Monday, December 16, 2019

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you a very 
Merry Christmas 
and a 
Happy New Year!

See you in 2020!

Monday, December 2, 2019

On Fighting

When, where, and how your characters fight speaks volumes.

Who are they most willing (and most likely) to fight with? With whom do they refuse to fight under any circumstances? Do they fight fairly or are they more vindictive--calling names, using threats or sarcasm, swearing or telling lies? What issues do they fight about? Are these problems serious or mundane--inconsequential, even?

Maybe your character doesn't fight at all.

Maybe she makes an exception in this one instance. 

What could have possibly gone wrong?

Part of developing a well-rounded character requires knowing and understanding how characters will act when faced with a potential argument. Their reactions and behaviors are what add variety and depth to a story, so it's worth considering these traits (among others) before the first page is written.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, November 25, 2019

Weather as a Metaphor

If we could sum up the use of weather as a metaphor in a single word. . . .


Don't do it.

As writers, and especially beginning writers, it can be tempting to force the weather to mirror our characters' moods and the situations in which they find themselves.

We have good intentions, of course--it's for effect, to add layers and depth to a scene. 

After all, there's nothing like a sudden thunderstorm to interrupt the throes of outdoor passion. Or a heated argument in the rain (I admit, that's a favorite of mine). Or a perfect spring day to match the kindling of a new love.

And sure, sometimes in real life we fight on dark, wet days. And those afternoon picnics with the ones we love are, in fact, spent beneath a warm sun. But aligning the weather to every situation in our novels is a bit pedestrian.

As humans, we respond to weather. It's also one of the easiest things to describe in a story.

But it's not a perfect metaphor, so use it sparingly as one (if at all).

Be Brilliant!


Monday, November 18, 2019

On Finding the Best Way to Tell a Story

There's more than one way to tell a story, and a writer who doesn't consider every option--every character, style, point of view--is doing himself a disservice.

The solution? Try writing a few paragraphs or even a chapter from a variety of perspectives to find the most compelling possibility.

It's worth the time and effort to find the narrator and point of view that will bring out the best in your writing and storytelling skills.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, November 4, 2019

On Silence

Sometimes what a writer doesn't say is as important as what he says.

Just like a musician will let a note hang suspended to create drama and tension in a piece, so can writers use this kind of lull to their advantage. 

Too much information, in fact, can detract from a scene and slow down the pacing of a story to a detrimental degree. 

The antidote to this? 


Silence is what ignites the reader's imagination, allowing them to take your story and fill in the empty spaces.

There isn't enough room to cover everything, so it comes down to what needs to be real within the scene and what can be implied. 

Sometimes less really is more.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, October 28, 2019

On Unlikeable Characters

Many MANY moons ago, when I was with my first agent who was pitching my first novel to publishers--back when "YA" was still a relatively new category--I received a rejection from an editor who passed because she found my main character too "unlikeable."

I cringed at the word then--but hey--this was an editor with a big house, and of course she knew what she was talking about. But now, almost fifteen years later, I find that I'm still not a fan of this word: unlikeable.

What is an "unlikeable character," really?

Because to me, "unlikeable" means complicated and conflicted. It means they're making mistakes all over the place. They're not perfect. They don't always say or do the right thing. . . .

But isn't that just being "human"?

No one is fully likeable 100% of the time. And, if they are, where is the conflict? How does a fully likeable character make for an interesting story? 

The thing is, we can still, as readers, find unlikeable characters appealing. We can find their "unlikeability" compelling at various degrees, especially when we see ourselves in them. That's what makes them real and relatable.

So pass on, editors, but discerning readers know the best characters come with their own set of flaws, and, at the end of the day, "likeability" is a stale litmus where story is concerned.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, October 21, 2019

Sweat the Small Stuff

When revealing character, the small details matter. They might matter more, in fact, than the "big" details.

