The Importance of Raising the Stakes in Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of independently published romance lately. I’ve noticed a common problem – not much happens in too many of these novels. That’s not to say nothing happens. Girl meets hot guy, they get together, something keeps them apart, but they end up living happily ever after. The problem is, there’s seldom much at stake for the hero or heroine. If she doesn’t land the guy she may cry a little, but she’ll be fine. Instead of these books keeping me on the edge of my seat, they make me nod off.

Stakes are all about your main character having a goal, and what she has to lose if she doesn’t achieve it. In romance, that goal always includes a guy. (Or sometimes another girl.) If the main character doesn’t have a goal, whether it’s getting laid, getting married, or saving the family farm, the reader has little reason to stick around and see what happens. And if there’s nothing standing in the heroes way, then scenes become about as exciting as figuring out what to make for dinner.

Stakes are relative. Your heroine doesn’t have to save the world from an incoming asteroid to make for dramatic reading. Marty, the classic 1955 film (based on the 1953 teleplay) is a perfect example of this. Marty meets Clara one night at a dance. He likes her. She gives him her number. But when his mother and friends object to her, he decides not to call her.


Imagine if Marty was your typical romance hero. He’s good looking, with smoldering eyes, a confident swagger, and an interesting job. If he doesn’t call Clara, it’s no big deal. We know it won’t take long for him to find another girl.

But Marty is the complete opposite. He’s a butcher, not very attractive, and at 34, likely to be a bachelor for the rest of his life. The stakes for Marty are very high. We want to jump out of our seats and thrust the phone in his hand. We want to tell him he’s found a kind, sweet, wonderful girl, and he better not louse things up. It’s a simple story, but it’s great drama. That’s why it won four Academy Awards.

Try this. When you’re rewriting your novel, look at what your hero has at stake. Then sit down and write 25 alternative possibilities for what she might risk if she doesn’t achieve her goal. You might find a gem in there that will elevate your novel from so-so to something readers can’t put down. Don’t be afraid to go all-in. You won’t regret it.

Happy writing,


How to Outline Your Book Effectively

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I hate outlining. When I outline, I have a very hard time getting my creative juices flowing. I want to be knocking out pages, writing dialogue, creating colorful descriptions. It’s like cleaning my house before a party when I really want to be drinking wine and laughing with my friends.

Is outlining even necessary? I have a writer friend who doesn’t believe in it. He has a theme in mind, a main character, and a few other elements. Then he just starts writing and sees where it leads. That method seems to work for him. His books are good.

But it doesn’t work for me. While the writing initially feels good, I inevitably run into brick walls where I feel lost without a map. I have no idea which way to go.

So it’s back to the outline for me.

After outlining many screenplays and three books, I’ve come up with a few tips I’d like to share. Hopefully, they’ll help you write a better outline, and in turn, a better book.

  1. Drill down into your story. Start with the big picture. Where does the story start? Where will it end? What are the three or four major turning points? Write those first before you get into the details.
  2. Stay focused on your theme. It should resonate in ever chapter and every scene. If it doesn’t, consider cutting or changing that section.
  3. Break your outline down on paper, on your computer screen, or even on PostIt Notes. I usually break mine down by chapters and scenes. These change over the course of writing. The outline helps me to keep track.
  4. Make sure each section connects with the one before it and after it. Sometimes I write a favorite scene, but when I look at the outline, I realize it interrupts the flow of the story. I either have to cut it or move it elsewhere.
  5. As you write each section, give it some “juice.” Especially when you’re on your second or third draft of your book, add a little dialogue and spruce up the descriptions in your outline. It will help connect you with the magic of your story.
  6. Read over your outline many times. Look for the holes in it. Look for strained connections from one scene to the next. Do important characters disappear for lengthy periods? Does the story get bogged down? This is where number 5 will help.
  7. Have other people read it too.
  8. Whenever you feel stuck in your book, go back and write a new outline.
  9. When you’re finished with your first draft, read it and write yet another outline from it.
  10. When you’ve finished the second and third draft, outline again.
  11. And again, and again. Your book should, must, will evolve as you discover the characters and the story. If you keep re-outlining, you’ll have a better sense of the story arc.

