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Storybuilding 3: Brainstorming – The What If Game

First of all, don’t get too hung up on the details.  Don’t let your mind run away in panic at the sight of index cards, or whatever you use to plot.  Treat this as a fun exercise — a different way to engage the other side of your brain.  A new way to think of your story.  You’re still going to write it YOUR way — this is just to help you get some ideas down.

Depending on your comfort level, grab some pens or pencils (I prefer colored pens), notepads, index cards, sticky notes, etc.  For me, this is bonanza time.  I love office supplies — I’ve been caught drooling in Staples — so I get to drag out all these cool supplies I’ve bought but hardly ever use.  If you want to stick to paper and pen, cool.  Personally, I can’t start right off with sticky notes — they cost too much and my brain can’t just let go and mess up.  Index cards are cheap and I don’t mind blasting through a whole pack.

At this point, don’t make the process too analytical.  This is brainstorming – fun.  Just let your mind loose and write down any idea, no matter how crazy it is.  You can always throw those wild ones out — but who knows, that may be exactly the right way to add surprise and make the story fresh.  What we’re going to do is think of your story from several different directions.  Like facets of a gem, each exercise will reveal a different layer of your story and/or characters.  Some may work better for you, or for this story, than others.  That’s cool.  Again, don’t worry if you don’t get much from this particular exercise — a different one may work better for you.

Since there are a lot of different ways to get ideas, I’m going to break this post down into pieces.  Today, we’ll play the What If Game.

All you need to begin is the original idea for your story, whether it was a character, a premise, etc.  What was your original idea for the story?  What gave you goose bumps?  What made you determined to devote months of your life to this particular story in order to write, revise, polish, submit, and endure countless rejections just because the idea was that cool?  This is definitely the place to start!

Now using all the research, character building, etc. that you’ve already completed, begin to generate ideas with the “what if” game.  Jot them down, no matter how crazy.  Expand on each idea.  Don’t be afraid to take branches or paths that seem really strange or out there.  You’re not committed to including any of this in your story.  Just have fun!

Try to explore as deeply into the story line as possible.  If you can’t see all the way to the end, that’s fine.  Skip ahead if you can.  If you’re writing a story with an antagonist, think of all the possible ways your protagonist can face them, either subtly or blatant showdown.  If you’re writing romance, think of all the ways the hero and heroine can get together, get separated, fight, make love, etc.  Some you will keep — some you won’t.  Just generate ideas.

Example:  I knew all along that Gifted is set on a rather risque cable channel “reality” show.  That was the original idea.  The more I thought about this, I got the following “ideas” that may or may not make it into the story:

  • What if Shiloh took the main role on the show?  Originally I was thinking a secondary character came up with the idea and Shiloh had a more passive role as a contestant.  What if SHE came up the idea? Why would she devise this show in particular?  ahhhhhhh.  Lots of ideas came off this one.
  • What if there’s a competing company?  Victor’s worried about ratings.
  • Ohhh, wait, not ratings — what if Victor’s worried about a leak?  A spy within his company?  This gives me a whole new subplot to carry through.
  • I know Shiloh’s mother haunts her and has affected each and every relationship Shiloh has.  What if the mother was dead, literally haunting her?  Okay, this idea got scratched.  Originally I was going to do a paranormal element to match Miss Belle in Dear Sir, I’m Yours, but the general consensus seems to be that the paranormal thread, albeit amusing at times, detracted from the main story too much.  So no ghost, I promise, unless Miss Belle and Colonel Healy show up on page.

The “What if” game is one of my favorite ways to expand the original premise.  Each time you get a new idea, jot it on the index card, or make a new bullet on your paper, whatever works for you.  Some of this will end up in the recycling bin — but that’s okay.  For now, don’t throw any idea away, no matter how stupid it seems, although you might make a pile of the “best” ideas for the other exercises.  Keep the “other” ideas handy just in case.

Next, we’ll use character to continue brainstorming.

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Storybuilding 2: Characters

I’ve talked a lot about characters; just take a look at the Character Clinic and all the great articles and resources.  There are a million ways to build a character.  For me, each character comes to life in a slightly different way.  Sometimes I do loads of prework and still don’t have a good handle on the character.  Other times, I set out to write up detailed history and the voice comes through so loud and strong that I discover I’m actually writing the book (e.g. Chanda in Survive My Fire.  That’s why her sections of the book are in first person–I was actually trying to write her “character letter” below).

