The Word and Syntax Writer Wake Up
Nothing is perfect, especially when it comes to writing. You can always tweak for better wording. The time to tweak most is before publishing. Yes, it seems self-evident but searching for the mot juste that isn’t quite yet or refining the language of a sentence are part of the writing process.
Effective writing takes thought and time, and an ear for the vocabulary and syntax muse.
When you wake up with a new version of a sentence you wrote in your last chapter—yes, one sentence out of the entire chapter—you don’t write a note to yourself in the notebook near your bed. You get up out of bed, bring up the manuscript on the computer, and change the sentence. You do this because you know you won’t get back to sleep until you make the change.
The One Word
In the days before the internet and quick but boring results in an online Thesaurus, writers made telephone calls in the middle of the night. Who else would be up then? But, even if someone was already in bed, they woke up to talk about writing with sometimes devastating results.
What’s another word for phoenix?
And the conversation continued. If you need a translation for my fellow writer’s answer: It’s been done with excellence.
Here’s the modern day online Thesaurus answer.
Yep, pretty boring. As writers, we still need to hash out word ideas.
Now we have social media, where because it’s there 24/7, doesn’t require an immediate answer. You can post a question and although the response may not be immediate because your fellow writer lives in Bulgaria, you get an answer.
Because writing is a process, you don’t get immediate gratification, but sometimes just asking the question to another writer, gets the internal wheels turning for an alternative word choice.
Your passion shows when you care about that one right word or strengthening a sentence.
Connect with Writers
Connecting with other writers enhances your passion for writing. Writing groups can help you spot the sentence or paragraph that lags, or a better way to sequence events in a story, and even suggest the right mot juste.
One of the rewards of connecting with other writers is shared passion.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court. Join the reader's list.
When Friends Become Enemies and Enemies Become Friends
Challenging your protagonist with obstacles adds intrigue and engagement for readers. Reversals, where what appears to be one thing turns into something else are great obstacles to throw at your protagonist. Just when the reader thinks they know, a reversal pivots the story. The protagonist experiences an unexpected challenge.
Action stories often have physical reversals such as a helicopter crash just as the hero is off to catch the bad guy. Character reversals imbue an emotional punch to any story genre.
Setting up character reversals takes a deep knowledge of your characters. You need a deep understanding of weaknesses and masks. For example,
Now think how your story would expand if both supporting characters were in your story. Will your protagonist see the manipulation of the employee? Will she triumph over the devastated woman by winning the man of her dreams?
Creating character reversal requires a deep understanding of your character. You’ll go far beyond physical description and dig into their inner makeup. Reveal the patterns, foibles, weaknesses, and strengths that belong to your character over time. You want to go from how they first appear in body language and speech to the change that emerges to challenge your protagonist.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
The more you add to your character’s list of inner turbulence, the more tools you have to reveal the reversal. In your story you will start with the appearance and gradually reveal the nature that changes the character’s action.
At some point in your story, an action or piece of dialogue will trigger revealing the character’s underpinnings, change their action, and cause your protagonist to rethink their next action.
Once you have given the reader a solid idea of your character, you can hint at the change to come. To make the reversal integral to the story, drop small hints early in Act 2. Use small clues that the reader and your protagonist may overlook—a gesture, a glance, a comment that doesn’t quite fit.
Build on the character’s underlying change so that by the time you are past the midpoint, their base character creates an obstacle for your protagonist.
Take Your Reader on the Ride
As you complicate the characters around the protagonist, you create problems. Obstacles are the meat of challenging your protagonist. Using character reversals challenges your hero to strive for the goal. A novel-length story provides ample space for you to challenge your protagonist with several character reversals.
Give your hero a bumpy ride. Your readers will love the ride.
Zara combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus Mysteries in southern Italy at the time of Ostrogoth rule.
Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash
Politics and People: Story Conflict Root
Character and conflict are at the heart of story. These story elements are as important in historical fiction as they are in any other genre.
Characters are modeled on human beings. Because human nature is a given, as an author you have a wide spectrum of character traits to play with no matter what your genre. Put your character’s traits in opposition to a situation or a person and you create conflict.
Political Power Creates Conflict
In the Argolicus Mysteries the main character, Argolicus, may be solving a murder but the politics of the time creates complications, reversals, and roadblocks. The Ostrogoths rule Italy and Roman law prevails for Italians. Basically two rules of law one for the Ostrogoths and one for Italians.
The introduction to each story tells a story of relative international peace.
