Why Book PR Can Have the Most Impact BEFORE You Land An Agent, by Sharon Bially


The question of how important book promotion is to sales and an author’s career is the subject of continual, heated debate.

On one hand, many agents these days urge their clients to hire an outside publicist no matter who their publisher is, claiming that without robust PR and promotion no book (or author) has a future.  On the other hand, many — like WU’s own Donald Maass — stress the greater importance of staying focused on writing, insisting that the real ticket to sales is to craft a killer book.  Combined with the fact that the level of efforts publishers make varies wildly and publishers’ in-house teams often shrug indifferently when authors ask if it’s worth hiring help, this makes for a lot of mixed messages, ambivalence and confusion.

Add to that the unclear correlation between promo efforts and sales and the entire issue starts to look like a riddle that’s impossible to solve.

Over the years, though, I’ve noticed one surprising pattern that might offer an answer for many:

When successfully implemented BEFORE a manuscript is even shopped around, book PR can have quite a profound impact, one that will ripple out well into the future.

I know, you’re probably thinking, “Huh?  Has she lost her mind?” After all, how can you promote a book while in essence it’s still a work-in-progress?

While it’s true that at such an early phase you can’t promote a book per se, what you can do is promote yourself: your name, your background, your voice and your ideas.  As the author, you are the persona behind your work.  Thus promoting the book and promoting yourself are one in the same.

Authors who promote themselves in advance of searching for an agent or simply find themselves in the fortuitous position of having an existing media platform enjoy a number of distinct advantages when it comes time to shop that manuscript:

It’s easier to get agents’ attention.
A client of mine who was a regular contributor to Psychology Today and The Atlantic noted this in his query subject line.  Within a few hours after sending the query out, he had more than 10 agents ready to read his first few chapters. He attributes this directly to the mention of his media platform in his email.

It’s easier for agents to get publishers’ attention.
It’s no secret that publishers are particularly interested in authors with a media platform — or at least a strong platform (read: following) on social media.  Many wonderful books by first-time authors with no platform whatsoever have been sadly passed over.  On the flip side, books by authors with an existing platform are more readily considered, and picked up.

Bigger publishers will be more likely to be interested.
For the same reason as above, books by authors with an existing platform are more appealing to larger publishers — who often have larger budgets for advances, marketing and distribution, all of which directly impacts a book’s future.  One author I know was turned down by Farrar, Straus and Giroux apparently after much deliberation by the editorial committee due to her lack of a platform. She was, however, ultimately offered a contract by a much smaller press.  Like many smaller presses, however, this one offers very little marketing support.

Publishers may offer a higher advance.
Because a platform suggests that an author has an audience to reach, and because having an audience suggests that sales may be stronger, publishers tend to take this into account when calculating the overall investment they’ll make in a book — beginning with the advance.  The client I mentioned who had mentioned his Psychology Today and The Atlantic columns in his query got a terrific advance, which he (and his agent) attribute to his platform as well.

Publishers may be inclined to make a bigger promo push.
This, too, is due to the correlation between platform and potential audience.  There’s a general sense that promo and publicity dollars are better spent when it’s clear from the outset that a community of people beyond friends and family will be on the receiving end.

When the book is published, the media will be more likely to take note.
Fact: when an individual has been covered by the media before, reporters, editors, producers and reviewers are naturally more interested.  The reasons are complicated, related to the definition of the word “news” (which ultimately is what the media produces) but to put it simply, previous coverage adds to the newsworthiness of the overall story.

At this point you may be wondering, “If my book’s not even finished, how can I possibly build a platform?”

There are all sorts of creative ways to build the foundations of a platform long before you’re even done drafting, from becoming a contributor to a popular blog and building your social media network to contributing bylined articles about topics related to your book’s themes.  If your book happens to dovetail in some way with significant personal or professional experience you can talk about, so much the better.  The key is to make sure your message across the board is fairly consistent in its connection to your writing.

As for how to accomplish this, teaser alert: that’s a whole new topic, which I’ll have to circle back to in another post.

Query Letters Part 1: The Pitch, by Annie Neugebauer


Last time I did my best to convince you that the query letter is a skill worth mastering. The heart of the query, your pitch, is useful not just for querying agents but also for the back of your book, pitching to editors, plotting, problem-solving, and even brainstorming. Naturally, the next big question is, “Okay, how do I write one?”

Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Every query pitch is unique, as is every writer’s path to getting out a good one. Unless you have an extremely lucky knack for them, the answer will almost certainly involve lots of study, work, practice, repetition, practice, critique, and did I mention practice?

Nonetheless, there are certain nearly-universal guidelines you can use to get started. Today I’m going to give you my version of these in hopes that they help you with your own pitch writing, but keep in mind that reading and writing many pitches really is the best way to ingrain the pattern into your brain. Aside from going to bookstores and libraries to read the backs of lots of books (what works to make you want to keep reading? why? what doesn’t? why?), there are many wonderful resources for writers such as Query SharkAgent Query Connect, and Writer’s Digest where you can read real query letters and commentary on them.

