Limited Availability in October

I will be unavailable for new projects for the month of October. I will be attending an intensive, full-time course for the full month and will not have the time to devote to editing or design work. I will still be checking email and answering questions, but if you have any work you need done before then, please contact me soon. Otherwise, I will be available again in early November.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 10: Polishing Your Work

Workshop Introduction

Polishing Your Work

When you’ve finished your first draft, you should put it away in a drawer for some length of time—a day, a week, a month—how long is up to you, but the longer you can go without looking at it, the fresher your perspective will be when it’s time to revise. If you can wait long enough that you nearly forget the details of your plot line, you’ll almost be able to read it objectively, as your readers would.

When it’s time to begin revising, you can either print the whole thing out and go through it with a pen (red is traditional, but can be psychologically harsh—I’d suggest green), or go through a copy of the original file on your computer. After the first draft is finished, you should always work from a copy in case you want to compare or revert to something from the original.

The following revision suggestions are paraphrased from an article titled “Set the narrative hook” by William G. Tapply in the October 2009 issue of The Writer magazine. As you go through your first draft, keep these points in mind. You may want to read through the entire story focusing on one point, then read it again focusing on the next point, and so on.

  • Let your characters’ actions and words create the scene, not your descriptions and summaries. That way the reader will feel as if she is witnessing the scene herself, instead of hearing about it second-hand. This is commonly referred to as “Show, don’t tell.”
  • Check your sentences for active verbs and solid, specific nouns. Avoid passive verbs and passive voice—avoid forms of “to be” used with another verb (the door was opened, he was going to go).
  • Minimize your use of adverbs and adjectives. Often these indicate that you didn’t use a strong enough verb or noun. Consider the difference in these two phrases: “the speeding shuttle forcefully pushed its way through the dense cloud cover” or “the airship blasted into the upper atmosphere.” Which one has a stronger sense of speed and movement?
  • Edit out cliches, melodrama, overly verbose passages, and excessive descriptions. Your goals should be conciseness, specificity, and clarity. If enough time has passed since you wrote the first draft, you may find places and passages that confuse you. Your readers will be doubly confused.
  • Don’t show off your expansive vocabulary or your ability to write grammatically correct convoluted sentences. As a writer, you should be invisible. The spotlight should be on your characters and the events of their story.

Once you’ve gone through at least one revision, record yourself reading the entire manuscript out loud and listen to it, taking notes about any spot that sounds rough, slow, or awkward, or that doesn’t advance the plot. Alternatively, you can read it out loud to a close friend, or ask them to read it out loud to you. Phrases that read well on paper don’t always sound natural out loud. This is an especially helpful exercise for any dialogue in your story.

Below are some references that may help you in self-editing your manuscript.

The benefits of an editor

If you are planning to submit your manuscript to an agent or publishing company, you should consider hiring an independent editor to provide a thorough copy edit. A good copy editor is your partner in polishing your manuscript in preparation for publication. She can help make the difference between an agent or editor dropping your work in the slush pile, or continuing to read beyond the first five pages.

Your copy editor reads your work thoroughly, line by line, checking for more than just spelling and grammar mistakes. She ensures that your characters remain consistent throughout the story, that the setting and plot details are plausible, and that your voice and style are consistent to the end.

Researching publications and submission guidelines

This is an often overlooked task that usually takes a backseat to writing, but do not slack off and cut corners now that you’ve got a polished manuscript. Take the time to locate only those markets or agents that would fit your story like a glove. They are your best chance of reaching publication.

In addition, be sure to follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Nothing irritates an agent or editor more than to receive a manuscript by email when their website clearly states they only accept snail-mail submissions. There are many sources to research agents and publications, including Duotrope,, AgentQuery, and If you have a particular agent or publisher in mind, be sure to read through their website carefully.

Exercise 1

Write the climax and ending of your story.

Exercise 2

Research publications that may be a good fit for the genre, theme, and length of the story you wrote.

