Writing Tips


What Is a Novel?

A novel is a story about someone who has a problem and they struggle to overcome it. Or they want something important to their well-being, yet has problems graining it. The story moves from problem to resolution.  

An incident is something that happens to someone without a need to expand or overcome a problem that occurred in that incident.

The difference between the two is the necessity of solving the problem the incident presented, moving toward the solution, failing several times in the process. After several heartwrenching attempts and failing, they may give up -  but something within themselves fights back. They try one more time. Whether they succeed or fail again, they learn something significant in the process.

A novel must have a struggle, which leads to conflict. And that's what keeps the story interesting. Simply telling about something that happened is not a novel. It's an incident.

A General Novel Outline

Not long after I moved to California a few years ago, a representative from the Adult Education Services asked if I would be interested in teaching an evening course on novel writing. I hesitated. I had previously taught six-week courses at various locations, and because I liked the casual atmosphere, I wasn’t sure I wanted to adhere to a strict, formal session. She asked me to think it over and we made an appointment for the following week. She asked that I prepare a curriculum or at least an outline of the classes I’d teach.

 I kept that outline to use as the basis of course study for my other classes, and I post it as writing tips on my websites. I hope they help the newbie writers along their way.  


What is your story about? Each genre has its own set of rules: word count, main characters, etc.. For instance, romance has different sub-genres and each has its own rules. Mystery/suspense is an entirely different category.


Who is in your story? What do they want? What is as important to them as that next breath? List ten things for each. Avoid opening confusion with too many characters. Each character, except walk-ons, should have a goal, a strong point, as well as a fatal flaw. What mannerism; way of speaking, is unique to each one?

    A)  Star of the Show - protagonist

    B)  Villain - antagonist

    C)  Love interest

    D)  Mentor - wise old woman, best  friend, grandmother, grandfather, etc  

    E)  Bit parts - the walk-on cab driver, waitress


Romeo & Juliet - Great Love Defies Death.

Beyond the Quiet - a repressed widow learns to live and fall in love for the first time.

No matter what story you want to tell, always remember the #1 Rule in storytelling is:


Stay off your soapbox or you will lose your reader. If you absolutely must lecture on your theory of life, go into your bathroom, stand in front of your mirror, shut the door, and narrate to your heart's content. For your novels, however, learn the fine art of subtlety. Everyone runs when a windbag enters the room or takes over the pages in a book.


Story Structure is the stumbling block in many new writers’ adventure. It certainly was in mine. For each story, ask yourself, Is there a basic plot? If not, create one.

Basic plot: character A wants something and character B tries to stop him. According to Aristotle, there are three sections of a story: the Beginning, Middle, and End; or,    

Act 1, Act 2, & Act 3

Each act has a specific job to perform, and therefore, each has different requirement.

Plot Points not only help you plot, but when they are used correctly, they increase the dramatic action for the reader. After all, a writer's goal is to keep the reader turning pages.


Who is telling the story? Reader needs to identify with your character.

    A)  First Person Narrative -  I watch the boat skim the waves...

    B)  Second Person - not as popular: You are waiting for your husband/wife/children to come home. They’re late, and you're checking the windows every three minutes...         

    C)  Third:

        1)  Single - one person all through the book: He walked to the window, pulled back the drape, and stood watching for their Camry to turn into the driveway. It was almost midnight...

        2)  Multiple - two or more Points of View which means two or more major characters. To avoid head-hopping, give each major character his/her own scene/chapter

        3)  Omniscient - all knowing, also not recommended as the reader can't identify with a particular character

         EXAMPLE:  Inside the little church, a hallway divided two rows of pews. Mrs. Green, a redhead, sat on the left. Mrs. Jones, her auburn hair not quite as vivid, sat on the right. Both women wore hats from the forties, each with a veil mysteriously shading their eyes. No other woman wore a hat. During the service, Mrs. Green and Mrs. Jones kept glancing at each other, as if each woman wanted to make sure the other was paying more attention to her than to the minister.

SHOW, don't TELL

Show, don't Tell is the most repeated phrase in writing classes and how-to books. It's also one of the most difficult techniques for a writer to master, yet it's critical for reader identification. But what does it mean?

