Monday, December 28, 2020

Worldbuilding and the Passive Main Character

 In a novel I read recently, the heroine is in the middle of a paranormal political mess.  Some of the supernatural races want to control her power, others want to kill her because they can’t control her power, and all of them are fighting against the others to gain the upper hand in controlling the world.  Meanwhile, the big bad mythological super villain is in the wings waiting to strike at all them.  

Sounds like the recipe for an exciting novel, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.  I struggled to keep reading because the heroine was like a ball on a field being bashed around in different directions with no real goal or control on her part.  She spent the entire novel fighting to stay alive or keep her friends alive at each new attack.  She was reacting, not acting, which made her a passive and boring heroine.  

No matter how complex the worldbuilding in your novel is and no matter how Byzantine the politics are, they aren’t the plot of your novel.  The main character’s struggle to obtain her goal is the major plot of your novel.  Don’t forget that as you create the complexity of the world that main character lives in. 

QUESTIONS, I TAKE QUESTIONS!  If you'd like to ask me a writing or business question, contact me via my blog or hit reply to any .io blog I send you via email.  

Monday, December 21, 2020

Sameness and the Second Book

 QUESTION:   I have just finished writing the first draft of my novel, now given to beta readers to test it out.

In the meantime, I am starting a new one, but all my inspiration seems similar to my previous work. Perhaps I am too absorbed in that type of story.

The things that are the same are the team composition of the antagonists, though in my new work they have different behavior and abilities.   Also, my new work takes place in a similar fantasy world and has a similar magical system.

First, congratulations on finishing your novel.  Of the many who start a first work, very few finish it.  Well done!

Whether there is too much sameness will only be obvious in the final product so it's hard to say.

Some very successful writers write the same story and characters with variations over and over again, and some readers don't seem to mind it.  Others do.  

Each character should have a specific role in your story, and he/she should be written to fit that role.  If you want to shake things up with the casting of those roles, you could try what Hollywood calls casting against type.  For example, make the second in command a charming goofball who has a hidden sadistic streak.  Or switch genders.

You may want to do a few major changes to your world and magic system, but a massive overhaul isn't necessary if the world and the magic fit your story.  Or you can set your story in the same world during a different time period or a different part of the world and not worry about the sameness.  

These days, a reader will find one of a writer's books, and, if he enjoys it, he will buy the next book by the author immediately and read it.  So you want to offer both consistency and surprises.  

As a career move, writing similar books is a good thing.  Many readers are like kids with a bedtime story.  They like what they like, and they want the same thing, but different, each time from the writer.  

Successful authors who want to write a second series move laterally by writing subgenres that their main readership would enjoy.  For example, Jim Butcher’s extremely popular Harry Dresden series is urban fantasy, but he's written a traditional fantasy series which many of the same readers read.  

Then there's writers like me who write all kinds of genres from science fiction adventure to paranormal romance.  Many of my readers never followed me so I had to fight for every reader I got when I switched genres.  It wasn’t a good career move, but it kept me amused. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

What Is My Novel About?

When you are in the process of starting your novel, you may have trouble figuring out what your book is about and what your main characters' goals are.  Here are several suggestions to help you clarify your thoughts.

One is to write a description of your novel as I do when I write a novel blurb description for a query letter or the back cover copy of the novel.

In a short romance, I usually use two paragraphs to describe the book, longer or more complex books three to four paragraphs. If some important point fits one paragraph better than another, don't feel as if you must follow my structure. Put it where it fits.  Interior and exterior conflict, especially, can be switched.  

First and second paragraph: Introduce hero and heroine and give simple plot set up.  What is the interior conflict of the novel? (What tears the hero and heroine apart emotionally?)  Examples are from my unpublished novel, THE LORD OF THUNDER. 

KATE GRAEME, a professional landscape painter, has been hurt by a man who used her love to manipulate her, but she still retains her romantic ideals about love and marriage.  MORGAN DESART, however, has turned his own emotional hurts into a coldly cynical attitude.

