Man staring into space with text: What Are Your Characters Thinking?

I’m so excited for today’s post, and I’m going to tell you a little story to explain why. Obviously, Marcy Kennedy is a fantastic, knowledgeable author and editor, and today’s topic is a favorite of mine, but there’s also a bit of “Wow, I’m honored” mixed in.

Back before Treasured Claim had even come out, Marcy contacted me to ask for a favor. She’s one of my developmental editors, so she’d seen my story months earlier, and she was wondering if she could use a few excerpts of Elaina (my dragon shifter heroine) as examples in her newest Busy Writer’s Guide book, Internal Dialogue.

I have several of her Busy Writer’s Guide books and knew they were wonderful, so of course I said yes. *smile* Then I asked how she’d be using the Treasured Claim excerpts. She replied:

“I’m talking about how you used internal dialogue to help establish Elaina’s character arc and to make the change in her believable. … I’m planning to take a passage to show how she felt at the beginning, how she felt at the end, and small slices from the middle that show her moving forward (and changing her understanding… I thought it did a fantastic job of establishing Elaina’s thoughts…”

Squee! How cool is that?

I purchased Marcy’s book when it came out and managed to resist skimming the text to look for what she said about my excerpts. And I’m so glad I read the whole book.

By the time I’d gotten just one chapter into her book (long before I even got to the part with my story excerpts), I’d already emailed Marcy, begging her to do a guest post here so she could share her awesome insights with all of us. *grin*

Internal dialogue (also known as internal/interior/inner monologue or dialogue, or just plain internalization) is one of those writing techniques that’s rarely discussed but can be the key to a great story. As Marcy explains in her book:

“Internal dialogue is the conversation we have with ourselves, the running commentary inside our heads about our day.”

Unlike much of the writing advice out there, which is aimed at teaching the basics, learning how to skillfully use internal dialogue is an advanced writing technique. Internal dialogue helps establish the story’s emotions, characterizations, motivations, story arc, etc.

I’ve gushed many times about how the Emotion Thesaurus teaches us how to reveal what our characters are feeling. Marcy’s Internal Dialogue helps us push that further so we can reveal what our characters think about those emotions:

  • Are they in denial?
  • Do they accept the emotions?
  • Have the emotions led to an epiphany?
  • Are they rationalizing the emotions away?
  • Are they proud, embarrassed, shocked, or ashamed by their emotions?, etc.

The same goes for using internal dialogue along with plot events, dialogue, action, settings, etc. Every aspect of our story is open for comment by our characters’ thoughts.

In other words, internal dialogue is where we provide context for what our characters experience, even if that context is revealed just in subtext. Context helps our readers know what the story means to our characters, even if our characters aren’t consciously aware of that meaning, and that context is an incredibly powerful ingredient in storytelling.

So I’m thrilled to have Marcy here to share more insights on this topic. Please welcome Marcy Kennedy! *smile*

*****

Three Surprising Writing Problems
Solved By Understanding Internal Dialogue

The longer we study writing, the more we understand how all the concepts are inter-related. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, but I prefer to think of it as an opportunity. When we have a lightbulb moment about one concept, it can help solve pesky problems we’re having with something else.

Today I’m going to talk about how understanding one simple thing about internal dialogue can help us solve three other tricky writing problems.

So here’s the one simple thing: Internal dialogue should come as a reaction to a stimulus.

Action-reaction chains are the fundamental building blocks of every story (kind of like how DNA is the fundamental building block for every human). A story needs to be an unbroken chain of action leading to reaction, which becomes the stimulus for the next action, and that action causes a reaction, and on and on it goes.

Internal dialogue is no exception. It doesn’t exist outside that chain. It needs to be a part of it.

If our internal dialogue doesn’t connect as a reaction to what came before it, it’ll seem random or like we’re intruding to dump in something we think should be there (rather than allowing the internal dialogue to be character-driven).

Once we understand internal dialogue as a reaction to a stimulus, it can help us conquer three other writing craft challenges.

(If action-reaction chains are a new concept to you, Jami has written about actions and reactions and cause and effect before. These posts are a great place to start.)

Problem #1 – Inappropriate Backstory Dump

Understanding that internal dialogue should be a reaction to a stimulus means that we’re less likely to inappropriately drop in backstory.

Here’s what I mean by that. Backstory is challenging for us as writers because we tend to either include too much of it, slowing the story down, or drop it in when we—the author—want to tell the reader something, hence creating author intrusion.

But good backstory insertion is really nothing more than internal dialogue. It’s your viewpoint character thinking about something that happened in the past. So, in other words, we should insert backstory as a reaction to a stimulus.

How does this solve the inappropriate backstory dump?

We’ll know when to insert backstory because we’ll insert it as an internal reaction to something else that happened. If there’s no cause, no trigger, then it doesn’t belong there.

