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There have been volumes written on plot. After all, it is a critical element in every story. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, I have picked up a few pointers on my journey in the writing world. Here are five common plot problem I’ve encountered and ways to solve them.

Starting in the wrong place:

Begin where the trouble begins. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a prologue, but you’d better be sure it relates to where the trouble started. Take out those 20 pages of back story telling us how Betty Sue wasn’t getting along with her ex and how they finally got that divorce. Instead, do something like romance author Jennifer Cruise did when one of her heroines finds a pair of underwear in her husband’s car—and they aren’t hers! No need to tell us the couple has been having marital problems. The panties say it all.

Having a weak conflict:

Conflict doesn’t mean constant bickering between your hero and heroine.  Strong conflicts must have consequences and the conflict and consequences must move the story forward. If your characters can work out the problem if they just talk or can walk away from their problems then your conflict is too weak. The conflict must force them to stay together. If you let them walk away at any point you must create a complication that forces them back together.

A predictable plot:

A predictable plot has no surprises. We’ve all read and seen predictable plots in books and movies. You know where the story is going. You can guess who committed the murder. While stories like that can be enjoyable, I get the most pleasure out of a story that makes me say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”  To avoid predictable plots try making a list of 20 things that could happen, then eliminate your first five items. Those are usually the most predictable things. Make sure you leave a subtle hint that foreshadows the unexpected event so the reader won’t feel cheated with the surprise. You want them to be able to go back and say, “Yeah, I see where the author set that up. It was clever.”

A plot that moves too slowly:

When your plot moves too slowly you usually have a pacing problem. Try solving the problem by adding subplots. Braid the subplots into the main story so all the plots interact with one another. Each plot line, main and subplots, need three turning points spaced approximately ¼, ½ and ¾ way through the book or through each plot line. Add twists and turns in the story to keep it going. You can also step up the pace of the story with shorter scenes and chapters, breaking up paragraphs to put more white space on the page and making sure there is tension on every page.

An ending that doesn’t satisfy:

An ending that satisfies can sell your next book, because if your reader feels cheated by your ending it’s likely they won’t give you another chance. For romance readers this mean a happily-ever-after ending, or at least the promise of one. Be sure to tie up all your plot lines before the end of the book.  Generally, the last plot line to be established is the first one to be completed. With romance, you want to solve all the other problems before you solve the romance.

Do you have trouble with plotting?

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My husband and I watched the movie Fred Claus the other night. It’s the story of Santa Claus’ older brother (bet you didn’t know he had one!) who found himself in the position of the less favored son. (Makes sense since Nickolas became a saint.) It was a cute story about a dysfunctional family and how they sorted their problems out one Christmas.

What caught our attention wasn’t the dysfunctional family story, but the story the writers found in back story of a new character they created to compliment a well-known character.

This isn’t the first time someone has used this plotting trick. Gregory Maguire did something similar when he wrote the book Wicked, the story of how the wicked witch of the west became wicked. He went on to write an entire Wicked Years series featuring familiar and new characters from Oz.

The upcoming movie Oz: The Great and Powerful, which opens in March 2013, is a prequel to both the Frank Baum’s novel and the 1939 film The Wizard of Ox. Oz: the Great and Powerful  tells the back story of the Wizard of Oz.

The new television series Once Upon a Time also uses this plot mechanism. Have you ever wondered why the wicked queen hated Snow White so much, beyond the simple and obvious she’s-prettier than-I-am motive? The writers of this series tell the queen’s back story and have turned all the fairy tales in this series sideways. If you don’t watch it, it’s a great show.

Chances are you’ve read Wicked or seen the stage play, have heard about Once Upon a Time, or plan to see the movie Oz, the Great and Powerful, or seen some other movie or read a book that turns well-known stories upside down. If you’re like me, you wished you had come up with those ideas.

So how can you and I find ideas like this? The key is to think outside the box. Here are 5 suggestions you can use to change the norm into the abnormal.

  1. Consider placing your classic characters in another time and space and see what happens to them.
  2. Look for an interesting minor character in a story and figure out what makes them tick. Then give them a life and a back story, and, yes, back story is okay here because it is the premise of your story.
  3. Find a classic story you love and turn it on its ear. Think Jerry Lewis as Cinderfella.
  4. Don’t be afraid to go outside the conventional box when considering options. I may not like vampires that can walk in sunlight and twinkle, but there’s no doubt lots of readers do. Readers can often suspend what they know about a subject if you give plausible reasons for the changes.
  5. Apply and unexpected plot twist to a well-known character or set of circumstances. In Once Upon a Time the writers took Little Red Riding Hood and made her the Big Bad  werewolf. Her magical red cloak protected her against her curse—and Grandma knew her secret, but Red didn’t.

In all the stories mentioned, we did not see the twist coming, and that’s the kind of thing writers, and readers, want. We walked away from each of these stories saying, “I wish we had thought of that!”

Do you have a favorite book that has used this creative back story method?

