Take Charge of Your Story Ideas, Part I: Not Enough Ideas

Take Charge of Your Story Ideas, Part I: Not Enough Ideas

by Danielle Hanna

Sometimes your ideas run fast and furious.

Sometimes they slow to a crawl. But if you’re going to finish a novel—and particularly if you’re ever going to be a prolific author—learning to manage the flow of ideas is essential.

In Part I of this two-part post, we’ll talk about what to do when you’re out of story ideas.


What to Do When You’re Out of Story Ideas

Ever wish you had a bottomless treasure trove of story ideas and plot twists? For free?

You do.

It’s called Life.

You may think your life is BORING. But look closer. Think a little more critically. Everything that happens to you is a story—and with minor adjustments, or even as-is, carries the potential for epic novel material. The beauty is that your personal experience can inject your story with noticeable authenticity.

Look for the Conflict

True story: I’ve just bought a new (okay, used) motor home, and I’m proudly driving it back to my house. I’m cruising down the Interstate, just getting the swing of handling this 23-foot road monster, when I start losing power on the up-hills. Pretty soon, the engine coughs and dies.

I did say it was used, right? As in, gas-gauge-doesn’t-work-anymore used. But no problem! I have an auxiliary tank—and I even know how to access it. I switch the little lever under the dash. The engine revs back to life … then coughs and dies again.

Conflict: not one but TWO empty gas tanks on my brand new (used) motor home.

Look for Escalating Problems

It’s rush hour. I’m in the farthest lane from the shoulder. My mirrors aren’t adjusted right. I’m half-way between an on-ramp and a bridge with no shoulder. (Yes, this is still a true story.)

In real life, it never rains but it pours. That’s the pits when you’re stuck in the middle of a problem—but it’s a bonus when turning your experiences into story material. Your reader will get bored with a challenge that stagnates. Instead, the conflict should stubbornly get more and more problematic.

So look at your real-life conflict and ask yourself how it became more problematic over time.

Look for the Climax

I crane my neck and glimpse just enough space to cross over to the shoulder. I literally coast to a stop on the itty-bitty strip of safe zone between the on-ramp and the bridge. After a brief moment of pounding head on steering wheel, I call my dad and ask if he can swing by with a gas can.

Every conflict eventually reaches a point of resolution. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes a little of both. How did your problem resolve?

Look for the Story Potential

Okay, so running out of gas on the Interstate isn’t exactly epic novel material—or is it? Look for a moment at all the things that could have gone wrong:

  • I could have been stranded twenty miles from the nearest town
  • I could have been stranded after dark in a questionable neighborhood
  • I could have been on my way to a vital appointment
  • I could have been “helped” by someone I’d rather not get help from
  • I could have been rear-ended

See? What may have been a minor annoyance in your life has big story potential if you know how to leverage it. What if this happened to your heroine while she was rushing to save the day? What if it resulted in a major collision? What if the guy who pulls over to help is the antagonist? Suddenly your every-day experience takes on new life.

Everything that happens to you is a story—your story. With just a dash of creativity, you can easily use your life as a never-ending reservoir of story ideas.

In Part II, we’ll talk about the opposite problem, what to do with too many story ideas.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.


Looking for a Hero

Looking for a Hero

I’ve been thinking about characters a lot lately. I suppose part of that is because of the time spent with two recent blog posts authored or co-authored with Danielle Hanna, my brain storming partner (see Skin Diving with Characters and 6 Steps to Discovering Characters).

free-divingPart of it is due to personal attempts to utilize Danielle’s skin diving technique and comparing it to my usual method, which includes interviews with characters and putting them into stressful or high-tension situations and letting them react.

The biggest reason for character contemplation, though, is current events and a personal desire for characters who face the challenges I face personally and who make the right decisions regardless of the pressure to do otherwise. I think, deep down, what I’m looking for is a role model. Someone to look up to and emulate. Someone who personifies the Christ-like life.

On an even broader scale, you could say I’m looking for someone who upholds the right and good in the face of a society that elevates the bizarre and titillating. Someone who can reach out and touch me in ways that cause me to be a better person.


The thought is that such a person—such a character—could also speak to others and lead them to a closer walk with God. Could make them a better person, too, by showing what living for Christ looks like.

In other words, a hero.

But, Carrie, don’t you have people like that in your personal life?