When you TELL about something or someone, you're stating a fact as you know it. But does it mean anything to the reader? Does he/she feel anything by your statement? Chances are, the reader will not. Therefore, to connect with the reader, you must learn the technique of SHOWing in your writing.

    EXAMPLE: You want to introduce Mr. Jones to your reader. What is the best way?

                   A) You could TELL the reader about Mr. Jones:

                        Mr. Jones liked children.

                        Did the reader feel a connection to Mr. Jones?

                   How about this one:

                   B) You could introduce Mr. Jones to your reader by SHOWING his actions.

                       Every Saturday, Mr. Jones gathers the neighborhood children and takes them to the park. Three Saturdays ago, he taught them to fish. Another Saturday, he gave instructions on swimming and diving. For those few hours each weekend, he was the father he'd always longed to be.

While (B) may be better, it's still narration. The best way to SHOW how Mr. Jones likes children is to dramatize a specific Saturday in a SCENE with action and dialogue. Then the reader can SEE Mr. Jones with the children.


Scene is the building block of your story. Story consists of scene, sequel, and narration, repeated over and over until the end. A scene is a single unit of action, taking place in real time. Each scene must have:

      A) Goal - what is the character trying to accomplish? A story needs a scene goal and a story goal.

      B) Conflict - who or what is trying to stop your main character from reaching his/her goal?

      C) Failure, or Disaster – character’s attempts to reach his goal fails. Dramatically.     


Sequel is a time to reflect, to let loose the emotions from the devastating scene. Slam the door, go on a crying jag, wail and moan to your best friend, or retreat behind closed doors, whatever is in the nature of the character you devised. However, a book full of moaning is tedious, so Character must decide how to proceed. Therefore, the steps for sequel are:

       A) Reaction - wail, moan, or cry

       B) Dilemma - what do I do now?

       C) Decision - new goal: I'm going to get that new job, no matter if my boss likes me or not. First thing tomorrow, I'm going to make an appointment for an interview and show him/her what I can do.


Getting your characters talking is the heart of your story. It's where the action takes place and holds the most interest. Many readers skip over narration to read the dialogue, no matter how you've slaved to write that exact word. But when you must write narration, stay true to your character. You do not want to sound like an English professor unless your character teaches English. Nor do you want them to be illiterate, unless you're writing another Grapes of Wrath. It all depends on your character and story.  

Do not, under any circumstances, use dialogue to 'info dump' backstory into dialogue.

Use contractions, the way people speak. Keep dialect at a minimum. Use tags and beats.


Style is more than the way you string words together. It's also how you present your story to the reader. Be sure to vary each scene/chapter as well as sentence length. How quickly or how slow you present your story is called PACING. A historical romance, for instance, moves along at a slower pace than a mystery/suspense, and once you learn pacing, you'll be able to control whether the reader flies through your manuscript, not wanting to put it down, or whether the unfolding is so slow the reader falls asleep.


    a)  Present: she looks into the mirror. What will the other girls wear? She tugs at her skirt, wondering if it is too long.

    b)  Past - more popular: she looked into the mirror. What would the other girls wear? She tugged at her skirt, wondering if it was too long.


Never bore your reader with lengthy description. Try setting that scene or describing that character by following the rule of 3: Use no more than three sentences, but think about the wording in those three sentences. Pick out the most striking qualities of that character or scene and concentrate on telling the reader about them. Many of us go beyond the three at times, but practice honing your descriptions to the qualities most important.

One of the major ways to avoid confusion in your writing is to use the journalistic five W's: Who, What, When, Where and How.  


While emotion is critical to connecting to your reader, under no circumstances do you need your character emoting all over the page - it will resemble an old-fashioned melodrama. Remember, less is more. 


Instead of saying your character feels sad, WRITE IT SO YOUR READER WILL CRY. How to accomplish that? Craft. Technique.


Suspense is not just for mysteries. Without some kind of suspense to your story, your reader will yawn, think of bedtime or all of the other chores he/she should be doing. The book goes down and your next one will sit on the shelf. You want your reader to stay up all night turning pages; you don't want to put him/her into a coma.

 How to make your material engrossing? Technique, the craft of knowing how to create tension and suspense. 


