October Writing Challenge

Welcome back for another Writing Challenge Sunday.  In the U.S., October is mostly known for the holiday, Halloween.  Children (and adults) dress up and walk from house to house, knocking on doors and asking for candy with the phrase “Trick or Treat!”  Imagine if your child came upon this house at the end of the neighborhood.  Or perhaps you as a child, or even you as an adult!  Would you dare?

Here are the rules:  Using the photo below and any caption, write a scene, short story or excerpt.  If you post it online, please add a link to the webpage it resides in the comments.  Do not post the entire scene, etc. in the comment, just the link to it.

Photo courtesy of Google+

Guest Book Review: “Spunk & Bite”

It’s the third Sunday of October and you know what that means…Guest Book Reviews!  Today’s review comes from dedicated NaNoer, Roselyn, better known as August Wyssman.  She reminds us that rules are flexible things during NaNo.

Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style

It is often said that rules are made to be broken.

Spunk & Bite, a cutesy play on the authors of the legendary writer’s guide The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), wants you to know that, before you go breaking all the rules, it’s important you understand them first.

Bestselling author Arthur Plotnik (say that five times fast!) has ruffled more than a few literary feathers with his suggestion that Strunk and White are not the end-all-be-all of writing manuals.

One of my favorite chapters in Spunk & Bite revolves around foreign language in English novels. Plotnik explains both why so many writers enjoy using foreign sounding words, and why it so often fails.

Rule 20 in The Elements of Style simply tries to banish all foreign words from a writer’s mind, (“Some writers…from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.”)

Plotnik takes this rule a step in the other direction and makes you think by giving you a choice: Use the word unencumbered by a translation and hope the reader understands, use the term but also provide a translation or a hint within the context to explain the word, or simply leave it out.

In regards to Rule 20, Plotnik wants you to question why you want to use that particular word. Are you looking to express something that simply can’t be expressed in English? Do you want to spice up some dialogue and give it an international flare? Or are you simply leaning on another language to give your story something when English (and a proper edit) would do the same just fine?

It is this flexibility with the rules that makes for such an interesting read. Instead of just forbidding things without an explanation, Plotnik gives you reasons why Strunk and White’s rules were established, while also showing you alternatives.

Spunk & Bite is for aspiring novelists, for sure, but it’s also a valuable read for those just wishing to tighten up their writing style. Journalists, bloggers, even casual readers of the above forms of communication can benefit from picking up this book.

When not writing with her group “…And Then What Happened”, August works for Head Start and chases after her very active daughter, a NaNo baby who’s now 2yrs old.  You can find Ms. Wyssman on Facebook, NaNoWriMo, and her blog, “Sweetness & Light”.

I need a what?

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

As many of you know, writers during November fall into two categories – Pantsers (those who don’t use outlines) and Plotters (those who do).  Pantsers create wonderful manuscripts starting with nothing more than an idea and some characters.  We discussed characters last week, so this week’s blog is dedicated to the Plotters.

It’s true that novelist Chris Baty says a plot isn’t necessary for a first draft, however it makes moving the story along in the direction you want much easier.  We’ve listed below three ways to plot your story.

I.  Plot in 3 Acts
Similar to what we all learned in school, creating an outline helps keep your story on track – unless your characters hijack it, but we won’t talk about that right now. This is a big picture method of outlining.

  1. Act One – the Setup: wherein you introduce your MC (main character), chase her up a tree, she gets down but has to pay for the damage to the tree (first inciting incident).
  2. Act Two – the Confrontation: wherein your MC discovers the only way to pay for the damage is to borrow from a loan shark who also happens to own the tree and demands full payment in three days, discouraged your MC bemoans her fate at a coffee shop and friends a budding lawyer barista there.
  3. Act Three – the Resolution: wherein your clever and resourceful MC & her friend discover the tree was on city property, thus she isn’t responsible for the damage and is able to payback the loan shark.

II.  Mountain of Setbacks
Very similar to the Three Act Plot, the process described in “Ready, Set, Novel!” uses setbacks for your MC, lots and lots of setbacks. This method allows for longer plotting.