Yes, I do. My husband exemplifies a Christian walk better than almost anyone else I know personally. He is, at any rate, the first one who comes to mind.

He’s also the one to whom I go when I have a question about anything spiritual and most other things, too. He doesn’t always have the answer, but he always has information and he’s always eager to share it. He influences most of my hardcore Christian characters to one degree or another. In some fashion, he also influences most other characters because of his influence on me.

sword-in-handBut there seems to be precious few others, especially in public life. People who stand up for Good in the face of impossible odds and face down Evil. I know they’re there. They’re just not talked about. Or seen or heard.

So I look at world events and think about the fictional characters who might face the same things. How would such larger than life heroes react?

How would a governor who fears God and serves his state in righteousness and faithfulness respond when told by courts and federal government to stop protecting his citizens?

How would a conscientious doctor react when told to limit or stop treating some patients because they’re a drain on society?

How would a pastor answer a political call to stop preaching the Bible because it’s ancient, irrelevant, and offensive?

How would a police officer who walks with God respond when ordered to evict a homeowner for no reason beyond the city’s desire to have the property for a shopping center?

How would a God fearing diplomat respond when ordered by superiors to do everything possible to win the favor of a foreign government publicly engaged in genocide?

How would a corporate CEO who is also a believer react when forced to choose between providing insurance for employees or standing by his beliefs?

Big questions, many without hard and fast answers.

Yet, those questions are only high-end representations of the decisions each of us face on a daily basis. It’s a hard world and too many people have no basis from which to form coherent decisions. Could characters such as those described above help readers develop a moral foundation?

Or at least introduce them to the One who can?

I know who my true Hero is. He set aside His position as Creator to become equal with His created. He submitted to 33 years of earthly life, then He died a hideous death. Then He rose again and He will return.


But I do still yearn for those exemplary, larger than life, heroes who point the way to the one true Hero.

The kind of characters who show me how to talk the talk AND walk the walk no matter the challenge or the consequences.

That’s who I want to read about.

That’s also who I want to write about.

Skin Diving With Characters

Skin Diving With Characters

Last week, I wrote about 6 Steps to Discovering Characters. The method I described was given to me by Danielle Hanna, published author, good friend, and brainstorming partner.

Today, I’ll continue discussing character development with Danielle by talking about her method of character discovery, which she calls skin diving.

Skin Diving With Characters

Carrie: Danielle, welcome to Writing Well. Thank you for taking the time to talk about skin diving.

Danielle: Thanks for having me.

Carrie: Give us an overview of your method for getting to know new characters.

Danielle: One of the things I do is “slip into their skin.” I imagine myself in my character’s body, seeing the world through his eyes. It’s actually one of the most effective ways I’ve found of really getting to know my character—of understanding how he sees himself as the main character in his own story.

Carrie: How do you do that?

Person and Dog Walking in FogDanielle: The easiest way I’ve found is to start stationary—either sitting or standing. You have to be listening to gut instincts. Ask the character, “How do you typically sit?” For instance, one of my characters, an older man, has an old leg injury. He often sits with that leg stretched out in front of him, rubbing the sore muscles. It’s become a habit he’s not even aware of.

I have another character who’s very vivacious and outgoing. When I stand “in his skin,” I find my hands on my hips and my head tilted back, a smile on my face—because he finds reason to smile at everything.

But before I even try to slip into my character’s skin, I attempt to transform the elements of the world around me into the elements of the character’s world. The skin dive becomes more vivid if my world closely matches the story world. If a scene takes place on a back porch, I’ll go sit on my back porch. If my world is too dissimilar, I have to work harder at using my imagination. I’ll still try to pick out one or two things in my world that would be the same or very similar in the story world.

Once I’m in the character’s skin, and I have at least a little bit of touch with the story world, I try to play a scene. I don’t direct what happens. I let the character carry me away.

Foggy Landscape with PersonCarrie: Can you give us an example?

Danielle: I was taking my dog outside before bed. It was pitch black, a little windy, but warm. One of my characters, Tommy, approached and told me we were going skin diving. I’d been in his skin a few times before, so I found it easy to stand the way he would .

Then I looked out on my world—the darkness; the shadows; the warm, troubled air. Tommy told me this was exactly the way his world looked right now.

Then I waited for another character to show up. (They usually do during these sessions.)

