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#WritingTip—Writing Short Fiction

sequence 1, 2-15, aquisitions editor

For a novelist, the idea of writing short stories sometimes seems quite difficult. But with a few simple strategies, it can be easy.

A short story is usually defined as being somewhere between a thousand and five-thousand words. For a novelist, writing a story with multiple scenes at such a short length seems cramped.

So here are a few tips:

    1. Keep to one or two viewpoint characters. The more characters that you introduce, the more complex their relationships become, the longer your tale will stretch. As a novelist, you might want to create a dozen interesting characters, but developing a well-rounded character takes time and adds a lot to your word count.
    2. Plan on a handful of scenes, at most. A movie or book will often have between 70 and 100 scenes, and in each one, you have to describe the locations. So when describing your world, look for ways to keep it intriguing without spending pages and pages on description.
    3. Every story needs to have a protagonist, in a setting, with a significant conflict. In a short story, make that one significant conflict your main focus, and don’t go looking at too many secondary conflicts. Two or three minor conflicts suffice. Algis Budrys, a fantastic writer and a longtime critic for the Chicago Sun Times, used to say that a short story should focus on the single most important incident in your character’s life. If the conflict doesn’t rise to that level, it’s probably not significant enough.
    4. Start in the middle of action. Most authors will try to build toward a main conflict, but you should get to the middle of it as soon as possible.

      Ernest Hemingway once wrote a letter to his agent, saying, “I just wrote a short story about a man whose son gets killed in the war. He goes out to a bar and gets drunk, then hangs himself.” Now, if you’ve read his famous short piece “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” you’ll recognize that Hemingway doesn’t tell us in the opening that the protagonist has had his son killed. Instead, he’s just drinking, and as he does so, his thoughts spiral down into the abyss. The tone of the story hints at previous incidents. If your character has had a bad hair day and an argument with her psychiatrist, it may not be . . . worth writing. You might want to start the story later.

      So look at each scene that builds toward your climax and ask yourself, “Does this need to be here? Does it really serve its function?”I find that scenes that build toward a powerful conflict work if they do the following: 1) add startling new insights to the character or situation, 2) twist the story in unexpected directions. 3) Help us understand the character’s motivations.

    5. Just as you can truncate the opening of a short story, you can also truncate the end. In Hemingway’s story, he doesn’t tell us that the protagonist goes home and hangs himself. Again, the tone implies the ending.
    6. Look for a powerful conclusion, one that is emotionally moving or intellectually stimulating. That’s the centerpiece for your tale—the reason for its existence. Some authors insist that the story end happily, and I admit that I like happy endings. But powerful is better than happy.
    7. When you’re done, trim it back. Cut every single excess syllable in the story so long as it doesn’t adversely affect your plot, your characters’ voices, or the tone of the story.

In other words, keep it short and powerful.


As I mentioned in my last writing tip, one of my friends, author Monique Bucheger, lost her son in a tragic car accident. Monique's family is long on love but short on finances. With over a dozen children (most of them taken in as foster children that she has raised on her own), it's hard to make ends meet. Her son Ryan was a charismatic young man who was serving as a missionary until recently. Today is Ryan’s funeral. While we have raised over $7,000, a funeral costs about $10,000—and that obviously doesn’t count for medical expenses or the cost of lost work. If possible, please consider donating any amount to help the family at Ryan’s GoFundMe page.

#WritingTip—Fixating on a Story

Remember when you were young and your mother or father read a favorite story to you over and over? Or do you recall that one book or movie that you wanted to read or watch again and again?

Most people have a few “all-time favorites.” For me, when I was a toddler, it was Jack and the Beanstalk. Then in school I became a fan of Aesop’s Fables. Later it was Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Rings, and Dune. As a teen I discovered films like Star Wars, Bladerunner, and The Road Warrior.

Have you ever considered what happens when you read or watch them over and over?

I can tell you what happens: to some degree, it helps train your tastes for story. I call it “fixating.”

As you hear a favorite tale over and over again, so that you relive it, the story becomes more real, a bigger part of your psyche. I’ve had readers who have re-read some of my stories dozens of times over. As one college student put it, “Back in 1991 I re-read your novel On My Way to Paradise three times, and it became one of the most important experiences of my life. It changed me. I don’t remember much at all about my classes that semester, but I remember every page of that book.”

As a teen, I re-read Lord of the Rings half a dozen times, so I know what that student means. Stories can become a part of you. In fact, they become so much a part of you, that when you begin writing your own tales, the ones that affected you as a child begin to echo in what you write.

For example, one author friend of mine, Larry Niven, wrote a popular science fiction series called Ringworld. A scholar wrote a paper on it, in which he spoke about how the author had drawn upon influences from The Wizard of Oz. Larry was astonished by this. He said, “I hadn’t drawn on that at all on the conscious level, but I had loved The Wizard of Oz as a child and must have read it a hundred times.”

