Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plotting the Plot

Heather Augustyn

This summer I have been teaching a few classes for teens, and what better way to learn about your own writing than by teaching kids. They make you think of every aspect of writing, deconstructing it piece by piece in order to understand it from all sides. One of the classes I taught was about plotting the post-apocalypse, a tremendously popular genre among teens and, frankly, all readers. From Wall-E, to War of the Worlds, post-apocalypse seems to be pretty relevant these days!

Anyway, it had me thinking a lot about plot. So this week I bring to you two voices on plot—one from a favorite writer of mine, Kurt Vonnegut, native Hoosier, who I had the pleasure of interviewing just weeks before his death. In this video clip, he humorously and sardonically offers his thoughts on plot trajectories. See the clip here:

Next, I offer a list of possible plots in an article by Ronald B. Tobias called, "20 Master Plots, and How to Build Them," which he wrote for Writer's Digest Books in 1993. They are as follows and hopefully with these two bits of information from Tobias and Vonnegut, you will find inspiration for your own work!
1. Quest
The hero searches for something, someone, or somewhere. In reality, they may be searching for themselves, with the outer journey mirrored internally. They may be joined by a companion, who takes care of minor detail and whose limitations contrast with the hero's greater qualities.
2. Adventure
The protagonist goes on an adventure, much like a quest, but with less of a focus on the end goal or the personal development of the hero. In the adventure, there is more action for action's sake.
3. Pursuit
In this plot, the focus is on chase, with one person chasing another (and perhaps with multiple and alternating chases). The pursued person may be often cornered and somehow escape, so that the pursuit can continue. Depending on the story, the pursued person may be caught or may escape.
4. Rescue
In the rescue, somebody is captured who must be released by the hero or heroic party. A triangle may form between the protagonist, the antagonist and the victim. There may be a grand duel between the protagonist and antagonist, after which the victim is freed.
5. Escape
In a kind of reversal of the rescue, a person must escape, perhaps with little help from others. In this, there may well be elements of capture and unjust imprisonment. There may also be a pursuit after the escape.
6. Revenge
In the revenge plot, a wronged person seeks retribution against the person or organization which has betrayed or otherwise harmed them or loved ones, physically or emotionally. This plot depends on moral outrage for gaining sympathy from the audience.
7. The Riddle
The riddle plot entertains the audience and challenges them to find the solution before the hero, who steadily and carefully uncovers clues and hence the final solution. The story may also be spiced up with terrible consequences if the riddle is not solved in time.
8. Rivalry
In rivalry, two people or groups are set as competitors that may be good hearted or as bitter enemies. Rivals often face a zero-sum game, in which there can only be one winner, for example where they compete for a scarce resource or the heart of a single other person.
9. Underdog
The underdog plot is similar to rivalry, but where one person (usually the hero) has less advantage and might normally be expected to lose. The underdog usually wins through greater tenacity and determination (and perhaps with the help of friendly others).
10. Temptation
In the temptation plot, a person is tempted by something that, if taken, would somehow diminish them, often morally. Their battle is thus internal, fighting against their inner voices which tell them to succumb.
11. Metamorphosis
In this fantastic plot, the protagonist is physically transformed, perhaps into beast or perhaps into some spiritual or alien form. The story may then continue with the changed person struggling to be released or to use their new form for some particular purpose. Eventually, the hero is released, perhaps through some great act of love.
12. Transformation
The transformation plot leads to change of a person in some way, often driven by an unexpected circumstance or event. After setbacks, the person learns and usually becomes something better.
13. Maturation
The maturation plot is a special form of transformation, in which a person grows up. The veils of younger times are lost as they learn and grow. Thus the rudderless youth finds meaning or perhaps an older person re-finds their purpose.
14. Love
The love story is a perennial tale of lovers finding one another, perhaps through a background of danger and woe. Along the way, they become separated in some way, but eventually come together in a final joyous reunion.
15. Forbidden Love
The story of forbidden love happens when lovers are breaking some social rules, such as in an adulterous relationship or worse. The story may thus turn around their inner conflicts and the effects of others discovering their tryst.
16. Sacrifice
In sacrifice, the nobler elements of the human sprit are extolled as someone gives much more than most people would give. The person may not start with the intent of personal sacrifice and may thus be an unintentional hero, thus emphasizing the heroic nature of the choice and the act.
17. Discovery
The discovery plot is strongly focused on the character of the hero who discovers something great or terrible and hence must make a difficult choice. The importance of the discovery might not be known at first and the process of revelation could be important to the story.
18. Wretched Excess
In stories of wretched excess, the protagonist goes beyond normally accepted behavior as the world looks on, horrified, perhaps in realization that “there but for the grace of God go I” and that the veneer of civilization is indeed thin.
19. Ascension
In the ascension plot, the protagonist starts in the virtual gutter, as a sinner of some kind. The plot then shows their ascension to becoming a better person, often in response to stress that would defeat a normal person. Thus they achieve deserved heroic status.
20. Descension
In the opposite to ascension, a person of initially high standing descends to the gutter and moral turpitude, perhaps sympathetically as they are unable to handle stress and perhaps just giving in to baser vices.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Balancing Act of Realism