To my surprise, it was Tommy’s son. Thing was, I had thought he was dead. But no, there he was. Meeting with his dad in the dark of night . The dark of night part didn’t confuse me, because I knew the son had been in trouble with the law.

They began a vivid conversation, boiling into an argument. As usual, I spoke my character’s part out loud. I learned volumes about both of them. The upshot of the session was a strong gut instinct that I had been wrong about the son; he really is still alive; and his dad is really mad at him. In fact, that whole session might make it into the novel.

Carrie: There has to be a starting point. You said you’d been in this character’s skin several times before. Where did it start? What was the first thing?

sunbeamsDanielle: I started skin diving when I was still practically a kid and transitioning between playing with dolls and playing with story characters. It was all the same to me.

I can’t recall how or when I first started skin-diving with Tommy. The memory has been swallowed up in the murky past.

More recently, I was struggling with a character named Al. I felt he had so much more to tell me, and if I could only slip into his skin … if I could become him like I “became” the toys I had played with when I was a kid …

So I went out on my back porch.

It was spring, warm, sunny.

I picked a chair and sat in it.

And I started by simply asking myself, “How does Al sit?”

That first day, I let my gut instincts lead me into Al’s typical sitting-in-chair posture. He’s tall, and I envisioned his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.

And then I felt he had his arms on the armrests.

And then I felt he had his chin resting in his hand, his fingers covering his mouth.

And I saw him looking out at the world with veiled but perceptive eyes.

And that was my first skin-diving session with Al.

On that last part, about the eyes–you can see how simply assuming his posture led to learning something about his personality: Veiled but perceptive eyes. He doesn’t like other people seeing in, but he observes everything around him.

Carrie: Fascinating and it doesn’t sound that difficult.

But you said you’d been having trouble with him, which implies that you’d been trying to sort him out for some time. Is that correct?

Danielle: Yeah. I had his whole story wrong. So I cleaned the slate and asked him if he’d like to give me a second chance. That day on the back porch was the beginning of starting over. I’m so glad he agreed. He’s one of my best characters.

In fact, I’d say that learning to slip into his skin saved our relationship.

Carrie: Thanks for explaining your methods, Danielle.

Sun Streaming Through a TreeThe first time Danielle described her skin diving technique, I couldn’t imagine how to begin and the idea locked up my brain.

But I had a character from some time ago that I knew enough about to have a starting point. Under Danielle’s tutelage, I gave skin diving a try. The results were remarkable. Not only did I meet the Professor again, but I learned a few things, too.

Danielle’s method of skin diving is a learning experience and may feel awkward in the beginning. She assures me that it gets easier each time. The important things is to have no preconceived notions about the character or about who else might show up. Patience is also necessary.

As is a bit of boldness.

Just be aware that things will naturally begin foggy and so vague you may not know where you are, but that they will clear up and you’ll begin to see and understand your character.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.


Two Series About Writing Single-Sentence Summaries

Two Series About Writing Single-Sentence Summaries

I’m working on single-sentences summaries today. It’s an assignment for a writing class I’m taking through The Write Practice.

Writing single-sentence summaries is one of my favorite things to do outside of writing the story itself. I’m not sure why because it’s essentially boiling a 100,000 word story down to 25 words or less. It sounds like a lot of work, but it really is a great way to get a firmer grasp on what my stories are all about.

A single-sentence summary is also a great way to tell people what my story is about without boring them to tears!

A Single-Sentence Summary - A Fast & Easy Way to Tell About Your Story

How to Write a Single-Sentence Summary

Some of the most popular posts on my old writing blog—which is no longer—were part of a story clinic I wrote about writing single-sentence summaries. Those posts have been updated and republished on Indie Plot Twist. You can find those posts at the following links:

And if you really want to read the original posts, they’re also available on Indie Plot Twist.

I may, at some point, publish a new series on this topic. If I do, I’d like to focus on reader submissions, so if you’re working on a single-sentence summary and would like some feedback or if you’re thinking about writing one and aren’t sure how to begin, send me an email and lets see what we can do!

6 Steps to Discovering Characters

6 Steps to Discovering Characters

There are two basic kinds of stories under which all the genres exist. Plot driven stories and character driven stories.

It stands to reason that there are also two basic types of writers. Those for whom plot is king and those for whom character is king.

