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What Writing Books Don’t Tell You

by Kirt Hickman

I do a lot of critiques, and I see similar mistakes in submission after submission. Eventually, I began to realize that the problems I see most often are those that I didn’t learn from writing books. For whatever reason, these key pieces of advice have managed to slip through the cracks. Writing books don’t discuss them, or the books contradict one another, leaving writers floundering for the correct answer.

Filter Words
I first learned about the damage filter words can do in a critique that David Corwell wrote for me. Later I found an article that called them “viewpoint intruders”—an apt name, because that’s what they do. These are words like saw, felt, heard, watched, etc., that take the reader out of the character’s point of view.

Consider this example from a critique submission, in which the filter words are shown in bold text.

Clara looked around at her fellow passengers. She overheard snatches of conversation in Italian. She saw parents feeding snacks to children, even a breast-feeding mother.

Here, the reader isn’t looking at passengers, overhearing conversations, or seeing parents feed children. The reader is standing at a distance, watching Clara as Clara looks at, overhears, and sees the action of the scene. These words have become a filter between Clara and the reader.

The author can eliminate the first sentence because Clara doesn’t see herself looking around. The rest of the passage can be written without filter words:

All around Clara, people spoke in Italian. Parents fed snacks to their children. One woman nursed her infant.

Notice that the original narrative focuses on Clara (Clara looked, she overheard, she saw), while the revised narrative focuses on the things Clara is focused on (people spoke, parents fed, one woman nursed). This is as much an issue of character viewpoint as it is an issue of narrative style. When you write, don’t focus on your viewpoint character. Rather, focus on what your viewpoint character is focused on.

Prepositional Phrases
Many books will tell you to omit any word that’s not absolutely necessary, and that’s good advice. What they don’t point out is that those unnecessary words often appear as prepositional phrases. Examine every prepositional phrase in your manuscript. Does it provide information that’s both new and necessary? Consider this example:

Chase stood among the clues in the cockpit and let them tell their story.

If the reader already knows Chase is in the cockpit, write this as:

Chase stood among the clues and let them tell their story.

Depending on the context, you may only need:

Chase let the clues tell their story.

Now you’re writing a tight narrative.

This one I learned from Larry Greenly at an SWW meeting years ago. The word that is often used unnecessarily. It becomes a speed bump that slows down the reader. Consider the following example, excerpted from a letter my hero wrote to his daughter in my own science fiction novel Worlds Asunder:

I’m writing to let you know that my homecoming will be delayed. I know that you and the girls were looking forward to seeing me, but a case has come up that will delay my departure.

Wherever you see the word that, delete it and read the sentence without it. If the sentence still makes sense, omit the word that. In this example, only the third occurrence of that is necessary.

I’m writing to let you know my homecoming will be delayed. I know you and the girls were looking forward to seeing me, but a case has come up that will delay my departure.

Direct Address
Direct address occurs when a character says the name of the person he’s addressing:

“What time is it, Jennifer?”

She consulted her watch. “Four o’clock, Tommy. Why?”

“Already?” He snatched up his backpack and bolted for the door. “Jennifer, my mom’s gonna kill me.” He didn’t even help clean up the toys they’d strewn across the living room.

Some books advise writers to use direct address as a way to avoid attributives. I disagree. Notice how much more natural the dialogue feels when I move the characters’ names from the spoken lines to the dialogue tags:

“What time is it?” Tommy asked suddenly.

Jennifer consulted her watch. “Four o’clock. Why?”

“Already?” Tommy snatched up his backpack and bolted for the door. “My mom’s gonna kill me.” He didn’t even help clean up the toys they’d strewn across the living room.

Widow/Orphan Control
Widow/Orphan control is a function in MS Word that tries to prevent a single line of a paragraph from appearing at the top or bottom of a page. When this function is turned on, it creates a variation in the number of lines from page to page. It looks sloppy. Turn this function off in the “Format Paragraph” menu, under the “Line and Page Breaks” tab.

Many books advise proofreading carefully. In my experience, that’s not enough. You must have somebody else—a qualified editor—proofread your work. Writing books do not sufficiently stress the importance of this. When I started paying a proofreader to go over my submissions, I began placing in contests and getting positive replies from editors and agents about 50 percent of the time. Prior to that, I received nothing but rejections. Don’t underestimate the power of proofreading.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Best Way to Create Suspense Is…

by Keith Pyeatt

KeithPyeatt206SSuspense is an emotion. It’s that feeling when you don’t know what’s going to happen next…but you want to. Using that definition, it’s easy to see why creating suspense is an effective way to keep readers turning pages.

I write in the broad category of suspense/thriller, and I was already scheduled to write this article when the print galleys for my novel Dark Knowledge arrived. While I searched for typos, I also noted the different ways I generated suspense so I could share some of my favorite methods with you.

