For Writers

Writing a novel and finding book publishers isn’t easy. Learn how to write a novel, beat writer’s block, find literary agents and publish a book with these free writing tips.

Is Your Story Stuck? 5 Questions You Need to Ask

Are you writing a novel or story and feeling stuck? Do you have the sneaking suspicion that your story went off the rails somewhere? Not sure what to do with your characters?

Don’t worry. You can fix practically any story problem just by asking yourself five simple questions:

1. Who’s really driving the action in this story?

Sometimes, we start writing a story with one character in mind, but a few chapters later, a different character takes over. That can leave you feeling stuck, and you may not even know why.

To find out if this is your problem, make a quick list of the main characters in your story. Then ask yourself this:

  • Who has the strongest, clearest, most specific goal?
  • Who has the most to lose?
  • Who appears in the highest number of scenes?
  • Who could be (or has been) hurt the worst?

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The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation (Part 2)

ultimate guide to character motivation part 2Why do heroes and villains do what they do?

In Part 1 of this article, we explored Greed, Revenge, and Acceptance, three of the most powerful motivations in literature.

Now, let’s find out how you can you can create fascinating characters driven by the need for Identity, Love, or Survival.

I is for Identity

Who am I? That question lies at the core of countless stories.

A character driven to establish their identity often begins the story in a negative place, and then has a moment of clarity that tells them why they need to fundamentally change who they are. This is a common motivation for characters just starting out in life who strive to become someone better. It also works for mature characters who have fallen from grace and need to redeem themselves.

Young adult characters trying to establish their identity often come into conflict with parents, teachers, and friends who are growing in different directions.

Identity is also the motivation driving a character who is heir to a “throne” (literal or figurative) that he or she doesn’t want. The character often casts off the fate that has been preordained for them and sets off on their own path, to establish their own identity.

Identity can also be a rich source of conflict when society imposes a stereotype on a character, telling them that they have to “be” a certain way. Consequently, the character must struggle to prove their individuality. This can be a tricky motivation to pull off without falling into clichés. But if done right, it can be deeply moving.

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the heroine begins as an ordinary shopkeeper who has always regarded sorcerers with undisguised awe. But when her newfound magical powers make her a sorceress in her own right, she struggles to fit into her new identity.

Identity also often plays a part in heroic characters who are trying to make the world a better place, whether by improving society, elevating humanity, or stamping out a widespread problem. In many cases, the character’s true motivation arises from their personal quest to establish or change their identity.

L is for Love

Where would fiction be without characters motivated by love?

Romantic love is by far the most common type in fiction. But it’s also important to remember that “love” in the truest sense can also extend to the love of your friends, your family, your hometown, your country, or any other person, place, or thing.

Love is a powerful motivator. You can make any character go to great lengths simply by threatening someone, something, or someplace that the character loves.

This happens all the time in my books. Greyson, the love interest, must risk his life and even his mortal soul to save the heroine, Dru. Of course, because she also loves him, she just as often saves him in turn. These characters are series regulars, so their love is a continuing source of conflict.

Don’t write off love as a motivation for villains, either. A villain motivated by love can become not only a tragic figure by the end of the story, but also completely sympathetic and unforgettable to the reader.

S is for Survival

One of the most primal motivations, survival is at the core of most action-driven stories. For pulse-pounding excitement, not much can beat watching a sympathetic character struggle to survive against overwhelming odds.

In any science fiction, fantasy, horror, or adventure story featuring a monster with gnashing teeth, the motivation is starkly clear: don’t get eaten. It’s as simple as that.

The survival motivation also kicks in whenever a character becomes lost in the wilderness, shipwrecked, or otherwise stranded far from civilization. Plus, anytime a character is imprisoned, kidnapped, taken hostage, or captured, survival is at the core of your story.

In my Dru Jasper series, the characters are constantly faced with monsters, demons, evil sorcerers, and other deadly forces of darkness. Even though the series takes place in and around the city of Denver, there are plenty of dark alleys, abandoned warehouses, and even the isolated valleys of the nearby Rocky Mountains where the heroes must struggle to survive.

Survival can also be used metaphorically when a character’s career or marriage is at stake. The threat of losing a job or a spouse can feel like a threat to their survival, and drive a character to extremes. What new facets of the character will be revealed when they come face-to-face with their own mortality?

Exercise: What Motivates Your Character?

Pick a character from your story and ask yourself these questions. Write down the answers in your notebook. Think in terms of hypotheticals: what could happen in your story, compared to what’s actually happening. That will get your brain primed to come up with new ideas.

1. What would this character learn or change about their own identity, if they could? How might society expect them to behave in a way that goes against their nature?

2. Who or what does this character love more than anything? A friend, family member, or romantic interest? Who or what would this character do anything to save?

3. What could threaten this character’s life, if not literally, then metaphorically??

To recap, the most powerful motivations are: Greed, Revenge, Acceptance, Identity, Love, and Survival.