Every story and every writer fits somewhere within those two basic categories.

The way we begin the Process of Novel often favors one of those two basic categories. Most of the time, I begin with a plot idea. What if this or that thing happened?

My brainstorming partner, Danielle Hanna, on the other hand, usually begins with a character. Who is this character and what is happening to him or her?

While I’m trying to figure out what happens in the plot and who it happens to, she takes time to discover the character bit by bit and learn from the character what story they have to tell.

As you might guess, our brainstorming sessions can be quite interesting, but the ways in which we approach the process work very well together.

I’ve asked her on more than one occasion to describe how she gets to know her characters because that’s an area in which I struggle.

…the crux of the matter is that I don’t write the story. My characters do everything. …I’m just here to take dictation.


An Intuitive Process

It turns out her process is very intuitive. As she said above, she gives her attention to the individual characters and lets them tell the story they have to tell. She likens it to getting to know people you meet on the street. New neighbors. New members at church. New coworkers. More a process of discovery than design.

The process can be broken down into six steps.

Step 1

Never AloneGet a story started. It doesn’t matter if inspiration begins with a character, a setting or a scenario. Nor does it need to be well developed. A seed of an idea is sufficient.

It is better, in fact, if your story isn’t developed beyond the most vague idea. If you have more than that, you may inadvertently begin telling your character who and what he or she is. With this method, you want to allow the character to tell you the story.

Step 2

As soon as a character appears on your radar, resist the urge to dominate the character. According to Danielle, the characters she’s struggled with are those about whom she made false assumptions at the beginning. The false assumptions get mangled together with whatever may be true about the characters and confused the process to the point that it became difficult to distinguish the Real Character from the character she assumed them to be.

Begin with a clean slate and allow the character to write on it as they wish. Be open to whatever they suggest, even if it doesn’t seem important at the moment. You never know which seemingly unimportant tidbit later becomes crucial. Don’t squelch those opportunities!

Step 3

Woman Sitting at a Rocky ShoreInstead of telling the characters who they are or what they do, listen to your gut. Wait for a gut instinct, a subtle but strong feeling, an inclination to lean one way or the other. The character will probably tell you something about him- or herself soon after you meet. If you have a particular question about the character—about his personality, or what he will do in a given situation—create a list of all the possibilities. See which one activates the gut reaction that says, “This one.”

This is not likely to be just a bright, shiny, bells-and-whistles, “Oo, this option sounds fun!” There’s a subtle but strong gut instinct that says, “This one.” Look for that subtle indicator.

Step 4

Writer in an HourglassPut your gut instinct through a trial period to safeguard against author domination and false assumptions. Test your impressions and see if they hold up. Depending on your level of certainty, this may take a few days or a few weeks, or even longer. If, as time goes by, your gut instinct is as strong as ever, you can feel confident you’ve hit the right answer.

As you ponder each instinct, experiment with where your answer may lead. If the results are further and stronger gut feelings, count on it that your characters have been talking to you.

If you find yourself hitting a dead end, if you have writer’s block, if everything screeches to a halt—and particularly if your characters assassinate you in the middle of the night—you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Step 5

Once you’re positive it was your characters talking and not you dominating, accept whatever they told you at face value, even if it seems contradictory to some other previously established fact. When a character is equally firm about two apparently opposing facts, evaluate everything. You may find both conflicting elements to be true. What that means is that there’s something further you need to know about the character—something that explains the apparent contradiction. With time, they’ll tell you all about it.

Step 6

For every word you write, go back to your character and ask, “What would you do in this instance?” “What would you say to that?” Create lists if necessary. See which option you lean toward. Probate it (Step 4). Accept or reject it. Keep going.

In Conclusion….

For those of us who like plotting and planning, a process as intuitive as the one described here is not only intimidating; it can be downright frightening! The first time I tried it, I had so little idea what I was doing, it was like walking in total darkness through a field of quicksand.

But it worked! A brief contact with a character who was familiar and whom I thought I knew, but whose story was vague. I learned a few previously unknown tidbits and look forward to learning more.

So it can work for you, too.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.


5 Favorite Non Writing Outdoor Activities

5 Favorite Non Writing Outdoor Activities

No one can devote one hundred percent of their time to their primary work. For one thing, everyone needs to eat and sleep. You may be able to eat and work—I certainly can—but sleeping and working? That doesn’t work very well.

