Posted in Exercises, writing

Plotting a Series

As a writer, it’s entirely possible that at some point you get hit with an idea that is simply too big for one book. That might be because of complex plotlines, multiple points of view, or even because new story ideas keep cropping up that all connect tangentially back to the same thing. You’re looking at a series, and all the fun territory that comes with it.

Series might seem a little more unwieldy than a single standalone novel or even a duo, but they’re manageable. There are dozens of articles out there that will tell you the key to plotting a series is to give it an overarching goal. I’m not here to tell you that.

I’m here to tell you that as a novelist, you probably already have the tools you need to tackle a series.

Don’t laugh just yet. Let’s start at the macro level. In a series, each book is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. Down to the micro level, in a novel, each chapter is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. See the connection?

Series will be a little more detailed than your average chapter, but you can approach them the same way. Each chapter should have a goal and a conflict. So should each book in the series. And like a series, the entire book should have a central conflict.

So, rather than getting stuck on how long that series is and how difficult it seems to plot it, break it down like you would any other chapter.

For me, I like to write out a one-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter. So it might be something like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
  2. Snow White’s stepmother is furious to find the King’s will leaves Snow White the only heir.
  3. Stepmother tries to kill Snow White, who runs away into the woods.
  4. The Dwarves find and rescue Snow White but demand her help in exchange.
  5. Snow White solves a problem for each of the Dwarves.
  6. Stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive and sends a hunter to kill her.
  7. The Dwarves and Snow White flee their home.
  8. Snow White and the Dwarves gather an army of forest creatures.
  9. The army is marched onto the castle of the Stepmother.
  10. Snow White becomes queen and begins rebuilding.

You get the idea. Each chapter help builds and resolve the overall conflict. Now let’s take a look at these as if they were books in a series.

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.

On it’s own, it seems pretty simple, but if we’re assuming that’s the overall conflict, then we know there’s more to it, so it might end up being something more like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
    1. Snow White begs her father not to marry his bride.
    2. Stepmother convinces King Snow is merely grieving her mother.
    3. Snow White discovers proof Stepmother will kill King.
    4. Stepmother blocks Snow White from attending the wedding.
    5. The king is poisoned at supper.
    6. King dies and Stepmother warns Snow White the same can happen to her.
    7. Snow White learns she will be queen when she comes of age and decides to simply wait Stepmother out.

The ending for this one resolves it as a tragedy while still leaving it open for the next story. Snow White will be Queen…if she can avoid angering Stepmother long enough. Likewise, the next book furthers the conflict when Stepmother finally discovers that she’s only Queen until Snow White is old enough to take the throne.

Chapters work the same way. Each one has a smaller conflict in it that must be resolved, but that still feeds into the main plot. First chapters, like first books, open up the main conflict, but still handle their own struggles. Final chapters and books resolve all the conflicts and leave the story with a satisfactory ending.

As an exercise: Take your favorite series and write a one-sentence summary of each book. Then break each book into a one-sentence summary of each chapter.

Posted in Exercises


There are three fundamental aspects that every single story has, regardless of good, bad, popular or unknown. Without those three pieces, you don’t have a story. They include plot, setting and characters. Those three elements are impossible to escape. Your characters are who the story is about, your plot is what happens during the story and your setting is where the story happens.

While I could delve into why it’s impossible to write a story without all three of those present, today I want to focus on characters. They’re often the main and central focus of the story for your readers. Making characters distinct for one another relies heavily on characterization.

Characterization itself is the distinct features each character has. This goes beyond just physical features and into personality traits and habitual quirks. These are your defining features that help your characters stand out from one another.

Speech is a huge place for characterization to come through. The way people talk often reflects the environment they’re most often surrounded by and were raised in. As an exercise, you can write down a list of common words with multiple synonyms (think car, soda, mother, etc) and determine which ones your characters would use. Would one of them use Mom while another uses Momma, or even Mother? Is it a vehicle or an auto?

Phrasing is important in speech as well. If you have someone who’s learned a second language, how they learned it will impact how they speak it. Someone who learned organically through immersion would have picked up more slang words and may still have some chunks missing from their vocabulary. Someone who learned through traditional schooling may have a more formal structure, but struggle with idioms and expressions.

As an exercise for phrasing, think about any idioms, expressions or sayings that might crop up. Think about how each character might use a variation of that central expression.

Habits are often linked to subconscious things that can tell us a lot about personalities. Someone who chews their nails might be very nervous or they can be bored. Similarly, someone who shuffles their feet a when walking might be less inclined to rush about to do things.

Even in the foods we dislike, some characters will try to mask the taste by mixing that food in, while others prefer to eat it first and get the worst over with. Still other characters will separate it from the other foods and try to avoid more than a few bites of it at all.

As an exercise, consider three subconscious habits your character might have. These are things they probably do without thinking. Does he wipe his feet before coming through a door? Does she do certain chores or tasks in a specific order? Do they have a specific reaction to being reprimanded? Will they only do certain things when they’re tired/hungry/scared?