And here’s one more important thing to keep in mind with your query: a pitch is not a summary. The goal of a summary is to encapsulate everything that happens in your book. The goal of a pitch is to make someone want to read more of your book. This means intentionally picking and choosing which information to include and which to leave out. Intrigue is a great way to pique interest.

What Goes In Your Pitch

The skeletal structure of most pitches will look something like this:

  • Attention-grabber
  • Essential Premise
  • Protagonist
    • Goal
    • Motivation
    • Obstacle
    • Stakes
  • Antagonist
    • Goal
    • Stakes
  • Supporting Character
    • Motivation
  • Closing Hook

Of course, by the time you write it into sentences that flow from one to the next and make coherent sense, they might be in a different order, and you might have extra tidbits thrown in or even an element or two missing. That’s just fine, as long as the pitch works as a whole.

The attention-grabber should be your first sentence. Sometimes this will be your “elevator pitch.” Sometimes it won’t. Regardless, it should be in some way compelling. Depending on your genre, it can be witty, disturbing, surprising, gorgeous, funny, or anything else that will make a tired reader perk up. Don’t hold back; now is your time to hit ‘em with your best shot.

What I’m calling “essential premise” here isn’t necessary for all books/genres. I’m talking about world-building basics. Contemporary novels can often skip this unless the setting is unusual, but any speculative genre will need to give some basics so we know if we’re in a medieval fantasy village, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or a radioactive cupcake factory. If the rest of the query doesn’t make sense unless you know the setting/premise, which also applies to time period and location, take a sentence or two to capture it.

Then get to the meat. Who’s your protagonist? What does he or she want? Why? What’s in her way? What happens if she can’t get it? These things should be in all pitches.

The antagonist should get some time too, though likely not as much. Who is he? (What’s in his way will likely be your protagonist.) What’s at stake if he fails or succeeds?

Some stories can carry a third character mention, though supporting characters usually shouldn’t take up much space in a pitch unless your story has a strong romance or relationship plot. Use judiciously.

All of this gets woven together in a way that builds tension (by highlighting stakes, conflict, and obstacles) up until the final closing, which should be some form of hook. Will your protagonist succeed? Will the couple get together? Will the antagonist destroy the world? You get the picture. It should leave the reader wanting to pick up your book to find out the answers to the questions your pitch has set up.

Other Tips

How long should the pitch portion of your query be? Aim for about 200-250 words. You can get away with slightly more depending on the book, as long as your query letter overall fits comfortably onto one page. (I’ll cover the other elements of a query letter, such as the intro and bio paragraphs, next time.)

That’s not a lot of words, so don’t waste your valuable space describing what happens in your sample pages/the early part of your book. Chances are that you don’t need to mention chapter one more than in passing, and agents and even book buyers will likely read this part in the decision-making process anyway.

Don’t give away the ending. Leave them wanting to read more. That’s the point, remember? (Note that you do give away the ending in a synopsis – just not in a pitch.)

For the sake of clarity and brevity, it’s rare that a pitch can hold more than three character names. If you need to mention extra characters, try doing so by role (“his brother” or “her best friend”) so there are less names to hold in your head while reading. Likewise, there’s usually no room to get into side plots.

Focus on your passion. What made you excited to write this book? Those are probably the things that will make someone excited to read it. Don’t waste space on mundanities or the things that all books have in common. Use your space to highlight what makes your book special and interesting.

Voice matters, but not as much as in a novel. Don’t worry about trying to sound like your protagonist or perfectly match the voice of your book, but do choose words carefully. Strong verbs and thoughtful descriptors still matter and convey tone. Your pitch won’t necessarily read like your manuscript, but it should give someone a good idea of what to expect in your manuscript.

Transitions are important. Using the skeleton to get started is great, but make sure it’s not just random sentences placed back to back. Your pitch should have a logical flow that carries the reader from one thought into the next. It should read interesting, like a mini-story.

No one can fully “see” their own pitch. After you have a draft, get a second, third, and fourth set of eyes on it to search for logic holes. If you can get some readers who don’t know anything about your book, even better, because after all, a new reader/agent/etc. doesn’t know anything going in. On the other hand, readers who have read your book are useful too. Ask them if your query accurately represents your book. You want to get well-matched requests/sales, not to disappoint or mislead.

And finally – assuming your manuscript is absolutely ready to go, of course – once you have a solid base that contains the right content and makes sense, then you can set to work getting detailed critique and polishing up your query. You only get one shot, after all; don’t blow it on a rush-job. Take your time and set out into the query world with your best foot forward.

Oh, and that practice thing again. Lather, rinse, repeat as needed. It took me multiple books and countless queries to get this particular skill down and start reliably receiving manuscript requests, but if I can do it, you can too. 🙂

The Key Ingredient for Dramatic Tension–Understanding the Antagonist, by Kristen Lamb

By Author Kristen Lamb, posted in Antagonist on April 23, 2012


Today I wanted to take some time to talk about the antagonist. Why? Well, not only is the antagonist THE most important character, but he is the most misunderstood as well.


Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I generally get one of the following:

  • “Well, my character is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.”
  • “What if my antagonist is nature?”
  • “But my antagonist is a belief system.”

Most of the time, comments like these are a red flag to me that the writer doesn’t truly understand the role of the story antagonist, or what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. And this is okay, because I believe the antagonist is not only the most vital role, but it is also the most difficult to understand.

He is His Own Worst Enemy

Just to be clear, virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against the story antagonist in Act One.

Luke would never have bested Darth if the showdown would have happened on Tattoine, minutes after his aunt and uncle were murdered. Luke was his own worst enemy. He was angry, grieving, reckless and untrained. If a protag starts out with his act together, then this is called boring fiction. The protagonist needs room to grow into the hero.  It is the growth that makes great stories.

The Engine of the Story

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum. Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead.

The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Antagonists generate genuine drama. No antagonist, and we get the crazy, unpredictable cousin of drama known as melodrama.

Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Not All Antagonists are Villains

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

Today we are going to talk about the two primary types of antagonists. There is the scene antagonist and there is the overall story antagonist, or what I like to call The Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT). Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I decided to make things simple.

The Scene Antagonist

The scene antagonist is fairly simple. In every scene there needs to be a character that offers some form of opposition. Think of your novel as a machine. Each character is a cog that moves the machine and creates momentum. How do cogs move? Another cog must move the opposite direction. A cog with no opposition is a spinning, useless part incapable of providing any forward momentum.

If we are trapped in a theme park that has been overrun by dinosaurs, some member of the party will want to fight and some will want to flee and likely everyone will argue about the precise way to fight or flee.

There will always be a character who wants something different than the protagonist. Whatever this character wants stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. Each scene goal is like a subgoal to solving the overall story problem. Thus, when the protag is kept from completing subgoals, the overall goal is, by extension, in jeopardy. This jeopardy is what makes readers tense.

Why is this important?

When editing, we must make sure we can look at every scene and say what the goal of that scene is. Then, ask ourselves, “Who is standing in the way?” Characters thinking and pondering does not a scene make. That is called a sequel. To learn more about scene and sequel, I highly recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure.

One bad situation after another is not conflict. It is wash, rinse, repeat. This is the stuff of bad action movies, not great page-turning fiction.

The scene antagonist is vital, but the most important type of antagonist is what I like to call the BBT—-or, Big Boss Troublemaker. For long-time followers of this blog, we have talked about the BBT before. So this will be a refresher. We never get so good that we can’t use a dose of the basics.

As we’d already discussed, every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but no BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the overall story problem that must be solved by the end of Act III. This is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle.

In Finding Nemo, the Big Boss Troublemaker was Darla the Fish-Killer. Though we only see Darla a few minutes out of the entire movie, it is her agenda that creates the problem. If Darla wanted a kitten for her birthday, little Nemo would have been safe at home. It is also Darla’s propensity to kill her fish that creates the ticking clock in the race to save Nemo.

The Stronger Your BBT, the Better

In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.

One of the biggest problems I have with new writers is they shy away from conflict. New writers tend to water down the opposition. This is natural. As humans, we really don’t like a lot of conflict…unless you happen to be a regular on the Jerry Springer Show.

It is natural to not like conflict, but good fiction is the path of greatest resistance. The bigger the problem, the better the challenge and thus the greater the hero. When we begin our story, the best stories are when we look at the opposition and ask, “How can the protag ever defeat this thing?’

A fantastic example of this. Go watch the movie, The Darkest Hour. I spent over 2/3 of the movie wondering how on earth humans would survive, let alone have a fighting chance. This movie was terrifying, not because of a lot of blood and gore, but rather because the opposition was so overwhelming it seemed there was no hope of winning. I’ll warn you that the movie is frightening, so those who dare can check out the trailer here. The trailer alone is enough to show what I’m talking about.

The BBT doesn’t have to be terrifying, but he/she/it must be powerful. Think of Rocky. If his big fight was against the band nerd from three flats down, it would make for a lousy story/movie.

What About When the BBT is Not a Person?

The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or alcoholism, like in 28 Days or an ideology (religious fundamentalism) like in Footloose.

Remember high school literature?

  • Man against man.
  • Man against nature.
  • Man against himself.

Ah, but this is where writers can get into trouble. Just because the BBT is not a person, does not mean the BBT will not work through a person. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why proxies are often so helpful.

For instance, in the 1984 movie Footloose, religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is the BBT but religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is represented by the town’s Bible-thumping minister (who also happens to be the father of the love-interest). Talk about conflict!

We will talk more about this next week.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

What are some of your all-time favorite BBTs? What made them so awesome? What are your biggest problems with the antagonist? What do you find confusing? What books or resources helped you? Any recommendations?

