Digging up Diamonds in the Rough: From Outline to Novel


(We like geology a lot in this household so bear with my metaphor)

This is a longer blog post but it’s loaded with links and resources for the writer.

Whether you’re a plotter with detailed spreadsheets, GMC charts, character questionnaires, extensive computer documents and files, and a tower of resourceful books…or you’re a pantser, with a cup of java and some scribbled Post-it notes at your side, at some point as an author you need to make sure 2+2+2 = 6 (and no you don’t need to use “new math” with tape diagrams or arrays to do this—ha, can you tell I am a mom dealing with the fun of “new math”?).

All this means is your story needs to be cohesive and hit all the benchmarks.

One look at my desk and you may think I am a free-spirited pantser, but I am a plotter down to my DNA. I envy pantsers a bit. It’s not to say I don’t do my fair share of hopping around in my writing as whims strike me, or I have to make stuff up as I go along. However, since I’m a resource gal, this post will be chock full of my favorite resources for outlining and pre-writing (or if you are a pantser, things to check along the way or during revision).

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

No matter which method you employ for your creations, there will always come a point in the writing process where you need to make sure all your ducks are lined up in a row. The story needs to make sense and have all the key components:

  • A cohesive plot and story

  • Goals, motivation, and conflict (both internal and external)

  • Stakes and urgency

  • Positive & negative character traits

  • A world the reader wants to get lost in

  • Emotional wounds that drive the character to overcome a lie they tell themselves (aka backstory)

  • Sympathetic characters that we want to keep reading about

  • The character arc

  • Genre-specific needs (e.g. if a Romance, two clear protagonists on their external/internal journeys with all of the above AND a HEA or a HFN, and usually a villain)



Beat sheets – what are they?

I'm new to beat sheets but I found Jami Gold’s website a gem in the rough and a great launching pad. I was already decently-versed on the key points to crafting a story but her beat sheets make outlining (and double-checking as you go along with word counts and pivotal beats) a breeze. I found her romance-specific sheet also helpful. Beat sheets are a writer’s accountability partner. It’s a bullet list or chart that shows the sequence of your story, including the key points of: hook, inciting incident, Acts 1-3 (if you follow that style), pinch points, mid-points, climax, and resolution. Even organically-driven writers need structure to determine the next point in the story. There are many posts about beat sheets aside from this one listed; just Google “beat sheets” and you’ll find a treasure trove! For my latest WIP, I ended up using her beat sheets as a guide and wrote my outline in Word, chapter-by-chapter with key bullet points. Then, I went through that and double-checked it with her sheets to make sure I hit all the beats. Rock on.

Goals, Motivation, and Conflict

I recently wrote a blog post with my abbreviated version explaining GMC. When I read Debra Dixon’s book a few years ago, I fell in love. [btw, the book is out of print and more expensive on Amazon, so I suggest purchasing directly through Gryphon Books. It’s a DIAMOND!] She uses movie and romance examples to clearly lay out what GMC is and how to achieve it. Every single story has GMC. All characters, even secondary and the villain, have goals, reasons to achieve those goals (motivation), and reasons why they can’t (conflict)…and these are both external AND internal (character-driven). I suggest a browse of the web again or purchase her book to acquaint yourself with these building blocks to a successful story.

Who Are These Characters Anyway?

My latest ah-ha moment was falling upon Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book, The Emotion Thesaurus last year. It helped me polish and clean up my latest novel by fleshing out my characters’ physical signs, internal sensations, and mental responses to events in the story…oh, the broad spectrum of emotion, all in one book!

But wait. There’s more. I was surfing around their very resourceful website and discovered the hidden booty—the pirate’s gold—MORE thesaurus books…all about characters (and setting’s role in building worlds/characters)! I ordered four more right away and I was giddy having stumbled upon these tools. I read through them, rapt….I giggled, I smiled, I gasped. Oh yes, I did. I said “ah ha!” more than once.