And we won’t include too much backstory when we understand it as an internal dialogue reaction to something else that happened. When something triggers a memory for you, do you usually stop in the middle of what you’re doing to think about it for five or ten minutes? No? Neither should our characters. Memories, thoughts of our past, pass quickly through our heads and cause another reaction. They cause us to either feel something or do something else.

Problem #2 – Point of View Errors in Description

One of the most common point of view errors I see in my work as an editor is when an author includes details that their viewpoint character never would have noticed. They’ll describe something the character has seen a hundred times. They’ll describe the color of the viewpoint character’s hair or eyes. They’ll describe some detail that the viewpoint character (who’s running for their life or otherwise distracted) wouldn’t be thinking about.

The trick to solving this is “internal dialogue is a reaction.”

If we want our viewpoint character to think about something they normally wouldn’t pay attention to, we can avoid a POV error by ensuring that thought is a reaction to something else. Give them a reason to think about that detail.

Problem #3 – Characters Who Need to Exhibit Unlikeable Qualities

It’s easy to write likeable characters when our characters are able to act in a way that’s consistent with who they really are or who they want to be. It’s easy to make a character likeable when they can react to situations using action or dialogue that shows they’re smart or caring or humble or vulnerable.

It’s much more difficult to write likeable characters when they need to show a hard shell to the world, when they need to present an unlikeable exterior, or when they need to seem perfect. How are we supposed to convince readers to like them and care about them then?

I think we tend to stumble over this because we forget that reactions to stimuli can be different on the outside and on the inside.

When we recognize that internal dialogue is a reaction and that it can be independent of dialogue and physical action, suddenly we have a new avenue to make our characters likeable. We can show what they wish they could do, even if their current circumstance prevents them from acting on it.

So next time you’re struggling with one concept in writing, try to come at it from a different angle. Sometimes that can be a great way to sidestep a mental block!

*****

Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy is a science fiction and fantasy author who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. She’s also the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time.

You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website. Don’t forget to subscribe to her free newsletter. New subscribers receive a copy of her mini-book Strong Female Characters as a thank-you gift!

*****

Internal Dialogue coverInternal dialogue is the voice inside our heads that we can’t ignore, even when we want to. We second-guess ourselves, pass judgment on the world around us, and are at our most emotionally vulnerable. And the same needs to be true for our characters.

Internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal. It’s an advantage we have over TV and movie script writers and playwrights. It’s also one of the least understood and most often mismanaged elements of the writing craft.

In Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn…

  • the difference between internal dialogue and narration,
  • best practices for formatting internal dialogue,
  • ways to use internal dialogue to advance your story,
  • how to balance internal dialogue with external action,
  • clues to help you decide whether you’re overusing or underusing internal dialogue,
  • tips for dealing with questions in your internal dialogue,
  • and much more!

*****

Thank you, Marcy! I read through this book again to prepare this post, and I was blown away once more by the insights shared within.

I’d go so far as to recommend this book as a must-have for every fiction author (unless they write in a distant or omniscient POV that doesn’t use internal dialogue). Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I rarely give purchase recommendations like this, but Marcy’s Internal Dialogue deserves it. It’s that good, and it’s that important for us to be skilled in the technique.

As I stated in my review (scroll down at the link), “The techniques for how to properly use internal dialogue are critical for developing character arcs and motivations. This is advanced stuff that helps a writer go from technically proficient to a fantastic storyteller.”

Even though I apparently “know” this skill well enough to be used as an example of how to do it, I still found great insights, tips, and answers to questions I didn’t even know I had—on every page. And yeah, I’m gushing, but if an under-$5 book can make a difference in our storytelling, I hope you’ll forgive me for wanting to let you know. *smile*

Are you familiar with internal dialogue and how to use it? Have you struggled with any of these problems in your writing? Or have you struggled with internal dialogue—using too much, using too little, knowing how and when to best use it? Have you seen bad internal dialogue in books, and if so, what made it bad? Do you have any questions for Marcy?

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Tangents and Subplots: When Do They Work?

by Jami Gold on August 25, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Shopping cart in the woods with text: Is This Scene Out of Place?

My worksheets page is most often recommended for my beat sheets, but one of the other tools I share is the Elements of a Scene Checklist. The checklist (or the matching worksheet for use with multiple scenes) helps us identify whether a scene is truly necessary and contributing to our story.

Occasionally, I’ll receive questions about some of the elements on the list, like “what counts as character development?” I have no proof, but I suspect at least some of those questions come from writers who want to justify keeping a scene that might be borderline, such as filled with a backstory information dump. *smile*

“My scene involves my main character going off about his mother. That reveals something about him, so that’s character development, right?”

Some literary fiction authors write navel-gazing stories filled with pointless tangents and details, but for the rest of us, we want our stories to keep a reader’s attention, which means everything should have a point.

The Elements of a Scene Checklist is about making sure the scenes, conflicts, exposition, dialogue, etc. in our story have a purpose.

The same judgment criteria can apply to subplots as well. We know plenty of stories where subplots work, but sometimes they can feel like they’re taking away from the main story.