With Victor’s story, I cheated a bit.  As soon as I finished the first draft of Conn’s book (then called Letters), I immediately started working on his brother’s book.  I have about 10K of loose sections written out.  I didn’t do character planning, plotting, etc. — I was just writing out the ideas as I got them.  That work gave me the basic external plot.

But who was Victor?  Oh, I knew he was the CEO of VConn, an up and coming Dallas cable company.  I also knew he was a Master.  No mere dominant title will work for Victor.  But none of this gave me his heart.

There are a few crucial tools I come back to over and over as I develop a story.  If I do these things, I can usually plot the story or simply begin writing.

1. Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness. Every character should have a strength, that can also become a weakness and be used against him.  Victor’s strength is that he never loses.  Never.  He’s so driven, so competitive, that he’ll pay any cost to win.  Sometimes he gets so caught up in the victory that he doesn’t realize what he’s lost.

Now I take that strength and come up with one word that fully describes it.  Then I come up with its opposite that reflects his weakness.  Usually one is an adjective and one is a noun, but they can be in any order.  The trick is to come up with an oxymoron for the character that encapsulates this strength and weakness.

Victor is the victorious loser.  Shiloh is the unburied treasure.  (Note: I don’t think Shiloh’s is as strong as Victor’s. I’m playing off the idea of “buried treasure” and its opposite, unburied or “found” treasure.)   They don’t mean anything to anybody but me, but they’re powerful reminders of who these characters are.  Note, too, the importance of the characters’ names.  Victor’s name IS his strength, and so is Shiloh’s, because she’s definitely a gift.  She means to gift herself to Victor, if she can convince him to unbury the need he’s hidden away in his heart.

2. The Character Letter.  So I know that Victor has this extreme drive to win.  Knowing, though, doesn’t give me the details I need.  I wanted a specific instance in his past that showed me how he’d won — but lost.  That event still haunts him.  I also needed to know how he realized he was a sadist.  How did he feel about that?

The best way for me to figure these defining moments out is, of course, to write about it.  I could always choose to write it out like backstory (and I’ve done that — like Letters, the backstory for Dear Sir, I’m Yours that’s a Free Read), but I can kill two birds with one stone by writing it in first person.  This lets me get deep into Victor’s head AND figure out his voice.  What words will he use that no other character would?  How did he FEEL?  So I sit down with him and write in his voice, his words, about these defining moments.

And yes, as my beloved sister requested, I’ll post some of that letter this week–after I edit it a bit.

Background:  that’s why there are so many letters in Dear Sir, I’m Yours.  I started them as a character-building tool for Rae, and I found them so powerful and moving that I continued to write them.  Then they became so integral to the story that I ended up writing many more.

3. The Emotional Toolbox. I love this site.  It highlights everything I love about the hero’s journey.  A moving story is all about removing the mask and revealing the character’s deepest fears.  When I’m stuck at any point in writing the story, I can always go back over the six questions and my notes.  The answer is there.

Usually I can get plot ideas just by answering the six questions.  I also figure out supporting characters I need to add in order to highlight the theme and the journey.  In particular, the most important thing I get out of the Emotional Toolbox is the fear.

Deep down in the darkest corner of Victor’s heart, he’s very, very afraid, and that’s where the magic is.

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Storybuilding 1: The Vision

My major project for the fall is a follow-up novel to Dear Sir, I’m Yours for Conn’s brother, Victor Connagher.  When I begin a story, there are a few things I need to know in advance. 

Working Title:  Gifted

Target:  Samhain

Target Length:  70K

Genre:  contemporary erotic romance with elements of BDSM

Protagonist:  Victor Connagher.  Yes, I know it’s rare for the hero to “star” in a romance, but he has the most to lose in this story and the largest character arc, although the heroine has a very strong, important role.

Love Interest:  Shiloh Holmes.

Setting:  Dallas, TX

This is all basic information.  The KEY information that will decide the rest of the story is the THEME. 

The theme is the promise I’m going to make to you.  Every character in the story will prove the theme.  Every scene will illuminate the theme in some way or it will be cut.  The antagonist(s) will prove the opposite, dark side of the theme; the supporting characters will help the main characters prove the theme. 

