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Body language and bunny suits

The type of "bunny suit" I wore.

The type of “bunny suit” I wore.

When I was a manufacturing engineer, I spent my first six months working in the fab—fabrication plant—learning how the line worked, and how to operate the tools that processed semiconductor chips in the 24/7/365 factory.

Because even the smallest amount of contamination can ruin a batch of wafers in process—a very expensive proposition—everyone on the fab floor wears a clean room suit (a.k.a. “bunny suit”). Which means they’re covered from head to toe in white polyester jumpsuits, safety glasses, and latex gloves. And there’s no makeup allowed!

Imagine peering down a long bay of machines to find the person you’re looking for and seeing nothing but white blobs. Other than basic height and weight, and the color of their eyes, the only other cues you might get to who a person was would come from the—often outdated or poorly done—picture on their badge. Assuming it was right-side out so you could see it at all.

It was frustrating at first. If we had three tall (because to me, who isn’t?) guys operating tools in a certain bay on a particular shift—in addition to the tool techs and engineers walking around—I might have to go up to each one to find the person I was looking for. (It’s often too loud to yell. Not to mention, frowned upon.)

Not only did I not recognize people on the fab floor from far away, but often I would see people outside of the fab, like in the lunch room, and not know them up close. Hey, who knew that Juan had a beard, or that Becky’s hair was Clairol red?

But what I found interesting about working in the fab, is that over time you do start to recognize people without the usual cues we use when we can see them uncovered. Even when they have their back turned. You learn that Frederick always stands with his shoulders hunched and his head forward. Henry always has a loose, laid-back posture, and Georgia fidgets.

I don’t do it automatically yet, but when I write body language cues in my stories, I try to remember to mention some of the things I noticed back in the fab. The stance, gestures, and mannerisms that we might not notice when we can see the whole picture, but which make each person unique.

We notice more than we think we do, and I believe that incorporating those smaller, deeper details into your work can really bring a character to life for the reader.

Photo credit: By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Every villain a hero

…every villain is a hero in his own mind. ~ Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor)

LokiI’ve read—and even written about—how writing an empathetic antagonist makes for a stronger story. I know I prefer those where the villain isn’t just pure evil for evil’s sake, but rather a person acting in a way that makes sense based on his backstory, goals, and motivations.

Loki, Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive), Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, Magneto, Moriarty.

We may root against these guys, but we understand them on some level. Their choices and actions make sense based on their worldview.

As a writer, I think it’s easy to give our antagonists short shrift, to make them ghosts of what they could be. Not that they need lots of air time to be effective—think of Moriarty, for example—but that they need to be fully realized.

An exercise I plan to try is one proposed by Laura DiSilverio in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. In her article “Amp Up Your Antagonists: 6 Ways to Make the Bad Better”, she suggests writing the antagonist’s first scene as if he or she were the protagonist.


How much better might I flesh out this character, how much more sympathetic and relatable might I make her, if I took her side? And if I’m writing a series, that deeper understanding of the antagonist even opens up the possibility of casting her as the protagonist in a future book. My friend Manda Collins did this beautifully in her latest novella, The Perks of Being a Beauty.

In the first three books of the series, Amelia is a jealous, backstabbing bully, and yet Manda handled her so well in the novella that I couldn’t help but root for Amelia to get her own happy ending. Once I understood why she’d done the things she’d done—and felt that she’d paid for, and regretted, her actions—she became fully redeemable.

Feel free to share your own example of a well-drawn villain from a book or movie. How might you give your own antagonist a richer role in your story?

Photo credit: Loki, courtesy of Marvel (

Epiphany at a workshop

IdeaOver the weekend, my local RWA chapter hosted bestselling romance author Virginia Kantra for an interesting workshop on characterization, gender roles, and the struggle our characters face between developing intimacy and maintaining control.

She talked about starting with gender stereotypes to meet reader expectations, but taking it further to create unique, compelling characters. She discussed how gender differences can be a source of conflict (e.g. her desire for independence vs his need to protect/provide, their different attitudes toward sex, and so on). And she went over the three character arcs in a romance: his, hers, and theirs. (And people think romance is easy to write.)

