Don’t Forget the Subplots

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I tried to make a list of all the books I’d read once. It was over 2000 titles long when I realized there was a problem. There were some authors where I’d read dozens of their books and didn’t recognize a single summary when I looked them up. For other authors, I remembered every single book. What’s the difference between the two? That’s hard to say given I don’t remember one type, but I’ll make a guess.

There are some authors whose books you can read very fast because the story is simple. We follow one character or group pursuing a single goal. All the story complications have to do with that single goal. You can zip through the story quickly and forget it just as quick. Nothing wrong with that. Some authors build successful careers on that writing style. I’m not even suggesting you shouldn’t use that style.

There are other authors whose books you can’t read fast. The people in their stories have their own motivations and don’t cooperate with the central story. In other words, the novels have subplots. These are the 2000 plus books I remembered well. Sub-plots make a story unique and more realistic.

Nobody has a favorite book that has no sub-plots unless it’s a favorite book from childhood. Adult novels that are simple quick reads are too much like other books in their genre. They are forgettable.

As an example, I’d like to talk about the plots of a few favorite books. Recent research has found that knowing the plot of a story doesn’t ruin a story. Even knowing the ending won’t stop you from enjoying a book. Still, I will hold back the endings.

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Managing Action in Your Fiction

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When you deal with the big problems successfully, you have the resources you need to deal with the small problems. It works like this in both real life and fiction. The resolution of the main story problem, the engine of the story, should also wipe out the smaller problems.

How do you make sure the smaller problems are tied in to the bigger ones? You write the big problems first. The multiple draft process follows below. If you’re a seat-of-your-pants writer, you can write the prep docs in your imagination.


The synopsis starts with your big story problem, the idea you want to turn into a story. What starts the problem? How are you going to open the novel with action? Who are the important characters? What attempts will they make to solve the problem without success? How do they change at the halfway point from investigating the problem to being on top of it and actively working for a solution? How will you create major changes in the story at the one third and two third points? How do they resolve the problem at the end?
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Use Zen to Write More

Use Zen to Write More

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Zen Buddhist meditation teaches you to clear the clutter from your mind so that you can have focus and peace.

Zen practitioners will also clear the clutter from their home. I wouldn’t recommend that move for a writer. You need to have lots going on to be a good writer; lots of experience to draw from. A cluttered home isn’t a problem. Why?

Zen meditation teaches focus. It begins with ignoring all thoughts except a nonsense phrase or the viewing of a candle flame. When that succeeds, you forget the nonsense phrase or the flame as well. If you can ignore your thoughts, you can certainly ignore your environment. Physical clutter doesn’t matter.

There are books on how to meditate, but the steps are no longer than a blog article. Do an internet search for “how to meditate” and you will find many articles.

How will this help you write more? Drop the focus on nonsense phrases or flames and focus on what you are writing. Not everything you are writing, the one thing you are writing now.

Eckhard Tolle’s variation on meditation is to forget about both the past and future so you can enjoy the moment. You can’t change the past. The future may be different than you expect. By forgetting both, you remove most causes of anxiety and depression.

Another way to look at it is this. You can’t fix the past because it’s over and you can’t fix the future because the problems haven’t arrived yet. When you focus on only your most important problem in the present, you are free to give it your full attention.

Learn to use these methods to focus on what you are writing now and you will be free of most distractions. You will be using Zen to write more.

Article by Ivan Izo.

Keep It Stupid Simple – Counter-intuitive Character Behaviors

Keep It Stupid Simple – Counter-intuitive Character BehaviorsPhoto license

A character makes a quick run to the corner store and decides not to bother locking the door. One more speeding ticket and your character will lose their license but they keep on speeding. Cheating, crime, and the Darwin Effect are all good examples of character stupidity and irrationality. This is the stuff that makes characters real.

A character who always does the right thing doesn’t sound like a real person.

Real people don’t always make the right decisions. Even the most rational among us know what they should do but let their emotions dictate their action. You shouldn’t visit because you have work to do, but you want to have a laugh. You should end a relationship with a cheating partner, but you’re still in love. You should ignore bad behavior from a casual friend, but you want revenge.

We also do the wrong thing because we’re distracted. We daydream. We focus on what’s most important instead of what’s most urgent. Opportunities get missed. The wrong opportunities are taken.

We do the wrong thing because we are lazy. Someone else will catch that problem. Maybe nobody will notice if it’s not done. Maybe a repetitive task can be done less often. Then, even less. Then, not at all. Now the character has become fetid bachelor frog.

An offshoot of laziness is stupidity. We are stupid about things we are too lazy to learn because we don’t really care about knowing them. If you’re not into computers, you don’t study how to keep your internet connection up. Instead, when it goes down, you call tech support and they tell you how to fix it. Characters will also be stupid about anything they have no interest in. If you give a character skills that don’t relate to their job or hobbies, where did they get the knowledge?

How about misunderstandings between characters? For example, the hotel clerk who regrets that the customers credit card didn’t work and the customer who thinks the clerk is being sarcastic and rude. People choose their interpretation of what’s going on. Some expect to be attacked socially. Some deliberately find fault, even if they need to make it up. Others expect they will get their way every time on certain things.