Louis Martinez

Realism can be used to enhance a reader’s experience with a story by making the fictional world feel less fictional. For example, a character who has been deprived of water for several days could start to suffer from dehydration – a deceptively dangerous condition. Rather than continuing to perform physical tasks at an optimal level as if water isn’t something humans need, the character will grow weaker and slower as their body comes closer to expiration. This realistic portrayal of such a scenario can help a reader become more immersed in the character’s situation.

Unfortunately, realism may also have the opposite effect by conflicting with a reader’s expectations. For example, when the hero puts a suppressor on their rifle, the reader will probably expect the firearm to make a barely audible “poof” when fired. Realistically, this would probably not be the case. The suppressor would offer more space for the gases to cool and expand before hitting the open air, but unless the hero is using some sort of subsonic ammunition, the bullet will still break the sound barrier, thus still resulting in a quite audible little “boom.” But this isn’t what many readers would expect, so realism is often sacrificed in such a scenario by many writers.

And at times, writers may even neglect realism in favor of progressing their story in a certain image, however unrealistic it may be. Another fine example is when swords enter the story. A writer may display a grandiose scene where the hero and the villain dance around with swords for several minutes, all the while having a conversation. A real sword fight likely wouldn’t last more than a few seconds. The characters would draw their swords, pumped up on adrenaline, and then someone would get cut to ribbons in an instant. And thus, a realistic portrayal of a sword fight may often be so anticlimactic it never even occurs to a writer’s mind (or a reader’s) that their epic scene is in fact, quite outlandish.

So then, what to do about the problem of realism. That depends on the story you’re trying to tell. If it’s meant to be far-fetched, then you might want to avoid realism to give the reader a sense of outrageousness. On the other hand, is this tale meant to be taken seriously? If so, you should consider researching anything and everything you put into your story that you’re unfamiliar with.

Does your protagonist wield a firearm? Do your homework. Decide what type of weapon they have, and what ammunition they load it with. One “pistol” could act completely different from another, and two different cartridges could produce wildly different results, even when fired from the same weapon. Did the hero incapacitate the villain by shooting him once in the arm? If so, the hero must’ve been dreaming, because that’s not how it works in the waking world. Research ballistics and the effects of gunshot wounds on the human body, as well as the probability of accurately targeting someone’s arm.

Find a way to balance the realism in your story. Consider the tone and purpose, the message you’re trying to convey. A safe way to determine the amount of realism your story needs may be to measure how seriously it’s meant to be taken. The more serious the story is, the more realistic it should be, and vice-versa. But this is entirely up to you.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is to do your research. No matter how realistic – or unrealistic – you want something to be, you can’t accurately portray what you don’t understand. So, before your character puts on those boxing gloves or picks up that sword, be sure you read up on the material yourself. Make sure you know what your hero is getting into.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part III

The last two posts described six of the nine breakout sessions at the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference, and this post will cover the remaining three. Each of the workshops listed below is designed to help writers sell their books. Read on for more information.

They DO Judge a Book by Its Cover: Cover Design 101 for Authors

When readers aren’t familiar with your work, what draws them to your books? The beginning paragraphs are important, but potential buyers must open the book to read them. The cover is usually the first thing that catches readers’ eyes and makes them look inside. Self-published authors are responsible for designing or selecting their own covers, so how can you make your cover stand out in a good way? This workshop uses discussion, exercises and examples to share sure-fire methods for creating great book covers.