Self-Expression covers how characters portray themselves. Someone who takes pride in their appearance might be vain, or they could be masking self-esteem problems. Similarly, someone who speaks their mind freely might be confident, or they may feel as if they have to constantly explain their thoughts and actions to avoid being judged.

Because self-expression is so easily varied, it might help for you to consider how your characters express themselves and why they do in a particular way. Examine things like how they dress, how much work they put into keeping their spaces (include housing, vehicles and work areas) tidy, how often they speak up and what sort of hobbies they enjoy outside of their work or job.

Posted in Exercises

Reading Challenges

I mentioned when I posted about the goals I was setting for 2020 that one of the places I’d taken the hardest hit on was my reading. I had several months after May where I didn’t read anything outside of nonfiction articles, and only a couple of short fiction stories for the most part of the end of the year.

To fix that, I want to give myself a reading challenge this year. Normally I don’t track how much or what I’m reading, but I’m hoping that tracking it will let me get back on track and reading more.

Because I know part of the trouble has been on having time to read, I’m keeping it fairly low. The aim for this year is to read a total of 24 books.

  • 12 newly published books
  • 3 in genres I don’t normally read
  • 6 from indie authors
  • 3 digital books

I’m planning on keeping track of this in my planner, though I know a lot of people use places like Goodreads. I may also check out some of the book subscription boxes as a sort of blind date with a book.

What are you challenging yourself to read this year?

Posted in General, writing

The Short End of Word Count

As a writer, one of the things I have to keep an eye on is word count. A lot of advice out there tells you how to cut down your word count. After all, something that’s too long won’t sell. Readers don’t want to spend three hours reading something that could be read in an hour and a half. This is especially true when handling short stories. Keeping your word count below the upper end of the range is a good idea.

However, every writer is different, and some writers (myself included) have a tendency to draft short. When editing we can realize we’re well below the upper end of the range. We may also find ourselves below the lower end of the range.

I’ve been making what (I hope) are the final edits to a project I’ve had sitting on my computer for a while. Officially the title is Crimson and Gold. The word count sits just over 13,000 words. Roughly 7,000 too short for a novella. Although I have sincere doubts I’ll be able to bring this up to a novella, there are a few things to be done about a short word count if you need to bring it up a little farther.

Starting with descriptions some of the things you can do are simple. Setting and sensory descriptions can help by adding in details to fully immerse readers, as well as providing more information. An example:

  • A kettle hung over the fire.
  • A worn kettle blackened from use hung over the fire.

The idea here is the same: there’s a kettle over a fire. The second one, while longer, provides more detail and tells us this isn’t an unfamiliar occurrence. The owner of the kettle clearly uses it often.

Sensory details are often overlooked in initial drafts, so think outside of your sight. Take a look at sound, smells, hearing and feeling.

To expand on this, you can also use details to help bolster quiet moments between characters. When and where they appear, quiet moments can be used to help with characterization and character relations. A father noticing how his wife’s hair is styled while she tucks their toddler in for the night is one way of adding in details. It can also be a chance for the father to reflect on the fact this is probably the third or fourth time of putting kiddo to bed.

This isn’t as simple as you have to also be careful not to overextend your quiet moments. Dragging them on can make your story slow down too much.

Full names are also one way to add in a few words. Note that they should be used appropriately. You don’t need to call him John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt every time, but if he’s someone’s uncle they might call him Uncle John. For characters with family, trouble has a way of bringing out middle names. Keep in mind that with some family dynamics it’s not only parents using the dreaded middle name; grandparents and older siblings might use it as well.

Although these can help if your word count is just a tiny bit short, keep in mind that you won’t be adding thousands of words. The trick is to find places where the use of details, quiet moments and full names can help if you’re just scraping the bottom of the range you need to be considered ‘novella’ or ‘novel’. With most short stories it’s inadvisable to try and boost your word count. Adding too many words can water down the story.

Posted in Stories

Short Story: Scaly Cat

My delicate talons will be destroyed by this awful landscaping.

If anyone else could have heard the dragon grumping about having walk on a dirt path, they probably wouldn’t have been nearly as reverential about the silly thing.

“Your ancestors slept in caves and on the ground you know,” Ivory told him as she unlocked the door. Earon let out a soft growl as he stuck his head in the shop and sniffed around before proceeding.

My ancestors aligned themselves with kings.

A cat, Ivory decided as she followed Earon into the shop. He was as particular and proud as any cat. Not that she would ever tell him that. His pride was delicate enough as it was and the last thing she needed was a miffed dragon.

“You were also sleeping in old hay when I found you,” Ivory pointed out.

I have soil on my scales!

“It will brush off,” Ivory promised as he jumped onto the pedestal next to the counter where he liked to perch during the day.

