It happens to all of us at one time or another. We run into a proverbial brick wall and suddenly find ourselves unable to come up with something to write about. Oh, no! It’s the dreaded writer’s block. Ugh!
Creativity is a funny thing. We can’t turn it on and off whenever it’s convenient. This can be particularly frustrating for fiction writers who have to juggle their writing between work and family time, only to end up staring at a blank screen or paper and wondering what to do with it.
Sometimes switching gears and writing about another topic can help. I have friends who typically work on two or three different books at the same time. If they get stuck on one they simply set it aside and work on another one. However, if you’re like me, and you only work on one story at a time, then you may have to get a little more creative. Try stepping away from the computer and doing a project that’s been on your to do list for too long. Those nagging issues really can effect your creativity.
If that doesn’t help, then why not take a break and do something you enjoy doing? Bake some cookies. Play a round of golf. Go to a movie, or a ball game. Take a day trip somewhere. Read a book that you haven’t had time to read. Call a friend or relative you haven’t spoken to in awhile. Taking a time out and doing something different, particularly if it’s something you really enjoy, but don’t get to do too often, gives your mind a chance to focus on other things, giving your creative muse a rest.
Don’t worry about your story. It’ll come back. And when it does, you can pick up where you left off.
I sometimes see the stupidest things on social media memes, such as, “Writers are professional liars because they tell stories for a living.”
Oh, please! Go peddle it someplace else. If you can’t tell the difference between a fictional story and “bearing false witness,” you’re beyond hope.
What’s the Difference?
Lying is knowing something to be false and presenting it as fact. It can also be telling a half-truth, or lying by omission. Simply put, you’re withholding pertinent information about something to slant the narrative in your favor. A good example would be a married man who presents himself a single, unattached man. He’s a self-serving individual who intentionally deceives others solely to please himself. I included such an individual in one of my Marina Martindale novels. Interestingly enough, it’s titled, The Deception. I’ll just say it didn’t end well for him.
Fiction writing, or storytelling, is presenting a story about people who never existed. Unlike the liar, whose motives are to mislead or deceive, the storyteller is altruistic. Their goal is to entertain, or educate, or both. For example, I read Aesop’s Fables when I was a child. It’s common knowledge that the stories are make believe. They’re told to teach lessons about morality.
The other purpose for storytelling is to entertain. Life isn’t always easy or fair. We all feel overwhelmed at times, and we need to take a break. We’ll turn on the TV, watch a video, or perhaps read a book. As a novel writer, my purpose it to entertain the reader so he or she can take a break from reality.
So there you have it. I also get it. Some people don’t read fiction, and that’s okay. To each their own. However, I have zero tolerance for people who intentionally insult the integrity and sully the reputations of fiction authors. As stated, our purpose isn’t to deceive. It’s to entertain. There is a difference.
Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.
Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?
Well, not necessarily.
What an exclamation point actually means
An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.
For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer and held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room but he was unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.
By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.
But what about the dialog?
An exclamation point in the dialog indicates someone shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.
For example, someone might shout, “Look out!” if they see someone else about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant
I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.
We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.
Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.
Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.
Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis
I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.
If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated
Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.
Fine details aren’t always useful information
Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “Her royal blue dress with the lace trim would show off the diamond pendant perfectly. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends Jake had given it to her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.
I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.
An essential element of writing fiction is to create an intense climax. It’s the “OMG!” moment readers expect, and like any other part of fiction writing, creating a page turning, believable climax takes some skill.
Set the stage properly
Introduce the conflict early in your story, and start out small. I write contemporary romance, ( as Marina Martindale), so my conflicts begin as seemingly everyday occurrences. Someone meets a stranger who seems familiar, but they can’t place them. Someone has fallen on hard times and has to do a job they don’t want to do. Someone stumbles across something which looks incriminating about someone they know. From there you add more tension and conflict and build your story.
How to Create the Perfect Storm
As you build up the tension there will come a point when it needs to be released. This is where the real fun begins. The following is my formula, and I find it works well.
I begin by putting my protagonist(s) in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t make it obvious. My locations have included a courthouse in the middle of a busy workday. A resort hotel on a busy night. A character’s backyard on a beautiful fall day. Wherever it is, I make it the last place where the characters would expect something to go wrong.
I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it all hits the fan, the more potential for things to happen. Most importantly, I make sure everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.
Miscommunication adds to the drama. Phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, rumors get started and misunderstandings abound. Someone will inevitably get the wrong information and draw the wrong conclusion.
I break up the action as much as I can. If more than one character is involved, I’ll end one scene with a cliffhanger, such as a character waiting for help to arrive, and jump over to another character and draw them in. Or I may go to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong, and they’re not knowing adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything falls to pieces creates more suspense and keeps the reader engaged.
Timing is everything. I don’t want my climax to end too quickly, nor do I want it to drag on too long. Each story I write is different, so I rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters. It all depends on how complex the scene is, and how many characters are involved.
So there you have it. The more things go wrong, the more suspenseful, and dramatic, your climax will be, and the more it will engage your reader.
You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.
I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.
Strong opening sentences
Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.
Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.
My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.
Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.
Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.
Opening lines and your characters
No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a lead character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.
A descriptive opening line
Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.
The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.
Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.
Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.
Every story ever written has two things in common; a beginning and an ending. It’s at the end of the story where we, as storytellers, deliver the punch lines which will impact our readers.
What readers expect
Regardless of your genre, most readers want, and expect, a happy ending. One which ties up all of the loose ends and leaves them satisfied. Most of the time this is what they get. In my genre, romance, it’s pretty simple. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but there are conflicts and obstacles to be overcome before they can be together. Once the conflicts are resolved, everyone lives happily ever after. THE END. But then again, some of the most well-loved and compelling romance stories ever written didn’t end with the couple living happily ever after.