Rod Martinez is the recipient of the 2017 Jerry Spinelli Scholarship from the Highlights Foundation. He writes middle grade fiction and has published a half dozen books. To view his book covers and find other information about Rod, go to 

Online Marketing: Using Your Website to Maximize Sales

It’s common knowledge that every author needs a website, but what do you do with it when you have it? J. Steven Young’s session answers that question and provides advice on simple and economical ways to enhance your website and build your marketing platform.

As a writer, Steven has authored over a dozen books ranging from early childhood activity books to YA fantasy. As a marketer, he utilizes cost-effective and free tools to boost exposure and sales and to streamline the self-marketing process. Steven combines his technology training with his love of writing by holding webinars, providing individual training, and engaging in consulting work to show authors how to brand themselves and sell their books in a digital world. You can learn more about him at  

Picking Up the Mic: Using Performance Storytelling to Enhance Promotional Opportunities

Do you give library presentations or school talks, or are you looking for a way to increase attendance at book signings? Performance storytelling can generate interest and add value to those promotional opportunities. In this workshop, Mary Dean Cason and Gregg Fraley will help writers find their spoken voice and will provide essential tools and techniques to be better story performers.

Mary Dean Cason teaches the art and craft of live storytelling and has performed at venues throughout Chicago, Northwest Indiana, and Mexico. She is the founder of Wine, Women & Stories, co-founder of Indigan Storyteller, and co-creator of Michiana Stories. Mary Dean is the author of What Solomon Saw and Other Stories, the recipient of the Pinch Literary Award, and the winner of the University of Chicago’s 2008 Writer’s Prize for Fiction. For more information, check out her website at

Gregg Fraley is an author, speaker, creativity consultant, and radio host. His program, “Michiana Story Hour,” airs on WRHC in Three Oaks, Michigan. You can find out more about him at

As noted in the first post in this series, the Conference Committee hasn’t set the actual schedule yet, so it is too early to know which of the nine breakout sessions will conflict. But with this lineup, you can’t lose.

Registration for the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference is now open. Sign up at and join us at Fair Oaks Farms on October 28.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part II

Located just off I-65 north of Rensselaer, Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms provides a tranquil setting for a writers’ conference. Its comfortable conference rooms allow attendees to relax, while the spellbinding presentations will keep them wake. But what are those presentations? Last week’s post discussed three of the breakout sessions, and this post covers three more.

Metaphors and Metaphoric Language

A good book is a dog that keeps you company at night. Feel free to groan at the terrible metaphor, then come to Vickie Weaver’s workshop and learn to write better ones. Using examples and exercises, she will show you how the words you choose can add texture and flavor to fiction and nonfiction alike.

Vickie’s first book, Billie Girl, won the 2009 Leapfrog Literary Contest. Her short stories have also received several awards, which include a Pushcart nomination. Learn more about her at

Words Fly Off the Page: Practical Pointers for Public Poetry Readings

Do you perform at poetry slams, read for family and friends, or present selections from your own works to promote your books? Would you like to? Patsy Asunction’s workshop will use guided discussion, hands-on practice sessions, and demonstrations to develop key skills for effective public reading. Although focused on poetry, this session will provide practical pointers for all genres.

To use her own words, Patsy’s poetry collection, Cut on the Bias, depicts her world slant as a biracial child raised by an immigrant father and WWII vet. Her works have also appeared in numerous online and print publications. An expert public reader, she is a female emcee and has thousands of YouTube views. To learn more, check out her website at

Weaving Words: A Braided Essay Workshop

Braided essays take several threads and weave them into a cohesive whole. It can be created by a single writer or done through collaboration, where each theme is composed by a different individual. In this workshop, Janine Harrison, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and Colleen Wells will discuss their experience collaborating on a braided essay and lead participants in writing exercises on braiding, followed by workshop discussion.

Janine Harrison teaches creative writing at Purdue Northwest and is the 2017 Highland Poet Laureate. Her publications include the poetry chapbook, If We Were Birds, and short works appearing in anthologies and other publications. You can find more information at

Laura Madeline Wiseman has authored 25 books and chapbooks, including the Nebraska Book Award 2015 Honor Book Intimates and Fools. She is the editor of Bared and Women Write Resistance, selected for the Nebraska 150 Booklist. Laura teaches writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and her website is found at

Colleen Wells’ work has appeared in various anthologies and journals, and she is a frequent contributor to The Ryder Magazine. In 2002, she earned an award from the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and she is currently working toward her credentials as a Certified Journal Facilitator. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers—A True Story of Madness and Recovery, was published in 2015. Learn more about Colleen at

These workshops give you three more reasons to attend the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on October 28. Registration opens June 1. The registration link and other information on the conference will be posted at

Next week we’ll cover the final three breakout sessions.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part I

When planning a writers’ conference, selecting and scheduling sessions is always a dilemma. How many choices should the conference offer? Either there are too few and you sit in on sessions that have little to offer you, or there are too many and you miss out on one or more interesting sessions because they conflict.