1. Use setting to enhance or create suspense. I mention setting first because I used it to build suspense right from the opening paragraphs of Dark Knowledge. My mentally challenged protagonist, Wesley, enters a world inside his mind that’s shrouded in fog, radiates a “bad color” that terrifies him, and proves it can hurt him. The mind-world became a steady source of suspense because I kept it mysterious, dangerous, and full of paranormal surprises, but suspenseful settings certainly don’t need to be supernatural ones. A boat on rough seas, a job interview, or a packed department store during a bridal sale can all add tension and suspense, especially if there’s a pregnant passenger on the boat, the interviewee needs the job to feed his family, and there’s a good reason why the bride-to-be needs a certain gown.

2. Withholding information from readers can generate suspense, but be careful not to be too obvious and cheesy about it (like I was with the title of this article) or the reader will feel manipulated. Withheld information works best when it’s natural. For example, the point of view (POV) characters introduced so far don’t know the information, so they can’t relay it to the reader. This method is a clear favorite of mine, and it works well because I normally have multiple POV characters in my novels, which helps me control when information is presented.

3. Withholding information from the protagonist is another great way to create suspense, especially in novels with multiple POV characters. Let that antagonist reveal his dastardly plans to the readers. Doing so creates the classic “Don’t go in there!” response when readers know the bad guy is waiting behind the door with a knife but the hero doesn’t. Note that this type of suspense pretty much defines the difference between suspense and mystery novels. In a mystery, we know Professor Plum was killed from the beginning pages, but we don’t know who bludgeoned him to death with a candlestick until the end. The fun is trying to figure out who did it and why. In a suspense/thriller, the professor is alive, but the readers know Miss Scarlet’s plans and motivations to kill him. The suspense is whether the hero will discover the plan and be able to stop Professor Plum from meeting his death in the library.

4. Impose a time restraint. Whether the bank will repossess Grandma’s iron lung if money isn’t raised in time or the wormhole that leads to present day Earth is about to close, a hero’s race against a ticking clock adds urgency and suspense.

5. Complicate things. For an added shot of suspense, start the ticking clock mentioned above, and just when it looks like your hero might actually succeed in time, drop a delay or complication on her. Now will she make it? Yes? Drop another complication on her.

6. Be unpredictable. Readers are smart, and once they get used to the flow of a story, they may start thinking they know where it’s going. Add an unexpected twist, and now they’re in suspense about how this new development, revelation, or character will change the course. The only way to know is to keep reading.

7. Mind games are another of my favorite ploys, which is probably why my paranormal thrillers can also be classified as psychological thrillers. I love a good dilemma, and there’s a whopper of one in Dark Knowledge that stands out as a suspenseful element. Wesley doesn’t know whether to sacrifice his life to save his soul or if he needs to sacrifice his soul to protect mankind from evil. With a big dilemma like that, readers get a whole new element of suspense. In addition to wondering “can he succeed?” and “can he succeed in time?” they wonder along with the character which course of action leads to success. Smaller dilemmas add suspense too, so experiment with them. Create a reason your protagonist can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do something, then make sure he must do it to get what he needs. Or give him options, but make sure every option has a serious downside.

8. Create a convergence where separate lines of action meet, combine their energies, and shoot the story forward. In Dark Knowledge, there’s a point where three scenes, each written from a different character’s POV, bring story-lines together as the characters charge into the mind-world for the climactic battle. Different motivations drive each character to the same point, and the convergence supercharges the tension and suspense.

9. Make the hero act alone or at a disadvantage. There’s strength in numbers, so isolate your character when he needs help the most. Wesley has friends who would do anything for him, so I…Well, I’m not telling, but isolating the main character is a technique I frequently use to beef up suspense. A variation of isolation is to impose a disadvantage on your hero at a critical time. Maybe your urban fantasy heroine left her sword on all night and discovers it’s out of juice just as a shape-shifting monkey demon attacks. Now how’s she going to fight it?

10. Make the reader care about the characters. Sure, determined government hit men in helicopters chasing a desperate man through an active minefield is high action and may grab a reader’s attention, but the suspense you need to hold interest comes from giving the readers reasons to care what happens to the desperate man. Let readers into your hero’s head. Better yet, into his heart. Flesh out your antagonists and other major characters so readers care what happens to them, too.

