on writing

Plotting and Characterization with Archetypes
Tools, not Rules!
Index Card Method of Writing Synopses
Finding Voice
Story Structure and Middle of the Book Blues

Plotting and Characterization with Archetypes and Fairy Tales

Seven of the nine books I have written are based on some myth or fairy tale. I’m a collector of folklore, and I’ve loved myths and fairy tales since I was a kid. I also happen to be what Jo Beverley once called a “fly into the mist” writer--someone who writes by the seat of her pants, hates to plot, and if I do plot, end up deviating wildly. There are a lot of writers like me.

But even I need some structure, especially if my editor asks me for a synopsis! And there will be those times when I agonize over what will happen next. Even staunch plotters will have those days. I was very thankful when I realized I could use the things I loved to write a book. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it saves you when you can’t think of what to write next.

I believe romances come from a strong fairy tale tradition, from women telling other women stories while they were spinning their yarns. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “spinning a yarn”--a traditionally female occupation--means telling stories. I once did a survey of fairy tales for a women’s studies course in college and found that about 75% of fairy tales had a female protagonist, and that they all had adventures, or did something active to change their situation for the better. They triumphed over evil in the end, completed their quest, or cleverly maneuvered their way into a better life. My conclusion was that contrary to the popular belief that fairy tales were stories of male domination, they were very much pro-women and subversive to boot.

Not very different from romance novels, hmm?

It’s a wonderful thing to think about--thousands of years of women telling each other stories about heroic and intelligent women, reinforcing the idea that we have value and worth.

We have all heard such stories in our childhoods, and they’ve sunk deep into our subconscious, deep into our psyches. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who wrote GODDESSES IN EVERYWOMAN, says that each one of us lives one or more myths in our lifetime, putting our own spin on it. As a result, we can tap into our own myths and tell the stories in our own individual ways.

So where do you begin?

You may already have a favorite fairy tale or myth you know from childhood. Those are great, because they really mean something to you, and you can tell them with a great deal of heart.

If you can’t think of a favorite one, go to the library and look for fairy tale collections--Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or look under “Folklore” in the card catalog. You can also look under “Mythology” for, of course, myths. For others, the Bible and other religious works are full of stories. The story of Ruth is a particularly good romance, for instance.

Now, look at your myth or fairy tale. Every story has five parts to it. (See my Synopsis and “Story Structure and Middle of the Book Blues” articles). Note down what happens at each point. For instance, let’s take the Cinderella story, the original Grimm’s version.

  1. The beginning has Cinderella losing her mother and growing a magical tree in which nests magical birds at the grave. Her father remarries and she acquires a nasty stepmother and stepsisters.
  2. First midpoint. The prince throws a ball to which everyone is invited, but Cinderella is forbidden to go. Her stepmother gives her jobs to do that she’s sure she won’t complete in time for the ball.
  3. Middle. Cinderella goes anyway, getting a beautiful gown from the magical tree and meets the prince. They fall in love and she leaves her glass slipper behind.
  4. Second midpoint. The prince searches for his mysterious lady, and it almost seems as if the stepsisters will get him (dark moment!).
  5. End. But he’s alerted to their deception because the birds tattle on the sisters, turns around, and discovers that Cinderella is the gal for him.

Now, apply that story to your book.

  1. Beginning, the first chapter. Your heroine is in a bad situation, but has some resources she’s gathered together.
  2. By the first midpoint, she’s got to be given a chance at a better life. But someone or something puts blocks in her way.
  3. By the middle, she’s got to have figured out a way around the block or blocks. Maybe she goes in disguise. Maybe she figures the only way to achieve her goal is to pretend she’s something she’s not. But she leaves a clue behind for the hero she loves when she leaves.
  4. Second midpoint. The hero tries to figure her out, or figure out the puzzle that surrounds her. He makes some mistakes, almost leaves her.
  5. The end. The hero uses the clue to solve the puzzle and sees her for what she truly is. Happily ever after.

Analyze your book at the five points for clues. Look for symbols, actions, etc. that might relate to a myth or a fairy tale.

But what if you HATE to plot? What if you can never stick to a detailed plot? You know what? You don’t have to! I’ve found that myths and fairy tales are so general and so unspecific, that it gives you lots of room to move. Ther are two things that you can do:

The advantage? There’s a great deal of flexibility. You aren’t tied to a straightjacket of a plot. Also, if anyone nags you about a plot, you can just say, “oh, it’s a Cinderella story,” or whatever other story you’ve picked out. They’ll usually be satisfied by that and get off your back.

How do you know what myth you’ve got in your book? First, use the math below to divide your book into five parts first.

Let’s say you have a 100,000 word book. Divide by 250 (250 words per double spaced page) equals 400 pages. Divide this by four and you get 100 pages each section. So, the beginning will be the first chapter. First midpoint will be at page 100. Middle will be at page 200. Second midpoint will be at page 300. And the end will be the final scene.