So how can we make sure our tangents and subplots are adding to the story and not acting as a distraction?

When Is a Tangent Not a Tangent?

Let’s start first with the example of the maybe-tangent above. Tangents are smaller than subplots, so by understanding when the former works, we might also gain a better understanding of when subplots work for a story.

For the above example, I’d turn the question around and ask why the main character’s relationship with the mother was important to the story? Does it contribute to…:

  • The Main Plot: Is the story about the healing or other type of resolution of their relationship?
  • A Subplot: Is a subplot about their relationship?
  • The Conflict: Does the relationship add ongoing conflict? (i.e., something to show and not just tell)
  • A Goal: Is a resolution for the relationship the character’s goal?
  • A Character Arc: Does the character’s changing attitudes about the relationship illustrate their growth arc?
  • A Backstory Wound: Is the relationship the cause of a backstory wound?
  • A False Belief: Is the relationship the cause of a false belief?
  • A Theme: Does the relationship illuminate the theme?
  • The Stakes: Does the relationship increase the stakes?
  • Their Motivation: Does the relationship create or change the character’s motivation?

Does Everything Need to Have a Point?

If a character is ranting just to rant, that’s less relevant to the story. Sure, that scene might reveal that the character doesn’t like their mother, but why does that matter if that tidbit isn’t related to the rest of the story?

The Elements of a Scene Checklist is meant to help us identify when a scene isn’t pulling its weight for the story. When we spend a lot of words on unimportant things, we drag the pacing of our story down.

Conversely, if a scene moves forward a reader’s understanding of the story—not just an understanding of the character but of the bigger story as well—the pace remains solid because there’s a feeling of forward momentum being driven by an all-encompassing purpose.

As readers, while we may want to understand a character, just as we’d want to get to know a new acquaintance, we’re more likely to turn pages if that understanding also contributes to a sense of the greater story.  In a real-world example, we could compare that sense of a bigger picture to wanting to know how well we can relate to a new acquaintance—could they become a friend?

When something feels meaningful—to the bigger picture of either our lives or a story—we’re more likely to pay attention. Scenes with a purpose will automatically feel stronger.

No, This Isn’t a Rule…

However, this is a writing guideline. (There are very few unbreakable rules in writing.) But just like any other guideline, we should know the reasons behind it before we decide to break it.

If we break this guideline to expound on a tangent that has no story purpose (and has just an author purpose of wanting to share the information), we’ll affect the pacing and tension of the story. Some readers might get bored and close the book. And some might find the character so fascinating that they’d read the character’s grocery shopping list.

But it is a risk. So we want to make a choice about breaking this guideline consciously, and not just because we’re lying to ourselves about whether or not a tangential rant, backstory information dump, dialogue back-and-forth, etc. has a point.

How Are Subplots Made Meaningful?

Similarly, our story’s subplots should have a purpose to the overall story. By definition, subplots are plots that support the main plot in some way. Short stories may or may not have subplots, but in longer stories, like novellas or novel-length, a story needs more.

Subplots are useful in longer stories because in addition to adding layers and shoring up a sagging middle, they can…:

  • show complications for the main conflict
  • reveal different aspects of the characters (the main plot might be their external goal while a subplot might be their internal goal)
  • provide an opportunity to increase the stakes or tension (the protagonist can fail on a subplot goal, which can make the main conflict feel more at risk)
  • change a character’s motivations for the main conflict
  • allow characters to learn skills and gain abilities for the main conflict, etc.

All of those examples tie into the main storyline, either through the plot (complications, skills, etc.) or through the character’s arc for the story (internal goals, motivations, etc.). Subplots along those lines work well because they don’t distract from the main story.

(Note that in some types of series (such as those that continue from book to book and/or contain an overall arc, such as Harry Potter), a subplot might not be resolved in the current story and be left as a thread for future books. These types of subplots, because they’re not resolved as part of main conflict, might not directly tie to the main storyline.)

Just like with the tangent issue, we should usually be able to see how subplots are related to the conflict, stakes, character arc, resolution of the character’s internal goals, wounds, beliefs, or other issues, etc. If we can remove a subplot and it wouldn’t change the main story, it usually doesn’t belong.

How Subplots Can Relate to the Main Storyline

Let’s take a few common subplots and give a couple of examples for how they might relate to the main story:

  • Love Interest: This style of subplot doesn’t have to mean romantic love. A subplot of a man bonding with a stray cat that culminates with him trying to find the animal before the Big Bad catches it provides the same type of “increasing the stakes” purpose that a romantic love interest could. Friends or family can help train protagonists, get them to admit their internal issues, or push them to take action.
  • Character Internal Arc: A character’s internal growth is often a subplot, as they shed the backstory wound or false belief holding them back. Or a subplot might help a character learn a vital lesson about what their goals should be (thus changing their motivations).
  • Additional Complications: A character might suffer from bad habits or addictions, or struggle with character traits that get in their way of making the best decisions for the main storyline. A woman who’s trying to save money for a goal might fall prey to her gambling addiction and lose her savings.
  • Face Their Fear: Characters might have a phobia or a fear that makes them vulnerable that they need to face on the way to meeting up with the antagonist at the Climax. A man who’s afraid of water might need to follow the villain onto a boat to keep him from getting away.
  • Longings and Needs: Related to a character’s internal arc, a character might have internal needs and longings that they’re not consciously aware of but are strong enough to drive motivations. A subplot might address a character’s desire for acceptance, love, validation, respect, security, etc., such as if a woman goes after her external goal because she wants her father’s approval.

