Reach Your Blog Readers – using Hashtags, Titles, & Images correctly!

A guest Post by Edie Melson

(Reprinted by permission – The Write Conversation, Monday, August 29, 2022.)

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

A little teaching moment… 
 
With the chaos of social media, and the strict guidelines now in place with email, our digital connections have gotten more complicated. But one thing hasn’t change—the ability to be found through an organic search. 
 
This process begins when we know the basics of keywords and SEO. The post I wrote, How to Apply SEO to Your Blog – One Blogger’s Process, will help you get started.
 
Recently I’ve been working with several bloggers about ways to get more organic page views. Organic views happen when someone searches for a topic—either through a search in a search engine or by searching for a topical hashtag. Beyond keywords and SEO, titles and hashtags are critical to getting found. 
 
It may surprise you to learn that it is possible to be found. But as bloggers, we need to deliberately set ourselves us to be found in a topical search. So today we’re specifically looking at the use of hashtags when we share a post on social media, the titles we choose for posts, and the images we pair with them. 
 
Hashtags
There are two times when bloggers need to carefully choose hashtags for a post.
  1. When composing a click to tweet within the post.
  2. When sharing a social media update about a specific post.
Here are the things we need to remember when choosing hashtags.
  • Choose two. Occasionally it may make sense to use a third, and even more rarely use only one. But the majority of your updates (unless you’re on Instagram) should have two. 
  • Choose hashtags that are relevant and specific. I see more mistakes here than in any other use of hashtags. For example, if I was sharing a blog post about tips on how to deal writing rejection it might seem like a good thing to use rejection as a hashtag. The word rejection is not a good hashtag. The context of that hashtag is rejection—NOT writing rejection. It doesn’t help us get more views or likes because the people searching for rejection hashtags are primarily looking for relationship advice. Hashtags are a search tool and must stand alone in their context or they’re worthless.
  • If possible, hashtag words in the main message of the update. For example, if the word you want to hashtag is in the title, hashtag that instead of adding the word again unless it’s the first word. Avoid hashtagging the first word of a tweet.
Titles
Titles need to reflect the full topic of the post. This is not time to be clever or too generic. Here are three things to remember.
  • Your readers will evaluate your post’s content based on the title. When a title is misleading or even ambiguous, the reader can walk away feeling cheated.
  • The blog title must stand alone—with full context—when shared on social media. For example, if we go back to that imaginary post about how to deal with writing rejection. I’ve seen a lot of bloggers who would go with the title: Tips to Deal with Rejection. At first glance that seems like a pretty good title for someone who is reading a post on a writing site. But what about those doing a search in a search engine or reading the text in a social media update? For them it’s misleading and generic. A better title would be: Tips to Deal with Writing Rejection. What makes sense to a reader who has the full content of a blog is much different from what makes sense without visual clues and context.
  • The title should contain a phrase that someone would type into a search engine to find the content in your post. It’s not clever, but I can see many people typing How to deal with writing rejection, into a search engine. That’s the final piece of the puzzle and immediately moves your post up in a search engine search. 
Images
It may seem like images are less important when it comes to being found in an organic search, but when we know how to do certain things, an image can provide a huge boost in visibility. 
  • Images need to illustrate the main focus of the blog post. Let’s once again go back to the imaginary blog post, Tips to Deal with Writing Rejection. If we’re not careful about the image we choose, we can lead potential readers astray. For example, choosing the image below could send the wrong message if someone misses the word, writing, in the title. 
  • We all know that images aren’t searchable….Unless they are captioned….Unless the file name of the image contains a searchable keyword. Yep. By taking a few extra moments to compose a relevant caption and saving the image with a relevant file name instead of some generic title you can increase your organic search views. Let’s once again visit that imaginary blog post.
    • That image above has a file name that includes the word loneliness—this is what www.Pixabay.com lists as the title of this specific image. So this image is not only a poor choice, but with that file title it will reinforce the wrong type of results in an organic search. 
The bottom line is that the details matter. It’s important that we blog smart. By paying attention to the titles we choose, the hashtags we use, and the classification of images we can make a huge difference in the visibility of our posts. 
 
