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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Hump Day Writing Prompt: Resistance

Hump Day Writing Prompt-Resistance

We’re studying Steven Pressfield’s classic book The War of Art in the Ninja Writers Book Club this month. (If you’d like to join the book club, sign up here.)

I thought it would be fun to tie that into this week’s Hump Day Writing Prompt.

Here’s what Pressfield says about Resistance (which he always capitalizes): “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

That really resonated with me, because I’ve actually done a pretty good job with not letting Resistance veer me off my path, at least as far as my work goes. (There are many ways that Resistance shows itself.)

I’ve actively avoided being a classroom teacher, even though I think I’d be good at it, I would enjoy the work, and over the last twenty or so years, the money would have certainly come in handy.

I’m scared because some part of me recognizes that being a teacher is my RESISTANCE, all caps. I’ve convinced myself that if I become a teacher, it’s the same as giving up on being a writer. Being a teacher is my plan B and I won’t even look it straight on.

I’ve held off that Resistance by spending years six credits away from a degree that would lead directly to the classroom. I’ve held it off by turning down offers to join programs that would let me work while I was getting accredited.

My husband? He’s done the same work since he was 21 years old. He’s so entrenched in his Resistance that he can’t even imagine doing anything but this work that he doesn’t even like. He’s an artist at heart, but can’t even let himself think about being artistic.

We’re going to talk more in our Facebook group about our personal Resistances and what Resistance looks like for us.

Today, I want you to think about how Resistance affects your story’s hero.

It was easiest for me to think first about the life inside. What does your hero really want, in their heart of hearts? If nothing stood in their way, where would their life path lead?

Then think about their actual life. How far is it from where they wish they were (or maybe even from where they are afraid to wish they were)?

What lies in the space between?

My Turn

My NaNoWriMo story is called Milk. It’s about a 14-year-old girl named Tessa who lives in Los Angeles in 1984 and realizes that she’s babysitting a kid who was kidnapped.

This exercise was interesting to me, because it’s hard to imagine an eighth grade with Resistance. I really had to think about this one.

Tessa has always been perfect. A good student. A good girl. Her parents divorce was sudden. Her father’s 24-year-old mistress got pregnant and Tessa’s whole life imploded. Her dad moved from Denver to LA. Her mom took her and moved to Chicago. She’s on her way to spend the summer in California and she feels pulled apart like a wishbone.

She’s not perfect anymore. She’s weird. A Freak. She can’t throw away her milk cartons anymore, because she can’t make herself throw away the lost and stolen kids printed on them. So she starts to collect those kids like baseball cards.

In Denver, Tessa is an athlete. She dreams of being in the Olympics, which are happening in LA the summer she’s there. Her mom is caught up in some weird second adolescence and Tessa doesn’t have a team in Chicago. The lack of a team only makes her feel more lie a freak. She doesn’t want to visit her dad. She doesn’t want to be in Chicago, either.

No one asks, anyway.

Her pouting is her resistance. It keeps her from pursing her sport in Chicago. It keeps her from letting her dad buy her love with the Olympics when she gets to LA. If she lets it, her anger and bitterness will steal her athletic dreams.

Whew. That was hard!

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.

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