Category Archives: Novel Revision

26 Jan

Outrage: A Negative Emotion that Works In Your Novel

As 2014 events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City over race relations, I watched with a storyteller’s eye. That’s not to make light of the events–which have sparked massive debates and outrage. Rather, I put on my writer’s glasses and tried to evaluate the news reports AS A WRITER.

Conflict on Every Page: What Kind of Conflict?

Many writing teachers drum it into their students heads: conflict on every page.

What they mean is that something has to happen on every page that makes the situation worse for the characters. Storytelling is about the problems of life, not the happy moments. Happiness is only possible when thrown into relief by contrast with the bad stuff.

This can easily go wrong: after a writing class where conflict was encouraged, one writer added “conflict” by having a wild creature attack a main character; but in the next scene, the character easily escapes and nothing was different. That’s adding in conflict just for the sake of conflict and that’s off-target. Instead, conflict should be integral to the story and make the characters’ lives different in some way.

contagiousRecently, I found insight into this from a surprising source. In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger says that things go viral easier when people are met with moments of high arousal. That sounded suspiciously like “conflict on every page.” Berger backs up his claims with various psychological studies (you should read his book for details). The high arousal moments included positive emotions: excitement, awe, inspirations, humor. But they also included negative emotions: anger, disgust, anxiety, and especially outrage.

In his book, Berger gives examples of Outrage, including one about mothers who carry babies in a special sling. In 2008, the practice was celebrated with the inaugural International Babywearing Week. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the company who makes Motrin pain medication wanted to support the event. According to Berger, they figured that carrying babies in a sling was great for the mother-child relationship; however, they also thought that it would cause strain on mother’s backs and they would need pain-relief. The advertisement they created, however, caused outrage!

The advertisement implied that mothers wore babies as “a fashion statement,” and it implied that babywearing looked “crazy.”

Outrage swept through the mommy-bloggers. And of course, OUTRAGE brings us back to Ferguson and the problems of racial relations in the U.S. Outrage–as a storytelling element–has been evident in almost every report I saw on the incident.

It’s not redundant to say this: the events in Ferguson were outrageous; the outrage at the events made the news stories successful. So successful that I later heard a radio interview with protestors in Hong Kong who were asked about relations with the police there in Hong Kong. The protestor answered that the relations were just as strained as those between police and citizens in Ferguson. In other words, the outrage–the negative emotional response to events–has been so strong that it has been reported worldwide and has become a symbol of difficult police reactions. That’s the power of outrage in storytelling.

In your story, can you find a place to add outrage? If you can, your story will be stronger.

12 Jan

Openings: 5 Ways They Go Wrong

Openings are incredibly important. This was brought back to me recently as I was judging a contest. Those manuscripts that kept my interest for three pages were rare. Usually, they lost me by the middle of page two!

Am I harsh? I don’t think so.

Grab the Reader with Your Opening Lines


Noah Lukeman has it right in his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. This is a book I ask those attending my Novel Revision retreats to read before they attend. Lukeman’s premise is that an editor will decide if they want your book or not based on the first five pages of your manuscript. After judging this contest, I agree. Sometimes, you can even make a judgment based on the first paragraph.

That first paragraph? You want to grab the reader by the throat and never let go!

Here are five things that made me stop reading

  • Nothing happened. The whole first chapter could be cut, because no major action occurred. Ask yourself: what happened in this chapter? Is there any conflict here?
  • The voice was flat. Monotone and uninteresting. Read it aloud: Does the text demand that you use an interesting variation of pitches, tones, stops, starts, etc?
  • Inconsistencies. If I found myself thinking, “No, that couldn’t happen. Not that way,” then the story was in trouble. Consider: does the story logic work?
  • Backstory. Please don’t put backstory in the first chapter. Give us an active scene with the character in motion and wanting something. It doesn’t have to be the major goal of the book, but the character needs to want something and it should be something that leads into the main conflict. Ask yourself: Do I really need to explain the backstory here, or can I wait until page 100? Yes! Page 100! Move that stuff out of the first act entirely!
  • The point-of-view jumps out at me. Too many of the mss had first-person point-of-views that just jumped out at me and made me cringe. In other words, the voice wasn’t distinctive enough for first person. This is a personal opinion–FWIW–but I think too many people are trying to write a first-person narrative. The default should be third-person unless there is a compelling reason for first. It’s not just a bias against first-person, but rather, that the story would be better served from third in many cases.