Remember, suspense is an emotion.

daeva front 145Keith Pyeatt served as an officer of SouthWest Writers for three years and received the SWW Parris Award in 2009. He writes paranormal thrillers that he calls “Horror with Heart.” He now lives in Tucson, Arizona, and he recently released his fourth novel, Daeva. Other published novels are Struck, Dark Knowledge, and Above Haldis Notch. Find out more about Keith by visiting his website at or his blog at

This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Author Shirley Raye Redmond

Shirley Raye Redmond is an award-winning author of dozens of nonfiction children’s books, several historical romance novels, and over 450 articles. Two of her children’s titles have sold more than 200,000 copies each. Her newest release, Viper’s Nest, is a romantic suspense novel set in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is also a conference speaker and has taught courses at many venues across the U.S. including the University of New Mexico–Los Alamos campus and the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference. You can read Shirley Raye’s contributions to the Stitches Thru Time blog, and visit her at her website, on Facebook, and

VipersNest200What is the elevator pitch for your newest novel, Viper’s Nest?
A handsome history professor and his widowed research assistant find themselves in danger when they explore an old insane asylum slated for demolition, unearthing a scandal someone is willing to kill for to keep secret.

Tell us about your main protagonists and how they differ from those in your other novels.
Most of my other novels are historicals, so Wren and Allan differ mainly because they are contemporary characters. It was a relief to work with personalities living in the present day. I didn’t have to concern myself with accidentally using anachronistic language, for instance. Also, Wren is a widow with a young daughter. This made for some interesting motivational considerations as I wrote the story.

Why did you decide to use the particular setting you chose?
I actually had a private tour of the Jacksonville Insane Asylum many years ago before it was torn down. The history of the place intrigued me, as well as the logistics of its once-bustling kitchen with small underground railroad cars used to transport meals throughout the institution via tunnels. Also, Mrs. Lincoln was a patient there for a while following the death of President Lincoln. The old place oozed dramatic possibilities.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Originally, I wrote about my tour of the asylum for an SWW nonfiction contest many years ago. The article about humanitarian Dorothea Dix took second place. I later submitted the same article to a Writer’s Digest contest, and it earned an honorable mention. Both judges encouraged me to “do something” with all the historical information I’d collected. Trying to transform an article into the basis of a suspense novel was a real challenge.

This seems to be a departure from your previous fiction projects of “sweet” romance and inspirational historical novels. Why did you choose to go in this new direction?
There is a romance entwined in the plot of this book, too. Actually, my very first novel for grown-up readers was a romantic suspense, Stone of the Sun, with a lot of historical detail about Cortez and his Aztec mistress. In a way, Viper’s Nest is the same sort of novel—romantic suspense with all the historical trimmings—even Nazis, everyone’s favorite villains.

fairies150You also write nonfiction books for children. Explain why your latest children’s title Fairies! A True Story (Random House) was one of those “think outside the box” moments that really paid off, and why you love talking about this book.
Fairies! A True Story is my fourth nonfiction Random House title. I was browsing in Page One bookstore some years ago and noticed their pirates and fairies sections—hot topics for kids’ books at the time, and I wanted to do something along those lines, too. My editor warned me that the market was glutted with books on those subjects. So instead of trying to write a whimsical tale to rival the Tinkerbelle ones, I started doing research on fairies and fairy sightings. I was surprised how much information there was out there—too much to cover in one short children’s book. When I bought a used copy of Jerome Clark’s book Unexplained and read about the Cottingley fairy photographs, I knew I had something I could sink my teeth into. That was the “think outside the box” moment for me: instead of writing about fairies in a fictional way, I would report on an actual event and write a nonfiction books about fairies. The Frances and Elsie fairy story is fascinating because it could only have taken place when the technology of photography was fairly new. I was delighted when Random House bought the rights to one of the actual Cottingley fairy photographs to use at the back of the book.

What would you say to someone who says writing for children is easy?
Many people have mistakenly suggested that writing for children must be easier than writing for adults. That’s not always true. For instance, Random House is extremely dedicated to facts and truth for young readers. I had to document every fact, every bit of information in the fairy book for my editor, who then had the material vetted by an expert in a related field. Also, the clothing and artistic depictions in the illustrations had to be as accurate as possible. For instance, the illustration of the camera used by Frances and Elsie when taking the Cottingley photos is based on an old photograph of the actual camera they used. It can be a challenge to come up with text and illustrations that are both accurate and appealing for young readers while still creating a mythical mood or playful tone. When writing a novel like Viper’s Nest, the historical information can be tweaked here and there and editors usually don’t get their knickers in a twist over it.

What first inspired you to become a writer?
As soon as I read Little Women when I was in the 6th or 7th grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer like Jo March. When I sold my first newspaper articles to the Pacific Stars and Stripes and The Morning Star (I was a teenager on Okinawa at the time), I knew I was a writer. There was no turning back for me from then on.

What would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
I would attend more writing conferences and take more courses in marketing. I started out as a journalism major and later earned my M.A. in Literature. I did take one marketing elective ages ago. Everything I learned in that class is still useful for me today. But as a lit major I never even learned how to write a synopsis or book proposal or query letter. Thank goodness for SWW conferences and workshops! That’s where I learned those valuable skills.