Exercise 3

Write a second draft of your story, using a critical eye to tighten up your prose, remove unnecessary words, and correct errors.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 9: Tension and Climax

Workshop Introduction

Tension and Climax

Your story must build tension all the way through, up to the climax. Each scene should add a little bit more. If not, it will feel flat and boring to the reader. But you don’t want to start off too strong, too soon, or you’ll wear the reader out.

Tension comes from interference in the protagonist’s drive to fulfill his desire (see Lessons 3 and 7). Each scene should include a little bit, however subtly, of the protagonist striving to get what he wants, and someone or something thwarting his progress. Each time the protagonist is prevented from achieving his goal, the tension builds a little more, driving the character on, and pulling the reader along with him, until finally the story reaches its climax.

The climax is the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and whatever is keeping him from reaching his goal. Think of it as the showdown in a western. Everything that’s gone before has led up to this point. Will he get what he wants? That’s up to you, the writer. But either way, the climax decides it, once and for all, and the remainder of the story resolves loose ends and concludes the action.

Should all of the loose ends be resolved?

You don’t necessarily need to resolve all of the loose ends in your story, but you must provide a resolution for the major plot line. Your story, from the very beginning, makes certain promises to the reader. If you do not fulfill those promises, you will leave the reader frustrated and likely lose them entirely.

Your protagonist does not necessarily need to achieve his goal, but his search for it should be resolved by the end of the story. For example, if your protagonist is a woman trying to save her failing marriage, she must resolve this goal by the end of the story. How she resolves it is up to you, the author. Perhaps she saves the marriage. Perhaps the marriage ends, but she makes peace with this fact. Perhaps the climax involves the husband trying to kill her, or vice versa, and the marriage is definitely over. Either way, the goal or “quest” she sought throughout the story is resolved.

Exercise 1

Write the next part of your story. Be aware of building tension into the scene as you work toward the climax of the story.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 8: What is a hook?

Workshop Introduction

What is a hook?

Editors and agents make a decision about your story based on the first few pages—sometimes the first paragraph. They don’t have the time or patience to read the whole thing if the opening doesn’t grab them. You need a good “hook” to get the reader’s attention and keep him turning the page.

The hook doesn’t need to be aggressive. You can reach out and grab your reader by the throat, refusing to let go, or you can reach out and wrap your reader in a warm embrace and invite her to follow your story. Both work equally well, but either way, your story should have a hook. It should generate a feeling of empathy in your reader for your protagonist. The reader must care about this character enough to want to know what happens to him.

The tone and voice of your opening suggest the type of story to follow. Gritty language and a cynical narrator should mean a detective novel, thriller, or something similar. If the story turns out to be a sweet romance, you’ll lose the reader because the opening will have been a lie.

What kind of story do you think each of these examples will be?

Example 1

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

Example 2

“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Douglas Adams, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”

Your opening makes promises to your reader, which must be kept or you’ll break faith and lose them for good. Some of these promises include the following:

  • Events in the first scene are important to the story.
  • Characters in the first scene are important to the story.
  • The mood and tone in the first scene foreshadow the mood and tone for the rest of the story.
  • The narrative voice will be consistent throughout the story.
  • Conflicts in the first scene will be developed and then resolved through the course of the story.
  • Themes hinted at will be expanded and explored through the course of the story.

In the Beginning

Your story should start at the logical beginning, the start of the action. Don’t start with background information on your characters—impatient readers will either drop the story or skip ahead to the actual action. Also avoid starting at the climax or most exciting point of the story because then most of what follows will be background or flashback to fill in up to that point, and the reader could find it boring, already knowing where the story is headed.

You should try to start in the middle of some action. Identify the moment that starts your plot, the scene that precipitates the story itself. This is usually a moment of change for the protagonist. In a love story, it could be the moment the two characters first meet; in a detective story, the moment the detective finds the first body. Just make sure something is happening in the opening paragraph.

As scifi author James Gunn wrote in the December 2011 issue of The Writer magazine, “After that, background information—exposition—can be filled in as necessary. …Once questions have been raised in the reader’s mind, exposition loses its curse by becoming answers that the reader actually wants. Giving the reader incentives makes all the difference.”