Theme will drive every single aspect of the story.

For this story, my Beloved Sister provided the theme.  She told me every time she listened to Time is Running Out by Muse, she always thought of Shiloh.  Absolutely, Sis. 

I won’t let you bury it.  I won’t let you smother it.  I won’t let you murder it.

Or in other words, 

Victor must learn that revealing his deepest, darkest, most hidden needs to a loved one frees his heart and soul.  Burying–and denying–those needs will only murder his soul.

Next up, characters.

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Invitation: Character Clinic

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to host a “101 Ways to Love Your Characters” clinic here on the blog, beginning Friday, 2/13 thru Sunday, 2/15.  This invitation is open to anyone on the planet who has anything at all to say about characters.

If you’re a reader, I want to know about your all-time favorite characters and why you love them.

If you’re a writer, I want to know about all your tricks and techniques that help you create memorable characters.  My friend Jenna is going to blog about using tarot; my friend Soleil is going to use astrology; and I’m going to talk about a variety of things, like static traits and possibly what I’ve learned using I Ching. 

The clinics will be informal, chatty, and above all, fun!

I’ll post daily Clinic entries here, linking to everyone who’s participating to share the link love.  Simply e-mail me (see the About tab) or comment on any post and leave me your link to be included.  I’ll be giving away two prizes:  one to the posters; one to the commenters (on any participating blog entry, not just mine).  Posters may comment to gain more chances to win. 

Since Ann and Bethanie can attest to how much I suck at getting packages in the mail *mutters at self and eyes the box on the corner of my desk that I should have mailed last freaking year!!*, the rules are very simple.  Up for grabs:  two $20 prizes, winner’s choice

  • Amazon order (that qualifies for Amazon Prime or includes shipping) up to $20
  • any online book retailer $20 gift certificate (Amazon, B&N, Fictionwise, Drollerie Press bookshop, etc.)

So make a note on your calendar and I hope to see you next weekend!

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By word count alone, I ended up negative today in NSR.  I wrote the next new section in Quinn’s POV — braving Melville to do so — and then axed the only section in Dr. Charles Merritt’s POV in the second major draft, which was longer.  I also did some shuffling around of character placement.  A character needed to die a bit earlier than I planned.  Good work, even if the word count doesn’t reflect it.

Then tonight my Amazon order arrived containing The Complete I Ching.  I’d bought this book as research for my hero in 7Crows, and whoa, it’s so interesting!  I’ve been trying to plot it out, but couldn’t seem to get the pieces to fall into the right order in my mind.  So I decided to play out a toss of the coins and see if I could get a plot.  I got so many good ideas, it was freaky.  I ended up plotting the whole thing tonight.

For example:  Tian’s, the hero’s, static trait is that he always consults the coins.  The first scene shows him doing this.  So naturally, in his darkest moment of betrayal, he checks the coins, and rightfully gets the hexagram 36 – Ming Yi – Brilliance Injured or Darkening of the Light.  I was getting ready to move on to the Masquerade, when one line from the description caught my eye:  “Hunting in the south, captured the great chief.”

Hmmm.  Interesting, I thought.  I ended up adding a scene where they do just that — capture the Queen’s right hand man. 

This static trait comes back in the first climax, where he distracts someone who knows him well by doing the casting again before “making a decision” when he’s really just buying time.  There, he casts 18 – Gu – Worm or Decay.  I just love the whole idea of it.

I’m sure I’ll need to do more tweaking, but the outline of plot is here.  I still need to think of one crucial item that ties Morghan’s father to the theme, and I need to spend a bit more time making sure her dark moment is appropriately hopeless.  Anyway, here is the first draft of the block outline for 7Crows.

Section Title POV
001 Tea with the Stars Morghan
002 Dragon Hid in the Deep Tian
003 At the Captain’s Table Morghan
004 Sage Advice Morghan
005 Promenade Tian
006 Winged Dance Morghan
007 Scaled Mask Tian
008 Fallen Crow Morghan
009 Lost Morghan
010 The Crow Queen Tian
011 Flying in Darkness Morghan
012 Trap is Sprung Morghan
013 Dragon Flying Low Tian
014 Black Feathers Morghan
015 Bedraggled Crow Tian
016 Wing to Wing Morghan
017 Suspicion on the Wing Morghan
018 Darkening Light Tian
019 The Queen’s Right Hand Morghan
020 Masquerade Tian
021 Tower of Crow Morghan
022 Consult the Oracle Tian
023 As the Crow Flies Morghan
024 Seven Crows Morghan


