Monthly Archives: May 2022

How to Find the Conflict in a Story: Conflict Mapping and Other Writing Tips

One of the greatest challenges of writing better stories is knowing exactly which scenes to write. The best scenes focus on the core elements of conflict — which means before you can write amazing scenes, you have to find the central conflict in a story.

You may have a great story idea in your head. But the specifics of it — which moments to capture — are unclear. The result is often writer’s block, or a story that feels “off,” meaning it isn’t focused on the right stuff.

That’s where Conflict Mapping can make your writing even better!

Strong scenes come from strong plans. And visualizing the types of conflict between your characters is a great way to do just that.

When Conflict in a Story Is Unclear

Conflict is essential to a strong story.

To give zest to your plot and move it forward, you need to integrate a type of conflict in every scene.

This can be seen as a moral conflict that sparks an internal struggle, or a force of external conflicts that threaten a character in a physical or  other way.

Rarely does a story’s conflict magically appear in our minds. That’s because inspiration frequently comes from other sources: beauty, music, or situations. Rarely are we inspired by a focused sequence of events built around pursuing a goal (which is what a story is), because this tends to happen too quickly to note.

So when we sit down to write, we’re really just translating the image or idea we had into a word-picture.

Except those aren’t major conflicts.

I experienced this in 2012 when I decided to write a murder mystery about a family in New Orleans. My wife and I even went on vacation there, staying just outside the French Quarter.

And while we saw a lot of beautiful things, heard some amazing music, and came up with many interesting situations, strong story conflict did not come to us as we sweated our way through the city.

The beauty, music, and situations that inspire you to write are wonderful—but these alone are not the core conflicts of your story.

How can we translate inspiration and ideas into clear conflict in a story?

Simple: Start by drawing two circles.

Conflict Map: Drawing a Relationship

To begin your Conflict Map, draw two empty circles. Then, connect them with arcing arrows, like this:

Now, decide which two people are in a relationship in your story. You don’t need names. Just people. Mom and daughter? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Owner and dog? You decide. Just put something in there.

The point is that you are intentionally developing multiple characters in a a story, which gives you an opportunity to create conflict between people, particularly between one character and your protagonist.

Once you’ve done this, on the arrow extending from a character’s bubble, write what they want from the other character. It can be physical (preferable) or non-physical (okay — but add something physical to go with it, like “affection = hug”).

Then, consider what the other character might want from the first. Write it on their arrow.

As you do this, consider traits that might be essential to each character. Jot them in the circles. This is the time to create without any fear or reservations.

And to keep it fear-free, do it in pencil so you can erase and alter to your heart’s delight!

Create 4 Relationships

According to Robert McKee, there are four character types that nearly every protagonist has a relationship with in most stories. Whenever I’m building a new story in a new world, I find this to be a fantastic starting place, and it’s what I did as I built the world of my New Orleans play.

The four character types to fill first, as you plan, are:

  1. Friend: What one might want from a friend? What does the exchange of goals look like in friendship?
  2. Authority: How does this relationship create benevolent and/or negative energy?
  3. Love: How does the protagonist think of, and possibly plan to, pursue their love interest?
  4. Enemy: Who opposes the protagonist? Is it direct opposition (contradicting the protagonist’s goal), or competitive (pursing the same or a similar goal)?

Once you’ve established what the protagonist wants from each of these characters, draw arrows connecting the characters to each other. What might the Authority want from the Friend? The Friend from the Love? And so on.

Not only does this give you more characters to work with, but it plants the seeds for plenty of conflict that will blossom into strong scenes. When characters are engaged in authentic relationships, the conflict between them occurs more naturally. It doesn’t feel unclear, nor does it come out of nowhere.

So plan out two (or more) characters who want things from one another that cannot easily be given.

When you have characters in conflict, you have the makings of a strong story.

You can see my protagonist, Isabel’s, relationship with two of these characters below: the Friend (her adopted brother) and her Authority (her mother, Natasha). Note that I hadn’t figured out Andre’s goal, yet. This truly is a way to discover your protagonist’s “world!”

Add Goals and Go

When I was done with my Conflict Map, it was so big that my play couldn’t possibly contain all the characters and relationships. So I cut five of them!

Yet the map was invaluable for planning the relationships and conflict I would need to make the story work. It gave me the seeds of great, dramatic scenes.

And the result was a fun, thrilling play that surprised everyone with its authentic conflict.

There is one thing I didn’t do, though, that I highly recommend you do: Add action verbs to each character’s goal. There’s a big difference between an Enemy who chooses to “annihilate” to get their goal, versus one who “humiliates.”

My protagonist, a bride-to-be, chose to “soothe” her overbearing mother in order to get her goal of “genuine love and approval. The play would have been much different if she chose to blame, lie, or ignore. Verbs matter, and they can help you as you craft these crucial scenes.

You can check out a large view of my final map here. It’s a mess—four pieces of paper taped together and scanned into the computer in three batches.

Every Story Needs Conflict

Conflict is crucial in a plot and between characters and other forces, like the environment, that challenge the protagonist.

To help you come up with conflict, turn to your planning process. Remember, this is supposed to be messy, not a perfect, finished product. A well-executed plan can lead to a wonderful final product.

Whether or not the main conflict in your scene is internal conflict or minor characters blocking your protagonist and their pursuit of their scene goals, or other external obstacles standing in their way, engaging conflicts will advance a plot and keep your readers engaged.

To plan and implement conflict into your story, give Character Mapping a try. And watch as your story get stronger right away!

How do you find the conflict in a story? Let us know in the comments.

BY David Safford


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Responsibility for Others

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Being Responsible for Others

While some people crave being in charge of others, many shy away from it. The pressure of being responsible for someone else’s well-being, success, happiness, etc. can be so great that a character will actively avoid being put in this position.