    There were some first-person stories where I didn’t even realize it because the story caught me. When it works, it work well. When it fails, the story might could be salvaged by a switch to third. Consider: Is there a compelling reason for the first-person point-of-view? Could this ONLY be told from first? Try–OK, just try–writing the first chapter from third and give it to an independent, unbiased reader (like you can find that!) and ask which version they like better (don’t tell them what the difference is). I bet that third will win in the majority of cases.

05 Jan

Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2015

Thank you!
Your support for the last year has meant so much. And because of your nominations, Fiction Notes has been named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2015! has named the 2015 Top 10 Blogs for Writers. has named the 2015 Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

The other blogs named to this honor are amazing! Click on the image to check out the full list.

This blog succeeds only because of readers like you! If you’d like to see a special topic covered this year, please leave a comment and we’ll try to research answers and write a post for you.

05 Jan

Lessons from a Master: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Opening a novel in an interesting way is crucial. I often see stories-in-progress with weak openings. This week, I happened to pick up a copy of the classic Jurassic Park, and I was stopped on the first page with the economy of language. In two brief paragraphs, Crichton sets a scene, introduces a character, puts us into the character’s life, and places us in a Costa Rica fishing village. He accomplishes so much in a brief passage. Let’s look at it to see if it gives us tips on starting our own stories.

Opening of Jurassic Park

The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter sighed, and stared out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog. This wasn’t what she had expected when she had come to the fishing village of Bahia Anasco, on the west side of Costa Rica, to spend two months as a visiting physician. Bobbie Carter had expected sun and relaxation, after two grueling years of residency in emergency medicine at Micheal Reese in Chicago.
She had been at Bahia Anasco for three weeks. And it had rained every day.
(First two paragraphs of Jurassic Park, Prologue, by Michael Crichton.)

Weak openings leave me confused, wondering where I am and what is going on. Crichton starts with a specific setting. The second word is “tropical,” which narrows down the location on the globe, while also explaining the type of rain. A “corrugated” roof probably indicates a lower income area where cheaper materials are used for construction.

Notice the great verbs which animate that first sentence: fell, hammering, roaring, splashing. And it ends with a strong descriptive word: torrent. This is masterful selection of language. After one sentence, I know approximately where I am and what is happening.

Next, Crichton focuses on the point-of-view character for this section. Because it’s a prologue, this character won’t be important in the story proper, but he takes the time to give us some of her background, which implies much about her state-of-mind.

She is an ER doctor, just finishing her residency in Chicago, and she thought this trip to Costa Rica would be a vacation. Notice that she’s an ER doc. The old sayings is that you should never put a gun in Chapter 1, if you don’t intend for it to go off sometime. Crichton put an ER doctor in the first paragraph because someone soon would require emergency medical attention. We know Roberta/Bobbie (Notice how he named her fully, then gave us a more casual nickname) is skilled in medicine, but she’s also tired and disappointed with this location.

As far as setting a mood, the torrential storm sets up the possibility of something happening. We’d expect that a “torrent” would bring other problems with it.

Finally, Crichton actually names the locale: Bahia Anasco on the western coast of Coast Rica.

Setting, mood, characterization, anticipation–Crichton sets up so much in just two short paragraphs!

Applying Crichton’s Lessons to Your Story

Setting. Readers need to be oriented immediately to the location of your story. While you describe the setting, use language to create a distinctive mood and set up anticipation. Don’t be afraid to name a location directly.

Mood. Choose language that sets up a distinctive mood. The torrential rain is described with evocative verbs and language. Strong, forceful, a force of nature–you expect something to happen, and soon.

Characterization. It’s important to know something about the character. Crichton gives us a name, place of origin (Chicago hospital), and something of her inner life. Bobbie is a strong-willed woman or she wouldn’t be an ER doctor; but she’s tired because of the “grueling” residency. Bone-weary, maybe. The impending emergency that will require her skills will challenge her, not because she’s not capable, but because she’s so tired. That’s great characterization for one paragraph!

Anticipation. How can you not turn the page? Crichton has set up an interesting enough scenario, and populated it with an interesting character that I’m hooked. I would read on! Wouldn’t you?

Avoid weak openings! Study Jurassic Park for hints on how to take your story’s opening to a new level.