With few exceptions, the western world was at peace in the year 512 after Christ’s birth. Warlords were plotting in the Balkans either for the East or the West, but mainly for their own power. Rumblings in Persian borderlands perhaps threatened the Roman Empire as seated in Constantinople. The most recent disturbances—betrayals, if you will—of the Frankish kingdoms had been settled some five years. Bishops and clergy squabbled over textual interpretations of the Gospel, patristic writings, or Patriarchal proclamations, as usual, some in a huff, others with conciliatory leanings. Vandals had controlled northern Africa for almost 100 years. The Visigoths ruled Spain and traded with avarice. In Italy affairs of concern were mainly internal—the parallel Roman law and Ostrogoth legal systems ran under the regal Edicts guided by a sense of civility, providing structure for dispute resolution.
But the stories take place in the far south of Italy, far from the capitol at Ravenna. There is social unrest, the Church and nobles vie for power, and many poor people are displaced. While many people think of politics in a national way, local politics can impact individual characters.
Think of your local town where a do-gooder serves as treasurer of several local non-profits and finds a way to skim off a little for himself from each treasury, or the local manufacturer who spends time eyeing young girls in the schoolyard. These are people with local power who also have a darker side.
Whether your story is set in the present or the distant past, the characters are human. Human nature does not change. As a writer, you don’t have to look far to find people involved in politics who hide secrets.
The challenge in historical novels is to know the politics of the time well enough to weave it into the story. The human nature of your characters takes care of their actions. The politics is part of the background that sets some people in power and others who work against that power.
Politics adds dimension. The characters provide the conflict working within the political structure. Politics is part of the story world that adds conflict by displaying human weakness.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries
When Writing Stops
You’re at some point in your story and all of a sudden you don’t know where to go next. If you stop writing, it’s not writer’s block. You just don’t know where to go next with your story. You may feel as though you have written yourself into a corner with no way out. Or, you get bogged down with detail and loose narrative drive and focus.
Whatever the reason, your writing stops.
Here are some ways to kick your story back in gear.
5 Ways to Get Back In and Move the Story Forward
And a McGuffin
I was working on a story and seemed to have nothing to say. I don’t believe in writer’s block, so I knew something was wrong with the story. I remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s advice that every story needs a McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot). Once I found the McGuffin, the dialogue I was writing came to life, and the story moved. I saw how the McGuffin would trail through the story.
If you find yourself staring at a blank page not knowing what to write next, take a look at your story. Look for missing pieces and overall structure.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries.
StoryShop the Creative Planner for Novels
I’ve been using StoryShop since I started as a beta tester in June 2016. I love it! I’m a big believer in planning before you write and StoryShop is a creative tool for brainstormers like me.
StoryShop allows me to capture and idea. That’s great because writers have ideas. But StoryShop lets you build, organize, and reorganize at will.
The online program was created by writers for writers so the program understands how writers create and facilitates building a story. The program is not static and users are encouraged to send suggestions for additional functionality. As a user, you can vote on suggestions to encourage the programmers to consider a suggestions.
For co-writers, collaborators, and ghost writers, the collaboration feature allows more than one writer to work on the story.
With StoryShop, you will:
In each StoryShop World you create your stories along with your relevant information. The Worlds feature is great for series as well because you can link Characters and Settings (Elements) throughout the series.
You can easily customize each World with visuals. The images are big and bold and serve as mind triggers to get the writer into the story.
The World contains as many stories as you want to create within that specific world. For example in my Worlds I have two one-off books - Father Trap and Contrast Legacy - as well as the Argolicus Mysteries.
When you select a world, all of the material related to the world is in one place - Characters, Elements, and Stories. So, each story in the series is held in one big World basket.
The story component is made for creative planning. As you brainstorm your story you can add plot elements (scenes) and rearrange them as your story builds.
You can add sub elements of a scene - a bit a dialogue, a physical description, etc. - as they come to mind. By the end you have organized each beat and all the scenes to complete the storyline.
You can tag characters and elements (blue highlights) in the scene to make certain everyone in the scene is there. On the other hand, if you are creating the story and find you need a character you can add a new character and add them to the scene.
As you work through the storyline you can quickly hit Notes to add a quick note to yourself and then return to working on the storyline. This feature helps keep focus on the work at hand but allows for notes to build on the plot or scene later.
I use the Notes frequently as I am building out the storyline. For me, the notes help me fill in plot holes. I can return to the note later and work on building a missing element in the storyline.
This feature also facilitates collaboration with co-writers working on the same story.
The world is your oyster when it comes to creating characters in StoryShop. The visuals help solidify your character’s features. You can add a visual background for each character. I do this for main characters but not always for secondary characters.
In the illustration, Ebrimuth, Argolicus’ Ostrogoth friend has both a character image and a background. Because he is a man of action in contrast to the thinking Argolicus, I chose an action image.
