The Plotting Workshop: Situation

situationOkay, so far you’ve made a decent master list of the characters and settings that, before now, were just kind of pinging around your brain like pin balls. You’ve picked one of each, like ordering Chinese food (one from A and one from B . . .), now it’s time for the last component of a good idea.

The situation.

You know who your story is about. You know where (and when) your story is going to take place. Today we’re going to talk about the why and the what of your idea.

For this, you’re going to do two things.


Plot Bunnies

Get out your notebook and start to list some situations.

Sometimes these are called plot bunnies. Little ideas that dig in their claws (or their sharp little teeth) and insist that, someday, you write a story about them.

I saw one on Facebook today. What if people aged to 18 and then stopped aging until they met their soul mate, so they could grow old at the same time? What if platonic friends moved in together, and started aging? What if . . .

See how that works?

“What if” are the magic words.

Don’t try to rush this list. Your brain might seize up and it’ll feel like you’ve never had a good idea before at all, ever. If that happens, start with stories you’ve already written, just to get the creative juices flowing.

Once you have your list made, pick a situation for your hero.

Once you’ve chosen your plot bunny, start writing about it. Just like with character and setting, start with a simple description, then guide free writing with questions. Here are some you can start with:

  • What is missing in your hero that is highlighted by this situation?
  • How are the people who are important to your hero involved in this situation?
  • What is the first problem that the hero will face because of this situation?
  • How do they usually cope with that sort of problem?
  • What emotions does the situation bring up?
  • How does your hero generally cope with that emotion?
  • What are the stakes for your hero in this situation?
  • Use your five senses to describe the situation in as much detail as you can.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.


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The Plotting Workshop: Setting


Now that you know your characters more intimately, maybe you’ve had some thoughts about where their story takes place.

Setting is so important. Think about Harry Potter and you instantly imagine Hogwarts, or the cabinet under the stairs, or Diagon Alley. Can you even think about The Wizard of Oz without picturing Emerald City or a dusty farm in Kansas?

In my novel Viral Nation, I had a few main settings. One was an abandoned casino in Reno called the Dinosaur. Another was the Ponderosa Ranch theme park in Incline Village. Another was the Company headquarters, in downtown Reno. Lastly, the Veronica–a time-traveling submarine docked at Lake Tahoe. The casino in Reno called the Bazaar that serves as the goods distribution center for the city.

There were a few more minor settings as well. The Main Character’s house. Her school. The vaccination bar where the characters have to be at a certain time every day. The main street in Reno.

The overall location for Viral Nation is the Reno/Tahoe area of Northern Nevada. Location can become almost like another character in your story. For instance, in my book the Truckee River bisects the city and affects a lot of the characters’ movements. There’s also a wall around the city, which becomes like a looming presence.

This time around you’ll have one assignment, again very in depth.


Location, Location, Location

On a fresh page of your notebook, make a list of every location you’re pretty sure will be a part of your story. Look back over your character notes for ideas. Where does your MC live? Work? Play? Will parts of the story take place there? Don’t forget to list the overall location or locations for you blog (Oz and Kansas, for instance.)

Now, just like you did for your character sketches, give each location a page or two. Start with the basics, a physical description of the setting, then use the questions below to guide a free writing exercise.

  • How is the setting important to the story?
  • Would the story change if the setting changed?
  • How does your MC tie to the setting?
  • Why is the setting important?
  • Are there any scenes that you know have to happen there?
  • Which characters belong to this setting?
  • Is this your MC’s setting or are they introduced to it?
  • How does the setting affect the MC?
  • How does your MC affect the setting?
  • Does your setting change over the course of the story?

Is there any research you need to do about your setting? You can start that now. Make a list of resources you’ll use and questions you need to have answered before you start to write.

If you’re writing about a place that you’ve never been, you might have to set aside time before you start writing for you research. For instance, my friend Heather Petty wrote a novel called Lock and Mori with a teenage Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist. London played a big part in her story, so she had to do a ton of research ahead of time to make sure she got the feel of the place right.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might be making a setting up out of whole cloth. Again, that will probably take you more than an hour or two. It’s hard to imagine that C.S. Lewis developed Narnia in an hour, right?

Take the time you need, but don’t let yourself get bogged down and unable to move forward. I have this theory that the human brain will play all kinds of tricks to keep a writer from writing. Writing is hard! Endless research feels like writing, so it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re writing even when you haven’t added to your word count in a year.