A fear in this area could realistically develop out of a wounding event—whether the character failed when they were put in charge of someone or they were the one who was let down by the person responsible for them. Their reluctance can also stem from other fears, such as a fear of failure or letting others down.

What It Looks Like
Not having children
The character avoiding situations where they’re put in charge of children
Difficulty building deep relationships with others
Taking jobs that allow the character to work alone
Shifting responsibility for others onto someone else
Acting irresponsibly (to keep others from considering the character when someone needs care)
Avoiding leadership roles
Being neutral or apathetic about social and political issues (because if the character expresses concern or notices injustice, they’ll feel compelled to take action for those being mistreated)
Claiming that social problems aren’t real or are someone else’s problem
Claiming that people needing help are responsible for their own misfortune (so the character can avoid taking responsibility)
Selfishness (real or perceived)—because the character’s priority always seems to be themselves, their own needs and desires, etc.
Reluctance to get involved in a friend’s personal problems
Throwing money at problems (because it allows the character to help without getting personally involved and being responsible for individuals)
Staying busy with work, hobbies, personal pursuits, etc.

Common Internal Struggles
Seeing injustice and wanting it to end but being too afraid to take action
Wanting deeper connections but knowing that a certain level of responsibility for the other parties comes with it
Wishing to be less selfish but feeling powerless to change (because it has become an ingrained defense mechanism)
The character recognizing that they’re becoming irresponsible, self-serving, or superficial but also feeling that those traits are protecting them from harm
Being mired in feelings of inadequacy, incapability, and insecurity (because they believe they’re unable to responsibly care for others)
The character recognizing they’re being limited (professionally, socially, etc.) by this fear but not knowing how to change course
Wanting to eradicate the fear but being unable to get to the root of it—because they’re unwilling to face the past or the reasons behind the fear are complicated and hard to unravel

Flaws That May Emerge
Abrasive, Antisocial, Apathetic, Callous, Childish, Cynical, Disloyal, Evasive, Flaky, Frivolous, Inattentive, Irresponsible, Lazy, Self-Indulgent, Stingy, Suspicious, Uncooperative, Withdrawn, Workaholic

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being unable to pursue a dream career that requires being responsible for others
Having few deep relationships or many shallow ones
Not being able to have children (if this something the character would want)
Friction with friends and family members who don’t understand why the character won’t engage on a deeper level
Missing out on growth opportunities because the character is too scared to act
Having to avoid people who will ask more of the character than they’re willing to give

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Seeing firsthand injustice that requires a response
An emergency situation that requires the character to temporarily take charge of a friend’s child
A niece or nephew being orphaned, and the character being the only relative who can save them from foster care
Being offered a desirable professional opportunity that would put the character in charge of others
The character’s concerns about their inabilities being confirmed by a negative influence in their life
A family member needing long-term care for a physical or mental health issue.



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Writing Sprints: A Simple Exercise That Benefits Every Writer

How do you defeat procrastination, write more in less time, and do it with less struggle? Two words: writing sprints.

Word sprints are an amazing writing tool that you can use to improve your writing. Sprinting pushes you to write more words fast, by forcing you to start writing and ignore your inner editor.

They also get you to concentrate on one of the most important ways to improve your writing life: consistent practice.

With continuous practice, word sprints can even help you develop a writing habit that will empower you to write and actually finish a novel or a screenplay—and maybe even develop a career as a writer.

But what are writing sprints? And how can you use them effectively?

Writing Sprints Combat a Writer’s Fatal Enemy: Procrastination

I’ve taught thousands of people how to develop a writing practice that works, to use that practice to write more in less time, and to finish their best novels and memoirs. And recently, I developed a three-part series to help you write more (and better), too.

But out of the thousands of writers I’ve trained over the last ten plus years, most of them have struggled in their writing in some very predictable ways: things like procrastination, writer’s block, perfectionism, lack of ideas, and other things that make their writing a miserable experience, and ultimately keep them from finishing their projects.

And if I’m being completely honest, I also struggle with these writing pitfalls. I’m a professional writer, but writing has never come easy for me. Just ask my teachers growing up.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve also figured out a set of really simple tricks, writing routines, and practices that have enabled me—possibly the worst procrastinator you know—to write fifteen books, dozens of stories, and hundreds of articles.

One of these writing tips is writing sprints. Why?

Because sprints work. They’ll change your writing life—and impact your writing craft in immeasurable ways. If you do them right.

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Before a Sprint, Set An Intention

Before joining a writing buddy or your fellow sprinters for a writing sprint, pause for a second. Ask yourself, “Am I entering this sprint with a focus? Do I know what I’m going to write today?”

Even if you’re a pantser, you’ll have a more positive experience in a writing sprint if you set an intention for each sprint.

What  is an intention?

Studies on productivity and goal setting have consistently shown that when you set an intention, when you visualize what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and where you’re going to do it, you’re much more likely to actually accomplish your goal.

Think about that for your daily writing. What if you started each writing session not by just pulling out a blank page and starting to write, but instead by setting a clear intention on what you’re going to accomplish that day? How much could that change your writing?

Intentions could be as simple as:

  • A word count
  • A page count
  • A scene count
  • A certain amount of time writing
  • A sprint word count (amount of words in a sprint you want to meet)

To learn more about how to set an intention, sign up for my free writing practice.

But for now, just consider how participating in a writing sprint will feel even more rewarding if you set and meet your writing intention.

The thought feels good, doesn’t it?

Write Fast and Imperfectly

Most of your writing problems, whether it’s procrastination, writer’s block, or just not having fun with writing, come from perfectionism. Which sounds like a relief, right? Because then all you have to do is beat perfectionism, and you’ll be a productive writer!

