Critique: How to Use Paragraph Breaks to Guide the Reader’s Experience

Paragraph breaks are something akin to a writer’s turn signals. They silently—sometimes almost subliminally—tell readers what’s about to happen and how they should react.

As you may remember (or not) from school, a paragraph break in technical writing is meant to indicate a new thought. (I have clear memories of being required to find and underline the “topic sentence” that was the organizing thought of each new paragraph; it was a boring exercise, but looking back, I realize how well it’s served me.)

In fiction, we use the paragraph break a little differently (<—topic sentence!!!). Not only do our paragraph breaks signal a new thought, they can also be used to orient readers within the overall action: Who is acting? Who is speaking?

In ye olden days, what constituted a cohesive paragraph, even in fiction, was considerably more permissive. If you read the classics, you know it’s not uncommon to encounter paragraphs that last pages. These days, readers prefer to see more white space on the page. They want to read quickly, an ability aided by an author’s skillful use of “turn signals.”

Use paragraph breaks almost like punctuation, so you can guide your readers’ experience of your story’s action and pacing.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the second in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have so kindly sent in. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Erik Börjesson for sharing the following excerpt from his fantasy Rose of the Winds:

It moved.

“Hey!” The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red. She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more. The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camoflauge. She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck, a drop of sweat streaked down her forehead. A low branch came up ahead. Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. Clara looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles. She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ashtree. Quick as lightning, Clara bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel. Snap. “Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over. Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans; though, some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped. Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

Even in this in medias res excerpt, Erik does a great job with forward momentum, thanks mostly to the character’s goal. She wants something, and that is the entire point of the scene. As the scene goes on (there’s a subsequent section I haven’t shared due to length constraints), it’s also clear he has a great grasp on scene structure. We start out with Clara’s goal to take a picture of the squirrel, encounter conflict as the squirrel runs away, and reach a “yes, but…” outcome when she succeeds in her goal, only to then have to react to the realization that she is lost. So good job, Erik!

However, today, I would like to use this opportunity to explore the how, when, and why of paragraph breaks. For starters, here is how I would edit the excerpt to add a significant number of paragraph breaks. You’ll immediately notice how much more white space this provides, which makes the piece less formidable, easier to read, and clearer in its presentation of action.

It moved.


The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red.

She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more.

The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camouflage.

She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck. A drop of sweat streaked down her forehead.

A low branch came up ahead.

Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. She looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles.

She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ash tree. Quick as lightning, she bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel.


“Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead.

The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over.

Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans, though some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped.

Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

3 Rules of Paragraph Breaks

When and how you break for a new paragraph is as much a stylistic choice as anything else. Pacing will be a major consideration as well. Faster, choppier pacing does much better with shorter paragraphs—sometimes paragraphs of even just a single word. Slower, more leisurely—or more academic—pacing will usually do better with longer paragraphs, although you shouldn’t hesitate to break up dense sections of text when possible to make them more readable.

Truly, there are many rules of writing good paragraphs (some of which I talked about in this post: 8 Paragraph Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making). But today I want to talk about three of the most important.

1. New Speaker = New Paragraph

Perhaps one of fiction’s most important rules for paragraphs is that of a “new line for every speaker.”

In a dialogue exchange between two or more characters, the different speakers should be separated by paragraph breaks.

Don’t do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said. Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

Do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said.

Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

This instantaneously signals to readers the speaker is shifting. As a result, readers are able to keep up with the back and forth of the dialogue almost instinctively, especially if the author also skillfully includes dialog tags (he said) and action beats (she glared) to clarify who is saying what.

You will also want to insert a paragraph break into the midst of a single speaker’s dialogue if you are interspersing the dialogue with a second character’s non-verbal reactions. This brings me to an oft-overlooked and but equally important second rule…

2. New Actor = New Paragraph

Maybe you wondered why I ended up adding so many paragraph breaks to Erik’s scene when it has so little dialogue—and no conversational exchanges whatsoever.

The reason is that actors within narrative are treated the same as speakers. Usually, when characters exchange actions, the rules are the same as when they exchange dialogue. In Erik’s example, Clara acts, then the squirrel acts. We have two actors in this scene, which means each should get a new paragraph. The paragraph breaks give readers immediate signals about who is the doing the acting.

The exceptions to this rule all of which hark back to those grade-school adages about topic sentences. Sometimes, in some paragraphs, the emphasis will need to remain on a primary actor, rather than bouncing between the actions/reactions of multiple actors. For example, you may need to briefly indicate a response from a second character, but you’ll maintain a cohesive paragraph because the emphasis remains on a singular character or on a cooperative action or movement.

For example:

The servant unlocked the padlock with a great squeaking. The portcullis stuck when he tried to raise it, and the knights had help him lift it off the ground. They ducked under, and the manservant guided them across the courtyard, through the dusty shambles of the main foyer, and up two flights of stairs.

3. New Parts of Narrative = New Paragraph

Even in a scene which features or emphasizes one primary actor, paragraph breaks are often useful for guiding readers through the different types of action that character might be performing. These might include:

  • Physical action: He revved the car.
  • Physical reaction: His heart hammered.
  • Dialogue: “You crazy driver!” she yelled.
  • Indirect internal narrative: If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.
  • Direct internal narrative: If these crazy people don’t get out of the way, I’m just going to run them over.
  • Observation/description: Street lights blinked past.

Keep in mind these differentiated parts of the narrative will not always require their own paragraph break. An intimate sense of your pacing will help you decide when a break is best and when it isn’t. One good rule of thumb, however, is that if you spend more than two sentences on any one narrative type, it’s probably best to think about breaking for a new paragraph.

We might assemble the above examples like this:

He revved the car.

“You crazy driver!” she yelled.

His heart hammered. If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.

Street lights blinked past.

When set up like this, the man, the woman, and the street lights each ground themselves on new lines within their own topic sentences. The man’s indirect thought about running people over is introduced and grouped with his own related physical reaction.

An understanding of motivation-reaction units (MRUs) will help you ground your instincts for ordering the various parts of narrative. A proper MRU starts with the motivation or cause, then lines up the resulting effect as another string of causes and effects: feeling > thought > action > speech. Once you can differentiate between the roles of various sentences, you will have a better feel for when to break between them.


Paragraph breaks are important both as a tool for pacing your narrative and for subtly guiding readers through the nuances of your expanding story. Used skillfully, they create an inviting presentation of text that pulls readers in, keeps them grounded, and urges their eyes and imaginations forward through the prose.

My thanks to Erik for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer to err on the side of more or fewer paragraph breaks in your writing? Why do think this is? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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10 Advantages of Writing a Single-POV Story (What I Learned Writing Wayfarer)

single pov storyMultiple-POV story versus single-POV story? Which is the right choice for you? The answer depends on many factors, since every story is different. Knowing which approach to POV to choose isn’t difficult once you know how to choose.

Wayfarer by K.M. WeilandMy just-released historical-superhero/gaslamp-fantasy novel Wayfarer was the first ever single-POV story I’ve written. For years now, I’ve consistently been minimizing the number of POVs I use. (Behold the Dawn had six; Dreamlander had three; Storming had two.) Part of the reason for that trend has been nothing more than the subjective needs of the stories; but part of it has also been my own growing understanding of the importance of managing POVs to create a solid overall effect within a story.

Being confined to a single POV in writing about blacksmith-apprentice-turned-super-speedster-and-reluctant-hero Will Hardy challenged me in new ways and taught me about the value of a single-POV story. Certainly, there are just as many benefits to multiple-POV stories (and, indeed, my next couple books will return to featuring three POVs—which seems to be a sweet spot for me), but today I want to talk about the amazing power locked away within the restraint of a single-POV story.