We’re going to move deeper into The Writer’s Journey, so if you haven’t picked up your copy yet, you’ll want to now. In the next assignment, we’re going to start talking about your character’s ordinary world.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.


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The Plotting Workshop: Character Development

The Plotting Workshop: Character Development

Hopefully your inspiration and set-up assignments put you in the mood to really start to dig into the fundamentals of your story. Because today we’re talking about character development.

You’ll see below that I don’t have a formal character worksheet. My brain doesn’t work that way. I like to let my characters unfold on their own–which means guided free-writing. I’ll give you some questions to ask yourself to keep your notes flowing.


Who Lives in Your Story?

For this assignment, you’ll want to look at the character archetypes in The Writer’s Journey. If you have time to read all of book one, which talks about different types of characters, that would be great. At the very least read the section called “The Archetypes” and the section called “Hero.” (Page 23-39 in the third edition.)

Over the course of the next few days, you’re going to spend some time thinking about your story’s main characters.

You’re always going to have a protagonist, or main character (I sometimes use the abbreviation MC.) This is the person whose point of view your story is told through. Harry Potter is the MC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dorothy Gale is the MC of The Wizard of Oz.

You might have two protagonists. If you’re writing a romance, for instance, you might toggle between writing in the point of view of the hero and the point of view of the heroine. Sometimes you have a POV character, but they are still telling another character’s story. For instance, in my book Viral Nation, the MC is Clover Donovan. Some of the book is written in other points of view, especially that of her brother West, but the story is always Clover’s.

You need to spend time this week thinking, for sure, about any point of view character.

Also, you’ll need to do some work on the antagonist. That’s your MC’s rival or the story’s villain.

Who else is important to the story? A sidekick? A love interest? A gatekeeper–someone who keeps the MC from getting what they want, for their own good? Who are your MCs allies? Who is trying to hurt them?

Start by making a list in your notebook of every character you’re certain your story will need. It’s okay if you don’t get everyone, but you want the biggies for sure.

Now, give each character a page in your notebook. Your MC and the other main characters get two pages. You’re going to have more notes for them.

If you were writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance, you might want a page for Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, the Weasley Family, the Dursleys, Hagrid. Maybe, if you were just starting to write, you might not know about all of the characters and that’s okay. You can add characters as you need them when you’re writing.

Now all I want you to do is write the characters name at the top of the page. Write their age and a physical description. I don’t use character worksheet. They feel too confining to me. If you like them, Google will kick up dozens if you ask it to.

After the name, age, and description, just start free writing. Here are some questions I ask myself during this exercise. They should guide your free writing, rather than being a set-in-stone worksheet.

  • What do you know about this character?
  • Who are they when the story starts?
  • Where do they live?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Who do they love?
  • Who do they hate?
  • What do they like to do?
  • What annoys them?
  • What do they do with their time? (Work, school, etc?)
  • What does their family look like? (Mom/dad/siblings, no family, foster family, cobbled together family?)
  • Are they a flee-er or a fighter?
  • How do they manage in a crisis?
  • What are their flaws? (Even a hero has flaws.)
  • What makes them heroic? (Even an antagnoist has a hint of heroism in them.)
  • What is their deepest secret?
  • How have they been hurt?

You don’t have to make a list of these questions and answer each one. It’s better to just let the details flow. Use the questions if you get stuck and to make sure you’re building a well-rounded picture of your characters.

You want to think about what the character wants and what they need. You’ll go into this more in depth for the MC later, but for now just think about what’s important to your characters. Why do they do what they do?

You’ll want to do this for the MC, the antagonist, and maybe one more main character (a love interest, another POV character.)

For more minor characters, you still want the stats–name, age, description–but you don’t have to delve so deeply into their psyche. Instead, make some notes about their role in the story. Why are they there? How do they move the story forward? You don’t even a main character who you could lift out entirely without causing a rift in your book, so pay attention to how your main characters are integral to the story. Make sure you know how they tie into the MC.

Back to the Harry Potter example, you might want bigger, more in depth character pages for Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Voldemort. Whoever else you could think of before you’ve started to actually write would get a smaller treatment that pays more attention to how the character serves the story and the MC.

This course is very fast paced, so you may only have time for your hero today. That’s okay. You can round things out with your other characters later.

Rule #1 is NO FREAKING OUT. You’ve got this.

We’re working through The Plotting Workshop live in our Facebook Group through December. Join us!

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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The Plotting Workshop: What Inspires You?

Plotting a Novel: What Inspires You?

