Therapize Your Writing

Rachel Hauck is an award-winning, best selling author. Her book, Love Starts With Elle is a RITA finalist. Her next book, Sweet By and By, written with country music star Sara Evans will release this summer. Visit her web site and find her on Twitter.

How To Therapize Your Writing

One of the things we face as writers is improving our craft and learning to discern what works and what doesn’t.

This fall, Susan Warren and I are teaching a Continuing Education class for ACFW called “Become Your Own Book Therapist.”

I thought I’d talk about one way to therapize your own work here on Novel Journey. Is therapize a word? It is now.

After awhile, authors should grow to some level where we can evaluate our own work – like taking the training wheels off the bicycle.

Most of us get stuck. No matter how long we plan or how hard we think things through, we get stuck.

At least I do. Am I alone here? Please tell me I’m not alone.

Here are several things you can do if you find yourself in the middle of a story that seems to have no life or punch, and you’re struggling with where to go next.

1. Go back to the original goal of the story. If you can’t succinctly define it, maybe your goal is too broad. Take some time to fine tune the story goal, whittle it down to a specific sentence.

2. What is the lie your protagonist believes? Are you straying for his or her belief system? Stop to think how your scenes are going. Did she start off afraid of snakes, but is now a snake charmer. Okay, an exaggeration, but you get what I mean. In every story, our characters start off with some kind of belief system and in the middle of the truth, there’s a lie.

The goal of the story is to correct the lie. Make sure the lie is not too broad. I hear this a lot. “She’s mad at God.” Or, “He thinks if he lets her in, he’ll get hurt.”

Great starting points, but why is she mad at God. Why is he afraid of getting hurt.

3. Is he or she too heroic? Like, they can do no wrong and every thing is working out for them? All the conflicts are resolved in the same or sequel scene? Go back to the conflicts, or the scenes where you dropped a story bomb, and stretch it out. Hint at the bomb. Don’t resolve the conflict.

Readers love real, flawed characters who have a heart to overcome.

4. Is your dialog dying? Notice the first sound in dialog is “die.” Bad, flat dialog can kill a scene. Kill a character. Make sure all the good lines are said, not thought.

Here’s what I mean:
“Hey Dan.”
“Hi Fred.” Dan looked like he’d been hitting the gym.
“I heard you were in town.”
“Just moved back.” Fred hated being caught in the middle of a hostile take over, losing his job and moving back home with his mother. He’d never get a date now.

All of Fred’s thoughts give great information. If he says them, then Dan can react and you can move the story forward.

Try to limit “yes,” “no,” “okay” in dialog. Sure, they are necessary at times, but make sure you’re using them to increase tension or for subtexting.

5. Change the point of view. Is the scene feeling slow? Try writing it from another character’s point of view.

I hope these help. Over on MyBookTherapy we’re blogging-a-book and you can see how we’re putting some therapy ideas into place.

Blessings on your writing!

5 Quick Tips for Mysteries ~ Guest Sharon Dunn

Sharon Dunn writes humorous who-dun-its. Her Bargain Hunter mystery series combines two things she loves: the hunt for a good deal and a fun follow the clues mysteries. You can read more about Sharon’s books at Sharon Dunn Books. She is currently at work on a romantic suspense for Steeple Hill.

Five Quick Tips for Writing Better Mysteries

1. Start your story as close to the crime as possible.

There is nothing like a body dropping to get a reader’s attention. This is what I call the shoot-first-and-answer-questions-later policy. Background and establishing character relationships can happen in later chapters. Most good novels pose a question in the early chapters of the book that carries through the whole book, for mysteries the question that is asked is who-dun-it. Assuming that the crime is a murder, that question cannot be asked until someone dies.

If the needs of the story make it impossible to start with the crime, there should be at least the threat of a crime or the early stages of someone setting up a crime in the first chapter. My first Bargain Hunter mystery Death of a Garage Sale Newbie begins with a woman leaving a cryptic message on her friend’s answering machine where she says she has discovered something dangerous from the past and that she is afraid. In later chapters, the woman who made the phone call disappears and is ultimately found murdered.

2. To create false suspects, give every important character a secret.

Part of writing a good mystery involves people doing suspicious things even if they didn’t commit the murder. A secret can be something as small as a character who has a crush on someone or has been writing a novel on company time. Or the secret can be something bigger like a character who doesn’t want people to know they have done time in prison or is having an affair. Characters who have something to hide will do things that make them appear to be guilty thus creating the red herrings that a good mystery usually has.