Storytelling Strategies: Spotlighting Inner Conflict, by Paul Joseph Gulino

January 25, 2016


Do your characters need an arc or inner conflict to make a screenplay work?

Spotlight (written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy and directed by McCarthy) has been nominated for a slew of awards, including Oscars in Best Picture and Best Writing categories. The obvious reason for the attention is that it is a polished, well-crafted, and engaging film.

Very likely, another reason is the subject matter: intrepid reporters doggedly following a trail to expose evil in a rich and powerful institution and make wrongs right is the kind of story appealing to people attempting to make judgements about the importance or worthiness of material. And the fact that the evil is even now making headlines (thus current) is surely a plus.

With all the accolades, two issues in the storytelling strategy the filmmakers employed will likely go unnoticed: a lack of a character arcs, and a lack of personal, inner conflicts, in any of the principle characters.

Do such things matter? Not always, but in this case, they might’ve made a difference between a good film and one with greater and longer-lasting impact. When the shock value—and current event value—of the Catholic priest scandal fades, are there any other, perhaps deeper human issues that will resonate in the future? It’s difficult to discern any.

Many Characters, No Inner Conflicts

The story itself is an ensemble, with multiple characters pursuing the various threads of the story they are investigating, while others manage the progress and make higher-level decisions. Still, it follows a traditional dramatic structure broken into smaller pieces: a reporter needs information, but the source is unwilling to divulge it because they’re being paid off, or they’re faithful to the church, or there’s some claimed legality involved, or they just don’t want to. The reporters keep doggedly onward and overcome these obstacles.

Gradually the pieces come together, the various protagonists gather what they all need, assemble it into a story, and finally win out in the end.

Spreading out the audience’s connection with multiple protagonists is itself a move that tends to dilute strong emotional connection with any of them, and thus reduce the intensity of the emotional impact of a film.

Aside from that, none of the principle characters has a personal stake in his or her pursuit; i.e., none of them risks losing a job, or being beat up, or even being ostracized. True enough the reporters are Catholic, and one of them, Mike (Mark Ruffalo) confesses to falling away from the Church due to the revelations, but this is not dramatized; it’s merely mentioned as something that happened offscreen. For the rest, they seem to have little trouble throwing the Church under the bus; their only concern seems to be that the Boston Globe might lose subscribers, who are overwhelmingly Catholic.

What we have, then, is a movie about a group of good, admirable people doing a good, admirable thing, paying no price for what they do, and winning out in the end. Who wouldn’t like to watch a good, admirable person doing a good, admirable thing?

Character Arcs and Inner Conflict

I have discussed the issue of character arc elsewhere; essentially, it can be understood as a transformation in the character’s awareness, a contrast between what a character wants (something they are aware of at the outset) versus what they actually need (often quite different, and something they become aware of under the stresses of the story). In short, character arc is a process of learning.

Two recent books, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Storytelling Animal (2013) argue for the evolutionary advantages of storytelling, and identify learning through the mistakes of others as an important component. It is thus no surprise that the character arc—as a description of what a character learns in the course of a story—is a very common pattern in cinematic storytelling.

Meanwhile, the notion of an inner conflict is a means by which drama can be intensified, and relates as well to the teaching function of storytelling, because it reflects common life situations. Escaping from a burning building is an inherently dramatic situation, since the fire is a life or death obstacle that must be overcome. However, the choice is clear: get out or die.

On the other hand, suppose you are a healthcare worker and patients you are responsible for are in the building? The fact that if you escape those left behind in your care will die creates an inner conflict that makes the situation far more intense. Now it’s not just about escaping from the fire: it’s about navigating one’s inner conflict between the desire to survive and the call of one’s duty to others.

Toward a Solution

Delivering a work of the polish and effectiveness of Spotlight is no mean feat. Further, the writers were working with a real story, and I don’t know to what extent they were expected to follow that story (nor the extent to which they actually did). Finally, of course, when developing a story at the studio level, especially with an ensemble cast, there are limitations to the freedom a writer may have in writing roles. It’s all highly collaborative, with many chefs involved and agendas to serve.

However, setting these considerations aside and approaching this purely as as storytelling matter, solutions to the problems of a lack of character arc and a lack of inner conflict are readily seen.

The character Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) comes to mind immediately as a potential protagonist.

Sullivan is an attorney for the Church, who defended ninety priests from exposure and prosecution. He’s also Catholic. His inner and outer conflicts exist on multiple levels. He’s aware of the crimes of the people he is defending, which are surely all the more painful as he is devout. He’s playing a role helping evil. Yet if he listens to his conscience and talks to reporters, he’s not only going against the Church officialdom, he could lose his job, his career, and perhaps face prosecution himself. If his family and friends are devout, he may destroy all those relationships, too. There is, too, room for a character arc: in the process of doing his job, he finds himself unable to continue, and takes action despite all these inner conflicts. (This change of heart actually what happens in the film, in micro fashion, during one scene).