The Plotting Workshop is a month long course that will help you build a road map through your novel. It’s free. It’s super fun. And through the month of December, we’re going to work through it together in our Facebook Group. Exciting right? I’d love it if you joined us!

I’ll be posting the lessons here on the blog. You can also sign up for the free course on Teachable. (Signing up will trigger the lessons to be sent to your email address as well.)

Okay. Ready for this plotting a novel thing? We’re starting off with a bang. Momentum is an amazing thing that will get you through this process. And it starts right now! You have four assignments to get you through the next few days. Ready?


Join the Tribe

So, the first thing I want to do is invite you to join the Ninja Writers Facebook. Click here to join.

We have a super engaged, vibrant Facebook community and I really hope to see you there.


Gather Your Tools

Next thing is your supplies list for the course.

You’re going to need:

1. A tri-fold board. You know, the kind you used as a kid for science fair projects? I like the 40″ by 28″ size the best. You won’t want to go much smaller than that, and if you go much larger it gets unwieldy. You’ll use the board to make your plot board. I linked to Amazon so you can see exactly what I’m talking about, but I’ve seen these at the dollar store.

If you live in a country where tri-fold boards aren’t easily available, you can use any flat surface that you can use sticky notes on. Here’s a video that will show you how to make your own tri-fold board from recycled cardboard.

2. A Sharpie or other thick black marker.

3. Sticky notes.

4. A copy of Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey. You’ll want to get this in the next week if you can. Try to get the third edition.

5. A wall or desk monthly calendar and some little stickers (or colored markers will work.)

6. A notebook. Any kind will do. I personally like composition books. Your notebook should be at least 5″ by 7″ so you have plenty of room to write. A three-ring binder will work as well, although it won’t be as portable. This notebook will be dedicated to just one book, so you’ll want a fresh one.

Not so bad so far, right?

This last requirement is a little trickier.

You’re going to work on plotting a particular story over the next eight weeks. You need, at least, a protagonist and a situation. If you’re not sure which of many ideas to choose, just pick the one that’s speaking to you right now. You’ll be able to use what you learn during The Plotting Workshop to plan all of your stories.

I’ll be using The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as examples. I’ll also use my novel Viral Nation, so I can share my process with you.


Tap Into Your Inspiration

Are you ready to get started?

I want you to make a list of at least ten stories (books, movies, even television shows) that inspire you. You can also list characters or tropes or places. Whatever inspires you. They don’t have to relate directly to the story you want to write, but you should keep that story in mind as you do this exercise.

Open up to the first page of your notebook and label it ‘Inspirations’ and start writing. (You might want to use your very first page or the inside of your front cover to make a table of contents to help you find your notes when you need them as we go.)

Here is my inspiration list for Viral Nation:

1. The television show Jericho
2. The Postman by David Birn
3. The movie The Minority Report
4. Minority Report by Phillip K. Dick
5. Robin Hood
6. Alice in Wonderland
7. The Ponderosa Ranch
8. Virginia City
9. The movie Stand By Me
10. Sons of Anarchy

Pretty eclectic list, right? That’s okay. That’s the way it should be. And feel free to go beyond ten. Sometimes the inspiration just flows and I end up with 20 or more items on my list.

When you’re done, start analyzing. What do your inspirations have in common? Are there any themes? Do you see a lot of the same type of protagonist? A similarity in setting? How about tone? Why do these things inspire you?

When I look at my list for Viral Nation, I can see that I’m inspired by a dangerous and uncertain future, the idea of time travel, young protagonists who are thrown out of their own time and place, tight bonds of friendship, Western towns. The idea of a future that devolves after some catastrophe into something that resembles a past time intrigued me when I was working on this manuscript. I was also drawn to dark stories, although several of them have bright overlays (like Robin Hood and Alice in Wonderland.)

Take your time with this exercise. It should really open your mind and your heart to the kind of story you want to tell. Leave some space to add to the list as things come to you over the next weeks. I find that once I open my mind to this kind of inspiration, stories and ideas that I can add to my list just start flying at me.

Your list might show you things that you didn’t even realize you wanted to write about. For instance, when I started writing Viral Nation, I had no idea that it would be about a tight-knit group of kids. All I knew was that I wanted to have sister and brother protagonists. But looking at my inspiration list, I can see it. Robin Hood and his Merry men, the kids in Stand By Me, SAMCRO in Sons of Anarchy–it’s right there. I was inspired to write about the way that people come together in crisis and how people find family where they need it.

Once you have your list of ten written, come share it on Facebook! I’d love to see it. (That’s your unofficial Assignment Three-B!)


