Ninja Writers Academy: A is For Active Voice, Action, and Acts

I thought it would be fun to do a Ninja Writer Academy series: The ABCs of Fiction Writing.

Let’s start at the very beginning. With the letter A, of course. And A is for Active Voice, Action, and Acts. Plus, an important little bonus dose of Audacity at the end.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Active Voice

Let’s get the grammar part out of the way.

A passive voice is an ACTUAL thing. It’s when the subject of a sentence is just sitting there (passively) having something done to it.

Here are some examples of passive voice:

Beauty was kissed by the Beast.

Humbert was infatuated by Lolita.

The books were burned by Montag the Fireman.

See how that works? Beauty, Humbert, and the books are the subjects of these sentences and they just sit there being DONE TO.

Let’s make those sentences active.

The Beast kissed Beauty.

Lolita infatuated Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burned the books.

There we go. Now we have an active voice. The previous subjects become the objects and the subjects now are: the Beast, Lolita, and Motag. And they are actively acting.

They can also be present tense.

The Beast kisses Beauty.

Lolita infatuates Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burns the books.

These sentences are technically active, but weak enough to feel wishy-washy or passive-like:

The Beast was kissing Beauty.

Lolita was infatuating Humbert.

Montag the Fireman was burning the books.

Meh. Right? Use a good, solid past (or present) tense verb and most times you’ll have an active voice going on.

Do This:

You can start by searching your whole manuscript for the word ‘was’ and the verb ending “-ing.” Get rid of as many as you can. That will help you make sure you’re using nice strong active verbs.

If you have any actual passive verbs (remember, that’s the subject of the sentence having something done to it) cut that out.


A couple of years ago I went to a conference where the author Walter Dean Myers was the keynote speaker.

First: he was amazing.

Second: the thing he taught that stuck with me the most was the idea of making sure that every scene in your book has an action.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy balls-to-the-wall action. You probably don’t want your entire book to be one giant fight scene, broken up with car chases and skydiving.

But if you’re going to have two characters talking to each other, make sure they’re doing something that moves the story forward while they do.

The action can tell the reader something about the character or the situation. It can move the story forward by solving a problem through action (sometimes a car chase/fist fight/skydive is necessary after all.)

Do this: 

Walter Dean Myers spoke at a conference I went to about how he comes up with 30 key scenes as part of his pre-writing and makes sure each one has an action. It’s a great exercise.


This one is pretty simple and I bet you already know it.

Every book-length story has three acts. Basically: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m not blowing you away here, right?

Usually, the beginning and end of a book are each about one quarter of the whole, and the middle is half of the story that can be divided in half.

That’s right.

Modern stories generally follow a FOUR act structure. We just call it a three act story because we always have, since cavemen pretty much.

Thinking of your long second act as two acts is useful for a couple of reasons.

It reminds you to put a climactic scene in the middle of the book, which helps make sure your second act doesn’t sag.

And it gives some structure to build your subplots around.

Do this:

Go to and read how a bunch of your favorite movies break into three acts. It helps to see how a story you can take in all in a sitting fits into this structure.

Bonus A word: Audacious.

If you spend anytime at all around writers, you are definitely going to hear some variation on this theme: I’m never happy with anything I write.

It’s almost like writers think that to be taken seriously, they have to think they suck.

The thing is though that it’s a long, often lonely road between wanting to be a writer and being published so that anyone other than your mother and your best friend can read what you write.

I’m just going to be very blunt here.

If you don’t love your story, how are you really going to expect anyone else to.

It’s okay (and maybe essential) to know that you’re still learning. It’s fair to understand that you are still a work in progress.

But for God’s sake, if you hate your work, don’t expect readers to love it.

Do this: 

Give yourself permission to have the audacity to believe that you’re talented and that you’re writing a killer story. You’re going to need it.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

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.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 3/12/17 from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

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.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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The Medium Challenge: Day Six

day-sixeditorial-calendarNow that you’ve written your first Medium post–I’d like to talk to you about a plan for posting regularly.