Such a solution also can yield scenes of intense suspense born from his need to keep his contacts with the reporter’s secret, and to cover up the fact that he’s the one leaking the information, not to mention the scenes in which he’s getting more and more closely questioned by colleagues who are suspicious. Such scenes would be much more intense than one in which a reporter runs the risk of having to wait an extra day to copy court documents because the copy service closes at 4pm, or another reporter who can’t bring herself to go to church any more with her grandmother because of the scandal.

Add in a reporter character who isn’t such a white knight—someone desperate for a big story for his or her own purposes, and who actively exploits the guilt of Sullivan—and manipulates him for information—and then who walks away with the Pulitzer Prize while Sullivan finds his life destroyed by doing the right thing, and you’ve got a story that delivers a far more potent punch, and is far more nuanced and lifelike. Think Eric Snowden, who exposed wrongdoing by the government but may live the rest of his life in exile for his trouble.

The film Music Box (1989) uses this approach. The story involves the prosecution of a suspected war criminal as an old man living in the U.S. The storytellers (in this case writer Joe Eszterhas and director Costa-Gavras) could have made the prosecuting attorney the main character. His objective is clear: get the Nazi. Yet they chose as their protagonist the daughter of the suspected Nazi (Jessica Lange), an attorney who adores her father, believes him innocent, and takes up the case to defend him. As the truth gradually unfolds, she finds herself confronted with a terrible dilemma.

Paul Joseph Gulino is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, whose book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach has been adopted as a textbook at universities around the globe.

Levels of Conflict, by John Vorhaus

By John Vorhaus on Jul 25 2013 at

Whenever I have a problem I can’t solve, I immediately try to break it down into smaller, component problems. And I keep breaking problems down until I find one small enough to solve. This is a strategy I use over and over again when trying to get to the heart of the conflict of a story or scene I’m writing. For the sake of organizing my thoughts, and making sure that I get the most out of the moment, I don’t think of conflict as one thing, but rather as three things: global conflict, local conflict, and inner conflict. These concepts, if not these exact terms, are probably familiar to you, but let’s review them anyhow, for the sake of the eager youngsters reading over your shoulder just now.

GLOBAL CONFLICT is the character’s war against the world. This conflict is characterized by impersonality. The forces that the character is fighting against are not aware of, and have no emotional connection to, the character in question. Sources of global conflict include nature and natural forces, political or governmental structures, military or police, and “disinterested parties” such as landlords, meter maids, and surly waiters. The global conflict in the movie Twister is, you guessed it, those darn twisters. What’s the global conflict in the story you’re writing now?

LOCAL CONFLICT is direct interpersonal war between characters who have a vested emotional interest in one another’s lives. This would be every close pairing you can think of: parents and children; siblings; lovers, friends or spouses; roommates, cellmates, office mates or any other -mates (including running mates and coffee mates). The hallmark of this conflict is the direct emotional interest: Local conflict takes place between people close enough to care. Often this manifests as clashing goals or desires, where one party to the conflict wants A, and the other wants not-A. The local conflict between Sam and Frodo at the outset of Lord of the Rings is the question of whether or not Sam will be allowed to join the quest. Can you identify lines of local conflict in your current work? What’s at stake and who wants what?
Can you identify lines of local conflict in your current work? What’s at stake and who wants what?

INNER CONFLICT is the character’s war within. This often takes the form of Life’s Big Questions: Am I okay? Am I making good choices? What will it take to survive? What will make me fulfilled? It’s also often a function of conflicting inner desires: I want to eat this donut but I don’t want to gain weight. It can equally be a conflict between a selfish desire and a selfless one. Han Solo’s desire to settle his debt with Jabba the Hutt causes him to leave the Rebel Alliance to its battle against the Death Star, but his desire to help his friends brings him back. That’s inner conflict in action: the conflict drives the choice, and the choice drives the act. The easiest way to grasp inner conflict is to create an equation containing the word “but” and assign values to either side. I want to save the world but I don’t want to get up from the couch. What are some of the big “buts” of your characters’ inner conflict?

There is some utility in being able to define the different levels of conflict in your story, but there’s great utility in knowing how these lines interact. More often than not, the global conflict triggers the local conflict, which in turn churns up the inner conflict. Suppose you had a mother/daughter cancer story. The presence of the cancer would be the global conflict, and the introduction of this element would be this particular tale’s specific trigger. As the mother and daughter come to terms with the new reality of this global conflict, they will have local conflict – interpersonal war over what the disease means, how to deal with it or treat it, maybe even whether to acknowledge it. And in turn each character will have inner conflict, expressed as self-doubt: Am I doing the right thing, making the right choices? As an exercise, you might experiment with this sort of conflict map for one of your own tales. If nothing else, it will show the places where conflict is absent – holes you can fruitfully fill.
There is some utility in being able to define the different levels of conflict in your story, but there’s great utility in knowing how these lines interact.

