Tag Archives: Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

Ariel Lawhon on Premise, Plot and Pacing

Part III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

ArielLawhonToday, The Writing Well concludes its three-part recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference with author Ariel Lawhon, co-founder of the online book club, She Reads, whose debut novel, The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, will be published in January.

The mother of four admits that she is addicted to research (“For me, it’s a way to procrastinate,”) she teased the audience. Her highly engaging talk covered the three Ps of writing: premise, plot and pacing.

How do you define premise? It’s “your story described in one line.”

Why is it so important, you may ask?

Ariel noted that it’s the seed from which your story grows, explaining that creating a strong premise line helps you focus on your story and also to quickly explain it to anyone, whether it be a journalist, an agent or a publisher.

“Writing a premise line forces you to think about the most important parts of your story — what is the story about? What does she do? What happens in the end?  You can’t really move forward unless you know this. You know your story innately so you’re not wandering.”

TheWife,TheMaid,The MistressAriel shared her own premise line for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress: “My story is about three women who know the truth about a judge and they choose not to tell,” said Ariel.

Set in New York City, her novel reconstructs one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Justice Joseph Crater in 1930 – as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best. On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulated about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, Judge Crater stepped into a cab and vanished without a trace.

Ariel offered a simple formula for creating a strong Premise line:   Character + Action = Outcome, and then shared three contemporary examples:

         The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family (character) takes revenge on men who shot his father (action) and becomes the new Godfather (outcome).”

         Harry Potter: “A boy discovers he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians.

         The Help: “Three women write a book about domestic servitude and expose a system of racism.”

JohnTrubyAnatomyofStoryAriel then addressed plot – defined as what happens in your book.  A good novel, she noted, must include seven structural components. These key steps of story structure, from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, are:

  1. Weakness – hero cannot be perfect; he must be hurting someone at the beginning of the book
  2. Desire – what your hero wants
  3. Opponent – the person who keeps your hero from reaching his goal
  4. Plan – how the hero goes about achieving his goal
  5. Battle – the final conflict between hero and opponent
  6. Self Revelation – when the hero sees his moral weakness
  7. New Equilibrium – when the hero returns to normal – but changed – his desire achieved

 A story’s plot creates a lot of different questions. Pacing, advised Ariel, is the rate in which you answer those questions for your reader. A great guidepost for pacing? Begin your scenes with a bang and end them with a cliffhanger to keep your readers off guard, Ariel said.

“The key to pacing is that as soon as you answer one question, you need to ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader is motivated to keep reading,” she added. All the small questions must be connected to the big question.

“It’s all about withholding – parceling out information in small pieces,” she said.

game-of-thrones-season-4During the Q&A, she fielded questions such as “Is there such a thing as too much conflict?” She cited George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, Game of Thrones as an example of a story with a lot of conflict among a huge cast of characters.

“Conflict has to be planned. It’s important when writing to be very specific with who is in conflict and why,” she concluded.



Marybeth Whalen on Voice – ‘The Game Changer’ in Novel Writing

Part II of III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference


Author panelists (L to R) Kimberly Brock, Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon tackled different aspects of writing craft — setting, voice and plot — during the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.

In today’s recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference, The Writing Well introduces North Carolina novelist Marybeth Whalen, a wife and proud mother of six, whose penned four Southern novels, her latest, The Wishing Tree, published this past spring. Three of her last four novels are set in Sunset Beach, N.C.

“I try to tell a love story all centered around one object unifying two people, usually against all odds,” says Marybeth, who admits that “voice” – the unique way you tell a story — comes to her naturally.


“Every one of us has a unique voice. Mine is a little more direct. I’m not real flowery in my voice. One of the best things friends tell me when they read my book is ‘I could hear you. I knew this by you. It comes out.’”

During her presentation, Marybeth shared with conference attendees highlights of a recent blog post she penned celebrating her son turning 21.

“When I look at him, I don’t see the man he is now; I see that little boy in the car seat we brought home. I see that little seven-year-old boy who couldn’t stop shaking the night he came back from Washington D.C. saying, ‘Mom, I can’t explain it, but that city is in my blood!’  I see that 15-and-a-half year old who could not wait to get those car keys… get in our car and drive away. I also see my 21-year-old son, who next week will ship off to the Navy. I see the whole arc of who he is.”