The rest of that bullet list above (and in my sample PDF) was compiled from the Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Although my character sheets list these key character elements in an abbreviated format, I suggest checking out their website or purchasing the books for further explanation. The books are actual thesauruses that you’ll use over and over during writing, and not just in pre-writing/development. They explain the causes, behaviors, and thoughts associated with character traits. I eagerly await the release of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus this fall.

Other Resources

I’d be remiss to not name a few of my other favorites:

1.    I can’t boast enough about Grammar Girl. Several of her books sit on my shelf and whenever in doubt (it happens in every book I write, even as I write manuscript #6), I search the web for her grammar points. Easy Peasy: type in the question (e.g. lay vs lie) and “Grammar Girl.” Score!

2.    Strunk and White’s good ol’ Elements of Style (or your other grammar/style resource).

3.    Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (Lynne Truss) is a punctuation classic. Anyone up for an Oxford comma debate? I need a t-shirt that says I love the Oxford Comma.

4.    For the romance writer or any writer who wants to build up their “descriptive tags,” Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book is one of my old favorites.

5.    Books and websites about your genre or subgenre.

6.    Books and websites about your topic (I’ve got loads of books on medieval castles and living, Scottish clans, myth, and lore, and Norse Vikings, to name a few). Libraries are a great go-to as well!

7.    Museums, travel excursions galore. Know a person with expertise in something you’re writing about? Interview them or use them as a sensitivity reader. Got the funds? Go visit a castle or museum or fort. I was fortunate to finally visit the dreamy landscape of Scotland a few years back and I recently toured an actual Viking ship in Connecticut.

8.    Podcasts. When you’re not reading or writing, you could be listening to inspirational stories or writing tidbits. My favorite is Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses while I exercise.

9.    Everything else. I followed a Facebook writer’s group that tosses up daily writing pointers: from overused weak words (I have my own list for that), 75 ways to describe anger, 45 ways to avoid using the word “very,” elements of a good scene…the list goes on. So when I see these little nuggets, I print ‘em, hole punch ‘em, and stick them in my master binder that sits next to my GMC Charts, Character Sheets, and Notes Miscellaneous.

Well, there you have it! A glimpse into my treasure trove of diamonds. I’ve had two decades to gather them, and I still keep finding them—writing is a forever journey of learning (and fun!). There is an abundance of resources out there to help you along the journey, be it during pre-writing, mid-writing, or revision. Now, go dig up those gems and write a story!

I’d love to hear about your favorite go-to resources in the comments.





Setting goals for yourself and your characters!


Goals. Resolutions. Projects. Aspirations.

Sometimes those words excite us. Sometimes they bewilder us. Sometimes they terrify us.

Relax…I’m not going to ask you to set another New Year’s Resolution. We’ve all learned about goal setting at some point in our life, either professionally or personally. Recently, a chat topic on The Wild Rose Press chat forum got me thinking about my yearly writing goals and also about my characters.

First off – writer goals. Well, we all have hopes for 2017. Perhaps it’s to finish that first manuscript, or to get our book out there into an agent or publisher’s hands. Or maybe we’re working on book promotion. Or to write two more books for an eager editor. Goals require carving out time for what’s important to us. Many of us follow the “SMART” principal: making our goals specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound. We want to be able to reach these goals, so sticking to the SMART rule of thumb is key to keeping ourselves motivated, accountable, and fulfilled. I know my goal list is lofty for 2017, so I sat down and looked at it to realistically contemplate what would be achievable this year. What are your goals? I suggest taking a few minutes to write them down by following the rule of “SMART”, and post them somewhere, checking in daily.

Now on to my second part of goal-making…our characters! One of my favorite  topics is goal, motivation, and conflict…the magical “GMC” that is the backbone to all fiction works. I’ve read many books on writing over the years (and I just got two more) and I will say Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation & Conflict has seen the most wear and tear, earmarks, and re-reads. Just like I can recite the lines of The Princess Bride back to anyone, I can reiterate what Ms. Dixon lays out in this book on the building blocks of fiction.