You need an editorial calendar.

An editorial calendar is basically just a schedule for publishing–on your blog, on Medium, wherever. We’re focused on Medium right now, but if you have other places where you publish, you can (and should) take them into account.

What I’ve found the most useful is to have a regular, weekly plan. As I’m writing this series, my editorial calendar includes a daily The Medium Challenge post. I post Ninja Writer’s Book Club posts on Fridays. On Saturday evening I post my newsletter on Medium. On Sunday morning, I send my newsletter out to subscribers.

If you’re just getting started, I suggest committing (to yourself) to write on Medium once a week. Pick a weekday and get out a calendar (or your FRED!) and write in MEDIUM on that day every week.

Another part of keeping an editorial calendar is staying on top of what you’re going to write. No one likes to stare at a blank screen with no idea of what they’re going to write. You made a list of ideas a few days ago. Keep adding to it. On your Medium day, set aside 15 minutes to brainstorm new ideas to add to your list. While you’re at Medium posting, click around some and see if anything sparks an idea for you.

Come on over to Facebook and share your plans for your editorial calendar. Sometimes making the commitment out loud makes all the difference.


If you’re enjoying this series . . . please consider visiting our Patreon Page and supporting Ninja Writers. XOXOX

If you’d like to receive the whole Medium Challenge in your email inbox, leave your email address right here. Your emails will start with Day One.

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Ninja Writer Book Club: 1/27/17


Here are some books that Ninja Writers are reading this week. Take a look, add some books to your TBR list. Next Tuesday, come on over to our Facebook group and let us know what you’re reading.

(The links here are affiliate links. If you click one and buy something, you’re supporting Ninja Writers. Thank you!)

My personal contribution to this list is The Revenge of Analog by David Sax. I’m obsessed with this book!

I thought it might be interesting to some if I shared what I’m reading for my MFA each week, too. I’m working toward an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Sierra Nevada College.

Throughout this semester, I’m reading one story a day from Bradbury Stores: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. The pace of reading in this program (ten books a month!) doesn’t lend itself to a slow immersion in any work, so it’s very nice to be able to spend time with this book instead of rushing through.

I’m also reading Mischling by Affinity Konar. This book is so beautiful and so terrifying and so heartbreaking. If you liked The Book Thief, I think you’ll find this one compelling.

My favorite book of all time is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (I love this gorgeous cover.) In the beginning of that book, the March sisters read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I found a little illustrated version of that book at a used book store this week and I’m reading it. I did the same thing last semester when I read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and then followed that up with Gone With the Wind, which is the book Ponyboy reads to Johnny.





Thrillers + Mysteries

Young Adult

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The Plotting Workshop: Meeting the Mentor


We’re closing up Act I soon, but we still need to talk about one character who will probably make an appearance somewhere in the beginning of your book.

The Mentor is the person who guides our Hero as they make their way into their story. Often they have been through a similar journey and survived. Usually they are older and wiser. In a Young Adult book, where parents are usually largely absent, the Mentor can be a desperately needed guiding force.

The Mentor represents what the Hero could become, if they make the right choices and stick to their path. In many ways, the Mentor grounds the Hero.

I want to be very clear: not every story has a mentor. It’s okay if yours doesn’t. It still makes sense to spend sometime thinking about mentors today, in case you find that adding this character might enrich your story.

For this lesson, you want to read the “Mentor” and “Meeting the Mentor” chapters of The Writer’s Journey.

There is one assignment this time around.


An Important Introduction

Your Hero will probably either meet the Mentor or realize the Mentor’s importance at a time when they need guidance. Think about Dorothy meeting Glinda the Good Witch of the North just as her house has landed on top of a bad witch in a weird place. Or Harry meeting Dumbledor as he comes to Hogwarts for the first time and really has no idea what how to be a wizard, much less a wizard who survived an attack by the baddest bad guy.