15 Dec

Christmas Eavesdropping

Notes from the Field

During the holidays, it’s hard to concentrate on a story. But it’s not hard to BE a writer. As you go to gatherings of friends and families, one thing you can do is EAVESDROP!

In your story, you want dialogue to sound natural. One way to study dialogue is to just listen and record. At holiday gatherings, you may hear undercurrents of sibling rivalry, jealousy, reconciliation, or love. Usually, these things aren’t said on the surface, so much as in the subtext, or what is understood beneath the surface.

Try this: Take a pad of paper and a pencil/pen with you. Sit off to a side or in a corner, and furiously write everything you hear said in a specific conversation for ten minutes. Later when there’s time, look it over and see what you’ve learned about dialogue. OR, if your family is generous and agrees, find an app to record an hour of conversation! Thanks, fam!

So, here are my notes from the field for a couple hours, recording exactly what I said–just my side of a conversation. Notice how MUCH you can tell about the events and what others are saying just by the snippets of dialogue. (Names and phone numbers XXX-out to protect the innocent.)

Getting daughter out of bed

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

I don’t have time to be gentle.
That helps.
No, you can’t consistently count on it. It’s not your car.

Before and During Breakfast

He’s not up yet.

I’ve been in there once or twice.

I need to eat.
I’ve messed around too long.
Could you clean up the kitchen, do the things you haven/t done in two days.
Where? What?
It would be easier with a comb.
Too late now.
We gotta remember to take the trash out.
Oh, man!
Both of you stop.
It’s not just her. It’s you, too.
Stop! XXX, don’t take that in your room, please!
No. No. It’s a mess.
Whose spoon is this?
Just ‘sec.
Tell MMM she has e-mail.
What is it, oh, a Pokemon?
ZZZ, work on that kitchen now.
It used to be a road.
Wow. How much?
$15 isn?t bad at all. Who’s sponsoring it?
Cool. It’s not bad.
I’m gonna shower.
I’m gonna shower.
Huh? I’m totally lost.
Oh, OK.
OH, well.
Gimme kiss.
Yes. To school?
No. Gimme kiss.
Lots more than that. I’ll be in the library today. At noon. XXX has to stay ?’til 4. So we?ll just stay.
You might as well read.
Have a good day.

Taking truck to shop

Last night, we lost 3rd and 4th gears. You can put it in gear but you have to hold the stick. 1st, 2nd & 5th are OK.
Oh, and he said to change the oil and a nut on the valve cover is missing.
Pattison. I-s-o-n. Not e-r.
We also have a Sienna van so we should be in the computer.
Let me give you his number. XXX-XXXX.
A second number XXX-XXXX. But I’ll be gone a lot, so try him first.
And give us an estimate. Just give us an idea of how long would help.
He’s coming to get me, so I?ll just go in the waiting room.
Don’t change the oil first. Let us know how much on the transmission first.
Is that all you need?

Driving to work with DH

She said she’d call you with an estimate. It’ll probably take over night.
Where’s my glasses?
My headache is coming back.
No, on the other side.
Uh huh.
Uh huh.
So, which do you like?
What is all that?
Yep. That’s the one you said I could have? I could put it on my business cards?
That’s weird.
Strange. I gotta call XXXXXX. About YYY.
Where’s the check book? I need one for this doctor’s visit.
Bad time for a vacation with all the other guys messed up.
Wow. Must be nice.
Yeah. He’s the best marketer.
Which one?
That’s good.
By who?
I should be able to make it to the doctor by nine. I was hoping I could go be the house and eat, though. I need to go by and see XXX and then–I need to buy crickets. (Note: to feed the lizards.) And I?ll bring you the car just before 12.
Okay. I know.
Kinda misty on the river today.

Yeah, I know.
It was weird yesterday.
Yeah. Like what?
I haven’t heard of him.
What are they building over there?
Boy, that looks terrible. It’s big. Well–it’s just big. Wow. That’s amazing.
I have my keys. I need a check.
Was it on the table?
That’s right. Love you.

Saying Hi to Neighbor

Good morning.
Pretty good.
Already in a rush.

08 Dec

Tone: Is your Romance Sensual or Intellectual?

Eleanor&ParkI am currently reading Eleanor and Park, a YA romance; one of the interesting things about this story is the author’s choice to create a sensual tone. It’s not sexy or intellectual. The choice of tone is interesting because often a romance can devolve into physical stuff of sex.