Of the 32 books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
I have a sentimental attachment to Stone of the Sun, which was my first novel. It opened many doors for me, including write-for-hire projects. But writing and researching Patriots in Petticoats, Heroines of the American Revolution (Random House) was probably my favorite writing project. I wanted to include lesser known girls and women, such as Kerenhappuch Turner and Dicey Langston. These women were from the southern colonies—one tends to think of Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams and others from Pennsylvania and New England as our only colonial heroines. I visited out-of-the-way battlefields and small historical societies and enjoyed lots of little adventures along the way. I have received many delightful letters from girls writing social studies reports about one of the obscure heroines I mention in the book and was so pleased when the Bank Street College of Education in New York named the title as one of the best children’s books of 2005.

What can fiction writers learn from nonfiction writers?
As a journalism major, I was taught to get to the who, what, when, where and why quickly and succinctly—in the first paragraph, if possible. Some fiction writers forget to answer those questions within their stories. Frequently, I have found myself wondering what happened to a secondary character that appeared in the first half of the book but simply disappears in the latter half, and what about that missing locket alluded to in the third chapter? Keeping the 5 Ws in mind when writing and revising would be helpful for fiction writers, I think.

Also, nonfiction writers are taught to write magazine articles with enticing lead paragraphs that lure busy editors. I have tried to use intriguing opening lines in each of my novels, too. Stone of the Sun begins with, “She’d witnessed a murder—or so she’d been told—and nothing would ever be the same again.” My Regency novel Prudence Pursued opens with, “You should not wear that to the pox party,” Prudence Pentyre said, indicating her younger cousin’s dress of light green Italian silk. “I recommend something with short sleeves which allows you to expose your forearm to the lancet.”

What advice do you have for writers who are still striving for publication?
Set both weekly and monthly goals/deadlines for yourself. Write them down and work diligently toward achieving them. Buy an appointment book and schedule time for writing, rewriting and research. Your “great expectations” will be easier to achieve when you have established in writing what they are.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

Dialogue Compression: The Key to Realistic Dialogue

by Kirt Hickman

Realistic dialogue is one of the most important things to achieve in your writing. It’s also one of the most difficult. When people talk, they ramble, they pause, they repeat themselves—they say all sorts of unnecessary things. Written dialogue that includes all this stuff will be cumbersome. Your reader won’t have the patience for it. The objective of dialogue is to make it more efficient than normal speech yet still have it sound realistic. This is what makes dialogue a challenge.

The single most effective thing you can do to make your dialogue realistic is to compress it.


Cut any line of dialogue down to as few words as possible. Consider the following passage, excerpted from a critique submission with the author’s permission. The viewpoint character observes this exchange between a young woman in a tavern and a druid who has just walked in.

One of the girls suddenly stood and waved at the shrouded figure. “Hey, Cuddles, it’s Nancin! What are you doing here? Hey, this might just turn out to be some fun after all. We have to get together later on and catch up on old times. I haven’t seen you since that party at Sister Hillary’s Nunnery and Bawdy House back in ’65. Come on up to my room when we get through with this rah-rah what-ever-it-is that’s going on here and we’ll crack a bottle or three and talk about old times – and more. Hot Damn, Cuddles is back, WHEEE!!!”“Silence Woman! Hold your tongue. There is serious business afoot—and many unanswered questions. We will surely talk, later, and in private . . .”“Okay. I can wait for you to finish playing those ‘serious business’ games that you little boys insist on playing. Just don’t forget that you and I have more important things to do.” The soft purr of the reply held the promise of interesting times ahead.This passage can and should be greatly compressed. In the first paragraph, Nancin rambles for far too long. The druid, a man of some renown, would probably be embarrassed by Nancin’s outburst. He would likely stop her. The rest, I’d compress as much as possible without sacrificing the essential voice of each character:

One of the girls stood and waved at the shrouded figure. “Hey, Cuddles. What are you doing here? This might just turn out to be some fun after all —”“Silence, woman,” the druid said. “We’ll talk later.”“Okay,” came the soft purr of her reply. “Just don’t forget that you and I have more important things to do.”Decide for yourself which passage is more engaging.

Compression can make dialogue more crisp and realistic even in less extreme cases, as in this example from my science fiction novel, Worlds Asunder.

“Randy performed the preflight checks according to protocol.”“Randy did the preflight checks correctly.”Meaningless Words

Eliminate expressions that don’t carry meaning, such as:

“Well,” “Hey!” “Um,” “Aw, geez.” “Oh my gosh.” “Right?”Phrases like these make dialogue sound rambling and unimportant. They reduce tension. These types of expressions can be useful in making each character’s speech distinctive, but use only one per character and use it sparingly.