With both tangents and subplots, the wrong focus could distract from the story we’re trying to tell. However, if we follow the guideline of ensuring that the tangent or subplot has a purpose related to the main storyline, readers will be more likely to stay engaged.

Readers who can see at least hints of how the subplots or tangents are related to the main storyline will be left with the impression of a stronger story. Subplots and tangents that have a point give readers a sense that a story is tightly plotted and that everything follows a story’s internal logic.

So, as long as a scene serves a story purpose, we can feel confident that it belongs as part of our story. And hopefully, with this benchmark, we’ll know whether a scene truly is adding layers of character development or is just going off on an unrelated tangent. *smile*

Have you ever struggled to know whether a tangent or subplot belongs? Do you usually try to make sure they have a purpose or are meaningful to the story? Do you think it’s possible to include unrelated tangents or subplots without sacrificing story tension or pacing? Do you tend to use some types of subplots more than others? Can you think of other ways we can make tangents or subplots relate to the main story?

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What’s Your Author Self-Esteem?

by Jami Gold on August 20, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Man staring at the ground with text: How to Improve Your Author Self-Esteem

One of the longest and most successful blog hops I know of in the writing world is the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Once a month, writers across the web post about their doubts and concerns and share their support.

While I’m not a member of Alex’s group, I can relate to the idea behind it. In fact, here on my blog, I have a whole tag for self-doubt. I think it’s safe to say that we often doubt ourselves as authors.

  • We doubt whether we can do a story justice when writing. “It seemed so much cooler in my head.”
  • We doubt whether we’re writing the right story. “This other idea sounds more interesting than my current draft. Maybe that’s a sign my story is boring.”
  • We doubt our beta readers’ or critique partners’ feedback. “They said they liked it, but what if they were lying to make me feel better?”
  • We doubt our revisions and edits. “I can’t tell anymore if I’m making my story better or worse.”
  • We doubt whether or not anyone will like our story. “Should I click the button to (send this query/publish this book)? Or should I reread it once more to make sure?”

That’s all normal.

However, if we’re not careful, that self-doubt can creep into our psyche in ways that affects our career choices. Our business decisions should usually be based more in fact than emotion, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we even reject ourselves to prevent rejection from others.

Are We Self-Rejecting?

We might talk ourselves out of trying to write a challenging premise, even though that story idea could be the breakthrough we need. Or we might decide against querying a top-notch agent or publisher who’s expressed interest in our genre, simply because we figure they wouldn’t be interested in our story.

It can be far too easy to think that we’re not good enough or interesting enough for X agent or Y publisher. I know of some authors who queried small publishers—and only small publishers—because they assumed no one else would want their story.

That might be the case (some niche stories are a better fit for a small publisher experienced in that niche), but a decision made because of careful research for the best fit within the market is different from a decision made because of self-doubt-fueled assumptions. One is actively deciding, and one is reacting to imagined rejections.

The issue doesn’t go away when self-publishing—and can even get worse. Self-published authors can let self-doubt dictate countless aspects of their career.

A common (very, very common) problem is when we price our work according to our self-doubts rather than our market research. If we’re friends with many self-published authors, we probably know at least one who prices their books cheaply simply because they don’t think they deserve more.

Our Author Self-Esteem Can Affect Our Pricing

I read an insanely insightful blog post a couple of weeks ago by a textile artist (The Pale Rook) trying to figure out how she should price her work. She often mentors other artists through their business process, so she thought she wouldn’t have issues when roles were reversed and she met with her mentor.

Instead, she found a magazine subscription’s worth of issues in how she thought of herself, her work, and the worth of her work. I hope everyone will read the post, because I’m going to try to restrain myself from quoting the whole thing. *smile*

“I thought that earning a good salary for my work was somehow unfair to the rest of the world. So I reduced the price…

I feel bad about people paying for my work because I think that the people who buy and even those who appreciate my work are somehow being duped. I keep feeling that at some point I am going to be found out to be an imposter.  I feel bad when my work is considered valuable…

I feel that if I openly value my work then people might not like me.”

Charging Money for Our Work Can Make Us Uncomfortable

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can definitely relate to the issues The Pale Rook struggled with. There can be a big difference between what we think our work deserves and what we think we deserve.