Now it’s your turn. What questions do you have about these details? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 
 
Don’t forget to join the conversation!
Blessings,
Edie
 
TWEETABLE
 
 

Edie Melson is a woman of faith with ink-stained fingers observing life through the lens of her camera. No matter whether she’s talking to writers, entrepreneurs, or readers, her first advice is always “Find your voice, live your story.” As an author, blogger, and speaker she’s encouraged and challenged audiences across the country and around the world. Her numerous books reflect her passion to help others develop the strength of their God-given gifts and apply them to their lives. Connect with her on her website, through FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 

What Makes a Good Mystery Series for the Author and the Reader?

While Jackie Houchin is on vacation (in Spain or France now) we have another Guest Author. (Thank-you, Elaine!)  Jackie hopes to return with her next scheduled post of June 8, 2022. 

by Elaine L.  Orr

Like most writers, I put words on paper because if they don’t get out that way I risk screaming on a street corner. I get those words into print because I think others would enjoy them.

When readers like the characters, they may clamor for more. Even if they don’t initially, we think they will. I consider several things when I start a new mystery series.

  • Is the setting or main topic interesting enough to keep exploring? My first series (the now twelve-book Jolie Gentil series) is set at the Jersey shore because I love small, east coast beach towns.
  • Can I connect to the characters enough that readers can too? This doesn’t mean does an author like the characters. Some of the most relatable ones are the evil ones.
  • Is the life of the main character part of a profession or hobby that makes discovering a lot of big problems (or bodies) realistic? Jolie is a real estate appraiser and runs a food pantry, both things that bring her into contact with many people in varied settings.
  • Is there a plan to have the characters evolve over time? If lead characters have the same strength and foibles in every book, they become predictable. That sameness can lead to reader (and writer) boredom.
  • Is the plan to write a certain number of books, culminating in a big event or life transition? Or can stories continue as long as the author has ideas?

I’ve used the Jolie Gentil Series as the example, so I’ll do it one more time. I envisioned three books, with the third being called Justice for Scoobie, a childhood friend she reconnects with as an adult. Wrong. He’s the favorite character. Couldn’t bump him off and have Jolie solve that crime!

 

My primary hobby is researching family history, a natural one seeing that I like U.S. history and finding my families’ links to it. Why did I never make that an important focus of a series? Beats me. It is now.

The Family History Mystery Series has the fourth book underway. And that tells me something. My other two series (River’s Edge and Logland) have three books each. I may start fourth books, but why not jump into them immediately after the third?

Did I not think through the first four questions above? I did, and I have more ideas. What was missing? Passion. Hard to define, but it’s another key component of writing. You have to REALLY want those characters’ lives to continue if they appear in a series.

Have you noticed I didn’t use the word plot once in this piece? All good stories need more than a beginning, middle and end. They need a compelling story and conflict, which doesn’t necessarily mean action. In mysteries, there are a myriad of criteria. For example, if the villain pops up at the end with very little role or foreshadowing, reviews may not be kind.

As in all books, plot matters in a series. But the characters (and their evolution) matter most. Main and even ancillary characters need to contribute to the story and have a clear purpose.

Reader reactions matter, but they can’t determine how your characters develop. They can, however, inform what you do after book one. Take them seriously, but don’t make them your guide.

Finally, enjoy writing the series. If you don’t, the series could meet an untimely demise.

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Elaine L. Orr writes four mystery series, blogs, keeps in touch with lots of family and friends, and tromps cemeteries looking for long-dead ancestors.

To learn more, visit https://www.elaineorr.com.

 

 

A Final Pass

by Miko Johnston

By the time you read this, the manuscript for my fourth A Petal In the Wind novel will be back from the editor and ready for its final draft before publication. Prior to sending it out, I made several passes through it, each time searching for ways to fix or improve the work.

In my first pass I searched for everything from formatting issues to misspelled words. In light of recent events I found parts of the story, which I’d begun writing in 2017, had become dated. I couldn’t gloss over a worldwide pandemic and the social rifts that emerged from political discord. Several new characters who were introduced in chapters written years before the book’s conclusion sounded too generic; I’d gotten to know them better as the story progressed and that needed to be reflected in their earlier dialog and mannerisms.