Not quite. First, because perfectionism is incredibly tough to overcome.

After all, you want to write something great, something that will connect with millions of people, something that will inspire people like the books and stories you’ve loved have inspired you.

And so, perfectionism takes hold.

Writing sprints will help you reach your writing goals—and write better books. This post teaches you all about writing sprints and how to add them to your daily practice.

You write a sentence that doesn’t quite measure up to your standards, and then spend a few minutes fixing it. You finally move on to the next sentence, but that isn’t right either. And then, oh by the way, is your book idea itself right? Is it original? Is it inspired? Is it working at all?

Before you know it, you’ve been staring into the distance for an hour, or worse, scrolling through social media, and all you have to show for your writing time is two lousy sentences and a couple of a handful of likes that you gave on Instagram.

There has to be a better way, right?

Most writers have to overcome procrastination at some point in their career. They can be first time writers working on a first draft, or they can be seasoned writers with multiple bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list. They could rank high in Amazon for certain genre. It doesn’t matter.

Almost every writer, at some point, will have a moment where they’d rather do anything than write their book. Even it that itch is only temporary.

Luckily, there are writing tools to help you get around it.

The best way to do that is to write fast. Really fast. Like, as fast as you’re able, with no editing. This way your perfectionist brain never gets a chance to judge your writing bad.

That’s why writing sprints are so great. They don’t give you time to procrastinate. You have to focus.

You have to write. Now.

What is a Writing Sprint?

A sprint is when you set a timer and write as much as you can for that period of time without editing or doing anything else.

You can enter a sprint with a very specific focus, like a writing prompt. Or, you can use a sprint to add pages to your current WIP (work-in-progress).

You might join a sprinting group only for certain times of the year, like November for NaNoWriMo. Or you might find a tight-niche writing community that you meet each day on your lunch break. By the way, sprints are an amazing way to get you to write each day, even while working a full-time job.

And here’s the beauty of it—you choose how long you want your sprint to be. It could be twenty minutes, or even just a minute sprint. The point of the sprint is to get you to write: fast, and consistently.

Say, for instance, a writer wants to sprint for thirty minutes.

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This is how to use the spreadsheet:

  1. Set a timer. By the way, don’t use the timer on your phone, since this might distract you. Turn your phone notifications off. Use a timer on the microwave or oven—something not directly next to you. Or use a free timer on your computer like this.
  2. Get writing. Try to stay focused and not do anything else during that period. See how using a timer not on your phone will help with this?
  3. Stop when the timer goes off.
  4. Count how many words or pages you wrote. Don’t skip this step!

Let’s say I wrote three pages. I would write that down, and it’s great. Let’s say this means that I finished my word count goal that day. It’s rewarding and encouraging.

At the same time, if you want, you can keep going and see if you can write even more during your daily writing time.

How Long Should You Set Your Timer For?

There’s no perfect amount of time a writing sprint should last. It depends on how you’re feeling.

If you’re feeling really focused, you might choose to set your timer for thirty minutes or ten minutes or five minutes. Or take a note from the pomodoro method and set it for twenty-five minutes.

If you’re feeling really distracted or like you don’t want to write, you might set it for a shorter period.

For me, I often like to set my timer for just three minutes, because sometimes I’m so busy and so distracted that I only have three minutes of focus in me.

On top of that, I don’t always have much will-power, but I know that I always have three minutes of will power in me. So I set my timer for three minutes and write as quickly as I can.

What Happens When the Timer Goes Off?

Ding, ding! That’s it. Your timer goes off—but are you done? What should you do next?

This is my routine:

  • I stop.
  • I count my words or pages to see how I did.

Why do I track this? Because measuring your output is so important. What you measure gets managed.

Don’t forget to track your output after a writing sprint. This is important.

What you can measure, you can manage.

Notice that I didn’t suggest that you measure how good your writing is, or how your writing made you feel.

Instead, measure how many words you can write in a certain amount of time. This will allow you to track your progress.

Which only gets better the more sprints you complete—the more you practice your writing.

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What Should You Do After a Sprint?

You have two options: you can either decide to take a break or schedule the next time for your next sprint.

What you can’t do is go back and edit. That’s because we want to stay in our creative, productive, fast writing side of the brain. And editing will get us into our perfectionist, slow writing side of the brain.

Resist the urge to go back and edit until later.

Instead, if you feel like you’ve used up all the focus and willpower you have, take a break. You’ve earned it!

But chances are, now that you’ve started, you will probably want to write a little more. So then you can set the timer again, and it’s off to the races.

Once you finish two sprints, here’s where this gets really fun, because you can compare your score.

And so on.

Use Sprints to Prove Your Progress

After a few sprints, compare the worksheets you used to track your progress.

Say you write fifty words in the first sprint and 100 words in the next sprint. Well, maybe you can write 125 in the one after.

The focus can continuously be on beating your score, writing as much as you can as quickly as you can on the topic or chapter or story event that you’re working on for that day.

The benefit of this is that it brings the focus to tracking your words, not how good your writing is, which actually encourages you to write more—and the more you write, the better of a writer you’ll become.

The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Writing sprints will push you to write more, write faster, and eventually, become a stronger writer.

Believe it or not, it’s the people who don’t write much, who get stuck in perfectionism, that never become better writers. And it makes sense, because they’re not practicing writing.

But by focusing on quantity over quality, you actually can improve the quality of your writing faster than if you only focused on quality.

That’s why sprints are one of the best daily practices you can use in your writing, you might even call them the write practice. (Good one, right?)

So give that a try today!

Set your timer, write as fast as you can, count your words, and then, if you’re up for it, set your timer again. See if you can beat your previous score.