So it came out in the choices that he made as he penned his own epic. That’s what I want to point out here. The stories that you love help define your tastes—and they inform the stories that you will write.

If you’ve read my book Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, you know that as authors, we need to be aware of the books and movies and videogames that our own readers are fixating upon.

Yet as I grow older, I find that the tales that children today are enjoying are . . . not as engrossing to me as the tales that I once loved.

So it becomes important to study what’s new. Did you see Disney’s Frozen, or have you re-watched Avatar lately? Most likely, your younger fans have. What cartoons have you watched, and what videogames have you played? Me, I’m afraid that I don’t do much of that anymore.

I think that often as writers age, their stories seem to age with them, become less accessible to young readers until they feel irrelevant to them. So it’s important to keep reading, to keep watching, to keep playing and studying, so that you keep learning to speak in the same language of the heart as your fans.

In other words, find the great stories of today and then work to “fix” them into your mind. Let them educate your tastes, at least a little.

One of my dear friends, Monique Bucheger, lost her son Ryan Bucheger last night in an accident. Monique has attended some of my writing workshops and is the author of the Ginnie West Adventure series. As a mother of nine children and a dozen or so foster children, Monique would be grateful for any donations anyone is willing to make. I have set up a GoFundMe page for those who are willing to help the family with travel costs, medical costs, funeral costs, and the cost of lost work. If nothing else, please consider sharing the page with others. www.gofundme.com/RyanBucheger


Once a quarter I read through thousands of stories for a writing contest—a job that usually takes several weeks. It would take longer, but of course I don’t always have to read an entire manuscript in order to know that it is not publishable. In looking at stories and determining just why they aren’t publishable, I can usually narrow the reasons down to a few common mistakes. One of the most prevalent reasons for rejection is that the author uses imprecise language—and so says nothing at all.

Consider the following sentence: “He moved through the trees.” Now, try to visualize that.

Do you as a reader see what I’m imagining?

I guarantee that you aren’t.

Maybe you can visualize something, but chances are almost nonexistent that you will be able to draw close at all. You see, the nouns and verbs are all so generalized that we can’t get a handle on anything.

Let’s start with the subject of the sentence: “He.” What am I supposed to visualize? “He” could be just about anyone—a six-year-old boy out on a camping trip, an escaped slave trying to evade the hounds, or a hunter down in the Amazon rainforest. I’ve read stories where “He” turned out to be an astronaut, a dragon, a robot, a lion, or various other creatures. Do you see how the word “He” doesn’t really communicate anything at all?

An author is like a radio transmitter, while the reader is the receiver. As an author, it’s your job to send out clear signals to the reader. A vague word is a fuzzy signal, one that is unlikely to be deciphered.

Now, there are usually three levels of specificity to nouns. A very general noun, “he,” might refer to something that is male. We can then become more specific by putting the subject into a subcategory, such as convict, priest, explorer, and so on. That’s not much better, but it’s a start. To really be specific, we need to get to the level of individuality, the third tier on the specificity chart. We need to know that we’re talking about Bubba Perdot, a 15-year-old Cajun alligator hunter who was born and raised in a shack on the Black River, outside of New Orleans.

Let’s move on to the verb, “moved.” There are dozens of ways to “move.” You can be conveyed on a vehicle or an animal. You can hike. You can stagger, stalk, stumble, race, fly, hop, roll, ski, and so on. The word “move” doesn’t tell me anything at all about how your character is moving. So let’s get back to Bubba. Let’s have him poling a pirogue.

Now consider the object in the sentence, “trees.” There are all kinds of trees in this world, and depending upon the story that you’re writing, this world might not even be the one that you’re writing about. I was born and raised in Oregon. When I think of trees, I immediately think of Douglas firs—a nice evergreen. But I’ve seen evergreen forests in China where the trees have a very alien appearance. I have a friend who was born a few hundred miles south, and so when she thinks of trees, she’s imagining giant redwoods. A person from the high mountains might imagine groves of aspen, while one from Virginia envisions live oaks. The word “tree” is so vague that it is useless. So you have to name the types of trees. Let’s have Bubba poling through a cypress grove. Now, if you’ve ever been in a dense swamp in Louisiana, where you find yourself boating along narrow channels, you can understand how Bubba might be thought of as moving through the trees. You might object and decide that he’s really floating over the water. He is actually doing both at the same time.

Yet even to have him moving through a specific kind of tree is a cheat. If you want to do this right, you may need to go to the exact spot where you are setting the tale, and describe it with great care. You see, when you go into a cypress swamp, there are dozens of species living together.

But do you see how much better you communicate when you are precise? Sending out clear signals will solve most of your communication problems. It may be that your reader isn’t adept at receiving those signals.

The person who writes an opening sentence that reads “He moved through the trees,” has told me nothing at all.