One of last year’s participants missed out on several sessions she wanted to attend, and she suggested on her evaluation form that we offer workshops more than once. We took her comment very seriously. After all, there’s a reason it’s called the Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference with an apostrophe after the s. The conference belongs to the writers who attend, not to IWC or the Conference Committee. Unfortunately, repeating sessions limits the number we can offer overall, and the Committee believes that most participants would rather have too many choices. So after careful consideration, that’s what the Committee opted to provide.

The 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference will have three blocks of time with three choices each, so you may miss something you want to hear. The actual schedule hasn’t been set yet, so these blog posts won’t tell you which ones conflict. But the next three weeks will describe each of the nine choices and give you the opportunity to rank them in advance.

Writing a Great American Romance Novel

Keynote speaker Catherine Lanigan will present a workshop called “Writing a Great American Romance Novel.” The session will cover both craft and business issues, and the business issues in particular apply across genres.

Catherine is the author of over forty fiction and nonfiction titles, including the novelizations of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. She is known primarily for her contemporary romance novels, such as the Shores of Indian Lake series for Harlequin Heartwarming. She has also written historical fiction, romantic suspense, true stories, books regarding angelic intervention in human life, a craft book, and a screenplay. You can learn more about her at

How to Build Suspense into Your Fiction

This session by mystery and suspense writer Libby Fischer Hellmann also transcends genre. Libby is a master at creating suspense in her award-winning books. In this interactive workshop, you will learn how to use tangible techniques to build suspense in your own work, regardless of what type of fiction you write or are considering.

After leaving the nation’s capital and a career in broadcast news 35 years ago, Libby moved to Chicago and has been writing gritty crime fiction ever since. Her nominations and awards are too numerous to mention here, but you can read about them and her many books on her website at 

Connecting to the Unconnected: Exploring the Novel-in-Stories

How can a writer combine stand-alone but related short stories into a novel? This workshop by Melissa Fraterrigo is for everyone who missed last year’s breakout session by Cathy Day or who attended that workshop but wants more.

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the forthcoming novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press) as well as the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press). Her works, both fiction and nonfiction, have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies and have been nominated for awards on multiple occasions, including winning the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She teaches classes on the art and craft of writing at the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana. You can learn more about Melissa and the Lafayette Writers’ Studio at

These are just three of the many reasons to attend the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on October 28. Join us at the conference center at Fair Oaks Farms just off I-65 near Rensselaer, Indiana.

Registration will open June 1, and the registration link will be posted at You can find additional information about the conference there, too.

Next week we’ll cover three more choices.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Smoothing Out Your Dialogue

Louis Martinez

People talk, and in a story, that takes the form of dialogue. There’s little we can do to get around it, especially when multiple characters are involved. And a story with but a single character may still have internal dialogue.
You can certainly write stories without it, but many stories, dare I say most, will probably have a decent amount of dialogue in them. Therefore, we must know how to handle such a delicate craft.
Everyone will develop their own personal dialogue style. This is part of what makes storytelling so special, the uniqueness of each individual tale. But, to help anyone who may be struggling to find what works for them, allow me to share what works for me. It may just nudge you in the direction you’ve been looking for.
However, first thing first. When it comes to conversations, new character equals new paragraph. When someone else starts speaking, it’s time to press Enter. Don’t put two different characters’ words into the same paragraph. This isn’t so much a personal preference as a rule of writing.
Now, when I write dialogue, I try to mix the character’s words into the same paragraph as their actions as much as possible. This helps alleviate overuse of “he said,” “she said.” It also sounds more mature, and less like the books we use to teach children how to talk.
An example of my style in use:
John opened the ominous barrel, greeting his nostrils to the most horrid stench the world had ever known. “Wow. That’s got quite a kick to it?”
The affront to sinuses everywhere reached Jane just as quick, and hit her just as hard. “Uck. What is that?” She tried to wave away the scent, but to no avail. It sunk into her lungs with a desperate, heavy grip.
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Close it.”
The first paragraph reveals the first speaker through his interaction with the word, as the next paragraph does for the second speaker, all the while avoiding “he said” and “she said.” After that, it’s clear who’s talking during their brief exchange that follows by the different paragraphs denoting different speakers, even though names are not mentioned.
Again, this is just how I like to write dialogue. My wonderful teachers introduced me to numerous methods, and this was the one I found the most satisfying and intuitive. Writing dialogue can be tricky, and it’s important to develop a style of your own that flows efficiently and is fun to read.
So, get out there and get typing. Find your style and make it shine. There are lots of stories that need telling, and you can’t finish before you start. It’s up to you to put those words on the page and get those characters talking.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Specialized Sources to Spark Your Story