Enthralled with each other, Kate and Morgan want a permanent relationship but can't agree on the ground rules.  Kate seeks a loving romantic marriage, but Morgan demands a marriage of convenience with a prenuptial agreement.  Neither will bend emotionally.

Third and Fourth paragraphs: What is the exterior conflict of the novel?  What must both achieve or defeat and what do they have to lose? This can include plot set up, place set up, the important secondary characters, and the villain. 

When they become trapped alone together on Morgan's island estate for a week, open conflict erupts as they seek to convert each other to their own viewpoint.  Morgan tries to entice her into a loveless marriage with his sexual mastery, but Kate resists this ploy and tempts him with romance and samples of a life together rich with love. 

In this war of sexual desire versus emotional need, both know one of them will have to give in before the week is out because the magic between them is impossible to withstand.

If you'd like more examples or your book isn't a romance, read my article on writing back cover blurbs.

If your book is still pretty vague in your thoughts, I suggest you try the Bova method for firming up your characters and plot.  Ben Bova's method is described in his THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. Yes, it's about science fiction, but it works with most popular genre fiction.  (More on Ben Bova’s method.)

The Bova book explains the dynamics and interrelated nature of plot, character, conflict, and background.    

The most important thing Bova explains is how character and plot interact with each other, and how character creates plot.  (Plot as a characterization device.)  He believes that the writer must examine her character and find his one glaring weakness and attack it through plot.  

The protagonist should have a complex set of emotional problems where two opposing feelings are struggling with each other--Emotion A vs. Emotion B.  (guilt vs. duty, pride vs. obedience, fear vs. responsibility, etc.)  

This conflict should exist on many levels.  In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.  

In the first STAR WARS, for example, Han Solo’s cynical selfishness wars with his unselfish love for idealistic Luke.  Han’s ready to leave with his loot when the Alliance attacks the Death Star, but he risks everything to save Luke.  That emotional conflict is mirrored in the struggle between the two political factions as well as in the thematic two sides of the movie--the good and dark sides of the Force.

Bova's ideas have proven useful to me, not only in creating my novels, but also as an aid when I'm stuck during a novel.  When I can't decide where I'm going or have terminal writer's block, I reexamine my main characters’ Emotion A vs. B and realize where I've made a plot error so I'm able to start again in the right direction.  

I hope these ideas can help you focus your book.

REMINDER:  Yahoogroups is closing down on December the 15th.  If you wish to receive this blog via email, please send a blank email to 


Monday, December 7, 2020

Goal, Motivation, and Cost

Have you ever started a novel where the main character decides to face an impossible task and an implacable enemy with the odds so far in favor of the bad guys that success, let alone survival, is minimal at best?

Sounds like a great novel, doesn't it?

I've just finished two novels where the main character is in that impossible situation.  In one novel, the hero must face these impossible odds to save his young daughter from a very ugly death.  In the second, the heroine must find out the truth about the death of a young woman she's never met, and the outcome appears to have no real value to her.  She's not even working for money.

I zipped through the first novel like a speed-reading lunatic to find out how the hero managed to save his little girl.  I cared about the results from page one to “The End.” 

The second novel I very nearly tossed away after the first few chapters because I hate stupid and suicidal main characters who have no real reason to go forward in an impossible situation, but I persevered out of curiosity and a fondness for dissecting author mistakes.  

After over half the novel, the author of the second novel finally lets the reader know why the heroine has continued forward in the investigation, but by then, the damage has been done to the novel and the reader's reactions to the heroine.  The reader also realizes that the author has cheated by withholding vital information which a fair author would not.  At this point, the odds of the reader picking up the next book by this author are slimmer than the original chance of the hero's survival.

As an author, you must balance the main character’s goal, its cost to him, and his motivation.  If the goal and the probable cost for the main character is great, the character must have motivation that equals both.  