My typical section averages around 1K, so this will be right in line for the size requirements.  Assuming it doesn’t grow too much in draft…

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Characterization by I Ching

So you know I’ve been working on the SFR story tentatively called “Seven Crows.”  I’m hoping to make it my Feb. project, even though I’m pretty behind in Revision Xibalba.  I ended up drawing heavily on ancient Chinese history for the hero’s inspiration, which I hadn’t planned.  One thing led to another, and there I was reading through different dynasties.

Then the Chinese New Year came.  I got an innocent little advert from offering a free I Ching reading to celebrate the Year of the Ox.  Amused, I checked it out.  (I enjoy reading my “horror-scopes” because they’re never true.  I blame it on the cutoff between Taurus and Gemini.  5/21 is right on the line, and some Gemini elements fit, while others don’t at all, but Taurus isn’t right either.) 

Something started nagging in the corner of my mind.  Is this something I can use for the hero?

Turns out, yes.  I did a little research into I Ching (Google is my friend).  One of the 8 trigrams is “dragon”, which immediately caught my eye.  This is a shapeshifter story and you know how much I love dragons!  Then I looked up various hexagrams involving that symbol.  I ended up being very surprised at how much of it seemed to fit with what I already knew about my character.  I even started to get more plot ideas.  The biggest thing:  I have his static trait now, and lots of ideas of how it will affect plot and deepen his character.

Then I had to decide what symbol to use for the heroine.  Now she’s not based on the same culture, but I wanted to see what HE would think, looking at her and trying to discover her personality.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a symbol involving “crow.”  *snort*  But fire seemed to fit pretty well with my ideas for her (and its animal was the pheasant, which at least has wings), which lead me to another list of hexagrams to look up.  They’re not quite as clear to me, but I have a feeling they’ll be very useful when I’m in the hero’s POV trying to figure out what he knows, sees, hears, etc. from her.

Here’s another strangely cool inspiration that is now starting to make sense.  “Seven Crows” came from a crow augry poem, which was used to foretell the future based on the number of birds seen:

One crow sorrow,
Two crows mirth,
Three crows a wedding,
Four crows a birth,
Five crows silver,
Six crows gold
Seven crows a secret,
which must never be told.

How cool is that?  I never intended for astrology to play a part in this story at all!

Has anyone had luck using other forms of astrology to develop characters or plot?  I’ve used the Archetype Storytelling cards and personality tests before, but this is a first for astrology.

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I do like Debra Dixon’s GCM method, but it’s not quite enough for me.  Tonight, I think I found the perfect mix.  Referring back to the Emotional Toolbox, I have a notebook page for each character that looks something like this:

Character Name

  • External Goal:
  • External Motivation:
  • External Conflict:
  • Internal Goal:
  • Internal Motivation:
  • Internal Conflict:
  • Fear, which ties directly to the internal GMC.
  • Mask, which is displayed in the external GCM.

I know how the heroine will answer the hero’s fear and force him to yank aside his mask, and vice versa.  Even better, the hero in Seven Crows will be forced to do that which he abhors the most in order to achieve his external goals, at least initially.  Morghan’s (still playing with her name:  Morgan, Morganna, and now Morghan, not sure what I’ll settle on yet) fear/goal, now that I look at it, isn’t quite as strong.  So I’ll think on it and see if I can make something even worse.

To give every supporting character his/her own story, I’ll also take a day or so and jot down GMC for at least two other characters, the Queen and the hero’s best friend.  Perhaps the heroine’s father, too.  Although he won’t be on page at all, he’s very instrumental in setting her goals for this story.

Next:  plotting.  I already have several pages of possibilities jotted as I brainstormed backgrounds.  I’m guessing I need about 20 sections, but I won’t have a good feel for individual section length until I begin writing.  A typical section for me is usually between 4-6 pages, so 20 sections is right for word count.  The POV may end up being first person.  Not sure yet, but I think the hero’s SECRETS will come out better if Morghan–and the reader–are both in the dark.