In order to bring a scene to life, you have to be specific. Years ago, I recall reading a description about a dog, written for an assignment. If I say the word dog, you can’t envision anything. A dog can be a big black Newfoundland, or an English Spaniel or a silver fox. But even those descriptions are just second-level generalities.

In order to really create a particular dog in your reader’s mind, you have to get down to details. I recall reading a description written many years ago for an assignment about a dog. Most people only managed to give a general description of the subcategory that the dog belonged to.

But one young woman described a coyote that she saw foraging in her garbage can in the mid-morning. The coyote was female, a young mother, with distended breasts that swayed with every move, and patches of hair chewed off by her hungry pups. The author described the hunger revealed by the coyote’s emaciated form, the determined way that she picked through tin cans and tore at wrappers, trembling and frightened all the while. When the author read her paper, there was no doubt in my mind that this was one particular dog. If I ever happened to see that coyote while out on a walk, I would probably even recognize her, and think of her as an old friend.

That’s your goal, to choose specific details that bring your tale to life.

#WritingTip—Opening Strategies

There are many ways to hook a reader who opens your book--a great cover, a catchy title, luscious descriptions on the back cover, an endearing character portrait, a captivating first line to your novel, and so on.

Yet all too soon, much of how well the story grabs a reader will depend upon whether your conflict is engaging. Interestingly, I can only see a couple of ways to introduce a significant conflict.

The first method is to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page. Brandon Sanderson did this nicely in Elantris. Robert Jordan does it in the prologue to The Wheel of Time. Both novels sold extremely well as a result.

On a biological level, the reader experiences a rush of adrenaline as he or she is faced with a conflict, as well as increased levels of cortisol as stress is induced. The fact that the stress is unresolved suggests that there may be an element of mystery, so that the body supplies a bit of dopamine to incite the reader to go on reading—and since the reader is looking for a pleasurable experience, the brain will also gush serotonin to signal that, “Hey, we found the good stuff.”

All in all, this seems like a very heady mix. (Pun intended.)

The second method is to create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict. This technique is very popular with young adult fiction. For example, we see it handled well in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, or in James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.

On a biological level, when we read a mystery the body dispenses dopamine to keep the reader on the trail for clues, but of course since there are growing conflicts and a sense of “Hey, we found the good stuff,” the other chemicals will come into play to lesser degrees. As a mystery is resolved, the brain is treated to a rush of serotonin.

In any case, these are the two main strategies that we can use to introduce conflicts, but it does give rise to countless variations. Think of them as notes on a scale: A) mystery, B) conflict. We can vary them. For example, we might go with a line like this: A, A, A, B. A, A, A, B. In this example we might create a sense of mystery for five pages to lead to the revelation of a major conflict—which in turn leads to more mysteries and an even greater conflict in chapter two.

But of course you can create any variation: B, A, A. B, A, A, A—and so on.

In short, there are only a couple of notes here, but we can play them in any combination that you like. Yet one thing is clear: if you don’t play either note in your opening—usually within two pages—your entire book will fail.

Why? Because few people will read a book that doesn’t offer significant conflicts that grab their interest quickly.


I have three exciting workshops coming up in the next few months: Join me for a boot camp at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in May, the Worldbuilding Master Class in July, or the Casting Your Novel Master Class in July.

Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers, June 15-19: I’m excited to be teaching at WIFYR this year–and especially to be reading the works of the students involved. It was at workshops like this that I first discovered #1 New York Times Bestsellers Brandon Mull, Jessica Day George, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephenie Meyer. Now, I’m hoping to help mentor someone else of that caliber. Hopefully it’s you! *Note: The early-bird discount ends March 15th. You can enroll here: www.WIFYR.com.

Worldbuilding Master Class, July 7-11: One key to creating a blockbuster tale is to learn to transport the reader to another time and another place. In this workshop, I'll take you through world building in fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction, including dystopias and utopias.

You will learn how to view the world as a character and source of conflict, how to create planets, new life forms, societies, and economic systems, magic systems, political systems and so on. You will watch popular films where the author did it right—and you’ll perform exercises where you brainstorm your own world, create your settings, write key descriptions and scenes, and have them critiqued by the rest of the group and by me, as well. Enroll here.

Casting Your Novel Master Class, July 13-17: A lot has been said about creating characters--things that don't really work, like filling 100 pages of information about him or her. If you did this while brainstorming every major character in a novel, you would have 1,000 pages of notes on characters alone.

In this workshop I'll teach you how to direct your energy to building characters that are not only believable and complex, but are ready to spur conflict, explore themes, and complete an emotion-empowered character arc. Enroll today!

#WritingTip—Emotional and Intellectual Payoff

Some stories gain power by tapping into the emotions that we felt at a particular age, or during a certain time of our lives. For example, some novels use nostalgia as a powerful draw. I can think of a few extremely popular fantasy novels that hearken back to Tolkien’s work. A few years ago, one major reviewer said of Robert Jordan something to the effect that, “Robert Jordan has come to dominate the landscape that Tolkien created.” In short, of the Tolkienesque writers, Jordan had done the best job of recreating the feelings that Tolkien evoked.