3. Plot twists often rise out the greater crime and the lesser crime.

As with all good novels, a twist at the end of a mystery makes for good story structure. Usually, a plot thread leads the reader to believe that a certain character is guilty. At the end of the book, that character may even be arrested. The twist comes when a different character turns out to be the culprit. In order to play fair with the reader, it may be that the character first presumed to be the guilty party has been committing a lesser crime like embezzling or maybe they have been helping or covering for the real murderer, anything that makes them look guilty.

The important thing in creating the twist is to lay the ground work so that when the real killer is caught, the reader hits their forehead with the heel of their hand and says, “I should have seen that.” One of the tricks I use in creating the plot twist is to write the rough draft of the novel as though Suspect A is guilty. In the rewrite, I will look back through to see which other character had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, or with some revision could have had the means, motive and opportunity. In the rewrite, that Suspect B becomes the guilty party.

4. Remember the rule of three.

Mystery readers are used to picking up on buried clues, but they don’t like to feel like something was so buried there was no way they could have noticed it. At the same time, flashing neon signs that says This is a Clue is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. If a clue is going to become the thing that breaks the case or moves the mystery forward significantly, bring it up in the story at least three times, preferably in different ways, maybe once in dialogue and another time through description. The best clues are the ones that seem innocent and benign at the time and don’t take on significance until other parts of the mystery fall into place.

5. A sleuth who has a personal stake in solving the crime makes for a more compelling story.

While police detectives and private investigators are motivated to solve a crime because their paycheck depends on it, giving a sleuth a stronger reason to find the murderer creates more story tension. When a female detective is called in to investigate a murder in a girl’s dorm, you have created an interesting premise. When the detective’s sister was recently the victim of an assault in that same dorm, you have created a compelling premise.

For an amateur sleuth, having a personal stake is almost a necessity. In my first Bargain Hunters mystery, the personal stake for the head Bargain Hunter Ginger was that her best friend is murdered and the police are willing to write it off as an accident. In book two in that series, Death of a Six Foot Teddy Bear, Ginger is a suspect in the crime. In Sue Grafton’s T is for Trespass find P.I. Kinsey Millhone find herself solving an identity theft case because her neighbor is one of the affected victims.

Death of a Six-foot Teddy Bear

Ginger and her husband, Earl, are in for a wild ride in Calamity, Nevada, along with the other BHN (Bargain Hunters Network) ladies–college student Kindra, mother-of-four Suzanne, and sassy senior Arleta. They came to town for the Inventors Expo and some outlet shopping, but instead they endure lost luggage, broken air conditioning, and a long line of people angry at hotel owner Dustin Clydell. With the Inventors Expo and the Squirrel Lovers convention both in town, the Wind-Up Hotel has somehow overbooked.

Before the night is over, a man in a teddy bear costume is found dead, the Inventors Expo is canceled. . .and the authorities want to talk to one of the BHN ladies!

Read a review of Death of a Six-foot Teddy Bear on Novel Reviews.

James Scott Bell ~ The Q Factor

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author, most recently, of the thriller Deceived, which was called “a heart-whamming read” by Publishers Weekly. He’s also written two popular books on fiction for Writers Digest Books: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing.
The Q Factor

When I teach fiction writing at a conference, I usually spend a few minutes talking about something I call the Q Factor. It comes from the character in the James Bond movies, the one who is always giving Bond his gadgets and telling him not to play with them. There is a very important reason this character exists.

Let’s cut ahead to the inevitable James Bond ending. Bond has been hung by his ankles over a school of piranha . The bad guy grins and says something like, “Enjoy your swim, Mr. Bond.” Then he sets the timer to lower James Bond into the pool of piranha and, of course, leaves. (An interesting existential question is why villains so often leave before their adversaries are dispatched).

As Bond is lowered toward his doom, he manages to get his thumb on one of his cufflinks. The cufflink turns into a small, rotating saw. He uses that saw to cut through the restraints on his hands.

Now he is able to reach into his jacket pocket and pull out a fountain pen. The fountain pen is, in reality, a device that holds a compressed nitrogen charge and shoots a small grappling hook and line across the piranha pond, enabling Bond to cut his leg restraints and swing to safety on the other side of the pool.

Now, if we had been reading along in the story and gotten to this point, and Bond simply produced those items for the first time, we’d all be groaning. How convenient! What a cheat!

But of course, it was all set up by the Q scene. Because we saw these items before, we are perfectly accepting of them when they come out at the right time.

In fiction, the Lead character should reach a point near the end when everything looks lost. This can be something outside or inside the character, or both. But he is, in figurative terms, dangling over a pool of piranha.

What he needs is courage for the final battle, to face the ultimate test. This is where the Q Factor can help. It is something that is set up early in the story which will provide the necessary inspiration or instruction for the character when he needs it most.

