What to do with the hurt?

It was my fault. I’d turned my phone to silent for church and forgot to turn the volume back on. So, I didn’t hear the phone ring. 7 times. 7 missed calls…all from a restricted number in Virginia.

Where my son is stationed.

Panic. I thought—oh no! What if he’s in trouble? I checked, the number was registered to the state.

More panic. I texted my son. Nothing. Called his cell. It went right to voice mail.


Admittedly, I had terrible scenarios emerging in my creative brain—most of them ending with him in a hospital.

“Calm down,” my husband said. “It’s probably nothing.”

Right. Tell that to my mother’s heart.

Four hours later, my son texted. “I’m fine. What’s the problem?”

He hadn’t tried to call. Wasn’t in the hospital. Wasn’t deploying suddenly to war.

The calls were from a telemarketer. Are you kidding me? (and I have to say, a darned determined telemarketer!) All that fuss, worry and…


That helpless feeling, the sense of not knowing, the panic that I kept fighting was exactly the emotion I was searching for in the SCENE I COULDN’T GET RIGHT. A scene where my helpless, frustrated, panicked heroine waited for news on a loved one.

Oh brother. But Yay! Because now I knew exactly what emotions to bring to the page, and how.

Last night, Meryl Streep gave a long acceptance speech for winning the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes. Her best line came at the end—“Take your broken heart and turn it into art.”

I have had my heart broken plenty of times—losing loved ones, surviving terrifying situations, being betrayed, embarrassed, humiliated. And so have you! Everything counts when you’re a writer. (even if it is your crazy mind overreacting!)

You have an amazing toolbox of writing skills if you are able to dig down and find those emotional moments that have formed you. Bring them to the page, explore them, pull out the lies, and the truths. Don’t be afraid—you’ve walked through them and survived. Now gift those moments, those truths to your reader.

It’s true that every great story has a piece of the creator in it. Let your hurt give the story power.

This is one of the many things we talk about at our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat—how to create characters who bring authentic emotion to page (and how to write it!) We also brainstorm your story, help you flesh out scenes, wordsmith and dissect that story down to find the most powerful, compelling pieces. It’s such a life-changing week that we usually fill up with repeaters within the first week of opening.

But, we leave a few spaces open for new attendees. Right now, we have 2 spots open for our retreat in Destin, Florida, in late February. Click HERE to find out more.

Use everything. Because your story matters.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

P.S, if you’re interested in the retreat, we have a twin upper bunk available, and a KING bed in a semi-private room (you share the bathroom with 2 others, but you get the bed to yourself!) Chose either of those two options in the drop-down menu under lodging and it will calculate your retreat costs. Any questions? Write to: retreats@mybooktherapy.com. See you in Florida!

3 Brainstorming Sparks To Get You NaNoWriMo Ready

Photo by Karen Andrews
Photo by Karen Andrews

NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge, is not for the feint of heart.

But you aren’t chicken. Chances are you’ve faced down an editor or agent pitch with only two cappuccinos. Quite possibly you wake up before the sun rises or stay up after it sets to put words on the page, while raising a family, or working a full-time job.

Your life is the stuff of the courageous.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like you scale mountains, but you’re in a career where you know you will receive numerous rejections, still you face them fearlessly and swallow back disappointments with grace. (Outside of maybe that tub of Ben & Jerry’s you didn’t tell anyone about.)

November is your month to go big or go home. How do you get the first sparks for your NaNoWriMo? From your own courageous journey infused into your character.

3 Brainstorming Sparks To Get You NaNoWriMo Ready:

*First, start a spark journal. This is your NaNoWriMo thought bank. It won’t just be pieces of your characters’ journey and story structure. It will be emotions, words, stressful moments, music, muse, and so much more. Mark these segments with sticky dividers so they are easy to find.


 Spark One: Determine the place your hero/heroine is in at the start of the story. Identify their favorite thoughts, music, places to think, and where they go to find peace. If you love collage, cut out pictures that represent that either online, or from magazines.

This is what I call the frame of mind spark. Every day you sit down to write, review the pictures and sounds of where they are at in life before you start.


Spark Two: Determine your hero/heroine’s down and out response in the story. Create a segment that shows the thoughts, tension, fight music, junk food cravings, music binge that they take when discouraged.

Use your own life experiences to put this into emotional words. The hardest point of your month in October should be journaled about here. My Book Therapy taught me to keep an emotional journal. This is a very specified emotion you might find in it.

If your hero/heroine is to spend a good amount of time facing hardships that bring them to change, that is an emotion you should connect with on multiple levels of severity.


Spark Three: Geek out about your passion. If you love your hero/heroine, your plot, or your setting, here is the place to fill the pages with why you love your favorite one of these. Cut out pictures, write your emotions, pour it all on the page. Add musical inspiration, pictures, or prose.

Why? There will be a point this month where you will need to remember why you love this story. That is the time or times when this spark will be helpful.

Are you planning on doing NaNoWriMo? What other sparks will you add to your spark journal?

The What and Why of Writing: Boy Scout Moment

Say the words “Boy Scout” and most people will think “Be prepared.” That’s the Boy Scout Motto. Or they might think of words like trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous. These are parts of the 12 Points of the Scout Law. I know all this because my husband, who is an Eagle Scout, recited all 12 Points to me in rapid-fire succession. Once a scout, always a scout.

