Write Your Novel From the Middle

The last two posts I’ve written have been centered around my rediscovery of writing. A search that actually began months ago, even before my encounter with creative silence. I won’t bore you with all of the history again, since I’ve written about all of it (including the creative silence) elsewhere on this blog. Read When You Find Yourself Becalmed and How to Get in Writing Shape After a Long Absence.

Part of my search happened to be reading two books on writing by James Scott Bell. Both have intrigued me since I first heard about them. Only lately, however, have I had the opportunity to read them.

The first is called The Art of War for Writers. Who wouldn’t wonder what a book like that is about? As it turns out, it’s not about writing war scenes. It’s a book of short tips, suggestions, and encouragements based on The Art of War, written by ancient Chinese General Sun Tsu. Most of the entries are less than two pages long. Some aren’t even a page long. But it’s a helpful and encouraging book and I urge you to get a copy if you don’t already have one.

The second book is Write Your Novel From the Middle. Yes, it’s another book on designing story, but it’s not just another book on designing story. It delves into basic story structure, but only to lay the foundation for the real meat of the book, which is uncovering your lead character’s arc. Or, as Bell puts it, discovering what your story is really all about.

Write Your Novel From The MiddleIn The Middle of Things

…Virtually all books on the [writing] craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.

Ordinarily, I don’t read books about how to write while I’m writing. It’s counterproductive.

But I did this time because I’d hit a wall with the story I was working on. I knew how I wanted the plot to unfold, but could not for the life of me figure out how to write the first act. Nothing was working. It was as simple as that.

In the process of thinking through the problem, I came across Write Your Novel From the Middle and thought, I need to read that book. I set aside one afternoon and read it cover to cover in about four hours—including taking notes. As I read, a door gradually creaked open. Through that widening crack, I could see not only the problem with the current work-in-progress but with a story I’ve finished a dozen times over the last twenty years but have never been happy with.

It’s All About What Happens to the Lead Character

In a character-driven story, [the character] looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?

The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”

Rather than thinking of the turning point in the middle of the story as the second major turning point (which is what I usually do), Bell was telling me to look at it as a moment of truth, what he calls a Look in the Mirror Moment, for the lead character. It’s the moment at which the character is forced to look at himself in a mirror. What he sees has the potential to change the direction of the story.

More importantly, what he sees and his response to it is what the story is about.

Once you know what your character sees when he looks into the mirror, you can work backward to set up the circumstances and backstory that create the original condition. You can also work forward to the end of the story, when your character either changes or refuses to change. Those three points—the pre-story condition, the Mirror Moment, and the post story condition of the lead character—make up the Golden Triangle.

The real beauty of understanding how this character arc works is that you can use it at any stage in the writing process. That story in progress of mine? It’s at the perfect point to figure out the lead character’s Golden Triangle.

The same is also true for that twenty-year-old story or for the next story I work on.

It also works for every type of writer. Planner, pantser, or tweener. It doesn’t matter how you write or how little or much of your story you’ve written.

After reading the book, I sent an email to Mr. Bell thanking him for the book and asking for a guest post or permission to excerpt the book. He instead granted permission to glean a few gems from his original post on Write Your Novel From the Middle, which appeared at The Kill Zone in July 2013. You now know the gems I gleaned. Read the full post here. You won’t regret it.

Nor will your work in progress!

Four Things To Do With Negative Reviews (And One Thing Not To Do)

2015-11-30 five stars, review good, happyIndie Plot Twisters, it is our pleasure to introduce Allison Maruska as our guest blogger this week. She’s got some great advice on what to do when you get negative book reviews! Also, we’re holding a drawing for her intriguing mystery, The Fourth Descendant. Details at the end!

– – –

 Pop quiz time.

What do the following things have in common?

  1. Traffic jams
  2. Fish in the ocean
  3. The full moon appearing every month
  4. Negative book reviews

If you answered they are all certain to happen, then you pass!

Every book gets negative reviews. The Hunger Games, a book I absolutely love, has 443 1-star reviews. No matter how good your book is, eventually, you will get negative reviews. So since we can’t avoid them, we should have a strategy for what to do when they appear on our product pages, else we collapse into a blubbering heap or decide to quit writing and join the carnival. Sure, the endless access to funnel cakes would be awesome, but your family would miss you.

Below are four actions I’ve gathered from personal experience, talking with author friends/reading similar posts, and research. I hope that by the end, you’ll be able to read negative reviews of your work in the most objective way possible.