Essentially divide however many words you have or estimate you will have by the end of the book. Divide by 250 to get the page count for a double spaced manuscript. Divide this number by four, and you will have five sections—the beginning, the midpoint, the middle, the second midpoint, and the ending chapter.

I’ll illustrate using Barbara Samuel's (writing as Ruth Wind) Janet Dailey Award winning book, The Last Chance Ranch .

  1. What happens in the beginning? The prologue has the heroine sending her child away--he’s lost to her now--so as to save him from her abusive husband. The images here are a wrecked kitchen and the lost child. The first chapter has her out in the world, looking for her child.
  2. The 1st midpoint (chapter 4): The heroine is the cook for the ranch. She’s among a harvest, and cares for a little boy (not her son), begins to nurture again. The prominent images are the abundance of food in the kitchen.
  3. The exact mathematical middle of the book shows the hero and heroine’s first kiss. It’s important! It’s a healing kiss, and again there is talk of food.
  4. 2nd midpoint. Heroine goes grocery shopping (food again!), she sees her son involved in the nonviolent part of the same teenaged scenario she had been in with her abusive husband and the hero. The cycle does not repeat; the hero understands he’s in love with her.
  5. The end. Son goes to find his mother at a restaurant--more food!), heroine regains her son, she marries the hero, they are a whole family, and the violent cycle does not repeat.


Let’s look at the storyline: Woman loses child because of betrayal and violence of father, goes to a barren place (jail), emerges to search for the child, learns to nurture again, is healed, and the child is returned to her again.

Let’s look at the images: Food. The heroine is a cook and feeds the boys at the ranch. It’s a creative thing for her. Children, especially lost children--her own, and the other boys.

The myth? Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and of food, who loses her child through Zeus’s (the father’s) betrayal to Hades (jail, where nothing grows). The child, eventually, is returned to her.

I realized, when I was writing The Vampire Viscount that something was going on. There were these roses, and the heroine’s father who made her go live with what turned out to be a monster, a vampire. And for him to become human again, she had to agree to marry him. Well, that was easy! Beauty and the Beast, of course. Once I figured that out--early in the book--I was able to play with it a lot and insert some nifty little symbols and such.

Do be ware of forcing a myth on your story. If you get stuck, that may be what has happened. That happened with me on The Reluctant Cavalier. I was going for Superman, the Parsifal legend. But it just wouldn’t work and I dried up. So I analyzed it...The hero was a gardener, he has a special tree, and two nasty siblings, he goes to a costume ball where he rescues the heroine from a bad guy, and before he leaves before midnight, he leaves the heroine a clue--a kiss.

Can you guess?

Well duh! Cinderella! It went a lot easier after that.

I really believe that myths, legends, and fairy tales can not only make it easier for you to plot, but also allow you to write stories that resonate for your reader. When you write with myths and fairy tales, there will always be some element that is familiar to your reader, enough for you to take the twists and turns your creativity demands.

And, if you hate to plot--it’s okay! Not all writers plot, and it works well for them. Myths and fairy tales do give you a back up just in case your story stalls.

Sometimes you need a different starting point, however. For some of us, stories come in form of a character first. One way is to summon up an archetype and build your character using it as your foundation.

The reason I said “summon up” is because--according to one of the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung--archetypes are primal images that exist deep in your psyche. They are universal. There is not one culture that does not have these primal images in their mythology or their art. You can tell a primal image by the fact that these images can evoke more than the usual amount of emotion when you think of them. For example:

Mother. Mom. Mommy.
Father. Dad. Daddy. Who doesn’t think of their mother or father with some emotion?
The Stranger. Aren’t we taught from our childhoods never to talk with strangers?
The Shadow. Who hasn’t been scared of the dark at one time or another?

This is the power of the archetype in writing: it can bring up very strong, very primitive emotions, and when channeled correctly in your writing, can make your story just as powerful and memorable.

Now, brainstorm a character from some of these archetypes. Free-associate with the image of, for instance, "The Stranger" and see what words come up for you, and write them down. Take a look at the images/words that you have written down for your chose archetype.

Let’s say I pick the Shadow archetype for my hero. Here are some of the words I came up with when I brainstormed on the archetype:

Dark, misty, elusive, nameless, gray, twilight, cold, dangerous, mysterious, disappearing, dimness, outsider.

This, then, is the type of personality my brainstormed Shadow character will reflect (you may come up with your own words, some different, some similar to mine). Note that I do not say I will necessarily use these words to describe this hero directly. I can use these words to describe him, or to describe his environment. Regardless of whether the hero is indeed “Shadowy” in looks, it’s a good idea to use these brainstormed words in the important points in my book whenever he appears. For instance, this is how I introduce my Shadow hero in my book, Night Fires:

He put his fingers--splayed, as if playing a harpsichord--on the chill library window, and watched the fine mist collect upon the glass around each fingertip. He could see it clearly against the dark, dawn sky. Then he removed his hand, and blew upon the marks he made. His breath obliterated the fingertip-mist in a large, round circle of gray, then the winter chill outside the window permeated, and made it all disappear.