Work for Stickers

I know this is going to sound weird, but I swear it works. Get out your calendar and start putting a sticker on each day that you complete your writing goals. If you don’t want to use stickers, you can use a marker to draw a little picture or even just mark off the days. Something that gives you a visual reminder that you’re doing what you promised yourself to do, and that might encourage you not to skip a day. Who wants to see a gap in their stickers, right?

I got the idea from Victoria Schwab and it has really helped me.

While you have your calendar out, think about your upcoming week and make a plan for when you’ll work on your novel. Even if it’s just an hour every Tuesday or half an hour during your commute to work or what have you — write it in. I wake up at 5 a.m. and write for an hour and a half before work every morning. (Figure out what works for you and your life. If you’re a night owl, 5 a.m. might not be your best choice.)

Use a pen on your calendar. You are your own boss in this thing, so hold yourself to a high standard and expect stellar work ethic.

Be realistic, though. You don’t want to promise yourself eight hours a day of writing that will leave you in a puddle on the floor by hump day. But also be firm. You’re going to have to carve out time for writing. No way around it.

My favorite way to work for stickers is with my FRED. You can get your own here.

If you’d like to sign up for The Plotting Workshop on Teachable (for free!) just click here.

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Meet Vicki Cooke!

Hey, guys! I’m super excited to introduce you to Vicki Cooke. Vicki has a book called Golden Rule in the Huge Ninja Writer’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Giveaway. She’s also just one of my favorite people, so I was really excited when I drew her for the giveaway blog hop!

(After you read this interview with Vicki, click here and choose another blog to hop to. Let’s show these authors some Ninja Love.)

Displaying Vicki1.jpg

Here’s a little about Vicki: V. L. Cooke is a student and paranormal/urban fantasy author living in a small rural community in Oregon with her furbabies, a yellow lab named Koda and two cats who fight over which is the center of the universe, Celeste and Luna. She’s a devoted aunt and grandaunt to her niece and nephews. As the author of the Custodian of the Golden Assembly series, V. L. believes everyone should strive to find the magic hidden among the mundane in our world. She’s available on Twitter @VLCookeAuthor.

You can download her book Golden Rule FREE, right here.

Golden Rule

How long on average does it take you to write a book?
That depends on what you consider writing. From start to finish, including research, plotting, and writing the first draft, but not counting revisions. It takes me about five months to have a rough draft completed, and completely unfit for anyone to read other than me. Revisions also take about five months, this includes editing. So it takes about ten to twelve months from start to finish for a novel to be completed.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
The television. It distracts me when I’m trying to write. Especially if a scene is challenging for me. Music is also a major distraction for me. However, the biggest advantage distraction for me right now is my sister. She always asks me how much I’ve written and if it isn’t enough she gives me the patented sister guilt look and it kills me.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Most of my work is set in the same world and uses the same characters, but each story stands alone. Even my NaNoWriMo project is set in the same world, but it doesn’t have my main character from my previous work in it.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A dragon. Does that count? I love dragons they are majestic and can set things that annoy them on fire. I think it’s my perfect spirit animal.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Everything. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have the base for some of my favorite characters.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I research online and at the library. Typically, I spend between two hundred and four hundred hours doing research for each novel which is kind of funny since I write paranormal/urban fantasy novels that are based in my home state. If it weren’t for Google Maps, I’d never have travel times right.
How many hours a day do you write?
It depends on several factors. I don’t write more than three hours on Mondays and Thursdays because of school. The rest of the time, I write at least five hours a day and on some days as much as ten hours.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Trying to not be stereotypical. As a woman, I found it difficult to write the male protagonist of my novelette because his thought processes seemed alien to me. Although, it could have seemed alien because he’s a dragon and it was set nearly one hundred years ago.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes, I read all reviews. I try to respond to all of them if I can. I always thank the person for the review because they’ve taken time out of their daily life to write it. I love negative reviews; they help me improve my writing to meet the needs of my readers.
Do you Google yourself?
I have, and it depressed me when I found my novel on a pirating site.


Why do you love the Ninja Writers Facebook group?
There are no egos in this group. Everyone is amazing and helpful. They do not get angry if multiple people ask the same question, they don’t tear people down who choose self-publication over traditional publication, etc. I think Shaunta’s tribe is the most amazing writer’s group on Facebook. We have people from all over the world and are all incredibly talented, intelligent, and helpful. What’s not to love?