Outlines are the annoying friend you can’t live without. Treat them with kindness and respect and they’ll pay you back many times over.

Happy writing!


The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!


Killing Your Babies

I loved the opening scene of the new romance novel I’m working on, Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It was funny, with great dialogue, intriguing characters, and page-turning thrills. Best of all, I’d given it what I thought was an interesting twist. We first see our heroine, Julina Trevers, through the eyes of her caddish ex-boyfriend. I was so proud of myself.

There was just one problem.

My first-round readers hated the scene.

If this was a Kindle sample, one wrote, I would never download itI was confused, wrote another. Who’s the protagonist? They went on: Too long. The boyfriend never reappears. Why focus so much on a dislikable character?

I wanted to rail, to tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about. They couldn’t see clever writing if it hit them over the head. But these were all experienced writers and readers, and it wasn’t just two or three of them who didn’t like the scene, as is usually the case. They all hated it equally.

I had invested so much time and energy into this opening. I couldn’t bare to throw it out. Instead, I put aside the manuscript and spent several weeks working on my other book-in-progress. Now I’ve returned to it, and it’s still painful to change, but I’m doing it.

Killing your babies (or darlings for the more sensitive among you) is such an apt metaphor for what a writer has to go through. We’ve birthed these characters, scenes, plot lines, and sometimes, whole books. It’s agony to have to take a butcher knife to them, to slash them apart and resemble them. Sometimes they end up in the compost heap like yesterday’s dinner.

But as writers, we have to remember, compost isn’t trash. It breaks down and becomes something lovely and new that will eventually nourish our creative garden. Those lines of dialogue or the great character we created may someday end up in another book, right where they belonged all the time.

Writers, feel the pain and agony of killing your babies, but remember, they will live again.

Happy writing,


Every Writer Needs an Editor

I haven’t seen the new movie Genius starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. I’m not sure I will see it; it’s received mostly poor reviews. But I love that it focuses on the important relationship between writer and editor.

Genius is about the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and the larger-than-life literary giant Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe is in love with words. Lots of words. The book he’s submitted to Perkins – O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life – is nearly 100,000 words too long, at least in Perkins’s opinion. Wolfe feels a bit differently.

Perkins and Wolfe engage in a protracted battle to cut the manuscript to what Perkins considered a manageable size. Perkins was finally able to convince the author to cut 60,000 words. Some critics still see the published version, which was retitled Look Homeward, Angel, as too long and undisciplined at 544 pages. (The original O Lost was published in 2000 if you’re interested in comparing the two.) I haven’t read O Lost, but as a writer, I would object to some of Perkins’s cuts that were based on fear of offending people. (For example, according to the New York Times, “Another passage was cut because Perkins thought it would be interpreted as a criticism of sportsmanship, which in 1929 was equated with patriotism.) But many of the cuts were for sound reasons, to make the book better and, ultimately, more successful.

A good editor is invaluable to a writer. Even the most seasoned writer has a difficult time seeing the flaws in her own work. We’re too close to it, too in love with our characters and words. Or, just as likely, we know our manuscript is far from perfect, but we don’t know how to fix it, and it’s torture even to try.

Self-published writers are at a big disadvantage in the literary world. Most of us can’t afford to hire a good editor, let alone a great one. Instead, we cobble together friends, family, and strangers to read our work. I was very fortunate to find a good editor to help me with my first romance novel, Goddess. I advise all writers to take their time and diligently search for the right person who can turn a mediocre manuscript into a good or even great published work.

Happy writing,



Writing in the First Person

When I was a screenwriter, I had no choice but to write in the third person. It’s hard to imagine how one would do anything else. Movies almost always work best as third person experiences.  (Watch the 1947 Robert Montgomery movie Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point-of-view, and you’ll see why.)