2015-11-30 What to Do with a One-Star Review

Action 1: Understand negative bias

Negative bias basically says feedback of a negative nature affects us more than feedback of a neutral or positive nature does (click here for the Wikipedia article). It has an evolutionary basis, because our prehistoric ancestors needed to pay more attention to the lion’s den than to the pretty flower growing next to it. It was about survival. In our current day setting, the bias plays out in our reactions to problems that need solving. Emails of an urgent, negative nature get attention first because we want the problem to go away.

Our brains see negative reviews as problems (because they feel like attacks), but we can’t solve them, so they sting more. Neural activity and heart rates increase, as if we’re preparing to go to battle. This is normal. It’s also why they get stuck in our brains while positive reviews blend in with the rest. Anyone who works with kids has heard the advice that for every piece of negative feedback you give a child, there should be ten pieces of positive feedback. This is why.

Action 2: Realize the negative review isn’t more valid

2015-11-30 chalk board, sad, frown, smiley faceThis goes along with negative bias, but it’s important enough to merit its own point. The negative reviews just feel more true, don’t they? Even if cognitively you know they aren’t (especially when the reviewer dings you because of the ebook price set by your publisher, or they were mad because they didn’t like how your character dressed), you feel like you could have done something to prevent the bad review.

Here’s the thing: reviews are opinions about your work. That’s it. They’re not about you, personally (in most cases. Reviews that leave personal attacks are a whole different issue). My book has received side-by-side reviews, one positive and one negative, both discussing the characters. One thought they were great and well-rounded, the other thought they were cardboard. Is one more right than the other?

We can’t control where readers are in their lives when they read our books. Perhaps a negative reviewer just lost a job and a character reminds them of their jerk boss. Even if they aren’t fully aware of the connection, that experience will taint the reading. Of course, we don’t get to read all that in the review. All we see is “the story sucked and the characters were unlikable.”

I’ve read that 1-star reviews tell more about the reviewer than the thing being reviewed. I tend to agree. There are people out there who seem to really enjoy complaining, and reviews are a great vehicle to do that. I would say a truly 1-star book would have no redeeming qualities. I’m not sure I’ve read such a book, but apparently, some people have read several, including The Hunger Games.

Action 3: Look for patterns

Sometimes, negative reviews are more than just opinion. If many say the same thing, like the book needs editing or the formatting was a mess, that’s probably something you need to address (if you’re an independent author and have the power to publish updated material). I read a post by an author that said she accidentally published an early draft and didn’t realize it until the negative reviews rolled in, criticizing her poor editing. You may also see a pattern if you’ve miscategorized your book. I know if I bought a book thinking it was a mystery and it ended up being a western romance, I wouldn’t be a happy reader.

However, it’s possible that no patterns exist. My book has a handful of negative reviews, and while a few kind of say the same thing, overall they’re pretty different. Most solely talk about the story’s content (characters and events) rather than the writing itself. This leads us to…

Action 4: Realize negative reviews help sell the book

2015-11-30 Dislike, not good, bad, sad, unhappyI know, it seems completely counter intuitive. Bad reviews = scared away readers, right? While that may be true in a few cases, negative reviews often contain something many positive reviews don’t: specific details.

Small picture, a detail the reviewer hated could be something the potential buyer enjoys. Or if the negative review is especially ranty, the buyer may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Big picture, the total number of reviews your book has affects how visible it becomes on Amazon. It doesn’t take into account if those reviews are positive or negative. More reviews = better visibility = more sales.

And now for the one thing not to do: Respond

I said reviews are not about you, personally. They are also not for you. They are readers talking to other readers. Granted, the online forum opens the door for more negativity than you’d probably see in an in-person book club, but the idea is the same. Reviews are readers talking about content.

Responding to a review puts you in a position of challenging someone’s opinion. The chances of you changing the reviewer’s mind with a comment are zero. Just don’t do it. People don’t like to have their opinions challenged, and responding brings attention to the negative review you don’t want people to see.

Instead, read all your positive reviews. Print out a few of your favorites and tape them around your desk. Internalize them. You wrote a book that people love! Those ideas are much more deserving of your mental energy.

The Book Giveaway

Allison has one free ebook copy of her mystery, The Fourth Descendant, for our readers. To enter the drawing, just scroll down and leave a comment in answer to this question: How do you approach negative reviews, either as a writer or a reader? The drawing will end on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. CST. Good luck!

If you tweet the following, we’ll enter your name twice! 1) Don’t remove the @IndiePlotTwist tag. 2) Let us know in your comment that you tweeted! It’ll help us match your tweet to your comment.

