Start your book right–keep them up all night!

I’m up at my writing retreat in northern Minnesota this week working hard on the final edits and proofing a book due Friday. (It’s book #5 in my Montana Rescue series. Book #3—A Matter of Trust hits the shelves in a week!)

The first thing I always do in my final pass is make sure the first chapter has done its work. Writing a first chapter is soooo challenging because it must do the work of launching your external plot, creating a connection between your reader and your character, attracting the attention of the reader, igniting the internal plot and wooing the reader with your voice. (and, you must make the reader worry enough about the problem raised in chapter one to turn to chapter two!)

That’s a TON of work for poor chapter one. But if you do it right, you’ll create a book that keeps readers up all night.

Unfortunately, we often write chapter one first—before we really know our character, our plot, and before our voice has had a chance to warm up. That’s why I always go back and rewrite it last, after the book is finished. It might end up very much the same as when I started…or I might scrap it and rewrite it knowing what I know now.

Last week, and for the next two weeks, we’re taking first scenes in our weekly Novel.Academy peptalk. We’re going through a series entitled Extreme Book Makeover, where we learn how to root out problems, and then learn tools to fix them. We then follow up with a couple weeks of feedback on submitted scenes.

What are some symptoms of weak first scenes?

  • The scene doesn’t raise interest…there’s no danger or intrigue that arrests our emotional interest or adrenaline)
  • The lead character isn’t likable—meaning he/she isn’t heroic or sympathetic
  • There is no hint at long term trouble, and therefore, no reason to keep reading (in other words; Stakes)
  • We don’t know where we are…lack of storyworld (really, this is important!)
  • Too much pipe…Meaning, we are taking WAY too long to get into the scene (this is usually a backstory dump problem).

I find it easier, as I’m editing, and rewriting, to start by asking myself big questions. I’ll dig down into the words later. Here are some of the questions I ask myself:

  • Does my first line pique a reader’s interest?
  • Do I have a mental picture of the character and what he/she does?
  • Would I want to spend time with this person, or at least learn more about them?
  • Can I relate to their current problem?
  • Do I know where I am? (and when?)
  • Do I have enough dialogue for my character to come to life for the reader?
  • Am I worried about my character when the scene ends?

Are you working on first scene today? Remember, how well our reader connects with and cares about your character determines the success of a story.

Your story matters. Go! Write something brilliant.

Susie May

P.S If you’re struggling with how to overhaul your story, you might want to check out our Extreme Book Makeover series in Novel.Academy. Along with overhauling your plot, characters and scenes, we also have classes on how to get that book published (along with over a 100 hours of classes on craft, industry, indie publishing and much much more.) Learn more at Novel.Academy.

Rainy Days and Mondays

It is 56 degrees in Minneapolis today. And raining.

Here’s a glimpse of my gloomy backyard.

But…all is well because I’m leaving in two days for sunny Destin, Florida, for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat. This year, again, we have a full house, and about half of our retreaters are repeaters (say that fast five times!) Why? Because although we change up the retreat classes every year, we always offer the same essential content: Encouragement. Brainstorming. Fellowship. And, most of all, a clear path to plotting your novel.

We watch and dissect movies. We read passages from books and discuss why they work (or don’t) and we brainstorm everyone’s story from the inside-out, putting their plots on giant pieces of paper (like these).

Our goal is to give people tools to help them build brilliant books.

Our biggest tool is The Story Equation. It’s a cool technique that I developed, with the help of my writing partner, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hauck to help get the story on the page.

Randy Ingermanson, author of the Snowflake Method and Fiction for Dummies called it pure genius. And my writing heroine, Francine Rivers said she wished she’d learned this method years ago.

Yes, I’m flattered, but mostly I’m just super happy that it works. That it takes the complicated process of storycrafting and drills it down to the bones, makes the process logical and organic.

And did I mention, fun?

Frankly, although storycrafting is hard work, my favorite part about the Deep Thinker’s Retreat is the fun we have together as we bring a story to life, watch it emerge from the dark corners of our brains and onto the page.

I remember, years ago, when I was starting this writing gig, I said to myself, “Suz, if you want to make a career out of this, you need to figure out a way to write a brilliant book, every time, on deadline. A system, a plan, a technique, a process.” Now 54 books later, I use the SEQ for every single book. Meet every single deadline. And write stories that readers enjoy.

What is your process? Your method? How do you get the story on the page, meet your deadline and build a career even when life feels gloomy? Whether you use something like the SEQ, or a combination of many great techniques (e.g Randy’s Snowflake Method, which is a super way to get started!) (or James Scott Bell’s LOCK method) you need to develop something to help you write consistently excellent books.

(And it helps to get away with friends who understand this method brainstorm, too!)

So, my encouragement for you today is figure out YOUR method. Your process. Develop it, hone it, master it. Make it work for you even when the muse is tucked under a blanket, refusing to emerge.

Your story matters. Go, write something brilliant!

Susie May

P.S. If you’d like to check out the SEQ method, you can pick up the book here:

And, by the way we have a mini-course that teaches the SEQwith 2 free lessons to get you started!

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?

A Storycrafting Checklist

storycrafting checklist

Do you have all the pieces of a brilliant novel?  Before we dive into our storycrafting checklist, let’s talk about the debate between character driven and plot driven novels.

Character Drive versus Plot Driven Novel

Think of the last story you read, the last great movie you watched. Even your favorite television series. Were you more interested in the plot or the person? I would bet that the element that drew you into the story were the characters.

Let’s think about this. Plot is interesting, but not unless it is about someone we care about. A fantastic example is the Hunger Games. The plot construction and premise is fantastic–a dystopian world where one District makes the other Districts pay for their rebellion (and earn their food allotment) but making two champions from each district fight for their survival. Interesting and tragic, but not compelling until a champion rises. And not just one champion, but two–one who loves the other, and both who choose to defy the system and inadvertently start a revolution toward freedom.

The Hunger Games are interesting, but it’s the compelling fight for survival of our champions that makes this book (and series) riveting.

Another great example of this is the Firefly series, a sci-fi series about a renegade smuggler who is just trying to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. As the series progresses, we care about Mal and his crew as they struggle to stay alive and save the life of a girl who is on the run. When they encounter peril, we dive in and care because we want Mal and his crew to live.

The key to this series, however, is that we understand Mal, the captain’s past, and what drives him, the wounds he carries, his greatest fears and his great loyalty to his crew. We also know that this group of people has survived a war together. Without this insight, we’d simply think, “Here’s another space adventure.” This is the point of a great television series–the people we care about.

So, there is really no such thing as a plot-only driven book. All books are about characters.  Your plot just serves to push your character forward. You can have some powerful, intriguing external stakes, but a brilliant story is always about the people that are involved in those things.


Overview of Story

A great story, summed us, is about a character that we care about who wants something for good reason. This character is driven by some sort of dark event in their past that has molded them into the person they are when they walk onto the page.

This character also has a fear about something which they’re trying to stay away from while they’re going about their normal life.

Then, something happens. This something (called the Trigger, or the Inciting Incident) creates a compelling dilemma that they must solve. Either to put right what went wrong, or to pursue something positive that is now necessary. This is called the Noble Quest–a worthy, justifiable goal. Restated, they either have something negative that happens and they need to pursue a positive outcome or they have something positive that happens and they want to keep that positive outcome.

The Noble Quest also gives rise to a secret desire. It’s that deep want, sparked by their greatest dream that starts to fuel the Noble Quest. The Noble Quest is always shown through an external goal. However, it’s driven by that internal desire.

Thus, they launch on their “journey,” either physical or metaphorical. While the journey has an external, physical goal, the journey itself–the entire story, is about character growth. The story is not about how they achieve their Noble Quest, but rather how the Noble Quest sets the character free of their fears, heals their flaws and gives the character their secret desire.

The Noble Quest reaches its apex toward the end in Black Moment Event–or the realization of their Greatest Fears. As a result of this event, the character experiences a Black Moment Effect–or the realization of their need to change. This effect drives them to their metaphorical knees where they experience an Epiphany, or realization of the point of their journey, some universal TRUTH that sets them free, changes them and gives them the tools to do something at the end they couldn’t at the beginning, sometimes called the Grand Gesture or Sacrifice.

If your character hasn’t had a black moment, an epiphany and a character change, then they haven’t completed their journey.

Figuring out how to construct this internal character change against the backdrop of external goals can, admittedly be overwhelming.

Or not, if you take it apart, piece by piece.

Or, you start at the beginning, the Character Bio, or Dark Moment Story.

This is the center of your story equation.


We’ll dive into the Dark Moment Story next week, but for now, ask yourself: Does your character have a true journey?

Here’s a checklist:

  • Does your character have a powerful motivation for their Noble Quest?
  • Does he/she have an external goal, something tangible that he/she is “questing” after?
  • Is it propelled by a Secret Desire or Greatest Dream?
  • Does your character have a greatest fear?
  • Does your story have a Black Moment Event, or the realization of that greatest fear (often the antithesis of the Noble Quest).
  • What does your character realize about himself/herself after that Black Moment Event, or a lie they believe?
  • What Truth (Epiphany) sets them free?
  • Can your character do something at the end that he can’t in the beginning?  (A Grand Gesture or Sacrifice?)

If you can say yes to all of these elements, then you have the bones of a brilliant story.  Stop back next week and I’ll teach you how to develop that brilliant story from the inside-out.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!





(P.S – Wanna learn my secrets?  How to Write a Brilliant Novel!  Only $4.99 on Kindle!)