Friday, October 2, 2015

Book Review: Story Trumps Structure, by Steven James

Award winning novelist, Steven James, explains how to trust the narrative, organic, process to make your story believable, compelling, and engaging. He debunks the common myths that holds writers from creating their best works by focusing on what lies at the heart of the story  such as tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, and discovery rather than being tied down to plot templates and formulas. Story Trumps Structure received the award for Best Storytelling Resource from Story Telling World. 

Story Trumps Structure is my writing Bible. Finally, someone validates organic writers, aka Pantsers, like me. This book hooked me from the very beginning with his Ceiling Fan Principle which improved my writing in nano seconds. James encourages his readers to break free of the rules that have been beaten into them at conferences and through writing books. He never says the rules are bad, but for some writers they are paralyzing.

I remember a lady who began her novel with her character in a basement. But because of the rules she kept rewriting the same scene over and over. Her character never got out of the basement and her novel was never finished. This kind of inertia is the problem James addresses and he gives tips on ways to let our stories flow from our innermost being without boundaries.

This is one of the most user friendly, practical, and enjoyable books on writing I've ever read. Have you ever been told novels are either character driven or plot driven? I have. James debunks these labels and states that all novels are tension driven. They may be character or plot centered but tension drives the story. That information alone made a huge difference in my writing. The chapter on characterization titled Status was also an amazing enlightenment. 

No matter how many times I read this book, I always see something new and wonderful. True, some things I already knew, but James' approach brings a fresh perspective. I highly recommend this book.

Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose award-winning, pulse-pounding novels continue to gain aid critical acclaim. Suspense Magazine, who named James' book, The Bishop, their book of the year, says he "sets the new standard in suspense writing." Publishers Weekly calls him a master storyteller at the peak of his game. 

With a Master's Degree in Storytelling, James has taught writing and storytelling around the world and is one of the seven Master CraftFest instructors at ThrillerFest.

When Steven's not writing or speaking, you'll find him trail running, rock climbing, or drinking a dark roast coffee near his home in eastern Tennessee.

Note: Steven James will be the Keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc (OWFI) writer's conference May 12 - 14, 2016 in Oklahoma City, OK at the Oklahoma City Embassy Suites. More information will soon be available at:

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Creative Brainstorming

Google Free Images
The parent company of our local newspaper is producing a new lifestyle magazine for our city and surrounding areas. The editor of our paper extended an invitation to our writer's group to contribute to the planned quarterly release of Agave. 

I thought writers might be interested in the brainstorming/planning session held at our meeting with the editor of the Fort Stockton Pioneer, Pam Pepper Palileo. 

Pam gave us a handout titled Magazine Proposal with eight points to cover.
1. Choose a theme that you believe will work for you community. (Describe a little bit about your research.) 
2. What would the standing departments be?
3. List 50 potential advertisers.
4. List at least 12 story ideas that begin with a visual.
5. Plan four issues.
6. List three or four freelancers in your area, their specialty and contact information.
7. What are two events that this magazine could sponsor?
8. What other kinds of marketing ideas (including social media) would help this magazine?

We spent a very fast-paced, creative hour brainstorming our plans. At the end of the meeting we had our assignments, and left feeling excited. I'll admit to a little stunned, "deer in the headlights" sensation, but overall really looking forward to participating in this literary effort. Agave, the Sweeter Side of West Texas is conceived, and will be delivered January 2015.

I'm a fiction writer, and although I do use an outline that never stays in its original form, I was impressed by how the structure of this meeting accomplished so much in a short period of time. 

What structure do you use in your writing?
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Monday, September 28, 2015

GUEST POST: Creating Dynamic Characters with Contrasts

A flying dragon who is afraid of heights. An elephant who doesn’t want to drink the water because of potential bacteria. A brilliant doctor who saves lives, but doesn’t get along with people.

What do they all have in common? They use contrasting elements. They put two opposing elements together and then sit back and watch the conflict of those elements create compelling interactions with other characters and within the overall narrative.

Contrasts are a great way to spice up characters and plots. Not only do they create conflict, which is essential to any great story, but they are also quick fixes if a character gets boring or stuck in a rut.

The concept of using contrasts partly comes from the literary device of irony. Irony is one of those words that people often use, without really understanding what it is. It doesn’t really have to do with humor, although it’s often used in humorous ways.

The most common kind of irony, situational irony, relies on giving the audience something they don’t expect. As writers, creating this fresh twist that defies normal expectations is a great way to pull readers in. While there are certain conventions within genres that should be followed (most of the time), anything a writer can to offer a fresh, relatable tweak on material will often pull in more interest from readers, as well as agents and publishing houses.

Here’s three ways to use contrasts with characters:

1.) Internal contrast. Make the character want something or need something that is direct opposition to their own personality. Author Nadine Brandes does this well in her book A Time to Die, where the main character desperately wants to make a difference, but is naturally inclined to be shy, lazy, and self-doubting. This contrast creates a great inner conflict.