Even the most rational person will make the wrong choice if it supports what they believe. Career. Corporate loyalty. Religion. Politics. These are the enemies of rationality and they’re here to stay.

When your characters are in a role that’s important to them, it makes sense that they will have a level of expertise. When they step out of their comfort zone, make them simple and stupid.

This is just one more of the many ways you can make your characters stand out as real people and help to make them different from the other people in your novel.

If you’d like more ideas on developing unique characters, check out these other Writer on Fire articles:

Keep Your Characters in Character

38 Character Personality Types

13 Character Archetypes

17 Ways to Make Your Characters Sound Different

Do Your Characters Need to Get a Life?

Character Change – What Makes a Character Three Dimensional?

Character Change With Heart

Article by Ivan Izo.

On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

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I said I wouldn’t write more “Novel Report” posts. If you’re writing a first novel, the story of my progress is probably interesting enough that I should write something about it. If not, you can skip past the italic text to the main article.

My final revision (a fourth revision) took less than a month. I moved on to a proofreading review and found a fair number of spelling errors, missing and extra words, and unclear sentences to re-write. My manuscript then went out to three early readers for their review. I’ve considered their recommendations and made changes where it seemed apt. What still remains to be done is the book cover, the e-book formatting, and short stories for promotion.

I included my second try at a book cover with the review copies. My first reader liked the cover. I do not. I’m working on a third.

The e-book formatting appears fairly easy. I already format my word processor documents without white space because I learned technical writing for my job. I learned html and css before I started blogging as part of my computer studies. The guides I’ve found have been clear for me, but I can see how they might pose problems for some writers. They often say much that doesn’t help get the job done and commit the expert’s fallacy of assuming the reader will understand basic steps that aren’t explained. I will be writing my own guide. If it’s really short, it will be a blog post. If it’s too long for a blog post, it will be a giveaway file with a copy-left so that you’ll be free to share it.

The short stories are not zipping along as quickly as I’d like. I have 20 in the works. Four of them now have the outline ready to go, so those will be written and posted on my Killer Stories blog shortly. I could write them faster if I’d use a plot formula, but where’s the fun in that?

I now return you to your irregularly scheduled blog post.

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Novel Report – The Final Revision of Book 5 is On

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I’m back in the writing groove and working on the final revision of Book 5. When I finished the third draft, I had the impression there was a lot of revision to be done and it put me off getting to the final draft. After a break, I’ve reviewed the outline and solved all the remaining problems with very few changes. I’m halfway through the revision after less than two weeks. For new readers, Book 5 is a placeholder title I’m using until the novel is published and then I’ll reveal the real name. It’s currently not listed when I search Amazon books and I’d like it to stay that way until my book is up.

When I write these editorials, I prefer not to just talk about my projects. On the other hand, talking about what I’m doing now is talking about what you will be doing when you finish your own novel. What’s coming up now that the manuscript is almost ready?

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The Easy Way to Detect Passive Voice

The Easy Way to Detect Passive Voice

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Passive voice weakens clarity. The difference between active and passive voice is the difference between things happening to a character and the character making things happen. You should write in active voice with only a few exceptions. What does this mean? Is there an easy way to detect passive voice?


First, some examples of active and passive voice.

Active: “The cook chopped the mushrooms.”
Passive: “The mushrooms were chopped by the cook.”

In the active voice, the subject is doing something or being something.

In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon or having something done to them.

A longer example might help. Wally can’t get the internet to come up and destroys his computer system.

First, in passive voice.

“The internet wasn’t coming up for Wally. None of his links would load. The three hole punch was in his hand before he could think clearly. The speakers went flying. The keyboard got smashed and several letters flew off. The monitor cracked as the end of the punch hit it dead center.”

Now, in active voice.

“Wally couldn’t get the internet working. He clicked links that didn’t load. He had the three hole punch in his hand before he could think clearly. Wally smashed the speakers off the desk. He smashed the keyboard and letters went flying. He smashed the end of the punch into the monitor and cracked the screen.”

Mixed Active and Passive

Beware of mixing active and passive in the same sentence.

“Jim picked up the laundry and plans were made for the day.” The second part is passive and needs to be re-written. “Jim picked up the laundry and made plans for the day.”

When is Passive Voice Okay?

Passive is okay when what is acted upon is more important. “The warehouse was burned down sometime shortly after midnight.”

Passive is okay when the actor is unimportant. “The tidal bore can be seen at 8am and 8pm.”

Passive is also okay in technical and scientific papers where the person doing the acting is not mentioned. “The test was given to 452 subjects. Non-lethal doses of cyanide were injected in half the subjects. Sugar water was injected in the other half.”

Passive voice is also useful when an object becomes a subject. “The gamers decided to go with the SWAT team format for their new game design. The SWAT team concept had been written by Kyoshi.”

The take-away from this is to be sure the subject of a sentence is the one taking action rather than receiving it and you will easily detect passive voice.

Article by Ivan Izo.