The Story Grid Product Review | #Author Toolbox Bloghop

Posted by on Jan 17, 2018 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Book Reviews, Creativity and the Writing Process | 16 comments

The Story Grid Product Review | #Author Toolbox Bloghop

Greetings and happy 2018! Welcome to the first post of this year’s Author Toolbox Bloghop. I hope the past few months have been restful and productive in whatever measure you aimed for.

I spent the end of last year chipping away at my current work in progress (WiP). I managed to finish it before Christmas, and I sent it to my agent and alpha readers. While I wait for their feedback, I am stepping away from the work just enough that I will be able to approach it with fresh eyes once the time comes. However, I don’t want to leave the world of the project all together, so I am researching ways to approach the revision process once the time comes. Along that line, I have discovered a resource called The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, written by Shawn Coyne.

Shawn Coyne has been in publishing for twenty-five years and has worked with an extensive list of industry professionals, including Robert McKee. The Story Grid is a compilation of things he’s learned as a literary agent, an independent publisher, and an editor with major publishing houses, and is designed to inspire original stories, to fix broken projects, and to help writers edit their own manuscripts. It allows authors to break down a project into parts and analyze what works, what doesn’t work, and why.

As a resource that focuses on the craft of writing, The Story Grid contains a lot of familiar content. It spends about half of the time discussing story structure elements of scene, act, conflict, and plot. What the Grid does differently is detail a focused way of mapping a story element-by-element, providing a tool that helps authors evaluate the quality of a scene and assess whether or not the scene works based on the criteria detailed throughout the book.

One of the more unique aspects of this resource is the way Shawn Coyne looks at genre. As a high school English teacher, I refer to genre many times during any given week, but Mr. Coyne expands the concept to a depth of detail even I have never seen before. Understanding this concept is central to working the Story Grid because genres create expectations in readers (yes, that will be on a test), and if a work lacks any element of a genre, it leaves readers feeling unsatisfied. While Mr. Coyne goes into great detail about what the genres are, there is no information about the expectations associated with any genre except the Thriller. This makes since because Thriller is Mr. Coyne’s specialty and because the specific conventions of each genre could fill several books, but it does leave readers wanting. However, Cone does state that authors should be instinctively familiar with the conventions of the genre they want to write in before they actually begin writing in that genre.

One of the things I love about The Story Grid is all of the extra resources that are available. There is a Story Grid podcast that chronicles the experience of Tim Grahl as he applies the Grid to a work in progress and discusses that progress in weekly conference calls with Mr. Coyne (brilliant idea, that). There is also a website where “writers who are eating ramen noodles every night and staying every waking hour at the office” (2) can access all of the Story Grid content archives for free.

While I am days away from applying the Grid to my own work, I have already learned much from this book. For example, I now understand the concepts of beats and story values in a way I never have before. I recommend this resource to anyone who has a story that’s not working but that deserves a chance at publication and/or anyone who is in the process of editing a current project.

What about you? What resources or tips have you found that help with the revision process? Or, what else would you like to know? The #Author Toolbox Bloghop is intended to be a collection of resources and learning for authors no matter where they are in the process, so if there are any topics you would like to read about, please suggest them in the comments below.


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Facing a Blank Page? Here’s How to Get Started | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process | 11 comments

Facing a Blank Page? Here’s How to Get Started | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

I recently heard the quote “I hate to write, but I love having written” (attributed to George R.R Martin, Dorothy Parker, and Frank Norris, among others). After kicking this idea around for a few days I decided that I can’t relate. I love writing. I like the weight of a pen in my hand and the shuffling of my fist as it brushes across the paper. I’m enchanted by the physical act of forming letters and fascinated by the fact that my words change sizes, growing smaller and neater the more focused I am. I even enjoy wrestling with a sentence for an hour to find just the right way to convey a thought clearly to my reader. No, it’s not the writing I hate—it’s getting started.

If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then you can relate. It’s not only the intimidation of creating something worthy enough to actually put ink on paper. It’s also the effort involved in carving out the time to write, ignoring the needs of my spouse and children to spend a few uninterrupted hours plying my craft, silencing the voice of my inner critic, denying the small voice that calls me impostor… and so much more. Yet every time the writing is done, I consider the effort of getting started worthwhile.

The technique for beginning that I employ most consistently is the practice of timed writing. I first learned of this practice when I found the book Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes by Roberta Allen (Story Press, 1997). This gem of a writing resource contains a chapter on how to implement the technique, a few chapters about writing short stories, and 300 prompts.

