Monthly Archives: September 2013

Q3 ’13 Storyfix Newsletter — Explanations, Invites, Goodbyes, a Blurb and a Reboot.

With a couple of killer story coaching deals.  That’s the reboot.

It’s been a while.

Over a month, in fact, since I’ve posted something new here, though this space has been more than suitably filled with great guest posts from my go-to writing gurus.

Where have I been?  Picture me on a beach next to my supermodel wife, margarita in hand, reading the pre-release VIP version of Demille’s newest novel, because they want a blurb from me.

Because that’s how I roll.  Yeah, that’s how it is in the blogging business.

Not.  My wife qualifies, but that’s not how the last month went down.

More like a long trip to the old ‘hood to hang with family (“Gee, you’re funnier in print…”), some bothersome health stuff and a few worthy writing and story coaching diversions.

Missed ya.   Missed this.  Not kidding about that. 

Writers Digest West Coast Writing Workshop – September 27 – 29, Los Angeles

That’s me on the agenda for Sunday (the 29th), 11:10 am to 12:00 noon.  My topic:

 Storytelling Excellence Through The Avoidance of Mediocrity

Basically it’s this: do everything like Michael Connelly and Gillian Flynn would do it.  And if you catch yourself saying (to yourself) “I’m really just writing this for myself, I’ll do it however I want because I don’t care what happens to it and I still believe that characters actually DO talk to their creators,” try another strategy if that’s not working for you. 

Which I’m guessing isn’t.

The Writers Digest website invited me to write a blog post to help ramp up for this conference.  You can read it HERE… I hope you will.  It begins with what seems like a joke – “Three writing conference attendees go into the hotel bar…” – but isn’t.

Also, Writers Digest Magazine commissioned me to do a feature article for their January 2014 issue – look for “Stuck In The Middle: A Mid-Draft Fix For Every Story” in that issue.  While they’ve excerpted (a strange word, that) several slices of Story Engineering over the past two years, this will be the first of what I hope will be a continuing presence for me in that magazine.

Farewell to Vince Flynn and Elmore Leonard

We lost two of our best recently. 

Flynn was spectacularly successful in what you might call the homeland security genre, and was taken from us too young.  Always jarring when the news hits.  I have to admit, when I heard he was best friends with Rush Limbaugh I experienced a WTF chill (that’s a bit like Colin Powell hanging with Dennis Rodman), but he was a brilliant storyteller, a writer I admired.

Elmore Leonard was… well, Elmore Leonard.  Maybe he wasn’t your chosen literary flavor, but for millions and for decades he was the Frank Sinatra of modern hard boiled crime, with a voice based on not really having much of one at all, the Chairman of the Board of minimalism. 

If you haven’t read his “10 Rules of Writing,” from a 2001 piece that first appeared in the NY Times, you owe it to yourself.

By the way, I completely disagree with #2.

Deadly Faux” (Turner Publishing) releases in three weeks.

October 8, to be exact, though odds are (because this is what Amazon does) it’ll be out in Kindle prior to that. 

In case you missed the memo, “Deadly Faux” is my new novel, my first since 2006, and the sequel to my 2004 novel, “Bait and Switch,” which was my critical home run (Turner is re-releasing it in early November ”13)… largely because of its snarky well-chinned hero (who speaks to me when I least expect it; the Limbaugh line above was his).

This is my chance to walk the Storyfix talk.  Haters, load your weapons, my shields are down.  If you have published, or when you do, you’ll know that feeling, it’s like standing on second base naked in Yankee Stadium (for most of us, in the middle of the night).

Then again, “haters” of my work (read my Amazon reviews for Story Engineering and Story Physics, they’re out there; I don’t mind critics or criticism, but some of these yahoos cross the line) tend to divide between not recognizing or understanding the infrastructural physics that make a story work (I think of them as the hey-asshole-theearth-is-actually-flat-after-all… right? readers, among other things), or they are allergic to my conversational, passion-driven writing. 

I could go on, but I’ll take my – to date –24 to 2 box score (5-star reviews vs. 1-star reviews for Story Physics, and 126 to 6 for Story Engineering) and shut the F up about it now, and moving forward.

The first “Deadly Faux” blurb is out, and it’s really rather… humbling. 

Amazing, actually, if you’re me.  The kind of blurb or review an author waits a lifetime to receive from someone besides his mother (unless your mother is J.K. Rowling – who is younger than me – or Mary Higgins Clark, who isn’t).

This blurb comes from James N. Frey, the esteemed writing mentor and author of the iconic “How To Write A Damn Good Novel,” which remains high on the charts since its publication in 1987. 