Earon turned his attention to the paw to the dirty paw however, his yellow eyes narrowed as she moved to check the herbs she’d left drying the night before.

I would not have to brush it off if you would put a stone path in.

“Stone is expensive, and if you’re worried about something as soft as dirt ruining your talons, I can only imagine what the stone would do to your poor claws.”

Stone would be supportive. Someone is coming. Judging from their steps it is that over pompous tax official.

She hoped it wasn’t Mew. Since he’d come in to replace their old and ailing official, he’d made stops at her apothecary daily, often taking up time she should have spent on her paying customers.

Usually because he wanted to try and flirt with her.

The door open and Ivory turned, hoping it was someone else who needed something. She managed to keep smiling even as Mew looked around the shop. Earon settled to breathing heavily on his scales and occasionally licking them.

“Good morning,” Ivory said. “Looking for something today, Mew?”

“You, actually,” he said. “I was hoping perhaps you’d be free this evening.”

Here they went again. She kept smiling. “I’m not, unfortunately.”

He nodded slowly. “You’re very busy most of the time,” he said.

“The shop takes a lot of work,” she noted.

“As I can imagine,” he said. “Ivory, being a little more direct, I haven’t made it a secret I find you attractive.”

“No, coming into my shop daily while I’m working merely to talk drove that note home a while ago,” Ivory said.

On his pedestal, Earon apparently determined his scales were finally clean and shifted his focus to Mew.

Mew must have felt uncomfortable with those yellow eyes watching him because he shifted. “Ivory, I’d like to court you.”

“I’m not interested,” Ivory said.

I can chase him out now. Earon offered and Ivory turned to stroke his horns, both calming him and letting him know that it wasn’t necessary. Mew wasn’t likely to need chasing out.

As it was, Mew seemed shocked at her response. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Your shop can’t keep you so busy all year round that you’re not interested in being courted.”

“You misunderstand. I’m not interested in you,” Ivory said.

The look of personal affront on his face almost made her laugh as she moved around to the other side of the counter, a few dried herbs in her hand. These she would want to package as soon as possible, though the one she wanted to powder first.

“Ivory, be reasonable,” he said. “I have good standing, means to an excellent life. You could eventually give up working in a shop entirely.”

“I don’t want to give up my shop,” she replied.

“You’ll have to when you have children,” he said.

“Who said anything about me having children?” she demanded.

“It’s only natural when you marry,” he said.

Earon openly hissed and Ivory glanced at the dragon. The double-layer of scales around his neck and tail had begun to lift, making him look bigger, and his eyes had narrowed into slits.

“Thank you, Mew, but I’m not interested in you and I have work to do.”

“I’m trying to help you here,” he said. His tone took on a pitying note. “You’re not that pretty, you won’t get that many offers.”

I’m eating him.

Earon let out an angry shriek and launched himself at Mew. They tangled on the floor a moment while Ivory tried to get around the counter to get at the dragon trying hard to tear into Mew. The yells from Mew and sound of tearing cloth filled her shop for a moment before Ivory managed to get her arms around Earon’s midsection and haul off the tax official.

I am eating him!

“No, don’t eat him!”

Mew managed to scramble backwards, though he backed into a wall. Ivory could see three long scratches on the side of his face, and it looked as if one arm had been thoroughly bloodied from fending off Earon’s teeth.

“Do not insult my person!”

Though rare to actually use his physical voice, Earon’s voice came out in a hiss and growl as he tried to get free of Ivory’s arms. Already horrified to be attacked, Mew needed no other warnings.

He sprang from the floor and threw the door open, nearly running into the midwife and the baker as they both came up the path, chatting casually with one another. He left the door hanging open and Earon hissed as Ivory was forced to release him.

Idiotic, over pompous fool.

“What was all that about?” the baker asked as he came in. He held the door for the midwife and Ivory shook her head.

“Evidently since I’m not interested in Mew courting me, I’m not that pretty. Earon didn’t take to that too well.”

Idiot. If he steps foot in here again I will eat him.

“Oh, no. Tell me he didn’t,” the midwife said.

“Afraid so. Oh look,” Ivory bent and picked up a scrap of fabric. She turned and shook it at her dragon. “You tore his clothes.”

Earon snapped at it. I should have done more damage to his face.

“You have no shame at all,” she reprimanded him.

He hissed again and jumped back to his pedestal. You are mine to protect.

“You’re supposed to protect my shop and home!”

You are mine to protect.

The midwife hid a laugh behind a hasty cough while the baker openly grinned.

“You know,” the baker said as Ivory shook her head. “It’s terrible that he had to go and offend a dragon.”

“Why is that?” Ivory asked.

“Oh dear, did you forget? This is a simple town with simple people. A little superstition goes a very long way. You never offend a dragon. The people around here aren’t fools enough to tangle with someone who would deliberately offend a dragon. Now, by chance do you have any kohosh?”

By A.J. Helms