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Hump Day Writing Prompt: Sleepless Night

Don’t forget to click here and get signed up for December 2016’s free plotting workshop. Or just use the form below to sign up.


Someone posted in our Facebook Group this week about how regular old everyday stuff hardly ever gets written about.

You know, the boring stuff like eating breakfast, using the bathroom, and . . . sleeping.

Except, is it really boring? I mean. Really?

The normal, everyday stuff is what makes your hero human. It’s what helps your reader connect with them. You probably won’t want to write in every meal, every middle of the night trip to the potty, or every nap–that would get boring–but sometimes the human stuff can also move the plot forward.

So, let’s work on that today.

Write a scene where your hero sleeps, or tries to.

What do they think about when their mind won’t shut off at night?

What thoughts keep them up when they should be asleep?

Are they worried? Scared? Frustrated?

My Turn

This scene is from my work-in-progress, The Undergrounders. It’s a Robin Hood retelling set in modern day Las Vegas. This scene is between Rob and Mattie (my Robin and Marion characters.) I’m not actually sure it’s going to make the final cut, so I’m excited to get to share it here.


After a minute, he rolled to his back and she curled against his side, one arm wrapping around his waist, her head just under his chin. He felt her relax against him, slowly, inch-by-inch. Finally, her breathing changed as she fell asleep.

His brain kicked back into high gear. Approximately twelve thousand on a scale of one to ten.

Mattie slept with Guy. He poked at this truth, like he might poke at the edges of an infected wound.

Guy wanted to marry Mattie. This was so ridiculous; it was the comic relief in the tragedy of the last forty-eight hours.

He was in love with his best friend. Even if she had slept with Guy, who’d lost his mind and decided he wanted to marry her.

His dad was dead. He had to keep reminding himself, and then breathing through another hard bubble of pain in his chest.

Frank was on some kind of bad trip. Back burner, but boiling away.

Guy Gisborne had put Mattie in the hospital. This one made him nearly incapacitated with fury and self-doubt.

He had to protect Mattie.

How was he supposed to keep her safe, when his whole world had dissolved while he was busy studying for his stupid finals?

Frank had lost his mind. His dad was dead. Philip Mark had somehow managed to steal his legacy from under him. Guy was making fucking reservations for himself and Mattie.

He’d been out of touch for six weeks, and all hell broke loose.

He kissed the top of Mattie’s head, softly, then eased away from her and out of her bed.

Your Turn

Are you writing this week’s prompt? Leave a comment and let me know! Come on over to the Ninja Writers Facebook group and share your work. Get some feedback, leave some feedback–get involved in the community. I can’t wait to read what you come up with!

Also, if you’d like to get a PDF of this post and every Hump Day Writing Prompt, head here and sign up for the Ninja Writers Binder Club. Every month I send out a newsletter that includes those links.

Help spread the Ninja Writer word! Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Send a link to it to one writer friend.

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Ninja Writers Academy: Setting Development

We’re going to have a live plotting workshop in our Facebook group in December. Make sure to sign up below to get signed up!



For the next few weeks, we’re going deeper into the basics of story elements during Ninja Writers Academy. Last week we talked about Character. Today, we’re talking about Setting.

Setting is, of course, the place where your story takes place.

You’ll probably have more than one in a novel-length work. Maybe your main character will have a literal ordinary world and special world of the story. (Like Dorothy’s Kansas and Oz or Harry’s muggle world and Hogwarts.) Maybe your antagonist has their own setting.

Even a story that takes place in a limited area probably has more than one actual setting. I’m thinking about the (devastating) book and movie Room. The setting in that story is a character in and of itself. It’s a garden shed where the narrator has lived his whole life. But there’s also a truck and the narrator’s grandmother’s house.

Thinking about where your story takes place can actually give some shape to it. It’s a good way to start thinking about things like pacing and scene.

Today I’d like you to think about all the different settings that your story is going to need. Then develop at least one of them using guided free writing. (You’ll probably want to develop all of them, eventually.)

Here are the questions I use:

  • Is this the ordinary world setting for your hero, or the special world setting, or both?
  • How does the setting uniquely belong to your MC?
  • How did your MC get to this place?
  • Why is this setting important to your MC?
  • Who do they share it with?
  • How do they feel about this setting? Claustraphobic? At home? Calm? Aggressive?
  • Will they end up in this place as their new ordinary world when the story is over?
  • What does the setting look like? Use as many details as you can.
  • What does the setting smell like?
  • What does the setting sound like?
  • Is there a taste or touch sensory experience related to this setting?
  • What role will this setting play in your MC’s story?
  • How would a stranger coming into this space feel? What’s the vibe?