REMINDER:  Yahoogroups is shutting down on December 15th.  If you wish to receive my posts via email, please join my .io list by sending a blank email to 


Monday, November 30, 2020

Important Blog News

Yahoogroups is closing down on December 15th so I’m moving my weekly blog via email to io.groups.  To continue to receive this content, please send a blank email to the address below.  

So far, .io seems to be a good choice because it is much more private than Google’s group emails, and its interface is pretty dang close to Yahoogroups for users.  

I won’t be able to move the list’s contents, but, since they are available on my blog, this is no real problem.  

If you don’t want to continue receiving emails, do nothing because Yahoogroups will vanish, and I won’t subscribe you to .io groups.  

All the best,

Marilynn Byerly


Monday, November 23, 2020

Semicolons in Fiction

QUESTION: Someone told me I shouldn't use semicolons in my stories. Why?

First, a grammar reminder about semicolons (;). The three most common uses of a semicolon are

*Compound sentences when a conjunction (and, or, but) isn't used.

The wind blew through the trees; the chimes sang like angels.

*Compound sentences when a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless) is used.

The wind blew through the trees; however, the chimes remained silent.

*Sentences with long, joined clauses which may have commas.

The wind blew through the trees, I was told; but because the chimes had become tangled, their sounds did not echo through the forest.

As you can see from the examples, most semicolon sentence structures have a formal quality to them that is uncommon in fiction but is often found in nonfiction. In other words, it belongs in nonfiction, not fiction, particularly genre fiction with its more vernacular style.

Use the semicolon as rarely as you would an exclamation point in narrative, and only when nothing else will do for clarity.

If you find yourself using semicolons quite often, your narrative voice is probably too heavy or didactic for popular fiction.


SYFA has just put up a “legal kit” for wills and estate planning for writers.

And in other breaking news, many author organizations and writers are very unhappy with Amazon’s Audible who is screwing over authors.  (This is exactly why I tell authors not to trust Amazon.)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Ways to Find and Promote Free eBooks

 NOTE: This is an updated list from an earlier post. Feel free to pass it along to friends and family who are having trouble getting enough to read digitally right now.   

These days, with so many books available as ebooks, it’s hard to get your books to readers and hard for readers to find the kind of books they like to read.

One answer for both is services which offer free or cheap/on-sale ebooks via their site, newsletters, or emails.  These services give an author a chance to showcase a series or a group of similar novels by offering a book on sale or giving away the first book or a short story/novella in the series, and for readers to find series they like.    

I’ve compiled a list of these services as well as an article for authors on the subject.  The first link after each services is for readers, the second for authors who are interested in using these services.  

















Monday, November 9, 2020

The Great Book Cull

 If you’re a writer, you are surrounded by books.  It’s part of what we do as readers and writers.  Then, one day, for some reason like moving to a smaller space or a change in circumstances, some or all of those books must go.  For me, it was discovering that I was allergic to old books and book dust, and most of those book had to go.  This is how I did it.  

I was an English major through three degrees so I had easily a hundred hard cover and trade paperback novels from that part of my life. If these books were in public domain or I didn't care for them emotionally in the first place, into the library book sale pile they went.  As a specialist in the 19th Century, I pretty well cleared out my hard cover and trade paperback shelves.  

The more current fiction that could be bought as ebooks if I ever wanted to see it again went into the library book sale piles.

All those nonfiction research books I collected for a book I would write eventually about the States during WWII, the novel in Victorian England, etc., etc.  I knew deep in my heart that eventually would never come so those were given to the nonfiction librarian to keep or give to the library sale.  The book on the tunnels underneath London was the hardest because TUNNELS UNDER LONDON!  WITH MAPS! All the first editions of North Carolina writers and books on NC suffered the same fate, but the North Carolina Room librarian got those.  

The paperbacks were both harder and easier.  They were also the most toxic to my nose so I had to be brutal.  The books that remained went into plastic, air-tight bins.  After a hurricane destroyed the library in one of the state’s coastal towns and my library asked for popular books to stock the shelves of a large mobile home, I sighed as I realized that all but a few of those books would make others far happier during miserable times than they made me in plastic bins.  Off they went. 