Don’t make your reader wonder about the time, place, and point of view of the story or you’ll frustrate, confuse, and possibly lose them. Insert small details to provide these clues from the start to give your reader the grounding necessary to focus on the story itself.


“I’d picked up my Globe at Leon’s store and was bumping over a Maine dirt road on a Saturday morning in late August, taking the long way back to Alex’s house, when I spotted the woman shuffling along up ahead of me.” William G. Tapply, Cutter’s Run

This short opening provides all of the following information to the reader:

  • First Person point of view
  • Time of day and year
  • Physical location in Maine
  • Introduces a secondary character, Alex
  • Sets up the start of the plot with the woman shuffling along

Exercise 1

Write of an encounter between your protagonist and one or more other characters which precedes the timeframe of your actual story.

Exercise 2

Write a background story about your antagonist. Make your reader empathize with the motivations of the antagonist. If your antagonist is a situation rather than a person, write a background story about that.

Exercise 3

Write the opening scene of your story. Focus on trying to write a good “hook.” It doesn’t have to be polished at this point, but be sure that you’re starting at the best place in your story, and that you take the points discussed in this lesson into consideration. Keep in mind that nothing is written in stone at this point, so your opening could completely change.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 7: Plot

Workshop Introduction


“Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are…something is bound to happen. …Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. …Let what they say or do reveal who they are.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994)

All stories, no matter their length, have the same basic structure of beginning, the build to a climax, and the end that ties it all together and leaves the reader with some sense of satisfaction. These elements make up the plot. If you don’t have these three elements then you have a vignette, not a true story. Vignettes can have their place, but our focus in this workshop is a full story. We’ll discuss the beginning more fully in Lesson 8, and the climax in Lesson 9.

By now you should know your protagonist very well from the character profile you created in Lesson 3. You should know what her deepest, most overwhelming desire is. In order to create a plot and the tension that will lead to the climax of your story, put an obstacle in her way of reaching that desire (the antagonist, for instance), then let her guide you in her drive to achieve it—this will show you the plot.

If your female character’s deepest desire is to have a storybook happy marriage, what would happen if she found out her husband has been cheating on her? How would she deal with this news?

If your male character’s deepest desire is to completely exterminate an alien race that’s invading Earth, how would he react to the government declaring him an enemy of the state and trying to kill him?

If you’re stuck for a plot idea—if you have a solid character you really like but aren’t sure what his driving desire is, start writing short stories about him. Put him in different situations and see how he reacts. Chances are a plot will emerge from one of these stories.

Exercise 1

Create a basic outline for your story arc. Please read the “Phase Outlines and NaNo” section of the free eBook NaNo for the New and the Insane for some helpful advice on one method of creating an outline.

Exercise 2

Write a background story that sets up your plot. An example of this: The Lord of the Rings story revolves around the One Ring, its significance, and how it’s destroyed. But how did Bilbo Baggins get the One Ring in the first place? That background story is in The Hobbit.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 6: Setting

Workshop Introduction


In Lesson 1, we learned some of the factors that can make up the setting of the story. In this lesson we’ll go into each in more detail. Please note that you should avoid dropping large chunks of setting description (or character background) into your story. This is known as “info dumping” and can cause your reader to lose interest. You should sprinkle these details throughout your story in a natural manner. Remember, just because you know every little detail does not mean your reader needs to know it.

Physical Geography

The physical location of your story can either be entirely invented, such as another planet, or it can be based in whole or in part on a real location.

If your location is entirely invented, you will need to resort to some level of “world-building” which can be very complicated and difficult. At the minimum, you’ll want to draw a map of your world to keep the details and specific locations consistent. You don’t need to worry about drawing a map of sufficient quality to be included in the final manuscript, but it will need to be good enough for you to refer to it as you write.

But world-building isn’t restricted to science fiction and fantasy. Even if your location is based on a real city, if you invent any streets or buildings, you’ll want to map them out to keep them straight in relationship to each other, and to things that truly exist.