My Turn

Last week, I shared the character work for a new idea.

Here are the settings I think I’ll need for Will “The Face” Sorren’s story:

The overall setting is Las Vegas.

Will lives in a pretty standard Las Vegas McMansion: white stucco, red tile roof, cookie cutter.

He performs in a showroom on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

His best friend lives in a smaller, more homey home–also in Las Vegas. Maybe a condo?

Will’s grandmother lives in the same mean little Salt Lake City house that she raised him in.

The Showroom at Fitzgerald’s is Will’s ordinary world setting, but it also plays a part in the special world of the story. It’s where he plays as part of an 80s nostalgia show, and it’s his personal hell. He can’t leave, because there isn’t anywhere else for him to play. No one is offering him stadium shows anymore. Staying is killing him. It’s just big enough that when it’s half-filled, it’s particularly pathetic.

Will’s best friend, his band’s bass player, has a different view of the Showroom. It represents stability to him. A steady paycheck. The means to continue to play music instead of getting a day job. His acceptance of their situation makes things worse for Will.

Every night, Will stands on the stage and sings the same songs he’s sung for nearly thirty years. He looks out at the sparse audience an he sees middle-aged women. It used to be that the women (who were once the beautiful girls screaming for The Face) would swoon over him. They aren’t even doing that anymore. Not the way they used to.

The Showroom seats 500 at tables and chairs, not even stadium seating. Cocktail waitresses wander between the tables, bringing drinks and taking Keno bets. There’s a stage in front, a mediocre setup. The whole place smells of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The sound of slot machines and a busy casino filter through between sets.

To the people who come to see Will and the other bands play, the showroom isn’t anything special, but it’s not as pathetic as it feels to Will. It’s a date night or a place for girls night out. Somewhere to go for a little fun while the kids are home with a sitter. They like the nostalgia that irritates Will.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Setting. Make a list of settings for your story. Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about one of them. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your work for feedback.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.


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Hump Day Writing Prompt: Third Act Twist

Hump Day Writing Prompt: Third Act Twist

I went to see the movie Inferno last night. (It was very good, by the way. A nail biter.) It inspired this week’s writing prompt.

Let’s think about our third act twists.

Not the one you’ve used. Not the one you think you’re going to use. Think about the possibilities. Come up with a list of at least three third act twists that you could use in your work-in-progress. Go crazy!

My Turn

During NaNoWriMo I’m working on a book called Milk about a girl in the 1980s who realizes she’s babysitting a kid who she’s seen on the back of a milk carton.

Here are my three possible third act twists:

    1. When she can’t convince anyone of the truth, Tessa kidnaps Augie from his kidnapper-mother and takes him on the city bus to his real mother.
    2. Tessa’s wrong. Augie wasn’t kidnapped after all. His real mother gave him to the woman who is raising him in an effort to save him from an abusive situation, then reported him kidnapped.
    3. Tessa goes to find Augie’s birth mother and finds a situation that no child should be in. Including the baby girl she finds there.

Your Turn

Are you writing this week’s prompt? Leave a comment and let me know! Come on over to the Ninja Writers Facebook group and share your work. Get some feedback, leave some feedback–get involved in the community. I can’t wait to read what you come up with!

Don’t forget to click here and get signed up for December 2016’s free plotting workshop. That’s going to be so much fun!

Also, if you’d like to get a PDF of this post and every Hump Day Writing Prompt, head here and sign up for the Ninja Writers Binder Club. Every month I send out a newsletter that includes those links.

Help spread the Ninja Writer word! Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Send a link to it to one writer friend.

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Writing a Novel Takes More Than a Month: Beyond NaNoWriMo

Writing a Novel takes more than a month. It just does.

NaNoWriMo fever is upon the world.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of working like a maniac for thirty days, trying to pound out 50,000 words. Then, heading into the holidays exhausted and completely burned out.

Forget writing a novel, you don’t even want to read another book for months.

And your 50,000 words just sit there on your hard drive. Right next to all your other NaNo wins.

Or, worse, you throw on a homemade cover and proudly publish your story on Amazon.

What if you used the energy and excitement of NaNoWriMo to kick off a whole year of novel writing?

Here’s an outline of how you can spend the other eleven months of the writer’s year (you know, December to November.)

Set a More Sustainable Goal

Go ahead and spend November shoving writing into every crack and crevice of your day, but the rest of the year? Develop a sustainable daily writing habit by slowing down.