It’s also not advisable to work so much that you have no time for other activities. The human mind and body needs down time to recharge and revitalize. Just like recharging the battery in your car or Smartphone.

Writers are no exception to this rule.

Yours truly is absolutely no exception!

So following are five favorite non writing outdoor activities that help me unwind, whether from a long day of writing or drawing. Arranged in no particular order!

Going for walks
Country Road

I grew up in rural Central Michigan, nine miles from the nearest town, which had a population of 3,000. I was surrounded by rolling hills, fields of hay and corn in season, trees, rivers, streams, and creeks. Walking at any time of year was a delight for the senses and a lure to an amateur photographer like me.

It was a time to refresh and recharge. Time for quiet and thinking about the big (and small) issues life throws at all of us.

I now live near the downtown area in a town of over 20,000, but walking is still a favorite activity.

Watching horses


I was born with a special appreciation for the way a horse looks, moves, sounds, and, yes, even smells. That hasn’t diminished over the years. Every time I see horses when we’re out driving, I have to look at them. It’s second nature.

Hanging around horse shows is something I dearly enjoy but don’t get to do much these days. Thank God for modern technology and videos. I can listen to horses trotting, pacing, or galloping around a track or cavorting in a field anytime I want!

Chasing trains

BNSF train at Strong City Depot

From the time I saw my first train, I’ve been fascinated by them. Their size, sound, and power. The way the ground rumbles beneath their wheels. The wash of air that follows a long train. The click-clack of rail joints.

Whenever we travel, we take routes that follow or intersect tracks as often as possible.  With plenty of historic locations to explore, it’s not uncommon to catch a train in a unique setting, such as the depot at Strong City (shown here).

In other words, any day we see a train is a good day.

Rail Excursions
Rail Excursion North of Pratt

I’ve only been on two of these, but I won’t forget them as long as my memory holds out. Both were behind steam locomotives.

The first one was behind the Pere Marquette 1225, based in Owosso, Michigan. On that trip, my future husband and I drove to Owosso and rode the train back to Clare, my hometown.

While in Clare, Neal proposed to me.

As I stood on the front end of that mighty, breathing engine. Good thinking on his part. How could I possibly refuse?

Photos of that trip (not my own).

Video of a 1999 trip in the same area. I believe this is the trip for which I photographed the engine in Clare during my newspaper days.

The other was in Kansas and was a short trip sponsored by the Union Pacific in appreciation for all their employees, past and present.

One of the things on my bucket list is to ride Amtrak somewhere. A trip to the Grand Canyon would be ideal, but almost anywhere would be a treat.

Going to baseball games
The men’s group at church hosts a yearly trip to see the Wichita State Shockers or the Wichita Wingnuts (a pro team) play. I love going to baseball games. There’s something about sitting in the bleachers on a warm summer evening and listening to the crack of bats (I do miss the wood bats), food vendors hawking their wares, and the strains of Take Me Out to the Ballgame….

An evening at the ball park is a great break from the more creative activity of writing. And who knows what sights, sounds, or scents might be just the background required for the next scene.

I know I said these activities are a few of the ways I unwind from the “day job” of writing. But I have to be honest.

They’re also a great way to prime the writing pump!

What’s the Big Deal about Crit Partners?

What’s the Big Deal about Crit Partners?

For the first twenty or so years, I wrote in solitude. I read, proofed, edited, and rewrote in solitude.  My youngest sister and best bud read my stories, listened to my wandering ideas and, upon occasion, my whining about difficult plots and recalcitrant characters. But beyond that, I was on my own. By choice. After all, isn’t that the way it’s done?

Though I had dreams of publication, I didn’t realize there were other people like me writing for the sheer love of it.

Nor did I know that they’d gladly swap stories with me and we’d all help each other improve craft and, maybe some day, get published.

So I didn’t know I needed a crit partner.

I know it now.

In fact, I wonder what I did before finding my current crit partners.

What is a Crit Partner?

Support GroupsA crit partner may be someone off whom you can bounce ideas and who bounces new ideas or a new spin on an existing idea right back at you.

Someone with whom you can spend an hour chatting and end up with five pages of thoughts and ideas. You might refer to this person as a brainstorming partner more often than you call them a crit partner.