© C.D. Hersh

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Photo by Pennie Gibson

We’ve been watching Dancing With the Stars—The All Star Season for several weeks now. Our hometown  favorite Drew Lachey was kicked off early, in spite of the numerous votes we gave him. The show is coming down to the semi-finals and we are rooting for Apollo Ohno, Kelly Monaco, Shawn Johnson, Giles Marini, and Melissa Rycroft. They’re all so good it’s hard to choose a favorite. But this blog isn’t about who we want to win, but how the show is soooo like becoming a writer.

At the beginning of the season there was a segment where the stars told why they wanted to come back and put themselves through 10 weeks of grueling 8-hour day practices, risking injury, sore aching bodies, and possibly failure. We found their reasons interesting.

They came back because:

  • It’s fun
  • They want the challenge
  • They want to get the shiny mirror ball prize this time
  • They want their children /family to see them dance
  • They want to get redemption
  • They want to do it different and go forward this time
  • They fell in love with dancing

As we listened to all their reasons, we realized as writers we share some of the same desires the All-Star Cast members have. We, too, write because it’s fun. We enjoy the challenge of figuring out a plot, finding the story twist that will make our writing unique and memorable, creating characters readers love, or love to hate. We want that shiny prize—that book contract, the New York Bestsellers listing, the money! Sometimes we want to write to encourage our family, or leave a legacy for them. We keep writing because we want to get redemption—to have someone prove that we are worthy of our calling. We want to go forward in our writing—get better, learn the craft.

But most of all we keep writing, going back to that blank page, working through the writer’s block or writer’s avoidance, facing those rejections, because we LOVE to write. And, like Dancing with the Stars Cast, we just can’t stop. Nor would we ever want to.

So, fellow writers, keep on writing and dancing to your own tunes. The prize is within reach. We know that for certain.

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(c) CD Hersh

Most people think of Halloween as a holiday for trick or treating, dressing up in costumes, a time for ghouls, ghosts and monsters to roam, a celebration of the harvest, or an excuse to have a really scary party.

In reality Halloween has its roots in four religious holidays, three that deal with death:

  • The celebration of the Celtic Druidic holiday Samhain
  • The celebration of the pre-Christian Roman goddess Pomona
  • The Roman festival of Feralai
  • And Christianity’s All Hallow’s Eve, also called All Saints’ Eve

Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter

for the Celts. Druid priests performed ceremonies in honor of their sun god Baal, whom they thanked for the harvest and asked for support to battle the coming winter. They also believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead was opened during the celebration of  Samhain, and the souls of the dead roamed the earth. The ghosts were believed to play tricks on the living and cause supernatural events to happen, the origins of today’s belief that ghosts and ghouls roam freely on Halloween evening.

The Roman celebrations honoring the goddess Pomora and the festival of Feriala were also held in late October. Pomora was the goddess of fruits and trees. The use of these fruits for fortune-telling stems back to her celebration. The feast of Feriala honored the dead, much like the Celts’ Samhain festival.

The Christian festival of All Hallow’s Eve is a celebration honoring the dead saints and martyrs of the church.

When the Romans conquered the Celts their autumn festivals and the Celts autumn festivals were combined until the Roman’s decided too many of their Roman citizens were adopting the Celtic religion. Rome’s answer to this problem was to ban the Druidic religion and kill its priests. But the Romans could not wipe out the old Celtic beliefs and many people continued to keep the traditions alive.

When the Christians came into power they, too, wanted to do away with the very popular, old pagan rites. So, the church moved their feast of the saints (which was held in May) to November 1st , and later to October 31st, in an attempt to absorb the ingrained Samhain traditions and rites into a Christian holiday. By doing so they hoped to hold onto their new followers by allowing them to celebrate a festival on a date they had long held sacred. Once they had established the new Christian festival the church tried to discourage the old practices in favor of more Christian ones, but, like the Romans, they were not successful.

Using Christian holidays to absorb pagan ones was a tactic the church used often. Elements of pagan celebrations can be found in Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas celebrations. Over the years, most of the pagan holiday traditions in these celebrations were christianized. Not so with Halloween. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Puritan founding fathers of America, who banned the celebration in the New World, could not christianize this pagan holiday.

It’s no wonder that Christianity hasn’t been able to overcome the pagan elements of Halloween. Celebrating all that death seems to be a perfect transition into one scary holiday. Ghosts, ghouls, and all things magical keep Halloween’s roots firmly planted in the other world that many people are drawn to… and you have to admit, they are perfect elements for stirring up for a wild paranormal tale.

While not normally thought of as a romantic holiday, Halloween has its share of divination traditions for finding true love. Since this is a website of a romance author, we would be remiss not to include some of this holiday’s romantic folklore in this article.