Other passes looked for repetition, excess verbiage, more precise word choices, missed misspellings, lapses in logic, and incorrect information. With that complete, I sent out my manuscript, anticipating a few more changes would be needed once I heard back from my editor. I took advantage of the wait time to put together all the additional material needed – logline, book blurb and synopsis.

Whenever I have to write marketing stuff, I cringe. It’s not what like to do, or do well. I view it as a necessary evil, and many authors I know feel the same way. However it must be done, and the good news: I’ve found an advantage to it beyond promoting the book.

When you have to encapsulate your x-hundred page novel into a one page summary, then a teaser for the back cover, and finally a one-sentence logline, it forces you to look at your theme in a different way. Gone are the long passages of prose, the snappy dialogue, the transitional scenes and flashbacks. You must have a laser focus on what your story is about – what you’re trying to get across to the reader in terms of theme, character, and plot. By doing so you sometimes will see aspects of the story that are important but may not have been shown in a compelling or complete way. So beyond my editor’s input, I saw that I wasn’t done with my revising.

I came to that conclusion when I encapsulated a 106,500 book into a few paragraphs with just a hint of where the story will eventually wind up. I had my external conflict and internal struggle, and pointed that out in my blurb. Then I wrote my logline:

Amidst the social and political upheaval in the aftermath of WWI, a woman who identifies as an artist marries the love of her life, but chafes at being relegated to wife and mother.

We can understand the difficulties a woman would face in giving up her career to marry and have children, especially at a time when such notions weren’t as accepted as they are today. But had I adequately shown how she feels in the book? Could I have made it not only clearer, but on a much deeper level?

The logline hints at the deeper issue. What she rails against is not being married to the man she loves, or even the challenges of motherhood. It’s losing her identity, having to see herself as only a reflection of her husband and children. When Jane marries John Doe, she becomes Mrs. John Doe. Her baby’s mama. She’d wonder—what happened to Jane?

My character Lala is a woman who’s accomplished a great deal despite her youth. She not survived the trauma and hardships of WWI and kept her family alive, but her home town as well. It’s described as a factory town north of Prague throughout the series. In America we’d call it a company town, where a single business – in this case a furniture factory – provides the economic base of the area.  Circumstances force her to take charge of the factory and oversee its conversion to wartime production. If it had closed, which it nearly did, the town would have been devastated. How can someone like this ignore all she achieved, the skills she developed, the talent that resides within her?

When the manuscript returns from the editor, I will review the comments and make some changes, including a few of my own – adding more layers of my character’s internal dilemma to the story. Then I’ll probably rework my promotional material. A writer’s work is never done…that is, until it goes to the publisher.

 

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

Deciding What to Write

By Linda O. Johnston

 If you’re a writer, how do you decide what to write?

 Often, it’s the kind of story you love to read:  romance, mystery, paranormal, historical fiction, whatever. That makes sense.

 Or maybe something you believe others will want to read, so it’ll sell well. But that’s not something totally predicable. So I go with what I enjoy.

 With me, my preferences have changed over the years. Oh, I’ve always enjoyed romances, romantic suspense and mysteries. I’m not as much into historical stories as I used to be.  Same regarding paranormal stories.

 But you could probably tell what my favorite stuff was at any time of my life in the past many years by seeing what I’ve written!

 My first published fiction was a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I won the Robert L. Fish Award for first published short story! Yes, it was a mystery of sorts, a humorous one: “Different Drummers.”

 My first published novels consisted of time travel romance, and most revolved around places or things I particularly liked. For example, one of them, Point in Time, took place in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Another took place in Alaska, in the Klondike, and I’ve always loved visiting there: The Ballad of Jack O’Dair. And of course there’s Once a Cavalier, featuring my babies, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

 I wrote other paranormal romances too, including Stranger on the Mountain, and the Alpha Force miniseries I created for Harlequin Nocturne, about a military unit of shapeshifters.

 I loved paranormal romance! But notice that’s in the past tense. So is my focus on paranormal stories. I still read some, but I’m not writing any now.

 I’d always enjoyed mysteries and romantic suspense. I still do—and that’s in the present tense!