In a well-told story, all three levels of conflict are present. In a less-well-told story, only global conflict and local conflict are present. We call this sort of story a cartoon, as can be found in, say, the ongoing battles between the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Global conflict is certainly present, in the Coyote’s battles against gravity, explosives, and unexpectedly solid objects. Local conflict is also present: The Coyote wants to catch the Road Runner but the Road Runner does not want to be caught. Inner conflict, however, is absent: Neither character ever doubts his cause or course of action, and that’s why it’s a cartoon.

To lift your own work up to the highest level of storytelling quality, simply go deeper, ever deeper, into your characters’ inner conflict. The greater their war within, the richer and more emotionally satisfying your story will be. This, of course, requires that you have both an understanding of, and commitment to, emotional truth.

In the meantime, if you ever have trouble figuring out who’s fighting about what in your stories, recognize that you have a tool you can count on – breaking down problems into successively smaller and more manageable ones – and the reliable template of global conflict, local conflict and inner conflict. This alone should get you out of some of the writer’s binds we commonly find ourselves caught up in.

How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis

At our July 2017 meeting, Maureen talked about the process involved in traditional publishing. An important part of that process is writing a synopsis of your manuscript. She’s found this article that Wordherders may find useful: How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis, by Sooz.


Working with Beta Readers

Looking for inspiration on finding and working with beta readers? Here, read this! Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas;  

Find and Work with Beta Readers

Great advice on finding and working with beta readers here:;   

How Not to Open a Short Story, by Philip Athans

I generally don’t like this kind of negative approach: lists of what not to do. I prefer to encourage you to do things, not discourage you from doing things, but back to the subject of short stories, I can’t help but point out some very common pitfalls that I’ve seen over and over again for years—decades, actually. So here goes, in no particular order, half a dozen things you should never do in the first page of a short story:

Too Many Ideas in a Sentence

Especially in the first sentence of your story, limit each sentence to one idea.

Example of what not to do:

I woke up that morning wondering when I would stop having visions of the future when all of a sudden a flying saucer landed on my front lawn.

Is this a story about a guy with precognitive abilities, or UFOs, or both? It could be both, but that doesn’t mean you have to list them all up front.

Example of what to do instead (from “Enchanted Village” by A.E. van Vogt):

“Explorers of a new frontier” they had been called before they left for Mars.

This is a story about a voyage to Mars. Let’s see what else happens as the story progresses.

The Newspaper Lead

It could be that practitioners of this gem took some journalism classes. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” But a good fiction writer needs to imbue his or her work with a sense of discovery. Don’t sum up the whole thing in the first paragraph, or your readers (like most newspaper skimmers) will leave it at that.

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and when I fell in love with a human woman I ended up destroying both our lives. Here’s how it happened . . .

What to do (from “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Margaret St. Clair):

Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing.

Ms. St. Clair’s first paragraph goes on to describe what a tepidarium is, but only really in the context of why Kerr is there to practice singing. It’s about her character’s emotional connection to the place. No more of the plot, setting, and characters is explained in that paragraph than is necessary to get you to the next paragraph. The reader is participating in the unfolding drama, not being read a list of events.


If I read another short story that begins with a list of complaints, I’m going to write a list of complaints about it. Wait. I think I might be doing that right now.

You may be writing a story about someone who’s having a bad day, or a bad life, but no one likes a whiner, and few readers will force their way through a page of whining to get to the meat of the story.

What not to do:

Everybody was bored waiting for the king to speak. The throne room was hot, and smelled like sweat and ambivalence. Bronwyn was so sick of all this standing around she started to think about all the different ways she might kill herself. A woman next to her started crying.

What to do (from “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith):

Perhaps it is the saddest, maddest, wildest story in the whole long history of space. It is true that no one else had ever done anything like it before, to travel at such a distance, and at such speeds, and by such means. The hero looked like such an ordinary man—when people looked at him for the first time. The second time, ah! That was different.

See how we know there’s going to be some sadness here, but still the first paragraph ends with a ray of hope? Though our negative example may end up with Bronwyn heroically saving the day and ushering in a new, less boring and sweaty future, how much work are you asking your reader to do to get there? At least Mr. Smith here gives us something to cling to: Our as yet unnamed “hero” is somehow special, even if it sounds as if he’s got some trouble ahead. A story about someone rising above misery is more interesting than a story about someone wallowing in it.

The One-Paragraph Plot Twist

This terrible cliché can take a number of forms, but these two seem to be the most common: Start with the summary paragraph from the Newspaper Lead then end with a “twist”:

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and I am in love with a human woman.

You can practically hear the soap opera organ come in at the end of that one.

The second is sort of the reverse, in which it appears something horrible is happening but then “surprise,” it’s really mundane.