If your location is based on a real place, you can invent details within that place (a restaurant that doesn’t exist in the real world) but you should keep major details consistent with reality. If you set your story in New York City, you can invent entire buildings that don’t exist, but the city had better be on the east coast of the US unless you provide the reader with a plausible explanation for why it’s not.

If you decide to use a real place, include mundane details in your story that aren’t easily accessible to tourists, like local neighborhood cafes. You want to come across as an authority on this location, not just a tourist guide.

Time Period

You can set your story at any point in time, but if your geographic location is somewhere in the real world and you’re not writing speculative fiction, you’ll need to keep the details consistent with what actually happened at that period.

Depending on the period, this could require a large amount of research. You don’t want anachronistic details throwing your readers off and making them lose faith in the rest of your story. Google is a huge help in this regard, allowing you to search for farmers’ almanacs for weather details, pictures of old newspaper ads for prices and technology of the time, etc. You can also look for “Remember When” yearly books for information about trends, fads, prices, and other information for a specific year.

Stories set in the future have much more leeway, even just a few years into the future. But the details should still ring true to the reader and seem plausible.

Political System

As with the other components of setting, you can choose to use an existing political system, or make one up. You can set your story in modern America and use the two-party democratic system of government. You can set your story on a distant planet with a dictatorship. You can create a fantasy world with kings and knights.

If you use an existing political system, be sure to get the details right, or readers may notice. If you create a political system, make sure that the rules for governance have some logical basis, or you could lose the reader’s faith in the world and system you’ve created.

Level of Technology

A story set in the Stone Age of earth should not have characters using bronze knives unless some amount of time travel is involved. Be sure that the level of technological advancement is suitable to the other aspects of your story’s setting.

Economic System

The economic system of a society is often closely connected to its political system. If your world involves a representative democratic government, they probably wouldn’t engage in a barter system. By the same token, if you have feudal lords, the common people wouldn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. If you base your political/economic system on real-world examples, be sure to research the details to keep it believable to your reader.

Modes of Transportation and Dress

A futuristic setting should have suitably futuristic vehicles and clothing. If there has been a nuclear holocaust, for instance, vehicles may be out of commission and your characters may need to wear radiation suits whenever they go outside. If your setting is Victorian England, your characters should travel by horse-drawn coaches and the occasional train, unless you’re writing Steam Punk.

Speech Patterns and Mannerisms

This can be the trickiest part of setting. If you’re writing about a historical period, there may be little material to help you determine if a particular bit of slang was used then. If you are unsure, you’re better off keeping to standard grammar. If your story is set in the future, you have the leeway to make up your own slang, as long as you provide enough surrounding context that the reader can pick up on its meaning.

As noted in Lesson 1, be careful of using dialects in your work; this is very difficult to pull off successfully. If you use too much, your reader has trouble following along. Pick a few key words or phrases that provide an idea of how the character speaks, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A couple of examples include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and J. K. Rowling’s Hagrid in the Harry Potter series.

Exercise 1

Describe a physical setting in your story. Use all five senses, and make your reader experience the setting as if he or she were there.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 5: Point of View

Workshop Introduction

Point of View

Who is the narrator? Through whose perspective is the reader viewing the story?

First Person

This is the most intimate Point Of View (POV). The reader views the action directly through a character’s eyes, but not necessarily the main character. An example of this is in the Sherlock Holmes stories—the narrator was Dr. Watson, but the main character was Sherlock Holmes himself.

Your reader only knows as much as the POV character does, so be careful not to insert knowledge that the character couldn’t know. For example, don’t use the thoughts of another character, or something that happened in another room, unless someone tells the POV character about it.

First Person POV uses “my” and “I.” For example, “I knew from the moment his mouth opened that something was wrong with my brother.”

Second Person

This POV can sound like instructions and is often used in technical writing. It uses “you.” For example, “You open the door and walk into an empty room. You look around for any signs of life, but there is only dust.”

Second Person is more immediate, it puts your reader directly into the story, as a character. This can be good for suspense, action, tension, but it is Very difficult to pull off successfully. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books is a good example.

