Archive | October, 2013

At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 2

24 Oct

As promised, I’m here with installment two of the JWRC13 sessions review. The second session I attended was led by the 2013 finalists in fiction for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards: Gigi Amateau, Clifford Garstang, Robert Goolrick, Lydia Netzer, and Kevin Powers, moderated by Peggy J. Bagget. They graciously shared insights into their personal processes of writing fiction novels and answered audience questions about craft and publication. Here is what I learned based on their extensive experience and advice.

  • Very little of the original writing ends up in your final version of the manuscript, and then in the published product, but each iteration is necessary work. Be a fearless writer and a ruthless editor. It’s the process of tossing out the boring characters, over-description, nonsense, and inconsistencies that creates a polished narrative.
  • As the writer, or even as the narrator, ask yourself, “What right do I have to tell this story?” Examine and acknowledge biases, and then embrace or erase them depending on whether they serve the plot or not.
  • Characters, settings, or ideas that beg to be revisited can sometimes develop into a collection of short, related stories. No one said a novel HAS to be one long plot-line.
  • In a collection of short, related stories, use the first chapter as an outline for the entire novel by introducing the protagonists of each chapter/short story (this way each section to follow will fit in with the collective narrative even when the focus switches to a different person).
  • For writing realistic lows in a character’s life, ask yourself what loss looks like in that character. Don’t just tell the reader that he was so sad that he felt like crying for three days inside his closet. Show the reader what that loss and grief looks like on his face, in his posture, in his reactions towards others’ sympathies. Has he changed his clothes lately? Are his eyes bloodshot, glassy, or shadowed with blue? Is he eating? And when he finally goes to leave his house, do his hands shake as they reach for the doorknob? You get it.
  • Whether you’re a planner or a discovery writer, take a moment to outline in the middle of the drafting process as a way to take inventory of the novel. This is in contrast to outlining at the beginning of the novel where there’s nothing definite to take stock of. Additionally, outlining at onset, though a helpful tool for some, tend to make it harder to let go of ideas that just aren’t working once implemented. It’s never too late in a draft to hit that backspace button or break open a pack of erasers.
  • Notice how you feel while writing and editing. If you’re bored, irritated, or frustrated at the same spot in your story every time, that spot likely has a problem. Feeling stuck doesn’t necessarily mean that you are having a writer’s block. It might mean that the plot point or character itself is the block. Try shuffling its sequence, mood, or totally removing it to see if the block is relieved. Are you still bored, angry, blank? No? Good!
  • Lastly, most importantly, and easier said than done: Practice, practice, practice. Write every day. Write without an agenda. There is a definite plan in mind when writing for a major project like a novel, collection, or upcoming submission deadline. For personal practice and enrichment, there should be no pressure, no agenda. Just like the thematic song line in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge advises, let “come what may.” There might even be a new novel in there somewhere.


It was wonderful to hear such useful tips from award-winning authors—outliners and discovery writers alike. I hope there’s a gem of inspiration that suits each of your needs and methods no matter how you go about planning and completing the arduous task that is fiction writing. Stay tuned for the third installment on creating setting, coming soon.

Happy writing,


–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 1

23 Oct

After giving myself a few days to let the information overload of the 2013 James River Writers Conference settle, I’m finally getting around to sharing the great tips I learned. Today, I’m going to give you the notes I took during the “Suspense Across the Genres” session, with speakers Philippa Ballantine, Christopher McDougall, Kevin O’Malley, and Howard Owen, moderated by Julie Geen.

  • Write suspense into the little moments, too. Is that boy your protagonist likes going to notice her haircut? If he does is that going to bring them closer and change the path of the story? It’s a small thing to wonder, but it can have big implications. Suspense doesn’t have to be saved for the big reveal of your protagonist’s life-changing decision or whether the serial killer gets caught.
  • Chop the story up between plot and subplot or past and present in order to make suspense. Find the cliff-hangers.
  • Slow down and show the character. Make them the headline that draws the reader in, and then write the story with dynamic moments of suspense to keep the reader interested.
  • Make your character worth caring about so the reader wants to know what happens to them whit it gets suspenseful. Do this by making them real and human (even if they aren’t humans).
  • All fantasy has a kick-ass female heroine. Twist the trope by adding personality traits that increase suspense. Heroes need faults. Make readers wonder what the character will turn out like in the end, how she will grow.
  • “Emotion beats the hell out of the appreciation for good literature.” –I wish I had been able to see which speaker said this from my seat in the room. They elaborated that if you can get the reader in the gut, get them where they feel, then the reader will be determined to find out what happens to that character even if the text isn’t appreciated as literature. My take on this—touch readers on a human level rather than an academic or scholarly level where the merit of the literature might take precedence.
  • Suspense is not just action, action, action. It can be emotion, character, setting, imagery, etc.
  • “You are telling one story, not ever scene from the characters’ lives… Let the curtain drop. Let it stay down.” –Again, couldn’t see who said this. It’s great advice, though, to those of us who have “over-narrator-itis.” Trust the reader to understand. Not every moment has to get a moment on the page. I never got an opportunity to ask what the speakers’ views on sequels are given that they say to leave the curtain down and let the story end. My guess is that a sequel, or books in a series, should only get written if that additional narrative is really needed. It shouldn’t rehash what was done. It should continue the story forward.
  • Use the end of each chapter as a second chance for a riveting first line. The last line is just as important. It tells readers to stay tuned. Make them want to.
  • Once you’re about 40 pages into your manuscript, something needs to change the characters’ lives. Keep the plot moving.
  • Even plateaus in plot should ramp up for the next scene.

I hope these tips on suspense and plot progression are as useful to you as they have been to me. As soon as I got home from the conference I pulled what I thought was my finished manuscript out of its binder and started rearranging pages, marking through dull moments, and rewriting the unnecessary. Remember, change is good!

Happy writing,

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Because I’ve been too busy to write my own tips, here are some of Neil Gaiman’s

14 Oct

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” –

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