When I first sent ALL I NEVER WANTED to my beta readers, one returned the very first page with a note that changed the way I described my characters:

First and foremost, this is a story of redemption.
But it’s also a love story. A love story that begins with a black eye and a mental health facility, and while that hardly seems the setting for a modern romance, and I’m the last guy anyone would consider a knight in shining armor, trust me when I say I’d suffer a thousand black eyes to meet her again. But before there was the rehab and the fist to the face and the falling for a girl with jagged nails and graphite smudges on her fingertips, there was my dad’s annual holiday party. And it happened like this. . . .

I don't remember how I first described Summer Evans in the prologue, but it leaned toward blonde hair and blue eyes and was, in a word, boring. It was the beta who suggested I re-think how I first presented Summer to the audience. Hair and eyes are great, but those jagged nails and graphite smudges tell a much deeper story, don't you think?

It's the little details that will add life to your story. I could've gone on about how massive Trent's house was, but I zeroed in on the columns--the leaves carved into the capitals--and it really only mattered that Crewe knocked a server's tray out of her hands at their dad's party, but it's more exciting when it's a silver tray of miniature cannoli which scatter, rolling across the marble floor.

The little details aren't so little, then, so don't equate little with unimportant. It's the small things that the reader will remember--that will breathe life into your story.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, October 14, 2019

This Sentence has Five Words. . . .

Sentence structure and word choice. 

They're two of the most important tools in your writer's kit. 

Vary your sentence structure.

Choose your words carefully. 

Make your writing sing.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, October 7, 2019

On Secrets

What's one of the best ways to begin a story?

with a secret

     A secret tells us something has happened before the story began.

     A secret offers a hint as to where the story might lead.

     A secret automatically puts characters at odds with one another.

A secret puts a story in motion almost immediately, creating its own narrative arc.


What is something your main character is hiding from everyone else? Why is he keeping this secret? How does this secret affect him? How does it affect his interactions with the other characters? What are the stakes? (i.e. What does he have to lose?)

Be Brilliant!


Monday, September 30, 2019

The Secret to Showing (Not Telling)--Part Two

In my last post, I talked about one of the secrets to showing (not telling) in your novels. Of course, there's a time and place for telling, so it's not something to avoid completely, but if your prose needs that extra "pop" to draw in readers, not only should you make sure you're writing in the active (not passive) voice, but that you're using precise, vivid words. 

When we're writing a first draft, the goal is to get the story onto paper. Sometimes this means crafting the "skeleton" of a scene. After all, if we focus too much on sentence structure and word choice in a first attempt, we might paralyze ourselves into a corner. 

No one writes a perfect book on the first go-round.

At some point during the revision process, though, we need to look at every sentence--every word--to make sure it's as descriptive as possible. 

Is there a better way to phrase this?
Is there a more descriptive word I can use?

The tendency for beginning writers is to pair adverbs with verbs to strengthen them (i.e. he walked slowly). But why not use a stronger word? "Ambled" might work better here, or "meandered" or "drifted." Each of these words paints a different picture of the person doing the walking and the deeper meaning behind it. 

And not only should we incorporate strong verbs and nouns into our writing (avoiding adverbs as much as we can), but we should also make our descriptions as specific as possible.

It's not just a swing, but a tire swing, fastened to a tree with rope that's dry-rotted from years in the sun and rain. And not just any tree, but a pear tree planted by the couple who built the house more than a hundred years before.

The stronger the details, the more likely you'll keep the reader's attention.

And to ensure those readers aren't going to become lost in extended, flowery prose, keep Strunk and White's advice in mind:

precision, with concision

Meaning: be as specific as possible using the fewest words necessary to tell the story.

And always . . .

Be Brilliant!


Monday, September 16, 2019

The Secret to Showing (Not Telling)--Part One

"Show! Don't Tell."

It's one of the most oft-uttered phrases in writing history. I've heard it. I've said it. But what does it actually mean to "show," and how do we know when we're "telling"?