Third Person

This is the most commonly used POV, and the most flexible. The narrator is not a character in the story, but an uninvolved observer. This POV is categorized along two axes: Subjective/Objective and Omniscient/Limited.


Also called Third Person Limited, Subjective goes inside the character’s head (thoughts, feelings, opinions). The narrator knows everything that one character knows, including their thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but is limited to only knowledge available to that character.


Objective stays with external facts. The narrator knows everything the characters know, but does not get inside the characters’ heads. This is the “fly on the wall” perspective.


An omniscient narrator knows everything, about every character, setting, action, etc. The narrator has all of the knowledge available to all of the characters about time, places, people, events, and all of their thoughts with no limitations. This is the most impersonal POV.


A limited narrator may know everything about one character, including thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but is limited to that one character’s knowledge.

Exercise 1

Write a short scene between two characters in First Person POV (about 200-500 words). Then rewrite it in Third Person. If you’re feeling up to a challenge, rewrite it again in Second Person.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 4: Dialogue

Workshop Introduction


Don’t write dialogue in perfect, grammatical English. No one really speaks like that, except perhaps English professors. Make your characters talk on the page the way you hear them in your head.

A good exercise is to carry a small notebook with you everywhere you go and eavesdrop a bit on everyday conversations around you. Pay attention to the cadence of casual speech. Make note of colloquialisms and phrases that catch your ear.

But don’t try to record everything that actually passes in a real-life conversation. If your character answers the phone, the reader doesn’t need to hear all the little pleasantries that people generally exchange, and she doesn’t need to hear the sign-off, either. Cut to the meat, to the heart of the information in your dialogue.

Read the following two sections of dialogue. Which one keeps your attention and moves the story along better?

Sample 1

Tanya picked up the squalling phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Tanya, it’s Mike.”
“Hey, Mike. How are you?”
“I’m good. And you?”
“The same, I guess. I was just reading a book. What’s up?”
Mike paused. “Umm…I was wondering if you had any plans for this evening…”
“No, I don’t. Why? Did you wanna do something?” Tanya switched the phone to her other ear.
“Well…I was thinking maybe we could go out or something.”
“Where did you have in mind?”
“Oh, I dunno, maybe Ricky’s for dinner and then a movie?”
Tanya groaned inwardly. “What movie would you want to see? Nothing testosterone-driven, I hope.”
“Whatever you wanna see is fine with me, I guess.”
“Well, we can start with dinner and then see what’s playing tonight and go from there.”
“Yeah, that’ll work. Pick you up at 6:00?”
“Sure, that’s fine. See you then, Mike.”
“Okay, bye.”

Sample 2

Tanya picked up the phone, guessing it would be Mike. “Hey, stranger.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Lucky guess. What’s up?”
“If you don’t have plans, I was thinking dinner at Ricky’s tonight, and maybe a movie?”
“Hmmm…as long as it’s not a testosterone-driven action flick, I’m in.”
Mike laughed. “No, we can see whatever you want. I’m open to anything.”
“Okay, pick me up at 6:00 and we’ll play it by ear after dinner.”
“Okay. See you then!” He hung up.

Be careful with dialogue tags (the narrative pieces that provide clues to who is speaking). Sometimes less is more, and this is generally true with dialogue tags. You want the tags to disappear into the background, so try to stick with “he said, she said” type tags. In order not to have too many repetitive tags, though, vary them with some action on the speaker’s part, such as I’ve used above (Tanya switched the phone to her other ear, Mike laughed).

If you have trouble with dialogue, have someone read it out loud to you, or record yourself reading it and play it back. You’ll begin to hear where it’s awkward, where the reader stumbles or falters, where the movement of the story lags because there’s too much inane chatter between your characters.

Exercise 1

Your protagonist is in an elevator with the person he or she despises the most in the world. Write the scene using only dialogue.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 3: Characters

Workshop Introduction


Exotic names are okay in certain genres, but not all. For example, the name Chesapeake Divine would work in a romance novel, but not as well in a children’s story.