Instead, Rowell walks a fine line between the two extremes. It’s sensual because there are physical details. For example, Eleanor notices Park’s hands:

Park’s hands were perfectly still in his lap. And perfectly perfect. Honey colored with clean, pink fingernails. Everything about him was strong and slender. Every time he moved, he had a reason.

Or Park, describing holding Eleanor’s hand:

Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.

Creating the Right Tone

The question is, of course, what tone do I want for my story?
That’s what a writer does as they read great stories from other writers: you think about what they are doing that is working so well, and how to translate that into your own stories.

Do I want a romance that is intellectual, sensual, sexy, titillating, mysterious, or something else? How do I achieve that?

First, I pay attention to the tone of my drafts. While I’m writing, I work hard to characterize, to plot, to evoke a setting. But I’m also paying attention to the word selection and how that affects tone. Sentence structure can affect tone, as can the rhythm patterns created by a combination of words and sentences.

First drafts are about approximating: you want to get close to the target of a great story. As I revise, I am refining so many things, but one of those is the right tone.

It may also mean that I do a couple trial drafts. How does a sexy tone fit with the rest of the story? How does an intellectual romance mesh with the action plot? Experimenting with different tones is sometimes essential. I know that my story should have a lot of action, and I’m comfortable with the tone I’ve created for that part of the story. But integrating that with the romance subplot is trickier this time. The goal is an integrated story, a whole story.

Tools to Create Tone

Writers have only a few tools: words, sentences, paragraphs. That’s it.

Words. Think about the connotations of each word/phrase you choose.
Sentences. While short sentences can speed up an action, long sentences can languish and slow down a story.
Paragraphs. And overarching is how the words, sentences, meaning, and connotations blend to create the right rhythms.

Most of all, don’t leave tone to chance. Decide what tone works for your story, and then work to make it happen.

14 Nov

How to Choreograph a Great Action Scene

I recently found a gem of a writing book. For my NaNoWriMo challenge, my current love/hate WIP, I decided I wanted to include more action scenes, pushing it more toward YA and more toward a true action book. OK. Action. That should be easy. Um. No.

ActionNewLHPUntil I read this book. Ian Thomas Healy breaks down action into manageable chunks in his book, Action! Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques.

The title appealed to me right away because I do like action/thriller movies, and I recognize that writing action means you must fully evoke the visual, auditory and kinesthetic senses, like a movie would be able to do. Healy delivers.

Action Scenes = Violence

The first shocking thing to realize is that action means violence, says Healy. It’s not just movement, but conflict made concrete. Movement across a scene without a purpose is just the beat of a scene and action implies much more.

Healy breaks down action scenes into three levels: stunts, sequences and engagements.

1) On the simplest level, a STUNT is a single brief action. Carver pulls a gun and fires.
2) ENGAGEMENTS moves up a level by combining multiple stunts as a character moves across a setting. Now, you’re talking more choreography and relating the characters to the setting. Actions are physical, not mental, and thus, they require a setting. How the characters move across the setting while doing stunts is an Engagement. They end with the resolution of a plot point, or they transition into another Engagement, perhaps going from a chase to a fight.
3) A SEQUENCE is a combination of Engagements related in some way. Maybe they are about the same character, setting or conflict.

What actions are possible in this setting? What violence is possible here?

What actions are possible in this setting? What violence is possible here?

This is immensely helpful and practical! When I approach an action scene, first I make sure I understand the setting. What is present in the scene physically and how will that affect the story I can tell. Is there a river? Then some possible stunts would be diving into the river, wading, falling in, slipping on a muddy bank, fist-fight in the water, crossing the river, swimming, fist-fight while in water, and so on. I’m not just trying to create stunts on the fly, but the setting itself suggest what is possible. What if I want the character to fly away? Then the setting must be a unicorn stable, or an airstrip. Can I get the characters to the right place for this scene?

After listing what’s possible in this scene, I can start to map out the action. Often, this is just a mental map, but I can also fall back on a paper/pencil map when needed. Draw out the setting. Put an X where the characters are standing. Then Write #1, 2, 3 and so on for where they move to across the landscape to create an Engagement. Physically point–put your finger on the spot where the actions starts. Move your finger to the next spot where a stunt occurs. Sounds mechanical? Yes! But it works, and that’s the point. As I get better at this, maybe I’ll be able to do it all mentally. But for now, this is working great.

