I never thought I used actual people in my short stories and novels, but a few readers claim to “recognize” someone. That always surprises me.

Then I decided to use one woman’s particular circumstances and ended up using some of her personality in the character in my novel, A Broken Life, and even her dog. She loved it. Thank goodness.

A friend gave me a tee shirt that said, “I’m A Writer. Everything you Say or Do may end up in my Novel.” Next thing I knew, people were staring at my chest, then smiling.

Anyway, finally, a stranger said, “So, I’m going to be in your next novel?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Thank you very much.”

She laughed. As she walked away, I asked, “What’s your name?”

She laughed harder. Thank goodness.

This led me to a hunt for other tee shirts for writers. They’re everywhere! Amazon. Café Press. Zazzle.

“I’m a writer. What’s your superpower?

“Save a writer. Buy a book.”

“I’m a writer. (No, really.)”

“Writer’s block. When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”

Anyway, putting real people you know in a novel can be explosive. Pat Conway said: “When The Great Santini came out, the book roared through my family like a nuclear device. My father hated it; my grandparents hated it; my aunts and uncles hated it; my cousins who adore my father thought I was a psychopath for writing it; and rumor has it that my mother gave it to the judge in her divorce case and said, “It’s all there. Everything you need to know.”

But what Anne Lamont said should probably be on a tee shirt you wear right after a new novel or short story comes out using real people as templates: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

So there.

What I really want is the mug that says, “Go away. I’m reading.”








I write “by the seat of my pants.” If I outline, which I dislike doing in the first place, I lose interest in writing the story–it’s like reading a book for the second time immediately after you just read it for the first time.


But I’ve found out after writing several novels, that there are some tricks that can help me with both character AND plot.

So, what I do now is think of several characters and start writing. After one or two chapters, I probably know what they do for a living, what they look like and some tiny bit about their personalities.

But I need more. I need to know their secrets. The sooner I know their secrets, the more I can ratchet up the conflict and tension for them. Because of course, they don’t want anyone else to know their secrets, so they’ll often do things than are unreasonable to keep them.


Each character also needs to be motivated by something. And then I have the fun of putting obstacles in her way to creative tension and conflict here, too.

So, two important ways to help yourself have interesting characters your readers will care about is to give each one (even many of the minor characters) a secret or two, and something they want badly.  If could be that what they want badly is to hide their secret.

It’s up to you when to divulge the secrets. Often it’s best to wait awhile to do that, but other times it’s good for the reader to know almost right away because it explains why the character acts as she does. And it’s always delicious, isn’t it, to be in on other people’s secrets?


Here are some ideas I gave another writer who asked how to cut down a piece that is too long for today’s market.

 tango edit cut by warszawianka -

How many characters does it have? Can any be combined into one character to do the job? Or cut entirely?

How many subplots does it have? For a novel over 90,000 words, probably too many. For a short story, zero is the correct answer almost one hundred percent of the time. (I’m talking about the average short story which is between about six and six thousand words.)

Is it too heavy on description–in today’s market, short is better, especially for short stories. Three lines maximum is often suggested as a good rule-of-thumb, but if you do fabulous descriptions, of course, you don’t want to limit yourself this way. Do be careful when writing short stories, though, not to have too many. Frequent readers usually expect short stories to be full of character and plot and little else, unless you’re writing literary fiction.

After looking at the big picture, you can go in and look at each sentence. Is it pulling its weight? Look for trailing phrases that can be cut. Often the words at the ends of sentences mean little or are redundant or obvious.

Next look at excess words, mostly modifiers, making the words they modify as strong as you can.

And if you’re done and still not down to where you need to be, either get someone who’s published to look it over and make suggestions, or hire a professional editor to do the job. Or both.


Many readers (most?) will tell you that your characters are the most important part of your story. Sure, the plot needs a lot of attention and has to be believable and make sense. Yes, setting can be evocative and sometimes almost a character in its own right. Good dialogue is vital. Narration has to be punchy, necessary, and is often used for a change of pace.

But your characters—they drive the whole story. Few stories are told without them. They need to be unusual, compelling, some need to be quirky and difficult. Some writers do whole biographies of their characters, writing down hair and eye color and their favorite food. They list every single thing they can think of about each character.

Isn’t that interesting? When I first saw the clip art above, I thought she was holding a long knife. Must be writing too many mysteries. If you can’t tell, it’s an umbrella. I think . . . She’d make a great character, wouldn’t she?

Since I don’t outline, I also don’t do character bios in advance. When I need a character, I introduce him and sketch in a description. In my notes file, I put down full name, hair and eye color because these are the things I’m most likely to forget later. I am learning to immediately also give the character something to distinguish him from the rest. An unusual name, a different physical characteristic (really tall, or in one case, two different colored eyes, a facial scar—you get the idea), a tic or habit (winks a lot, chews gum, etc.), a certain way of speaking (drawl, in clichés, uses unusual words, and so on), or anything else I can come up with that will work for the character.