 That’s why I write them both: romantic suspense for Harlequin Romantic Suspense—and formerly for Harlequin Intrigue—and mysteries, over time, for multiple publishers including Berkley and Midnight Ink, and—upcoming!—Crooked Lane. Most of the mysteries, and as many romantic suspense as possible, include animals, especially dogs. I love to write about dogs. Why? Because I love dogs!.

 So that’s how I decide what to write: again, what I love to read. But also what I most enjoy writing about.

 How do other authors decide? Based on conversations with fellow writers, I gather they, too, mostly figure out something they enjoy, then pounce on it and pour out a story they love.

 It’d be hard, after all, to write a story if you didn’t like its subject or genre.

 Those writers who are reading this blog, I’d love to hear in comments where your ideas originate and how you decide to write about them. And how you enjoy writing about them!

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Writing Short Stuff

by Jackie Houchin

How short can you write a story?  If you are doing NaNoWriMo this month, your goal is 50,000 words, about a 175-page book.  How about only 10,000 words, or 5,000? 2,000?

In Writer’s Digest, the September/October issue, author Ran Walker wrote a very interesting article titled “10 Reasons to Write a 100-Word Story.”  Say, what? 100 words? Yes! In his article he describes the benefits of writing “the smallest stories.” I hope to borrow from his wonderful piece, and write a story…right here…right now…in only 100 words (including the title)!

Here, briefly, are the reasons Ran Walker gives for trying your hand at a 100-word story.

  1. “The initial drafts of your stories don’t take nearly as long to write.”

Okay, here goes:  It was a dark and stormy night… No, no, no! 

Okay, again:  Last night Wesley dreamed he saw a floating lantern coming towards his bed. It seemed to beckon him to follow. In pajamas, sans slippers or robe, he wafted clumsily out the open window pursuing the light. “How could this be?” he thought, “I’m not Peter Pan!”  Wesley looked at his dog far below, barking soundlessly, and threw her a biscuit from his pocket. (No, no no, on that last part. No doggie biscuit.) 

Again: …barking soundlessly. A white owl flew by and winked at Wesley. 

Good grief!  I’m at 64 words without a villain, climax, denouement, or the title!! This is harder than I thought. I’d better get to the suspense and the ending!

A note drifted from the beak of the owl and Wesley caught it. He bent forward to read it by the lantern light. ‘Don’t forget to feed the dog. I’m working tonight. Love, Mom.’ “Oh, no!” thought Wesley. “Poor Maddie!”  Suddenly the lantern disappeared and Wesley began falling, falling. Something caught his foot, but he landed with an “Ooof!” On his bedroom floor, foot tangled in a nappy blanket, Wesley felt the happy wet tongue of Maddie on his cheek. “Finally,” she woofed.

This can’t be!  It’s at 148 words!  And what should the title be?  Lantern Flight? Owl’s note? Falling?  Ooof?  I definitely need to do some editing, but that’s Ran Walker’s 7th point.

   2. You are not tied to the traditional “Hero’s Journey” or Freytag Plot Arc.

Hmm, I didn’t have series of obstacles or a narrative arc, but I did have “rising” action, climax, and “falling” action. And a little denouement lick.

   3. You can let your inner poet come out.

Not only pretty words and/or rhyme, I must make every. word. count.  I’ll consider that when I go back to edit out “my darlings’.

   4. You can experiment with different genres without worrying about how it will affect your brand.

Well, my Wesley story is a kids’ story, so that matches my “cough, cough” brand.  It’s a bit of a fantasy genre however.

   5. The focus on a specific word count forces you to think about your story differently.

Boy, is that ever right.  Let’s see if I can chuck a few words right now.  100 is a stern taskmaster.  “Sans slippers or robe” has to go.  “He saw” can go as well. And “it seemed to” also.  Hey, this is fun. That’s NINE WORDS excised.

   6. You can focus more on movement within a single scene.

I think I have movement – floating, wafted, pursuing, flew by, drifted, falling, falling…..   whoa, I’m getting dizzy!

   7. It’s an excellent way to learn how to edit.

Walker says, “If each word was a dollar word, would you be getting maximum value for your $100?  Why write ten words when five will do?” 

   8. It forces you to refocus your story and choose only what is important.

He adds, “And keeps you from going off in tangents.” 