4 Frequent Pitfalls Found in Multiple-POV Story

Let’s start by taking a look at the opposite side of the coin. What are some reasons multiple-POV stories are especially challenging—and why might an author want to consider a single-POV story as an alternative?

1. Scattered Narrative

Too often, multiple narrators create a narrative with a scattergun approach to the story. This is especially true when those narrators haven’t been chosen with clear reasons. Every time you add a POV to a story, it should be in clear response to the question, “What is this narrator adding to the plot and theme that is irreplaceable?”

Although there is no reason a story with twenty POVs couldn’t easily answer that question for every one of its narrators, the more POVs a story includes, the more difficult it becomes to justify each of them at every level of the story. When a POV cannot be fully justified, the result is a story that, however entertaining, inevitably feels unfocused.

2. Less Action in the Plot

Because multiple POVs often contribute to a sense of busyness and action within a story, it is ironic that stories jammed with many POVs often present plots in which very little actually happens. Often this is simply the result of trying to include too many characters in too little space. (Even more ironically, I find the problem of “nothing actually happening” is often only exacerbated in novels with bloated word counts.)

Writers are often drawn to the idea of multiple POVs because they’re trying to tell multiple stories (which, hopefully, all tie together at some point). What this means is that the overall narrative can only be advanced insofar as all of the characters’ POVs are being advanced. Either multiple events will be required to move the plot, or the same plot-moving event must be recounted from multiple perspectives. As a result, the narrative often moves at a snail’s pace.

A particularly notorious fantasy novel stands out in my mind (although it is certainly not the only one), in which literally only two plot-moving events occurred in the entire story. On the story’s surface, it certainly seemed as if lots was happening, since the narrative was busy jumping from POV to POV. But when the actual bottom line of the advancing plot and the overall big picture of the story was examined, it was revealed that next to nothing actually happened. The multiple POVs ended up acting as a smoke screen for the actual lack of plot.

3. Complications, Instead of Complexities

Multiple POVs often seem like a good way to deepen a story’s complexity. But this is a false paradigm. Lots of moving pieces don’t necessarily equal greater depth. Rather, the more moving pieces a writer adds to a story, the more complications that writer must juggle in order to create a seamless story.

When handled with precision and conscious intent, multiple POVs can indeed provide great depth and complexity. However, when authors add extra POVs without purposeful intent or without a clear understanding of the challenges, the result can be exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for. Instead of adding complexity to the story, the extra POVs just complicate it unnecessarily.

4. Characters Who Don’t Impact Each Other

Another pitfall I commonly see in multiple-POV stories (especially fantasy) is that of multiple storylines that never interact. A book must have a clear throughline, with every piece advancing the plot down that line. As one of the most influential “pieces” in any story, a POV that fails its most important role of contributing to the overall story will, at best, always create a noticeably jarring effect.

Even more specifically, when narrators are leading separate storylines that do not directly interact with the storylines of other characters, what results is a frustratingly weak relational story. Stories are about people interacting. When the most important characters fail to interact, one of the story’s most important opportunities is inevitably lost.

6 Advantages of a Single-POV Story

Now let’s take a look at some of the explicit advantages of choosing to write a single-POV story.

1. Clear Protagonist = Clear Throughline

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Every story, no matter how many POVs it uses, must possess a unifying focus. Almost always, that focus will be a single-character protagonist. This is the character who will appear at and directly influence every important structural moment in the story. Even should he be onscreen for a comparatively small portion of the story (which, though possible, is rarely optimal), he will be the unifying thread that brings clarity and cohesion to the entire story.

It is, of course, possible to write a multiple-POV story in which the multiple narrators unite under a prominent protagonist. However, it is much easier to accomplish this effect in a single-POV story. Every single scene you write will revolve around this character; if ever you write a scene that does not, it will be much easier to spot the problem within the context of a single narrator.

In itself, this isn’t a huge argument for a single narrator, since this effect can be accomplished in any type of story. But in realizing this is the great power of a single-POV story, you may have an easier time determining whether your story will truly benefit from multiple POVs, or whether it would be better told from a more focused perspective.

2. Clear Structural Throughline = Clear Thematic Throughline

Just as conscious thought is a mental explanation of emotional motivations, plot is ultimately a device for conveying a deeper theme. As such, every choice within your story should be about creating a cohesive and resonant thematic throughline.

Because a single narrator is often the best vehicle for creating a cohesive plot, it is also one of the best vehicles for creating a powerful theme. Every other piece of the story will relate back to this person’s journey through the plot. She clearly owns every piece of the structure. Every moment in the plot is powered by her personal character arc. The result? A unified theme throughout the story.

3. Single Narrator = Direct Connection to Reader

One of the attractions of multiple-POV stories is that they allow readers to experience many different characters. In the hands of some authors, this can be an amazing adventure for readers. But it can also detract from one of the most important aspects of the reading experience: the reader’s driving connection to the protagonist.

Readers read for two primary reasons. One is to be entertained; the other is to experience an emotional and/or vicarious connection with the protagonist and his journey. In a multiple-POV story, this connection from the protagonist can often be muddied or strained when the reader is asked to spend long periods away from their favorite character. It’s a rare book that can engage a reader equally in all POVs (especially if the protagonist is not present in the other POVs).

A single-POV story never faces this problem. Rather, its greatest challenge is in creating a protagonist readers can’t turn away from—because if they do, that’s it for the story. As can be seen in so many wonderful single-narrator stories—from Anne of Green Gables to Jane Eyre to Ender’s Game (not counting its clever little chapter openers) to The Great Gatsby (which features a main-character narrator who is distinct from the structural protagonist)—a solid narrative told from a single POV has almost unmatched power for connecting readers to the main character.

Naturally, this is not to say readers cannot or do not connect with characters in multiple-POV stories. Many of my all-time favorite books are multiple-POV stories, so I am in no way suggesting I’m not a fan of the technique. But the extra moving parts required in a multiple-POV story makes achieving the same effect that much trickier.

4. Precision Drilling Into the Story’s Depths

Just as complication does not necessarily equal complexity (see earlier section), neither does simplicity necessarily equal depth. There is many a simplistic single-POV story that falls far short of any kind of rewarding thematic depth.

However, again, by virtue of its more inherently focused narrative, a single-POV story has a tremendous opportunity to strip away non-essentials, to focus on only the most powerful and integral pieces, and to share stories of straightforward but profound depth.

With fewer working pieces to bother about, authors can focus all their energy on polishing the true heart of their stories.

5. Stronger Subplots and Supporting Characters

Although at first glance it can seem as if a single-POV story might inhibit the contribution of subplots and supporting characters, this is actually not the case at all. In fact, making the right choices about which characters and subplots to include—and why—becomes infinitely clearer when they must be selected in support of a single narrator.

Ideally, subplots and supporting characters should always be chosen to support a story’s throughline, whether that throughline is a single character or a more abstract thematic premise. This is true in any type of story. But the criteria for making those choices is often much clearer when the author must weigh them against the bottom line of a single narrator.

6. Tighter, More Streamlined Dramatization

One of the greatest challenges of writing a single-POV story is that all events must either be told from this character’s perspective or told to her. In a large, complicated, sprawling story, this is often tricky. However, it can also contribute to a much tighter writing style.

Writers must come up with more streamlined ways of conveying certain events and information. Scenes that might otherwise have required thousands of words of dramatization can often be reworked into a brief, creative explanation. The result is a leaner story that moves forward with more focus and momentum.


Choosing the right narrator(s) is one of the most important creative and stylistic decisions a writer can make. Arguably, no single choice in writing a story will have more effect on the end result.