She explains that as writers, we bring all of who we are to our characters – tapping our experiences and feelings from childhood through adulthood.

“When I write an older character, I imagine the woman I’ll…be.  All those voices are already within each and every one of us; it’s just trusting that on the page.”

She quoted Storyfixer and writing coach Larry Brooks, who once said, “Novels don’t sell because of writing voice, but they do get rejected because of writing voice. What sells are great stories told well.”

“Voice is the game changer. Yes, plot and pacing are important; setting is so important. But, I think it’s that authentic writing voice that wraps its fingers around our heart and makes us feel we know this character.”

She cited the character of Lily in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as a wonderful example of voice done well.  “I loved her, I rooted for her, I cheered for her. It wasn’t just the circumstances of the story, it was her heart, her view of the world – that’s voice.”

Voice Writing Tips

marybeth_whalenMarybeth offered these tips to strengthen voice we all can employ in our writing:

  • Listen to the voices around you. Notice accents, inflections, vocal tics, mannerisms when they talk. You don’t want characters to just be talking; they should be doing something as they talk. 
  • Write from the deepest truth and your deepest emotion. Ask yourself, what is most shameful thing – the one thing you least want to write about or share? We’d feel so exposed.  You need to write about that thing that keeps you up at night – say that thing you are so afraid to say. That’s what will make your voice authentic.
  • Write what you love. Knowledge can be learned; passion can’t be.  Think about the emotions that flow from that passion – and tap into that. 
  • When reading other authors note the different voices that come through in the writing. Why does that voice work? You can learn a lot from reading others. Or, if it didn’t work for you, why?
  • Don’t overwrite or attempt tricks to baffle the reader.  Say it plainly.
  • Picture your reader. Don’t write as if they’re strangers. Write as if you’re writing to a friend. I write to other moms / women who are thinking about dinner, normal stuff. You have to have a real audience in mind.
  • Love the voice you have been given. Recognize that your voice is individual, authentic, original. Writing details in the most natural way you can – it’s the details you notice. Let those details come through. 
  • Don’t try to copy other writers’ voices.  Your writing should sound like no one else could have written it. The way you talk, your life experiences, whether you married or had children, all of that should be part of your voice.

Indispensable Tool: James Scott Bell’s Voice Journal

Conflict and SuspenseFor homework, Marybeth provided attendees with a “Voice Journal” handout courtesy of James Scott Bell’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense, calling it one of most effective writing tools she’s ever used.

This free-form, stream-of-consciousness journal is all written in a character’s voice, from writing prompts you introduce. She advised us to write at least five to ten minutes without stopping, letting the character speak for him or herself. In the early stages of your novel, the voice journal will help you “hear” the characters talk in a way that is unique to them. During writing, you may stop and ask what a character is thinking or feeling about the story. This deepens the emotions in the character and helps solidify and intensify conflict. 

You should have voice journals for all your major characters and when your stuck, start a new voice journal for the point-of-view character and ask him or her some questions about what’s going on. Ask your character:

         What do you want?

         Why do you want it?

         Who or what stands in your way?

         What will happen if you don’t get what you want?

         What will happen if you do?

         What is your greatest strength?

         What is your greatest weakness?

         What do you fear the most?

         What makes you angry?

         Who did you admire growing up?

         Who did you fear the most?

         How do you handle frustration?

         Are you an extrovert or an introvert, pessimist or optimist?

         How easy is it for you to trust people?

         Do you tend to keep things or get rid of them?

         Do you have any secrets?

         Do you like taking risks?

         What is your favorite food?

         What stands in the way of your happiness right now?

         If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be?

         What would you like to be remembered for?

         How do you think other people see you?

  How do you write in your own unique voice? What techniques help you bring that authenticity out in your characters? Share your experiences here, and be sure to check out Marybeth’s author blog.


Kimberly Brock on Writing Setting: Four Tips

 Part I of III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers ConferenceKimberlyBrock

Kimberly Brock, author of The River Witch (2012, Bellebooks/Bell Bridge Books) and recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award 2013, was one of three talented Southern authors who spoke on honing the craft of novel writing at the Decatur Book Festival’s Writers Conference earlier this month.