   9. It allows you to really pay attention to grammar and punctuation.

   10. It’s something you can do for fun, even if your intention is to write longer works.

Walker says, “The added incentive is that if you like the ‘rush’ you get from finishing a story, you will receive that feeling much faster with a 100-word story. At a time when people are wrestling to carve out time to read and to write, it is nice to know there is a writing form that lends itself to being consumed in minutes (versus weeks) and to being written in a single setting. Why not try one today?”

Okay, here is my edited version: (I had to cut out 49 words, then rearrange and substitute what was left.)

“REMINDER”

Last night Wesley dreamed a lantern beckoned to him out his open window. Clad only in pajamas, he floated after it.

He saw his dog far below, barking soundlessly. An owl flew by and dropped a note from its beak. Wesley caught it and angled it toward the light.

“Don’t forget to feed the dog. I’m working late tonight. Love, Mom.”

 “Oh, poor Maddie!”

The lantern disappeared. Wesley began falling. Something caught at his foot and he landed softly. On his bedroom floor, tangled in a blanket, Wesley felt Maddie’s warm, wet tongue on his cheek. 

“Finally!” she woofed.

 

Well, what do you think? Does it work?  

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I also got a few tips from author, Maggie King (MaggieKing.com) about writing regular length short stories. Her “Cupcakes and Emeralds” is featured in the new mystery anthology DEATH BY CUPCAKE, published by Elm Books

She answered my questions, “There has to be a cupcake in the story, so first I come up with a story idea. I love revenge tales, but who is seeking revenge against whom, and why? Once I figure that out, I can decide on plot, characters, red herrings, and setting. I must decide if cupcakes will be part of the plot, or a mere prop. The “body” is found in a church – my unexpected aspect – but is the church another red herring?  At the end I like to circle back to the beginning. “

Thanks Maggie, if anyone wants to check out her story and the other seven in the anthology, the link on Amazon is Death by Cupcake. 

# # #

 

Ran Walker (RanWalker.com) is the award-winning author of 23 books. He teaches creative writing at Hampton University and lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

His latest book, KEEP IT 100, a collection of one hundred 100-word stories is now available everywhere.  The link on Amazon: KEEP IT 100

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Quote by crime novelist Jo Nesbo,

“When you write a novel, it’s like steering a supertanker. You have to plan; you have to have a route; you can’t just go left and right.

I started writing lyrics and the challenge was to write a story in three verses and a refrain. For me, a short story is like writing songs. You can sit down and write and you can quickly tell whether it’s working or not. And if it works, it may already be finished. That’s a real good feeling, to go to bed at night having written a story.

Also, you don’t have to explain a short story. When you write a novel, you have to think, “What is this really about?”  A short story can just have a feeling and that’s OK.”

Are YOU ready to write ONE HUNDRED words?

Words, Words, Words. Who keeps track? Writers!

By Jill Amadio

Words, words, words. More than three million of them.

That’s how many a Tamil in India wrote. Granted, the words were spread over 26 volumes but still, quite remarkable. Chinese authors wrote lengthy books, too, while contemporary writers like J.R.R. Tolkien confined himself to a mere 558,003 words to complete The Lord of the Rings.  J.K. Rowling wrote 1,084,170 words in the Harry Potter series. Carl Sandburg threw half a million words onto the pages of Remembrance Rock, while Stephen King prefers to write long, and his thriller, It, has a whopping 1,138 pages for a paperback price of around $30.  A bit heavy for reading in bed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is around 500 words under 50,000, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace that everyone thought to be the longest book in the world offers 587,287 of text.

I was curious last week as to word count while putting the finishing touches to my 9/11 novel. Based on a true story, I found, to my horror, that the manuscript only contained 61,000 words. I know for cozies that is acceptable but anxious to check out what the going word count was for novels these days I went online to research.

Happily, the consensus is that the majority of publishers are content with a range of 50,000 to 100,000 of an author’s polished prose. One site claimed that anything over 40,000 is acceptable. However, books by C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell among others were bestsellers with books under that number of words.

It actually depends on genre. A literary novel, one site tells me, and by the way what the heck is a literary novel as all writing is, by definition, literary, no? No. It turns out that literary fiction must be intellectual, have depth, character and style. Surely, mysteries fit right into the middle of those requirements.