About the Author 

Allison Maruska headshotAllison is a YA and mystery/suspense author, writing/humor blogger, teacher, mom, wife, coffee and wine consumer, and an owl enthusiast. She published her debut novel, The Fourth Descendant, in February, 2015, and it has been on Amazon’s historical mystery best seller list since April. Her newest book is a YA dystopian/urban fantasy called Drake and the Fliers, which she released on November 20th, 2015.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

About Her Book

Allison Maruska - The Fourth DescendantWhen Michelle receives a call from a Richmond historian, she sees the chance for a much-needed adventure. All she has to do is find a century-old key.

Three others – a guitarist, an engineer, and a retiree – receive similar calls. Each family possesses a key to a four-lock safe found buried in a Virginia courthouse, though their connection is as mysterious as the safe itself. Their ancestors should not have interacted, had no apparent reason to bury the safe, and should not have disappeared thereafter.

Bearing their keys, Michelle and the other descendants converge in the courthouse basement and open the safe, revealing the truth about their ancestors – a truth stranger, more deadly, and potentially more world-changing than any of them could have imagined. Now it’s up to them to keep their discovery out of the wrong hands.


Book Review-The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide

The Self-Publisher's Ultimate Resource Guid Cover

What’s the hardest part of becoming a self-publisher? Figuring out who’s who, what’s what, and where and how to find the right resources to make your book the best it can be.

So reads the introduction of The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide. and truer words could not have been spoken. Self-publishing is hard work and getting your book finished is just the beginning.  What is the first thing you should do?

If you’ve ever wished for a simple, easy resource filled with answers for all (or most) of your questions about self-publishing, your wish has just been granted.

Authors Joel Friedlander and Betty Kelly Sargent have combined their talents and efforts to produce The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide. The authors promise to simplify the process of finding the right people and services to help you self-publish and they deliver on that promise.

The book is organized like a well-stocked library with three main categories:

  1. Prepare
  2. Publish
  3. Promote

Within each category are lists of providers for the services you’re most likely to need at each stage of publication. For example, you’ll find sub-categories for  formatting experts, editors, cover designers and illustrators; even translators and writing software in the Prepare section.

Are you ready to publish? Check out the Publish section of this library-between-soft-covers for information on everything from eBook conversion and print-on-demand to book production software and short-run printers.

The Self-Publishers Ultimate Resource Guide is jam-packed with information and links to over 850 resources, no matter where you (or your book) are on the journey to publication. If you buy only one resource book this year, check out this book.

Can you self-publish without it? Sure you can.

But why would you want to?

About the Book

The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide  is the first and largest collection of curated and verified resources for independent authors who plan to publish their own books. Produced by a team with long experience in both traditional and independent publishing, the over 850 resources are listed in an easy-to-use format that includes live links, phone numbers, email addresses and brief descriptive copy. The Guide makes vendors and other resources easy to find by separating them into 33 distinct categories within the 3 main tasks the self-publisher must deal with. How to Prepare, Publish, and Promote their books.

The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide ebook version is updated regularly to provide current information and links in the fast-changing indie publishing world, and the authors are actively soliciting input to keep listings current and comprehensive.

The book is available at

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple

Smashwords | Txtr


About the Authors

The Self-Publisher's Ultimate Resource Guid Cover
Joel Friedlander is an award-winning book designer and blogger who has been launching the careers of self-publishers since 1994 from his book design and consulting practice at Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California. Joel is a self-published author and the blogger behind TheBookDesigner.com, a popular and award-winning blog on book design, book marketing, and the future of the book. Joel is also the founder of The Self-Publishing Roadmap, a training course for authors, and TheBookMakers.com and BookDesignTemplates.com, where he provides tools and services for authors who publish their own books. He speaks often at publishing industry events and is a past president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association.

The Self-Publisher's Ultimate Resource Guid Cover
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder of BookWorks, the Self-Publishers association, and the founder of The Educated Author, and writes a monthly column on self-publishing for Publishers Weekly. She is a member of the Independent Editors Group (EIG) and has spent more than 30 years in the traditional publishing business, most recently as editor-in-chief of William Morrow, where at one point she had three books on the New York Times best-seller list at once. She has also been executive editor at HarperCollins, executive editor at Delacorte Press, Fiction and Books editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, and book reviewer for CNN. She is the author of seven traditionally published books and one self-published book. She moderates panels and workshops in New York City and Los Angeles and is passionate about helping indie authors learn to navigate the ever-changing landscape of self-publishing.