Sentence Fragments

Consider the following dialogue exchange:

“Have you had lunch?”“No, not yet.”“Do you want to go to Stufy’s?”“That sounds good.”People don’t generally speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Look for opportunities to use sentence fragments to emulate real speech patterns:

“Had lunch?”“Not yet.”“Stufy’s?”“Sounds good.”It not only makes your dialogue more natural, it makes it more crisp. It quickens the pace.


Use contractions wherever possible. Otherwise your dialogue will sound clunky and mechanical:

“We will need results on this one,” Snider told Chase. “And we will need them fast.”Contractions make dialogue more natural:

“We’ll need results on this one,” Snider told Chase. “And we’ll need them fast.”Use these tips to compress your dialogue, to make it realistic, taut, and engaging.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Characters in Conflict

by Chris Eboch


A strong story needs conflict. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character—what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily.

Let’s start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Not really. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

1. Why is it important to the character?

The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher the stakes needed to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

2. Why is it difficult for the character?

Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges—he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Fears and Desires

As this exercise shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s desires. If they crave safety, put them in danger. But if they crave danger, keep them out of it.

In my romantic suspense novel, Rattled (written as Kris Bock), Erin likes her adventures safely in books. But when she finds a clue to a century-old lost treasure, she’s thrust into a wilderness expedition full of dangers from wild animals, nasty humans, and even nature. In my Mayan historical novel The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person’s accomplishments more impressive. In Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome—childhood health problems, poverty, a poor education. I showed his successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.

Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

To Build Conflict:

What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence.

Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. Perhaps your character has a temper, is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.

Before you start, test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published in the June 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Taming the Beast: What to Do with That Frightful First Draft

by Kirt Hickman

You’ve gotten your first draft onto paper, but it doesn’t look anything like the novel you envisioned. Somewhere along the way, it took on a life of its own. It became grotesque: overblown, disorganized, and rife with inconsistencies. Your writing is flat, your characters are boring, and your plot contains so many dead ends it resembles a maze for some masochistic lab rat. Somehow it got so out of control that you can’t imagine now how to rein it in.

While this article doesn’t address all of these problems, it will answer this question: What now? Before you examine the structure of your scenes or the tautness of your narrative style (see “Revising Fiction: Ten Tips To Tighten Your Narrative Style“), you’ve got to tame the monster you’ve created. You’ve got to trim the fat and organize the rest.

Scene Cards

To organize, create an index card for each scene. Give each scene a name and number and write it on the scene’s card. Then read through your manuscript and make the following notes on the cards:

1. Scene Purpose

Each scene must have a purpose; it must advance the plot or develop character (preferably both). Any scene that doesn’t is either a digression or it just conveys information. Delete it. Find another way to provide the necessary information. Make a note on the card of any scene you plan to move information to. Ideally, each scene that you keep should also show conflict between characters, create suspense, and show how the day-to-day life in your world is different from your reader’s life. Jot down ideas to enhance these characteristics of each scene.

2. Type of Scene

Is the scene an action scene? A romance scene? A dialogue scene? Something else? Write it on the card. Don’t string too many action scenes in a row. You want to excite your reader, not fatigue him. Similarly, don’t put several passive scenes together; you’ll risk boring your reader.

Color-code the title row of your scene cards with highlighter markers (pink for action scenes, yellow for passive, orange for others) and lay the cards out on a table with the highlighted title showing. This will give you a good visual display of the distribution of the action. Look for scenes that you can move to create a better balance.

3. Inconsistencies

As you wrote your first draft you may have made decisions that created inconsistencies in your characters or plot. If so, decide how best to resolve them, and in which scenes. Note any necessary changes on your scene cards.

4. Suspense Elements

A suspense element is any question you’ve raised in your reader’s mind, any loose end you need to tie up in another scene. On your scene cards, note the suspense elements you introduced or resolved in each scene.

Then go back through the cards. On a separate sheet of paper, list each suspense element. Next to it, write down the number of the scene in which you introduced it and the number of the scene in which you resolved it. Did you resolve them all? If not, tie up each loose end. Either find a scene in which to resolve it, or don’t bring it up in the first place. Make notes on the appropriate scene cards.

Rewrite Your Scenes

Before you rewrite your scenes, save your manuscript and begin working on a separate draft. If you decide later that you need something you’ve altered or deleted, you’ll be able to retrieve the original.