A crit partner may be someone who reads your manuscript as you write and tells when you’re getting off course or offers suggestions when you hit a dead end or are faced with too many options.

A crit partner might be more like that sixth grade English Composition teacher. You know. The person who reads your stories and tells you—honestly—what they think. If the story is good, they can tell you why. That’s important, but they also sometimes return your manuscripts with miles of red ink. That’s good, too, if the crit partner has a heart for your story and your writing, as well as the ability to see weak areas.

Your crit partner might be a grammarian or a spell checker or the person who finds the tiniest hole in the plot. They might be a character specialist or a setting specialist. Someone who sees the Big Picture when you’re mired in details or a detail-oriented person able to help you turn your grand idea into a completed manuscript.

All of those roles may be combined into a single person—though this is unlikely. There may be a person to fit each description. If you’re like most writers, your crit partners will be an elite group of writers encompassing all of the above, with a touch of beta reader and a dash of polishing reviewer thrown in.

What You Expect From a Crit Partner

CollaborationPersonally, there are some very defined things I look for from my crit partner. He or she or they should:

Tell me when something works and why. I’m my own worst critic and often fail to see the things I do right.

Tell me when something doesn’t work and why.

Keep me straight on details. Did the lead’s eye color change between chapter 2 and chapter 22? Did a name change?

Tell me when the story line or plot become implausible. Or predictable.

Help me make sure all the loose ends are tied off.

Let me know if the beginning is catchy and the ending satisfying.

A crit partner should also be a friend. If you have more than one crit partner, at least one of them should also be a confidante capable of talking you off ledges when writing isn’t going well. I’m fortunate to have two such friends.

What Should You Look For in a Crit Partner?

Editing PapersThe obvious answer is to find someone with similar tastes in reading and writing or who is able to appreciate your voice and genre if it is different than their voice or genre.

You need someone who is willing to give you an honest appraisal. It’s no good to have a crit partner who looks at your flat characters and tells you they’re great or reads your hole-filled plot and doesn’t point out its flaws.

You’ll also want a crit partner you enjoy chatting with.

But you also need a crit partner who understands you well enough to know how best to encourage you. I don’t get much from warm fuzzies, for example. I want to know what’s wrong and what I need to do to improve it, even if the appraisal seems a bit harsh at first. You, on the other hand, might thrive on warm fuzzies and gentle reminders.

It may take time and effort, but with due diligence, you will find someone who not only understands your writing, but learns to understand you.

Just remember, not everybody you meet turns out to be a friend.

Not every crit partner you interact with will be The Crit Partner, either. Nor will they become part of your elite core of crit partners.

What Should You Expect to Give in Return?

FriendsYou must be willing to give as much time with your crit partner’s work as you expect your crit partner to give your work. Otherwise, you don’t have a critiquing partnership. You have a free editor.

Take the time to learn how to encourage them as well as help them overcome weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if something isn’t clear to you.

If you can’t get to something right away, let them know and ask if they have a deadline. It’s okay to skip a crit once in a while. No one is in control of their life all the time and things do happen. But it’s better to let your crit partner(s) know up front when you can’t get to their work immediately. If possible, give them an idea when you think you might be able to get to their crit.

An easy way to look at this process is through the lens of the Golden Rule. Give to your crit partner what you would have them give to you. And remember the goal is encouragement and assistance; building up, not tearing down.

Where to Find Crit Partners

The best source of crit partners are writing associations. Organizations like the American Christian Fiction Writers group and others provide opportunities to exchange submissions through email loops. Join one of those loops. Before long, you’ll find you’re reading the submissions of the same people over and over and that the same people are reading your submissions over and over. Relationships build. Smaller groups form.

A local chapter or crit group may be available. Check it out if you prefer face-to-face critiques.

Libraries are great places to find out about local authors and writing groups.

You may be able to find crit partners among the people with whom you worship. Ask around. Maybe someone is or was employed in the same field as your protagonist. Maybe the Sunday School teacher used to be an English teacher. You don’t have to make a public announcement, but you never know what—or who—you might find.

Family members can be good crit partners if they are capable of objectivity.

The Bottom Line

Writing may be a solo performance, but every writer also needs a support group. Someone—or more than one someones—to not only encourage them, but assist them.

Do you have a crit partner? If so, how did you make the first connection with your crit partner(s)?