I began utilizing the timed writing technique merely as a way to claim I had done some sort of writing on any given day, then as a way to generate ideas. When my children started school and I returned to the work force, I forced students in my creative writing classes to complete one set of prompts (which I made up) as homework every week night. In my on-level and AP English classes, students practice responding to a single prompt every Tuesday and Thursday. Those victims who groan about the practice later tell me the lessons learned from the technique proved to be very helpful when they had to plan and write an essay for an AP or college entrance exam in a limited amount of time.

How This Works

Implementing the timed writing technique is very simple. All you need is a timer and a list of six prompts. These prompts can be about anything, but should start with the phrase “Write a story about…” For example:


Write a story about a storm in a forest.

Write a story about a craving for beef stroganoff.

Write a story about a mood ring that never changes color.

Write a story about staying up all night.

Write a story about Christmas lights.

Write a story about chasing a dream—and failing.


If you create your own prompts, do it on-the-spot or several days before you plan to use them. You don’t want to be so familiar with them that you’ve had time to plan your response. Part of the technique’s effectiveness lies in spontaneity, so you want to write about the prompt as soon as you can after the initial exposure. If you prefer to use prompts created by someone else, then I highly recommend obtaining a copy of Roberta Allen’s book. You can also search the term “timed writing prompts” on any search engine.

Once you have your prompts and your timer and you’re ready to write, read the first prompt, set the timer for five minutes, and write about the first thing that comes to mind, without stopping, until the timer sounds. This is important because writing without stopping is the key to this technique. This means you don’t take time to ponder the best way to respond, you don’t evaluate the worth of your idea, you don’t worry about finding just the right word… everything your internal editor normally tells you to fix or rework, you ignore for the sole purpose of filling the page with as many words as you can for five minutes.

What happens if your mind goes blank before the five minutes expire? When this happens, think your way to another topic on the page. Don’t stop writing, just record your thoughts. For example, if I’m writing a story about pizza and find I’ve nothing left to say, I might write, “I’m out of thoughts about pizza. I don’t know what to write next. I wonder what’s going on at home? What are the boys doing in their classes today?” and so on. The point is, don’t stop.


How This Helps

By making timed writing a part of your daily writing habit, you are giving yourself permission to ignore a lot of inhibitions that can keep a page blank. Because no one except you will see these exercises, you learn to write honestly, which helps you find your voice. You learn to follow your ideas, which can lead to some great material. And you learn how to conquer the blank page. Currently I use this technique whenever I need to start a new scene (chapter, novel) and I have no idea how to approach it. I tell myself that I’m just playing around so there’s no consequence to having a bad idea and, because I’ve been using this technique for so long, I often end up using the material that began as something I was just playing around with.

What about you? What tips and/or tricks do you use to move from stuck at a blank page to amazingly productive writing session? I’d love to hear your writing hacks in the comments below.


To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, or to join in, click here.

Please note the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop will be taking a break for November and December 2017. We will be back in January with more awesome content!

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Medieval Lipstick and the Devil in Cultural Details | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Sep 21, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process, Uncategorized | 1 comment

Medieval Lipstick and the Devil in Cultural Details | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

“The setting of a story is defined as the time, place, and culture in which a story occurs.”

I speak the definition for my high school English class, then write it out by hand on my classroom SMARTBoard, a visual cue that my students need to add this tidbit to their notes because, yes, it will be on a test. I wait for them to solder this definition into their minds a little more firmly because, in addition to hearing it and seeing it, writing it provides the third type of information interaction necessary for learning. As I wait for them to finish writing, wonder how this applies to my stories, and I remember a recent encounter…

I was recently privileged to act as a mentor to two debut authors in a social media pitch war. One thing I noticed in both of the submissions I critiqued was that both authors “broke” the cultural settings of their stories. The transgressions were relatively minor, but they still pulled me out of the illusion of the story.

For example, one author’s protagonist spoke the phrase, “As if” to another character. While this is a familiar phrase today, it did not belong in the medieval European culture in which this particular story is set. “As if” is a very popular phrase today but would have been unknown even one hundred years ago.

Maybe it’s because I teach teens and I associate this phrase with the casual sarcasm in American culture today, but those two little words were enough to yank me out of the cocoon of willing suspension of disbelief that the author had worked so hard to weave around me.