What remained.  A really good, huge dictionary suitable for research and flattening things, books I refer to often in my writing blog, a few research resources I still look at, books of extreme sentimential value like the novel dedicated to me and signed by the author who died several years later, and the cookbooks my mom and I used for many family meals.  The cookbooks are coming apart so I'm slowly making copies of the favorite recipes to share with the siblings and their kids.  

Now, I’m down to one small bookshelf in a room I never use, a plastic bin for the paperbacks, and another small shelf of cookbooks and other resources.  

So, moral of the story.  If I can do this, you can, too.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

Faraway Places

QUESTION: I want to set my novel in India, but I've never been there. My main character comes into India from America. Can I pull this off?

I'm a born and bred Southerner, and I can almost always tell when a non-Southerner is writing about the South. Words and expressions are used wrong, facts are wrong, the texture of the landscape and weather is wrong, etc., etc. That's one reason I rarely stray from the South as a location for my books since I'm probably as culturally clueless about other parts of the US as these people are about the South.  

I would be beyond clueless about another country, and I’d think long and hard about spending a whole novel there.  There's also the issue of not understanding certain cultural norms which can land me in a culturally insensitive pile of crap of my own making which would not just hurt the book but my reputation.  Considering all that, my answer would be nope, not a smart idea. 

If you choose to write that novel, you will have the advantage, though, of having a stranger come into India so some mistakes made in her viewpoint will be hers, not yours, in the reader's eyes.

The culture and landscape will be so vastly different that anyone from outside would be overwhelmed by its alien quality and miss much of the nuances. Essentially, that means that she will view India as an impressionistic painting, not as a photographic image, so that certain things will connect with her senses and others will be missed.

My major suggestions are to read recent travelogues about that area as well as watch TV show travelogues. It would not surprise me if YouTube isn’t full of American adventures in India.  Memoirs from Americans or Europeans living in India should also prove to be a valuable resource about the clash of cultures.

The Internet is a wondrous resource, and it's very easy to connect with people from all over the world. When you have your work in a readable form, try to find people who know that area to read those parts of the books. That should help, too. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

When a Simple Story Stops Being Simple

 A few times a year, I receive an email from someone who has read one or more of my writing articles.  This person is just getting started with her writing, and she suddenly realizes that writing that story isn’t quite as easy as she thought.

All those professional writers she loves have created stories that seem so simple on the surface but are not so simple when the new writer starts to see all the elements of craft involved and how each must do certain things perfectly so that the story can be told correctly.  

Writing dialogue, creating plot, constructing sentences and paragraphs that pull the reader in and doesn’t confuse him, breathing life into characters, and all the other elements of telling a good story become so overwhelming a task that the new writer panics and sends me a call for help asking how she can become a stronger writer.

Here’s what I always tell this person.

I can't wave the magic wand of a few words of advice over you and make you a stronger writer, but here are a few things I can suggest to help you begin to make yourself a stronger writer.  

Read what you want to write.  Study your favorite writers to see how they do what they do.

Find good writing teachers to help you with the basics of writing.  Read books on writing.  Find other writers and critique each other.

Sit down at the computer and write and write.  If you want to be a professional writer in a traditional market, be prepared to be sitting there for years before you can start selling your work.

And, most importantly, enjoy the writing.  If there is no joy in the journey, the destination isn't worth it.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Paragraph and Sentence Lengths

 QUESTION:  What is the correct length of a paragraph and a sentence when you are writing fiction?

There is no average length for paragraphs, but a really long paragraph is off-putting to the eye on paper and even more off-putting when you are scrolling on a small screen so shorter paragraphs have become the norm for current narrative.

When the average person looks at a page, they want to see some space, not a massive block of text.

The best way to do paragraphs, as a writer, is to vary the paragraph lengths on the page.