What not to do:

The scratching at the door grew louder and more insistent. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and a tingle of fear ran down my spine. My hand shook as I reached for the doorknob, as though the very muscles in my body protested. Don’t let it in, my nervous system insisted. Don’t let it in! But I knew I had to see what it was, no matter the consequences, and when I tugged the door open I choked back a scream and tensed, waiting for a lunge, a bite, the tearing of flesh—but it was only the cat.

What did I do, forget I had a cat?

What to do (from “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson):

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myself; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers—all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.

Here we have a guy who’s getting ready for something intense. It’s clear he isn’t going turkey hunting. We’re also learning about the world a little, at least that you can’t just go down to the local Wal-Mart and buy shotgun shells. And all of this feels personal. Our narrator has some clear ideas about how he fits into his world, and there’s a sense that something is building—and whatever it is, it isn’t then undercut by that last-sentence pull-back.

The Script Fragment

If I had a dollar for every short story I’ve read that begins with line after line of unattributed dialog, most of which goes nowhere, I would be a wealthy man.

I’m not even sure I want to torture either of us by creating an example of what I’m talking about here. If you see this in one of your stories, stop doing that. I can say that I flipped through all of the stories in The Science Fiction Century, Edited by David G. Hartwell, and not a single one of the 45 stories in that anthology (from which my positive examples were drawn) begins with a string of unattributed dialog.

“What I mean by unattributed,” Phil said, “is a line of dialog that has no indication of who is saying it.”

In that last line, Phil said is dialog attribution You know who said that line of dialog.

The Present Tense Statement of Purpose

A close cousin of the Newspaper Lead, the Present Tense Statement of Purpose also tells you exactly what the story is about in a single sentence, which for reasons unknown is rendered in present tense even if the rest of the story isn’t.

What not to do:

In the basement of my house is the body of an alien recovered from the Roswell crash and now the FBI knows it’s there.

And now your readers feel as though they’ve missed the first half of the story. This is a fine logline, but don’t lead with that. It’s just . . . unimaginative.

What to do (from “Ginungagap” by Michael Swanwick):

Abigail checked out of Mother of Mercy and rode the translator web to Toledo Cylinder in Juno Industrial Park. Stars bloomed, dwindled, disappeared five times. It was a long trek, halfway around the sun.

Look how much we find out just in those two sentences. We meet Abigail, and come to realize she inhabits a future Earth, or more accurately a future solar system. There are names in there that touch back to reality (Toledo, Mother of Mercy) mixed with SF tech-speak (translator web). This is exciting and interesting. We’re going to get to explore a strange new future with Abigail, who has a very traditional name so can’t be too different from us, and we’re drawn in without having to be spoon fed “the point.”

And . . .

Oh, there are more. So many—too many—more. But let’s leave it there for this week, with some final words of advice:

Start strong. Start in the middle of the action. Start with compelling words and ideas, and a sense of some personal connection between a character and a place or event. You do not have to “set the scene,” and you sure as hell don’t have to tell us what’s going to happen.

Why Most Readings Suck and How to Fix It


* [Dead End Follies] Editor’s note: Gabino came back from AWP shirtless and green this week, so I asked him “Sup’ bro?” and it turned out he had a chip on his shoulder about the public readings at the event, so I thought Angrybino was too good to pass up on and so, here here he is for you in all his glory in a new exclusive piece about people who suck at readings. *

I’ve been home from AWP less than 48 hours and I’m happy to report the conference was a great experience. Besides being surrounded by books and checking out some of what Los Angeles has to offer, I had a chance to meet a lot of talented authors with whom I’ve been friends online for years and hung out with old friends from the bizarre, indie lit, and crime communities. However, the experience wasn’t perfect because there was one element that bothered me while it was happening and still bothers me now: most of the readings I went to were as interesting as watching paint dry on a muggy day.

Dull. Unimaginative. Uninteresting. Incredibly monotonous. Painfully boring.Exceedingly awful. You can use any of those and still fall short of accurately describing the mind-numbing, un-fucking-believably tedious bullshit I had to put up with. I received my reading education at the School of Bizarro (aka BizarroCon), and thus consider readings a chance to perform my words in a way that hopefully sends people running to buy my work. For me, to read is to perform. When I read, I want to take over, to become the universe of those listening to me. Sadly, the readers I witnessed were apparently trying to get me to grab the nearest sharp object and quickly jam it into my jugular as many times as possible. Maybe the MFA crowd operates differently after all, but what they’re doing is definitely not working. Luckily for boring readers everywhere, I’m a nice guy when I want to and have decided to give you all ten tips, in no particular order, on how to keep people from yawning, checking their phones, leaving, and contemplating suicide while listening to you.

  1. Be aware of the implicit contract of a reading

When you do a reading, the event is between you and the audience. Don’t forget about them. When I go to a reading, I’m giving you a chunk of my time. I’m not reading, hanging out with a friend or watching a movie; I’m there watching/listening to you. Don’t fuck around with my time. Most authors are convinced readings are all about them. They’re wrong. Readings are about everyone involved, and you should respect everyone equally. When I read, I think about everything else those folks listening to me could be doing, and I make sure they have a good time as a thank you.