Similarly, if you’re writing certain types of romance, you might hearken back to Jane Austin; or if you’re writing about the 1970s, you might try to capture that period in history so perfectly that it takes your readers back in time. In the same way, it seems that every major city in the U.S. has an author of police thrillers who specializes in writing about that city.

So nostalgia is a tremendously powerful draw in a lot of types of literature, even wonder literature, though it seems to me that the more original your work is, the more difficult it becomes to use nostalgia as a draw.

Another huge draw is mystery. If you analyze bestselling novels—from young adult literature, to thrillers to fantasy and so on—you’ll find that nearly all of them open with some mysterious element. I believe that it was the author John Brown who pointed out to me a study that showed the power of mystery. The brains of dogs who were sent out on the hunt, it was discovered, were rewarded with an intermittent supply of dopamine to keep them interested in the hunt. As soon as the object the dogs were searching for was discovered, the dopamine stopped and was replaced by a rush of serotonin.

It appears that humans are much the same. A good mystery, with plenty of clues, can hold readers for hundreds of pages.

Then of course comes wonder, that sense of discovery that comes when we find something new. In some genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, and in most YA fiction, it is the controlling emotion of the literature, the emotion that the author seeks most to evoke.

But of course, as I’ve pointed out before, we don’t really even have “genres” in fiction. Books are sold based upon the emotion that they’re supposed to evoke. Thus, romance books evoke romance, thrillers arouse feelings associated with adventure, mysteries give us our dopamine rush, and of course we have horror. If you look science fiction and fantasy, you’ll understand why they were called “wonder” literatures as early as the 1960s.

Last of all we have “general fiction,” a category where numerous types of literatures can be found. Humor is kept in this section of the bookstore, but so are books that carry a sense of nostalgia about life as a whole. Some books in this section cater to a reader’s sense of elitism, and so on.

The most important thing to recognize about a story is this: What emotions is this story attempting to arouse, and are those emotions appropriate to the audience?

Young readers respond to wonder, humor, horror, and mystery. Writing dramatic novels for children will probably destroy your career. Similarly, if you’re an elderly person writing a nostalgic novel about your life during the Great Depression and hoping that it will appeal to children, you’re going to be disappointed. Children don’t share your nostalgia. They don’t really read for that. Now if you have valuable insights you gained in your childhood, those might serve as a draw, but I’ve read literally dozens of novels written by elderly people who just don’t understand their audience.

So you need to know what it is that your reader wants in his or her story, and then supply it in abundance. If you’re writing a romance, your reader will want it to be the most powerful one of its kind. That should be your goal. If you’re writing humor, then your novel needs to be so funny it makes your reader weep.

In critiquing a story, I look at how well the author caters to the needs of his or her readers. What emotions did I feel when I was reading the story? How powerfully? How frequently?

Now, you might note that I lump intellectual payoff with emotional payoff. Plato himself listed intellectual payoff as one of the primary values to a tale. Most of us, when we have a cool insight, get that feeling that our “head is about to explode.” It’s something like a feeling of wonder, but it’s aroused by a cool plot turn, or a startling revelation, or a unique plot element. Sometimes, a character’s insight in a story will arouse that feeling. Have you ever watched a movie and heard a character say something that seemed profound or offered an insight that was just what you needed to hear at that time in your life? A great story, in my estimation (and Plato’s), doesn’t just entertain, it enlightens. It doesn’t just amuse the reader, it offers insights into the human condition.

So when I critique a tale, I often ask myself at the end, “Am I a wiser and better person for having read this tale?” If so, the tale will stand tall in my memory.


Today is the last day to enroll in my “Professional Writers’ Workshop”. Held in Orem, UT, March 16-20th, the purpose of this workshop is to show you how to make a living as a writer. We'll work closely together, 9-5 each day for four days to help you do just that.

I spend most of my time teaching others how to write well, but I see so many authors who start their careers improperly, that it’s like watching them shoot themselves in the foot just before the race.

Whether you’re in the beginning stages of your career, or if you feel a need to break out of your current career, this workshop is for you!

Learn more at www.MyStoryDoctor.com.


Of all the topics on how to write, I suspect more books have been written on how to create solid characters than on anything else. So there are a lot of great resources out there on how to create characters, and I can’t even touch on every topic that I would like in the space of an article this short.

Let me just say a few things, though. We are often told that our characters should be “round,” rather than stick-figure drawings. If you were an artist and you painted a picture with stick figures, people would say, “Well, that’s not very realistic. It is hardly recognizable as human.”