The same is true of sentence length.

Both sentence and paragraph length are also influenced by what is being written. A narrative description can have a longer length for both, but an action scene would have a shorter length for both.  

Some writing teachers suggest varying between long sentences and short sentences in the same paragraph.  

If you are unsure about how your sentences work with your content, read the sentences aloud.  Sentence problems usually show up while doing this.  

A good critique partner helps, too.  

Monday, October 12, 2020

Writing the Same When You Are Different

 QUESTION: Why don't authors keep writing the same kind of book? Some of my favorite romance authors have switched to different genres, and I HATE it.

There isn't a simple answer. Here are a few.

* Failing markets. The writer's genre starts losing readers so publishers want fewer books, and fewer books are sold. An example is historical romances.  Its established authors branched out into contemporaries, paranormals, and suspense novels to continue making a profit at their writing. 

* Respect. Romance authors, in particular, get no respect from their non-romance peers, and this gets really old. Non-romances also have more professional cache. 

* Authorial control. Romance editors exert more control over the final product than in any other genre so the final product is often more of a collaborative effort. At a certain point in a writer's career, this can get really old, particularly when some kid in their first editorial job decides she knows better than an established writer.

* Boredom. An author spends months writing a book that takes you an evening to read, and she then starts another book. If every book is exactly like the last as some readers want, this process can become boring. The creative juices dry up. If the author doesn't change gears, the readers will be the next to be bored.

* Innovations. Genre, as a whole, doesn't stay the same. Romances have changed dramatically over the last twenty years, and woe unto the writer who doesn't change with it. 

* Bandwagon Syndrome. Some authors see a trend become popular, and they absolutely must write to this trend. 

* Changes in an author's life. Writing is an emotional process, and sometimes, things happening in an author's life make them change the direction of their writing. I have had friends going through an ugly divorce who could no longer write about everlasting love when their true love proved to be a cruel, manipulative jerk. One writer lost her young son to a sudden illness. When she started writing again, she turned to novels that expressed her faith in God. 

As much as writers want to please their readers, sometimes, they simply must change direction with their writing. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Real World Research

 I recently read a blog which discusses research in writing mysteries and doing real-life research in the field.

Here’s my comment:

Research in a novel is an iceberg.  There's a lot more under the water than is showing.  Insert metaphor here about the book being the Titanic if that research is wrong.  

The more the research appears on the page in the form of your main character/s, the more you need personal experience.  You can fake a SCUBA scene with research but not an entire book if your character spends a decent chunk of the novel underwater.  If needs must, have an expert read your book.  

If your personal life experience doesn't remotely connect with police work, a police procedural probably isn't the best mystery subgenre to write.  An amazing variety of mystery types and main characters are out there, and your own life experience and interests can enrich your books.  Find a genre that fits.  Your own emotional references should be considered, as well.  You may very well regret spending months or years in the viewpoint headspace of someone who is your polar emotional opposite.   

WORST RESEARCH SOURCES:  TV shows and novels.  

A RESEARCH SOURCE I LIKE:  If you need to write horses, Judith Tarr's column at  Search the label with her name or "SFF Horses."  

THE MOST INTERESTING OVERHEARD RESEARCH: Many years ago, pre-9/11, Mom and I were at a hotel restaurant on the NC coast, and the room was full of high-ranking officers of all the military branches, and they were chatting away about military things that should not be said in public.  I wasn't stupid enough to ask them questions and would never use that info, but dang!  


Years ago, I had a chat with a weapons and combat expert about fighting. (Science fiction and fantasy conventions are filled with military, police, and scientists who love to answer questions.)  I asked him who was the most dangerous opponent in a one-on-one physical fight.

His answer-- “In a bar fight most men will keep fighting until they go down. Later, they’ll get up, and we might have a beer together. A small man doesn’t do that.

“To him, it’s not a fight, it’s survival. He’s fighting to kill because he knows he might not survive otherwise. If he goes down, he doesn’t stay down. He comes right back up and keeps fighting until he takes you down.