  1. Time is a thing, fuckface

Five to seven minutes. That’s usually what you get. Appreciate it if you get more and hustle faster if you get less, but respect the other readers and your audience. Every time a reader is given seven minutes and ends up reading for 18 minutes, I want to put kittens in a blender, freeze the resulting pulpy mess, and then beat the reader to death with the frozen kitty innards. Your damn phone has a stopwatch. A friend in the audience can give you cues. Whatever. The point is, you need to respect time constraints. If you don’t respect everyone else’s time, I don’t respect you. Also, get to know a thing called pace. If you have seven minutes and make four-second pauses between sentences, you need to speed things up.

  1. A two-line bio will do the trick

Don’t give the MC your fucking resume, you arrogant piece of shit. Seriously. Some of the readings I went to in LA had the MC reading for three minutes just to introduce a writer. A reading takes place in the here and now, so keep past stuff to a minimum. If you blow me away, I will remember your name and Google you’re ass later. Then I can read about your pieces in The Cloud/Flower Review or the flash fiction piece you once published in some blog. I don’t need to know you edited your high school paper or that you like long walks on the beach. Let your reading do the talking.

  1. Keep intros to a minimum

This is a short story I wrote about my friend Jenny. I wrote it two years ago. We were living in a tiny apartment apartment on…” Fuck you! Get to the reading already. We’re on the clock, remember? If you waste four minutes introducing your damn story or poem or telling us about the way your novel finally came to be published, you’re basically sabotaging yourself. It’s easy: the MC introduces you, you get up, maybe you say hi and thank folks for being there, you read, you sit down. Anything outside of that is a waste of everyone’s time and you’re an asshole for doing it.

  1. A little thing called inflection

Okay, so here’s where I mess with the MFA crowd again and then get all the hate for it. I don’t care because the truth is more important than your opinion of me. Here’s the deal: apparently most MFAs have a class that teaches writers to read in the most monotonous, hushed voice possible. It’s as if modulation and natural rhythms are frowned upon. I have an accent, but I own that shit. Joe Lansdale has an accent, and he owns it and uses it. Brian Allen Carr yells until the hair in your arms stands at attention. CarltonMellick III turns into a beast. Laura Lee Bahr has a million voices. Rios de laLuz becomes la voz de la raza. Kevin Donihe erupts like a supernova every time he reads. Just like these folks, I try to read in a way that forces people to remember it, to remember me and my voice. Let your voice take off like a rocket. Let is soar and crash back down. Let it shatter like a bird made of glass against a brick wall. Let it carry your story and change with your characters. Make sure the guy in the back hears you. Make sure the lady checking her phone because the previous reader was putting her to sleep hears your voice and looks up. I don’t care where you’re from; go back to doing what you’re ancestors did around a fire a very long time ago and tell a story that captivates your audience. Scream, motherfucker!

  1. Your body is a tool; use it

Just like your voice, your body is a tool, a wonderful prop that can make your reading reach the next level. Move around. Use your arms. Let your hands tell your story alongside your voice. Standing there with your feet together like Dorothy getting ready to click her heels is just not gonna cut it. Dance around. Get on top of a seat like MP Johnson does. Walk away from the mic. If you walk up to the mic, look down at the piece of paper/cellphone in your hand and then read a story in that monotonous voice almost all readers use, you’re boring us to death even if what you’re reading is great. And if boredom is what I remember when they mention you, I won’t be buying your book.

  1. Learn to read the audience

Not every reading will be the best one of your life, so learn to read your audience. If you read a decapitation scene and no one leans forward, you got a tough crowd. If you crack a joke and it bombs, move forward quickly. Keep moving, feeling the crowd, paying attention to how they react to certain words. Some crowds will laugh at a story about a guy eating a rotting fetus, but other crowds will call the cops on you if you say fuck twice.

  1. Make eye contact

You wrote the thing, reread the thing, and then read it a few more times while editing. You don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the damn thing. Folks are looking at you, so look back at them. You’ll be surprised how much more engaged they feel when you make eye contact with your audience.

  1. Remember why you’re there

It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to feel a bit scared. However, treating readings like a chore is not okay. You’re there to read something you wrote because you needed to share it with others. That’s your chance to do that. If you keep that in mind, it’ll be easier to overcome your nerves.

  1. Leave no ass unkicked

Passion. That’s the word you need to focus on. Be passionate about what you’re reading. If you sound like you’d rather be at the dentist than reading your work, how the hell am I supposed to feel about you and your words? Passion doesn’t guarantee sales, but it guarantees a good impression. Fuck fear. Don’t hesitate to be funny or to cry or to show that what you wrote makes you feel vulnerable. Every reading is a war: you against yourself, against fear, against the audience’s need to check Facebook or reply to a text, and against the quality of other readers who may have put them to sleep or raised the bar. Tackle all of it with passion and abandon. Leave no ass unkicked.