When I started writing Goddess, my first romance novel, I was excited by the chance to write in the first person. I found in liberating. It was like sitting around a campfire, sharing a story that happened to me personally. I was able to live the story moment by moment as Julia Nelson slowly but inevitably falls for the hot, enigmatic archeologist Ashland Stewart. it was almost as if I was in bed with him, experiencing every touch, every sensation. It made writing an erotic romance seem easy… and exciting.

But I also learned the pitfalls of the first person perspective.

Writing a romance novel in the first person isn’t a popular choice for a reason. A romance is about two people. (Unless it’s autoerotic, which might be interesting.) When we’re first getting to know someone romantically, there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out the other person’s intentions and nature. But in third person fiction, the reader can be inside both characters’ heads. We can know what that hot guy is thinking. Of course, that does take some of the suspense out of the narrative, but it helps us understand him more.

One of the criticisms I heard about my early drafts of Goddess was that Ashland wasn’t as well developed as Julia, my point-of-view character. This made complete sense. We knew everything Julia was feeling and thinking. We didn’t have that same luxury with Ashland. It took a lot of rewriting to make Ashland more three-dimensional. But I knew he could never be as fully developed as his lover. That’s just one of the compromises a writer has to make when writing in the first person.

My training as a screenwriter did help me avoid one of the pitfalls new writers often fall into when writing in the first person. In a script, a writer shouldn’t put information on the page that the audience watching the finished movie couldn’t possibly know. A screenwriter has to portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings through outward action and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s considered cheating and is frowned on by script readers.

Too many new writers working in the first person also try to cheat when conveying information they want the reader to know. One of the most popular (and most cliche) way is through the overheard conversation. (Or, in the age of cellphones, the stumbled upon text or voicemail message.)

The other pit writers fall into is getting stuck in their main character’s head. The story becomes a constant recitation of her thoughts and feelings. It’s enough to give the reader a splitting headache.

When writing in the first person, it’s important to remain grounded in time and space. What can your character see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? After all, while we may constantly have thoughts swirling around in our brains, we’re also are focused on the world around us. (Unless you’re a narcissist!)

If you’ve never written in the first person, I would suggest giving it a try. It may just change your own perspective on your story, and on your writing.

Best wishes,


Writing to a Rhythm

At the moment, I’m halfway through reading a new fantasy/romance novel. I won’t mention the title or author because I want to reserve judgement until I’m finished, but the book has made me think a great deal about rhythm in writing.

The main character in the book is complex and engaging and the descriptions are rich and imaginative. Nevertheless, I’ve had a difficult time becoming fully engaged in the story because its rhythm feels off. It doesn’t have the compelling beat that I love in a good novel–the kind of book that I can’t put down.

To me, rhythm in a novel is like rhythm in music–it picks me up and carries me along. It makes me feel compelled to reach the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence. Reading a book without the proper rhythm is like listening to a band where the drummer can’t keep a beat.

Rhythm can be hard charging, like in a thriller, or it can be slow and steady, like in a thoughtful character study. Often, it can be difficult to define exactly what makes for good rhythm. There’s no time signature like in music, and there are so many elements that come together to take us on a satisfying literary journey. It’s definitely not just the plot that carries the rhythm. Character, dialogue, setting, and sentence structure all come together to make a book successful.

One of my favorite contemporary novels is Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! The book follows the three Bigtree chidren after their mother dies and their parents’ Florida tourist attraction fails. Kiwi, the older brother, leaves to get a job at the World of Darkness amusement park. When the middle sibling Osceola disappears into the swamp, Ava, the youngest daughter, goes in search of her with the help of the mysterious, seemingly magical Bird Man.Swamplandia

The rhythm of Kiwi and Ava’s adventures are completely different. Kiwi’s struggles to be successful at World of Darkness are mostly light and funny. There’s a breezy, fast-paced rhythm to them. Ava’s journey is slower, like a dream walk. There’s a sense of danger and foreboding that draws us in very differently than Kiwi’s chapters.

The distinct rhythms of their narratives are reflected in their first person (Ava) vs. third person (Kiwi) viewpoints, the language they use, the settings, and the turns in the plot. They almost feel like two different books. Swamplandia! never gets monotonous or boring because the rhythm is so varied. But at the same time, the different character strands blend together so well that we’re left with a deep and complex story that few other recent novels I’ve read have acheived.