Do this alone or with your writing group. Regardless, get going with it and watch as you become a more productive and stronger writer.

Sprint away.

By doing this, you will not only accomplish your word count goals, you’ll be on your way to finishing your writing project—all while having more fun doing it.

Have you ever participated in a writing sprint? What did you like about it? Let us know in the comments.

By Joe Bunting


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Subterfuge in Dialogue

Dialogue—good dialogue—is tricky. Mechanics can be learned; the rules are readily available and are hammered into us by teachers, editors, critique partners, and countless Facebook memes. The hard part of writing good dialogue is nailing the back-and-forth, the natural ebb and flow that turns dialogue into convincing conversation.

This is the part that will make or break you with readers. They’re intimately familiar with conversation; it’s how they communicate, how they connect with others. So when a bit of dialogue falls flat or doesn’t ring true, it’s like an off-pitch violin sawing away in an otherwise harmonious orchestra.

So how do we make our characters’ discussions authentic? One way is to showcase what they’re hiding

In the real world, we’re rarely 100% honest in our communications with others.  It may not be conscious, but we’re always withholding something—hiding how we feel about a subject, suppressing information, agreeing with someone when in actuality we don’t agree with them at all…Much of the time, we’re only telling part of the truth. 

This will be true of your character, too, and for their dialogue to resonate with readers, you need to be able to show what’s being repressed. To discover this, you first need to know what the character is hoping to get out of the discussion. 

When a person engages in conversation, they do so with a certain objective in mind (even if it’s subconscious). When you identify that goal for your character, you’ll know what they’ll be likely to hold back. So ask yourself: Which of the following outcomes is my character trying to achieve with this conversation?

  • Connecting with others
  • Getting information
  • Giving information
  • Persuading someone to their way of thinking
  • Being affirmed or agreed with
  • Gaining an advantage
  • Being proven right
  • Getting attention
  • Gaining an ally or advantageous contact

Once you know what your character wants, it’s a matter of figuring out what they might be holding back during that exchange. Consider the usual suspects:


Feelings are largely what make us human. We connect emotionally with others, so being able to accurately communicate our feelings is important. But emotions also make us vulnerable, so in many scenarios, your character may think it’s in her best interest to mask what she’s feeling. If she’s attracted to someone, she may downplay that until she can see how the other person feels. Sadness is often perceived as weakness, so she might not be willing to put that on display. The same is true with fear. Personality also plays a part in how your character conveys emotion, so there’s a lot to consider when figuring out which feelings your character is likely to hide. 

COOL TOOL TIP: One tool to simplify this process is the One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder. This tool helps you explore all the important aspects of your character so you can be sure all their pieces fit together.

When it comes to hidden emotion, the Emotional Range section in the Behavior tab allows you to play with some vital pieces of information: Is your character reserved or demonstrative to begin with? What emotions are they uncomfortable expressing? What is the character in denial about (and is therefore unwilling or unable to access their true emotions)? What situation might cause them to overreact (possibly because it hits too close to home and touches on emotions they’d rather not share)? 

Questions like these provide insight into your character’s emotional range. They can help you determine which feelings your character is comfortable with and which ones she’s likely to whitewash. 


We all have opinions about stuff, and we like to share them. But we’re also social creatures, wanting to be accepted by others. Sometimes, those two desires are at cross purposes, meaning we can’t both share our opinions and connect with people. This is why your character might not be entirely forthcoming about his true beliefs at a job interview, on a first date, when he’s meeting his future in-laws, at church, or in any other situation where doing so could undermine his goal in that moment. 

COOL TOOL TIP: The Character Builder’s Family and General Life section (part of the Daily Life tab) contains tons of questions that could flush out their opinions—ones the character feels really strongly about and those they’d rather other people didn’t know:

  • How does the character feel about their job/school?
  • Who does the character despise?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • Are they religious?
  • What topics of conversation will get them riled up?
  • How does the character spend their free time?

Personality Traits

Strengths and weaknesses commingle to form our individual personalities: we’re patient but selfish, generous but impulsive, irresponsible but encouraging. Our strengths are easy to show off because they make us look good. 

But weaknesses? While everyone has them, we don’t want people to know what they are. So we hide the traits we deem as being less valuable, the ones that could hurt our standing with others. Maybe it’s a flaw that isn’t appreciated in society, like cruelty or intolerance. Perhaps it’s something an important person in our life doesn’t value, like a father who can’t stand indecisiveness or a grandparent who thought generous people were suckers. It may not be a conscious decision, but we all highlight our admirable traits and hide the ones that make us look bad. The same should be true of our characters.

COOL TOOL TIP: Figuring out your character’s flaws and attributes (and which ones they may want to downplay) is super easy with the Character Builder. Brainstorm the reasons behind their traits by examining past influences that may have caused them to form.

Then explore various traits to see how they’ll manifest and what emotions might be tied to them.


Rarely do we reveal everything we know. Communication very often is about the give and take of information, so unlike some of the other things we might hide, this one is usually more purposeful. Our characters should play their cards close to the vest, not sharing information that could hurt them, make them feel uncomfortable, or impede their goals. They may choose to hold an important tidbit back until they have a better feel for how the conversation is going or where the other person stands. Information is always currency; in dialogue, it should be doled out carefully and thoughtfully.

Knowing what your character wants out of a conversation and what he’s going to hide while engaging in it will help you write dialogue that rings true, because readers will see themselves in those ambiguous moments. Granted, there’s a knack to writing the inconsistency between your character’s words and what they really think or feel. That’s a post in and of itself. For now, this tip sheet has some great advice on how to write subterfuge in dialogue. (You can see all our tip sheets about various aspects of storytelling on the OSFW Tip Sheets page.)

What else might your characters hold back in their conversations?