Beware of using complicated or hard-to-pronounce character names. Have you ever read a story where you weren’t sure how to pronounce a character’s name? When I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce Hermione, since it’s not a name used in America.

You also don’t want your reader creating their own nickname because the name you gave the character was too hard to deal with. For example, the name Zynaxix Chthul in a science fiction novel might look appropriate, but most readers would stumble over it every time they saw it.

Your characters must have depth. If you make them too flat or two dimensional, your reader won’t be able to relate or connect with them. Even the bad guys need to have depth, realism, something to which your reader can relate.

Every character in the story has his or her own deep, driving desire. This underlying desire causes them to react the way they do to any situation. You do not need to overtly state what this desire is, but the reader should be able to infer it from the character’s actions, words, frustrations, etc.

How much background is too much in the story itself?

You should know everything there is to know about your character, but you shouldn’t try to use it all in the story. Introduce necessary pieces of background information as you need them, but if the reader doesn’t need to know that Sam broke his arm falling out of his treehouse when he was eight, don’t include it. You still need to know that fact because it causes him to have a fear of heights, which leads to his preference for always living on the ground floor of apartment buildings.

Exercise 1

Create character profiles of your protagonist and antagonist using this template (MS Word document).

Exercise 2

Write a background story about your protagonist, using an event that takes place outside of the time or place of your story itself (something that happened to the character when they were young, if your story involves them as an adult, for instance). Make your readers relate to the protagonist in such a way that we would be devastated if they experienced conflict.

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Writing Workshop Lesson 2: Fiction Genres

Workshop Introduction

Fiction Genres

There are many genres and subgenres, with lots of cross-over between genres. Many stories could fit into several different genres, although they are usually marketed in the one they have the strongest connection to. Most authors find one genre (or a close combination of a couple) more comfortable than others and tend to stick with it, or are typecast into that genre (such as Stephen King in horror). Writers don’t always write what they themselves like to read. I personally like to read horror, but I’ve never attempted to write it; it’s not my strong area.

Some of the main genres include the following:


Use real people, places, or events, but fictionalize the action, like Gone With the Wind


The protagonist goes on an epic journey to a distant place to accomplish something, like The Three Musketeers


Similar to Adventure, but the protagonist usually takes a risky turn leading to fight scenes, battles, and cliff-hanging danger, like the James Bond books

Science fiction

Involves technology, alternate or parallel universes, outer space or other planets and creatures, or the future, like the Star Wars series


Includes magic, mythology, mythological creatures, like The Lord of the Rings


Involves the protagonist’s emotions and usually focuses on relationships rather than action, like Jackie Collins’s books


About a crime that was or is being committed, with the protagonist usually solving the mystery, like Agatha Christie’s Poirot series


With an intention to make the reader laugh, these works can cross any other genre, like Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing


Intended to scare the reader, like nearly all of Stephen King’s work


Uses a mix of fear and excitement and tends to be more realistic than Horror, possibly with a psychological aspect, like Dean Koontz’s work or James Patterson’s Alex Cross series (Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider)


Occurs in a time or place of little technology, like the American Wild West or the Australian colonial Outback, and is usually about horses, livestock, ranches, and the people who lived and worked there, like Louis L’Amour’s work


Geared toward entertaining and educating children and usually has elements of other genres like adventure or fantasy, like James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Young Adult (YA)

geared toward middle grade to teen readers and usually involves characters slightly older than the target audience, like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series

Exercise 1

Select two or three genres that appeal to you. Create two characters (they don’t have to be very detailed) and write for 10 minutes in each genre about a confrontation between them because one found out the other was keeping a secret.

This exercise is designed to help you determine which genre is the most comfortable for you to work in. But remember, it’s always good to stretch your abilities, and occasionally you should try a genre that’s not so comfortable for you.

Exercise 2

Begin thinking about the story you’d like to write. Create a summary of the general premise of your story. Who is your protagonist? What will happen to this protagonist and why? How will it turn out in the end?

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