One of the bodyguards in the novel, Eboric, goes berserk when confronted. I wanted to capture that explosive element in his character image.
The images help me cement that character in my mind.
But it isn’t just images where StoryShop helps develop characters. You can add as much information as you want as well as links to web pages for pertinent background.
Marcus is the middle child in a family in The Vellum Scribe. The Character mode of StoryShop allows you to create relationships to other characters in the story. Character Attributes are physical attributes like hair, eyes, physical build, etc. Character DNA are questions devised by the StoryShop developers to help dig into your character’s personality and backstory.
I use Character Summary not so much as a summary but for the background and key aspects of the character that move the story.
Elements are pieces of the story outside of characters. They can be anything and everything that help create your story world - settings, McGuffins, armory, cultural role functions. For historical, fantasy, and science fiction writers especially elements are the building blocks of your story world.
I have the average monthly temperatures for Squillace, the vellum scribe’s book with links and images, the role of the Saio in Theodoric’s Italy, and others.
Elements allow you to keep your background research at hand while you are creating the story sequence.
The Creative Writer’s Creative Tool
StoryShop solves many challenges of the planning stage in producing a novel. The application is flexible. Take what you like and use it. For example, if you don't want background images for every character, you can skip uploading an image.
For series writers, your world and your individual stories are all connected as well as characters and elements. StoryShop has a tagging feature to interconnect among characters and elements.
Later in September the writing app will be added for a streamlined writing experience from planning to producing your novel.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a province far from the King's court.
The Mini-Story that Builds Your Novel
Each scene is a building block to your story. And, each scene is a mini-story with the same components as the main story.
But the scene has one more function:
Pantser or Planner, It Doesn’t Matter
If you are a planner, you can plan out the basic storyline of the scene. As a writer, you know characters do and say unexpected things. You have a basic structure to keep them from going too far from the scene and disrupting the story plan. I’m not saying characters shouldn’t be disruptive within the story, just make sure actions are moving the story forward and not drama for drama’s sake.
Are you a pantser? Then don’t despair. You can review your scene after you write it to check that you have covered the basic scene elements. Some pantsers wait until the first edit to check each scene. Others check the scene and then go on to the next scene.
How to Check Your Scene
As you review the scene check each element to keep your story from going adrift.
The central character of the scene doesn’t have to be the protagonist. But you write the scene from the scene’s main character point of view. If you found you have jumped characters you need to edit to keep the scene centered on that main character.
The obstacle can be as physical as a fight to the death or as mental as trying to solve a problem. At the beginning of the scene the character confronts a problem. By the end of the scene, the character has either solved the problem--won the fight, figured it out--or is defeated. Every scene needs a challenge.
The reader needs to know where the character is. Who is in the room? On the field? On the street?
The setting can contribute to the obstacle by challenging the scene’s central character physically or adding and emotion overlay to the action and dialogue.
Worldbuilders need to add the special details around the characters as they speak and act.
The Emotional Arc
As the central character interacts with others through dialogue and action his emotional position changes. Whether she overcomes the obstacle or is defeated, she’ll have an emotional response to the consequences. The emotional arc is the key to keeping readers engaged and turning the page.
The Structure - Beginning, Middle, EndIf you have your central character in a setting that adds to the story faced by a challenge, you’re on your way. By the time the character has wrestled the challenge (middle) and either won or lost (end), you walked your scene through the structure.
The Final Evaluation - Move The Story Forward
Once your scene is complete, you need to take a look at how it fits into the overall story. If it’s an info-dump about the story world you’ll need to lighten up by integrating the information into other parts of the story. If it’s a cute scene or a big fight you still need to review how the scene moves the story forward.
If the scene is the best writing you’ve ever done it still needs to move the story along. Every writer learns to put their darlings aside if not outright kill them. You can save expository information to sprinkle in other scenes. Save that adorable scene for another story or give it an impetus to move the overall story toward the conclusion. You’ll need your editor’s hat to make sure the scene is doing the job--moving the story forward.
Want to practice scene writing? What’s happening with that duck in the dark?
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a provice far from the King's court.
You Are Not Alone
Every writer goes through fear at some point. That pit-in-the-stomach, I’m-not-good-enough, my-story-sucks, no-one-will-ever-read-this fear blasts strike all writers. Creativity rides the emotional rollercoaster. Creativity is risk taking. Yes, successful, multi-book authors have the same fears.
Self-Doubt Is The Number One Writer Fear
Blame it on your amygdala, part of your body’s alarm system. Located at the root of your brain the amygdala does everything it can—automatically—keep you safe. If there is risk, the amygdala sends out signals to keep your body safe. Creativity is risk. Fear will happen.