During this rewrite, you’ll throw whole scenes away, write new scenes, and revise some so extensively you’ll have to start them over from scratch. Every scene will need some form of revision. Don’t let this discourage you. You must trim the fat from your first draft and bolster the weak or missing elements. You already know what changes you need to make; you’ve noted them on your scene cards. Now rewrite each scene using these notes as your guide. When you’re done, review your notes to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Now your manuscript is ready for the more detailed editing required to clean up your scene structure, narrative style, and dialog. Those topics, however, I’ll leave for future articles.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the March 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

From Idea to Story II: Climax & Resolution

by Chris Eboch


In my article “From Idea to Story: Situation & Complications” I talked about turning an idea into a story by breaking it down into four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. I covered the first two parts in that post. Now we get to the climax and resolution.

Can She Do It?!

Your character has faced complications through the middle of the story. Finally, at the climax, the main character must succeed or fail. Time is running out. The race is near the end. The girl is about to date another guy. The villain is starting the battle. One way or another, your complications have set up a situation where it’s now or never. However you get there, the climax will be strongest if it is truly the last chance. You lose tension if the reader believes the main character could fail this time, and simply try again tomorrow.

In my new romantic suspense novel, Rattled, the climax comes when the heroine is chained to the floor of a cave by a villain threatening to kill her and her friends. If she can escape, maybe she can stop the bad guys and save her friends. But the penalty for failure is death—the highest stake of all. Short stories, different genres, or novels for younger kids might have lesser stakes, but the situation should still be serious.


  • Don’t rush the climax. Take the time to write the scene out in vivid detail, even if the action is happening fast. Think of how movies switch to slow motion, or use multiple shots of the same explosion, in order to give maximum impact to the climax. Use multiple senses and your main character’s thoughts and feelings to pull every bit of emotion out of the scene.
  • To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. (This is a useful technique for cliffhanger chapter endings as well.)

Happy Endings

The climax ends with the resolution. You could say that the resolution finishes the climax, but it comes from the situation: it’s how the main character finally meets that original challenge.

In almost all cases the main character should resolve the situation himself. No cavalry to the rescue! Today, even romance novels rarely have the hero saving the heroine; she at least helps out. We’ve been rooting for the main character to succeed, so if someone else steals the climax away from him or her, it robs the story of tension and feels unfair.

Here’s where many beginning children’s writers fail. It’s tempting to have an adult—a parent, grandparent, or teacher, or even a fairy, ghost, or other supernatural creature—step in to save the child or tell him what to do. But kids are inspired by reading about other children who tackle and resolve problems. It helps them believe that they can meet their challenges, too. When adults take over, it shows kids as powerless and dependent on grownups. So regardless of your character’s age, let your main character control the story all the way to the end (though others may assist).

Although your main character should be responsible for the resolution, she doesn’t necessarily have to succeed. She might, instead, realize that her goals have changed. The happy ending then comes from her new understanding of her real needs and wants. Some stories may even have an unhappy ending, where the main character’s failure acts as a warning to readers. This is more common in literary novels than in genre fiction.


How the main character resolves the situation—whether she succeeds or fails, and what rewards or punishments she receives—will determine the theme. To help focus your theme, ask yourself:

  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • Who am I trying to reach?
  • Why am I writing this?

Once you know your theme, you know where the story is going and how it must be resolved. For example, a story with the theme “Love conquers all” would have a different resolution than a story with the theme “Love cannot always survive great hardship.”

The next time you have a great idea but can’t figure out what to do with it, see if you have all four parts of the story. If not, see if you can develop that idea into a complete, dramatic story or novel by expanding your idea, complications, climax or resolution, as needed. Then readers will be asking you, “Where did you get that fabulous idea?”

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published in the May 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

What the Right Comparison Can Do for Your Story

by Kirt Hickman

A picture is worth a thousand words (pardon the cliché, but it’s true). Good fiction draws the reader away from his mundane life and transports him to a world of wonder wholly different from his own. Whether this difference is physical, cultural, psychological, or situational, metaphors and similes can help bring your fictional world to life.


When you use these comparisons, you draw a mental picture that relates an element of your story to something within the reader’s realm of experience. In the following example, several characters in my science fiction novel, Worlds Asunder, cross an open expanse of the Moon’s surface.

…the four of them made a dash for the building. They ran side by side. In the Moon’s gravity, they rose slowly with each stride and returned to the ground just as slowly, only to bounce again and again until they reached their destination.

This passage contains a detailed description of how my characters run in low gravity. It tries to invoke an image that will bring my setting to life and show how the Moon is different from Earth. The problem is, I’ve used so many words that by the time the reader gets to the end of the description, he no longer cares about the image. He just wants to get on with the story. Comparing the characters’ motion to something familiar can invoke the desired image more clearly, and with fewer words, than literal description:

…the four of them made a dash for the building, bounding up and down in a ragged line, like so many horses on a merry-go-round.

Taking the merry-go-round out of context, putting it on the Moon, and using it to describe running makes the comparison unexpected. I’ve used a familiar object to show how my setting differs from the reader’s here and now.