The Mentor probably has a gift to give the Hero, but that gift should be earned. Instead of just telling Dorothy how easy it was to go home, Glinda made her to through a pretty harrowing series of tests. Instead of just putting Harry in Gryffindor, Dumbledor required him to sort it out with the sorting hat.

Sometimes the Mentor is a mess. The Meeting of the Mentor can actually be a junction between the Hero’s story and the Mentor’s, so that the Mentor is required to straighten themselves out to help the Hero–and further their own story. In this kind of story, the reader (and the MC) might not be certain that the Mentor will be able to help at all.

Lastly, your story might have a false Mentor or two. Someone who seems to want to help, and maybe even starts out in a Mentor role, but eventually falls short. Maybe, instead of helping your MC toward the story, they try to stop them from entering that special world. Maybe they have ulterior motives. Perhaps they are a villain in disguise.

One of my favorite mentors is Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler. I even named my cat Freddy after him. Alfred is old and to an outsider he may seem frail. When you contrast him to Batman, a true hero, he might not seem like much. But Alfred raised Bruce after his parents died. And he takes care of all the things that need taken care of so that Bruce can be Batman and do his thing. He offers advice that Bruce Wayne needs, when he needs it.

For this assignment, you’re going to answer more questions. Vogler has a series of questions in his chapter about meeting the mentor that will help you understand this part of the story better.

Open your notebook to a new page, label is MEETING THE MENTOR and answer these questions.

  • Who is your MC’s Mentor? Is it someone they already know or someone they will meet in the story?
  • Are there any false Mentors in your story? Write a little about them. If they don’t want to help the MC into their adventure, what do they want?
  • What is your MC’s code of ethics? What boundaries and rules direct their actions? How do they decide if they are good or bad?

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

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

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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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Day 28: Character, Setting, Situation

(Day 28) Character, Setting, Situation

Today I want to talk to you about something that was a real game changer for me.

I used to have this problem. I’d get a good idea and I’d start to write it and the whole time I was working on that story, I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was never, ever, ever going to have another good idea again.


That’s a lot of stress to work under. Of course, I always did get another good idea. Usually it came just as I was hitting Act II of the story I was working on at the time. But the fear that I was played out was always with me, on some level.

Until I did this one thing.

I started keeping three lists.

One list of characters, one list of settings, and one list of situations.

That’s it.

When I want or need an idea, I just sort of stir things around, pick one from each list, and see what comes up. Then I work through the four steps of How to Develop + Test a Story Idea, and add the idea to my stable. It feels awesome having those stories in a notebook, just waiting for me to write them.


Start your three lists. You probably already have at least a few characters, settings, and situations swimming around in your head. Don’t worry today about how they’ll come together. Just get them down. And if you haven’t already signed up for H2DSI, do that. (It’s free!) Come on over to Facebook today and share one character, one setting, and one situation with us, if you want to.

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Day 22: Set Up a Writing Space

(Day 22) Your Writing SpaceYou might be wondering why it took me so long to get around to this one.

It’s simple: you needed to build your writing habit first.

You’ve been writing everyday for 21 days. First–yes. You are a rock star! I’m so proud of you.

You’ve officially been writing everyday for long enough to officially have built a habit. You know. According to the people who decide these things. Scientists or something.

I hope that you’re starting to feel like a writer, down deep in your bones.

Because you’re going to set up a space to do your writing today.

Here’s where I write (officially.) It’s a corner of my den, next to my dining room.

Week 12 of 52 Weeks of C.H.a.O.s is all about decluttering the other room. You know where it is. The place where you dump stuff.

I wish that I had an office, because it can be seriously chaotic trying to write in a house that’s as full of people as mine is. In fact, I often end up writing in my bedroom with a lap desk so that I can close the door.

When we first moved to Reno we lived in a tiny apartment–me, Kevin, and three kids in about 800 feet. That’s where I got into the habit of writing with a lap desk sitting on my bed.