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How to Prepare for Writing a Book: 4 Simple Steps You Can Do Now

You’ve been thinking about it for months, promising yourself that when it arrives you are finally going to knuckle down and write your manuscript. Then you realize, you have no idea how to prepare to write a book.

It doesn’t matter if you visit your favorite coffee shop or have the best book ideas in the world. If you don’t figure out your ideal writing process, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually finish your entire book.

If you want to be a successful writer, start your book writing process by evaluating your creative process and when and how you produce the best work.

This may seem overwhelming. Here’s the good news: You don’t have to just jump into it feet first.

There are things you can start doing right now to set yourself up for a solid writing routine and good actual writing that will do your rough draft (or final draft) justice

How to Prepare for Writing a Book: 4 Steps to Get You to the Finish Line

It’s near impossible to walk up to the start line of a marathon and run the race successfully. Doing something that difficult takes preparation.

Writing a novel in a hundred days is like running a marathon. If you want to do it successfully and not completely destroy yourself, you need to prepare for it.

Wondering how to prepare for writing a book? Here are four things you can do to get yourself ready for writing your novel:

1. Think Through Your Beginning, Middle, and End

I know many of us hate the idea of plotting out our books before we start writing. We like being free to go wherever the Muse takes us. We don’t want to spend a period of time on a mind map or chapter outline.

If I could offer a piece of advice:

If we give ourselves a hard deadline, we need to know how much distance we have to cover by that date. Understanding the direction and basic plot of our novel is a MUST before we start trying to write it in a tight time period.

Take some time think through your book. You don’t need to outline it in detail or use a special formula. You just need to get the basic ideas down.

Take a page out of many a bestselling author and other professional writers who plan before they write: A book plan can help them stay on track, which many writers need when writing on a deadline.

To help you get started with this plan, consider these questions:

  • What is your book genre? Are there any fresh ideas you can build on it that genre?
  • What is the big idea for your book? Can it withstand the length of an entire manuscript?
  • How does your book start?
  • What is the problem the characters have to solve?
  • What do you characters want? What’s stopping them?
  • How will you raise the stakes in the book?
  • What happens next? How will things escalate?
  • How does your story end?

Having a basic outline in your head will help give some direction to your writing so you can hit your deadline.

At the very least, I would encourage your to write a brief summary, or back cover copy for your book idea, if you don’t want to develop a detailed outline. And this goes for nonfiction books as well as fiction books.

2. Starting Writing a Little Now

Writing is like working out. The more we do it, the easier it is. And, just like working out, if we haven’t done it for a while and then jump right back into it, we are going to be sore and we might even hurt ourselves.

You don’t need to start writing at your 100 Day Book pace, but it wouldn’t hurt to get your writing muscles warmed up a little.

Try writing for a few hours two or three nights a week. That way when you sit down on the first day of 100 Day Book, or another deadline that you’ve set for your book draft, it isn’t the first time you’ve tried to run in months.

Here are some actionable steps you can take now to practice writing before you start your book: 

  • Pick a time of day that you can write for fifteen minutes and tackle on of our writing prompts.
  • Pull out your favorite book title, or think of a temporary title for your book idea. Now, write a scene that speaks to that title in some way.
  • Write a reaction paragraph to this story event: A person comes home to their house and finds the lock broken, the house trashed, and everything preserved but their treasured family heirloom.
  • Find a writing space that makes you feel energized. Clean it up if it is a disheveled environment, maybe even place two or three of your favorite books that have a powerful book cover design on your desk for inspiration. Then, put on some energizing music (preferably lyric-less music, if you’re like me) and spend ten minutes to write about what you’re grateful for today.
  • Find an accountability partner. Spend a bit of time one or two days a week to write together in a writing sprint.
  • Write a book review for the last book you read and loved. Concentrate on what really caught your attention.

3. Write a Few Short Stories With the Main Characters

The hardest thing for me to get right in a novel is each character’s voice. When I’m comfortable with a character’s voice, writing the character is like putting on an old sweatshirt. The character fits comfortably.

If I don’t spend time getting to know my characters, they all come out sounding the same.

One way to get comfortable with your characters is to write a few short stories with them as the protagonists. The stories don’t have to have anything to do with your novel.

Put your character in a coffee house and force him or her to deal with an angry barista. Have a cop give your character a parking ticket. Take your character on a terrible date.

Putting your character in a difficult situation will help you get to know your character’s voice so when it is time to start the book, you don’t need to spend time writing characters you are uncomfortable with.

4. Dream About Some Scenes

Before a novel really starts to flow, I need to get a few critical scenes in my head.

As I’m preparing to work on a book, for several weeks right before I fall asleep at night, I’ll intentionally try to imagine a scene from the book.

Ideally, I’ll spend the night dreaming about the scene, and then when I wake up in the morning I’m ready to write it. It doesn’t always work that way, but more often than not imaging scenes in this way makes them easier to write.

Before you jump into writing your novel, try journalling out some of the scenes you think you might want to include. Focus on the emotional flow of the scenes and character reactions.

You don’t need to write the scenes in full. Just let them start to play in your mind. Try watching the scenes like you are watching a movie. Then play the scenes out through different characters’ eyes.

If you have a few good scenes in your head, your writing will go faster.

Prepare to Write

Yes, you might not start writing your book until the 100 days begin in the 100 Day Book program begins, or whenever you’ve decided to start writing your book.

But you don’t have to show up to the 100 Day Book program unprepared.

Set yourself up for success by getting ready for the difficult task of writing a novel. When you have a writing method and strategy that works for you, you’re far more likely to reach your book writing goals.

This could be developing a chapter by chapter book outline, or just getting the bare bones down on a piece of paper.

And when you start, we’ll be here cheering for you!