To outline or not to outline. Do you really need it? One writer outlines extensively using index cards and colored markers. Another simply lists chapters and their one-line content. One former instructor writes his story then, during revision, outlines using stepping stones/plot points. You must find what works for you.

Do you know what Stepping Stones are and when to use them? If not, check my Plotting Help section.

MINI-SYNOPSIS, or Your Jewel

Your Jewel is your story condensed into one hundred dynamic words or less. It's great for query letters, blurbs. Make sure you hit the Stepping Stones/Plot Points so the agent/editor can see you know classic story structure.


A famous quote says, "Writing is rewriting." How long it takes you to produce a publishable manuscript depends on several factors:

     A)  correct grammar, punctuation and sentence structure

     B)  use of all five senses to give the reader the full experience of the fiction world

     C)  a cool-off period after the first draft

     D)  and, most important of all, an excellent editor.


No one can write a mistake-proof manuscript, but a manuscript full of errors is a sure way to get it rejected. If you can't afford a professional, perhaps a retired school teacher or someone good in grammar may be willing to proofread your manuscript - but be careful. S/he may be excellent in spotting wrong word usage or incorrect grammar, but do not rely on her/him for true story editing. Unless they've had extensive writing classes, few proofreaders recognize a Point of View drift or misplaced Flashbacks. Instead, consider joining a writers' critique group. Most are willing, even eager, to trade manuscripts for critiquing. Even then, they may be beginners who can proofread, but they may not know modern story structure. Even if one or more of the members’ knowledge is extensive, realize there’s just not enough time at a meeting to go into structure detail. Plus, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to check while viewing a few pages at a time. But for what they DO offer, the experience may be priceless.

Taglines, or the Pitch

If you’ve written a book, congratulations! It takes dedication and intestinal fortitude to block out your family and whatever free time you might have, even if it’s only a few moments here and there, to accomplish your goal. But you did it!

Now you’re faced with another task-- describing your book in a few enticing sentences. 

It’s inevitable. When you meet someone, one of the first things they ask is, “What do you do?” If you say you’re a writer, they’ll ask, “Are you published?” Then, “What’s your book about?”

Hmm. What do you say when someone—a friend, an organization—asks about your book?

As professionals, we should have that dynamite one-or two-sentence summary already prepared, that catchy phrase that’ll hook them and create a desire to want to know more. If we don’t, we may ramble on and on until our friend’s eyes glaze over and she/he suddenly remembers an appointment and runs for the door.

I know; I’ve been guilty to doing just that.


After so humiliating experiences of rambling on with no end in sight, I worked and worked, struggling to condense an entire novel into something to resemble the blurb on a book’s back cover, only I needed something even shorter, something witty and intriguing I could just roll off my tongue. I wanted to wow my audience instead of boring them into a coma. And I desperately needed to create something catchy for query letters.

For Ten Times Guilty, a crime novel, I struggled with several tags that didn’t seem to work. Finally I settled on one that attracted attention: 

…about a single mother’s struggle for worth after a vicious attack. About a police sergeant seeking redemption for a crime he didn’t realize he had committed—until the victim dies.

I kept that one for quite a while, then recently changed it for an upcoming promo:

...a single mother on the run. A serial rapist determined to hunt her down.

I may or may not keep that one.

But for a later novel, From the Abyss, a romantic suspense, nothing seemed to work.

A few years ago I joined our local Toastmaster’s club to hone my rusty public-speaking skills. As a newcomer, I was asked to introduce myself, and after giving my name, the next question was, “What do you do?” When I said I was a writer, the questions came:

“What do you write?”

“Are you published?”

“What is your book about?”

Heaven help me, there it was again: What’s your book about? I didn’t have a good answer, so I stumbled and stuttered, mumbling something that I’m sure caused them to doubt I could write my own name. At home, I worked on that question: What is my book about?

From the Abyss:

It’s about …

… a woman who, after her husband of twenty-five years dies, finally learns to live.

… a widow who discovers her twenty-five-year marriage was a sham, and it forces her to examine her life as a wife, mother, and as a woman. Her journey to self-discovery leads to a new romance and the courage to follow her long-buried dreams.

… about a lonely widow’s journey to self-discovery. What she learns leads to a new romance, more heartbreak, and the chance to follow her long-buried dreams.