We might be able to look objectively at the quality of our work and recognize that it deserves a certain price. Yet when it comes to attaching that price to our name, to what’s coming into our pocket, we can waver.

Issue #1: If we don’t value our writing, we’re more likely to lower our pricing to fit what we think we “deserve.”

We might be afraid that if we price our work too high, people won’t like us. We don’t want to be seen as “too full of ourselves.” Or maybe we think we can avoid a “not worth the money” Amazon review if it’s “cheap enough” (even though those reviews show up on free products too).

Issue #2: We’re afraid of people not liking us if they perceive us as overcharging.

Is There Help for Us?

The Pale Rook goes on to describe how she helps those she mentors get over this problem of devaluing their work. She’s seen her students time and again apologize for their work—no matter how hard they’ve worked on it or how good they believe it to be deep down.

“I ask my students why they feel it’s so difficult to not devalue themselves. Their answers are always, always the same. They tell me that they don’t want other people to think they are arrogant. They worry that if they say their work is good, other people will point out that it’s not. They worry that if they appear to think they are better than others, then those others won’t like them.”

No matter how good our writing is, we will have people pointing out its problems. So if others are going to put down our work, why would we beat them to the punch?

People who don’t like our work simply aren’t the right reader for that story. Their opinion doesn’t have to be more valued than our own. They don’t have a direct link to “the truth of the universe.”

Likewise, in her classroom, she bans students from saying “sorry” or any other negative words about their work.

“After a few minutes of speaking hesitantly … something would shift. … They would speak without apology, explanation or expectation, about what they loved about their own talent. …  And when they shone, something would happen to the other students in the room, and to me;  we’d feel just a little bit closer to our own value because we could see someone else connecting with theirs.”

Her recommendation to those who read her post is similar:

“Talk to yourself about yourself, your work, your talent, your virtues, whatever you like but do it without apology and do it out loud.”

Self-Doubt Plus a “Nobody” Author Equals Low Author Self-Esteem

No matter how we publish, we usually start out as a “nobody” debut author. Even those who traditionally publish often don’t have a big marketing push from their publisher.

From a fact-based, marketing research perspective, it makes sense to start off with prices low enough to give people a reason to take a chance on a new, unknown author. In the indie publishing world, we might even decide to offer a story for free, like I did with Unintended Guardian.

But when does that end?

At what point do we say: Okay, I have enough cheap stuff out there for people to check out if they’re unsure. Now it’s time to price for real.

My Struggles with Author Self-Esteem

When I developed my business plan last year, I made conscious decisions about how to price my work:

  • I was going to offer a freebie short story to create a wide funnel of potential readers.
  • I was going to price the pre-orders for my follow-up novels lower to reward those who follow and support me.
  • I was going to keep my first novel on the cheaper end to ease potential readers into my longer work.
  • My prices would increase with later works.

The reality matched that plan fairly well… Except for one issue that I hadn’t nailed down back when I was still in unemotional-business mode.

I had my freebie, I’d marked the final price of my first novel cheaper than the second, and I had my pre-orders priced cheaper. But how much cheaper should they be?

My pre-order price for the first novel was $0.99. For the second novel, I debated, hemmed, hawed, and struggled to justify a higher pre-order price. In the end, I chickened-out and kept Pure Sacrifice‘s pre-order price at $0.99.

Why? All that self-doubt stuff The Pale Rook went into above. But in the time since I’d set up Pure Sacrifice‘s pre-order, I came across her blog post, which helped me see the influence that doubt had on my business decision.

So when it came time to submit my third novel, Ironclad Devotion, for pre-order, I had her insights to back me up. Ironclad Devotion‘s pre-order price ($2.99) is still cheaper than it will be post-release ($3.99), but it’s no longer “I really devalue this work” cheap.

A huge part of me wants to apologize for that price, and that’s crazy. And I know that’s crazy, but I have the urge to do it anyway. Ugh.

We know that ebooks are dirt cheap. They’re less than a birthday card we buy for a co-worker without a second thought. They’re less than a drink or a burger that we won’t think about tomorrow.

And none of those justifications even goes into the time or effort we put into creating the book. Or fact that our book might be really, really good.

Ironclad Devotion is the book that was near-publishable at the first draft stage. It’s the favorite story of my beta editors and my editors so far. It deserves to be valued.

(Heck, it probably “deserves” to be priced more than $3.99 at release. But I’m going to follow my plan to raise prices with later books and trust that my writing will keep improving and keep deserving more. *grin*)

So I’m sticking with my one-step-above-ridiculously-cheap pre-order price. And I’m not going to apologize for it. *smile*

Do you struggle with self-doubt to the point that it affects your overall author self-esteem? How does it affect you (drafting, editing, submitting, publishing, promo’ing, etc.)? Do you think our author self-esteem can affect our business decisions, like for pricing? Do you relate to The Pale Rook’s struggles? Do you have other insights for where this issue holds us back, or other suggestions for how we can resolve it?