Do you have tricks for how to prepare for writing a book? Share them in the comments.

By Jeff Elkins


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: A Secret Being Revealed

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

A Secret Being Revealed

You better believe your character has something to hide. Small indiscretions—cheating on a diet, lying to a loved one—are one thing, but big secrets have the ability to completely destroy your character. If they’re hiding a shame-based secret, one that is tied to who they are at their core, or something they believe could train-wreck their life (or someone else’s), the fear of it coming to light can push them to rearrange their existence around keeping it hidden, resulting in massive fallout in many areas of the character’s life.

What It Looks Like
Being evasive
Withdrawing from others
Claiming that events from the past happened differently than they actually did
Living in denial about what happened
Changing the subject when certain topics are broached
Deflecting—turning the attention off of themselves and onto someone else
Picking a fight about something else if someone is getting too close to the truth
Having relationships that only go to a certain depth, limiting their intimacy with others
Signs of nervousness or agitation in specific situations
Physical ailments, such as insomnia, incontinence, acid reflux, acne breakouts, etc.
Seeking treatment for anxiety, panic attacks, and emotional volatility
Staying busy (to avoid thinking about the secret)
Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
Engaging in risky behaviors
Discomfort and weirdness around people who know about the secret or were involved in it

Common Internal Struggles
Feeling guilty for not being honest with others
Knowing the secret should be shared but being too afraid of other people finding out
Obsessing over interactions with others to see if they might suspect the character of hiding something
Fighting to avoid thoughts about the secret; doing anything to keep from facing it
Engaging in unhealthy behaviors to cope, then feeling ashamed
Struggling with anxiety
Feeling unworthy or unlovable
Burying the secret so deep that the layers of coping mechanisms and lies the character has constructed make it difficult to address

Flaws That May Emerge
Addictive, Confrontational, Dishonest, Evasive, Flaky, Inflexible, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Nervous, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Reckless, Self-Destructive, Timid, Uncommunicative, Volatile, Worrywart

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being seen by others as dishonest, flaky, or evasive
Sabotaging relationships with people who get too close to the truth
Having to avoid certain people (because they share the secret, they’re nosy, etc.)
The character having to remember all the lies they’ve told and to whom
Difficulty remember past events clearly because the character has lied about them in different ways to different people
Suffering from a mental health condition brought on by the stress and anxiety
Being unable to pursue a hobby or occupation the character is passionate about (because the secret is tied to the character’s identity or it’s too close to the source of their secret)

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Someone saying something that makes the character think they might know what’s being hidden
The character being given an ultimatum by a spouse or partner that requires them to come clean
Encountering someone who knows about the secret or played a part in its genesis
Being blackmailed by someone threatening to go public with the secret
New evidence being found and the case being reopened (if the secret is related to a crime)
Attending therapy for an unrelated issue and the secret being unearthed in the character’s memory.


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4 Ways Your Protagonist Is Sabotaging You (And How to Fight Back)

By Marissa Graff

We love our protagonists. We spend a ridiculous amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears championing their stories. But what if they’re undermining us by behaving in ways that drive readers away? What if they’re not-so-secretly sabotaging us despite all our efforts to advocate for them? Let’s discuss four ways your protagonist is working against you and, more importantly, how you can fight back.

1. They’ve got a case of “chatty narrator syndrome”

Whether a book is in first-person point-of-view or third, narrators who talk at the reader beyond what is needed threaten to wreck your reader’s experience. With every word the character says to the reader, they’re stopping the flow of an active scene. They’re stealing work from your reader. They’re doing the analysis or overly controlling what your reader thinks or feels. They’re hovering like a helicopter parent and not allowing the reader the freedom to engage with the scenes and draw their own conclusions. And oftentimes, they’re pointing out the obvious and giving us way too much information.

Solution: Scrutinize each and every line of narration/interiority. Is what your character/narrator says to the reader something the reader can see through action and dialogue instead? Is it crucial information your reader needs for the scene to make sense? Is the line revealing something the character is hiding from other characters and something we might otherwise not know? If the line is needed, is it done as briefly as possible? When you look at any given scene, are these stops done sparingly so as to not hit the “scene brakes” too frequently?

2. They’ve booked a tour and your secondary characters are their guide

The protagonist is allowing other characters to show them around new settings–new towns, new planets, new schools, and so on. Your beloved character is along for the ride instead of driving the action. They go into the scene with no identifiable goal and follow the path that the other character(s) set before them. Don’t get me wrong. Mentor characters are a great way to world build and orient your character (and reader) with new settings and experiences. But be careful not to let these “tour” scenes effectively stop the plot. All “tour sites” need a purpose, whether it’s to glimpse a place your character will need to utilize later. Or to introduce a plot point that deepens the way the character understands the conflict or other characters or themselves. Or perhaps the new setting contains some sort of purpose. A need or a want the character is pursuing.

Solution: If another character is mentoring or guiding your protagonist, particularly in the first half of your story, craft tour stops that yield plot development or emotional development. Maybe a stop gives rise to a flashback we need to see, or introduces a character we need to meet, or hints at a location that will be relevant later. But as much as possible, find ways to let your protagonist hand-craft their tour. Where do they want to go and more importantly why? How does that setting or new character represent a need the protagonist has? Do they hold information or an object your character needs to keep working on their novel-length goal? Do they face an obstacle on that stop, one that has them pushing through and earning a win? Or one that thwarts them and forces them to reconfigure their plan? Be sure your protagonist is planning their own tour as much as possible.

3. They’re too good of a listener

One of the common concerns I see in client manuscripts is crafting the protagonist’s lines of dialogue in a way that allows other characters to teach them and pass along exposition. The lines are of the tell-me-more variety or even the wow-that’s-cool variety. These types of hollow lines allow the other characters to fill them in with how the world works, its history, and more. We may think this counts as an active scene because this exposition is hiding inside lines of dialogue, but it’s not. The reader can see this information dumping for what it is.