The artist tries to create characters who have the dimensions of real people. The same is true with people in stories. They have (but are not limited to) the following attributes:

1) Real people have physical bodies with inherent limitations and strengths. These bodies get hungry, hurt, and have urges all their own. They also have a history of ailments and injuries, various scars, and of course plenty of traits that we may or may not want to include in our tale—including things like foot size, ear size and shape, and so on. Trying to describe some of these traits is danged near impossible.

2) Real people have families and friends. In young adult literature, just about everyone is an orphan. That’s because editors don’t want authors to have to deal with family issues, just focus on the kids. Yet far too often, authors don’t create extended families primarily out of laziness. Similarly, each of us has various levels of friends, business colleagues, people we are attracted to, and people who are attracted to us at some level. We might include in this list of associations things like pets and plants. Does your heroine keep African violets around the house, and tenderly nurse her geraniums? A likeable character is usually one who show kindness to others, who seeks out deep and lasting commitments—even if it is just to her flowers.

3) Real people have jobs—usually a history of them. For example, I’ve been a meat cutter, a prison guard, a missionary, a movie producer, novelist, video game designer, technical writer and editor, grocer, gourmet ice-cream pie maker, and farmer. In the modern world, we tend to develop large skill sets as we age, but there was a time when a person started life as a farmer and ended up buried out by the grape vines.

4) Real people also have a place in society. These societies might include political groups, religious and civic organizations, and so on.

5) Real people have an internal life, invisible to the naked eye. This is a good category for a lot of things—emotional needs and phobias, ideals, and so on. These might include secret beliefs, hopes, desires. It also includes our own personal way of seeing the world, and includes how we cope with it. Sometimes our personal ideals are at odds with our public affiliations. For example, while most people profess some sort of religion, very often our personal beliefs might vary in some way from the official doctrine of the church that we espouse.

The internal life of a character is of course where we get the “meat” for our novels. A movie can easily capture the exterior of a character, but novels do a better job of capturing the internal feelings, moods, and beliefs. Yet that’s only part of the reason why novels are so popular and are often said to be better than the movies they inspire.

I’m convinced that we have an innate need to get to know one another from the inside out. You see, most people, if you look closely, seem to be rather odd and inexplicable. They act in strange ways and have crazy notions. (I, of course, am the exception!) So we learn quite early to distrust others, to fear them. As a child of four, I recall getting spanked in a grocery store by a cranky old lady. When I went to school, in the third grade I had a teacher who seemed bent on destroying the life of one little boy in our class. A couple of years later, I had a neighbor who tried to trap my little sister in his barn. I was able to stop him, and shortly afterward learned that he was the serial killer who had been haunting our town for years. In other words, people can be strange and scary.

Yet we have a biological impulse to “join the herd,” to find a mate, to interact with others, befriend them, serve them, and rely upon them. In order to do that, we have to learn to understand them, to figure out who is friend and who is foe, and the key to that is understanding why they act as they do.

So we spend a great deal of time analyzing the motives, beliefs, and actions of others. We compare ourselves to them, and sometimes we are changed by them—in ways that are rather dramatic.

Hence, the internal lives of our characters are the most fertile ground that an author may plant his story in.

6) As we explore the internal lives of our characters, one of the most important areas to explore is that person’s internal conflicts. What happens when a person loves and fears the same thing? What happens when a man’s conscience won’t let him carry out his boss’s (or wife’s, or master’s) orders? Most people are filled with interesting contradictions, and usually that provides the best material for our novels.

7) Last of all, each character has a unique way of speaking. Finding a character’s voice and accent is often a key for me when writing a book. The character never comes alive until I can hear him talking in my own imagination.

In conclusion, please note that people are not stick figures. Neither are they “round.” In a good novel, the author creates a number of characters who are put in opposition, and each of them is satisfying and believable. Your imaginary characters never really quite come alive, but at times it can feel like they’re taking over your story, bent on achieving their own ends.


The deadline for enrolling in my “Professional Writers’ Workshop” is upon us. I'd like to see as many of you as possible at this helpful conference, held in Orem, UT, March 16-20th. The purpose of this workshop is to show you how to make a living as a writer. We'll work closely together, 9-5 each day for four days to help you do just that.

I spend most of my time teaching others how to write well, but I see so many authors who start their careers improperly, that it’s like watching them shoot themselves in the foot just before the race.

Whether you’re in the beginning stages of your career, or if you feel a need to break out of your current career, this workshop is for you!

Learn more about it at www.MyStoryDoctor.com.