Secret #1 lies in the verbs we use.

"Showing sentences" use the active voice.

"Telling sentences" use the passive voice.

A passive construction often contains the following formula: "to be" + past participle (or the "ed" verb).

For example: 

     The movie has been watched by the friends over a dozen times. (passive construction)

     The painting was completed by Charlotte. (passive construction

How could we fix these to make them active? By re-arranging the words so that the person or thing is doing the action (not having the action done to them).

     The friends watched the movie more than a dozen times. (active construction)

     Charlotte completed the painting. (active construction)

How do we locate passive sentences in our writing?

First, we should isolate the sentence. Then, we need to determine what's happening in the sentence and decide if an action is taking place. If so, we need to decide if the action is being done to the person or thing, or if the person/thing is doing the action. If the sentence is passive, then it's just a matter of rearranging the subject and verb. 

Is every "be" or "have" sentence passive? No. It depends on how the verb is being used in the sentence, so don't think every am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had needs to be cut from a manuscript. Some of them are important and even necessary.

Just pay careful attention to the action taking place in your sentence. The more "active" the sentence is, the closer you are to "showing."

Be Brilliant!


Monday, September 9, 2019

On Unpredictability

At the end of your novel, all of the various conflicts (inner and outer) and plot points will come to a head and (hopefully) resolve themselves in a satisfying way. 

This is our job as writers, after all, and what the reader expects when he or she takes on one of our stories.

It's important, however, that the plot stays unpredictable up until the final pages. Success doesn't come easily in the real world, and as much as we'd like to keep our characters safe, it shouldn't come easily in our fictional worlds, either. 

Keep the reader guessing until the very last moment; the longer it appears your main character will fail, the more invested the reader will be. 

Be Brilliant!


Monday, September 2, 2019

On Plot Deviations

Whether you're weaving subplots into your fiction, setting up a problem, or incorporating backstory to provide context, the main plot line of your story should never be too far away.

Your main plot line is what drives the story forward, and any deviation from that line has the potential to stall your reader. And while it seems like the opposite would occur--moving away from the story would build tension and entice the reader to keep reading to find out what's going to happen--when the story shifts, moving away from the key tension, you're giving your reader the perfect opportunity to insert the bookmark, fold the page, change screens, set your book aside.

No matter the "extras" you're weaving into your story, make sure the main line is never more than a scene away. 

Be Brilliant!


Monday, August 26, 2019

Character-Driven Stories

In the character-driven story (as opposed to plot-driven), the character's wants, needs, and actions drive the plot. The "outside force" has little impact--it's the main character who is plodding along, propelling the story forward (or backward, or whatever direction his actions take him). 

The journey of the character-driven story often involves self-discovery, which (ideally) leads to transformation. At the end of the story, the character is not the same person he was in chapter one. 

The plot-driven story, of course, benefits from inner conflict and change, but for the character-driven story, this change is what will save the character as he "saves the world." In this way, the inner conflict is just as important as (or more important than) the outer conflict, and the tension surrounding this change is what will compel readers to keep turning pages.

Be Brilliant!



Monday, August 19, 2019

On Creating Problems

Problems that are easy to solve are also easy to forget.

The problems we present in our stories should grow. They should twist and turn. The layers should run deep--really deep.  

Why? The deeper the problem, the more satisfying the ending once the situation is resolved. 

And remember: a "problem" that can be cleared up with a single conversation isn't really a problem. 

I love a good Hallmark movie more than anyone, but I do get kind of miffed when a love interest sees something he or she misinterprets then just leaves town without having a real conversation with the person they're walking away from. I can forgive them because I know we're working toward a happy ending, but I like my conflicts a bit more complex than that.

Yes, Parker was lying to Jaden in Cross My Heart. Could he have cleared everything up with a single conversation? Sure. But he had a reason to lie that was bigger than anyone expected, and when he and Jaden finally had that conversation, she wasn't easy to forgive him--too much had gone wrong.