Solution: In any given scene, read your protagonist’s lines out loud and test them for conveying intent. Do their lines reflect a specific need they have? Their scene goal? Do the lines evoke an emotion beyond curiosity? Are their lines hiding how they really feel or what they think? Are the things they ask necessary to formulate a plan for their next action? If you’re feeling extra brave, have someone else read your dialogue to you. Nothing reveals weak dialogue like having to hear it yourself.

4. They’re swimming in a pool of self-pity

Your protagonist tells us how bad they have it. How messed up their situation is. They make sure we know all that they lack or they point out how someone else has it better. They are a victim and they know it. But research shows readers are turned off by self-pity. If the character is all-too-aware that they are a victim, the reader doesn’t want to identify with the character. They don’t want to see themselves in that self-pitying state. They don’t want to identify with them, which reduces the efficacy of the reading experience and the potential for emotional growth in the reader.

Solution: Allow the reader to see the protagonist’s situation for what it is or for who they are. Show their situation honestly through action and dialogue (scenes), but don’t let the narrator/protagonist point to pity. Instead, let their reactions to their circumstances hint at how they feel, how their situation is leading to a lack of what they need, and giving rise to reader empathy.

Comb through your work-in-progress and see if your protagonist might be guilty of these four efforts that undermine your efforts. Consider how you might revise in ways that have you regaining control of your story and the way your reader experiences it.

Can you think of other primary ways a protagonist might sabotage a story? Chime in!


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When You Feel Like a Hack

By Christina Delay

Recently I’ve been reading Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE trilogy. Yes, I know I’m behind the times, but OMG have you read these books yet?

I’m enjoying them immensely, both from a reader and a writer perspective. Mr. Sakey’s use of descriptors is like none other, and while I revel in his genius, it also makes me wonder what I’m doing writing.

Because I know I’ll never be able to write like him.

Has this ever happened to you? You think you’re doing great, then BAM an amazing book or author comes and slaps you upside the head with their talent or story or characters and suddenly, you’re not doing so great.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like a hack. It won’t be the last. And after the appropriate amount of self-pity and eating my feelings, I turn toward the tactics I know will help me regain some confidence.

Remember Your Brand

First, it helps to remember who you are as an author. What kind of stories do you write? Do they even fit in the genre of who you’re fanpersoning over? In Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE case, the trilogy is a police procedural with a sci-fi twist. And yeah. I don’t write that.

Second, consider your authorial voice. Is it a close match to the author who is unintentionally making you feel inferior? More than likely, not so. In fact, you may be enjoying the writing because it is so different from your voice.

Third, list your strengths. What are the things you really excel at in your stories? What are the things that readers or critique partners or contest judges call out again and again about your writing and your characters?

Pro tip: It really is okay to print these accolades and place them where you can see them. Writing is hard and sometimes, we need the reminder.

Take A Class

Feeling better yet?

If so, gently analyze what it is about the writing style that you so admire. For me, Mr. Sakey has a very natural way of dropping phrase twists that live within the character’s voice that are so well done that I have to go back and reread the little miracle I just read.

I’ve taken plenty of writing classes before, but perhaps I could use a refresher in cliche twists or character voice. Even if I’ve heard it all before, hearing the information again when I’m at a different point in my writing journey could reveal fresh insights.

What elements do you find yourself admiring in recent reads? I can almost guarantee that there’s a class or book for improving that skill.

Surround Yourself With Other Authors

The best cure I’ve found for the I’m-A-Hack feeling is to get around other authors. It’s one of the reasons I founded Cruising Writers. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve planned a new writing cruise next spring. Being with other authors not only gets the creative juices flowing, it also allows for your craft to grow by an exponential leap. (Also, this particular writing cruise will have Becca Syme teaching about Strengths for Writers and Kirsten Oliphant of Create If Writing teaching about marketing, so you know, it’s a good place to be.)

Sharing struggles and triumphs with authors who understand is one of the best ways to remember that you’re not a hack. Every creative goes through this cycle, and most authors feel that their craft isn’t good enough…yet. That’s important to keep in mind. The yet. It keeps us striving for the next level, and when we reach it, oh man, it’s brilliant.


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Change

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Change

Most people are averse to change at some level, and a certain amount of unease when it comes to change is normal. It only becomes a problem when a person is so determined to keeping things the same—possibly because they don’t want to give up control or are afraid of the unknown—that their quality of life is impacted, relationships are damaged, and they’re unable to grow and evolve in a healthy manner.

What It Looks Like
Dismissing new ideas without considering them
Humoring people; giving the appearance of considering something new but always rejecting the opportunity
Avoiding making decisions that require change (so the status quo can be protected)
Reacting emotionally rather than logically
Using outdated sources or ineffective arguments to make a point
Becoming emotionally activated when new ideas are being considered
Clinging tightly to “old school” methods: resisting technology, ignoring scientific advances, rejecting tools that deviate from what they’re used to, etc.
Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.)
Repairing and fixing material objects rather than replacing them
Living in the same house even when it’s falling apart or the property value has skyrocketed
Sticking close to home; not traveling far or taking long trips
Frequent strife with family members who want to make changes the character is resistant to
Resenting others for moving on and leaving the character behind
Going to extremes to avoid change (manipulating others, lying, being mean or lashing out at someone who is suggesting a change, etc.)
Being more interested in the past than the future

Common Internal Struggles
Disliking being left alone/behind but being unable to embrace the changes required to keep up with others
Feeling obsolete
Feeling selfish for being so unbending but not knowing how to be more flexible
Wanting to go back in time to when things were happier or simpler
Struggling with anxiety or depression
Feeling stuck in a situation but being unwilling to make changes