But the biggest value I got from the workshop was possible insight into one of my characters. Tara starts out as a secondary character in Blind Fury and becomes the main character in my second manuscript in that series. She has a fairly promiscuous background—something she’s trying to move beyond because it eats at her self-esteem—and the main reason is her desire to feel loved. Unfortunately, all she’s getting is a temporary connection.

(I think the motivation is important for making characters unique. For example, another woman might gravitate toward casual sex to avoid the intimacy and loss of control that comes with a long-term relationship.)

My epiphany was that Tara’s willingness to keep jumping in the sack on the first date—despite her desire for a lasting relationship—might also stem from the sense of feminine power she feels during the seduction and the act itself. I like the idea of having another layer to her behavior.

I don’t even remember what it was Virginia said that made me think of it, but I’m glad I was in the workshop.

This is the reason I often attend chapter meetings and conference sessions, even if they’re not strictly a topic of interest for me (though this one definitely was). Ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. An offhand comment by the speaker, a conversation with another workshop attendee during lunch. You just never know.

Had any serendipitous moments of your own lately?

Image credit: By Producer at ar.wikipedia (Transferred from ar.wikipedia) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons

Why Disney kills off the parents

Dumbo_1Have you ever noticed that children’s books and movies love to kill off the parents? Or at least get them out of the picture so the fun can start. Disney especially seems to like orphans as protagonists.

Think about it. Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Aladdin, The Lion King, Jungle Book, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, Home Alone.

I could go on.

When my boys were younger, it bothered me that they were bombarded with the message that the adventure doesn’t begin until the parents are gone (often permanently).

But then the other day, when I was lying in bed in that half-awake half-asleep state that often brings me plot twists and solutions, it hit me.

Orphans invoke empathy.

Seriously, what tugs at our heartstrings and emotions more than a child losing a parent? It’s a trauma we can all understand, and most of us fear. The orphan is the underdog, deserving of our sympathy, and easily forgiven most transgressions in light of their loss.

As a writer, the ability to invoke that kind of emotion from the reader/viewer is gold. If we don’t invest the reader emotionally from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how thrilling our plot is, she won’t care.

In Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT, he tells us our hero needs to “do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” The audience must be “‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” The term “save the cat” comes from the cliché of the hero rescuing a little kid’s cat from a tree so we know right up front that he’s a good guy at heart.

Essentially, there must be something about the character that makes them likable, so we’ll root for them and stick around for their story to unfold.

In THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, James Scott Bell provides some ideas how we can “emotionally bond” the reader to the main character.

1. “Make the Lead care about someone other than himself.”

Snow White is kind to animals and dwarves.

2. “Have the Lead do things to help those weaker than he is.” (Snyder’s save-the-cat moment.)

Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a fight to the death. Aladdin steals food for himself, but then gives it to two younger orphans who are starving.

3. “Put the Lead in a situation of jeopardy, hardship or vulnerability.”

Bingo! Orphan the kid and you have jeopardy, hardship, and vulnerability all wrapped up in one heart-string-tugging bundle. Add unsympathetic relatives, step-parents, or school mates, and you have a character we can’t help but root for.

As a writer, I can’t help but admire that.

Photo credit: By The Walt Disney Company (Trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plotting for NaNoWriMo & Winners

Do you jump right in?

I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, despite the fact that my left brain generally rules all other areas of my life. So I was surprised to find potential scene lists for my first two manuscripts while flipping through old notebooks the other day.

Apparently I did more planning in the early days than I remember.

I’ve made several attempts at becoming a planner/outliner, and my best-written book to date was borne of a rough outline and the 30 days of literary abandon known as NaNoWriMo. Yet I still resist moving into the outlining camp.

It’s probably a patience thing. I’m always eager to jump right in when a story is pulling at me. But then several months later I’m floundering, usually after hitting the midpoint and realizing the conflict isn’t strong enough, or that I’ve written myself into a corner.

Which brings me back to the need for a better outline. And I’m starting to think I may have been doing it wrong. Or rather, that I wasn’t patient enough to do it right.

Or do you plot your course first?

With NaNo again looming, I recently picked up K.M. Weiland’s book Outline Your Novel. And instead of answering the exercises with “I kind of have an idea of what should happen there, but I'm not ready to commit”, I forced myself to brainstorm actual answers.