The Benefits of Writing Every Day (And How to Develop the Habit)

The Benefits of Writing Every Day (And How to Develop the Habit)

I process life and make decisions through writing. It’s a habit that began many, many years ago.

I’ve been keeping a catch all writing journal since December 1, 1989. Some entries go back to my teen years—suffice it to say a long time ago. These personal journals were something of a cross between a diary and a prayer journal. I now keep both a personal journal and a prayer journal.

In 2008, I created and began keeping a scene journal, where I write rough drafts of scenes. Every random thought, story idea, plot question, description or snatch of dialogue that has ever been written down has most likely been written first in that journal. Most of them are unattached to stories, but were worthy of being recorded.

Some of them are attached to stories, but are alternative ideas for current plot threads. Sort of ‘what if I were to do this instead of that?’ ideas.

In the Beginning…

Gift BoxDuring a trip to Michigan to visit family, I decided to take this journaling one step further and begin a daily writing exercise. It actually began on December 27, 2008 and was prompted by a box my Mom received from a cousin. The scene that began as a similar event in an as yet unknown character’s life ended with over 1,700 words written and encompassed the original scene and a follow up scene.

It also got me to thinking.

Artists sketch and draw on a daily basis for pleasure and practice. Objects or subjects chosen for no other reason but that they were interesting to the artist on that particular day.

In 2007, I did a similar project in which I painted one art trading card sized landscape every day but Sunday for the entire year.

Starting a Daily Writing Habit

Why not try something like that with writing?

My first such endeavor was a personal challenge to write something every day. It didn’t matter whether I was working on a story or not. The guidelines were simple:

  • 700 words (approximately two college ruled pages) per day every day but Sunday
  • Any subject, event or character as long as it’s prose or dialogue. No plotting notes or editing questions allowed!
  • The subject does not need to be related to an existing story, but may be.

Simple, right? That’s what I thought. A simple way to write every day.

Little did I know where it would lead.

Developing a Habit

Writing Long HandPrior to this first writing challenge, I made no effort to write every day. If an idea struck, I’d record it in one of my writing-related journals, but for the most part, writing was targeted toward specific stories or ideas. In between times, I didn’t write.

So this first challenge was truly a challenge.

But it was also a lot of fun and a learning experience.

Among other things, it showed me how easy it is to develop a habit. Yes, even a writing habit. I learned how to make time to write every day. I learned how to force myself to write on those days when I had no ideas—an invaluable lesson when you’re up against a due date.

I also learned how much progress you can make if you write every day. Even if you only write a few words—or a few hundred. I ended the year with over 210,000 words typed. That’s two epic novels! Imagine!

Maintaining Momentum

clocksI still write something every day. Sometimes it amounts to the daily installment in letters home or personal or writing journals.

But I write something every day.

Right now, I’m doing one timed writing a day minimum. Fifteen minutes and done. I’ve worked on three stories fifteen minutes at a time. None of them are finished, but they’re all much further along than they would have been had I not been doing timed writings.

And that’s the bottom line for me. My schedule is already busy enough that if fifteen minutes is all I can spare, I know I can still write something.

Tips for Starting Your Own Daily Writing Habit

Checklist GraphicStart simple. Ideas to get you started include:

  • Try a small word count goal. 500, 250, or even 100 words a day.
  • Timed writings are great motivators. I use an app called FocusWriter. It’s fun, it’s easy, you can use it off-line, and—best of all—it’s free! (Read my review on Indie Plot Twist)
  • Start with a short time period. A month-long challenge is a good place to start. So is a week. You need to be able to see the end of the challenge. You can always start the challenge over the next month or week.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. There will be days when you just can’t write, even if your goals are simple or easy. Shake it off and get back to work the next day.
  • Plan breaks in the challenge. Even long-distance runners give themselves a breather during the marathon. This writing challenge will be like a marathon. Plan for days off. I take Sundays off. Find a day a week or a month (whatever!) that works for you, then kick back and relax.

Above all, make it fun. The more enjoyable something is, the easier it is to continue doing it. Before you know it, you’ll have developed a daily writing habit and will see—as I have—how much you can do!

A Little Girl and a Talking Horse

A Little Girl and a Talking Horse

An idea has been lurking in the back of my mind since a bright, Sunday afternoon in May 2011.

I don’t know where it came from, but when it came, it came so clearly that I sat down and began writing.