NSR:  2099 words, all brand spanking new except for maybe a paragraph or two pasted in from the first draft.  The new stuff is happening right at the midpoint of the novel, allowing me to not only worsen things for Jaid all around, but also giving me time to get the two new story threads in the States closer to convergence.  I also went back and dropped a few other little touches that needed supporting evidence earlier in the story (not included in today’s word count).

I’m really liking Jaid a lot.  She’s not the typical kickass sort of heroine so typical in contemporary/urban fantasy.  She’s smart and gutsy, but the worst physical violence she might do is throw a massive tome at a bad guy’s head.

Snippet:  truly first draft.  Knightley is a shady mercenary acting as a “guard” at the compound; Dr. Reyes is from the Popol Vuh Museum in Antigua; Jaid and Ruin I’ve already mentioned.  Some very bad things have happened in the peaceful little town of Santiago Atitlan, and Jaid finds herself trapped between very unhappy Guatemalan officials and the unknown “Venus Star” corporation.

“Sorry, Doc.” 

Still gulping air, Jaid raised her head and stared at Knightley.  He touched a Bluetooth headset at his ear and leveled his weapon at her.  “I’ve got orders to take over this interrogation.”

“You can’t do that!”  Reyes surged to his feet.  The weapon swung over at him and he froze.  “I’m here on behalf of the Guatemalan government.  If you refuse my authority, we will kick you out of our country faster than–”

Reyes’ eyes flared.  Jaid realized the comforting hand had left her back.  She jerked her head around, searching for Ruin.

Silent and swift, he rushed the guard.  Casually, Knightly whipped the gun toward him and fired.

She cried out, clamping her hands over ears, but there was no retort.  The barely audible pop sounded like a party favor.  Ruin went down like an elephant tagged by a high-powered rifle, though, instantly dropped in his tracks.  He crashed into a table that shattered beneath his weight, slinging glass, fresh-cut flowers, and splinters flying.

Crying, Jaid stood to go to him, but the gun pointed back at her.  Ruin gave one last twitch and went still.  He was obviously dead:  the back of his head had been blown away.  She didn’t try to stop the acid boiling up her throat; instead, she aimed it at the guard’s legs.

“Son of a bitch,” Knightley growled.  He cocked his arm back and the butt of his gun slammed into her head.

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Twas the Night Before Story

Twas the night before Story, when all through my head
Not a character was stirring, not even a Fred.
The worldbuilding and rules I had already begun,
In the hopes that my character would soon to me come.
The photos were nestled all snug on my board,
While I knew how he looked, he still made me bored.
No hero to journey, and me without plot,
My Story was doomed to molder and rot.
When in my head there arose such a clatter
I sprang to my keyboard to record the sudden chatter.
In my scrapbook bible I wrote in a flash,
A few mannerisms I kept in my stash.
Like tugging his hair when lost deep in thought,
Or his palm rolling to and fro an ivory rahke.
When, what in my wondering mind should appear,
But shades of people, real people, my dear!
Key phrases only he would ever say,
A silver ring he wears night and day. 
A dark, dark secret held close to his heart,
The ratty blue shirt from which he refused to part.
With quirks and flaws, so interesting to see
How such little things were obviously the key.
More lively than cardboard, my character breathed,
Rounded and rich, I swore he would bleed.
And then in a twinkling, I heard a new voice,
His clear words to listen I simply had no choice.
Defining moments from my hero’s past,
Darkest secrets he shared with me at last.
Friends and family, and his enemies, too,
All his troubles and fears were mine to review.
How many times he had fallen in love,
What gods he honored in the heavens above.
His hopes–how they shone! His fears, how dread!
His secrets were like ghosts from which he fled!
His heart lay shattered like fragile spun glass.
No matter his goals, his past ne’er surpassed.
And now I knew the path I should set,
How best my hero to torment and fret.
His arc I saw like a gleaming thread,
A steep, dark ravine I would send him to tread.
The darkest moment, his innermost fears to face.
The elixir to lure him through this dangerous race.
His character scrapbook and his hero’s journey,
Soon gave me the framework for his grand story.
I spoke not a word but went straight to work,
And began plotting without a single shirk,
And laying the journey over ten even blocks,
And at my hero I threw bigger rocks.
I opened up Word, to my scrapbook a look,
And away my Story flew like all really good books.
But I exclaimed, ere I typed chapter one,
“Remember character is plot, and well you’ve begun.”