Here’s what he says about “Deadly Faux” – 

“Crime novelist Raymond Chandler was widely acknowledged in his day as the Poet Laureate of The Dark Side (he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake). He died in 1959 and ever since there have been many pretenders to his throne. Among the best are James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke—all masters of the craft, all wordsmiths of the first order, but none of them had Chandler’s gifts. After half a century of being on the lookout for a crime fiction writer with a voice that rivals Chandler’s, one has finally appeared, quietly chugging his way up the bestseller lists with Darkness Bound, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, Serpent’s Dance, and Bait and Switch. His name is Larry Brooks. The guy has a slick tone and a crackling, cynical wit with lots of vivid descriptions (of both interior and exterior landscapes), and the sparkling figures of speech dance off the page and explode in your inner ear. Though as modern as an iPad 5S, he is truly and remarkably Chandleresque. He’s dazzling. Check out his new one, Deadly Faux—it’s sexy, complex, intelligent; a truly delightful novel with more plot twists than a plate of linguine swimming in olive oil.” 

Heady company.  Heady stuff. 

I’ve been waiting my whole career to use the word verklempt and mean it.  May your inner ear explode, too.  I hope you’ll give me that chance.

And if you’re wondering if this entire post is just an excuse to put this out there… I get that.  Half true.  Honestly, if it was you… wouldn’t you, too?

Two Killer Story Coaching Deals

If you’ve read this far, I’d like to reward your patience and support. 

As you know, I provide story coaching services, and I do it in a unique way that doesn’t require you to choose between this and a trip to Maui.  I offer a Kick-Start Concept Evaluation for $35 (because it’s short, it is what it is ), and a fuller look at your entire story arc, via a challenging and detailed Questionnaire that will test you on your own story, for $150.  

The latter, in particular, covers the majority of issues that put a novel or screenplay in jeopardy, so from that perspective this is, like, the most ridiculously valuable and useful and underpriced story coaching program, like, ever.  (I’ve done about 200 of these in the last 18 months, with only one vocally unhappy client.  Because she didn’t understand the 101-level terminology in the Questionnaire.)

My first “deal” makes it even more affordable.  Because the principles described in my newly released writing book, “Story Physics” are key to the feedback, I’ll incent you to pick up a copy with these two spiffs: 

Send me the receipt from a digital download of Story Physics (dated from today, September 19, through October 31), or tell me which bookstore you bought it from, and… 

  I’ll send you the actual book proposal sent to Writers Digest that resulted in this book (something you can use to help model your own book proposal), and/or…

   I’ll discount the $150-level Story Coaching service to $125, through the above date (though, once in, you don’t have to actually send in your Questionnaire answers until, well, whenever you’re ready.)

If you opt in to this, send me an email ( with the words “COACHING DEAL” in the subject line.  (For the story coaching part, I use Paypal… feel free to use that email-recipient address to launch there, or I can invoice you.)

The OTHER discount… and this is an EVEN BETTER VALUE…

… is for my most useful and valuable review level of all: the FIRST QUARTILE Manuscript Analysis, which also includes the same full story plan Questionnaire.   Here’s why this is a remarkable opportunity:

By reading your first 100 pages or so (up through your First Plot Point), I can – with nearly 98 percent certainty and accuracy – determine the state of your novel.  Strengths and weaknesses, and issues to address.  Using the Big Picture context of your Questionnaire answers, I’ll know if the concept and premise have been successfully and effectively launched, if your Part 1 set-up has met the criteria for an effective opening quartile, and if the whole thing will float in a sea crowded with grouchy agents and editors and stellar manuscripts seeking the same outcome you are.

The price for this is normally $450 (25% of the full-manuscript evaluation fee).   Get it booked by October 31 and I’ll discount it to $400.  The value is almost identical as that delivered from a full manuscript read… at less than a quarter of the cost.

Do the math on this one.  It pulls the unreachable squarely into the realm of the possible for almost anyone who is serious about writing a publishable story, and leveraging the value of story coaching to get there.

More Storyfix content coming soon.

If you have something specific you’d like to see explored here, or clarified, please let me know.  Thanks for your time today… it’s good to be back online with you.





Filed under other cool stuff

Making Your Characters Extreme

A guest post from Marjorie Reynolds.

And in case you think I’ve been on a beach popping bon bons… check out my own guest post on the Writers Digest site, called “Confessions of a Story Coach.”  If you only knew.


Name three memorable characters from great literature.

Which ones did you choose? Captain Ahab, Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby? Blanche DuBois, Hannibal Lecter or the ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace? Or, maybe a character out of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens?

What significant trait do these characters have in common?

They are all extreme.