There are no real rules that can dictate right or wrong choices when it comes to POV. Only the ultimate effectiveness of the story can determine the rightness or wrongness of a choice. For some stories, multiple narrators are absolutely the best decision. But for others, a single narrator may be the factor that transforms a mediocre story into something extra special. Understanding various pros and cons of both approaches will allow you to choose which approach is right for which story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are you currently writing a multiple-POV story or a single-POV story? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post 10 Advantages of Writing a Single-POV Story (What I Learned Writing Wayfarer) appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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My 9 Writing Goals for the New Year

writing goalsLast year, I wrote about how I don’t really like writing goals. Mostly, this is because they focus on the results and too often bypasses the importance of the journey. But this January, perhaps more than any other January, I find myself brimming with intentional and actionable ideas about where I want this year to take me, as both a writer and a person.

This post is a little late—scraping into the official goal-setting month by a bare week—since most of my January so far as been taken up with recovering from Christmas (literally) and launching my latest novel Wayfarer. But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking and processing. I feel like last year was the close of a significant chapter in my life, culminating with a move to be nearer my sister and her growing family. As I look out on this brand-new chapter, I find there is so much I want to do.

Because my writing ultimately influences or is influenced by everything else in my life, it’s hard for me to separate writing goals from life goals. They all blur together. So today I thought I’d share my top nine goals/intentions for this year, with a specific focus on how they will impact my journey as a writer.

Although these goals are obviously very specific to me and my current chapter in life, I’m sharing them today because I think all of them are potential value-adders for any writer at any time. If nothing else, I hope you find them interesting!

My Top 9 Suggestions for Writing Goals This Year

1. Find the Balance Between Art and Business

More than any other question in my writing life, this remains the big one, always looming, never quite finding an answer.

I’ve talked before about reframing marketing and business mindsets into a more giving- or sharing-focused approach, which is something I continue to work on. However, in reality, many of the same challenges remain. As is true for the vast majority of full-time authors, I make my living less off my writing (that is, my art) and more off my writing business.

As such, the business naturally likes to try to suck up my attention and energy. Gotta eat after all, right? For me, part of the problem is that I’m such a crazy all-or-nothing person. If I’m focusing on the business, it’s hard to keep that from being all I’m focusing on. And vice versa. When I’m writing, I don’t want to think about scheduling social media messages or reminding a partner company that I really need an invoice now.

Even after eleven years of juggling the art of writing fiction with the business of teaching writing, I find I don’t yet have what I would call an intentional solution to this challenge. But it remains my top goal.

The past few years have already helped me make huge strides, just in realizing how out of whack my focus was getting in favoring the business side. But I’m still doing my best (largely, via the goals listed below) to find an optimal balance that helps me enjoy every minute of both my work and my art.

2. Hack My Brain for the Hard Stuff

There are parts of writing—and the writing business—that come naturally to me. There are other parts I’ve mastered through dedication and learning. And then… there are parts that make me feel like a five-year-old kicking and screaming and howling at the thought of getting her picture taken with the creepy clown.

It’s stuff that’s not easy, not intuitive, not interesting, and not fun. And I. don’t. wanna.

But the more I learn about how my brain and my personality work, the better I’m getting and reframing my approach to the hard stuff. I talked last week about how you can hack your brain to create a writing process that lets your natural strengths carry the bulk of the hardest parts. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that with my writing.

But on the business side, I’m wanting to be more intentional about how I approach the stuff I really don’t like—and am therefore much more likely to procrastinate on.

For example, I hate ads. I just… hate them. The whole researching keywords and A/B testing and analyzing which approach is actually working? Totally not my thing. Every part of my brain rebels. For eleven years, I’ve pretty much avoided having to deal with them. But as Amazon now shifts into a “pay-to-play” model where advertising seems to be becoming a necessity, I find myself reluctantly moving into this dreaded playground.

My advantage is that I know how my brain works. I know my weaknesses (studying, analyzing, and integrating technical information on the spot), and I know my strengths (holistically absorbing information and implementing organized plans of attack). This realization takes off a lot of the pressure, reframes the problem into a shape I can take a bite out of, and gives me a plan for moving forward.

Guess that means no more excuses for procrastination.

3. Trust Myself More

This is primarily a life goal, but it has obvious implications in both my writing and my business.

Something I realized this winter is that I constantly second-guess myself, in response to other people’s opinions, only to, more often than not, circle back around months (or even years) later and realize I wasn’t so wrong in the first place.

Part of this is just how my brain works—taking in massive chunks of information, slowly observing patterns as they emerge, and sorting and resorting conclusions into appropriate “boxes.” But part of it, I’m realizing, is just me undervaluing my own observations and understanding.

In many instances, the odds aren’t any greater that someone else is right (in their presentation of themselves, in their world view, in their knowledge of a specific subject) than you are. If you’re going to trust one person over the other, why shouldn’t you just trust yourself?

Granted, there’s a fine line here between confidence and hubris. But as long as that line is always being rigorously examined, with a continuous focus on refining the purity and honesty of emotional and logical judgments, I believe it’s important for each of us to learn to trust our gut instincts.

This is something I’ve long believed when it comes to writing: each writer must find the balance between the humility necessary to learn and the confidence to stand on their own artistic understanding and vision. It’s just as true in life.

4. Live (and Write) Greener

This year, I’ve made a commitment to trying to make more sustainable life choices. I’ve cut out pretty much all single-use products (such as napkins, tissues, straws, grocery bags). I’m trying to choose non-plastic alternatives for household items (my dish brush is wooden, pot scrapers and dish drainer are bamboo, refillable shampoo and conditioner bottles are stainless steel, etc.). I buy almost exclusively second-hand clothing (mostly through ThredUp and garage sales). And I’m trying to grow more of my food (via a kitchen garden from Aggressively Organic—we’ll see how that goes, since I have something of a black thumb).

Although a minimal-waste lifestyle sounds daunting at first glance, I can’t believe how much fun I’m having with it. Seriously. Not only is it way easier than I thought it would be (once you get the basics in place, it’s no less work and little to no less expense than “normal”), and not only does it contribute to a beautiful home (seriously—wood, glass, and stainless steel products create a much nicer aesthetic than do neon plastics), it’s also a delightful and genuinely enjoyable challenge to figure out new ways to live greener. My life is about 75% “green-hacked” at this point, and I’m honestly a little bummed there are no longer any major changes I can work on.

This actually hasn’t created too many changes in my writing life, since I was already pretty green there. I’m going to do a post (and maybe even a video) on the specifics sometime this year, including such things as printing manuscripts less, buying more e-books instead of print, switching to a fountain pen, switching to a stapleless stapler, switching to highlighter pencils, etc.

5. Make Time to Rest, Listen, Think

January is always a bit of a “funk” month for me. It’s hard for my productivity-oriented personality to be okay with this. But beyond just recognizing the inevitability of the hibernation pattern, I’m also trying to focus more on the importance of intentional downtime.

The other night, I was whining on the phone to my mom about how lazy I feel because, ever since Christmas, it seems like it’s taking me longer and longer to get going in the mornings. She immediately turned on the mom voice: “You’re thinking, and that’s incredibly important for a writer.”

She’s right. I never sit around doing nothing. But sometimes—more often than I realize, I think—I need to sit around and intensely process. This, too, is how my brain works. The more intentional I am at taking my gut instincts and observations and actively and logically talking myself through them, the more insightful and productive I ultimately am.