Sometimes the Q Factor is an icon of some sort, a physical object. Sometimes it is the memory of a beloved mentor. It may simply be the character digging down into his moral reservoir. Whatever it may be, it is the storyteller’s job is to give it life on the page.

Here is an example. In the great Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the naïve young senator played by James Stewart arrives in Washington D.C. for the first time. He is mesmerized by the city which represents everything he loves about America. So he slips away from his handlers and goes on a sightseeing tour, which is rendered in a wonderful montage. The montage ends at the Lincoln Memorial. Here, young Jefferson Smith is deeply moved by what he sees. He reads the words inscribed on the wall. He sees a young boy holding his grandfather’s hand, trying to say the words aloud. He observes an African-American gentleman removing his hat. And then Smith looks back up at the face of Lincoln.

We now have a very emotional object embedded in our minds.

At the end of Act 2, Mr. Smith knows he is a political puppet of a corrupt machine, and has no way of fighting back. He has even been betrayed by the senior senator, who had been a good friend of his own father. Smith takes this as the final knife in his back and decides to leave town.

It’s nighttime, and he is passing the Lincoln Memorial, but this time defeated and downcast. He sits heavily on the steps.

Along comes the political operative played by Jean Arthur. Originally she thought of Smith as a dumb oaf too, but she has come to respect his integrity in this sea of cynicism. She says, “I thought I’d find you here.” And then she says, “Remember the day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right. He was waiting for man who could see his job and sail into it, that’s what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root ’em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you, Jeff. He knows you can do that, and so do I.”

Smith gets inspired and as they walk away he pauses to wave at Lincoln.

Now, when Mr. Smith undertakes impossible task of a single-man filibuster, we understand and accept how he could do that. That’s the Q Factor. Another example. When Luke Skywalker is engaged in a final battle in Star Wars, he hears the voice of Obi-Wan, telling him to remember to use the Force. Inspiration. In a lot of old movies, you’ll have the Lead character reaching the dark point, and hearing, in echoing tones, the voice of something his father or mother told him a long time ago. A moral sentiment that inspires the Lead once more.

Sometimes, the Q Factor can be a negative emotion. In High Noon, the classic western starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, Kane finds himself as one man against four killers. The townspeople have all come up with excuses not to help him. He knows he will probably die. And the real bummer is that he has just married Grace Kelly! There comes a point just before the climax when Kane is considering getting a horse and riding out of town. He will get together with his wife again and go somewhere and try to live without being found. He’s in a livery stable, considering this.

Enter the character of Harvey, played by Lloyd Bridges. Harvey is a coward, and hates being in the shadow of the great Will Kane. He sees Kane and knows that if he can get him to ride out of town, in effect showing the town that Kane is really a coward after all, then he, Harvey, will look good in comparison.

As Harvey tries to get Kane to do this, Kane realizes that if he does go, he will in fact be no better than Harvey. And that’s when he makes the decision to stay. Harvey, who was introduced early in the film, is the negative Q Factor for Kane’s decision.

Think of it this way. So many stories are about the overcoming of fear. The fear manifests itself most when all the forces are marshaled against the Lead. Fear and common sense tell her to give up, run away.

She knows she can’t. So give her a Q Factor, an emotional element that comes in when she needs it. To do that:

1. Select what the element will be (item, mentor, moral sentiment, negative character, etc.)

2. Write a scene early in the narrative that anchors this element emotionally to the Lead.

3. Refer to the Q Factor once in the middle section, as a reminder.
You should do this subtly, almost as a throwaway.

4. Find a trigger point in the Lead’s darkest hour where the Q Factor can be reintroduced.

5. Show the Lead taking new action based on the Q Factor. If you’ve embedded the Q well enough up front, the readers will pick up what’s happening without you having to explain it to them. Just let it happen naturally.

The Q Factor is just another tool to add to your technique box. I like collecting these and having them at the read. I hope you do, too.

She thinks she knows who she is and what she wants, but when the web gets terribly tangled, is her game of deception a clever lie or a deadly trap?

Two bodies in an isolated canyon on the edge of L.A. One with saddlebags filled with diamonds.
That’s how it begins for Liz Towne, a stunning blonde with a devout husband who has given up a prime job for reasons Liz cannot understand—for “Mac” MacDonald, a Gulf War vet who’s done time in prison and is just now finding his way back to normal life—and for Roxanne “Rocky” Towne, Liz’s sister-in-law, who suspects things she cannot prove. All three are thrown together after a tragedy in Pack Canyon.
After finding the stolen diamonds, Liz is faced with an escalating set of choices: Truth or lies? Stop or keep moving? All in or played out?