2.) Internal to external contrast. Make the character’s innate abilities clash with the realities of using those abilities in the outside world. This is used in the show House, where the main character is a brilliant doctor who craves the challenge of impossible cases, but has terrible people skills. This conflict of abilities versus practical realities can feed into great plot twists.

3.) External contrast. Make the character directly contrast with someone else or something else in their world. This is most often used in odd couple pairings in comedies: the slob and the neat freak or the workaholic and the laid-back dreamer. While these are obvious stereotypes, they can be scaled back in other genres to create compelling character interactions.

So what about you? Have any examples of great contrasts in your favorite fiction, whether it be novels, TV, or movies?

Janeen Ippolito is an English teacher by day, a sword-fighter by night and a writer by heart. She has a B.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies, Writing, and ESL and has a passion for using humor and cultures in speculative fiction. She is the author of Culture-Building From the Inside Out, an eBook how to write cultures in speculative fiction, and the upcoming Character-Building From the Inside Out, which features quick tips on solving common character issues. In her spare time she makes brownie batter, reads, and grades papers while watching speculative television shows. She loves connecting with, supporting, and promoting fantastical fiction on her blog, so feel free to visit and get in touch!
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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ambassadors by Marcia Lee Laycock

Cover, PB

October 2014
Helping Hands Press
Paperback at Amazon,
list 14.99; other editions available in Kindle for .99
ISBN 978-1622085613

Buy the Book

From the publisher:
The Complete Series Book I 
Prince Eghan Lhin is terrified when he is abducted from his father’s castle but finds himself in a safe place nestled in a hidden valley high in the mountains not far from his father’s kingdom. He learns to trust the man who has brought him there and even begins to trust Nara, the heir to the throne of his family’s sworn enemies. But he cannot trust the God they follow. When they are led into the dangerous territory on the other side of the mountains, to restore Nara to the throne, Eghan must learn more than trust, more than courage. He must learn what faith really means.

My review:
The Ambassadors is a faith-based novel geared toward Young Adult as the hero and heroine are teens. Set in historical era with kings and castles and horses and swords, a young broody prince, Eghan, learns through physical labor and philosophical instruction what it truly means to be a leader. He has grown up in a household of angry grief with a king for a parent who has held him at arm’s length and a guardian who doesn’t have the authority to hold him to a higher standard. A mysterious legendary hermit saves Eghan after he’s abducted by the kingdom’s enemies to show him the way to true peace and a hopeful future reuniting enemy kingdoms to face a greater foe threatening them both.

I enjoyed the story, though agree with another review that found the intrusion of contemporary Scripture and citation inserted in the text to be a somewhat clunky contrivance. Other than that, the story of a princeling forced to grow up and charged with the restoration of the kingdom or surrendering his people to an evil force was often thrilling and somewhat romantic. The setting was nicely done, dialog good. Occasionally too convenient events such as providing an enemy faith-based prisoner in the dungeon made me read faster, but fiction is often built upon such behind-the-scenes workings.

The novel felt like it could have been an epic. I rarely think this, but this is a story that could have been much longer and richer, with more back story and detail; occasionally I felt it went too quickly and jumped over particulars I wanted to know, but overall the pacing was balanced as it moved between parallel events in the kingdom, Eghan’s current life, and that of his guardian who set out to find his abducted charge but discovered much more besides.

Other volumes in the series are available.

About the Author:
Laycock-MarciaFor the past 20+ years I've been a pastor's wife, mother of three girls, caretaker of two dogs, two cats and sundry fish, and oh, yes, a freelance writer. The writing began in the attic of my parent's house where I wrote stories for my dolls. None of them complained, so I kept it up. The Lord has abundantly blessed, challenged, rebuked, healed and restored me through the process of writing and being involved with writers.

