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If You Don’t Know What To Do, Make ‘Em Sad

Rachel HauckRiding my bike the other day, musing over my work-in-progress while also contemplating the book “The Nightingale” which I’d just finished, I realized that there is a certain sadness to the protagonist in books I love.

In books the world loves. Not morbid sadness. Not depressed. But a certain longing if you will.

Save for Elizabeth Bennett who covered her longing for true love with “snark” and piety.

In The Nightingale, the sister protagonists had a sad upbringing. Left with a minder by their father after their mother died.

In A Hundred Summers, the heroine has two points of view. One is a certain sadness and longing, wondering if she can get back the love she lost.

Girl On A Train has a desperate kind of feel, a locked in, unsettling first person narrative that’s both irritating and intriguing.

At MBT, we talk about what the character wants as a motivator when the story opens.

But the want has to come with an innate sadness.

They can’t get what they want. What they want is lost. Or unobtainable. Or perhaps undesirable. Whatever… you get my drift.

Even if the story opens on a happy occasion, we must get the sense of impending doom.

If she’s at her bridal shower, what she wants is happily ever after. She got her man. She is a month away from being married. But…

… she’s afraid happiness will never really be hers.

… an argument with her fiancé has create suspicion about a relationship at work.

…  her best friend phoned to say she couldn’t make the wedding.

Naturally suspense, thrillers, novels involving Nazi’s (hello The Nightingale) have an inherent tension and sadness.

We know what the people want: food, warmth, peace, to live their lives without fear.

But digging down to the emotional elements, it’s not enough to want for those things, they must want for more. In The Nightingale, it was healing between the sisters, and each one with their father.

For the cop hero, he “wants” to get the bad guy for fear of a reaming from his boss.

Or he has to want to get the bad guy because the last bad guy who eluded him committed a double homicide.

Or the heroine has to escape the man stalking her for own safety as well as her young daughter.

There’s the big want — the external — but there has to be the internal, emotional want and a sadness surrounding it.

If you feel your story is lacking, asking, “What’s my protagonist sad about?”

Dig into the emotional layers.

My current protagonist is sad over the death of her best friend in Afghanistan.

But as I’m writing, I can’t get to her heart. She’s too external. Being sad over her friend is good, and a component, but what is SHE really dealing with?

She has to have a personal sadness. Over her own want. Over her own desire.

I need to dig deeper. The story is ultimately about her! The death of her friend is a catalyst to find the core of my heroine.

Make sense?

So if your protagonist seems kind of shallow, talking in circles, pause to see if you’ve really discovered their inner sadness. (Note: not depression!)

Don’t worry, the journey of the story is to turn the sadness into happiness. Or at least create satisfying resolution.

Got it?


Go write something brilliant.

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A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 1)

Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover:  A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 1)


This month we’ve been talking about Weak Writing Fixes and diving into description.  Last week I introduced the acronym FOCUS, a tool I use to help me write description.


First step in writing great description is to put it through the POV of your character.  It’s all about how they feel about being there.  We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene.


Once you add in perspective, then you need to dig deep into the description. I use the word FOCUS to help me break it down.


F= FACTS: You want to take a good look at your noun and ask:

What is it?  What is it NOT? 


As we start writing description, we need a baseline of what we’re looking at before we can dive into description.  One of my favorite ways to do this is to compare what the POV character is seeing against what they expect, or want to see, or what it could be.


This is from Sons of Thunder, one my favorite comparison scenes.


Markos had become a foreigner in his own skin. As if he’d left himself back on the dock or perhaps sitting in his square, white-washed window, the shutters wide, watching the sun’s blush on the waves creeping over the fishing boats and charming him to sea.

But not this sea. This sea he didn’t know, with its endless caldron of jagged valleys, edged with spittle, and at night, so black, the wind over it an endless moan. At night, the sky appeared so immense, yet miraculously intimate, it seemed he could pull the stars from their mooring. And, he’d never been so cold. A kind of chill that he couldn’t flee pressed into his bones, turning him brittle. The wind from this black, sometimes green sea—never his Ionian blue—moaned in his ears, burned his throat.



The key to seeing the object is to tell us the facts of it.  We need to know what it is.  But we also need to know only the important facts for the scene.  We don’t need to know everything, just the essentials of the elements.


But we need more than the Facts.  We also need to understand this with our senses.  This is where we employ those 5 senses:  I call them Observations:   O = Observations. 


The 5 Senses–Sight, Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound—are key to bringing the storyworld to life. 


Consider this passage:


(From Baroness) Rosie: Paris 1923


Rosie and Dash walked home along the Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral shining against the night, the stars above the bright lights of a grand performance.

Accordion and banjo music floated out from the cafés as they walked up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the music mixing with the murmuring of voices of those dining on outdoor terraces. (Sound)  The moon came out to join them and hung low, peeking between the greening linden trees, the redolence of spring twining toward the blackened river. (Smell)


They laughed, and Rosie felt Dash slip his hand into hers. Warm and strong, he wove his fingers through hers and tucked her close to him.  (Touch)



Here’s another from the same book. The heroine is hoping to hitch a ride with a barnstormer.