Publishing industry standards can vary. Authors of romance novels typically write between 80,000 to 100,000 words, and science fiction and fantasy can exceed 140,000. Westerns are, surprisingly, shorter, between 45,000 and 75,000, and novellas can be from 18,000 to 40,000 words The Reedsy blog site points out that a too-long word count is a symptom of a major plot or pacing problem.  First drafts can usually tell us whether we’ve overstepped the yardstick, and where to cut. Most editors warn writers not to edit their manuscript until that first draft is complete, and keep an eye on bringing too many characters into your story.

It is tempting to include extraneous material when your write about a favorite hobby or pastime you love but it’s a no-no for publishers unless it’s a theme like knitting, baking, or cheese. Frankly, I enjoy learning something new and my current read, The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths is an archaeological mystery that briefly explains many of the basics of the discipline in dialogue, the perfect place.

Thus armed, I began to edit my latest novel’s first draft and found I was right in the ballpark of acceptable word count. Of course, if you are going to self-publish with KDP, or other places, you can make up your own rules. But if readers expect a certain number of pages in your series it makes sense to adhere to that. Another point to keep in mind is that if you are adding an audiobook to your editions it could require a rather lengthy listening period that could get tiring.

A godsend to writers is the software that continually counts your words as you write and at the same time posts the page number you are currently on. A few writers I know never look at those results over periods of days or weeks in order to be wonderfully surprised when they finally do take a peek. Or not. They say that being required to produce or eliminate a certain number of words is soul destroying.

As several authors have commented when considering word count: “When it’s done, it’s done. When the tale is told, it’s told.”  End of story.

BACK TO BASICS: Writers’ Boot Camp Part III

 by Miko Johnston

Last year I began the BACK TO BASICS series with BEGINNINGS and then presented MIDDLES, so as this is my first post of 2021, I’m beginning by ending the series with ENDINGS.

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Congratulations. You’ve grabbed the reader’s attention with your opening and kept them rapt through your middle chapters. Don’t spoil things now with a disappointing or frustrating finale – the pages that comprise the lead-up to the climax through the final sentence. 

An off-putting beginning may discourage a reader, and when asked she’ll say, “I couldn’t get into it, but you might like it”. A problematic middle will dampen her interest, but she’ll likely continue, hoping for redemption. However, a bad ending will exasperate her. She’ll fume over wasting her money buying the book and wasting her time reading through to the end, and she’ll badmouth the book to everyone she’s ever met.

Am I right?

Once you’ve convinced a reader to buy your book, you don’t want to ruin all the time they’ll invest in reading it with an ending that falls flat, doesn’t make sense, or comes out of nowhere.  

A good ending must appeal to our emotions as well as our logic; move us, make us think, but also make sense. The best ending, simply put, satisfies the reader. This is not synonymous with a happy ending, which too often can be trite. It means the story finishes in a way the reader feels is plausible, based on what happened throughout the pages. She may be pleasantly surprised it didn’t turn out as expected, but as it ought to have concluded. Or she may be left wanting the story to go further and view the end as merely a good stopping point, which it should if you’re writing a series. Genres often dictate the type of ending needed – the detective solves the murder, the cop catches the criminal, the lovers beat all odds and wind up together. 

To conclude your novel successfully, first consider what doesn’t make a good ending:

1 – A lack of any closure. The point of the story must be resolved. You don’t have to spell everything out, but too many story threads left hanging will frustrate the reader. 

2 – Too ambiguous. You can leave some details to the reader’s imagination, but not the entire plot.

3 – Too neat. The opposite problem; tying up too much or having everything work out perfectly defies credulity.

4 – Too rushed. You want to build tension as you approach your final pages. A fast pace can produce excitement, but slow it down enough to generate that tension.

5 – Too drawn out. If you slow the pace too much you won’t generate tension and worse, you’ll lose the reader’s attention.

6 – Too contrived. Also known as deux ex machina or “the Martians landed”, this ending comes out of thin air with no foreshadowing in the story.

7 – Too predictable. Even if we know how the story will probably end, we still want something satisfying before we close the book.

8 – No ending. The story just stops.