Another example comes from my own writing. I was standing in the entryway of my house one day, waiting for something or another, when I happened to look in the mirror and notice the bright streak of color my lipstick had left on the white paper stick of the lollipop that I was savoring. I decided instantly that the image could serve as a fabulous focal detail in a story. The only problem: I’m two books into an epic medieval fantasy. To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t have lollipops in feudal England, and I’m not even sure about the lipstick. So I can’t use the image.

Don’t worry—I haven’t thrown that image away. I have retooled it. I have an urban fantasy/crossover novel that I’m one-third of the way through, and I’ve included this detail there. But what if I hadn’t? Would I have to give up on the image? By no means! I would just have to do some research on medieval lipstick and equivalents and create a more culturally appropriate image like a smear on a cup created by the blend of sheep fat and pulverized red roots that a scandalous lady wore on her lips in order to defy the priest who condemned facial adornment…  You get the idea.

As the idiom says, “the devil is in the detail”. In the case of story writing, this is true. Sometimes painfully true. A little detail that is not authentic to the culture of your story can do a lot to derail a reader, so make sure the details of your setting align with the story’s time, place, and culture.


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Traditional Publishing FAQs | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, FAQ | 12 comments

Traditional Publishing FAQs | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

In regard to the writing industry, one of the areas I am questioned about the most is the arena of publishing. People often ask if they should publish traditionally or independently (see my post about that here) and how they should go about becoming traditionally published should they choose that route. If you’ve decided traditional publishing is for you, and you want to know how to get started, I recommend four things:


1.  Build your on-line platform

At its most basic, this means develop an on-line presence. You must have a web page, preferably with a blog, but focused mainly around displaying your novel. If your novel is not front-and-center on your web page, then you need to reformat it. You are a writer—you sell stories. Everything else is bonus.

In addition to a web page, you want a strong presence on at least two forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter are common, as are Tumbler, Instagram, and WattPad. (If you are a writer and you don’t know about WattPad, you need to check it out. Major potential to build a following there.)

What if you’re not published yet? It’s never too early to get started. As a matter of fact, starting now will give you an advantage when your book finally hits the market. All of your social media followers will be more likely to purchase your published work so, viola, instant sales numbers!

The thing to keep in mind about an on-line platform is interaction. Don’t try to do everything, because you can’t, but also because this will spread you too thin. Pick two or three social media forums to master, then interact with others (I can’t emphasize this enough). Prospective editors are looking for the number of potential buyers your social media followers represent. It does no good to have followers in the thousands if they are not interested in purchasing your work. Demonstrable interaction with your followers is a huge draw to potential editors because it shows that you will bring a likely return on their investment.

As for what to put on your blog, I’m still learning about that. I’ve read that it’s easier for non-fiction authors because they can continue to blog about the topics of their publications. For fiction authors, however, it’s not quite so easy. If I find a good list of topics to recommend, I’ll let you know, but if you have any suggestions for blog content for fantasy novelists, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.


2. Obtain a copy of the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, published annually by Writer’s Digest. (This is not an affiliate link)

If you publish something else, like poetry, never fear… they have a plethora of different market guides. This is just the one I’m the most familiar with. However, no matter what you write, if you are seeking traditional publication, then you NEED this book in your life. It contains everything: a section of advisory articles about current topics in the publishing industry; a section on how to format query letters and manuscripts for submission to agents and editors; a section on writing competitions; another section on writer’s conferences; and, most importantly, a list of agents and a list of editors who are seeking clients, along with the specifications of how to submit your work to them.

Wait, why did I mention an agent? Do you need an agent? That depends. If, like me, your eyes tend to glaze over when it comes to fine details and deep analysis of numbers, then yes, you need an agent. Also, agents already have an “in” with publishers. They have relationships that allow them to recommend your work, which gives the added bonus of someone beside your mom who loves your work enough to recommend it to someone else. (Don’t worry, I’m not dissing moms. My mom is one of my greatest supporters. She will tell people to by my book before I even think to address the topic. So moms rock, but they are a bit biased…)


3. Follow all formatting guidelines

You are seeking professional publication. Take the time to find out what the professionals want, and tailor your submission to their specifications. This sounds easy, but you would not believe how many people disregard this advice. Trust me: following submission guidelines to the letter will set you apart and get you noticed in a good way.


4. Attend writing conferences

As a writer on a very tight budget, this one is hard for me (see my post about it here). I always struggle about whether or not the cost of a writer’s conference is a necessity or an indulgence. However, for reasons I detail in the a fore-linked post, I believe this step is crucial. Many agents and publishers are beginning not to accept manuscripts submitted from out of the blue. There is such a glut of writing in today’s market, and such an abundance of authors who want to be traditionally published, that a significant number of agents and publishers are only accepting submissions pitched at a writer’s conference.