Walking on Water Madeleine L'EngleFortuitously, the same night my mom got after me, I also read Madeleine L’Engle’s similar reminder in Walking on Water:

Sitting or, better, lying on one of my favourite sun-warmed rocks, I try to take time to let go, to listen, in much the same way that I listen when I am writing.

In our go-go world, it can be so easy to feel guilty for taking the time to mentally rest. But I grow more and more adamant in my belief that stepping back from busyness is important, not least for personal health, but also for artistic inspiration. The well must be filled before the bucket can be lowered.

6. Read More Consciously

I talked about this in my recent compilation of my favorite reads from last year: I don’t read like I used to. To some extent this was affected by other aspects of my life, but it’s also just part of the continuing evolution of my mindset from being focused on productivity to being more focused on being present and enjoying the journey.

This year, I find myself with a renewed excitement about reading, in no small part because I’ve changed up my reading “schedule” to prevent any one book from feeling formidable.

Through the Eyes of Innocents by Emmy WernerI’ve started reading the “harder” books just a  little tiny bit at a time (I’m currently working through Emmy E. Werner’s painful WWII account Through the Eyes of Innocents).

Instead of being (ridiculously) rigid in what I read when, I’m giving myself the freedom to focus on whatever reading feels most urgent and interesting at any given time. Occasionally, I’ll find a novel I just can’t put down, but these days, my page-turners seem to be mostly non-fiction (my current goal is to try to read at least one book of history about every major country). But I still make sure to get my fiction fix with one chapter sometime during the day (usually right after lunch).

This undoubtedly sounds insane to most people, but the realization, last summer, that I didn’t have to read my TBR pile in order was incredibly liberating. Now I read what I want when I want. It works much better. (Don’t laugh.)

7. Find and Utilize the Best Times to Write

Another area of my life in which I’m trying to be more receptively spontaneously and less rigidly scheduled is in my actual writing. I want to optimize every part of my day, so I’m at my best for each task. Writing, of course, is always at the top of the to-do list.

There are periods in my life when writing first thing in the morning is the best thing. I wake up excited by the thought that I get to start my day with writing!

But other periods (usually in the winter), I do better when I get everything else out of the way first, then write in the waning twilight of the afternoon’s last few hours.

Again, for me, this is part of learning about being more aware of and receptive to myself. Instead of boxing myself into a schedule and demanding I keep it, I want to get better at listening to and understanding the ebbs and flows of my inner (and outer) life. This is nowhere more important than in my art.

8. Stretch My Comfort Zones in the Real World

If you were to ask me to name one thing I don’t feel I’m very good at, my immediate answer would be driving. Blame it on being the absent-minded-writer-in-her-ivory-tower stereotype, but all my insecurities come out when I have to drive in unfamiliar areas or circumstances. I’m actually not a bad driver; but I am a stressed-out driver.

One of my main goals this year is to give myself more driving experience. Since I’m living in a new town, there are lots of opportunities for driving in unfamiliar areas. I’ve made it a commitment to drive someplace new at least once a week.

So how does this tie into writing?

Not at all. Or not directly, at any rate. But writers must live, must have experiences, must push their comfort zones in order to better understand themselves and their lives. It’s all grist for the mill. This is something I grow more aware of with every year. I spent so much of my twenties in front of a computer screen; I want my thirties to be spent stockpiling experiences and skills other than those inherent to being a writer.

9. Approach the Page With Wonder

I feel I have come so far as a writer. I have learned so much. know how to write a novel now. The process doesn’t scare me or frustrate me anymore. And that’s wonderful.

But as I begin writing what will be my twelfth novel (not all of them were published, naturally), I am hyper-aware that I don’t ever want the glory of this journey to become dusty and rote. I want every story I write to be an adventure, full of mystery.

I admit it: sometimes I have to remind myself to approach the page with wonder. And that is perhaps my most important goal this year. I want every minute I spend with my stories to be minutes that, underneath all the workmanship, are minutes founded in reverence and awe. At the end of the day, I am not a teacher of stories; the story is the teacher of me. And I want never to forget the magnificent humility of that.


I’m sure there are some more subconscious ideas and intentions also rattling around in my brain, but these nine goals are my top focus for this year (and, I’m sure, quite a few years to come). More specifically, my goals also include finishing the outline for the third book in the Dreamlander trilogy, finishing second-round edits on Dreambreaker (after my alpha readers report back), and probably starting work on a new writing-craft book. I’m also toying with the idea of returning to a weekly video series, probably in an informal Q&A format. I’d also like to see my fiction start migrating into audio editions, and my podcast get settled on a better platform that will make it more easily accessible to non-iTunes users.

In short, I have big plans for this year. Unlike some past years, I think most of these are doable—mostly because they’re focused primarily on intentional living rather than just on productivity. I hope this peek into my thoughts for the new year will give you some thoughts for your own writing goals. Let’s make this year our best year yet!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your biggest writing goals for this year? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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How to Create the Perfect Writing Process for You

5 steps to create your perfect writing processRemember the good ol’ days when your idea of a “writing process” was as simple as 1, 2, 3?

1. Sit down. 2. Put your hands to the keyboard. 3. Write.

For most writers, that quaint little take on the writing process died on the day they stalled out on #2, with hands poised receptively above the keyboard—and no words.

If you recognize that experience in any measure, then your next step—same as mine—was probably to start madly researching your way toward the perfect writing process. Like me, you probably read all the articles and interviews, eating up the words of famous and successful writers whose writing processes included a wide range of routines, superstitions, absolutist claims, and sometimes downright confusing contradictions.

You probably started experimenting, trying on first Stephen King’s writing routine, then Joyce Carol Oates’, then Brandon Sanderson’s. Undoubtedly, what you found was that what works for one writer—however brilliant—won’t necessarily work for you.

So you started borrowing bits here and bits there. And, slowly, your own unique take on the writing process started to emerge. Finding the right writing process is as simple—and complex—as that.

Unlike other aspects of the craft (e.g., the actual techniques and theories that build a story), the writing process is inimitably personal to each and every writer. Some writers, like myself, create processes that optimize upfront outlining and planning. Others find this utterly stifling to their abilities. Some writers require solitude and silence; others need the static noise of crowds or even TV in the background. Some writers crank out tens of thousands of words in a sit-down; others piece together only a few sentences a day.

Writers sometimes resist the idea that creativity can be confined by rulesWhile this resistance is largely futile and self-defeating when it comes to the actual craft of writing, it’s absolutely worthwhile when it comes to the necessary individuality of the writing process.

Actually, there is one rule for writing processes, and this is it: Nobody can tell you or show you the right writing process for you. Every writer’s process will be slightly different, depending on any number of unique factors, ranging from personality to lifestyle. It can take time to create a writing process that will put you in the right place every time your fingers approach the keyboard. Likely, it is a process you will tweak for the rest of your life. As you evolve as a person and a writer, so too will your process evolve. Staying in tune with your personal needs and rhythms is the most important step in optimizing your entire life to help you write your best work.

Recognizing Writing as the Marriage of Order and Chaos

Much of the discussion about writing process comes down to whether or not an author finds it more comfortable to outline a novel upfront, or not. There’s a reason this argument is front and center. Within it lies one of the most foundational dichotomies of the creative life.

Chaos and order.

This everlasting, swirling dichotomy of power and control is one with which all writers are intimately familiar. Indeed, the best writing inevitably emerges from the tension point between chaos and order.

Creativity is the child of chaos; art is the child of order.

Raw inspiration is the intuitive understanding that funnels straight up from the subconscious. It is a chaotic experience. It is beyond our control, largely even beyond our comprehension. It’s a blinding swirl of light and color, images and feelings. It comes to us as little more than an unformed, inexplicable understanding. It’s often so fleeting we can barely grasp it on a conscious level. So many of these wild ideas fly away from us, like midnight dreams, almost before we remember they belonged to us at all. But in instances of great fortune, we hold the magic before our conscious mind’s eye long enough to capture it on paper.

