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No rules, just write!

Ignore the rules?

When I started writing, three years—oh my God, three years—ago, I didn’t know anything. I had a story I wanted to tell, and I enjoyed sitting at the computer every day banging it out.

Ignorance is bliss.

I’ve learned a lot since then. Some of it’s been really useful stuff. POV, setting, hooks, active language, effective dialogue, pacing, conflict. Critique partners, agents, editors, and contest judges have provided excellent feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

They have also—for better or worse—passed along the “rules” of romance writing. Some good, others not so much, though all generally well-meaning. And every one of these is broken—and done well—in many of the bestselling books out there.

  • The hero and heroine should meet in the first few pages.
  • Once the H/H are together, they need to stay together as much as possible for the rest of the book.
  • Keep the timespan of the story short for better pacing.
  • No prologues.
  • No head hopping in the same scene.
  • Write mainly from the heroine’s point of view.
  • Don’t let the H/H have sex too soon.

I’ve had editors and agents say things like, “The Caribbean? Oh, well, readers prefer books that are set in the U.S.” Or, “Military suspense is good as long as it’s not too involved in military day-to-day stuff.”

I need that thing Dumbledore has—a pensieve—where he can pull memories out of his head so he doesn’t have to deal with them. Something insidious happens as you learn “the rules”.

Like the child whose purple trees and orange grass slowly begin to conform as she progresses through school until she can’t conjure fantastical art anymore, a writer is in danger of losing the creative spark if she lets all those notions of what will and won’t work bog her down before she’s even started.

There’s no doubt that craft is imperative. My early manuscripts pretty much suck from lack of good craft, but the story was exactly what I wanted it to be by the time I was done.

I don’t want to self-edit before I even start typing! I already have enough unconscious filters at play already.

So, I’m not entirely sure how to get back to writing the book for myself first and everyone else second. For now, I’m trying to ask myself, “If I wrote this the way I really wanted to—as if no one else would read it—what would happen?”

Any suggestions for how to toss the “rules” and just write?

Photo credit: DO NOT ENTER SIGN © Aaron Kohr |

Emotional outlet

The Bookshelf MuseHow many ways can you think of to express your character’s anxiety? His happiness? Her anger?

Does your antagonist always look behind him? Does your hero clench his fists every time? Does your heroine’s mouth flatten over and over?

A traditional thesaurus may not help when you want to describe the actions and reactions of your characters in different ways. What you need is the Emotion Thesaurus, brainchild of The Bookshelf Muse bloggers Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

It’s awesome!

Not only do they have lists of ideas for showing a character’s emotion through action, they have thesauri for Settings, Weather, Colors and Textures, and Character Traits.

This is writerly gold.

I've gotten to the point where I just leave the site open in my browser when I'm writing. Bookmark it now and you'll thank me later.

Got any great resources up your fingerless mittens? Please share!

The Hauge

Which screenwriting consultant is on retainer to Will Smith’s production company?

Which story expert can spot your novel’s flaw in six seconds flat?

Who can help you take your story to a whole new level?

Michael Hauge.

If you’re not familiar with his Six Stage Plot Structure, check it out here.

I was lucky enough to attend Michael's workshop last weekend in Bethesda, and it was incredible. On day one, he went through each step of the hero's inner and outer journey, using popular movies (including video clips) like Shrek, Wedding Crashers, Hitch, Gladiator, and Good Will Hunting to illustrate the concepts.

The second day we spent the morning analyzing Sleepless in Seattle in depth, as well as reviewing key concepts from the day before.

In addition to the lectures, I learned a lot from his advice to others in the audience. Eight of us won the raffle to eat lunch with him where we asked general questions, and each got some one-on-one time where in thirty seconds he nailed my problem with the external story goal: no visible finish line/item that readers could imagine (e.g. a trophy, $20000, a dead terrorist, the deed to that coveted beach cottage).

The event covered a day and a half, so I could write a book on what I learned, but instead, I’ll share with you some of my favorite takeaways.

  • Emotion in a story grows out of conflict, not desire.
  • The arc moves the protagonist from identity to essence.
    • Identity: the emotional armor we wear to protect ourselves; our facade
    • Essence: who we are when you strip away all the emotional armor; our true self
  • In a romance, the love interest should be the protagonist’s destiny because he/she sees beneath the protag’s identity and connects at the level of essence. (Not just chemistry or kismet.)
  • When two characters are in conflict, it’s at the level of identity; when they’re connected, it’s at the level of essence. (This was a huge aha for me. I think this will really help me understand why conflict is lacking in certain scenes.)
  • Instead of the protag having to make a choice as the conflict, have her try to take on both things she wants to do. The conflict can come in trying to make both endeavors work (e.g. caring for an ailing parent and running a business).