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What Makes Your Story Unique?

by Jami Gold on August 18, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Neon sign of

If we follow agents, editors, or publishing trends on social media, we’ve probably heard the idea to write something “the same but different.” Writers the world over have scratched their heads at that phrase. *smile*

Usually what agents or editors mean is that they want something similar enough to other stories that they know they can sell the book. (If a story doesn’t fit into a genre or category, how would readers find it on a bookstore shelf?) Yet they also want the story to not feel like a retread of what’s come before.

I’ve seen agents share on Twitter that for some common story ideas—such as a young adult protagonist attending their first day in a new high school—they might receive 30-plus queries with this story opening each and every day. With that kind of repetition, it’s easy to see why they might get tired of the same ideas over and over.

So how did one of my favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, succeed with that premise in the opening episode?

Because the show also made it clear how it was different.

Wait… Buffy’s transferring because she burned down the gym at her previous school (due to…er, vampires?)? That’s different.

The introductions to her future friends are likewise peppered with unique events. Instead of a simple bump in the hallway to trigger a meeting, the bump in the hallway results in Xander finding her wooden stake among the spilled items.

These differences all work together to make the audience sit up and take notice. They’re hooks into our attention.

Whether we’re writing queries for traditional publishing or back-cover blurbs for self-publishing, we need similar types of hooks. So if we identify the various ways our story is unique enough to grab readers’ attention, we’ll know better how to sell our story.

What Sets the Hook?

There are many elements that can appeal to readers. Any one of those could be unique to us or our story:

  • our voice
  • story premise
  • characters (name, job, hobby, goal)
  • plot or sequence of events
  • setting (time or place)
  • challenges and conflicts
  • situations or setups
  • character flaws or backstory, etc.

However, not all of those will make it easier for us to sell our story, simply because not all of them will be obvious at first sight. It’s difficult—if not downright impossible—to show our voice in a book’s cover, for example.

A back-cover blurb or query is where we can really start to set those hooks and show what makes our story unique. In a blurb or query, we can show off our great voice, give a description that makes our characters sound interesting, or mention an unexpected setting.

Can We Have Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with queries and blurbs over the years. One issue I’ve run into multiple times is writing something that ends up a confusing mess.

Sometimes we can leave readers confused by trying to include too many interesting elements. Some aspects that make our story different might lie in a subplot that doesn’t belong in a query or blurb at all, or an element might require too much explanation to make the significance clear.

In other words, while it might seem that we’d want to include every single hook possible—”Well, if this doesn’t appeal to them, maybe that will!”—that way lies incoherence. And a confusing blurb doesn’t instill trust in readers (or agents) that the story will be any better.

How Do We Know which Elements to Include?

A couple of years ago, I took a workshop by Laurie Schnebly Campbell called Blurbing Your Book. Laurie’s experience covers both the fiction author type of creativity and the advertising copywriter type of creativity.

So her workshop focused on how we can sell our book to potential readers. Covers, blurbs, or queries all act like advertising for our story.

One advertising concept that she shared with us is Unique Selling Points (USP). As she said, we need a bit of what’s cool about the story.

Which bits should we focus on? The elements that will clearly make our story sound cool—to our target market.

So we first have to think about what the readers of our type of book would find interesting. A women’s fiction book boasting of a “love at first sight” plot might get a few confused eyebrow scrunches, whereas that description of a romance novel would result in grabby hands from those who love that trope.

That’s the key: Different target markets want different things. So our goal is to express in our blurb or query what makes our book unique and interesting while still matching those unique and interesting elements to what our target market wants. Easier said than done, right? *smile*

What Are Our Book’s Unique Selling Points?

What’s special about our book? What boxes could we check off with “If readers like, A, B, C, or D, they might enjoy my story”?

We might get some ideas by looking at blurbs of other stories in our genre and seeing what stands out. Often, it takes only a hint to grab our interest, especially if that hint alludes to big universal ideas.

Chelsea’s dreams for her first big career job crumble after her dad nearly dies in a car accident. Her good-for-nothing brother refuses to help with caretaking, so she’s left to pick up the pieces for her father’s sake.

Scrambling to salvage her new boss’s last shred of goodwill, she’s working late at the office—alone—when a threatening phone call forces her to question everything she thought she knew about her family. Now she has to figure out who she can trust—before the next accident is more than a near-miss.

(Er, yes, I completely made up that blurb on the fly, so it’s not the best thing ever. But hey, if you want to run with that story idea, go for it. *smile*)

My point is that blurbs can hint at many elements that readers might find interesting. This one could check off boxes for:

  • New career dreams
  • Family drama
  • Caretaking and family obligations
  • Job stress
  • Mystery and suspense
  • Deadly threats
  • Family betrayal
  • (and maybe others that I don’t even recognize)

Likewise, for our stories, we could come up with a “readers might enjoy my story if they like…” list. If we’re writing a mystery, what kind of mystery are we writing?