… it’s about a lonely widow’s struggle through grief, bitterness, and a new romance.

… a lonely widow whose journey to self-discovery leads to a new romance and the chance to follow her long-buried dreams.

… a lonely widow who learns to open her heart and reach for her long-buried dreams.

They’re all nice, but each commits the three unpardonable sins in fiction: boring, Boring, BORING!

So now what? I checked TV Guide, my Dish programming, book catalogs, and my library, for short book descriptions. Most were excellent, and I wondered how on earth they learned to do that.

In comparing the ones I found to be the most interesting, I discovered they take the basic plotline and put a dramatic touch to it. So I finally came up with two versions—a short  one to entice interest, and the second to include in a query to agents. It may not be the best, but it was enough to attain a contract with an agent.

1st version for the query – and what I quoted when asked about my book:

Lisa Montgomery thought her twenty-five year marriage was a happy one, but after her husband succumbs to a fatal disease, she discovers his secret post office box.

2nd a longer version to follow the elevator pitch for the query:

In the days following her husband’s death, Lisa Montgomery falls into depression, not knowing or caring if it’s day or night. Then she discovers betrayal so devastatingly deep she wonders if she will ever recover.

But life sometimes offers second chances.

From the Abyss shares the story of a widow’s struggle though loss, betrayal, and bitterness, learning to cherish each moment and follow her long-buried dreams. It's the story of how a quiet, passionless woman becomes spirited enough to climb onto her lover's shoulders for a piggyback ride in the nude.

To create the first one, often called The Elevator Pitch, because it’s supposed to be short enough to garner interest during an elevator ride, jot down the basic storyline, even if it’s several paragraphs long, then start cutting. Cut until only a couple of the most dramatic descriptions are left, then play with them to turn them into dynamic sentences.

Then practice it on your family and friends and watch their expressions. If their eyes glaze over and they look around as if seeking an escape, rewrite. But if their eyebrows lift in interest or they ask to read it, you know you’ve got it. Include that one in your query or in your Amazon’s book’s description if you self-publish.

Expand slightly for the second version, but when sending it in an email, especially in a query, try to keep it to three paragraphs maximum. It may take some practice, but you can do it.

Good luck!

Phrases To Find & KILL

While editing my client’s latest novel, I found this phrase, “I thought to myself.”


I almost skipped it as it was a familiar phrase, one I’d seen or heard many times in novels and on TV. I’d heard it the night before on an infomercial about male enhancement. When I heard the female prattle on about thinking to herself, I laughed.


Who else would she be thinking to?


If she thought to someone else, she’d have to use telepathy. So after a chuckle, I changed it to simply, “I thought.”


Now I was on the lookout for other nonsensical phrases we writers use. What could they be?


I’m not a romance writer, but I have friends and clients who are, so I’m familiar with their rules of writing. Romance publishers have issues with moving body parts, such as:


His eyes followed her around the room.


When you imagine that one, what do you see? I see a young woman running from door to door in a large room, frantically searching for one that was unlocked, a pair of disembodied eyes floating after her. Not a pretty sight. Here’s another:


She stared into dark eyes that fell to the ancient scrolled book on her lap.

in her lap, gazing up adoringly at a man standing next to her, when suddenly, his eyes fall out of his head and onto the book in her lap.


Scary stuff.


I know they’re phrases used often, by newbie writers and by the old pros, but that doesn’t make them correct. New romance writers use them because that was the old style of writing, but once they attend writing conferences or have their work edited by professionals, they learn to avoid writing moving body parts and flowery purple prose.


While I’m just as guilty as the next one of writing similar phrases during a first draft, I’m more aware of stamping them out during revision. After all, we want to entertain our readers and wow them with our creative brilliance.


We want them to cry over our tender, heartbreaking scenes, not laugh themselves silly because the hero’s “manroot sought her tunnel of desire.”


Agents, Advances, and Royalties

Querying agents can be a long, often heartbreaking process, but so far, it’s the only path to most major publishers. Since I’ve gone through the process and have been published by commercial (traditional) publishers, I’m often asked about agents, advances and royalties.