“He’ll use any weapon he can find to kill you, too.

“Never pick a fight with a small man.”

Monday, September 28, 2020

Your Best and Worse Career Choices

 What are the best and worst choices you can make as you start your career?  Here are my suggestions for both.  

Best: Good writing teachers.  Many of them are found online.  A hands-on teacher can teach specific craft skills and can hone your craft far faster than plugging along by yourself.  If they were available back in ancient times before the Internet, I could have cut over 10 years from my writing journey.  

Second Best:  Learning about the business side of writing so you can move forward safely in this sea of piranhas.  I recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Business Musings."   

I've not been a member for years, but RWA, SFWA, and MWA used to offer lots of great info on the business aspects of a career.  Ask around to see if they still do.   

Worst:  Self-publishing before your craft is competent.  If that first and second book are dreck, no one will buy the next book.  The rush of self-publishing also blinds some writers to the need to keep learning craft so they don't bother to keep learning and continue to publish dreck.  

Second Worst: Being so eager to publish that you hurt or end your career by picking the wrong agent or publisher, then signing a contract that will destroy your future.  Also, don’t throw all your creative eggs into one media aggregator like Amazon Kindle who can casually destroy your career with a software algorithm glitch. Business knowledge is power, folks.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Ing the Merciless

 QUESTION: Someone told me that "-ing" words are weak and should be avoided.  I've never heard of this rule. Is this common knowledge among writers? Have I missed something somewhere?

Pick up the average book on writing style or editing, and you'll see that "-ing" phrases have a bad reputation.

As part of an introductory phrase, it's overused and prone to misuse.

Misuse -- Picking up the gun, she walked across the room and shot him.

The introductory phrase happens at the same time as the verbs in the sentence so the sentence above is impossible.

Proper use -- Grasping his shoulder, he fell.

Too many introductory phrases used closely together also weaken the writing.  They slow the reader down so he’s mentally plodding through your prose.  

I'm prone to using them to avoid having too many sentences beginning with "he" or "she." That's where rewriting the rewriting comes in.

The other common overuse is attaching the "-ing" phrase to a dialogue tag. 

Overused— “I don't like it," she said, shaking her red correction pencil in my face.

Better use— “I don’t like it.”  She shook her red correction pencil in my face.  

Introductory phrases have their value if used properly and infrequently.  Just avoid the evil that is -ing. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Pen Names

 One of the dreams most writers share is seeing a book with their name on the cover, but more and more writers are choosing a pseudonym (pen name).


Years ago, finding someone by just knowing their name would have required lots of effort or the use of a private detective.

These days, any search engine can give a person's address and even print out a map to their house in just a few minutes. We can find out if they are married, their kids' names, and about anything else we want to know.  

Years ago, authors didn't worry about the dangers involved with using their real name, but today, professional writers talk about stalker fans, scary letters from prison inmates, and identity theft they and their friends have experienced. 

I have never had any problems, but, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't use my real name. 

Other reasons to use a pen name aren't so scary. 

If your books' sales stink, your traditional publisher or your agent may insist you change your name so that you have a clean slate with book distributors and bookstores who look at your last book's sales numbers before they buy or don't buy your book. 

If your next book has a different audience than usual, a new pen name will allow you to attract the right readers and not disappoint your regular readers. For example, if your books are sweet romances, and you decide to write erotica, you don't want to disappoint your fans or lose readers of erotica who think Jane Smith only writes romance with no blatant sex.

Some authors are so prolific that they write under two or more names because publishers don't want to publish more than X number of titles per author a year.

How can you keep your real name secret?

Just choosing a pen name isn't enough. Your real name will appear on the copyright information page.

To avoid this, you'll need to incorporate your pen name so that name will appear on the copyright notice instead of your real name. 

You also need to tell friends and colleagues that you wish to keep your real identity secret. More than one author has been "outed" by careless friends.