There was more than a simple misunderstanding at play, and that's why Cross My Heart is (still) my bestselling book. 

The point? 

Create big problems for your characters. Make those problems as thorny as you can. Don't be afraid to push the limits. 

Figure out the worst thing that could possibly happen, then make it worse.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, August 12, 2019

On Tragedy

Sometimes I wrestle with the content of my stories. 

There's so much sadness in the world. Why would I want to contribute to this with my own tales of loss and violence and abuse? 

There's Genesis, of course, dealing with this otherworldly war that she's been dragged into. Some of her friends return; some don't. Jaden ends up in her own crossfire situation, which forces her to question everything she knows about the guy she loves. Fallon's stepfather is violent and unpredictable. Summer struggles with her memory of a single night that changed her entire life--how can she grieve the loss of her best friend when she doesn't even know what happened to her? And even in my Christmas novella, Olivia's mom is in the middle of a cancer battle. Next Christmas could be very different for all of them.

Meanwhile, the guys (men, really, because most of my love interests edge toward the 18+ side) who love them or are learning to love them stand by--sometimes helpless, sometimes not. . . .

The fact is: there's at least one part in each of my stories where everything reaches peak point of heartbreak (sometimes after a series of heartbreaks). 

And sure, maybe I should be writing happier stories (escapism, anyone?) and not trying to make my readers cry all the time, but in truth there *is* tragedy in the world--it's all around us--and often we have very little control over both what happens and the aftermath. Still, it's in these moments that we gain clarity and perspective. 

It's when our world is crashing down around us that we tend to rethink and reassess--strip our life down to its most basic meaning. In these moments we decide what matters most, and that's when big changes happen. 

An unexpected tragedy shows that there is a larger world at work in your novel. It lifts the characters out of themselves, proving that destiny is, in fact, a thing, and it's as much a part of your story world as it is in the current world in which we live.

And what is reading if not practice for the real world? 

If our characters can survive a tragedy, so can we. 

So maybe the tears are worthwhile, after all.

*passes you tissues, keeps on writing*

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 29, 2019

On Values

Good humor
Spirit of adventure

These are examples of core values. 

What are core values?

Core values are fundamental beliefs or guiding principles. They dictate our behavior and help us determine what’s right and what’s wrong.

I like to think I’m a passionate and motivated person--that I persevere even when the world around me goes dark. I consider myself reliable and committed, especially when it comes to my writing life. These are my core values.

But our characters should have core values, as well.


Because readers want to be able to relate to and look up to a hero character, and a character with positive core values is more likely to resonate with them.

Even with his (or her) flaws, a main character should be someone worth following—someone worth saving—and the simple reason is because it’s much easier to raise the stakes in a novel where the reader doesn’t actually want the character to die (or see anything bad happen to him/her).

In fiction, the stakes matter, and when your character has principles, it’s easier to put those principles to the test. The stronger those principles, the more the reader will want to see the character succeed.

Some of these core values will stem from the character’s religion, his society, and/or the rules he’s required to live by. Others will come from what the character has experienced and how he or she has grown over time. Values can be fluid, and their intensity can vary from one situation to the next.

To discover your character’s core values, it helps to begin with a list (easily searchable online). Next, brainstorm some events from their past. What successes have they had? What excites them? What has made or makes them angry? What code of conduct are they living by?

Finally, what values are associated with these things?

Brainstorming and applying three to five potential values for your character(s) will help make them unique, and a strong code of behavior (even though your character isn’t perfect) will help raise his or her worthiness. 

And when a character is worth saving, it’s worth it to readers to keep turning those pages.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 22, 2019

Keeping it Real (Enough to be Believable)

Even though fiction is, by definition, a story that describes imaginary events, places, and people, and, anecdotally, the writer is only limited by his imagination, the story still has to be believable.