  • Light and humorous or dark and twisty?
  • Is our protagonist a detective or a dog groomer?
  • Is our setting an intrigue-laden small town or a gritty downtown?
  • Are the character interactions filled with sexy banter or by-the-book interrogations?

There’s no wrong answer because there are readers for each of those types of stories. Our goal is to attract the readers who will like our type of story by hitting their hot buttons.

What Do We Do with that List?

Once we have a list of all the things that makes our story cool, we can use that list in several ways. We can use it to:

  • add spice to our synopsis,
  • ensure our query or blurb has hooks,
  • create promotional messages to attract our target audience, or
  • use it to keep a draft on track if we develop the list before finishing the story.

For each of my novels, I created a “readers might enjoy if they like…” list that I added to as I thought of things. These lists don’t include everything yet, but it’s good to have a starting point for when I have time to dig deeper later. (One of these days, I really need to get serious about promo. *sigh*)

For Treasured Claim, the “readers might enjoy if they like…” list (so far) includes:

  • dragons
  • shifters
  • sexy jewel thieves
  • games of bribery and domination
  • reformed playboys
  • assertive virgin heroines
  • “one last big heist”

For Pure Sacrifice, the list is:

  • bad-ass unicorns
  • shifters
  • virgin heroes
  • matchmaking dogs
  • seduction of the hero
  • beta-ish heroes
  • sexy scenes without conventional sex

For Ironclad Devotion, so far I have:

  • faeries
  • cowboys, blacksmiths, and horses
  • good guy motorcycle clubs
  • Southwest/Native American
  • foster parenting
  • enemies-to-lovers
  • secret baby backstory

For each one of those stories, many elements show up in the blurb, but not all of them fit. The “virgin hero” element of Pure Sacrifice couldn’t make it into the blurb without getting into convoluted worldbuilding explanations. (Believe me, I tried. *smile*)

However, as an example of how else we can use these lists, I made sure that one of the teaser quotes I created for posting on social media alluded to the element:

Quote from Markos of Pure Sacrifice: She took a step toward him. "You? Mr. Sexy Ass Bad Boy Extraordinaire. A virgin. And you expect me to believe that?"

So we definitely don’t have to try to cram every cool idea into the blurb. That way leads to confusion.

Instead, as long as we know how to identify what makes our story cool, different, and unique, we can focus on hitting potential readers’ buttons in other ways. And an interested reader is one step closer to a reader who decides to buy. *smile*

Do you struggle with knowing what makes your story unique? What elements of your story do you think potential readers would find cool? Can you use those to help sell your book? Do you have other ideas for how we could use a USP or “readers might enjoy…” list? What elements in other stories immediately make you sit up and take notice?

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Hands grasping to help with text: How Have You Been Helped?

Yesterday, I announced another book release, and the wave of congratulations and support gave me warm fuzzies all day. *smile* I feel so blessed to be part of the writing community.

Pure Sacrifice, my newest release, was my first NaNoWriMo novel. The encouragement I saw going in all directions during NaNo was beautiful to witness.

Although I participated as a NaNo “rebel” in 2012 (as I’d already completed the first 25% of the story), I ended that NaNo month with 61571 new words and almost finished the first draft of Pure Sacrifice. But I know I wouldn’t have collected nearly that many words without the structure, pompon waving, and yes, pressure of NaNo.

I loved the experience (and the word count) of NaNo so much that I’ve signed up every year since since then and plan to participate again this year. *checks calendar and to-do list* Somehow.

The writing community has been there for me at every turn, and I’m grateful. I hope all of you have received that support as well.

I’ll get back to writing-related posts next week, but for right now, I’m going to bask in the warm fuzzies of my newest release for just a bit longer. *smile*

Pure Sacrifice Release in Print and eBook!

Pure Sacrifice is the second full-length novel of my Mythos Legacy series. Like the short story and first novel of the series, this is a standalone story, and the whole series can be read in any order.

I’ve already alluded to the editing required by this story, as well as the difficulties I had with finding a cover model, but it all worked out in the end. See?

Pure Sacrifice print cover

To save his race,
he must keep the chosen virgin pure.
But she has other plans…

A shapeshifting unicorn desperate to save his race…

The last guardian of his kind, Markos Ambrostead must keep the chosen Virgin hidden and untainted. But when an attacker breaches his protective magic, he’s forced to reveal himself to defend her life.

A tenacious woman who refuses to be ignored…

Celia Hawkins wishes the world would get a clue and stop treating her like she’s invisible. Only one man notices her, or is that her imagination? After narrowly escaping an attempted rape, she demands answers from her mysterious rescuer—starting with why he’s been following her.

Rules were made to be broken…

Markos can’t risk being tempted by the Virgin, yet emboldened by his attention, Celia’s determined to become his friend. Maybe more. Maybe much more. Now he must hold onto his crumbling willpower to maintain her purity—or his tribe will become extinct.

Available at:

Amazon | Kindle | Google Play | Apple iTunes | Barnes & Noble |
Kobo | ARe

Click here for the latest links, or add it on Goodreads!