Even if you’ve listened to his CD The Hero’s Two Journeys with Christopher Vogler, I highly recommend Michael's in-person workshop. Not only will you pick up things you didn’t catch before, but having him there to answer questions is priceless. And if you haven't tried The Hero's Two Journeys, what are you waiting for? 😉

Not all educational opportunities are worth the time and money, though I've found that every workshop, craft book, or online class provides a new way of looking at something I already knew, a deeper understanding, or an outright epiphany.

Michael Hauge's workshop was worth every minute and every penny. If you get the chance, go.

Conflict breakdown: Sleepless in Seattle

I watched Sleepless in Seattle as homework for my upcoming Michael Hauge seminar, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to evaluate the movie in terms of conflict.

I don’t go into great detail, but beware, I will spoil the ending.

If you're not familiar with the story, or don't remember it well, you can find the script here.

This story's a bit different than a typical romance because the H/H don’t really meet or talk until the end of the movie, so I can’t evaluate the conflict in terms of their relationship, and there’s no external conflict keeping them together in this case.

But, a lot of the elements still apply, especially early on.

The internal conflicts are stated:

–The hero, Sam, who lost his wife to cancer doesn’t believe that true love happens more than once in a lifetime, so plans not to remarry.

–Annie, the heroine, doesn’t believe in destiny or “signs” that someone is right or not right, for you. Her fiancé meets all of her criteria and she thinks she’s happy with him.

Awareness that their beliefs may be incorrect begins to form:

–Annie quickly realizes that she might be wrong about her fiancé Walter. There’s no magic between them, and their relationship lacks excitement.

–When Sam’s son Jonah calls a radio show and tells the host that his dad needs a new wife, Sam initially denies that he needs someone, but later starts to wonder if maybe he should get back “out there”.

Their beliefs are challenged and they start to explore (test) them:

–Annie hears Sam and Jonah on the radio and feels a connection to Sam. She asks her brother how he felt about getting married and figures she’s just getting cold feet. She starts to write a letter to Sam but tears it up.

–Sam talks to a coworker about dating, makes a date with a woman he met through work, and they become an item.

They dump core belief:

–Sam commits to a weekend alone with his new love interest.

–Annie flies to Seattle to meet Sam under the guise of doing a news story.

Okay, normally this is where a vacuum would form, and the characters would start to fill it with new beliefs about the other person, culminating in the realization that this is the person for them.

Then the black moment where one or both revert to the old belief after some kind of misunderstanding or betrayal (he lied to me, I was right not to trust him; after all we’ve been through she still doesn’t believe in me, I’m outta here).

One or both would realize leaving was a mistake (climax, race to the airport, near death experience, etc…) and they’d resolve it=>Happy Ever After.

SIS is a bit different, so the second portion doesn’t follow the pattern in quite the same way, and most of the change happens on Annie’s part. The way I see it, the black moment is when Annie decides she was being an idiot, goes to New York to meet Walter, and puts renewed energy into their relationship.

Quickly, she realizes she made a mistake and she’s still unhappy. She and Walter break up amicably, and she races to the Empire State Building where Sam might be waiting.

After a near miss, they meet for the first time and walk away holding hands (resolution/implied HEA).

The conflict structure I just went through is really geared toward traditional romance, but still works here with a little imagination. I’ll try this again with a better example when I get a chance.


Photo credit: ADMIT ONE © Dana Rothstein |

Conflict theory

What is conflict?

An actress being stalked by one of her fans.

A man wants to climb Mt. Everest but is afraid of heights.

A woman wants a big family but her husband hates kids.

With my latest WIP, I came to the realization that my conflict isn’t strong enough, neither internal nor external, despite the fact that I thought I had it all worked out ahead of time. Because of that, I’ve been struggling with where to take the storyline.

Even BLIND FURY, which I think has pretty good internal and external conflicts, has been dinged for carrying a single conflict for too long. Clearly, I needed to get help. Happily, I found some.

Maybe these are brilliant, or maybe they were in the right place when I needed them. You know that rule that I have to be exposed to an idea or concept a number of different times and in multiple ways before it clicks for me? (Not that I think I’ve mastered it…) Conflict wasn’t any different.

First, I found a helpful blog post by Holly Lisle that helps you brainstorm three types of conflict: internal, external, and (what I’d consider a subcategory of external) interpersonal.

The internal is the character against himself. That mountain climber afraid of heights.

The external is some outside force or event that he must deal with. The killer weather he encounters half way up the mountain.

Interpersonal conflict is about people standing in the way of the hero’s goal. His wife who sabotages his plans because she’s afraid he’ll die on the mountain.

I especially liked the addition of interpersonal conflict because it crystallized the notion that not all antagonists are evil villains. Often, they are well-meaning or have understandable reasons for the things they do.

The second source of conflict gold came from a presentation Susan Meier gave at my RWA chapter’s retreat last year (I listened to the archived recording), called Let the Conflict Tell the Story. It was especially helpful for me because it focused on conflict in romantic fiction.