If you’re wondering what satisfies readers you have only to look at book review sites like Amazon and Goodreads, which offer (usually) genuine critique. Your own experience as a reader will inform you as well. Classic endings include:

1 – Resolved: Effective in stand-alone stories where the protagonist has a goal and achieves it. The detective solves the murder. The lovers reunite. The operation is successful. This works best if it involves some plot twist, surprise or emotional satisfaction.

2 – Unresolved: Commonly used in literary fiction, where the point is to give the reader something to consider, or evoke an emotion. It’s often seen in series, where some plot elements are left for the next book, but trickier to pull off in a stand-alone. There’s a fine line between unresolved and ambiguous, so even when done well, many readers don’t find this type of conclusion satisfying.

3 – Open-ended: This is an implied ending, which like the unresolved ending, can frustrate readers who want to know, not contemplate, what happens. It differs from the unresolved ending in that the reader gets a sense of how the story turns out through foreshadowing in earlier chapters, or it might leave the plot open to interpretation, but complete the protagonist’s arc.

4 – The twist: Also known as a surprise ending. It differs from the contrived ending because it’s been adequately set up throughout the plot by lacing the story with subtle clues. Twist endings delight readers of mysteries, but it also works in other genres.

5 – Book-ended: I mentioned this in Part I of Writer’s Boot Camp. If you begin your story with the lead-up to the climax, complete the circle by returning to that moment at the end. Or, instead of pairing an action, create a symbolic book-end by repeating the theme of your opening, very effective in stories about never-ending battles like fighting crime, spies or terrorists.

6 – Statement or summation: This can complement or a contrast a statement or explanation beginning, and like it, tends to be cerebral. A successful version will be metaphorical rather than concrete, leaving the reader with something to think about, or picturing what happened and imagining what will happen next.

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The one element all good ending have in common is that they’re successful only when properly set up throughout the pages.

Still struggling? If your finale lacks closure or is muddled, it might be because you didn’t resolve enough story threads. Fix that with addition and subtraction – add enough details to flesh out critical plot point and edit out non-critical bits like multiple red herrings and extraneous characters or storylines.

If the pacing is off, decide whether you’ve rushed or dragged out the climax. If it’s the former, intensify the ending by delaying the payoff enough to create tension. Emotional reactions, thoughts, reasoning out, or physical actions like running, arguing or physically fighting can slow down a rushed pace with added conflict. Trimming might be enough to fix a plodding climax. Shortening sentences to an almost staccato rhythm speeds up the pace as well.

Does your protagonist feature prominently in the resolution of the story? There’s a reason a common synonym for protagonist is hero – we want our characters to be pro-active in bringing about the conclusion of the story. Make them active participants in their quest and its success or failure.

If pacing and character aren’t the problem, then consider the tone. Have you maintained continuity throughout? Can you justify your protagonist’s arc? I’ve read books that changed genres or mood along the way. In some cases the end bears little resemblance to the beginning. Find the scene where you lost your way and let it guide you to what and how much needs revising.

What if you don’t know the ending, or aren’t sure of how to bring it about?

I introduced the idea of writing different beginnings in Part I. It also works in reverse. If you’re unsure of how the story should end, consider the different possibilities and write out a few. See which works best with what you have. For example, if you can’t think of a good twist ending to your mystery, attempt a book-ended or a resolved ending. It may yield an idea for your story’s climax. Or, if you can’t decide between several endings, consider making it open-ended by inserting clues from the potential conclusions into the plot. Then the reader can decide for herself.

If you can’t seem to get to the ending you’ve planned, try the bridge technique outlined in Part II.  Link up the ending with the last chapters you’ve completed by working backwards for a while, then move the story forward to that point.

I hope the techniques I’ve outlined in this series have been helpful. Perhaps you have other methods you employ to open, continue or close your stories. We’d love to hear them.

MIRIAMs blog. kyle-glenn-_AR74EoWdy0-unsplash

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories in anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently completing the fourth book in the Petal series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

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Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

*          *          *

Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

What to Write When the (Ink) Well is Dry.

That is where I am right now.

