Monthly Archives May 2013

Critique Technique, part 9: Characters and Conflict

There are two things a story can’t live without: characters and conflict. A “story”—fiction or non-fiction—without characters is a technical report. A story without conflict isn’t a story at all. Without conflict, characters have nothing at stake, there’s nothing that forces them to do anything at all, much less change or grow.

Now, conflict doesn’t have to mean a character having a gun to his head. Conflict can be internal, too. In fact, that’s the primary form of conflict in much of “literary” fiction. In a 2011 seminar, playwright and author Jeff Helgeson identified five kinds of conflict:

  • Person against self,
  • Person against person,
  • Person against society,
  • Person against nature, and
  • Person against “fate.”

While four of these are external, each has an internal...

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Great Stuff for Writers, May 27, 2013

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, one of the two holidays (two!) in which we honor and remember our military personnel, those serving today and those who have served in the past, especially those who were injured or killed in combat. As a veteran myself, I’ll be participating in a ceremony this evening. Courage in the face of mortal danger and sacrifice to it have long been—and should be!—staples of literature. James Scott Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) Of Miracles, Sacrifice and Story speak to this better than I can, so that’s where we’ll start this week’s Great Stuff.

And to my brothers and sisters in arms, thank you.


Nancy J. Cohen (@nancyjcohen) offers a veritable plethora of tips on how to make On-Site Research trips worth your time and expense...

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Uncovering the Cover

The Great Cover Artist Search continues. Or resumes, to be more accurate about it.

I started a month or more ago and then other tasks took priority, but now, getting the cover designed is one of the last things I need to do. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but this task is harder, or at least more time-consuming, than it might seem.

First off, where do you find cover artists in the first place? I’ve found four good sources:

  1. Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer web site. Every month, Joel shows all the ebook covers submitted to him for review, and critiques some. That’s a big help in a lot of ways.
  2. Other authors’ web sites. J. A. Konrath and Joanna Penn have named the cover artists they’ve used, for example.
  3. Mark Coker’s list of book designers and cover artists on Smashwords.
  4. The “Look In...
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Great Stuff for Writers, May 20, 2013

Wow! TONS of Great Stuff this week, in just about all categories. Titles, critique groups, emotions, made-up words, publishing paths, “scarcity thinking,” and dogs reading books! Even a traditional/self-publishing poll. Something for everyone.


Right up there with a great cover, a great title is critical to getting a potential reader to consider your book. That’s why Katie Weiland (@KMWeiland) provides 17 Steps to a Reader-Grabbing Title. Seventeen sounds like a lot, but she breaks them into 5 elements, 7 questions to ask, and 5 brainstorming tips, to make them easy to digest.

There are writers out there who hate critique groups. HATE ‘em. Sometimes there’s plenty of reason to. But sometimes not. Kris Montee, one of the sister pair who write as PJ Parrish, discusses this in

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Critique Technique, part 7b: more on scene and chapter endings

I need to “revise and extend” my last Critique Technique post.

Last time I wrote that things should be worse for the protagonist at the end of each section (or scene) or chapter of an article, short story, or novel than they were at the beginning. Well, that’s not entirely true. In a longer piece, and particularly in a short part of that piece, that may not be possible, or desirable.

Letting the scene’s or chapter’s protagonist make a little progress, or seem to make progress, has its benefits:

  1. The reader is encouraged, and so wants to read further.
  2. That progress gives the author more opportunities to make things worse for the protagonist: one step forward makes room for the two steps backward to come. (There we writers go again, being evil and devious!)
  3. If the scene’s protago...
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Another step closer, but more yet to go

Man climbing steps

Making progress, step by step

Step by step, The Eternity Plague gets closer to becoming a published reality. Earlier this week I finished reviewing the work of a local copy editor. That’s an important step.

There’s still important work to do, however. When I began writing the book, lo those many years ago (2004!), I chose to set parts of the story at a medical research center I visited early in my research: the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center near downtown Dallas. Why? Well, it was–and still is–a highly regarded research center and a cousin of mine who works there was able to arrange for me to spend some time in the lab of one of its scientists. Very cool! AND, it wasn’t in Oklahoma, which was where I was living at the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong wi...

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Great Stuff for Writers, May 13, 2013

A double-13 day today, but you should feel lucky because there’s so much Great Stuff waiting below. Techniques for getting started or keeping going, for pulling in the reader, setting mood, and more. News about Smashwords and indie publishing. Making better use of social media generally and Goodreads and Twitter in particular. Even a link to an old video game based on The Great Gatsby! Check it out.


Just in case you don’t already have enough to read, or you’re looking for something specific that you haven’t found yet, Katie Weiland (@KMWeiland) lists 10 of My Favorite Writing-Craft Sites. Two you see mentioned a lot here—Writer Unboxed and The Creative Penn—are on the list, plus others I hadn’t heard of.

Not only is James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) an excellent writer...

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Critique Technique, part 7: scene and chapter endings

I’ve written about beginnings in the last couple of posts. For the next couple, I’ll discuss the endings of sections, chapters, and the entire piece. This article will look at the first two.

Articles and short stories are often divided into sections, sometimes even into chapters. Books of all kinds are almost always divided into chapters, and those chapters often have sections within them.

Why would a chapter, article, or short story be divided into sections? In fiction, sections contain the action in a specific time and place, from a particular point of view, or focused on a certain character. In non-fiction, a section may focus on these or on a specific topic that could be one of several within the piece...

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Great Stuff for Writers, May 8, 2013

Hey! What happened to Monday? I was traveling, that’s what. And Tuesday? Trying to catch up. And Wednesday? STILL trying to catch up. I’m almost there. So, herewith is an abbreviated and tardy version of Great Stuff: outlining and word choice and beginnings and endings; branding and Goodreads and mastery and saving your work on the cloud.


If you’re an outliner, you understand that your outline is a fixed thing, graven in stone. In What Comes After Once Upon a Time, Robert J. Sadler describes how a little item he threw into a story, not thinking it was going to turn out to be important, instead became a key element in getting his latest novel to its conclusion by a path he never intended. But he trusted his storyteller’s instinct and good things happened.

We all know that we s...

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Critique Technique, part 6: the wrong beginning

Last time I wrote about how the beginning of a piece is supposed to “hook” the reader, to make them have to keep reading past the first line, paragraph, and page. Now we need to zoom out a little and look at the beginning of the piece as a whole. Specifically, we need to ask, “Is this the right place for the piece to begin?”

That may seem like an odd question: doesn’t an article, short story, or novel start at the beginning?

Not necessarily. You’ve probably heard, too, that a story needs to start in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.”

Great. WHAT things?

Things. You know. The action. The events.

But when there are things, action, events all through a story, which ones should the story start in the middle of?

Let’s clarify...

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