In those moments, what we are struggling to do is bring order to chaos. We are taking the most ephemeral pantings of the human mind and confining them within the physicality of paper and ink. We are hammering them into the tiny, ever-tightening specificity of words. What begins as only the electric firings of our brains now becomes characters, plots, structures, stories.

This explains the almost unavoidable phenomenon Gail Carson Levine references:

Ideas are ideas, and words on paper are words on paper; they’re not the same thing, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves.

But both—the chaos of creativity and the order of art—are necessary if we want to create a book. Finding and balancing upon the tension point between them is where each writer’s personal writing process becomes crucial. For each of us, our best route to this end goal will be different—because for each of us, our respective relationships with order and chaos are different.

How to Upgrade Your Writing Process by Hacking Your Brain

Our brains all develop a little differently. We’re all wired in slightly—or, sometimes, dramatically—different ways. This is reflected in our personalities and, on an even deeper level, in our natural propensities and even skills.

Some writers will find themselves naturally wired to orient more naturally with the artistic order side of the coin, while others lean more freely into the chaos of creativity.

I daresay “order” writers are those who gravitate more naturally to  the idea of incorporating upfront planning and outlining in their processes, while “chaos” writers are those who prefer to lean full-on into creativity’s wild ride, only straightening up their art later on.

Although you may instinctively know which approach best suits you, it’s not always so clear in the beginning. When trying to figure out your natural strengths, start by keeping in mind these two facts:

Fact #1: Neither is better than the other.

Both arrive at the same end goal, after all. To me, it seems possible that “chaos” writers more naturally retain the purity of their creativity, while “order” writers have a comparatively easier time getting their ideas into working order. Obviously, both approaches have inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Fact #2: Neither necessarily creates more or less work than the other.

All writers plan and all writers “pants”; all writers must embrace both chaos and order. It’s just that some writers prefer to impose order earlier in the process and others later. Whether you’re doing most of your heavy organizational lifting upfront in an outline or later on in revisions, the workload tends to even out in the long run.

What’s important is recognizing your most natural mode and experimenting with ways you can hack your brain’s personal wiring to create a writing process that will help you get out of your own way, while minimizing distractions and obstacles.

5 Questions to Help You to Create the Perfect Writing Process

Heeding your brain’s natural wiring is the first and most foundational step in creating your own personalized writing process. Once you’ve done that, start paying attention to your work flow and patterns. Take special note of what’s extra hard and what’s extra fun. What makes you most efficient? What helps you produce your best writing?

Slowly, you will be able to refine every part of your approach to optimize it to your own special needs. You can start by asking yourself the following five questions.

1. What Do You Find the Most Challenging Part of Writing?

A well-executed writing process won’t, in itself, make writing easy. But if you can identify the parts you hate most, you can work on minimizing them—and in the process, you’ll chop half your excuses off at the neck.

For example, I hate revisions. Let me say that again: I hate, hate, hate revisions. When writing my early novels, I sometimes had to completely rewrite them. And I loathed every single minute. It was torture. But over the years, I have learned how to optimize my process to eliminate as much of the major revision work as possible by focusing on an extensive outlining process. I spend the time in the beginning to get my story as close to perfect as possible, so I don’t have to put myself through the agony of major revisions later on.

Other writers, however, hate outlining with equal verve. In which case, vive la revision!

2. What Part of the Process Do You Find Most Enjoyable?

Another dichotomy of the writing life is that writing is often equal parts agony and ecstasy. Even as you try to create a writing process that minimizes the parts of writing you find agonizing, you are, of course, trying to maximize the ecstatic parts.

So what’s your favorite? What’s the one part of writing you could do all day, every day—if only you could? Start looking for ways to put that part of the process front and center. If you can figure out how to take care of the heavy lifting in your favorite part, you’ve just killed two birds with one stone.

For example, not so ironically, I adore outlining. It is far and away my favorite part of the process. I love it even more than actually writing the first draft. For me, spending months upfront doing something I love (which, in turn, is going to help me avoid doing something I hate) is no sacrifice.

By contrast, maybe what you enjoy most is drafting or even (gasp) revising. Figure out how you might be able to put the bulk of your efforts into this section of your writing. More time doing the thing you love best is just good for everyone.

3. What Are Your Most Obvious Weaknesses as a Writer?

As writers, we’re all evolving. Whether you’re a greenie just starting out or a certified black belt, you will always be adjusting your understanding of the craft (including the placement of that tension point between chaos and order). In short, you’ll always be learning how to do something better. Fortunately, this is another area in which you can optimize your writing process to help you move forward with the fewest possible obstacles.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Look at your body of work—especially your most recent stuff—and examine it as objectively as possible. What do you believe are some of your most prominent weaknesses as a writer? This could be anything from story structure to chapter endings to minor characters to narrative description—or any combination thereof. How can you craft your writing process to help you deliberately focus on and improve these weaknesses?

For example, something I’m working consciously to improve in my stories is the motivations and goals of minor characters, both in the larger story and scene by scene. I have consciously built into my outlining process the need to ask myself questions about all my minor characters. Instead of getting halfway into plotting the story before thinking about my minor characters’ personal agenda in any given scene, I’m trying to address these questions upfront, so not only will I know, but so these revelations have an opportunity to affect the entire story before I start plotting.

Similarly, you might try hacking your process to address weaknesses by outlining your story’s major structural beats or marking all descriptive passages for revision in later drafts.

4. What Is Your Ideal Writing Environment?

Setting up writing habits that include a daily schedule and optimized writing environment will contribute to the overall success of your process.

Once again, this comes down to observing yourself, knowing what triggers your best work, and avoiding what inhibits it. Depending on the circumstances of your home, job, and family, your choices may not always be optimal. But work with what you have. Insofar as writing is important to you, put in the effort to create the best habits possible. Nurture yourself.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandFor example, although I’m a pretty routine-oriented person (“order” strikes again), I’m getting better at flexing my writing routine when necessary. Right now, as I’m outlining the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy, my favorite writing situation is a low-lighting setting of solitude, away from my desk and computer, with music filling the room. It makes me feel nested into a cocoon of creativity.

1-19 Outlining Dreamlander 3

But others find they can’t write without background noise, even a TV show or movie running in the background. Or maybe you have kids and a day job and find your only opportunity for writing is getting in half an hour before the day’s other demands upon your energy begin. Whatever the case, try to give your creativity its best chance. Work with your life, not against it.

5. What Does Sustainability Look Like for You?

Recently, I read a brilliant quote on a sustainable lifestyle blog (not sure which one, unfortunately), which, paraphrased, applies equally to creating the optimal writing routine:

You’re not trying to be a perfect writer for a week; you’re trying to be an imperfect writer for the rest of your life.

Sometimes it can be easy to look at a famous writer’s book-stuffed writing nook, read their summary of their simple and seemingly effortless writing routine, and think, I should do that! I could totally do that! 

And maybe you could pull it off for one day or even a couple weeks. If, however, the routine hasn’t been optimized to your individual needs as a creative person, it won’t be the long-term answer you need. Nurturing a personal writing routine is a lifelong pursuit.

Don’t guilt yourself into believing writing routines are a one-size-fits-all hand-me-down from the geniuses who have gone before. The first step is realizing this is your routine and, quite literally, no one else’s. Knowing this gives you the freedom to do what is best for you and only you.

How awesome is that? How often does life give you that kind of carte blanche?