All of that to say: writing on your bed with a lap desk counts as a writing space.

Writing at your kitchen table counts.

On your couch with a TV table counts.

Starbucks counts.

An office inside or outside of your house counts.

All I want you to do today is think about where your space is. Claim it. Own it.

And think about what you need to transform where ever that space is into your writing space. For me that includes: good pens, cheap notebooks, a computer, a yellow candle, and warm feet.


Where is your writing space? What do you need around you to make a space your writing space? Come over to Facebook today and share with us.


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Day Twenty-One: Call Yourself a Writer

(Day 21) Am I a Writer?

I want you to do something, right now.

I mean it, right this minute, where ever you are.

Say this out loud: I AM A WRITER.

How did that feel? If it felt great–hell, yes! That’s awesome.

But, it’s okay if your answer to that question is: it felt like a lie.

Trust me when I tell you that I get how hard it is to make the mental leap to considering yourself a writer. I’ve heard people say that they won’t do it until they’re a best seller (To be fair, none of those people were published. I’d be willing to bet they change their mind the first time they see a book with their name on it.) Hopefully your own criteria for when you’ll feel like a writer is somewhat lower than being on a best seller list.

I made a decision when was very young that I’d officially call myself a writer the first time I got paid something for something I’d written. That turned out to be an article about dog friendly restaurants in Las Vegas. I was paid ten bucks. A few weeks later I wrote “writer” on my daughter’s kindergarten registration form.

I’m glad that I set the “I’m a writer” bar fairly low. I probably would have given up years ago if I’d decided I needed to be traditionally published first. Or worse, that I had to be a best seller.

I called myself a writer well before it was obvious to anyone else that I was. As a direct result of that, I mustered up the nerve to apply for a job as a newspaper reporter, when I didn’t have a college degree or any experience (I got that job.) I believed I was a writer and that formed my vision of myself.

If you’re holding back from telling people that you’re a writer because you think maybe it’s not okay to say that if you’re not published or you haven’t written a novel yet or no one’s paid you anything–here’s me giving you permission to just do it. Break whatever rule you think there is about who gets to say that they’re a writer.

You get to, Ninja Writer. Today. The next time someone asks you what you do. When you look in the mirror and need a boost. You are a writer. It’s okay to own that.


Did you already say “I am a writer” out loud? Good. Now, say it out loud to another person. You can practice by coming to say it in our Facebook group.


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Day Twenty: Find Your Writing Community

(Day 20) Find Your Writing Community

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”

That’s how we got Ninja Writers. I wanted a strong writing community. More than strong–I wanted a magic writing community. I trusted that if I reached out, other writers would find me and we could build that community.

And we did.

Ninja Writers is, by far, the most amazing writing group I’ve ever been part of. It’s a family. And it’s the thing that’s going to make the difference for all of us, between wanting and being.

I have a local writers community, too. I belong to my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and I’ve been part of Romance Writers of America (RWA) even though I don’t write romance anymore, because the community there is so strong.

Today, I’d like you to take a minute to think about your writing community. Do you have local friends who are writers? I’m writing this in mid-October, which is a great time to find local writing groups as they gear up for NaNoWriMo.

Are you part of our Ninja Writers Facebook Group? If you’re not, I’d like to invite you to join us. Nothing would make me happier.

Writers tend to be introverted. And sometimes when we start writing, it can be hard to be confident enough in our work to want to reach out or to feel like we should. There is something truly magical, though, when you find your people. You know–your tribe.

Ninja Writers is our tribe. Hopefully, you can find a local tribe as well.


Two parts:

First come join Ninja Writers if you haven’t already and introduce yourself. Let us know where you are, what you write, who you are.

Second, make an off Facebook connection with another write. Exchange emails or phone numbers with another Ninja Writer. Reach out to someone in your real life who is also a writer. Google writing groups in our area and plan to attend a meeting.



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