After the more superficial things are covered, each major character and some minor ones will need specific motivation(s) to drive them. It’s recommended writers use two motivations that are counter to each other, such as love and jealousy. Another one could be the character is motivated to cover up an affair and run for public office. How about greed and the care of a disabled relative? Just by what you’ve written before the character arrives on-scene, you can usually pick out the major motivation. Next try to pick out another, conflicting one. You do not tell the reader about these motivations, you show her by the character’s action and reactions what the main ambitions are. The character arrives pushing his sister’s wheelchair and by his actions, we can tell he’s devoted to her. Later we see him find a wallet, surreptitiously remove the cash and put the wallet back where he found it and pocket the money. Right away you’ve made the character more than one dimensional, and the reader senses that greed is going to cause him trouble, but the reader is sympathetic to the character because of the sister.

I hope you can see that both tiny details and large motivations are important for your characters to “come alive on the page.” No need to agonize over all of this. I do it all on the fly and somehow it all comes together in the end. The small details are there to help your reader keep track of who’s who. The larger motivations are there to keep your reader interested in the character and anxious to find out what happens next.


Even some famous novelists will tell you they have trouble writing short stories, and some say they cannot write them at all.

Since I have a much easier time writing short stories than novels, I decided to try to figure out why that’s so. Or at least how you can do it yourself.

It may be obvious, but if you’re a novelist, you’re thinking on a grand scale. You fill your story with characters and subplots. And even settings.

For shorts, you need to hone in on probably one or two characters, one problem/plot point, only a setting or two, and forget about subplots.

Timeframe is also different. Most likely, a short story takes place in a short amount of time. You don’t usually wrap up your main character’s whole life in the story. Instead, you use a fascinating incident to point up your protagonist’s good and bad points. Give her a problem to solve, an interesting setting, another character or two to talk to and you’re good to go.

Often mystery writers say they have a problem writing a puzzle mystery in the short form. I agree this is very hard to do, so I rarely write that type of story. You need at least three clues and a red herring or two. You need three or four suspects. And a villain, plus the protagonist. The setting is often important in a puzzle mystery. It can be done, has been done, but it’s very difficult.

I’ve only written a couple of short story puzzle mysteries. Instead I write what are called crime stories. These are stories that, obviously, have crimes in them, but are not necessarily traditional mysteries. The reader may know right from the beginning who did it. There may not be anyone even interested in solving the crime. Other things are going on in the story.

If you want to write short crime stories, I suggest you find several of your favorites and deconstruct them to find out why they appeal to you. With the bones of your favorite, make up your own characters and settings and see what you come up with. You may surprise yourself. If you try this, please come back and let me know how it went. And of course, who published it. Think positive!


The title of this post almost says it all. Almost. And yes, I cribbed it from those ubiquitous lists of rules for writers—the funny ones. Since I’ve seen it on several different lists, I feel okay about using it for my title.

Disclaimer over.

Why do I say it almost says it all? Well, obvious clichés should be avoided, except in dialogue, totally. Even there, don’t overdo it unless you create a character who talks that way all the time. Even then, be careful, and make him funny.

Unfortunately, there are other, more subtle clichés happening in stories. One is the pat description, such as “She was beautiful,” and “He was handsome.” The vast majority of heroines and heroes are good-looking. Same goes for describing a person more specifically. Blue-eyed blonde is pretty common. Red-headed and freckles. Then there is clothing. Here is a great place to show a person’s personality, status, possible wealth, and other traits. But please, not in a laundry-list way. Make it interesting. Give the details out as they come up. Not:

“He wore a blue suit, white shirt with French cuffs, and his gold cufflinks gleamed. His tasseled loafers had a high polish, and when he shot his cuffs, the Rolex watch peeked into view.”

Who cares? Instead, show the details as the story unfolds. The blue suit matches the color of his eyes (be specific about shade) when we first see him. Later, the cuff-links are shaped as lions’  heads because (make up a reason). Even later, out walking with him, he gets some dirt on his tasseled loafers and shakes it off in disgust. And your main character knows he shot his cuffs on purpose in order to show off that Rolex. Isn’t he more interesting already?

(Another disclaimer: If you read some of my earlier stuff, you’ll probably see the laundry-list problem, especially in descriptions. I’m trying to use this method now because I do believe it’s a much more elegant way to go.)

Settings can also reduce themselves to clichés. The teashop, bookstore, cubicle office, mansion or trailer. Again, hit the interesting details and leave the rest out. Intersperse those details as your character moves through the setting instead of all in one lump when she first arrives on the scene.

Then there are whole characters who have become clichés. The alcoholic police officer or PI. The little old lady who solves crimes. The spunky heroine and dashing hero. The beautiful female lawyer/doctor/veterinarian/you-name-it who is smarter than all the men in the story.

Be careful of these characters. Be sure to give them some quirks and problems that are not seen in lots of other stories. Make your plot twisty enough and the quirks detrimental enough to keep the reader happy.

Now plots are a whole ‘nother thing. It’s been said there are only three. Or twenty-six (or some such number). Or a hundred. Certainly the plots for mystery novels (crime committed, protag finds out whodunit) and romances (girl meets boy, something keeps them apart, but they end up together in the end) have standard plotlines. There’s no getting around those, or you end up in another genre. But the reader doesn’t mind that. It’s what she expects and feels comfortable with. Allow her that whole comfort zone, but leave out the other clichés, big and small, to get her interested, to get her blood racing, to get her turning those pages as fast as she can.

Hint: First draft, go ahead and make your laundry list. Second draft, get those details interspersed in appropriate places. After you’ve done this a few times, you might be able to do it naturally during first draft.

Clichés can come back to haunt you. Be careful out there!