What if you’re not pitching anything? In my opinion, this is even better because it places you in a position to meet industry professionals with no strings attached. Get to know the agents and publishers as people; build a relationship with them before you pitch to them. This will allow you to obtain insight into their work and what they are looking for without the uncomfortable 15 minute speed-query, which will save you a lot of rejections in the long-run.


This, then, is the list of things I always tell someone who asks me about getting started with traditional publishing. However, this list is not exhaustive! If there are any questions I have not addressed here that you would like me to answer, or if you have any other recommendations, please let me know in the comments below. Happy writing!

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Writer’s Conferences: Are They Really Worth It? | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Jul 18, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process | 5 comments

Writer’s Conferences: Are They Really Worth It? | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

One of my favorite things to do as a writing professional is to attend writing conferences. I am a true nerd by definition—I love learning or the sake of learning, so much so that I actually cried with sorrow, not joy, when I graduated from college. I love to dip my toe back into the pool of focused learning, and I do it whenever I get the chance. Writing conferences are so much fun for me that I would go just for the atmosphere, if nothing else.

Unfortunately, when it comes to deciding if I should attend a conference or not, there are a few cold, hard facts about life that I can’t escape. Conferences can be expensive, and my budget (like most of yours) is terribly limited. I have a lot of responsibilities—even when I’m not teaching because of school holidays, I still do a lot of planning and preparing; I also have children to feed and raise, a small menagerie of pets to care for, and a house to clean and keep in running order. To top it all off, I am an ambivert with strong introvert tendencies, so it can be painful to place myself in a room full of strangers.

When these reasons are piled all together, I can very easily talk myself out of attending a conference. I can justify just about anything and, if left to my own devices, I can use any of the above factors to prove to myself that attending a writer’s conference is a selfish indulgence on my part—a frivolous extra that I don’t really need, especially since I have to be responsible with my time and money. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you are a writer at any level, writing conferences are essential to your career. Here’s why:

  1. Continued learning about the craft of writing

If you are a new writer, it seems abundantly clear why you need to attend a conference: the classes you can take to learn how to master a skill, or to learn about an aspect of the industry, make the cost worthwhile many times over. However, even multi-published authors can benefit. As a teacher I am required to obtain a certain amount of continuing education each year, in order to improve my skills and to ensure I continue to provide my students with a quality education. Many other professions require the same thing. It is no different for a writer; there is always something new to learn. Even if you’ve mastered a given technique, listening to someone else teach that technique may lead to fresh insight, which could breathe new life into your next work.


  1. The chance to meet with agents and editors

Most conferences offer the opportunity for writers to meet face-to-face with, and pitch their work to, agents and editors. More and more of these industry professionals only obtain new clients through appointments at conferences, so attending a conference can be crucial for the advancement of your career. These one-on-one meetings also come with a bonus: feedback. Instead of receiving a bland standard manuscript rejection, most agents and editors will not only tell you why your project is not right for them but will also provide insight into how you can improve.

What if you’re independently published? Instead of conferencing with agents and editors, you can connect with other authors who are independently published and learn what works and what not to do from their experiences.


  1. The opportunity to build a tribe

Another extremely valuable aspect of writing conferences is networking—getting to know people in the industry as individuals. I love the experience of sitting next to someone in a session, striking up a conversation, and really connecting on an individual level only to find out later that he is an agent from such-and-such literary agency, or she is an editor with some major publishing house, or they are both New York Times bestselling authors. These personal connections, where I am not asking anything of anyone but am rather focused on building honest relationships, are my favorite aspect of writing conferences, especially when they deepen into friendships. This is what networking is all about, and it is not something you can do very well in the comfort of your own home.


While summer seems to be the height of conference season, there are a variety of writer’s conferences happening at all times of the year, and all around the world. If you are at a spot in your writing where you don’t know how to move forward, I recommend you find a conference that fits your needs and budget and sign up. For those of you who are at a good spot in your writing right now, attending a conference can still be a significant investment in your career.

What do you guys think? Are there any conferences you just can’t live without? Or are there any other reasons you can think of why attending conferences is an essential rather than a luxury? I’d love to hear your observations and remarks in the comments section below.