Five Strategies for Getting Started

Sometimes you’re not in the mood to write, but you know that you should. Maybe you’ve set a goal and hope to reach it, or you’re on a deadline. Here are a few strategies that you can use to get started:

1) You don’t know what to write? Find a writing prompt, a sentence that suggests the opening to a story, and run with it. Years ago, a writing group used a prompt that started, “There were rats in the soufflé again.” Suddenly stories about rats and soufflés appeared in magazines everywhere. You may find writing prompts online simply by Googling “Writing prompts.” But guess what, you might have writing prompts in your own subconscious. Just let something pop out. “After the horrific thunderstorm, I found an angel in the gutter by the side of the road.” “The skyfish on Lucius V drifted on the wind like an airborne jellyfish, translucent and insubstantial, with streamer-like tendrils swaying below.” What are those stories about? I have no idea. But I could start a tale with either sentence. There’s something that you want to write about. Your conscious mind just doesn’t know it, so let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

2) You have a story you want to write, but don’t know where to start? There are several things that every story has to have—a setting, a character, a conflict, a theme. Try writing a hook to your story based upon all four of these things. One of those hooks may get you excited, and set you to writing.

3) Set a goal to do one thing stunningly. For example, you need to set your scene. So you might set a goal to simply describe the setting, to bring it to life as vividly as possible, by using evocative language, by giving it a history and a purpose, by making it fascinating. Of course, you can do the same with a character or a conflict. In fact, if you’re writing a well-rounded story, you will do all three!

4) Work on the emotional tone that you want to create. Is your story supposed to be hilarious? Write out a dry description of your setting, then bring it to life by making it humorous. Are you seeking to be horrific or mysterious? Then you would need to search for details and descriptive terms that set your tone.

5) Are you dozens of pages into a novel or screenplay? Many years ago, one of my professors, the poet Leslie Norris, said that his method for getting into a project after he had been away from it for a few days was to simply rewrite. Go back ten or twenty pages from where the story stops, and then make a pass through it, fixing any errors, and looking for ways to better the prose, adding or taking away details as needed. This lets you ease in to the writing process, so that by the time you reach the last page, you will remember what you had planned to compose next.

Did you notice that I didn’t say anything about checking your email, listening to music to search for inspiration, paying bills, or anything else that will take you away from your keyboard? Don’t let yourself be distracted. Plant your butt in your chair and write!


Matthew W. Harrill's novel Hellbounce was a runner-up for the horror category at the Halloween Book Festival. Check out his book here.

Measuring Up to the Competition

Whenever you express an idea, you can look at the poetry of your language, your use of diction, your originality, and compare it to other samples of the same idea. For example, a friend of mine was telling me recently that as his mother died, she begged him, “Stay with me. It’s getting dark.”

Later, he began to notice how that same idea was expressed in many other places, under the same conditions. In a television show, a hoodlum who was shot said, “Hang with me. It’s so black out.” In a movie it was “Hold my hand. I can’t see.”

But he felt that the best “iteration” of the idea was found in a hymn, “Abide with me, ‘tis eventide.” The unusual choice of words, the poetry of the language, touched him more deeply than some of the other more common iterations.

When we look at stories, we can see that there aren’t many “new” stories. Some say that there are as few as three basic plots. We can argue about that, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with more than thirty or forty types of stories. Yet within those tales, we see thousands of iterations of various scenes—love scenes, breakups, death scenes, chase scenes, hero rejecting the call to action, and so on. So even just looking at the “building blocks” of a tale, we can find dozens of ready examples for the types of scenes that you’re working on.

But far too often as writers, we don’t think enough about our story pieces and how they compare to others. I see many young writers who make the mistake of thinking, “I imagined this, so it must be great.” In fact, if you point out a weakness to the new author, he or she may become defensive. They’re too in love with their own first idea.

So what do you do? When you’re writing--a tale, a scene, or even a sentence--challenge yourself. Ask, “How does this compare to others of its type?” If you’re writing a romance, how does it compare to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette?” If you’re writing a horror novel, how does it compare to the scariest novels that you’ve read?

Of course, every piece of art is unique. You may be working on a tale that doesn’t have any fair comparisons that you know of. That’s all right. You can still search your imagination and look for ways to make it more exciting, more interesting, than your original iteration.


My friend Ryan J. Call's new fantasy novel, Eternal King (The Burning Prophecy Saga, Book Three), is now available on kindle. You can get it here. You should watch for special promotions on the series this month. You can get Hidden Demon (book 1) here and Firesoul (book 2) here.


The Superstars Writing Seminar has a Scholarship program that covers the basic cost of the seminar. Those interested must apply between November 1st and November 22nd. Learn more here


In perhaps the most shocking case of plagiarism I’ve ever heard of, an elementary school teacher in Utah has been named in a lawsuit for allegedly plagiarizing the work of other authors, adding porn to the stories, and then using false identities (called “sock puppets”) to threaten and attack those who uncovered her schemes.

Few people ever commit the crime of plagiarism. It’s too easy to detect. Those who are caught generally just try to slink quietly away, perhaps to try again later. But in this bizarre case, it takes a darker twist.


The accused, a woman named Tiffanie Rushton describes herself as a Utah school teacher who has worked for the Davis County School District for 20 years, where she supervises elementary children, primarily in the third and fourth grades. She seems attractive and innocent, but online she takes on a bewildering array of dark identities.