Finally, combining the Engagements into Sequences is simple.

There’s so much more in Healy’s book to recommend. Consider this provocative statement: “One of the most useful things you can do with an Engagement is use it to strengthen character relationships.”

If you’re writing or considering writing a book with lots of action, this is a great tutorial. On his website, Healy critiques some action scenes–interesting to see what he focuses on in the critiques!

One last thing. Yesterday, I was trying to write an action scene set in Mt. Rainier’s National Park and nothing was working. Then, I realized that was because I didn’t know the setting well enough! Of course, if action scenes move across the landscape, then I needed to know my landscape better. I spent the day studying Google Earth, watching You-Tube videos, scanning lists of flora/fauna, and hunting for autumn photos of the stunning vine maple. Before you can write about a physical space, you must know something about it!

12 Nov

Online Video Course: 30 DAYS TO A STRONGER NOVEL

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Each day includes:

  • A quote that inspires
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9781629440408-Perfect.inddOver the course of the month, you’ll receive the entire text of Darcy’s book, 30 Days to a Stronger Novel (November, 2014 release).
We can’t guarantee that you’ll end the month with a publishable novel; but we can guarantee it will be a STRONGER novel.

We can't guarantee a publishable novel; but we can guarantee a STRONGER NOVEL!

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  • Watership Down with Armadillos: Titles
  • Search Me: Subtitles
  • Defeat Interruptions: Chapter Divisions
  • Scarlett or Pansy: The Right Character Name
  • My Wound is Geography: Stronger Settings
  • Horse Manure: Stronger Setting Details
  • Weaklings: Every Character Must Matter
  • Take Your Character’s Pulse
  • Yin-Yang: Connecting Emotional and Narrative Arcs
  • Owls and Foreigners: Unique Character Dialogue
  • Sneaky Shoes: Inner and Outer Character Qualities
  • Friends or Enemies: Consistent Character Relationships
  • Set Up the Ending: Begin at the Beginning
  • Bang, Bang! Ouch! Scene Cuts
  • Go Away! Take a Break
  • Power Abs for Novels
  • White Rocks Lead Me Home: Epiphanies
  • The Final Showdown
  • One Year Later: Tie up Loose Ends
  • Great Deeds: Find Your Theme
  • The Wide, Bright Lands: Theme Affects Setting
  • Raccoons, Owls, and Billy Goats: Theme Affects Characters
  • Side Trips: Choosing Subplots
  • Of Parties, Solos, and Friendships: Knitting Subplots Together
  • Feedback: Types of Critiquers
  • Feedback: What You Need from Readers
  • Stay the Course
  • Please Yourself First
  • The Best Job I Know to Do
  • Live. Read. Write.

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11 Nov

The Power of One

photo 2

I did a school visit on Friday in the tiny town–only about 700 population–of Gillett, Arkansas. The Elementary School and Early Childhood Center are still located in Gillett, but the district was merged with DeWitt, Arkansas, and all middle school and high schools are located in Dewitt, about twenty miles away.

I came at the request of Joli, the PTA President.
Young, beautiful, and full of passion for her community, Joli Holzhauer is a living testament of the Power of One.

The city’s claim to fame is the annual Coon Supper, an event that no politician in Arkansas will miss. Bill Clinton attended the event for many years and brought with him the major political forces; this year, almost every candidate for major offices in Arkansas attended. The event often gets CNN or FoxNews coverage.
photo 5

Wikipedia adds: “The largest alligator ever killed in Arkansas was harpooned near Gillett on September 19, 2010. The thirteen-foot one-inch reptile weighed 680 pounds.”

Joli met her husband, the current mayor of Gillett, at Mississippi State University, when he was planning a far different career; instead, he came home to farm. The area has cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and other crops which grow in this fertile, flat delta area. She says it was different at first from what she was used to, but she dug in and started working to support her community.

Rachel Mitchell, the principal of Gillett Elementary said that Joli comes in to chat and asks, “What do you need? What do you want?”
And then, Joli makes it happen. The PTA sold chocolate bars. Now, in a community of only 700 people (that includes children), how many chocolate bars can you sell? $3000 worth. Whatever the school needs or wants, one person is making a difference.

photo 3

Intelligent, smart, committed. Small communities and their school survive because of people like Joli. I salute you!

photo 4

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