Visit my website -

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Verbal Deprivation

Authors are depriving themselves. I don't know why, but for some reason, certain words and verb tenses have landed on someone's "hit list," and consequently have become taboo--to the detriment of clarity in our writing. I don't know who that "someone" is or why anyone should pay attention to his opinion, but editors who understand grammar wisely ignore him.
One of the words currently cloaked in shame is "was." To a certain extent, I understand this, but let's take a look at it. One of these two sentences below is a sure-fire example of lazy writing. Guess which:
A.  As I watched, I realized he was strong as an ox.
B. When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally.
Gold star to whoever said A.
Past Continuous 
"He was strong as an ox" is telling, and adding the simile--especially a cliche--doesn't help. That sentence is a sign of lazy writing. "As I watched, he lifted a one-ton Ford pickup with his bare hands" illustrates how strong he is and doesn't contain a single "was."
Example B, however, uses the past continuous (or past progressive) verb tense. It illustrates on-going action. To use simple past tense in this sentence changes the meaning: "When I saw him, he sat by Sally" means the main character watched him assume the seat beside Sally. "When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally" means he had already assumed the seat and was still there when the main character saw him.
Okay, granted, that seems like a fine line. The site describes it better:
The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past.
It is used:
often to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly."
to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."
Does that help clarify?
Past continuous is a valid verb tense and can't help it if "was" is part of its make-up. Be discriminating about the "was" verbs you're trying to obliterate from your work.
Past Perfect
Authors frequently write in past tense, but when they want to illustrate something that is further past in their story's history than simple "past," they should use the "past perfect" tense--which, unfortunately, is also on the hit list. This is another one I can understand to a certain extent. Reading that a character "had" done this and "had" done that through several paragraphs can be cumbersome, but leaving it out entirely can confuse the timeline in the reader's mind.
If you're doing a brief history, a brief backstory, use past perfect:
When she first got there, she had expected five-star treatment since she was a movie star.  Instead, she'd been treated as if she were no one special. Now, she realized they had given her special treatment--they'd treated her as if she were family.
As short as this is, the past perfect tense isn't bothersome, and it helps to use contractions to cut down on the "hads." To stretch this into several paragraphs of backstory, however, the past perfect tense would be a pain.
The secret is to ground your reader in the backstory by using past perfect in the first several lines and revert to past tense until the last several lines. Toward the end of the backstory, use past perfect again to cue the reader that you're ending the backstory and preparing to re-enter "story present" (which, of course, is told in past tense. Can we get any more confusing?).
But the best thing to do with long backstory passages is to determine whether the reader really needs to know what you're about to dump on her and whether there is a better way to present it--a topic better left to another post.
Don't deprive yourself of the various verb tenses, which are some of the tools we authors have to present our stories, just because some nameless someone has declared war on certain words. "Had" and "was," used in combination with other verbs, help to provide clarity in your work, and shouldn't be shunned indiscriminately.
Two sites that can help tremendously with verbs are and edufind.comMake the most of 'em!

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Monday, September 21, 2015


I’m currently in the throes of a major rewrite. What started as tweaking has turned into an entirely different story. I didn't intend for this to happen but I wrote the manuscript years ago and I’ve grown as a writer.

As I worked, I noticed something about my manuscript. I had an affinity for certain phrases and they popped up on every few pages.  You’ve heard of purple prose? I had purple phrases. In other words, those irritating, repetitive phrases that make the reader roll her eyes until she has a headache.

This isn’t only a beginning writer’s problem. Purple phrases even happen to authors who are New York Times best sellers. I recently read a book by a well-known novelist who used a phrase repeatedly in reference to the heroine's eyes: Her eyes were cornflower blue. Tears welled in her cornflower blue eyes. She glared at him through cornflower blue eyes. 

All right! All right! I get it! Her eyes were cornflower blue! Geeze.

The phrases that kept finding their way in my novel were: A sigh escaped her. A sly grin stole over his face. She grabbed her throat. The throat thing was particularly noticeable to the point my editor asked why I felt it was necessary for the heroine to choke herself every time something upset her. When I read his comment I wanted to choke him, but he was right—sigh.

Another thing I noticed, my characters were constantly drinking coffee. Hmm, maybe because I’m usually drinking coffee while writing?

I knew I had to do something in order to keep from aggravating my reader, so I made a purple phrase list and taped it to my computer screen. This helps to remind me to keep escaping sighs and sly grins and throat grabbing heroins in check. And when I notice a new PP, I add it to the list.

What about you? Do you have any purple phrases? What are they? And what do you do to avoid them while writing?
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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Road to Terminus


Catherine Leggitt

In 1955, George Stanton—drug user, alcoholic, and embezzler—flees from Chicago when both the underworld and the law close in on him. Meanwhile in St. Louis, the aged widow Mabel Crowley takes in a street urchin, a little girl named Stryker. The reluctant Stryker holds on desperately to a stuffed monkey toy because the mother who abandoned her said never to let the monkey out of her sight. A medical exam shows that Stryker has acute leukemia, and only an experimental treatment at the UCLA Medical Center has any hope of a cure. So Mabel loads Stryker and the monkey into her aging Studebaker and sets out for California.

A few miles down Highway 66 they find a wreck. George Stanton, driving his Lincoln while drunk, has sped into sharp curve and crashed. Mabel and Stryker take the ungracious George in, and thus begins a long and troubled odyssey for the ill-matched and cross-motivated trio.

In author Catherine Leggitt's practiced handling, this conflicted situation becomes both a fascinating story and a character study of unusual depth. As the journey progresses, each of the three characters changes the other two and is changed by them. As a bonus for the reader, the author's detailed historical research on the geography of Highway 66 and its environs, together with her extensive knowledge of classic automobiles, add interest at each point along the way. The author weaves all of these threads into a narrative of increasing tension, leading to a climax in which the characters and the reader confront the stark reality of eternal truth. These factors make for an excellent book with a depth rarely found in commercial fiction.

Reviewed by Donn Taylor, author of Lightning on a Quiet Night, Deadly Additive, etc.

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