Developing good rhythm takes years of practice. It’s like learning to play the drums. But I do have a few tips to share that may help you consider your own rhythm in your writing.

  1. Watch Hollywood movies. The more rigid structure of Hollywood films, especially the three acts in a typical movie, can give you a good sense of how rhythm works. Watch a movie strictly for the structure. Where do the key plot turns occur?How do the scenes vary in length and tone? Do fast paced scenes alternate with slower paced counterpoints?
  2. Get honest, outside opinions of how your book is flowing. I read too many self-published books with scenes that seem to go on forever, or with unnecessary characters or dialogue. It’s very difficult for a writer to see objectively how the flow of his/her book is working. Find a fearless reader or three to give you the honest truth.
  3. Watch out for changing POV. In romances, character POV often switches between the hero and heroine. Don’t overdue it. Switching POVs can take the reader out of the story and lead to redundancy if you present the same information from two points of view.
  4. Write short stories. Because their flow is so foreshortened, they can help you practice developing rhythm.

I hope these tips at least help you think more about rhythm as you’re reading and writing. Good luck!

Best Wishes,


Go Set a Watchman: A Lesson in the Agony and Ecstasy of the Rewrite

I find myself fascinated by the coverage of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman. I use quotes because there is every indication that Watchman is actually an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, the fact that the time period, story, and even characters change so radically between Watchman and Mockingbird only goes to show how much the rewrite process can transform a novel. Evidently, Lee’s agent thought the original Watchman was good enough to send to a publisher, and Lippincott thought it was good enough to buy. But Tay Hohoff, the editor who took Lee under her wing, wasn’t satisfied.

tayhohoff-cropShe pushed Lee to turn a good novel, Watchman (I’m judging this from the reviews since I haven’t read it yet.), into one of the greatest works of American literature. It was a difficult process–at one point Lee threw her manuscript out the window into the snow in frustration–but it was worth the pain.

Back when I ran a writers’ group, we would occasionally get a new member I would classify as an “arguer.” He/she couldn’t accept that our constructive criticism was valid. Five or six other writers would patiently explain why this person’s screenplay wasn’t working for us, but the arguer would respond with a dozen reasons why it was fine in its current form. After all, Steven Spielberg’s dentist had loved it!

Were we correct on every point we made? Probably not. But when several smart, literary minded people are telling you the same thing about your manuscript, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying. And more than once the arguer returned to our group many months later to tell us that we were right after all.

Few of us have a Tay Hohoff to guide us through the rewrite process, so we must search out good editors wherever we can find them, and continue to work on making our manuscript better and better, even when we want to throw it out the window and call it quits.

I close with a story about my own rewriting experience. I once wrote a screenplay that went through some 30 drafts, was optioned by a producer, and even got the attention of a major Hollywood star who was interested in executive producing it. But this being Hollywood, the process stalled and then died. I was confident that the script was excellent. I wasn’t about to give up on it. In desperation, I went through my college alumni directory and contacted everyone I could find that was connected with Hollywood in some capacity. One young woman I emailed was a lowly assistant at a production company, only a couple of years out of college. She agreed to read my script. A week or so later she emailed me to tell me how much she loved it. I was pleased until I read her next sentence. She wanted me to call her so she could give me some notes on it.

I put my head in my hands and groaned. This script had been read and dissected by major and minor players. What could a 20-something assistant possibly add to it? But I was desperate, so I called her. She turned out to be a very intelligent and kind person. Her suggestions weren’t major, but they were spot on. Her sensitive reading of the screenplay added a little something extra to my protagonist. When I finally hung up more than an hour later, I was so happy I had contacted her.

While the script still didn’t end up going anywhere, my new friend went on to be producer for a successful Hollywood director. I wasn’t surprised. She clearly was very perspective about story and character. The lesson for me was to always keep an open mind and open ears when offered feedback, and to never stop rewriting.

Best Wishes,