Think about one of your favorite stories or books. What motivates the villain? How about the hero?

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7 Keys to Creating Bloodcurdling Monsters

How to Create MonstersScience fiction, fantasy and horror stories are full of monsters. But one of the toughest jobs a writer has is coming up with creatures that are new and interesting.

When I sat down to write my urban fantasy novel A Kiss Before Doomsday, I knew that the bad guys would be undead creatures. But today’s readers have seen countless undead foes. How do you put a brand-new spin on such an old idea?

The Secret to Making Monsters

The secret to creating compelling monsters can be found in the word itself. MONSTER makes a useful acronym:

  • M is for Mind
  • O is for Origin
  • N is for Need
  • S is for Sketch
  • T is for Take On
  • E is for Eat
  • R is for Relationships

To create a truly unique, complex monster, look carefully at each of these aspects, then ask yourself questions and write down the answers. By the time you finish, you’ll have a monster that’s not only frightening, it’s also fascinating.
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6 Easy Steps to Planning Out Your Novel

Even if you hate the idea of writing an outline or synopsis, you can still figure out a plan to help you finish your novel fast, avoid major revisions, and beat writer’s block forever.

It’s surprisingly easy. Here’s how to do it.

First, turn off your computer and set aside your notebook. For this exercise, you going to need a pack of index cards. Regular old 3 x 5 cards will work just fine.

Wait — index cards? Really?

Yes. It may sound clunky, but writing on small cards actually makes it easier to plan out your story.

With cards, you can throw away or rearrange your ideas instantly. Plus, small cards force you to focus your thoughts. When you only have a few square inches to work with, you need to be succinct, and that boosts your creativity.

Here’s what to do:

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3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings

3 Secrets to Writing Vivid SettingsThere are three elements that make up every story: people, problems, and places.

To form a good story, those elements need to be in balance, because each one affects the others.

That’s why you need to put as much effort into the places in your story—your setting—as you do for your characters and your plot.

Here are the three best ways to make that effort pay off, so that your setting comes alive. Continue reading

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5 Books That Will Inspire You to Be a Writer

The Pulp JungleAre you planning to write a book in 2020?

Want some writing inspiration and wisdom from authors who have written dozens or even hundreds of stories and books?

Check out my list of the five most inspiring books about writing over at Civilian Reader.

P.S. Do you love free stuff . . . like books, for instance? Want a chance to win one? Get my author newsletter.

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The Secret to Writing Fascinating Villains

The Secret to Writing Fascinating VillainsWhat makes a villain fascinating?

It’s not just about scaring the pants off the reader.

The most terrifying thing a villain can do in a story isn’t killing the hero or blowing up the world — it’s making their twisted viewpoint seem morally right, and making the hero seem wrong.

Because if the villain’s outlook starts to make sense, and the hero seems to have things backwards, then for just a moment, the reader has to wonder: Have I been rooting for the wrong side all along?

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, every book sees the heroes (all with strange and unique magic powers) fighting to defend the world from a looming apocalypse. The latest book, Forever and a Doomsday, squares them off against the worst threat they’ve ever faced: a horde of wraiths, the dispossessed souls of sorcerers, who can walk through walls and kill with a mere touch.

How do you fight something like that? Continue reading

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9 Surprising Things I Love about Writing (and One Thing I Hate)

Nerds That GeekTrue story: When I was 17, I met an African storyteller.

He traveled to distant parts of the world, collecting oral stories and writing them down for posterity. He was my first real-life writing teacher.

His feedback helped me get started as a writer. Within a couple of years, I had sold my first magazine article. I’ve been writing ever since.

I got a chance to talk about that experience (and a bunch of other sometimes-funny, sometimes-humbling stuff) on the ever-excellent Nerds That Geek website. Check it out.

P.S. Want a chance to win one of my new books for free? Get my author newsletter.

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Making Fascinating Monsters on The Bibliosanctum

The BibliosanctumHow do writers create fascinating monsters?

For me, it’s a many-layered process that involves thinking about where a monster came from, what it’s after, how it thinks, and what happens when it encounters the heroes.

I actually got the chance to dive deep into the monster-creation process and explain how to do it step-by-step, thanks to the marvelous Mogsy over at Bibliosanctum, the super-fabulous speculative fiction blog.

You can read my guest post here.

P.S. You can also get access to your own monster-making workbook when you get my author newsletter.

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Why Writers Should NEVER Carry a Notebook

Why Writers Should NEVER Carry a NotebookBefore I became a published author, I used to carry around a writing notebook in my back pocket.

You know the kind I’m talking about: the little black book that tells the world you’re a Serious Writer.

But that little notebook is a big mistake, I eventually learned.

Here are three reasons why you should ditch it, and what you need to keep in your pocket instead. Continue reading

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