As we reported three weeks ago, bestselling romance author Rachel Ann Nunes recently discovered that someone operating under an alias had taken one of her christian romance novels and revised it, adding pornographic elements, and was planning to release it online under the pseudonym Sam Taylor Mullens.

But when Rachel tried to get a copy of the suspicious work, she immediately found herself bombarded by a barrage of implausible lies as, under different identities, Tiffanie Rushton alternately claimed that a) the novel had been the product of her writing group, b) a man who was the coauthor had asked her to do it before he died in a car wreck, c) she was the coauthor of the work because she was the niece to Nunes and had given her the ideas, and so on.

When Nunes didn’t buy those excuses, Tiffanie Rushton began to attack Nunes using her different hidden identities. First Rushton accused Nunes of being the offending party and threatened to report her to her aunt, the CEO of Nunes’s publisher. Then Rushton threatened a blogger that she suspected would turn over evidence of her plagiarism. Then Rushton began attacking Nunes herself, writing blistering reviews of her work online on Goodreads and Amazon.com in an attempt to discredit Nunes and ruin her career.

When I suggested to Nunes that we start a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to uncover the real name of her attacker, Rushton went to the GoFundMe site. Using various aliases, she tried to dissuade other authors from supporting Nunes by claiming that the campaign was a fraudulent attempt to get money, and in one case she said that Nunes was overreacting to another writer who only wanted to “settle the matter quietly.”

Now, let me be clear about this. This isn’t an attack on an indie author. Real authors come up with their own story ideas and slave over their work. I respect that. What Rushton did was something different. In one online chat, Rushton described herself by saying simply, “I write smut.”

There is nothing illegal in writing smut, of course, but it is illegal to steal someone else’s work and then pass it off as your own. It is illegal to cyberbully. It is illegal to create false identities to promote your own work. It is illegal to try to destroy the careers of your victims.

Oh, and while investigating, researchers found that Nunes isn’t the only victim of plagiarism here. There is an earlier novel. And under her aliases, Rushton is currently out soliciting new authors, asking them to send copies of their work for her to "review."

Rushton has dozens of identities. Maybe you’ll recognize some of them as your own online “friends”:

Update: names have been removed by request.

Please do not send your works to her. In fact, you should be leery of anyone who goes online and solicits your novels. Ask yourself, “What will they be using them for?” So who is Tiffanie Rushton? Allegedly, under one identity she describes herself as a heroic Mormon woman who teaches disadvantaged Indian children and only writes porn by night. Yet using another identity she appears to be a bigot who disparages Mormons in general and says, “I’m glad I’m not one.” In one identity she is a teacher who tells children not to copy other’s work and not to bully. Using other identities, she’s a writer’s nightmare.

Having worked as a prison guard with a number of sociopaths, I think I know exactly what she is.

Rachel Ann Nunes has asked that you not attack or harass Tiffanie Rushton in any way.

But if you think that it is important to hold plagiarists, cyberbullies, and liars who use false advertising accountable, the best thing that you can do is to help support Rachel in her stand against plagiarism. Here is the site that is set up for this purpose. (You will notice that you can also learn more about the incident at this site.) http://www.gofundme.com/StandingAgainstPlagiarism

Please be aware that this funding campaign is mostly a symbolic gesture. We don’t know if any monies will ever be recovered. But personally, I think that this is an important step to take in order to crack down on this kind of criminal behavior.

Here’s another excellent article on the topic: http://johndopp.com/plagiarism-sam-taylor-mullens-busted/

I’d write more, but I’m on my way to the Salt Lake Comic Con this weekend. If you happen to be in the area, we will be having a special panel Saturday afternoon at the convention. The panel, “Authors Against Plagiarism and Theft,” will feature several New York Times Bestsellers; author participating include Margaret Weis, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, Richard Paul Evans, Kevin J. Anderson, and myself. We will be passing around a donation jar to fund Nunes's cause for this event.

Matt Harrill’s Hellbounce Book Launch

This Saturday, join me and others as we celebrate Matthew W Harrill's book HELLBOUNCE at this Facebook event. I will be donating 100 copies of Nightingale and 100 copies of After a Lean Winter. Maybe you can get one. https://www.facebook.com/events/611192022321330/

You can redeem your coupon here:

After A Lean Winter Kindle
After a Lean Winter ePub
Nightingale Kindle
Nightingale ePub

Dave In The News!

Dave was in the news today. KUTV, a Salt Lake City-based television station, ran a spot on him in the evening news. You can find the video here:

To Grow or Not to Grow

If you want to understand how vital character growth is to good fiction, take a look at a few classic movies. Study such films as Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, Orange County, and The Silver Linings Playbook. In each of these films, every major character grows during his or her time on camera. It's a motif in Hollywood. Having a character grow as a person is practically a requirement for any comedy, any feel-good movie. But it's not a new thing.