And guess what? Some of the ideas I came up with are awesome (if I do say so myself). Even something as simple as coming up with a premise sentence brought an epiphany on how to raise the stakes.

I’m even more excited to write the book than I was before. And with a decent outline to follow, I won’t get stuck wondering what comes next when I finish a scene.

I don’t see myself writing 80-page outlines any time soon, and the pantser in me still gets the freedom to change the storyline if a better idea comes along, but if this goes well, I may just be a convert. Again.


Thanks to everyone who participated in my blog’s birthday celebration! Here are the winners (chosen by

– Signed copy of Scrivener For Dummies: Dave

– Free Scrivener online class enrollment for 2013: Beth K.


Photo credits:
Cliff jumping: By Rafi B. from Somewhere in Texas 🙂 (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Charting a course: By U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Eboni C. Cameron (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Workshop takeaways from the 2012 RWA conference

Laura Griffin and me out for a run in Anaheim


My annual trek to the RWA National Conference is about more than reconnecting with friends–like my running buddy Laura Griffin–networking with other authors, and a chance to dress up. It's also about learning.

Sometimes one sentence can cause a major shift in your understanding of a topic. Which is why I try to attend as many of the RWA National Conference workshops as possible. Even if I feel pretty well versed in a topic, I usually learn something new, forge a deeper understanding of the subject, or have an epiphany about my story while listening to the speaker.

This year I attended a fair number of workshops and speeches, all of them excellent. With my trusty new iPad and Evernote, I took a lot of notes. Below are some of my favorite takeaways.

Keynote at the Kiss of Death annual general meeting (Brenda Novak)

  • Innovation requires no special thought process. Creative people simply put their mind to the task of being creative.
  • Our creativity suffers when we worry too much about what others will think.

Conflict (Debra Dixon)

  • Push your characters to the breaking point, farther than they're willing to go. They must act against their best interests to achieve the goal. Leave them no other choice but to do the one thing they don't want to do.
  • Every scene needs three reasons to be there or it's not working hard enough. One of those reasons should be to establish the character’s goal, motivation, or conflict.

Emotion: the Heart of the Novel (Brenda Novak)

  • Active writing invokes emotion. To keep the reader in the action, start in the present and move forward in real time, using specific details and “showing” language.
  • Types of writing ranked from least to most active: internal thought, then dialogue, then deep POV, subtext, action, metaphor.
  • The reader needs conflict to really enjoy the happy ending, just like a close game in sports is more exciting than one team trouncing the other, even if the outcome is the same.
  • The conflict has to grow and change if it’s not strong enough to carry the whole book.

How to Put the Thrill in Your Thrillers (James Rollins)

  • High concept: the fewer words needed to describe book, the better (e.g. Jurassic Shark)
  • The character’s goal should be something he has a personal stake in, even if it's a world threat.
  • The hero has to take active steps toward that goal, not just avoiding the villain. Making choices, etc.
  • Incorporate research so it doesn't feel like info dump. For example, have people argue about it, which feeds info and creates conflict.

Make 'em Cry, Make 'em Scream, Make 'em Laugh (Charlotte Carter, Debra Mullins, & Lori Wilde)

  • For greater impact, put the character in a place where the emotion is unexpected (e.g. crying at an office party instead of a funeral).

Plotting via Motivation (Laurie Schnebly Campbell)

  • A goal is term limited and concrete, tangible.
  • Motivation is not term limited; it's a way of being. Motivation doesn't go away even when the goal is achieved.

Treasures, Artifacts, and Curses: Archaeology 101 for Writers (Rachel Grant and Mary Sullivan)

  • Indiana Jones was not an archeologist; he was a looter. 😉
  • 90% of archeologists work in the private sector (as opposed to academia).

Photo Credit: Copyright Laura Griffin. Used with permission.

Scrivener For Dummies available online

Scrivener For Dummies is out! Just in case you missed it, Scrivener For Dummies is now shipping from online retailers, is available in Kindle format (ePUB coming as soon as retailers decide to put it up), and should be on bookstore shelves in the US next Tuesday (Aug 21st).

When I have information about foreign availability dates, I’ll let you know.

Thanks to everyone who’s purchased the book so far. I hope it becomes a reference you reach for often.