Optimized writing routines don’t make writing easy, but they do make writing easier. So have fun. Embrace the chaos. Respect the order. Observe your own brain. Cultivate the ultimate space for enjoying your creativity and making your art.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is one thing you can think of that would make your writing process work even better for you? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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Who Won the Wayfarer-Launch Shopping Spree?

Thank you all so much for making the launch week of my new superhero-historical/gaslamp-fantasy novel Wayfarer a success. As always, your enthusiasm is what makes this all work! Thanks to you, the book jumped to #5 in Steampunk books on the American Amazon site.

Wayfarer ad

It’s also been great hearing from so many of you who have either finished the book or are in the process of reading it. So awesome to hear you’re enjoying it!

And now the news you’ve been waiting for…

The winner of the $100 shopping spree is Brandon Perkins. Congratulations, Brandon! I’ll be emailing you directly about your prize.

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Announcing My Latest Novel: Wayfarer! (And Prizes!)

Wayfarer PinterestToday, I am officially launching my fifth novel Wayfarer. Hooray!

If you’ve been following along on my journey with this book for the last several years, then you’ll recognize it as the one I keep referring to as my “historical superhero” novel. Set in 1820 London, it’s something I also like to cheekily think of as “Spider-Man meets Charles Dickens.” Turns out there’s actually a super-niche genre for this (which I had no idea about until I started researching keywords and categories on Amazon): gaslamp fantasy.

Best titled genre ever.

Basically, gaslamp fantasy is the more magical cousin of steampunk. Like steampunk, it is set in pre-industrial historical periods, but with less emphasis on steam-powered tech and more on magic or “mad science.”

Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

Here’s the back-cover blurb:

Think being a superhero is hard? Try being the first one.

Will’s life is a proper muddle—and all because he was “accidentally” inflicted with the ability to run faster and leap higher than any human ever. One minute he’s a blacksmith’s apprentice trying to save his master from debtor’s prison. The next he’s accused of murder and hunted as a black-hearted highwayman.

A vengeful politician with dark secrets and powers even more magical than Will’s has duped all of London into blaming Will for the chilling imprisonments of the city’s poor. The harder Will tries to use his abilities to fight crime, the deeper he is entangled in a dark underworld belonging to some of Georgian England’s most colorful characters.

Only Will stands a chance of stopping this powerful madman bent on “reforming” London by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Will is beginning to realize becoming a legend might mean sacrificing everything that matters. 

Read this new adrenaline-fueled historical superhero adventure today!

How Wayfarer Came to Be Written

My journey with this book started many years ago when I was sitting on the couch watching, for the umpteenth time, as Spidey swings through the closing scenes of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Since I’m all about the historical aesthetic, I found myself idly wondering, How come no one has ever done a historical superhero? (As I would later discover, there have been many “historical” iterations, with Captain America’s steampunk jaunt through World War II being perhaps the most obvious current example.)

From there, my imagination took off. What came out is a book I’m very pleased with and proud of. It’s darker than some of the stuff I’ve written in the past, but also, I hope, deeper—while still being fun and funny and full of heart and adventure and a little romance. I feel it’s the best thing I’ve written to date, a representation of everything I know and believe about story.

How Wayfarer Came to Be Published

As some of you may have noticed, this book has had a bit of a winding way to official publication. I originally intended to launch it last fall before I moved—which might have worked if I hadn’t decided, at the last minute, to do some marketing experiments under a nominal pen name. So there I was in the midst of a huge move, also trying to launch a book under a pen name (some of you may have seen K.M. Wyland floating around Amazon), all while tweaking and examining metrics.

The idea was to experiment with separating my fiction “brand” from my non-fiction (similar to what Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn has done with her J.F. Penn novels). I entered into this with something of a “why not?” attitude. I didn’t have anything to lose except a little time and effort. With the leverage of Amazon ads and some targeted promos, maybe I’d notch my fiction sales up another level.

Basically, I wanted to see if I could launch the new pen name on the strength of ads alone, without the help of my existing platform, and with the ultimate intent of getting “clean” Also Bought recommendations on Amazon, which would better target my fiction to genre readers, rather than pointing back to my writing books. However, results were only so-so on that score. After the discount promos, I got some nice genre results in the Also Boughts, but my writing books also started showing up almost right away.

Add to that the multiple emails I started receiving from those of you who were concerned that:

a) my publisher had goofed with a huge typo on my book cover

b) I had an evil doppelganger who was trying to pirate all my sales

and… I decided it was all just too much trouble for too few results. It’s an experiment I’m glad to have checked off my list, but to tell the truth, I’m relieved I get to keep all my writing under the same name. Makes everything so much simpler. And I like simplicity!

Where Can You Buy the Book?

So you ready to start wayfaring?

If you’re excited to join the Wayfarer on his adventures, you can purchase the book at the following links:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Canada

Amazon Australia



(If you buy the paperback from Amazon, you’ll get the Kindle version for $.99 via their MatchBook program.)

If you don’t have a Kindle but want to take advantage of the cheaper e-book option, you can read Kindle books off your computeriPhone or iPad, or Android, using their respective Kindle apps.

Wayfarer ad

Enter to Win the Wayfarer Launch Prize

As always, I’m celebrating the book’s launch with PRIZES! So please join the party.

This time, I’m going to do something that (IMO, anyway) is totally fun: a shopping spree!

Instead of an upfront, one-size-fits-all prize, I’m offering the winner their choice of one or many of the fun writing/reading goodies from last year’s Christmas gift guide, up to a value of $100. In other words, if you win, you get to pick $100 worth of prizes from the list. A custom prize just for you!

(Due to shipping restrictions, the shopping spree will only be available to U.S. residents. International residents are still free to enter; in the event of an international winner, the prize will instead be a $100 Amazon gift certificate.)

Writing and Reading Shopping Spree

Check out the gift guide post for full details, but the prizes available include:

  • Writing desk
  • Monitor stand
  • Bookcase
  • The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands
  • WriteMind Planner
  • Desktop decor
  • Bookend
  • Mug
  • Customized journal
  • Jewelry
  • Coffee spoon
  • T-shirt
  • Tote bag
  • Art prints
  • Phone stand/grip
  • Desktop organizer/planner
  • Q&A journal
  • Notebook
  • Mouse pad
  • Keychain

To Enter

Winners will be announced Friday, January 18th. You can do several things throughout the week to earn contest points and increase your chances of winning. For every contest point earned, your name will be entered once more into the pool (e.g., if you’ve earned 18 points, you have 18 chances of winning). (Note: no purchase is necessary to enter.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck to everyone in the drawing, have fun, and thank you for helping me celebrate the launch of Wayfarer!

The post Announcing My Latest Novel: Wayfarer! (And Prizes!) appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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4 Things You Should Know Before You Quit Writing Your Novel


You envisioned a bestseller, imagined touring the country and meeting thousands of fans, even your own fawning relatives.

But now you’re stuck and wondering whether you should’ve even tried in the first place.

Maybe you ran out of story and have no idea how to salvage the mess you’ve created.

Self-doubt crept in, telling you your novel was no longer worth the effort.

As the author of 195 books, I can tell you you’re not alone. What I call the Marathon of the Middle—yes, that roughly half of your manuscript between your great opener and resounding closer—is one of the toughest challenges I face too—every time.

But in truth, everything about writing a book is hard.

If you’re on the verge of quitting for any of the reasons above—or myriad others, here are four things you can do:

1. Add Conflict

When my story stalls, it almost always needs conflict, what experts call the engine of fiction. Have your characters become too agreeable?