Here’s a simple overview of these three essential elements…

Every character (who) has a what (goal), a why (motivation), and why not (conflicts).

So for each character, big or small, in your story, you can write this expressive phrase:

            A character has a [goal] because they want [motivation] but this happens [conflict].

And never fear dear analytical chart makers! Oh yes, there is a chart method to create your internal and external GMCs for your characters. In her book, Dixon outlines several examples, using movies (as many of us can relate to movies, because just like books, movie characters have GMC!), such as The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca and even Star Wars.

So let’s go through another example from my favorite, The Princess Bride (using the William Goldman’s movie as the example)…

            As you wish…

A goal is urgent, and results in consequences if the character fails. A character has external and internal goals. Not all goals are achieved, and some may change.

Buttercup’s external goal is to be with Westley, her true love.

Motivation drives your characters and should be strong, focused, and guides all of your character’s actions and choices. Internal motivation creates emotion within the character. Characters can have varied internal motivations….guilt, family, redemption, protecting another, etc.

Why does Buttercup want to be with Westley? Well, because she loves Westley.

Why can’t she be with Westley?

Because she thinks he’s dead.  And several more reasons: Prince Humperdinck is forcing her to marry him. She is kidnapped. The Fire Swamp. Westley is captured and she barters for his life.

Therein lay our conflicts. And there are quite a few conflicts in The Princess Bride. Conflict is an obstacle standing in the way of the goal, but must be faced by the character. Conflicts test our character and strengthen our stories. Nobody wants to read an easy fix. We want to see the characters struggle and overcome! And as you can see, there are many conflicts in this story. Internal conflict is emotional conflict. Furthermore, Buttercup may outwardly appear a docile, simple farm girl. But she’s got gumption. She is stubborn and is not a passive bystander. She needs to make choices, which are ultimately driven by her motivation and goal.

Dig a little deeper and we can see her internal GMC.

What does Buttercup want? True love of course.

Why? Well, that’s a bit trickier. Don’t we all? Buttercup lives a simple life on her farm and rides her horse throughout the countryside. I would gamble that she wants to live the life of true love: on her farm, with her horse, and with her dear Westley. Happy ever after and all that jazz.

Why can’t she have this dream? Well, we already know that Humperdinck wants her as his wife (for his own political ploys) and that she thinks Westley is dead. But then she learns Westley is alive. Enter more conflict and see her motivation drive her. Also note that internal motivation can change or stay the same. Certainly, she wanted her happy ending with Westley but the prince threatens to kill him so she agrees to marry the prince so that Westley may live. She wavers between choosing life and choosing death. Conflict abounds.

So let’s break down her GMC chart according Dixon’s methods:

Buttercup (beautiful farm girl)

Okay, so working that GMC chart was a bit harder than I expected and there is some overlapping areas in her GMC, but you see where I am going here. Some character GMCs are more straightforward and easier to analyze. Take Inigo Montoya – that man’s motivation never wavers. He wants revenge for his father’s death and his goal is to kill the Count. His conflicts include having to kidnap Buttercup for some money, helping Westley save Buttercup, and of course getting to the Count to fulfill his goal.

I am sticking with my Buttercup example, because, well, death cannot stop true love…all it can do is delay it for a little while. And I am a true romantic at heart.

So on that note, get out there and create your goals as a writer. And don’t forget about your characters! Heck, I am sure you could even make a GMC for yourself as a writer…hmm, a daydreaming mom wants to publish her work (novels, short stories, children’s books, and magazine articles) because she has loved writing since she was a girl and wants to be successful, but life throws her some curveballs (busy children and schedules, agent rejection, illnesses, the need for sleep…). Will she achieve her goal? Stay tuned.