Flaws That May Emerge
Confrontational, Controlling, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Hostile, Ignorant, Inflexible, Irrational, Judgmental, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Possessive, Resentful, Stubborn, Uncooperative

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Staying in a situation that makes the character unhappy or is unhealthy because it’s preferable to facing the unknown
Difficulty making even small changes to a daily routine
Missing out on meaningful activities with others (a trip with friends, a family reunion, dinner at a friend’s house, etc.)
Becoming isolated from others
Difficulty utilizing modern advances that most people enjoy because the learning curve is too great
Always having to make excuses for turning down an opportunity
Avoiding people who are likely to suggest activities or changes that threaten the character
Always needing to do things their own way; resisting new methods or ideas that would make their life easier

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
New technology or processes at work that must be learned and used
A scenario requiring the character to move (the house being condemned, no longer being able to pay rent, etc.)
A spouse having to move into a retirement home, leaving the character on their own
Grown children moving across the country and asking the character to come with them
The culture shifting to embrace ideas the character disagrees with
Being given a new phone, a computer, or some other tool the character isn’t comfortable with but must learn to integrate into their life
The character’s children wanting to deviate from a long-held tradition



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One Quick Reason Readers Cheer For Unlikable Characters

By Lisa Hall Wilson

How do we get readers to cheer for unlikable characters? We cheer for anti-heroes and characters who are surly, have anger issues, and even questionable morals. Why? They all have one thing in common but it means we have go right back to the basics.

I came across this post from Writers Helping Writers on 10 Ways To Make Your Character Likable. You could do some of your own research into any of the methods mentioned there to strengthen your writing.

Locate The Main Story Thread

Sometimes we make things more complicated than they need to be, don’t we? I am prone to creating complicated plots with huge casts and then I get tangled up in my own fictional web. Most of the time, what I need to do is simplify. Get back to the basics and find the main story thread and pull on that. Which other story threads are unaffected by this central thread? Those unconnected threads have to go.

Creating a likable character is directly tied to this main story thread. When I read the above post, I agreed with everything there, but those techniques must be employed with a lot of art and subtlety. I like to go back to the basics first, and in the editing phase, add in some of those other techniques if I feel they’re needed.

So let’s get back to the basics.

What’s The One Quick Way To Create A Likable Character?

Some of the characters I have found hard to like would be: Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind), Clary Fairchild (Immortal Instruments), Jack Reacher, James Bond, Ross Poldark, Wolverine, Walter White (Breaking Bad), Bella Swan (Twilight)… I could go on.

Now, you may have loved some of those characters. There’s a lot of personal taste involved in this. I found these characters hard to like, but have wholeheartedly cheered for them at the same time (OK – maybe I didn’t cheer for Scarlett… Mostly I just wanted to smack her). How could I cheer on and root for characters I don’t actually like all that much?

They were the underdogs.

These are all characters who face what seem like insurmountable obstacles. They could turn tail and run and live happily ever after — take the easy road, but they chose the hard thing. They put their lives and hearts on the line because of something they believed to be right. I can cheer for that.

Think of the school-yard bully. This could be the most attractive, smartest, best-dressed kid in school, but you’re probably going to root for the little nerd who has no power, no influence, and no voice but stands up to the bully anyway because somebody has to. Because enough is enough. Because it’s the right thing to do.

“Turns out likability, or niceness, is often the least important factor in convincing a reader your character is worth his time…characters who ooze nothing but niceness are often saccharine, exasperating, and anything but charismatic. Think of a handful of the most memorable characters you’ve encountered in literature and film. I’m willing to bet a good-sized chunk of money that the characteristic that stands out most is not niceness. Rather, we connect with the characters who are interesting…Dichotomies drive fiction. When we write characters who are fighting both their circumstances and their own natures, we create characters who are instantly real. And, thus, instantly interesting.” K.M. Weiland.

Some Examples…

Katniss is a loner, at times irrational, romantically-stunted (in my opinion), and is often the author of her own misery. However, she steps up for her sister. She takes on President Snow and the Capitol because it’s the right thing to do even though she doesn’t seem to have much chance at all of succeeding. She goes out of her comfort zone and puts herself on the line for the good of others. I can cheer for that.

Wolverine is surly, has anger issues, is a loner, and you can’t count on him to stick around. However, against his better judgement he goes back and stands in for others. He can’t stand to see kids in danger or bullied. He takes the skills and gifts he has and he uses them for good. I can cheer for that even though I think he’d make a pretty lousy friend day to day.

James Bond. *shakes head* Where do I start? He’s an adrenaline junkie, a womanizer, takes irrational risks, is an alcoholic (probably), and likely has some kind of mental health issue (depression, manic — there’s something there). But he does whatever is necessary, even at great personal physical and emotional risk, to take down the bad guy. He’s often alone and because of that faces impossible odds. I can overlook a lot of traits I don’t like because I can cheer for what he chooses to stand up for.

Did the writers who crafted the above characters use any of the above-mentioned ten tips for creating likeable characters? Of course, they did. Wolverine, Clary, Katniss (and probably a few others too) have tragic backstories. They all have a save the cat (or pet the dog) moment at some point early in their stories and they all struggle with their own personal demons. But when you boil everything down to the basics (when you pull on the main story thread — the obstacle they face in the climax), they chose to stand up to the bully. They take on impossible odds to see right done.

Find the basic story thread and give it a tug — what is your character up against? Is it impossible? Put your character up against a situation, an obstacle, a villain, they have no realistic hope of overcoming. Your reader doesn’t have to like your character to cheer for them to win. Sometimes getting down to the basics is the easiest way to get unstuck!


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