  1. Construct the canon – figure out what your MC wants most in the whole world (story).
  2. Build the mountain –  take away what your MC wants and place lots and lots of obstacles in her way.
  3. Light the fuse –  create an igniting incident to get your MC moving up that mountain. (Introduce your villain!)
  4. Plot the problems – arrange the obstacles on the mountain from least to worst-case-scenario.
  5. Meet her on the other side – your MC will have changed from her challenging experiences. If not, make better mountains.

III.  The Snowflake Method
This method, designed by Randy Ingermason, is available here.  It is best used by serious outliners and plotters and takes a few weeks to complete. The basics are:

  1. Write a one sentence summary of your story.
  2. Expand that sentence to a full paragraph including setup, disasters and ending.
  3. Write a one page summary for each MC including motivation, goals, conflicts and epiphanies.
  4. Expand each sentence of the summary paragraph (#2) to a full paragraph. Each paragraph except the last should end in a disaster.
  5. Tell the story from the viewpoint of each MC, expanding each character’s summary paragraph (#3) into a full page.
  6. Expand each paragraph from #4 into a full page synopsis.
  7. Expand your character synopsis from #5 into a full-fledged character chart, adding details.
  8. Make a list of all the scenes you’ll need for each page from #6 to write the story. Spreadsheets work best, sticky notes are acceptable.
  9. Write your  story.

What method will you use to plot your novel and why? Tell us in the comments below.

I don’ need no character…

Whether your characters are planned out meticulously or spring fully formed from your imagination one thing all authors agree on is that characters need to be real.  So how do you go about making them three dimensional? There are a variety of ways, some of which we’ve shared below.

  1. While “The Writers Toolbox” by Jamie Cat Callan is mostly for plot and getting your story out, there is a vital piece related to characters.  She says it thusly: “Talk to your [character]…Ask your [character] what it wants. Sit down and write what the [character] would tell you if it could…”  In other words, interview your character. Write questions in your voice and your character’s answers in her’s, perhaps using different colored inks.  Ask your character what she wants from the story, she’ll tell you.
  2. Lizette Gifford recommends using character descriptions. Things such as name, species/race, gender, hair, eye & skin color, and an even more detailed list will help you later in the story (usually when editing). If you don’t like the super long lists, put the basic traits on a note card and pin it.
  3. James N. Frey discusses how to make well-rounded, believable characters that sizzle. He recommends creating a biography for your character and finding out what his “ruling passion” is. What drives him above everything else (for this story). In his second book Frey goes into detail on how to make worthy characters with “…the uniqueness of real people.”
  4. In “Ready, Set, Go!” you’re tasked with details, all the details you can think of about your character, as if you were an NYC detective and your character just got caught stealing your beloved grandmother’s prize-winning spaghetti sauce recipe. In other words, profile your character with pictures, motivations, juicy details of their bad habits and rumors involving him.
  5. If lists aren’t your thing, keep a separate document handy and put your character’s traits in the document as you discover them.  Perhaps you learn he craves cinnamon rolls but is highly allergic to  cinnamon which makes him a very crabby person in the morning; that would go on the document.

If none of this is helpful or your character just isn’t talking to you, throw her into an unexpected scene. Follow her around like a stalker – what’s in her medicine cabinet, her purse/backpack/briefcase or lunch box, what’s her ‘regular’ at the local coffee shop? Or best of all, go talk to her family. No one dishes dirt like a family member!


  1. The Writers Toolbox, Jamie Cat Callan, pg 37.
  2. NaNo for the New and the Insane, Lizette Gifford, pg 48.
  3. How to Write a Damn Good Novel I, James N Frey, pg 35.
  4. Ready Set Novel, Chris Baty et all., pg 21.
  5. Character Cafe, NaNoWriMo forums, Gadifere.

Spokane River Writers at Bark For Life in 2011

Need more help with your characters? Come visit us at the Spokane Bark for Life event this Saturday, October 13th from 11am – 3pm and get personal advice!  Not to mention supporting a great cause!