Ironclad Devotion Available for Pre-Order!

Ironclad Devotion is the third full-length novel in the series and was my 2013 NaNo novel. (For that year, I’d already completed most of the story, so I didn’t “win” NaNo because most of the words were already done.)

This was my “easy” story. The words, the characters, and the plot all flowed, so I finished more of it before NaNo than I’d planned. (It’s hard to complain about a bigger word count.)

I couldn’t help it. This was just such a fun story to write. Imagine a motorcycle-riding goth faeirie princess who can control fire and a Navajo cowboy blacksmith who controls iron. Yep, that’s just fun. *grin*

Ironclad Devotion cover

Safeguarding her freedom,
a faerie princess locks down her heart,
but a blacksmith forges the key…

A faerie princess evading her fate…

Earth is no place for a faerie, but Kira can’t go home without dooming her people. Desperate to avoid the pull of her homeland, she fosters an abandoned girl, the child’s joy a source of much-needed energy.

A blacksmith with something to prove…

When Zachary Chase discovers he has a daughter, he’s determined to be part of his child’s life and not repeat his mother’s neglect. But to open the little girl’s heart, he must earn her foster mother’s trust.

One night is never enough…

Despite their rivalry, Kira and Zac’s desires tempt them into one no-consequences night. Yet the more passion flares between them, the more Kira risks destroying the life she’s carved out on Earth—and endangering those she cares about in both worlds.

Available at:

Amazon | Apple iBooksBarnes & Noble | Kobo

(GooglePlay and a print version coming later.)

Click here for the latest links, or add it on Goodreads!

Ironclad Devotion is currently priced at $2.99 for the pre-order sale. When it releases on October 28th, its price will go up to $3.99, so order your copy soon!

The Awesomeness of the Writing Community

I’ve had lots of people want to help me with my releases as a thanks for my blog and worksheets for writers. *hugs you all*

Even though this reference dates me, I really do feel like the Wayne’s World chant of “I’m not worthy” applies because I already appreciate the support I’ve received so much. But since people have asked…

  • If you’ve read any of my stories, I would so appreciate an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite retailer. (Yes, even if your review wouldn’t be all rainbows-and-chocolate-flavored 5 stars. *grin* Seriously. In fact, I think I need to do a post about just how much I don’t take reviews—good or bad—personally.)
  • Or you could spread the word through Pinterest. Each released book in my series has teaser quote images that can be one-click pinned to Pinterest. For the book you want, scroll down on the page to find the quote images or simply pin the cover at the top of the page:
  • Or click on those quote images anywhere other than the Pin It button to open the picture in another tab, where you can save the image or grab the URL to use for attaching the image to any social media post, like Facebook or Twitter.
  • Or scroll all the way to the bottom of any of those pages to use the social sharing bar to share the page itself, so others can check out the blurb, excerpt, and all the buy links. (I don’t have quote images for Ironclad Devotion yet, but its page can be shared like the other books.)

Others might have additional ideas, but honestly, I’m grateful for anything and everything. *smile*

Has the writing community been good to you? What are you thankful for? Do you have any questions about my books or ideas for how to help? Do you have other ideas for how we can help each other? Do you need help with anything?

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Subjectivity and Reader Shaming

August 11, 2015 Random Musings
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If we write genre fiction, we might bemoan the lack of respect, but the same lack of respect occurs at the reader level too. Readers of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, young adult, and romance have also been looked down on. Many outsiders have attempted to make readers ashamed of their reading choices by judging by subjective measures.

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Self-Publishing? Which Path Is Best for You?

August 6, 2015 Writing Stuff
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Even though I don’t want my blog to turn into “all self-publishing tips all the time,” I also want to share my indie publishing insights and advice. My friend Janice Hardy came up with the perfect solution: joining the Indie Author Series at Fiction University, where I’m writing a series digging into some of our options for indie publishing.

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Can We Learn from Reading “Bad” Writing?

August 4, 2015 Writing Stuff
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When we end up with a “dud” of bad writing from a book we’ve purchased, what should we do? Should we treat it as a learning experience or just close the book? My answer has changed over the years, so let’s take a closer look at when we might want to slog through bad writing to try to learn what not to do—and when we wouldn’t.

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When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions?

July 30, 2015 Writing Stuff
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Revisions are never easy. Unlike just plain edits, which might have us questioning a word, revisions might have us questioning everything. Sometimes the feedback we receive might cause us to wonder if the suggestions are a good idea for our story. How can we tell? Which battles should we pick when debating our publisher’s editor?

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Shining a Light on Diversity Issues

July 28, 2015 Writing Stuff
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In gearing up for the release of Pure Sacrifice, one frustrating experience was beyond my control. I’ve mentioned before that we should avoid assumptions about our characters, so I waited until I heard a voice that resonated and knew my paranormal character for this book wouldn’t be white skinned. Great! Except…

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