Remember Romeo and Juliet? This timeless tale of two star crossed lovers ended with a double suicide, which compelled their two warring families to put an end to their bitter feud.
More recently, there was Gone with the Wind. After thinking she was in love with Ashley Wilkes for all those years, Scarlett O’Hara suddenly realizes she’s been in love with Rhett Butler the entire time. Unfortunately for Scarlett, Rhett’s response is to walk away and slam the door behind him, leaving her to ponder her next move. This ending certainly left us wanting more.
My favorite unexpected ending
My favorite unexpected ending comes from the movie, Casa Blanca, which was actually based on a play called, Everyone Comes to Rick’s. It too is a love story with a twist. Boy meets girl. Girl ditches boy. Boy meets girl a second time, only now she’s brought her husband along. So, along with some unforgettable dialog, “Of all the gin joints in all the places in the world, she had to walk into mine,” we all root for Rick to get Ilsa back. Instead he puts her, and her husband, on a plane and sends them away for good. The final scene ends with the plane taking off while Rick walks away with Louis Renault saying, “You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Good stories aren’t always about happy endings. Sometimes they’re about doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing isn’t so easy to do. The same can also be said of real life.
Creating appropriate names for your characters is essential when writing fiction. However, it isn’t always easy. I put a lot of thought into each character’s name. Their age, background, occupation, and their roll in the story all play a part in determining the character’s name.
Choosing with the right surname
I don’t use the surnames Smith, Jones or Johnson for any of my lead characters. Those names are so common they’re almost a cliche. I prefer using other surnames, such as Palmer, Campbell, Bennett, and Walsh. All are common names, but not overly common.
Sometimes I get stuck, so I keep an old white pages phone book by my desk. When all else fails, I’ll open it to a random page and skim through the listings until something pops out at me. Other times I’ll think back to kids I went to school with, or I’ll hear an interesting sounding name on the news. That’s another way to come up with a surname. We live in a diverse society, so some of my characters will have ethnic names. If it’s a common surname, such as Sanchez, I’ll use it. If I’m not sure, I’ll do an online search. The possibilities are endless.
Finding the right first name
First names are a lot of fun. I think we all have favorite first names. I personally like the names Cynthia, Victoria, Christopher and Jeremy. My first Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, included two supporting characters named Cynthia and Jeremy. However, I’m still waiting for the right story ideas for Victoria and Christopher. My contemporary romance novels are much like the soap operas I watched years ago, so I sometimes give my characters the same first name as a favorite soap opera character.
I also invested in a baby name book. It contains hundreds, if not thousands of names, including many different ethnic names. It’s a handy tool which I often use.
Naming fictional businesses and places
Naming a fictitious business or location is just as important as naming your characters. Again, you want reasonably common names. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I’ll often create mom and pop businesses in my stories. Oftentimes I’ll include a common surname, such as O’Malley’s Grill, only this time I’ll also do an online search to make sure there is no business with the same name in the city or town where my story is set. If there is, I’ll have to come up with a different name. The same rule applies for naming fictitious businesses such as newspapers or ad agencies.
And finally, a disclaimer
With over three hundred million people living in the United States, and billions more on the planet, it really doesn’t matter how you create your character’s names. There will be real people out there with the same names. This is why you need to include a disclaimer in the front matter of your book. Make sure you clearly state that your story is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Readers can give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviews for my Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.
If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.
How and when to use flashbacks
Use flashbacks sparingly. The Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore, I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
Your flashbacks should be relevant.The Reunion is a story of two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. It’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue is another great tool for telling the backstory.
Watch where you place a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I set up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.
How to place a flashback
This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.
* * *
Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time which had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was her long blonde hair was now a shoulder-length pageboy. As she reminisced about the past her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.
“Calm down, Gillian,” she said to her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” As she took a few more deep breaths the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.
Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.
“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.
As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.
And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I’ve not included them in any of my later Marina Martindale contemporary romances. They were only used in The Reunion because of the long interval between two characters’ interactions.
Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance the plot line.
Writing fiction isn’t about making things up as we go along. Good fiction writers know their craft. They can easily spend as much time researching their subject matter as they do writing about it. And that can be problematic.
Novel writers may have to research the strangest things. For example, some of my Marina Martindale novels revolve around crime. When it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. Crime plotlines aren’t limited to mysteries. They work well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character become a crime victim, or be accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit, works well for me.
Let’s use my contemporary romance novel, The Deception, as an example. I wanted my story to be believable. This is where research comes in. However, doing a Google search on how many years my antagonist could get for attempted capital murder could potentially raise some red flags. Google records your IP address and your searches. Google also tracks you around the web. And while police officers would probably enjoy a good read as much as anyone else, we don’t anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, that unexpected knock at the door could really ruin your day. This is why we need to do our searches anonymously.
StartPage and DuckDuckGo
There are two search engines which you can use for anonymous web searches. Startpage, and DuckDuckGo. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Startpage works with Google, but doesn’t record your IP address. You also have the option of visiting websites anonymously. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t as not all websites allow anonymous viewing. Nonetheless, it’s a nice option to have.
Unfortunately, Startpage also has a distinct disadvantage. It only works with Google, and Google has become way too creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites with points of view they disagree with, which troubles me in many ways. However, I’m going to limit my comments and simply state that as writers, we can, and should, be able to see ALL points of view on a given subject. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.
Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. DuckDuckGo. Unlike Startpage, it’s not married to Google. However, it too has also a disadvantage. It doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.
So there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do they track you. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend using either, or both.