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On Podcasts, Cave Dwelling, and Studying the Art of Writing | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Jun 21, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process | 11 comments

On Podcasts, Cave Dwelling, and Studying the Art of Writing | Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Unless you have been living in a cave in a very, very secluded part of the world, you have most likely heard about, if you are not actually engaged in, the trending phenomenon known as the podcast.

I, myself a resident of said cave, have heard of the term only thanks to the fact that I teach high school. Were it not for my students, my technical savvy would be lacking on a much greater scale. My students keep me updated on all things trending, and we have a secure enough relationship that they don’t laugh too much when I ask them how to use whatever new technological marvel currently obsesses their media-saturated interests.

For those of you who are quite content in caves of your own and are unfamiliar with this new-ish technological marvel, a podcast is an episodic, radio-style talk or video show you can subscribe to, most often for free. Once you are subscribed, new episodes will download automatically to the media-playing device of your choice.

I tend to ban myself from excessive use of media. It is easy for me to lose hours in the time-sucking vacuum created by the computer or television screens dotted throughout my life. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it… I enjoy it too much, and I don’t have a lot of down time. So when I first heard of podcasts, I noted the idea, then filed it in the portion of my brain labeled “Highly Interesting but of Unlikely Benefit” and moved on.

Oh, how wrong I was.

As a writer who is addicted to research, one of the ways I work myself out of being stuck is to dig deeply into researching the concept I’m stuck on or the technique I’m wrestling with. I am new to the marketing game, so as I was researching marketing strategies, I discovered for myself what a wonderful thing the podcast is. I discovered that podcasts are portable, free, and abundant. I subscribed to one focused on marketing for authors, and now consider podcasts one of my first go-to resources, especially for research on the go. I can listen to podcasts while completing mindless chores, such as folding laundry or washing dishes. Thanks to current technology that allows me to sync my phone to the sound system in my car, I can even listen to podcasts while I’m driving. As I spend a lot of time driving, this is a beautiful thing.

I should come out of my cave more often.

For those of you who are new to the podcast form, or for those who are looking for some new podcasts to try, here is my current lists of writing-helpful podcasts.  They are listed alphabetically with brief descriptions of major focus in the parentheses. I hope you find something among them that meets whatever need you are experiencing on your current writing journey, and I’d love to hear of any writing or creativity based podcasts you are listening to. Happy listening!

  • #AmWriting with Jess & KJ (writing in general)
  • Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach (writing in general)
  • Book Launch Show (book marketing)
  • Create If Writing (authentic platform building)
  • DIY MFA Radio (writing-specific how-to)
  • Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (grammar how-to)
  • Hastag Authentic (social media how-to)
  • HopeWriters (writing in general)
  • Podcast Communicator Academy (writing and creativity)
  • ProBlogger Podcast (blog tips)
  • Save the Cat! Podcast (story structure and form)
  • Story Grid Podcast (story structure and form)
  • The Author Hangout: Book Marketing Tips for Indie & Self-Published Authors (book marketing)
  • The Creative Penn Podcast (writing in general)
  • The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins (book marketing)
  • The Sell More Books Show (book Marketing)
  • The Writer Files (writing in general)
  • Write Now with Sarah Werner (writing in general)
  • Writing Unblocked with Britney M. Mills (creativity and inspiration hacks)


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The Button Girl | Book Review

Posted by on Jun 7, 2017 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

The Button Girl | Book Review

You NEED this book in your life.

Repentance Atwater is a headstrong girl with a resolute spirit and a plan… and she will enact that plan no matter who she hurts. Because of this, I had a hard time with this story at the beginning. I understood Repentance’s reasoning for her goal, and I certainly related with her stubborn determination, but I was angered by the way she refused to see beyond her nose. However, her growth through that selfishness to learn how actions have consequences that ripple out beyond just ourselves is one of the main themes of the story. It is what makes The Button Girl an excellent fantasy dystopian novel.

As with the character of Sara in Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth, I was frustrated with Repentance through the first part of the novel. However, the author is a friend of mine, so I kept reading. I am very glad that I did because, again as with Sara in Labyrinth, The Button Girl shows how Repentance grows from short-sighted girl to a compassionate and generous young woman. By the half-way mark I was totally emotionally invested, and by the end I was an emotional wreck. I enjoyed this novel so thoroughly that I plan to buy a paper version (instead of reading it on my reading device) so I can display it on my bookshelf in my hall of favorites. I am confident you will enjoy this novel just as much.

Do yourself a favor – skip the digital version and buy the paperback one first.

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