If you want to write a novel that readers will remember decades or even centuries later, learn from the masters and populate it with one or more extreme characters. You’ll find they’ll not only linger in a reader’s mind, but they’ll give your story energy and heighten your own interest in writing it. As novelists, we quickly bore ourselves with bland, one-dimensional characters.

When I suggested to one of my students that she push her protagonist, an ordinary young woman with no special traits, out to the edge, she returned to class a week later, her eyes gleaming.

“I’m really excited about writing this novel now,” she said. “My character is so much more fun.”

We love extreme people in real life. How many times have you heard someone say with admiration, “He’s such a character”?

So how do you go about creating an extreme character? Do you add an extra appendage or two, maybe a hump on the protagonist’s back or an eleventh finger? Will that put life in your novel? Not necessarily. An abnormal trait should be significant to your story.

Creating an extreme character is not a matter of tacking on peculiarities the way you would hang decorations on a Christmas tree.  You want a fictional person readers can relate to, not a cartoon — unless your intentions are comedic. If you want your readers to believe in your protagonist, his deformity, affliction or peculiarity must be the driving force in your story. With a secondary character, it should at least have some significance.

Remember Tiny Tim, the crippled boy in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? His handicap is important to the story because, at the end, Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser (also an extreme character) who has learned his lesson about the perils of parsimony, generously provides the money for corrective surgery.

In The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom’s disfigurement dominates the story. His fear that he will frighten off people, especially the woman he loves, causes him to hide in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and wear a mask. How many people like that do you know.

Not all extreme traits show up physically. Some are on the inside. Remember Raymond, the idiot savant in Rainman, and McMurphy, the mentally ill rebel in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest?

An extreme character does not have to be extraordinary in every way. With the exception of his one extreme trait, he might be as normal as your next-door neighbor (assuming your next-door neighbor is normal). A good example would be the character, Elwood P. Dowd, who befriends an invisible, six-foot tall rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Harvey. Dowd appears to be an intelligent, respectable, conventional man – until he introduces Harvey.

In the myth-based Hero’s Journey story, described by Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, and popularized as an unbeatable story structure by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the protagonist is a hero with universal appeal. A hero, by nature, is an extreme character. He may not start out that way, but eventually he does what an ordinary person won’t do. He goes beyond the point where the average person (meaning you and me) would stop. He’s the fireman running up the stairs in a burning building when everyone else is running down. She’s the supervisor of an all-male homicide squad at Scotland Yard who won’t give up her hunt for the killer when everyone else insists she’s tracking the wrong suspect (Jane Tennison played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect). A hero may even be willing to break the rules or live outside the laws to get what he wants (Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade). In cowboy movies and detective stories, we’ve seen many a rogue protagonist. Sometimes he’s so flawed, he’s considered an anti-hero.

When you create a heroic character, there’s a real temptation to make her perfect. She’s exceptionally brave, she has the IQ of a genius, she can leap tall buildings. Unless you’re assembling Batwoman or a female Spiderman (both cartoon characters, please note), we won’t believe she could possibly be real.

A hero is not a perfect person who conquers all. He makes mistakes. He usually possesses a tragic flaw (hubris or stubbornness, for example) that makes him vulnerable to his enemies. A hero is someone with all the faults of an ordinary person but with the strength of character to struggle to the point of death. He won’t give up.

He may not have the physical prowess of his opponent (think David and Goliath), but he employs the strengths he does have, usually intelligence and cleverness, to the maximum of his abilities so that he can overcome the enormous tests and obstacles that you, the author, will throw at him. He must work hard.  We don’t admire people who get what they want too easily.

To win at the end, he must struggle and push himself beyond what he believes he can do.  He must go beyond the point where we would stop. You don’t have to tell us he’s a hero. We can see he is.

As the author, you may be tempted to list your hero’s strengths (she’s smart, beautiful, brave, etc.) and her weaknesses (she’s self-centered, untrustworthy, haughty and cruel). Resist that temptation. Show us through her dialogue and actions what she’s like and the lengths to which she’ll go. Don’t tell us. We won’t believe you, anyway, until we see it. By the way, did you notice the character I just described could be Scarlett O’Hara? Not a likable woman but certainly fascinating and extreme. Despite the ultra-extreme qualities of Dickens and Shakespeare characters, they become real to us. We remember Falstaff, Hamlet, Uriah Heep, and Fagen because they have enough truth in them to be believable and because they are vivid and alive and extraordinary.

Make sure you give your extreme character enough motivation to justify his behavior. Give him a history that explains how his wants and needs and goals developed. Even Batman has good reasons for his actions. The ruthless enemies he pursues killed his parents.