In real life, I love pleasant conversations, getting along with everyone. But in a novel, I look for undercurrents of opposition, tension, deceit, self-possession in every line.

Ask yourself:

What problems can I create for my characters?

Better yet:

What problems can my characters create for themselves?

Conflict doesn’t have to be loud or physical. It can be as subtle as a snide comment.

“Think you can hold it together at Christmas this year?”

The question is delivered from brother to sister with the requisite smile, your character pretending to be pleasant or perhaps teasing. But we identify with the sister, don’t we, and we’re insulted.

Maybe she smiles too and says flatly, “That depends.”

You see? Just dialogue, no action, but a scene fraught with conflict. Look at all those setups that demand payoffs. What was he implying? What must have happened last year? And what was she implying? It depends on what?

All of a sudden that story percolates. Merely banal greetings would have had us nodding off. But now we’ve been set up and anticipate more to come.

2. Face Your Fear

By now you know novel writing demands discipline. We all get discouraged along the way. But don’t quit! Soldier on! If it were easy, anyone could do it.

Afraid of failing? Quitting guarantees it.

Afraid you’re not good enough? That your story doesn’t work? You’re probably right! But don’t use fear as an excuse to quit.

Rather, use that fear to motivate you to do your best work. I’ve learned to embrace those fears, because they’re valid! Even with my experience, I know the competition is fierce and that other authors likely have better ideas. But there is something I can guarantee: no one will outwork me.

Are you with me?

3. Constantly Review

Read through what you’ve written and ask yourself:

  • What works?
  • What doesn’t?
  • Which passages do you love?
  • Where does your story stall?

Be brutally honest with yourself so you can aggressively, even ferociously, self-edit to where you’re happy with every word.

4. Trust Your Gut

Whatever you feel about your story your reader will feel 10 times over. I call this Reader Multiplication Syndrome.

If you’re worried a scene might fail to keep readers interested, you’re right.  Attack and rewrite it till it works.

If you do dump a scene or even an entire manuscript, start a new one right away. You’re not quitting. You’re treating that misfire as valuable training.

I always feel like quitting at some point in the writing. It’s part of the process, an eye-opening obstacle I’ve learned to push through. You can too.

What Makes a Successful Author?


Just about anyone can start writing a novel. Precious few complete one.

Roll up your sleeves, get your seat in that chair, push through the Marathon of the Middle, and finish. You can do this!

If you’re looking for help writing a novel, I created an in-depth guide you can access by clicking here.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where are you with your work-in-progress? Tell me in comments!

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Top 10 Writing Posts of 2018

top 10 writing postsWe’ve made it to the end of another year! I hope you’re able to look back at who you were at the beginning of 2018 and see many changes (for the better, of course!) in who you are now.

Honestly, I barely recognize the person I was back in January 2018. It’s been a huge year of personal growth for me, much of which either caused or was caused by an unexpected decision to move closer to my sister and her family.

As a result, much of my focus this year has been on external events more than book production. This is the first year in ten years in which I haven’t officially released a new book. I did unofficially release my historical superhero novel Wayfarer amidst all the craziness of my move this fall, but I did it on-the-hush so I could fiddle with some marketing experiments. I will be “officially” launching it sometime in January or early February at the latest.

Other stuff that happened for me this year:

  • Chinese translations of Creating Character Arcs
  • Finished first draft of my portal fantasy sequel Dreambreaker
  • 5th mention of Helping Writers Become Authors in Writer’s Digest‘s 101 Best Websites for Writers

Other than officially launching Wayfarer any time now, my plans for 2019 include outlining the third and final book in the Dreamlander trilogy, as well as hopefully starting its first draft. I’m intending to focus most of my “business” time this year on odds and ends, such as moving the podcast to a better hosting platform, as well as doing more concentrated research on marketing keywords and perhaps even Amazon ads for my books (using Dave Chesson’s awesome KDP Rocket, which I’ll be reviewing in a post soon). For my next writing how-to book, I’m wanting to do something about theme, so I may start working on that toward the end of the year.

On a personal level, I’m becoming more and more committed to living a sustainable life with minimum waste (maybe someday I’ll get to zero waste!). I’ve already made huge strides toward swapping single-use products (such as napkins and tissues and even coffee filters) out of my life, in exchange for alternatives that can be reused many times (such as cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, and the awesome Coffee Sock). Getting better at finding food with zero or no plastic packaging is a goal for me this year, which also ties in with another of my personal goals: getting better at navigating and driving in unfamiliar places.

So that’s me this year! If you’d like to take a journey back through my top posts of 2018 (as judged by page traffic), check out the below list.

My Top 10 Posts of 2018

1. The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling (That Writers Forget All the Time)

2. 5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

3. 5 Steps to Writing Great Character Chemistry

4. How to Intertwine Plot, Character, and Theme in Every Scene

5. How to Write Unique Themes

6. 3 Tips for Improving Show, Don’t Tell

7. 4 Steps for How to Turn an Idea Into a Story That Rocks

8. 4 Ways to Choose a Better Theme for Your Book

9. The 10-Step Checklist to Writing an Above-Average Novel

10. 4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What was the most memorable writing event in your 2018? Tell me in the comments!

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Eve, everyone!

I hope  you’re finding time in this bustling season to pause, look around at your life, count your blessings, and express gratitude for them.

For me, Christmas has always been even more about thanksgivings than Thanksgiving. This year, I find myself increasingly thankful to get to take part in a creative lifestyle. Thank you for walking that road with me every day, even when we don’t see each other or make contact. I truly believe the work we are doing is one of the highest callings in life.

I’ll be taking a break from the writing to spend time with family and enjoy Christmas week. I hope you’re able to do the same, and I hope to see you in the New Year with pens sharpened, vigor renewed, and a thousand new stories waiting for us.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, Wordplayers!

Merry Christmas Wordplayers

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My Top Books of 2018

top books of 2018As we close out another year of reading, I find myself with a renewed appreciation and vigor for the importance and the blessing of reading.

Having devoured books at the hungry pace of 100+ a year for at least fifteen years (I didn’t start keeping track until 2002), I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable and even disturbed by the fact that my reading has fallen off to less than 50 books in the last couple years. This year—a year of big personal changes in my exterior world—was a year in which I struggled with the desire to even just sit down with a book. There was so much I wanted to read, but whenever it came down to it, I had a hard time doing it. (Cue inner panic!) Thanks to a Scribd subscription, I ended up listening to lots of audio books this year, which saw me safely through (and with three more books to my name than last year’s total!).

As I now close out the year, having settled in after a big move, I ecstatically find myself returning to a “reading space” for the first time in several years. Part of this, for me, was realizing and coming to peace with the fact that I will probably never reproduce my previous decade of “information inhalation.” I’m incredibly glad to get to carry the fruits of that decade with me for the rest of my life, but I’m no longer in a place where I’m seeking that of kind of prolificacy just for the sake of prolificacy. I’m learning (in no small part due to some of the books I’ll mention later in this post) to focus on turning my reading back into a joyous pastime rather than just another thing to triumphantly check off my to-do list.

One thing I’ve done is to change up my reading routine to make it more flexible within my daily schedule, sprinkling a chapter of this book and a chapter of that book here and there, while devoting evening reading solely to whatever is completely holding my attention (William Goldman’s hilarious Adventures in the Screen Trade at the moment).

So all in all, I count this one of my best reading years, more for how it’s ending than for how it actually went. That said, despite my struggles with reading this year, I find that it was a year rich in some incredible books (mostly the non-fiction), ones that I daresay will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Following you can find my top books of 2018: 5 Fiction Books, 5 Writing Books, and 5 General Non-Fiction Books.