Heather Augustyn

As a writer of biographies, I sometimes find myself more of a sleuth than an author. I follow leads down the rabbit hole, searching for a long-dead person or their family members in hopes of discovering their life story. I liken my work to a hydra—I cut off one head, and two grow back—answers provide more questions, research yields more to research. Vacations to tropical locations are spent, not on the beach with a fruity drink in hand, but instead in dusty library archives with bound volumes of crumbling yellowed newspapers. Entire summers are passed, spinning through spools of microfilm. And large phone bills to octogenarians in countries all over the world reveal the spoils of the quest.  But these methods of searching through old newspapers, magazines, interviews, microfilm, and out-of-print books can be useful for anyone who looks to tell a story, true or not, to anchor it firmly in authenticity. Here are a few ideas for how to utilize obscure sources to inform your own writing:

1.     Consider the primary source
Interviews with people who are either similar to the personality of your character, or have similar backgrounds as your character, can provide authentic dialog or inspire your creativity to develop that dialog. Steal their word choice, their thoughts and opinions, their patois or accent or way they stress a certain word. You can also discover their struggles, their hopes and wishes, their loves and desires, their vision for motivation, which can become the same as your character, or help remove a block you may have had in developing some aspect of your character or plot. Watch their mannerisms, their facial expressions. Look at their dress, their accoutrements, their home or their work. See what they reveal, and also what they conceal. This will give your character and story an accuracy that imagination may not be able to yield. It will also give it an authentic voice.

2.     Set the scene
If your story is a period piece, chances are you have read plenty of material from that time period to inform your story. But what about if you are telling a story that is less about a time period and more about something else? Still digging into material, whether historical or contemporary, can help inform that storytelling. Knowing the type of vegetation that grew in the character’s landscape, the style of car that was popular in their carpool line and the afterschool activities common with their children, the kinds of meals they ate, the decorations they used to adorn their homes, the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the way they dried their clothes—on a line or in a front-load dryer, the shoes they wore to the mill—all of these details that make a story real can be found in obscure places. Find magazines or even family photos from the era, either in libraries or purchase from ebay. Recreate that image. Recreate that feeling. Vacation slides can be treasure troves for the imagination and ebay frequently has lots of these (pun intended) for a few bucks.

3.     Look at the big picture
If you are writing a piece that takes place in California in the late 1960s, sure you have the scene and the events to create your character. But what about what else was going on in the world during this time that can turn a seemingly cliché view into a unique story? By knowing that in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, relayed its first communications between UCLA and Stanford, this could possibly provide a unique angle or a direction for your story. Could your character have been aware of this technology or involved in this, rather than a hippie in Haight Ashbury like every other character during this time, as an example. If you are writing about a soul musician in Chicago in the 1970s, they likely would have known of Afro-pop in Nigeria during this same era. This can deepen your character and take them in directions that are more authentic. So look at world events, connect cultures, connect music and art, and connect through conversations with characters or plot.

I once wrote about a character in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, who sat beneath a large Bilbao tree on the campus of his school when he practiced his trombone. While combing through a magazine on Bilbao trees, I found a photograph of that exact tree. Unfortunately, it came after I had written the chapter, but had I discovered it earlier I could have used this photograph to provide detail to make the writing more vivid.

Actual photographs can help to describe more than mere appearance—they spark the writer’s imagination in a way that is rooted in reality. This photo of Jamaican trombonist Don Drummond helped me to describe my character’s mysterious mind.