In The Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary rigidly structures his life beyond anyone’s bounds of normality, but we understand why. He’s afraid that, if he doesn’t maintain complete control, he will drown in the well of grief left by his son’s death. The first time I read Anne Tyler’s beautifully crafted novel, I thought Macon was a passive character. Then I realized he’s amazingly proactive and strong. He fights his grief harder than any real person I’ve ever known. The depth of emotion and strength we see in well-drawn characters helps us identify with them.

Whatever their extreme qualities, protagonists are most effective when they are admirable. Villains and secondary characters should at least be understandable and can benefit from some redemptive qualities.

For a reader to admire your protagonist, the character must try to overcome or rise above her handicap. She may not win but she must try. A novel is a journal of your protagonist’s struggles against adversity, and a “woe-is-me” character who takes no action to change her situation soon bores us.  If she’s suffering from past wounds, she should try to suppress her pain. Initially, it may seep out in small ways, but eventually it will rush out in a torrent she can no longer contain, forcing her to change. Your job as the author is to put pressure on your protagonist in the form of obstacles, misfortune, setbacks, and inner torment so she doesn’t get what she wants too easily. What results is the character arc that agents and editors expect in a novel these days.

In my recently released collaborative mystery written with two other women, Murder at Cape Foulweather has an abundance of extreme characters with attributes designed for comic effect. My fellow authors, Martha Miller and Susan Clayton-Goldner, and I had great fun writing about five women friends, fortyish, fast and full of hell, who attend a writing workshop at a remote lodge on the Oregon coast, each hiding a secret she’s afraid to spill. The first night, a destructive storm hits, all power is lost and one of their classmates, Orchid L’Toile, meets a fate they consider worse than death: bloody murder without adequate makeup while naked in the bathtub. They must find the killer or become victims themselves. I can guarantee each one of those characters is extreme.

Ask yourself if your characters have extreme qualities. What do they do that the ordinary person won’t do? How hard will they struggle to get what they want? Do we understand the motivations behind their actions? Do they have the emotional depth that will cause us to feel what they feel? By the end of the book, do they gain some wisdom we all value?

After pondering these questions, you may find your characters aren’t extraordinary in any way and don’t do anything the average reader wouldn’t do. You understand the concept but you don’t know how to go about energizing an ordinary character. Here’s a tip: make him obsessed. Take his desire for what he wants and push it out as far as it will go. He’s so obsessed he’ll risk destroying his relationships with lovers, family and friends to find the murderer, rescue his daughter or save his country. He may not always be likable but he’ll be fascinating. He’ll be a character that you and your reader will want to spend time with.


1. An extreme character does things an ordinary person won’t do.

Ask yourself, “Does my character do something I wouldn’t have the passion or courage to do?”  Would you risk your life chasing a white whale or endure pain and possibly death rescuing someone you’ve never met before?

2. An extreme character has a clearly defined goal.

Ask what your protagonist wants. Does she want to save her family home? Does he want to find his wife’s killer?

3. An extreme character has strong emotions that trigger his goals and actions.

With Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, that emotion is pride. With other characters, it might be anger over an injustice, a desire for power or a love stronger than they’ve ever experienced before.

4. An extreme character has a history that drives her and motivation for her actions in the present.

Something significant or traumatic in her past provides the impetus for her actions. She may have been abandoned or abused as a child. She may have lost a beloved parent or suffered a disfigurement. She has a good reason to behave the way she does. Ask why your character doesn’t just quit when she encounters adversity?

5.  An extreme character will stand alone or break the rules if he has to.

He believes so strongly in his goal that he will do whatever is necessary to achieve it, even if it makes him an outcast. Remember the sheriff in High Noon.

6. An extreme character takes action and won’t give up until she reaches her goal or is defeated.

Extreme characters are not passive. They take action and struggle to achieve their goals. We admire Santiago because he endures sharks, exhaustion and injury to catch a fish that will save his pride. He is willing to die before he will give up.

7.  An extreme character is often unusually flawed.

Don’t make the mistake of creating perfect characters.


Marjorie Reynolds is an award-winning author, speaker and writing instructor. She taught advanced popular fiction for several years at the University of Washington Extension in Seattle.

She and two friends, Martha Miller and Susan Clayton-Goldner, recently published Murder at Cape Foulweather, a collaborative novel by the Sun City Sluts available on Amazon. William Morrow & Co. published Marjorie’s two novels, The Starlite Drive-in and The Civil Wars of Jonah Moran, in hardcover and Berkley released them in paperback. The American Library Association selected The Starlite Drive-inas one of the Ten Best Books of 1998 for Young Adults, and Barnes & Noble chose it for its Discover Great New Writers program. It was a Literary Guild alternate selection and a Reader’s Digest Select Editions book. Rights were sold to seven countries. Her novels have received praise in The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist


Filed under Guest Bloggers