Commit to writing for at least ten minutes every day from December first until next Halloween.

I know, I know, ten minutes? What kind of goal is that?

It’s a goal you’ll keep. It’s so small that it’s psychologically harder to skip it than it is to stick with it. You can capitalize on that head game by getting a calendar and giving yourself a gold star every day that you keep your goal. Who wants a gap in their stars?

(I came up with this printable goal chart and writing log that I call FRED — Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft. You can download your own FRED here. I swear, it works like magic.)

Write for at least ten minutes every day for the eleven months between NaNoWriMos. See what happens.

Evaluate Your Story

What I love about NaNoWriMo is that it facilitates the move from wanting to write a book to actually writing one.

That’s huge.

Once you’ve won NaNoWriMo, though, what you’re left with on December first is a 50,000-word draft that you’ve written with an eye more toward speed than quality.

Let’s be honest. Your book probably isn’t very good in its current form. What it does have, though, is potential.

Before you do anything else, take some time to evaluate your story.

The best way I know to do that is with a plot board. I like analog, so I use a physical plot board. You can also use a digital system, like Scrivner’s cork board.

Read your draft. Don’t worry about editing or the quality of the writing right now. Pay attention to the story. Take a note of each scene and plug it into your plot board.

You’ll be able to see if your story is balanced. You’ll easily be able to see where you have too much or too little. And you’ll have a visual outline of your story that you can play around with before you start working on your actual edit.

Learn Your Craft

I’d like to challenge you to spend the next year learning your craft. Pick eleven writing craft books and read one a month. Don’t skim, either. Really read and implement what you learn.

Here are my favorites to get you started:

On Writing by Stephen King

Steering the Craft by Urula K. Le Guinn

Just Write by Walter Dean Myers

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

It isn’t enough to just read these books. Do the exercises. Use what you’re learning to improve your writing. Try keeping a notebook throughout the year to take notes in. Treat this like an intensive course in creative writing.

Find a Writing Community

Make a concerted effort in the year before your next NaNoWriMo to find a writing community and become a part of it.

If you can’t find a writing group meeting in person near you, turn to the Internet. I’m partial to Ninja Writers, which is a group on Facebook that I founded after NaNoWriMo 2015. (I’d love to have you join us!)

Try finding a national or international organization for writers in your genre. Romance Writers of America and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are two that I belong to. They both have online chapters.

Connecting with other writers is a good way to keep yourself motivated to continue your writing journey beyond November. It’s a good way to find a critique partner or beta reader who you can trade feedback with. And it’s just way less lonely than writing all alone.

Become a Solid Self-Editor

I have one more book I want to recommend. If you decide you only want to read one craft book, make it this one. Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches a single editing principle, then walks you through implementing it in your manuscript.

Learning to polish your own work is important on a couple of fronts. First, it will help you learn how to create a cleaner draft the next time. Trust me, once you’ve replaced 743 weak verbs with stronger verbs, you’ll just use the stronger one in the first place next time.

If you plan to try to publish traditionally, you need to be able to be able to prepare a professional-level manuscript to send to agents and publishers.

If you plan an indie career, being able to competently self-edit will save you a lot of money. You don’t want to pay someone to fix things for you that you could have fixed yourself.

Save Your Pennies for Professionals

The slush pile used to live in the editor’s office. Now it lives on Amazon.

Don’t be part of the slush pile.

If you’re an indie author, you’re a publisher. That means it’s your job to make sure your book is professionally edited and designed.

If Penguin wouldn’t publish your book with your best friend’s edits and your homemade cover, then you shouldn’t either.

If your friend isn’t someone you’d pay good money to for edits, they aren’t someone you should use for free. If no one would pay you for your design skills, you aren’t good enough to make your own cover.

If indie publishing is in your future, spend the next eleven months saving up. Resign yourself to the fact that publishing a novel is not a free enterprise. Your book needs to look and read like a traditionally published novel. It deserves that.

Here’s a calendar of action steps for the months until NaNoWriMo ‘17:

December: Read a craft book. Look for a writing community. Let your NaNo book rest for a few weeks and spend your ten minutes a day working on a palette cleanser. Maybe write a short story or work on whatever project you abandoned for NaNoWriMo.

January: Read a craft book. Make a commitment to yourself to join a writing community and participate in it (even if you’re an introvert.) Set up your plot board. Use your ten minutes a day to start to read through your NaNo book. Write each scene on a sticky note and place it where it belongs on your board, or do the equivalent in whatever program you’re using.