You’ll get fear-lessening signals of every kind.
You’re a writer. You know what the fears are. They don’t go away. So, if you are a beginning writer, know that these fears are going to pop up. The key is to recognize the fears and calm them down.
Best-selling author Caroline Leavitt says in a recent interview on The Writer,
So you can’t listen to what people say. There will always be people telling you “you can’t do this,” or “I don’t like this.” There are so many writers who have gotten 80,000 rejections and then suddenly they sell a book and it’s a huge critical and commercial success. So you never know. Just keep writing.
Self-doubt manifests as self-censorship, so one of the best ways to calm that fear is to keep writing until you find your voice. That unique voice that makes a reader love what you write.
So, keep writing. Don’t get thrown off track. Focus on your current project and your long-term writing goals.
Fear of Rejection
One major element of writer fear is rejection. Just about anyone can trigger rejection fear. You can find yourself in a shutdown of getting your work out, even for help from professionals like editors. So, you can end up not sharing your work, even bits of it, with other people.
On the one hand, bad reactions happen. I have writer friends who have received devastating comments from editors who didn’t understand their genre and terse rejection letters from agents. They found others and published their books with success.
One of the best ways to start combating this fear, is to join a local writer’s group. To start, find a mutually supportive group with fewer than ten people and make certain they are sympatico. Avoid groups with
Don’t hesitate to leave if the group doesn’t fit.
The people in the group are also writers with the same fears. Every writer has fears.
Other writers understand your fears. You’ll discover that other writers are one of your best fear conquering connections.
So Many Fears
As if self-doubt and fear of rejection weren’t enough, writer and writing coach Jurgen Wolff has identified seven basic writer fears in his book Your Writing Coach:
And, I’m sure you, as a writer, can add your personal list.
With so many fears lurking in your writer mind, it’s easy to succumb. Writers who succeed keep writing.
The Determination Antidote
Know that doubts are going to creep in. They never go away. But you can work to minimize the fear. The best antidote to writer fear is determination.
Author and writing coach Joanna Penn calls working on your work the “palette cleanser.” Get the taste of those fears out and work to find your writer voice by continuing to write. She talks about The Successful Author Mindset in a recent podcast. This is a great talk to bookmark so you can listen when those fears pop up.
Non-fiction author David Amerland has found his voice several times as he writes. He’s gone from marketing, to the semantic web, to SEO for business owners. And recently, inadvertently, found the spark for his new book The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions while researching something else.
If that quote spurs you to determination, he has posted an entire page of fear conquering quotes. You can bookmark this page, too, for quick fear-fighting inspiration.
Get To It
The one action all of these successful writers recommend is to keep writing. I tell my writing clients the same thing.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.
First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
– Ray Bradbury
The Writer's Surprise Gift
Writer’s know when they are in the zone and the story flows. If you use an outline to hit the main beats of your story, you’ll know what you want to accomplish in the scene.
Your characters may be sitting on a park bench in the snow, digging a ditch as Nazi prisoners, chasing the bad guys, or any other scene you have imagined You begin a dialog between characters and all of a sudden they are saying things you hadn’t planned or considered.
Listen To The Characters
If you are into your story and know what makes your characters tick, when words start coming, listen. Your characters will add new dimension to the scene.
You already know to dispense with banalities--hello, it’s a great day, etc.--and get right to the conversation. Think of your dialog in the same way as the scene: start late, leave early.
Dialogue that begins in media res (without preamble) is a strong way to begin a scene, drawing the reader in. Dialogue that ends early is a structured way to end a scene or chapter, often with a cliffhanger moment to keep the reader turning the page or, at the end, waiting for the next book in your series.
Add To The Story
As a storyteller, those unexpected words from a character can foreshadow a later moment in the story, add depth to both characters, complicate the plot, deepen the relationship within the story, and other story dimensions.
The benefit of having a rough outline is that as the dialog hints of story change you can make notes in the outline that further incorporate the discoveries as your characters speak. Those surprise moments from the characters often lead to other conversations later in the story.
In order for your characters to have conflict within their conversations, you need to know them inside and out. Know the backstory that is never mentioned that would prompt a character to think, respond, and say the words. Know how the two characters relate to each other with friendship, love, annoyance, hate, or unsuspecting naïveté.
The better you understand your characters, each one, the more surprising words will pop out unbidden. Then listen.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Laurence Sterne
I enjoy when writers can find a balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
– Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.
Get to know Argolicus in the Argolicus Mysteries starting with The Used Virgin. The Peach Widow will be out soon.
Work in progress: Ravenna: A Mosaic a historical thriller.
Story Outline Template
The Peach Widow
The Used Virgin