Yet I can improve the passage further. The word “building” lacks description. How big is this building? What does it look like? I’ve missed an opportunity to remind the reader that I’ve taken him to another world. In an earlier scene, I described the building like this:

The habitation dome was maybe a hundred meters in diameter with the semi-cylindrical protrusion of the equipment garage on one side, the only obvious entrance to the structure.

Can you picture the building? What if I add this sentence:

From afar, it looked like a giant igloo on a vast stretch of dirty ice.

The comparison solidifies the image. In Worlds Asunder, I refer back to this description in the merry-go-round scene by changing the word “building” to “igloo”:

…the four of them made a dash for the igloo, bounding up and down in a ragged line, like so many horses on a merry-go-round.


You can use comparisons to invoke emotion. The following passage describes the wreckage of a crashed space ship:

…the fuselage came into view, jutting skyward from the flat terrain, surrounded by sparkling debris.

Perhaps this invokes an image, but a couple of well-drawn comparisons will enhance the emotional impact.

…the fuselage came into view, jutting skyward from the flat terrain like a solitary tombstone in a garden of glittering metal.

When the fuselage becomes a tombstone in a garden, it forms the emotional image of death. It reminds the reader of something he already knows: a body lies here, probably inside the fuselage. The viewpoint character is approaching a grave.


Comparisons can express an idea or a character’s viewpoint more effectively than direct narrative.

…a tremendous pop reverberated through the cavernous hangar from the huge doors in front of the cockpit window. The squeal of the unused rollers filtered into the cabin like a scream of protest against this change in military posture…

This passage doesn’t specify what the change in military posture is. Nevertheless, when I use “scream of protest” to describe a simple sound, I don’t have to tell the reader how the viewpoint character feels about the change.

Use Comparisons Carefully

Look for opportunities to use comparisons in your fiction, but don’t overdo it. A well-placed comparison that invokes the right image, at the right time, will enrich your story. But if every paragraph contains one, you’ll force too many unrelated images upon the reader. Your own world will get lost among them.

Beware misused, imprecise, or cliché comparisons. Misused or imprecise comparisons can confuse your reader, and cliché comparisons will have no emotional impact.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the February 2008 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Human Motivations: Fodder for Fiction

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245

Some say when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, the air moves on the other side. That’s more than just an ancient saying—it’s physics. Science tells us for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s a law of the universe. We writers make use of that law of cause and effect in establishing motivation for our characters. We pair up needs and desires with the actions taken to fill them. The more needs and desires, the more layers to the plot.

But what catalysts will result in any given human behavior? Why, for example, would one of our characters smash his car into a roadblock? Why does our protagonist wash his hands every fifteen minutes? How can we make the actions of our villains believable?

No problem. Just review the pyramid of human needs as identified by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, fill your shopping cart, and proceed to the checkout counter.

According to Maslow’s theory, we must satisfy the needs at each level of the pyramid before moving up to the next higher level. The catch is that humans may choose to fulfill those needs through positive or negative means. How your characters meet their needs is up to you.

  1. The lowest stratum of the pyramid covers biological and physiological needs such as air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. Science tells us that when humans undergo prolonged deprivation of any of these needs, such as might be experienced in a concentration camp, the need for food and sex are the last two drives to go, and then only just before death. The struggle to secure these needs may result in love triangles, jealousy, and theft, to name a few. Or it may result in marriage, a good work ethic, ambition and striving to excel.
  2. The next level deals with safety needs such as security, order, law, limits, and stability. Recognizing that there is safety in numbers, every culture has developed rules by which its inhabitants must live. Even anti-social groups have established ground rules, laws, and norms. Just ask anyone who’s been in prison—or worked in one.
  3. Once we have managed to deal with the first two levels, we can move up the ladder to the next one dealing with the need to belong and love. Humans are a gregarious lot. We need relationships. The family unit was established to meet these first three needs. So were gangs. Like the old Three Dog Night song said, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
  4. The penultimate level of need includes self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, and prestige. This need may lead to entrepreneurial ambition, and the drive to learn new things. It may also lead to manipulative, controlling behavior, and obsession with money and/or possessions.
  5. At the top of the pyramid are the self-actualization needs. Humans are built with the drive to realize their personal potential: they seek fulfillment, personal growth, and peak experiences. At this level we find altruistic behavior, mentoring, heroism, and religious fervor.

Because humans are creatures of endless complexity, we may fulfill more than one of these levels at a time. For example, the CEO of a charitable non-profit may not only be fulfilling his need for self-actualization, but for wealth and status. And the school bully (or even the physically violent parent) might be fulfilling the need for dominance and control.