And yes, all of this Boy Scout trivia is applicable to writing a novel.

What: Boy Scout Moment

This is a sweet moment in the beginning of the book where we glimpse the hero or heroine doing something kind: Maybe they are  kind to an animal. Maybe they help an old woman across the street (Boy Scout, remember?). In some small way, your character sacrifices what they want for someone else. The Boy Scout Moment helps your readers like your hero and/or your heroine.

Why: I already explained why you need a Boy Scout Moment early on in your novel. Look at the last line under the section labeled “What.” You want your readers to like your hero and your heroine.

As novelists, we understand the character arc in a story. Character arc is the timeline that allows our main characters to change and mature as the story progresses. This is why in Chapter One you can have a hero and heroine who loathe each other but then discover Happily Ever After together by the time you pen “The End.” Thanks to the character arc, they are not the same people they were at the beginning of the story.

But not all our characters are likeable at the beginning of the book. As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to write characters who are less-than-perfect. How do you show readers that your hero or heroine are still worth their time, despite their faults?

This is the brilliance of the Boy Scout Moment.

While your heroine may not glimpse the hero’s heart of gold until later in the book, give your readers a quick peek. Here’s where you can peruse that 12 Point Scout Law again:

  1. Trustworthy
  2. Loyal
  3. Helpful
  4. Friendly
  5. Courteous
  6. Kind
  7. Obedient
  8. Cheerful
  9. Thrifty
  10. Brave
  11. Clean
  12. Reverent


Example: In my novel Crazy Little Thing Called Love, my heroine Vanessa doesn’t do close relationships. She’s good at saying hello and she’s good at saying goodbye — but she doesn’t know how to do all that comes in between those two words. And yes, there are reasons for that. I knew if I wasn’t careful, Vanessa could come across as distant, yes, even unlikeable, to my readers. At the beginning of the book they wouldn’t know all the reasons why Vanessa would seem closed off toward people. That unfolded as the story progressed. So I crafted a Boy Scout Moment for Vanessa where she helped out a single mom who she’d met during one of her shifts as a paramedic.

What kind of Boy Scout Moment could you give your hero or heroine? Could he look like a jerk to the heroine but prove himself to be trustworthy to someone else? (#1) Could she be loyal to her family by helping out a sibling? (#2) Could he continue to be courteous to his boss even though he’s seething inside? (#5) Or could she clean up a mess she didn’t make?  (#11)


[Tweet “The What and Why of Writing: The Boy Scout Moment via @bethvogt #writingtips “]





Fanning the Spark of Your Story Idea

Every story – be it a mystery or a YA or woman’s fiction – begins with a spark, an idea that ignites an author’s imagination. Fanning that spark into a full-blown novel requires the patience to pursue the idea to see if it flames into something vibrant. Or will your initial idea be smothered under the full weight of a story – theme, plot, character development, spiritual thread?

Mulling over concepts for my novels always begins with two key elements: a familiar topic and the question “What if?” For me, it’s the mental equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to create literary fire.

For my 2014 novel, Somebody Like You, I started off by focusing on a subject I’ve long wanted to write about: twins. I have a fraternal twin sister. Growing up, we looked nothing alike – she had dark hair and dark eyes and I was a tow-headed blond with hazel eyes. Identical or not, I do understand the dynamics of twins.

Next, I tossed the topic of twins up against the question “What if?” and that led to several days of mulling. My author internal dialogue went something like this:

What if I wrote a book about twins?

A lot of novels about twins are historical romances – and I write contemporary romance.

A lot of historical romance novels about twins have to do with twin sisters … and somehow one of the sisters changes places with the other sister.

Okay, so besides being set in contemporary times, I’ll mix it up and write about twin brothers.

What other topics or issues am I familiar with?

The military. (My husband was in the military for 24 years. I always identified myself as the civilian along for the ride.)

The military is a good topic – one that interests a wide range of readers. Okay. I could weave in a military angle.

 What if … what if … what if …

 What if a woman’s husband is a soldier killed in Afghanistan?

What if after he dies, his identical twin brother shows up – a brother she knows nothing about?

 And after mulling and praying and rubbing those two mental sticks together, I developed this pitch for my editors: Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection?

That single sentence reflected the sparks for my story: twins and the military. But it wasn’t the complete story. I had to fan the question so that it grew into an entire contemporary romance novel, including a young woman who was widowed when her army medic husband was killed in Afghanistan and twin brothers who were estranged for twelve years. Just as you carefully build a fire so you don’t bury the beginnings of the flames you’ve kindled, I had to structure my novel so it allowed the story to expand in a natural, real way – instead of smothering it.

Igniting a story spark is more of a controlled burn than a raging wildfire. As a writer, I’m wise to work within the boundaries of good storytelling. I want to discover a spark – a compelling idea – and then craft a book that will engage readers’ minds and hearts. Doing so takes time, careful effort, and attention to detail. I have to keep my focus on the fire – control it, without suffocating the heat, the passion – and convey all of power on the page.

What idea — personal interest or life experience — can you use to spark a story?