In fact, this pattern of growth remains consistent through nearly all great works of fiction ever written. (I only say "nearly" because as soon as I say all, someone is going to come up with something that doesn't have growth, like Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises, and then we'll have to argue all day about whether it was great literature.)

Note that in literary fiction, it is often said that the characters should merely "change," not grow. But it is not nearly so enjoyable watching the demise of a protagonist as it is to watch one succeed. Change may intrigue, but growth inspires.

Indeed, here's a key not only to understanding characters, but to understanding people: look at anyone who is feeling anger, depression, or sadness. Look at anyone who is acting out or trying to attract attention, and you will nearly always find one common factor: the person feels frustrated. He's not growing, not progressing. It may be that he's frustrated with his economic fortunes, his love life, his health, but somewhere these feelings of sadness, worry, and anger are rooted in frustration.

As organisms, we feel driven to constantly progress.

A pattern emerges in many of the world's most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Rings, and Ender's Game.

In each of the tales that I mentioned, the protagonist starts out like a child, viewing evil as something outside himself. Poverty is not a problem that Scrooge normally worries about--it's something that happens in other counties. Frodo's Dark Lord is in lands far away. The Buggers are on another planet.

But evil soon strikes closer to home. The protagonist discovers that it's in the people around him. Scrooge discovers that his best employee is suffering. Frodo confronts his Boromir. And young Ender Wiggins discovers that children who should be fighting evil are cruel and divisive.

Eventually, the protagonist of course discovers evil in himself. Scrooge sees himself as a moral pauper, to his own dismay Frodo claims the Ring at the Crack of Doom, and Ender finds that he is guilty of genocide. When the protagonist recognizes that evil is not a distant thing, that it's something within him, he is forced to either accept evil, or to change.

First he must find the strength to change himself; only afterward can he hope to affect change in the people around him and the world at large. That's what these popular tales are all about—the journey from moral darkness to enlightenment. This enlightenment is the goal of the mythic journey, and that's what growth literature boils down to. Growth tales can be very compelling.
But you should also know that all literature isn't growth literature. Much literature—even some very popular literature, is about stagnation. It may let us retreat from issues of growth, and return to that safe place we all occupied before we had to grow up.

In stagnation literature, the protagonist is almost always stuck at the adolescent level. He never grows up. He doesn't engage in adult activities—such as marriage, the raising of children, taking a day job, or caring for an elderly parent. Instead, he remains an adolescent, without responsibilities, without ever recognizing his own need for change.

Let's take a look at a classic: Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. The name suggests a growth novel, but in this one, aliens who look curiously like Christian devils invade the world. They're brilliant and they teach mankind a great deal. Eventually, the whole world becomes a hive-like organism in which people are but drones, and human society evolves into something new——and mankind leaves the planet. The only person left on Earth is the protagonist who refused to participate in the exodus. He remains alone and damned, the perpetual adolescent—and apparently unsure whether he has won something or lost.

In the same way, Heinlein's characters never grow up. They like to go around saving the world, but have no day job. They recognize that everyone around them is wrong, but they're . . . well, they're supermen. They don't fall in love, they just have lots of sex. In essence, his protagonists too are always trapped in the adolescent state, and they have no desire to move beyond it.

In short, growth is unimportant in these tales simply because this is "escape" literature. The story transports the reader back to a safe time in his life, to a time when the reader did not have to worry about the complexities of life, and that is a major appeal of the tale.

In case I make it sound as if only science fiction literature offers adolescent/stagnation literature, let me assure you it's not. In fact, if you look at literary stories—the kind you read in The New Yorker—you'll find that much of it is stagnation literature. Oh, sure, the college professor may be burdened with a wife and child, but he's also usually out exploring sexually, discovering that his life is meaningless, and wallowing in sophomoric angst. In short, he's an adolescent trapped in a world where he doesn't want to grow up.

In every genre there are plenty of stagnation stories around, simply because so many people read in an effort not to confront their challenges, but to evade them.

These readers don't want to grow up while reading fiction. Such challenges are too discomforting—the conflicts can become too personal, strike too close to home.

Think about it: ultimately, when your character reaches adulthood, he accepts personal responsibility for the world's state of affairs and then spends the rest of his life in service to his community. In essence, he accepts a kind of death, the death of his selfish desires and dreams.

So, my challenge as a writer of growth literature is to figure out how to get beyond that. How do I sell the message that growth is good and necessary and beautiful?

That's easy. You simply show that the community is good, that family is necessary and beautiful, so that when your protagonist sacrifices himself for these things, we as an audience see the nobility in it.

As you consider your tale, it will be up to you to decide: do I want my characters to grow or not?


Registration for my online writing workshops closes today. If interested, you can do register here


"Dedicated to helping you create strong, vibrant, and beautiful fiction"
- David Farland, award-winning author, international bestseller