But, first, the stats:

Total books read: 48

Fiction to non-fiction ratio: 26:22

Male to female author ratio: 27:21

Top 5 genres: Romance (with 8 books), Fantasy (with 6), History (with 6), Writing How-To (with 6), and Self-Development (with 5).

Number of books per rating: 5 stars (4), 4 stars (18), 3 stars (18), 2 stars (8), 1 star (0).

Top 5 Fiction Books

Honestly, it wasn’t a great fiction year for me (which, you may remember, is what inspired last week’s post: The 10-Step Checklist to Writing an Above-Average Novel). I didn’t read anything that ranked higher than four stars (out of five), but the following are my favorites of the bunch, all solid and worth reading.

1. The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian—Read 12-3-18 

Commodore Patrick O'Brian

It is hard to overestimate my adoration for Patrick O’Brian’s unique, endearing, intelligent, and humorous Aubrey/Maturin series, about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars (brilliantly adapted into what is also one of my all-time favorite movies, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). The latter books (this is the seventeenth installment) don’t have quite the same sharpness as the earlier installments, but this episode is as charming as ever, although featuring one of O’Brian’s more rambling and anticlimactic plots.

2. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski—Read 7-28-18 

Last Wish Witcher Andrzej Sapkowski

I got a lot of enjoyment out of this series of connected short stories, set in an epic fantasy world. The protagonist is a great character, the settings well-realized, and the action interesting. It’s the same ol’, same ol’—and yet totally not. (I listened to this on audio, and the narrator was excellent.)

3. The Last Convertible by Anton Myrer—Read 3-6-18 

Anton Myrer Last Convertible

This one isn’t as razor-sharp as Myrer’s war critique Once an Eagle (which was my #1 book in 2016), but it’s still an interesting look at both the World War II generation and the progression of life from idealistic youth to realistic middle age. It just barely avoids being soapy in places, but is always enjoyable.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton—Read 6-1-18 

Age of Innocence Edith Wharton

After taking a break from the classics for about six months this year, this was my first foray back. After all that time away, it was surprisingly comforting to be once again surrounded by the lush reliability of excellent storytelling and powerful wordcraft. This is a book well-deserving of its acclaim: a societal critique that remains pertinent and thought-provoking even today.

5. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells—Read 8-9-18 

war of the worlds hg wells

This book is rightfully a classic. Presented in hyper-realistic details, it is a gripping and chilling account. It lacks something in the way of character or, really, plot, but it’s still fantastic.

Top 5 Writing Books

In contrast to my somewhat ho-hum experience with fiction this year, my experience with non-fiction was fantastic. This is particularly true of writing-craft books—which account for all my five-star ratings this year. I’ve decided to divide the writing-craft books into their own category, so I can also share some of my non-writing favorites (see General Non-Fiction below), but, first, here is the best of the best of my reading this year.

1. Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle—Read 7-18-18 

Walking on Water Madeleine L'Engle

This book is an intuitive artist’s dream: incredibly beautiful, insightful, and inspiring. I listened to it on audio the first time around, but before I was even halfway done, I ordered a hardcover so I could re-read it and underline it liberally. I’m currently working my way through it again, bit by bit, and enjoying it even more (if that’s possible) the second time around. I’m sure this is the first of many re-readings.

2. Light the Dark edited by Joe Fassler—Read 1-1-18 

Light the Dark Joe Fassler

Usually, I avoid anthologies. Too often, they’re uneven and random. This one, however, is an incredibly special exception. Let me explain with an anecdote: instead of highlighting passages I enjoy, I sometimes use “book dart” bookmarks. Well, by the time I finished this book, I only had about four book darts left in the tin.

There’s just so much to love in this book. We get to hear from so many great authors commenting not so much on the process of writing, but on the life of artistic pursuit, their own inspirations and influences, and their discoveries about what it means to write. The range of perspectives is vast. It’s interesting to see where they contradict each other and where, in some instances, they agree with each other almost word for word.

I was deeply inspired by this book—as evidenced by the many posts it prompted either directly or indirectly, most notably these two:

>>The Words That Changed Your Life: Discovering What Made You a Writer

>>4 (Possible) Reasons Why We Write

3. Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson—Read 10-30-18 

book girl sarah clarkson

Sarah Clarkson speaks to me. In both the books I’ve read from her (the other being Caught Up in a Story, which was my top writing book in 2016 and was partially responsible for one the posts I’m still most passionate about: 5 Reasons Writing Is Important to the World), it’s like someone has looked into my head and described my experiences with a greater emotional understanding than I had for myself.

In both instances, her books came to me at opportune moments, when my life was in flux, with me standing at a crossroads of some sort. I read this one after a significant move—and, as I mentioned earlier, after several years of struggling with the motivation to read. Her ode to words and stories and her loving lists of great books—so many of which I’ve already read—has reinvigorated the reader in me. I don’t think it’s too much to say that her first book changed my life; this one did too.

4. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr—Read 8-9-18 

art of memoir mary karr

Another reviewer of this book said she wanted to underline every word. I felt the same; since I was listening on audio, I promptly bought a copy, so I could do just that. Even if you’re a novelist and not a memoirist, as I am, this is a brilliant book, full of spot-on advice and one of the best and most applicable challenges to story integrity I’ve ever heard.

5. Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt—Read 6-6-18 Four and Half Stars

nabokov's favorite word is mauve

This offers entertaining and fascinating stats that provide an insightful “behind the scenes” look at what makes great books and authors tick.

Top 5 General Non-Fiction

1. The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile—Read 4-14-18 Four and Half Stars

Road Back to You Ian Morgan Cron Suzanne Stabile

This book provides sound basics of the Enneagram personality typing system. It helped me find my own number (3w4) and opened my eyes to areas of personal understanding and growth I hadn’t previously considered. Originally, I only gave this (and the following Enneagram book) a four-star rating. But in hindsight, I realize these books have stuck with me more strongly and provided many more life-changing insights than some of the books I initially liked more.

2. Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso—Read 7-10-18 Four and Half Stars

Personality types Don Richard Riso

This book provides excellent in-depth information on the Enneagram system. There’s tons of good stuff here, although I did feel it placed too much emphasis on a descent into psychosis rather than a rise to health. However, thanks to its handy organization, I feel this book is a particularly good aid for writers creating characters, which I talked about in this post: 5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters.

3. A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester—Read 11-20-18 Four and Half Stars

A World Lit Only by Fire William Manchester

Insightful and entertaining at every turn. A great and thought-provoking overview of the Renaissance period.

4. 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend—Read 5-29-18 Four and Half Stars

12 Christian Beliefs That Can Make You Crazy Henry Cloud John Townsend

This is the perfect follow-up to the authors’ life-changing book Boundaries (which was my top non-fiction book in 2017). It offers excellent advice that busts through a lot of beliefs many of us, regardless our worldview, take for granted.

5. The Crusades by Zoe Oldenbourg—Read 4-5-18 

The Crusades Zoe Oldenbourg

I read this book long ago and far away when researching my medieval novel Behold the Dawn. Upon re-reading it, I found it deeply engaging and interesting in some places, while dry and too reliant on a confusing blur of names in others. Overall, it is still one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject and entirely enjoyable in its own right.

Honorable Mention: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe—An incredibly insightful overview of the post-World War II horrors most of us tend to overlook. Difficult to read at times, but extremely important.

My Books

And if all these goodies aren’t enough to fill your To Be Read pile this year, here’s a few more! 🙂

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist
Behold the Dawn by K.M. Weiland
A Man Called Outlaw

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What were your top books of 2018? How many books did you read? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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