February: Read a craft book. Keep participating in your writing community. Finish your plot board and when it’s completely filled out, evaluate it.

March: Read a craft book. Keep participating in your writing community. Pick up a copy of Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Read the first chapter and spend your ten minutes a day implementing what you learn in your manuscript.

April through October: Repeat March.

(A version of this story was first published at

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Ninja Writers Academy: Character Development

Ninja Writers Academy-Character Development

First: Our Facebook Group project for December will be a work through of How to Develop + Test a Story Idea and the whole Writer’s Journey part of The Plotting Workshop (which I’ll make available to you for free!) If you’d like to be on the list to get more info, put your email address here:

I thought it would be fun to run a little series of Ninja Writer Academy Posts about diving a little deeper into your story’s basic elements. Let’s start with character.

Character Development seems to be one of those scary things that new writers get hung up on.

You can find complicated, intimidating character development worksheets out there. If you Google around the Internet, you’ll find plenty of experts giving you lists of things that you’re supposed to know before you even start to write your story.

I take a different tact. My favorite way to work on character development is with guided free writing. I have a list of questions that I think about while I’m considering a new player. I start with a name and a basic (very basic) description, and then just start writing.

After all, that’s what we do, right? It’s how we process. Doesn’t it make sense to process something this important to your story the same way?

Here are the Character Development questions I use:

  • What is their ordinary world like?
  • What kind of work do they do?
  • Who do they love? Who do they hate?
  • Who loves and hates them?
  • What’s missing in them?
  • What’s important to them?
  • Who has hurt them?
  • Who have they hurt?
  • What do they need?
  • What do they want?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Who is their best friend?
  • Who is their worst enemy?
  • How resistant are they to change?
  • What would it take to get them to embark on big change?
  • This is a biggie: How are they flawed?
  • What makes them heroic?

Don’t list all the questions and answer them. Please. Don’t. Just use the questions to guide you as you write a page or two about this compelling person.

I actually do this exercise with every important character in a story: hero, antagonist, love interest, mentor, sidekick, etc. I also try to do this work in no more than about 20 minutes per character. Set a timer if you have to. It can be easy to get caught up in spending hours or even days in making sure your character development is PERFECT. Don’t do that to yourself!


I’ve had a character on my mind for a while. Here’s how this exercise worked out for him:

Will Sorren. Age, 50. Six feet tall, relatively fit (maybe a little softer than he used to be), over-styled brown hair, highlighted. Blue eyes. Dimpled chin.

Will is an aging rock star. When he was young he was nicknamed “The Face.” He had as much attention for his looks as for his music. He used to play to stadiums full of screaming girls. Now he plays to show-rooms half-filled with the same girls, now middle-aged housewives. He can’t play new music without risking a riot.

Worse of all, he’s not aging well. The public is brutal regarding his looks. What happened to The Face memes hound him. He still has the charisma that set him apart when he was young, but he’s done a little too much to try to hold on to his looks and it shows. Too much surgery. Too much Botox.

Will is still a musician, still playing the same music that he’s been playing for 30 years. He lives in Las Vegas and makes a living doing nostalgia shows with other 80s has beens.

Will married an actress when he was still The Face. She’s aging far better than him and his jealousy of her beauty and his insecurity over the public’s fascination with his loss of beauty is eroding their relationship.

He’s never been able to internalize his success. He had one breakout song when he was twenty-two and it was in a genre outside the pure rock he set out to make. He followed the success and the fame, and wound up a pop star. He still hears his songs in elevators and grocery stores and it always makes him sad.

Will’s mother left him when he was a little boy. He was raised by his grandmother, who was brutal with him. His looks and his music were the things that saved him and when he feels like he’s lost both, he is completely lost.

Will needs to find a way to let go of his youth. He wants to get it back. He’s utterly resistant to change, even when it’s obvious that change is happening whether he’s ready for it or not.

His best friend is the bass player in his band. They’ve been friends since high school. Aaron is far more accepting of their slide from rock gods to pop stars to has beens.

For will to change, he’ll has to have a seismic shift in his perspective of himself. Think George Bailey experiencing Bedford Falls as if he hadn’t been born.

Will’s heroism takes time to come through. He starts the story hurt and stuck in a very shallow mindset.


Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Character Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about your story’s hero. Or antagonist. Or love interest. Or any character that could use a little development. (Hint: that’s probably all of them!) Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your commitment. Just come on by and voice your determination to FINISH THAT FIRST DRAFT.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

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