  • Insert a plain ring, a coin, and other charms in a fruitcake, known as a barmbrack( báirín breac), before baking. The one who gets the ring in their slice of cake will find true love in the following year.
  • You can divine your future spouse by peeling an apple in one long strip. Toss the peel over your shoulder. The peel will land in the shape of the first letter of your future spouse’s name.
  • Unmarried women should sit in a darkened room and gaze into a mirror on Halloween night and the face of their future husband will appear in the mirror. But beware. If you are destined to die before marriage a skull will appear instead of the face of your intended.
  • Name nutshells after prospective love interests and place them near a fire. If they burn steady it indicates true love. If they crack or pop or fly off the hearth your prospective love interests are only a passing fancy. Another version of this divination involved throwing two hazelnuts, named for two different suitors, into the fire. The nut that burns steadily is the suitor who will be true. The nut that bursts will be the one who will be unfaithful.
  • Bobbing for apples is a traditional game used for fortune-telling on Halloween. (Bet you didn’t know that when you had your head in the barrel with some boy or girl.) The first person to pluck an apple from the water without using their hands will be the first to marry. If a bobber catches an apple on the first try it means he or she will experience true love. If it takes many tries they will be fickle in their romantic endeavors.
  •  Water was often used for divination. To determine someone’s romantic fate, fill four bowls with water. Place soap in one, pebbles in another, clear water in the third, and leave the fourth bowl empty. Ask blindfolded guests to stick a hand in one of the bowls. If they choose the bowl with the clear water they will have a happy marriage.  Soapy water foretells widowhood, the pebbles predict a life of hard work, and the empty bowl represents a single, happy life.
  • Another popular, and dangerous, activity– practiced when young women wore long dresses– was jumping over lit candles. If a woman made it over all the lit candles without extinguishing them she would be married before the year passed. Every candle her long skirt blew out meant another year without a husband.

Do you have a romantic divination you’ve practiced on Halloween or another time?

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We’ve recently come back from a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where we stayed at a 100+ year-old light house at Big Bay Point.

Big Bay Point Lighthouse
Photo (c) by C.D. Hersh

The views were spectacular, the weather wonderfully cool (which was a big bonus after our record-breaking heat wave at home), the innkeepers very accommodating, and the lighthouse charming. However, as it is with all writers, everything is fodder for a story … or in this case for a blog.

While at the lighthouse, curiosity overtook the guests and we wanted to know how our hosts, Jeff and Linda and their business partner John, ended up owning the lighthouse and running it as a B&B. As it turned out, our B&B hosts were once guests in the lighthouse themselves. For several years they, and a group of friends, rented out all seven rooms and loved it so much they just kept coming back. Then the owner told them he was planning to sell the lighthouse and the adjoining land. A condo developer, and another business, were interested in the property. Both businesses would tear down the lighthouse and destroy the beauty of the rural setting that had been part of the lighthouse since 1896.

Our hosts are preservationists, who were active in restoring the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., and they hated the thought that the lighthouse could be torn down. They also didn’t want to run a bed and breakfast, but felt they had to do something to try to stop the destruction of the historic building. “We made a ridiculously low offer,” said Jeff, “which we didn’t expect them to take. It was mainly so I could feel better about trying to save it (the lighthouse). We asked for the lighthouse and acreage on either side on the building, taking a section right out of the middle of the property.”

A few weeks later Jeff’s wife called him at work and said, “Cancel the trip to Africa and put the house on the market. We’ll talk about it when I get home.” Their ridiculously low offer—the one Jeff was sure would be rejected—had been accepted and a new chapter in their lives had begun.

Interesting, you say, but what does Jeff’s and Linda’s story have to do with a writing-themed blog?

I can think of several things:

  • Jeff and Linda took a risk by bidding on the lighthouse. Risks are what we need our characters to take. They can’t play it safe or there’s no story. If the heroine hears a noise in the dark basement, she MUST go down there. Even though we, as readers or movie viewers, are yelling, “Don’t! The ax murderer is waiting for you!”
  • The risk our characters have to take MUST be big. Jeff and Linda risked everything on something they didn’t expect to happen. Buying the lighthouse cost them financially. They had to sink everything they had into the purchase and repair. It cost them emotionally in time spent apart. Linda lived there alone for several years while Jeff commuted on weekends, and it cost them physically. They, and their friends, did the restoration work themselves. Their story would have been much different, and a lot less interesting and entertaining, if they’d had the finances to send someone to do the work and invest the time needed to bring the lighthouse back to all its former glory.
  • Taking a risk doesn’t always end the way you think it will. Jeff didn’t want to run a B&B, he just wanted to feel better about “trying” to save the lighthouse. Instead, he and Linda saved the lighthouse, which is a huge part of Lake Superior’s history, and have provided enjoyment to hundreds of guests who’ve crossed the threshold of the B&B lighthouse.
  • And lastly, we, as writers, have to take risks. Does something scare you? Are you afraid of approaching an editor, starting a blog or website, or sending your “baby” out to get rejected … or accepted? If you have writing goals you haven’t conquered yet, take a chance and just do them. Maybe you’ll end up with a great story to tell too.

Have you ever RISKED IT ALL? How did it change your life?

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