According to Meier, internal conflict is what’s keeping the hero and heroine apart, despite the attraction between them. It stems from incorrect core beliefs each of them has that prevents them from thinking this person is “the one”, or that has them convinced that they’ll never marry anyone.

It could be as simple as “she’s rich and I’m a blue collar guy”, or “all men cheat so there’s no point in marrying one”, or “office romances never work out”.

Meier defines the external conflict as what’s keeping them together. For example, they inherited a house together, or they’re both assigned to the same murder investigation, or she’s being stalked and he’s her bodyguard.

In order to make the change from can’t be together to happy ever after, the characters must grow (character arc!) and change their core belief. The story then, is taking them through the changes step by step from slowly realizing what they believed was wrong to deciding that this person is the love of their life.

With a few bumps and a black moment along the way. 😉

Okay, let me stop here and say that, yes, this is obvious and simple. But to me, that’s what makes it so valuable. We can get so bogged down in the fine details of writing craft that sometimes it’s hard to break it down into it’s most basic concepts.

Like Robert McKee's +/- idea I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Meier had much more to say on the subject of conflict, all illuminating, so if you write romance/romantic elements and you ever get a chance to take her workshop, do it!!

And above all, never stop reading, listening, or learning. You just never know which book, seminar, or class is going to provide the missing puzzle piece in your writing. Good luck!

Photo Credit: BLACK-FACED IMPALAS © Nico Smit |

Trust your instincts

Listen to your gut

Have you ever entered an empty house and just known you were not alone? I have.

It happened about ten years ago when I was hunting for investment properties in Dayton. I had gone to school to get my real estate license so I’d have access to the MLS and could save on half the commission for anything we bought.

So, I was alone at a small house on an appointment I’d set up with the owner, who assured me the place would be empty. But the minute I opened the door, I felt like someone was there.

I have no idea why. All was quiet. I saw no movement. No one had answered the doorbell or come running when I opened the door and announced my presence. Still, the feeling lingered.

A minute later I got the scare of my life when a large bird squawked from his cage under a sheet. “Oh, that was it. I was sensing the bird.” Still, the feeling lingered.

I went through the messy little house inspecting the overstuffed living room, cluttered dining room with a table too big for its eat-in area, and the first bedroom and bathroom.

When I opened the last bedroom door and stepped inside, a young woman sat up in bed with a sharp intake of breath. Oh my God! I must have scared the living hell out of her, but my own heart was racing too as I shut the door, quickly yelled out why I was there, and left the house.

I’ve always wondered how I knew someone was there. I’m still not sure, but now I have some ideas.

I’m reading a book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker—which I highly recommend, especially for women and girls, and writers who want to better understand violent behavior and victim’s reactions—and while he talks about recognizing behavioral signals of those who would do you harm, or situations where you might be in danger, his main message is: Trust your instincts!

We often discount that gut feeling or intuition—especially men, apparently—because we think it’s not grounded in logic. How can it possibly be accurate in a modern world?

But De Becker argues that our unconscious brain processes things we consciously miss, and does so much faster than we can if we stop to think something through.

He uses the example of driving on the freeway. Don’t you sometimes just know that guy’s going to change lanes before he does it, even though his blinker isn’t on? Do you feel silly about it? No, because it happens frequently enough that you've learned to trust it. It's part of your driving skill set.

But whether driving or predicting the presence of a person in what's supposed to be an empty house, you're using the same mechanism.

As a teen I became convinced a car was following me based on nothing more than a quick change into my left turn lane. Ridiculous. Lots of people lived down that way. But when the men in the car stayed back at the stop sign I got scared. Were they watching to see where I went?

I turned onto my street, but decided to go to the end and turn around to see if they’d followed. After a minute, when no one showed, I chastised myself for being silly and pulled into my driveway.

Seconds later as I was getting out of my truck, the car turned down my road and passed slowly by my house, both men staring at me.

Thankfully, nothing ever came of it, and I suppose they could have been lost—there’s that rationalization again—but it was a good lesson in listening to my gut.

When De Becker interviews victims of an attack, they often ask him how they could have seen it coming, or why they were leery of a particular person, even if they ultimately didn’t act on their feelings.

He turns it around and asks them. When they recite the story of what happened, details often show up that are insignificant to the storyteller, but are often the key.

As I look back at the story I just told you above, it occurs to me that the bird cage being covered during the day when everyone was gone didn't make sense (maybe). Why care if the bird makes noise if no one is home?

Additionally, the girl’s bedroom door was closed. And who knows what else my subconscious caught that I no longer remember, or never explicitly noticed. Was there an extra car in the driveway? Was there a scent present that I couldn’t consciously identify? Did I see blinds closed when I pulled up?

Whatever the elements were, my instincts got it right even when there was no logical reason to believe anyone was home.

That’s powerful stuff. Don't ignore it.

Photo credit: UNSURE © Sandy Matzen |

Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin |