Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Narrative Part 3 - The Hero's Journey

Now that you've chosen your cast of characters, it's time to choose a starting point for your story.  Stories are snapshots of time and experience, and rarely start "at the beginning."

Be careful about creating too much "back story," but it's all right to set the stage.  Who, what, where, and when are great questions to address in your setting.

Now, the hero is usually some regular guy - or gal, of course! - who really isn't looking do to anything particularly heroic.

But he wants something, or something is required of him, and he soon finds himself 'called to action.'  If you are thinking of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter, then you're on the right track!

The hero makes it on his own for a while, and it seems as though his objective might not be that hard to achieve after all.

But soon, the antagonist enters the picture, and suddenly the hero requires backup.  Enter a few allies.  (Samwise Gamgee, Han Solo, Ron and Hermione, for example.)

But unfortunately, the antagonist (Lord Whatshisname - the one with the giant eye; Darth Vader; Voldemort)  has allies, too.  (ring wraiths; stormtroopers; Helena Bonham Carter's hairdresser)

The hero and his companions overcome as many obstacles as possible, but it's getting increasingly difficult to do so.  We need more allies!  Let's get Strider, Princess Leia, and Dumbledore in on the action!

But wait!  The antagonist adds allies, too!  The evil white wizard, that ugly corrupt Emperor, and that rat-guy show up to cause trouble.

Struggle, struggle, battle, battle, overcome, overcome.

FINALLY, the hero emerges victorious, having conquered his foes.  His allies are rewarded, his enemies vanquished, and the hero himself is usually crowned king (or elevated above the status of a king).

That is essentially the hero's journey.  It also follows what is known as "narrative arc," so we won't spend a lot of time on that arc in this little series.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Narrative Part 2 - Protagonists Et Al

So now that you've decided what story you're going to tell, you need to narrow down your cast of characters. 

It's often easy to become sidetracked by the players who come and go in your story but who don't really do enough to move the action along to justify giving them much play. 

The questions you might ask yourself are: 
  • From whose point of view am I telling this story? 
  • Should the POV character (the one telling the story) be the same as the protagonist or 'star' of the story?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Is there an antagonist?  (Hint: Neither protagonist nor antagonist have to be people, but for beginning writers it's best if they are.)
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What does the antagonist do that prevents the protagonist from getting what he/she wants?
  • How does the protagonist overcome the obstacles placed in his/her way by the antagonist?
Can you see how it would be easy to add character after character, one for each time the protagonist tries to get closer to his/her goal?  They are important, these incidental characters, but they don't need more 'face' time than is necessary to carry the narrative.

Choose your hero, his enemy, and a few allies for both sides.  Your POV character might be one of these allies.  Or it could be a third-person narrative, where the POV comes from the narrator.  That's tricky writing, by the way, so again, for beginning writers try to choose a POV character who is likely to be on hand for most of the events in the story.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Narrative - Decide What Story You're Telling

Whenever I speak at writing or blogging events, my subject is almost always "Narrative Arc and the Writer's Voice."  I love helping writers tell the story they want to tell, and giving permission to just go for it to anyone hoping to write.

Over the next few days, I'm going to lay out a very basic tutorial in storytelling.  Make no mistake, however: there are dozens of ways to tell a story.  This is just one framework to use.

Decide What Story You're Telling

This may seem obvious, but often a story is really multiple stories, with multiple protagonists and antagonists, and multiple endings.  One evening, after a six-hour drive, my son became car-sick just as we pulled into the driveway of our destination.  We had arrived, but he couldn't contain his nausea one second longer!  As if that weren't enough, he vomited on the one person in the car who was not a member of the family.  That's right; he threw up on my son's friend, Tim.

Seems like a pretty simple (if not disgusting) story, right?  But everyone in that car experienced it differently.  There were seven of us, plus the parents of the victim, who came out to greet their son only to find him, er, somewhat befouled. This means there were at least nine different ways to tell that story.  And nine different endings. 

The victim, while taking the initial brunt of the assault, was able to walk away from the car, clean up, and essentially be finished with the experience.  His mother, however, had to decide what to do with those clothes (he was a teenage boy; he would have opted for 'barbecue.')

The rest of us were left in the car for a week of traveling.  I won't go into detail, but suffice to say, we all had a story to tell.

So in preparing to write your story, make sure you know what story you're telling.  Choose your main characters.  Outline a few essential details, including the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your story.  Get your chronology straight.  And decide where you think the story will end.  (Hint: One of the joys of writing is having a story take you some place you didn't expect, so don't be surprised if it ends differently than you anticipated.)

Tomorrow, we'll talk about heroes and journeys.  Journeys that, hopefully, end more cleanly than Tim's.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Write Words Weekend - Conference Style

I'm at a writers' conference this weekend! Learning so much about the craft and meeting so many wonderful people.

This means, however, that I'm going to postpone WWW until next week.  Beginning on Tuesday, I'll be posting a week-long series on narrative arc.  You don't want to miss this!  Seriously, it's going to be like the chocolate raspberry mousse cheesecake of tutorials on narrative arc.

Find a mom this weekend and give her a hug!  See you Tuesday!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Write Words Weekend

I've got change on the brain this week.  What is it about spring?  I learned a long time ago that I should never make a life decision in March, because I'm so tired of winter I just feel like tossing off old routines like all those layers of wool.

Does it mean anything that I got married twenty-six years ago -- in March?

Fortunately, we made that decision in August, so I think we're in the clear.

So this week, let's write about change. 

Spring Break
Old Friend

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Write Words Weekend

Kurt Vonnegut said - and I'm paraphrasing - that people love stories because they're filled with drama, passion, and extremes of emotion and experience.  And for the most part, life is not.  This, he said, is one reason that people create 'drama' where none exists.  They want their lives to be like stories.

I don't know if I completely agree with him, but there is no question that as writers we're often looking for the 'hook' that turns a simple narrative into a captivating story.

So this week, our Write Words are all about Story for Story's Sake.  If these words don't connect with something out of your real life experiences, then take a stab at some creative writing. 

After more than ten years as a writer of narrative non-fiction, I began writing a fiction novel.  It has taken me more than a year to get through the first draft, but I haven't had this much fun writing in a long time.

Explore a new kind of writing this week.  Really stir up the waters of that memory well, or tap into a different well altogether.  If you normally write personal essays, try Fantasy.  If you're most comfortable with introspective observations, go for something funny.  Accustomed to journalistic reporting?  Try your hand at poetry. 

Just get creative!  Tell us a story! 


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Write Friends

A moment with my dear friend, Annie Valentine:
Professional writer, excellent speaker, and closet wedding planner.

Writing can be a wonderful means of self-expression, an outlet for creativity, and a terrific way to earn a living.  

But it can also be isolating, which isn't always good for the writer or for their material.  Writers should take opportunities to get to know and associate with other writers.  Following blogs, attending conferences, joining writing groups in real-life and online - these are all ways to connect with others who share your interests and passions, and who know the joys and frustrations of the writer's life.

Some of my closest friends are people I've met through writing networks.  Pictured above is Annie Valentine, one of many talented writers I've met over the years.  Annie is a great ally and support, both in my efforts as a writer and in my non-writing life.  She even took over and put together my son's wedding reception!  (Believe me, that was a very, very good thing.  Until then, I was in charge.  I won't share the details, but if the words 'plastic table cloths' strike fear in your heart, you can see how Annie's intervention was timely.)

In a recent post about the importance of editing, I introduced you to Emily and Jenny. These are also people I've met through writing, and who have made a difference in the quality of my work as well as the quality of my life.

Jenny and Emily, panelists at a recent conference.

The list goes on and on. 

The importance of having relationships outside your writing life is also incredibly important, but that's a post for another time.  Today might be a good time to examine how your career, your skills, your productivity, and above all the quality of your life could be improved by having a few friends in the writing business.

If nothing else, you have me!  Whatever your questions, whatever encouragement or suggestions you're looking for to help you keep plugging away at your craft, you can bring to this web site, or to my e-mail.

And if you're in the market for a good wedding planner, have I got a writer for you!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Write Words Weekend - Late!

Goodness!  It's Saturday afternoon! And I've been doing important things like going to Costco and encouraging my daughter-in-law's efforts to overhaul my son's shoe collection.

But that's not why you signed in today.  You're ready for your next round of Write Words!

In the spirit of, well, today, here are your Write Words for this week:

Hot Dogs
Young Love

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Act of Courage

Jenny Proctor and Emily Poole

These two women changed my life.

How often do you get to say that about someone?  How often is it said about you?

Jenny Proctor and Emily Poole are sisters.  They are also fantastic writers.  In fact, Jenny's first book will soon be on shelves.

But as much as I have enjoyed their writing as well as their friendship, they really didn't earn the status of "life changing" until some time ago, when I was working on a collection of essays.

The essays in question were personal, and I was looking for editing help from writers - and people - I trusted.

Emily and Jenny took on the task of working as my editors.  And my writing life was forever changed.

I sent them work that I fully expected to be "rubber stamped" and declared ready for publication.  Instead, I received well-conceived critique, wonderful suggestions, and structural insights I never would have realized on my own.

At times, it was difficult to follow their suggestions.  There were moments when I looked at a page of line edits and wondered if I would ever find the right words, tell the story I wanted to tell, meet the expectations of my editing friends.  At one point, Emily highlighted an entire paragraph and said simply:  'I know you can write better than this.'  Gulp!  She may have known that about me, but I sure didn't!

I actually have a very clear memory of that moment.  I looked at what I had written, considered Emily's stated confidence in my abilities, and then metaphorically cracked my knuckles and went to work proving Emily right!

The more we worked together, the more enjoyable the process became for me.  And when a piece was finally determined to be 'finished,' I knew I had produced something I could be proud to put my name to.

These two women made me a better writer.

I know that it can be intimidating to put your 'brain child' out there for scrutiny and critique.  After all, you've labored over this work, you've loved it and hated it and wrestled it and tamed it. And now you're voluntarily allowing someone to take it apart and voice their opinions on how it could be improved.

Who subjects their 'children' to such tortures?

Good writers do, that's who. 

So, to those who are looking to get past their fears of the editorial process, I'm making an offer:  Send me something you've written - let's say 1,200 words or less - and I'll take you through your first experience with editing and critique free of charge. 

I want you to see for yourselves that this is an exciting way to transform the great ideas you've already put together into your strongest writing - writing you can be more proud of than you thought possible.

Send your work in the body of an e-mail to, and make the subject line "Free First-time Edit."

It's time to be brave.  You want to be published, and you know that this is a crucial step to realizing your dreams.

And who knows?  Maybe one day you'll put my photograph on your blog, and you'll tell your loyal, adoring fans, "See this lady?  She changed my life."

I could totally live with that!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Write Words Weekend

Welcome back! 

I hope you're discovering some great stories using our Write Words prompts!  There's nothing quite like having a story reveal itself to you.  Remember, you can use these prompts to tell your own story, someone else's story, or even create works of fiction.  If you want us to read your stories, be sure to come back here and leave a link to your site.

This week's Write Words are:

Penny Candy
Road Trip

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Write Words Weekend

Welcome back!  I hope you made good use of last week's Write Words.  I know it's always good for me to have to examine my stories in new and different ways.

If you're new to Write Words Weekend, you can find the information here.  But essentially, the idea is to take one, some, or all of the Write Words -- super-brief writing prompts -- and let them stir up whatever memories or creative concoctions they will.

And then, write, write, write!

When you complete a story, be sure to come back here and leave a link to your site, so we can pop over and read what you've created!

Ready for this week's Write Words?

OK.  This week we'll be thinking about...

Tennis shoes
Family car

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Keeping Your Writing Career on Track

If you follow writing blogs, Twitter feeds, or chat sites, you no doubt read about a writer named Jacqueline who, earlier this week, essentially torpedoed her career.

I'm not going to link; the entire thing was - to coin a phrase - a complete train wreck.  But the story goes like this:

Jacqueline is a self-published author whose book was reviewed by a man named 'Al.'  Al gave Jacqueline's book a number of compliments, noting the plot and characterizations as two positive elements of the book.  However, he also pointed out that there were a number of glaring errors which, in his opinion, made the book difficult to read.

He gave it two stars.

Jacqueline was unhappy with this review, something most of us understand.  It's difficult to receive negative feedback on something you've worked hard to produce.

Unfortunately, rather than vent to her friends or eat a gallon of ice cream - or better yet, revisit her work and ask herself if any of what Al the Reviewer had to say had merit - Jacqueline went onto the site as a commenter and had such a tantrum the comment stream went viral. 

It was such a disaster. 

Now, I don't know what will happen with Jacqueline.  Charlie Sheen has demonstrated that even the most outrageous of public meltdowns may not necessarily mean a career is over.  And while at first I was disgusted by Jacqueline's behavior, by the time I read to the end of the blog's comments I was genuinely concerned about her mental stability.  I hope she gets whatever help she needs, personally and professionally.

I have a few reasons for bringing up poor Jacqueline's derailment.  These are lessons that I thought I knew already, but which were brought home by this event:
  1. Writing is really hard.  Even when you're good at it, it's something that almost always requires help.  I've talked here about the value of a good proofreader.
  2. Good editors are worth their weight in gold, and they come into the picture with the same goal as the writer:  Bring out the writer's very best work.  Don't be afraid of editing!
  3. In this 'virtual' world, it's easy for the critics to become vicious.  Hiding behind anonymous comments and shredding the work of another has become "entertainment" for some.  The solution is NOT for those capable of being hurt to get out of the game.  It's for those who egg on the wolf pack to reconnect with their humanity.
  4. Having said that, however, it's important to understand the difference between critique and criticism.  The first is intended to lead to positive changes; the second is more likely to discourage change.
  5. If you put your work out there for critique - and that's what you get - you must accept it professionally.  There were a hundred ways in which Jacqueline could have expressed her frustration with the reviewer without making her feelings public.
  6. For that matter, your response to someone who is, in fact, criticizing your work should still be professional and courteous.  There were a number of people on the comment thread who said, "I was actually going to buy her book to see if I agreed with the review.  But after reading the author's response, I think I'll pass."  So sad.
I like to think that in the end, the Three Ps of Receiving Feedback - Pleasant, Positive, Professional - will yield great dividends.

Never forget that everyone on the other side of that computer screen, e-reader, or paperback is a real person. 

Are they on board with you?  Or are they hoping you'll jump the track?

Hey!  Don't forget to post links to your stories from this week's Write Words prompts in the comments section over here! 

Image courtesy Simon Howden

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Write Words Weekend

Image courtesy of graur codrin.

"I would love to write.  I just don't know what I'd write about." 

I can't tell you how many times I've heard those words.  And for a while, I couldn't understand how someone could both 'want to write' and 'not know what to write about.'

Then I started blogging, and soon I developed a following.  Suddenly, I had readers - readers with expectations that I write well and frequently - and on more than one occasion I found myself thinking those very same words!

Every writer knows what it's like to stare at a blank screen and not know where to start.  You may even know part of what you want to write - you know your subject, for example - but the words, the ideas, just won't come.
Welcome to "Write Words Weekends."

Every Saturday morning, I'll post a few 'write words' on this site.  These words are intended to get you thinking about your stories, your message, in new ways.

These are writing prompts, but without the 'writing prompt' structure.  For example, instead of saying, "Write about a time when...," I might put up a list with the words "shoes," "understanding," and "birthday."

Then, over the weekend, imagine yourself lowering one or more of the 'write words' into your memory well.  At some point, you'll likely feel a 'tug,' and when you draw the word up again, it will come filled with a story.

The goal of "Write Words" is simple:  Get writers writing.  Sometimes the 'write word' will remind you of a person or experience.  Other times, you may already have a subject in mind - you're writing about your relationship with your father, for example - and the 'write word' "birthday" brings up a memory of a special birthday spent with your dad.  Or the first time you celebrated a birthday while you were in college.  Or that first difficult birthday of his which came after he passed away.

"Write Words" bring up stories in ways that more structured writing prompts sometimes don't.  Please understand, I'm in favor of any word, sentence, conversation, billboard, or t-shirt that inspires a writer to produce a new story!  Just add "Write Words Weekends" to your resource list when the well seems to be running a litle dry.

Here's how it will work:
  1. Look over the write words list.  Write them down on something you can see, like a large sticky note.
  2. Lower the cup of write words into your memory well. That just means "think about them for a little while."
  3. Find a memory or even a fictional story through the use of any or all of the write words and pull it up out of the well.
  4. Now write and write and write.  Write while the memory is fresh and vivid and dancing through your mind.  Don't worry about grammar, spelling, chronology, or anything beyond just drawing out that story and taking a good hard look at it.
  5. When you've landed your story, then you can start revising.  If you need help from me in editing or proofreading, well, you know where to find me.
  6. As you finish your stories, you may post links to your stories along with one or two brief sentences describing your story in the 'comments' section of the corresponding Write Words post.
  7. Readers can then click over to your website to read your story and offer positive observations and critique of your work.
  8. I hereby relinquish copyright to all posts written by Write Words contributors. Remember to add the words "copyright <your name> all rights reserved" on your own work, at your own site.
This is all about you, the writer.

Ready?  Pencils up, laptops on, memory wells open!  Your first Write Words are:

Kitchen table

Sunday afternoons



All right?  Then, ALL WRITE!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Proofreader: A Writer's BFF

She's saying, "If only you had let me proofread this
before you published it in this big, fat book."

Ten years ago, I self-published my first book, "The Accidental Gringo."  It was a little thing, maybe 115 pages, but I read and re-read every word so many times it took up encyclopedic quantities of my brain.

At one point, I thought, "You know, I bet I've got entire chapters of this thing memorized."  I was probably right, too. 

Gosh, I sure was proud of how thorough I had been fine-tuning that book.

Now, if that moment were a scene in a movie, the low strings on the soundtrack would start some ominous ostinato and everyone in the audience would brace themselves for the guy in the hockey mask to come at the poor, arrogant author with a band saw. 

(Band saw?  Maybe I should Google carpentry tools.  Or see more horror films.) 

Confident that there couldn't be even a hint of an error in my manuscript (not after all that memorizing, right?) I sent it off to the printers.  

Imagine my dismay, then, when I opened the box, pulled out a copy of my beautiful new book, and found that somewhere in the 80-page neighborhood an entire sentence had been printed twice!  

How was that possible?  I had worked so hard to guarantee that this very thing wouldn't happen!

At first I blamed the printer.  It had to be someone on their end, sabotaging my efforts!

Then I checked my own file copy, and sure enough, there it was - the punchline to an otherwise hilarious paragraph, completely un-funnied by poor editing.  As a humor writer, I was not amused.

All that reading, all that 'memorizing' had made me blind to a glaring error.  I simply did not see the duplicate sentence. 

There were other problems with the book.  The type font was cute, which meant it was amateur looking and at times made reading difficult.  There were one or two homonyms that flew under the spell-check radar.  There were even certain references that, while clear to me, were confusing to my friends.

That was when I realized that having a proofreader look over your work is absolutely essential to producing a quality product.  Whether you are planning to publish your writing yourself, or are hoping to attract the attention of an agent or publishing house, having a second or even third pair of eyes go over your manuscript can often mean the difference between grabbing your readers' interest and bringing them back for more, or being written off as an inexperienced newbie.

The good news / bad news for writers today is that there are so many options available for seeing our words in print.  It's good news, of course, because writers write to be read.  And it's bad news because it's so easy for an audience to wander away after just a few minutes or even seconds, before we writers have really had a chance to prove ourselves.

This means it's more important than ever to be open to proofreading, editing, even critique of our work.  Look at professional athletes, at the top of their game.  And right behind them, shouting instructions and offering corrections to their already nearly-flawless technique, are their coaches.

Every one of us can improve!  And writers of all backgrounds can start by letting others proofread their work.

Top image courtesy of

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Version of 'Swag' - A Thank You to BBC-ers

What's inside? A great big THANKS!

Hey, Bloggy Boot Campers!  I came home from San Diego fired up to get my web site up and running, and it's finally here!  And since a big part of that enthusiasm came from YOUR encouragement and support - that's right, I saw those nice things you were Tweeting! - I wanted to send out a big Thank You, and offer you the closest thing a writer has to 'swag.'

I would be happy to look over your blog for content suggestions, or to read and offer feedback on something you've written, or do any one thing you see here at my site.  If you live in Las Vegas, that even includes speaking to your group, team, or class about writing!

Just send me an e-mail at, and put "BBC Swag" in the subject line.  Then tell me how I can help you with your writing or blog content, and I'll do it!

This offer ends April 15, so act quickly!  We can continue working on your project past April 15, but that's the date I'll pull this post from my site.
  • Please keep blog posts, essays, or short stories to under 1,500 words, and include them either in the body of the email or as attachments that can be opened with Microsoft Word 2010. 
  • If you're looking for line editing of a book or collection of stories, I'll do up to 5 pages - double spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman.  Send these as an attachment that can be opened with Microsoft Word 2010.
  • If you'd like content evaluation on your web site, please include any concerns you already have.
  • Copywriting services: I can provide up to 500 words of content for anything you need - a brochure, a home-page blog post, etc.  I can also proof read what you already have.
  • Speaking:  I will travel up to 30 miles from my home in NW Las Vegas, and can speak for 30 minutes on the same subject I presented at BBC.  I'll even bring that groovy power point!
  • Guest posting:  I would also be happy to do a 500 word guest post on your blog on the subject of writing, journaling, blogging, story telling, and so forth.
It was awesome meeting you all!  I can't wait to hear from you!

image courtesy Salvatore Vuono

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Does My Business Need Social Media?

What's everyone talking about?  It's time to find out!

Ask yourself this question:  When was the last time I pulled out the Yellow Pages to look for a business?

Chances are, if you need a plumber, or a caterer, or a realtor, you go looking for them on the internet.  Whether you're using big search engines like Google, or you're simply sending an e-mail to your friends, one way or another you're using Social Media to find what you're looking for.

"Social Media" is simply a term that means "How we communicate online."  And 21st century consumers who want to communicate with you are likely to do it through some form of Social Media.

For a lot of business owners, this is a daunting and perhaps overwhelming reality.  "I own a great restaurant!  People love my food!  Isn't that enough?"

Well, unless your restaurant is one of the lucky few that thrives strictly by word-of-mouth (pun not necessarily intended) then the answer is probably, "No.  It's not enough at all."  The economy is tough, competition is tight, and every customer counts.

That's where Social Media can make a huge difference in alerting potential clients to the existence of your business.  And if you're far too busy keeping that restaurant cooking to update your web site or professional Facebook accounts, then what you need is a Social Media Manager.

We do that here at DeNae Handy:PWS.  Click on the copywriting/social media tab up at the top of this page to learn more, or fill out our "Let's Get Started" form. 

Don't panic; this doesn't obligate you to anything.  It's just a good way to see if the Social Media Management services we offer will help your business grow.

Can't wait to hear from you!

Image courtesy of jscreationzs

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Just What is Professional Copywriting, Anyway?

Look through your mail.  Peruse a newspaper ad.  Read the latest updates on your favorite web site.  Ever wonder where all those words came from? 

It's likely they were written by a professional copywriter. 

Copywriters are writers who often work behind the scenes, providing the written content for everything from professional web sites to non-profit fundraising literature.

The word "copywrite" is different from "copyright;" the first has to do with actual writing, the second is about retaining the 'rights' to a given work.

So how can a copywriter help you?

Let's say you're a home builder, and a really good one at that.  You want potential home buyers or real estate developers to know about you, but while you're a master craftsman when it comes to construction, your expertise doesn't necessarily extend to creative writing.

That's where the professional copywriter comes in.  A copywriter can put together promotional literature, add content to your web site, communicate with clients - essentially add the "tell" to your "show."

Suddenly everyone knows where to find a fantastic home builder.  You're getting contract after contract!  Your name is becoming, quite literally, a household word! 

And a copywriter helped make that happen.  How?  She told them all about you!

I can't build houses.  I can't bake gourmet cupcakes.  I can't pour concrete, or landscape a golf course, or run an interior design firm.

But I can write about all of them! 

And as a professional copywriter, that's exactly what I do.