Psychology tells us every human behavior has at its root the goal of survival. And that doesn’t apply only to physical survival. Humans do strange or even horrible things to survive emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. Find someone suffering pain from the loss of any given need, and you’ll find someone willing to do almost anything to find relief from that pain or fear. Enter self-medicating behaviors such as alcoholism and other substance use and abuse in an effort to reach and then maintain what science calls homeostasis, or balance.

According to New York’s Gotham Writer’s Workshop, every character must have a desire he struggles to fulfill. The grandness of that desire is not as important as how badly the character wants it. It could be anything as mundane as the desire to quit smoking. Or it could be as dark as the desire to get rid of a rival. The absence of desire makes for flat characters.

So, look over Maslow’s amalgamation of human needs and drives. Choose one or more, spoon in a dollop of desire, and you’ll have the makings of a deep, multi-faceted character worthy of your writing time.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the June 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Revising Fiction: 13 Ways to Show Character Emotions, Part 3

by Kirt Hickman

This month’s column completes a three-part look at techniques that can help you show your characters’ emotions effectively. So far, we’ve learned to:

1. Use emotional honesty.
2. Convey the source of the emotion.
3. Avoid clichés.
4. Use metaphor.
5. Use concrete details.
6. Use internal monologue.
7. Use dialog.
8. Show physical response.

Additional techniques include:

9. Have the character respond to the emotion in an unexpected way.

Snider pulled Chase aside. “That was a lovely exercise,” he spat, “but you haven’t answered the basic question: Why?” Veins bulged in his forehead as he said the last word. His eyes, crazed as though he was on the verge of a breakdown, spoke of the unbelievable pressure that he must be under. Chase had thought he’d understood, but matters were apparently worse than he’d imagined.

“Look, Morgan.” Snider dropped his voice. “You must answer that question. And soon. I’m getting to the point where I don’t even care if it’s the right answer.” He looked Chase in the eye. “You hear what I’m saying?”

In this example from my science fiction novel, Worlds Asunder, Snider responds to his stress by essentially telling Chase to lie. This is surprising, because Snider’s primary concern has been his own reputation, which could be ruined by such a lie.

This technique can be tricky to employ because the emotional response must be believable, even though it’s unexpected. The key is to make it specific to the character. I do this here by incorporating one of Snider’s tag lines: “You hear what I’m saying?”

10. Use one emotion to express another.

The following day they received a broken transmission from Snider, crackling through a faulty connection in the comm gear. A pair of geologists had arrived on the scene and found Herrera’s bodyguard dead in the cabin. Chase swallowed hard and bowed his head for a moment…

“Everyone else is missing,” Snider finished.

The news was good and bad. It reminded Chase of the fragility of life and the cold ruthlessness of space. And he mourned the loss, even though he hadn’t known the man. But according to Snider’s report, the rover was still moving. Somehow the others had found the means to endure without the protection of a ship or habitat.

In this example, I talk about mourning over the man found in the wreckage, but because Chase didn’t know the man, there’s no basis for his grief. What he’s actually feeling is hope for those that still live. The mention of mourning is a way to express Chase’s hope by contrasting it with another, dissimilar, emotion.

11. Use external setting to mirror your character’s emotions.

In the following example, Bill has just awoken from a coma. Dana has stepped away from his bedside to allow the nurse to assess his condition. Notice how I use the sunlight in the hospital room to reflect Dana’s feelings.

The sun warmed the room through the durapane window, suddenly now bright and cheerful as if it had just risen. Dana returned to Bill’s side and kissed him again, this time on the mouth. “I thought I’d lost you.”

12. Use character action.

Gerri threw the contract onto the floor, snatched up her coat, and stormed from the room.

This example uses Gerri’s actions to show her anger.

13. Express the emotion in a way that is specific to the character.

[President Powers] felt like she had when she was twelve, when she and her friends were playing in the surf off the South Carolina coast. She’d waded in too far and a large wave had washed over her, pulled her under.

China armed in Earth orbit and the United States ignorant. She couldn’t breathe. A cold pressure squeezed in around her, holding her down while she was powerless to prevent it. She heard Norton slam the table through the muffled sound that filled her ears. They were arguing, Norton and O’Leary, but only Norton’s voice penetrated the president’s consciousness with the words incompetent and consequences.

Finally, like it had when she was twelve, the wave receded and she came up for air. She banged her cane on the hardwood floor to bring civility back to the meeting.

In this example, I use a specific event from President Powers’ childhood to express her sense of being overwhelmed in a way that is specific to her.

The techniques in this three-part column are valuable tools to master. If you’d like to see a more in-depth treatment of this topic, I recommend Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood.1

Read the first two parts of Kirt Hickman’s series:
“13 Ways to Show Character Emotions,” Part 1
“13 Ways to Show Character Emotions,” Part 2

1Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions, Story Press Books, 1998.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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