I’ve also been published by smaller publishers who accept direct queries from authors, and I can tell you that in my view, it’s not worth it. Most do not offer advances, although some advertise they do. If so, it’s usually under a thousand dollars, often under a hundred.


Early in my career, I felt discouraged by all the delays and signed with a smaller publisher. Even though I was contractually supposed to receive statements of earnings and royalty checks, I seldom received either, even though Amazon listed two of my books under “Hot new books” and showed them as bestsellers in two categories. According to my contract, if I had a dispute, I could travel to the publisher’s office and go through their records, but it would all be on my own time and expense. After talking to an attorney, I realized I had an extreme low chance of recovering any earnings. But after complaining to several agencies, including online watchdogs and the BBB, I was granted a release from my contracts and my book rights reverted back to me. I was fortunate. I know of authors whose rights were tied up for years.


Of course there are always exceptions, but if you expect to be paid for your work and want your book in a physical bookstore – other than your local mom & pop store - I recommend going through the process of querying an agent and waiting – sometimes months for a response. Often it’s a rejection, but keep trying. I suffered through years of rejections before an agent offered a contract. I broke down in tears. Then I celebrated.


Remember Richard Bach’s comment:

“The professional writer is the amateur who didn’t quit.”


However, just to prove how unpredictable this business can be, with my last agent, I’d just clicked the ‘send’ button on my computer, rose from my desk to get some dinner, when the phone rang. I was exhausted after agonizing over my query for days, even revising just before sending, and all I wanted was some dinner and a nap. I almost let the phone go to voice mail, but thank heavens I did answer. When she identified herself as the agent, I was so shocked I could barely speak, and I doubt I said anything that made sense. She happened to be reading queries when mine came in, and after reading it and the sample manuscript pages, she picked up the phone. Talk about miracles!   


Once you’re offered a contract, your agent will receive 15% of all your earnings, but she  earns that commission. Instead of he/she, I’ll use the term She, since two of my agents were women.


She’ll work for you by knowing the market, by schmoozing with the acquiring editors of major publishers, and by tirelessly pitching your story. She only earns money when your book earns money, so it’s to her benefit to get the best possible deal.


When a major publisher offers a contract, your agent will carefully go over each word, and if not to her liking, she will negotiate for better terms, including international rights, film rights, and just about anything else. That contact includes an advance, and the amount of money offered depends on how well the publisher projects your book will sell.


Upon signing with the publisher, you’ll be offered a percentage of your advance, usually a third, then another third when the final manuscript is edited and the final edits are approved, then the last third when the book is published. Once your book is published and on the market, your royalties will begin to accrue.


An important point to remember is that an advance is exactly that: an advance against future earnings, which means your book must earn back the amount of the advance before your book earns royalties. If, by any chance, your book tanks and you do not earn enough past your advance to collect royalties, don’t worry. You do NOT pay back the advance.


Months before the publishing date, your publisher sends ARCs – Advance Reading Copies printed in a physical book form – to major reviewers, and their sales staff presents your book to chain bookstores along with other new releases. For those of you, like me, who want to walk into a Barnes & Noble and see your book on their shelf, a major publisher is the only way. Again, there are exceptions, but they’re not the norm.


But if your book does reasonably well, you can expect a nice income from your book(s). A few years ago, I met a historical romance author who bought a castle in Europe, while another series romance author I know wrote the little series romances. After her first two books were published, she retired from hairdressing and wrote two books a year. With her earnings she financed her husband’s business and her family’s cross-country trips. The better your book sells, the more advance the publisher offers for your next book.


Today, many writers prefer to self-publish, to remain in control of the process, and to receive all the royalties due them. That’s okay too. Once the rights to my books reverted back to me, I did the same, so I’ve experienced both worlds. Which do I prefer? Even with all the disappointments, the rejections, the self-doubts, the lure of the bookstore selves still call to me. 


So if fame and fortune are your goals, never give up. Be prepared. I’ve heard agents and acquiring editors complain again and again of poorly-prepared queries and even worse manuscripts. Join a critique group and get feedback on your pages as well as your synopsis and query. Make sure there are no typos. Even though your book is your baby and you adore it, not everyone is going to love it. Keep in mind that publishing is a business and your book is your product. If you’re going to present your baby to the public, make sure its diaper is clean.