This means that the rules within the story (no matter the genre) have to make sense.

If we're going to believe that every year a group of tributes competes against each other in a match to the death, this has to sound reasonable based on what we know about the story world, as this type of competition set in modern Western civilization would seem implausible. 

This means that an author has a lot of work to do.

A reader begins to care about a character when they feel the events could happen to them, and the more you deviate from the rules of the time and place with which they are most familiar, the sharper your world-building skills need to be. 

If you world-build correctly, you probably won't include half of what you know about your time and place and its history within your novel, but it's still important that you know it.  

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 15, 2019

What Makes a Good Story?

A good story is made up of:

1. A time or place the reader can lose themselves in.

2. An unforgettable character--someone who is real to them; someone they can relate to.

3. A memorable/extraordinary event.

The best stories contain characters with which we identify, experiences that impact us in visceral ways, and messages that change the way we see the world.

This makes "storyteller" one of the most powerful positions on the planet--a responsibility that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, July 8, 2019

Four Things I've Learned

1. Don't write what you know about; write what you care about, because if you don't care, why should anyone else?

2. We live in the age of Google and Wikipedia--anything you don't know, you can research. Do the research, then let your imagination fill in the blanks.

3. Write what you enjoy reading, because if you enjoy reading it, you should enjoy (to some degree) writing it, and this will show up in your storytelling, making it more likely readers will connect with you.

4. No author is universally loved. Find the people who love you and write for them. 

(And always) Be Brilliant! 


Monday, July 1, 2019

On Reasons

For everything, there is a reason.

--Not in life, necessarily--but, when writing fiction, there had better be a clear rationale for why your character said what he said or did what she did.

Actions and reactions should be linked from page one all the way to three hundred and one. Each scene and/or event should logically progress from one to the next.

Dig deep, and know your character's "why" (even if he or she doesn't know it at the time.) 

In novels, things don't happen "just because." 

There has to be a reason.

Be Brilliant!


Monday, June 24, 2019


In fiction, neutrality is B-O-R-I-N-G.

Readers want to feel something, and if there's no emotional weight involved in what's taking place on the page, the reader (sadly) won't be affected.

Man: "I made plans with my mother on Saturday. Do you and the kids want to tag along?"

Woman: "Whatever you want."


Man: "I made plans with my mother on Saturday. Do you and the kids want to tag along?"

Woman: "Absolutely not. I told you last time that I was never stepping foot in that house again."

In truth, reality is often "Whatever you want," but exciting fiction is not neutral; it's a determined "yes" and a firm "no." A "whatever you want" or the appearance of a neutral position would only work if something is happening behind the scenes to make this character pretend to be agreeable; even then, the reader will understand that "whatever you want" is still a firm "no."

So give your characters opinions and desires. Put them at odds with the supporting cast. Start those fights. Raise those stakes.

Above all: Be Brilliant!


Monday, June 17, 2019

On Expectations

What is your character hoping will happen?

Is this clearly expressed on the page?

In a 300-page novel, there will be any number of choices for your main character to make, the results of which will comprise the plot of your story.

If we don't know what your character expects to happen or is wishing for, how will we know she's getting what she wants? How will we know when her hopes have been dashed?

Expressing our character's desires is a great way to raise the stakes in our stories.

Missing the 8 o'clock train out of the city isn't a big deal if one is coming along at 8:30 . . . unless your character has been given an ultimatum and has to be at her spouse's boss's home for a dinner party at 8:30 or he's leaving her for good.

If we don't know that, despite getting off work late (again) and getting stuck in city traffic (again), she's desperate to make that train, we're (as the reader) unlikely to feel the appropriate amount of pressure.

On the flip side, the character's actions and reactions would be very different if she was looking for a reason not to make that train.

Use your character's desires to keep your readers invested, and make sure her expectations are clearly stated so we know if she's progressing or facing setbacks. 

Be Brilliant!