Oh, sure, I’m writing every day: checks to pay bills, answers to emails and texts, posts on Facebook and Instagram, birthday cards to put in the mail that day, a grocery list, a “to do” list, a note to Hubby about an errand I need to do and when I’ll be back.

But creative writing? Um, no. Unless you count a quick book review I pound out in fifteen minutes, knowing that unless I do it today, it will be late, and then I’ll feel awful. Too bad I only skimmed the last two chapters… but you don’t mention how books end anyway, do you? And then I still felt awful, because I’ve always determined to finish a book – every word – before writing a review. Boo-hoo.

Oh, I do write curriculum for my third (used to be fourth) to sixth grade class* at church every week. That can be fun. The delivery can be somewhat creative, but not the text of course. It’s the Bible, after all.

In one point in last week’s lesson I was teaching how that precious Word of God is called “the sword of the Spirit” in the Bible. “Sharper than any two-edged sword, able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” I’d been teaching them the first sermon preached by Peter, the fisherman-turned-apostle, when I came to its conclusion. (It’s a doozy!) I pictured a duel between forces of good and evil, raised my imaginary sword and did a bit of fencing (pantomime, of course), ending up with my opponent on the floor, my sword tip on his chest. The phrase “coup de grace” came to my mind, and still holding my imaginary position with opponent pinned down, explained the French phrase. “The final blow,” I said, looking at the fifteen kids slowly. “The thrust that pierces the heart,” I said. And then I jabbed my sword right to the floor… holding for a few seconds before looking up. Then I jerked it free, held it high, then slipped it into my imaginary sheath at my left hip.

There was quietness for a few seconds, then I had the kids read verse 37 of Acts chapter 2, which was the response of the crowd to the strong finish of Peter’s sermon. It reads, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” Peter’s inspired use of Scripture had brought instant conviction.

But that was “creative” thinking and teaching, not writing. So what do you do when your ink well is dry?

  1. Read in the genre you want to write. Read for pleasure (maybe even some old favorites). Read those authors who inspire you. Read, read, read.
  2. Go online to the sites that list daily (a month at a time) story prompts or story ideas. Here’s one I sometimes use. (Click farther on the site for other ideas.) https://mailchi.mp/writerswrite/daily-writing-links-29-september-2020?e=befa474c79
  3. Start (or start up again) a daily or weekly journal. I have to admit that when we returned from our (fantastic) cruise and a week later faced the monster that became Covid-19, I quit journaling. (Crazy huh? What a “ripe” season of lockdowns, scary bar graphs, no one working, everything closed, ghost freeways, that I could have used in stories. Sigh!) Well, it’s not too late. Maybe begin with a “to do” list, and comment on your doings and feelings during that day. Or… you choose.
  4. Study books by writers that give instruction. A few weeks ago we had Sara Rosett as a guest blogger. She wrote about she used lots of things for Research in her historical mysteries. But she also mentioned a couple “How To ” books she has written. “How To Outline A Cozy Mystery” and “How to Write a Series.” Both are easily found on Amazon. (I recently bought them both and am eager to dig in, for at least a chapter a day.) Look for books on short story writing by our own The Writers In Residence, G. B. Pool.
  5. Take note of those weird dreams. Hey, maybe your creative muse is locked down inside your head, and wants to safely, with some social distancing via dreams, give your mind some help.
  6. Look at a calendar. Upcoming holidays are always good for getting the juices or muses working. Think back to fond memories. Think forward with some Sci-Fi or Fantasy weirdness. Let the seasons inspire.

Do whatever it takes, even acting out some scenes from your favorite book in front of your spouse, dog or cat, or the mirror. The movements, actions, even words may lead to some nice black… or maybe purple… INK in your writing well.

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*I used to teach a class of 4th to 6th graders, but now that all must wear a face covering in class, I have inherited the 3rd graders as well. (They used to be together with 1st and 2nd grade.) According to the “order,” all students in 3rd grade and up must wear masks etc. Second grade and below do not have to. The Children’s Ministry leader felt it would be hard on some in a class that have to wear them while others didn’t. But, on the fun side, I’ve discovered that those third graders are pretty sharp too and I only need a little tweaking of the lesson that I prepare for the older kids. (PS: I wear a face shield, so the kids can see me better.)

Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

*          *          *

Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

*          *          *

Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

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