The panel I attended also featured fellow Southern authors, Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen. All three of these talented storytellers shared what they consider their strengths as writers: Kimberly spoke about setting, Ariel tackled plot and Marybeth explored voice.  I’m excited to share highlights of each of their presentations beginning today with Kimberly’s insights on setting.

SheReadsHeaderBefore I do, however, I want to applaud what these women are doing to “pay it forward” to other novelists.  Marybeth and Ariel co-founded the “She Reads Book Club” in September 2009 to share the books they loved with the largest audience possible. Kimberly recently has lent her support by managing the club’s blog network. Her debut novel was chosen for the She Reads’ June 2012 Book Club selection.

RiverWitchSet against the backdrop of the southern Appalachian foothills and the Georgia Sea Islands, The River Witch tells the story of Roslyn Byrne, a professional ballerina devastated in body and spirit following an accident, who seeks refuge for the summer on Manny’s Island in Georgia. While she hungers for solitude, Roslyn finds so much more on this mystical island, including the key to healing. The Huffington Post’s film critic Jackie Cooper provides an excellent book synopsis, but he also noted how well this Georgia native crafted setting in her story.

“Brock does a masterful job of giving a sense of moist habitation to the location of the story. You can almost feel the wet grass underfoot and hear the movement of the alligators as they stalk their prey,” he wrote.

Cooper isn’t alone in his praise. “This is one of those books written so well you actually hear and smell and feel everything as though you’re actually there,” writes Amazon reviewer Gin Bryant.

To Kimberly, setting is all about the details. “It’s setting that builds your story world… and your reader’s perception of your character,” she told a room full of writers in Decatur earlier this month.

Kimberly began her remarks first by sharing her own storytelling antics as a child. In an attempt to get attention, she told her impressionable classmates how her “great-great granddaddy – a Cherokee Indian — haunted her and other pale skins.”

In describing her ancestor’s presence in the hilly pine woods abutting her elementary school’s playground, Kimberly soon had the children terrified that the ghost of her great-great grandfather was after them.

“I had them all going. The kids wouldn’t sleep. If it rained there was terror. I had to apologize to the whole school and tell them that the ghost of my great-great granddaddy wasn’t after them,” recalls Kimberly, who used this memory to underscore the importance of creating setting in storytelling. 

Setting, she says, is “the sly old man behind the curtain,” to borrow an inference from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s the part of your story that creates the world where your characters live. Not only that, setting fills your story world and it moves your story along.”

Kimberly adds that your characters are forced to deal with the setting you place them in — whether they know it or not.

“One character is going to interact with that setting completely different than another character.”

She believes a strength of Southern literature is its focus on setting – “Southern stories are full of poetry and attachment to the land.  We are affected by where we are in a place and time,” she explains.

Details, she adds, are the hardest things to get right in a story.

“Details are what take the most time to write, because for every detail we include, we have to discard all the hundreds of choices we could have made to include one telling snippet that reveals the most.”

Ready to create settings that your readers will lose themselves in? Here are four techniques Kimberly uses, and you should, too:

1. Reveal setting through action – Let your description unfold as a character moves through the scene. Consider which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly. Let your character encounter those details interactively. Use action verbs to set the scene. “Walking through” a description breaks the details into bite-sized nuggets, and scatters those nuggets throughout the scene so that the reader never feels overwhelmed or bored.

2. Reveal setting through a character’s level of experience – What your character knows will directly influence what she sees. Different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the setting.

3. Reveal setting through the emotions of your character – What we see is profoundly influenced by what we feel. The same should be true for our characters. Filtering a scene through a character’s feelings can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”

4. Reveal setting through the senses

         Visual – we make decisions and take action based on what we see.

         Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear (music, the sound of a person’s voice, the whistle of a train, tone of voice).

         Smell evokes memories (baking, perfume, new-car leather, the odor of wet dog).

         Touch evokes a sensory response.

         As in real life, “taste” images should be used sparingly and appropriately.

What techniques work for you when writing setting? Share them here, and reach out to Kimberly on her author page, where you can check out her book trailer or download a book club discussion guide for The River Witch.