting to say”, or “I don’t have the patience to sit and type that much.”

Identify the kind of book you'd like to write.

I believe that all of these responses are merely excuses, and that the real reason more people don’t write is because of one thing: they don’t have an idea that will stand the test of whether it’s enough to make a complete book out of it.

The interesting fact is that coming up with an idea is the easy part. We hear and see them every day: headlines in the news; front covers on the rumor rags in supermarkets; gossip around the water cooler at work; other books we’ve read; problems we’re facing, or somebody we know or love is facing; television programs and movies. If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us, right?

The main problem is that there are too many fiction books that all have the same plot: somebody is living their life; something happens to force them to make a decision; that decision changes them; and their life is something other than they originally envisioned.

In fact, this plot line is the same for every novel, unless you’re talking literary, which may have no plot at all.

With regards to non-fiction, most people read to be entertained, encouraged, or educated, which is perfect for non-fiction. With a good topic, an author can accomplish all three in one book. Think of your favorite non-fiction author. Why do you read whatever they publish? For me, Max Lucado ranks high on my list. His story-telling techniques, wrapping parables around real-life happenings, then explaining how this applies to me, draws me into his books like a moth to a flame. I cannot resist it.

Ways to identify the kind of book you’d like to write.

So let’s look at ways to identify the kind of book you’d like to write. Because, let’s be honest—if you don’t enjoy writing it, nobody will enjoy reading it, either. Most of the following tips will apply to fiction or non-fiction, and every genre within those two categories.

  1. What topics get your heart pounding and your blood pumping? Is it the atrocity of sex trafficking? Slavery by any other name? Genocide for profit, such as blood diamonds or drug cartels? Underhanded politicians? Crooked law enforcement? Sleazy lawyers? Animal abuse? Child abuse?
  2. What topic do you like to read about? Any of the above? What parts of the newspaper draw you in? Athletics? Obituaries? Lifestyle?
  3. What topic makes you angry when you read about it? Makes you want to write to your representative or even enter the political arena yourself? What would you join a protest for? Or against?
  4. What topics do you talk about with friends? Neighbors? Family?
  5. What are you most afraid of? What do you enjoy doing? Where do you spend most of your time? Your money?

By now you should have a list of at least three topics that capture your interest. On to the next step.

Where to find information and ideas about those topics:

  • newspapers, online news sites, and online searches
  • organizations and associations where folks who suffer from, practice, or congregate
  • friends and family
  • businesses that provide services
  • television and movies
  • libraries, including librarians and their books
  • bookstores
  • online book sites, such as Amazon, or Google searches
  • online social media groups

Figuring out your story:

So let’s say that a couple of your hot topics are sex trafficking, child abuse, and dishonest politicians. You gather research about the thousands of children who leave home under mysterious circumstances in the US each year, both runaways and the missing. You do some research into laws regarding child abuse, and find the penalties can be relatively minor. You contact some organizations that search for missing teens, and learn that many of them run from a bad home situation, ending up in large cities either as addicts or prostitutes or both. And you watch some online investigatory programs about the wealthy who hide behind their money and escape prosecution even for something as serious as murder.

You have your nugget.

You can write either a novel with these same characters, or you can write a non-fiction book to parents, helping them improve their communication with their teens so they don’t run. Or a book for teens, educating them with stories of other kids who ran and ended up in a bad place. Or a book for law enforcement, giving them the signs and clues of an abused child, a runaway, or a sex trafficking ring.

Regardless of which message you’re communicating, there is an audience.

How do you know whether it’s good enough to carry an entire book?

If it’s a novel, you should be able to summarize the book in one sentence, three sentences, and a paragraph.

For example:

One liner:

When Sarah Taylor runs away from her abusive father, she runs straight into the arms of an abusive pimp, who wants to control her mind, body, and soul; especially her body.

Three sentences:

Sarah isn’t one of the cool kids at school, none of the boys even look at her twice, and her father likes to smack her around for no good reason. When she runs away, and a boy offers to put her up for the night with no strings attached, she falls for it. And later, when she runs again, a social worker might be her only lifeline.

Paragraph:

Sarah Taylor, 15, thinks life couldn’t get any worse. She has no friends, nobody who understands her, and nobody she can confide in. She can’t take it anymore. So she runs, looking for that perfect life she is certain is out there.

Tom Wilson is always on the lookout for a lonely girl. One with no friends. One who needs him. And the best place to find girls like that is the bus station. Every day, three or four teens hops off the bus in downtown LA with that deer-in-the-headlight look.

Molly Green chose social work for a reason: she wants to reach kids who are just like she was once. Alone. Vulnerable. Looking for family. And while the boys tend to gravitate toward gangs, these girls are hooked into seemingly romantic relationships where the boy pledges to do whatever he must to treat her well—except that she will owe him.

Organize your topics and points.

If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you should be able to organize the various topics and points you want to make into a table of contents that will carry the reader from the premise, through the solution, to the conclusion and action steps you want them to take as they become another supporter for your position. While writing this kind of book, you want to ask yourself how you can help the reader achieve their goal of education and activation.

If you’d like to download a free worksheet that will lead you through this article and culminate with a great story idea or the outline for a non-fiction book, email me at donna@livebytheword.com and I’ll send that to you.


Donna Schlachter

Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com
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