Twilight skimmed the shiny wings and their sleek red bodies as she finally broke free of the departing spectators and lost herself among the airplanes, parked in a neat row before a long white tent. Inside the tent, lamplight flickered, (Sight) voices of the pilots tumbling out onto the grassy field. (Sound) Parked alongside the tent was the red roadster she’d seen barrel through town, and a truck with The Flying Stars painted on the side, a trailer attached to the back. A man in a grey jumpsuit, stained with grease sat on a running board smoking a cigarette (Taste & Smell), the ash a red eye in the encroaching darkness. A mongrel with a mangled ear lay at his feet.

She wandered between two planes, feathering her hand over the painted canvass of the wing (Touch). Bracing herself on a wheel strut, she pulled herself up to look into the cockpit.



Once we build the Facts and the Observations (Senses) we need to cement the sense the description into the reader’s head, as well as show what is important about the description to the POV character. Too many details overwhelm the reader – they don’t know where to look.  Think about a camera.  When a photographer zeros in on a subject, it finds the most unique element and frames that in the shot.  It’s the details that betray us.


So, going back to the acronym, we use the C.U for the Close Up. (F.O.C.U)


From The Help

I watch as she cuts out biscuits with a shot glass that’s never shot a thing but short dough. Behind me, the kitchen windows are propped open with Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogues. Pictures of two dollar hand mixers and mail-order toys flutter in a breeze, swollen and puckered from a decade of rain.



Sons of Thunder

More of a dangerous, even seductive scene.


Marcos just tried not to glance in the mirror, where the bright bulbs illuminated her array of make-up pots, jewelry, and discarded headdresses.  Or the hosiery that hung over the top of the dressing screen. 



Sons of Thunder


He’d filled out – well, they both had, probably, but with Markos nearly thirty, he reminded him of their father, wide shouldered, seaweed tough hands.  A square jaw, his face grizzled with whiskers, which parted at an open wound on his cheekbone.


(we focus on the cut)



Pick a Close Up that epitomizes the feeling you want to leave with the reader.  The cut shows the violence of war, and how tough the hero is.  He’s a survivor.


In the previous paragraph, we focused on the hosiery, hanging down like legs.


Close Ups bring the scene to life, add a sense of reality as well as texture to the story. We see it, and the close up embeds a feeling into our minds.


Next week we’ll talk about the final and most powerful element of FOCUS: Symbolism, and how to use it to connect your reader emotionally to the description (and thus use description as another tool for emotional layering in your scene!)


BUT, if you’d like an in-depth class on description, check out our Storyworld video series!


Go! Write something Brilliant!




PS—we’re opening our highly acclaimed Online Storycrafter’s Program for new students in early September.  If you’re interested in being notified when the course opens, click HERE.





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Brick wall texture

Writer’s Crash: How to Recover When You Hit the Wall During Rewrites

I pushed SEND on the rewrites for my fifth novel, Almost Like Being in Love, five days ago. During the month that I tore my manuscript apart, I came close to crashing Track Changes in Word — but when you are rewriting well over sixty percent of your story, that’s no surprise.

And let me clarify: the big rewrite was my suggestion, not my editor’s.

Something else occured during my month of rewrites: I crashed.

And by “crash,” I mean that I got to the point where I could not write. I wondered why I ever wanted to write this story … and I knew I would not be able to finish this story. It wasn’t just a matter of losing hours … I lost several much-needed days of writing time.

The much-loved author Elisabeth Elliot puts it this way:

“Sometimes a task we have begun takes on seemingly crushing size, and we wonder whatever gave us the notion that we could accomplish it.” 

the writing of a book Elisabeth  Elliot 2015

How did I recover from my “writer’s crash” so that I could meet my deadline and send my manuscript off to my editor?

  1.  I remembered that I’ve crashed before — and survived. Reality is, I’ve suffered a writer’s crash with every novel and novella I’ve written. For me — and most other writers I know — getting to the “I can’t do this” point is part of the creative process.
  2. I regrouped spiritually. If you don’t know who God says you are then you will not survive this crazy walk along the writing road. When I crash while I’m on deadline — start doubting myself — I  anchor myself to who God says I am and who He says He will be in my life. I get back in the Word and I listen to praise and worship music.
  3. I called for help. It helps to talk with other people when you crash, although the tendency is to withdraw. I connected with three specific people this time who helped me recover:
    1. One of my mentors, Rachel Hauck — I have Rachel on speed dial — and I am thankful for that. She knows my stories, and she’s been there for me every time when I’ve crashed in the past. She knows how to talk me through the writer’s trauma, reminding  me that I’ve turned in every manuscript I’ve started. She also reminded me to stop worrying about how my just-released novel is doing and to just have fun with the story I’m writing.
    2. My writing buddy, Mary — Mary lives one street over from me. She came and helped me hash out my story one more time and see if I was missing anything. The Ds. The Black Moment. The Epiphany. Note: When you crash, your story gets all snarled. You have to untangle it.
    3. My non-writing friend Shari  — Shari reminded me that even on deadline, I need to eat. We met for lunch — a very specific “this much time and no more” lunch, where I relaxed and we talked about life and laughed — when I went back to writing I felt like myself again.

What about you? How do you recover from writer’s crash?



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