It began with a scene that unfolded so quickly that I seemed to be little more than a raft on white water. By the time I reached the end of the rapids, I had written just over 2,000 words. It was remarkable!

What is the story about?

magic-horse-moonA little girl and a wood horse hand-carved by her father. A magical wood horse that turns into a living, breathing horse.

A horse that talks (at least that’s what the horse is telling me).

Carolyne’s Wooden Horse  is so far outside the type of story I usually write that I’ve told very few people about it (until now).

I read that scene at a local book event a few months ago and felt the same sense of wonder, enchantment, and adventure I felt while writing it. What’s more, those to whom I read responded in kind and encouraged me to continue the story.

carolynes-magic-horseBut I didn’t write anything more in over three years.

Then June 20, 2014 dawned. That day, the story took off again. A totally different scene that went in a totally different direction, but still fits the original story. Once again, I wrote until the writing well ran dry and had very nearly 2,000 words. In long hand.

In the months since, other scenes have taken shape in my imagination but have yet to make it to paper. One involves a horse that shines like the sun. Another involves a cow that’s the most beautiful shade of purple I’ve ever seen—yes, a purple cow!

magic-horse-in-winterWhere will all this lead?

I don’t know.

I do know that even though it’s been a while since I worked on this story, it does linger in the back of my mind like a fond and precious dream that’s so wonderful I want to go back, but so precious it’s almost beyond description.

How I Discovered Take Away Value

How I Discovered Take Away Value

Also known as The Big Picture or message, take away value is the overarching theme of your novel. All novels have it, whether intended or not.

But how do you uncover the take away value for your novel? Sometimes, it’s not as easy as it seems like it should be.

I admit it.

I’m not always the sharpest knife in the drawer.

What’s worse, it often takes repeated trips to the whet stone to sharpen me up.

I have never been a ‘big picture’ sort of person. Details are where my interest lies—in art and in writing. But seeing the big picture is also important. Even if you have to dig to find it.


So when I started hearing fellow writers talking about The Big Picture or The Moral Premise or Take Away Value, I wasn’t sure exactly what they meant. Nor could I see why it was important if the details of the story were in place. I read the books and did the exercises and was still left scratching my head. What are these guys talking about?

looking-for-big-pictureI’ve studied the Snowflake method created by Randy Ingermanson. I’ve read about story engineering by Larry Brooks. I’ve talked to other authors and to my husband (who is definitely a big picture person—so big picture, it’s frightening!). But a solid understanding of the take away value of a story has never gelled in my mind.

Once I got it, it became so clear, I couldn’t believe I didn’t get it before. I just had to hear it and talk about it often enough to make sense of it.

What Take Away Value Means to Me

In one of my works-in-progress, Saving Grace, I have two lead characters who are dealing with forgiveness issues. Each one has done things for which they feel guilt. They both struggle with the idea that their sins could be forgiven by God and by themselves.

I have known that for some time. In fact, the characters came into being with that type of baggage.

rose-sorryI even wrote the story so that they have to come to the point of forgiving each other before they can succeed in the rest of the story.

But for the nearly four years I’ve worked on this story, I’ve had no clear idea of the take away value. My attempts to manufacture something have, I believe, added to the normal confusion of writing a story. (Those attempts may also be part of the reason I invariably end up with so many versions of each story idea, but that’s a post for another time.)

I had to take those two parts of the story—Grace’s guilt and Anderson’s guilt—and lay them side-by-side to find the big picture or the take away value, which is: God is big enough to forgive all sin.

Take Away Value On More Than One Level

Imagine my surprise as I wrote those words the first time and realized one of my secondary characters actually tells the two lead characters that near the middle of the story!

It’s no surprise that the lesson had to be repeated so many times before I got it. This is not a new experience and has been duplicated in my personal life and the studio.

through-back-doorNor is it a surprise that I finally grasped the lesson by coming at it from a different direction. From the back door, if you will. That, too, seems to be the pattern of my life.

It will also not surprise me if the lesson sticks, because that also seems to be the pattern. Difficult to get hold of, but easy to hang on to.

What I’m wondering is whether or not it will be easier or more difficult to identify the take away value for the next story.

Here’s hoping!

The take away value for this post is not to give up. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Sooner or later, the pieces will fall into place and things will become clear.