The glass clear again, he stared out of it, watching the city awaken with a shivering, hesitant movement. Bakery boys’ feet slipped on the wet cobblestones, and the voices of tradesmen shook or groaned while hawking their wares. How very active of them, the man thought. And so very ordinary. A thought that ordinariness would be welcome at some time in his life strayed into his mind, but he shook it off, as well as the accompanying fatigue. A day of rest, and he would be ready for another assignment.

You’ll see that nowhere in these paragraphs do I describe the hero’s physical appearance. However, you nevertheless get an impression that he is a shadowy figure. I use the brainstormed words to describe what he does and what his environment is like. Note also that I have him attributes that fit a Shadow character:

See how this works? Give it a try on your own characters/books. Good luck, and let me know how it works for you.

Tools, not Rules!

A confession: my demure and suburban exterior hides the soul of a rebel. As my son goes through his teen years, I’m secretly cheering every him every time he kicks against a rule (unless it’s one of my own), although of course I try to guide him along the sensible road of “getting along in society.” As a result, whenever he says, “I hate rules,” I can’t help sympathizing, especially when I think about my writing.

But if living is an art, and if art demands discipline, then one must conform to some rules, yes? This must especially be so for writing.

“No, no, no, no, no!” screams my inner rebel teen, who immediately runs for the placard, paint, and Bob Dylan protest songs.

Since I am way past my teen years, and now have some experience dealing with a teenager, I can see that this attitude is not helpful. But rebels are ever stubborn, and it doesn’t help to cram rules down their throats, either; they just plant their banners and settle in for a prolonged siege. Clearly, I need another approach.

Since rebels are often “can do” sorts of people, and since teens—whether one’s “inner teen” or actual—are often into self-expression, it’s helpful to give them what they want. No need to cry out in horror! One’s inner rebel will not turn one’s life upside down if you do this, and one’s teenager—if not going through a hormonal period—will not, either. How do you give them what they want?

Give them tools, not rules.

Most conscientious writers I know, after accumulating all the rules of writing from grammar to use POV, go through a terrible phase of conflict. They become overwhelmed with the rules, and end up either blocking any kind of writing whatsoever, or so rebellious that they ignore even the most common sense of guidelines--not unlike dealing with an apathetic or rebellious teen. Neither is helpful. What helped my “inner teen” is understanding that these are so-called rules are not really rules at all. They are tools that help me accomplish what I want.

Let’s look at Nora Roberts who switches point of view within scenes with impunity. Oh, she’s a best-selling author, you say. Best selling authors can get away with anything. Therefore, anyone who is not a best-selling author must conform to the one POV per scene rule. But Nora Roberts herself has said that she did this even before she was a best-selling author, others will argue. That means we can throw off that rule, too, right?

Wrong on both sides. Using point of view is a technique—a tool. Applying a technique just because someone does/doesn’t is the worst reason for doing anything that has to do with art. You apply the technique because it works, because it accomplishes a certain goal, or achieves a certain effect. If you can’t say why a certain technique works or what effect is has on your story, then you have not learned and do not know how to use that technique.

Technique is a tool. It helps you get the job done. Saying “it’s a rule!” and abiding by it or rebelling against it for that reason alone is a weak-kneed excuse to get out of truly understanding and applying the tools of our trade. Sound harsh? Consider the damage you can do by insisting on a rigid, airless, rule-bound box for your story, and think about how it can die half-formed. Think also about how formless and meaningless your story will be to others when there’s no backbone of grammar and solid technique to hold it up. Neither extreme will do your story any good, and will cause you a lot of misery.

But think of tools. Think of how a painter uses certain brushes to achieve a certain stroke that makes a part of her painting come alive. She doesn’t say, "the rules say I MUST use a fan brush to create all maple leaves in all circumstances." She looks at the effect of a fan brush on the canvas, and understands that if she wants to depict leaves on a far away grove of trees, a fan brush is the best tool. But if she wants to paint a maple leaf that looks like it’s sitting six inches away from the viewer, some round brushes with a fine tip are the tools to use. What’s more, all of that may change depending on the style of painting. She wouldn’t use the same technique for an abstract maple leaf that she would for an impressionistic or realistic one. Though there is no one right way to paint that leaf, she knows enough about her tools and the way to use them to get the right effect for her unique and individual painting. As a result, she won’t ignore the mathematical foundations of perspective, but she’ll be expert enough with it not only to use it, to build upon it, and twist it in unique and interesting ways.

Think of how editors say they want a familiar story told in a unique way, or with a different twist. An understanding and good use of the tools (NOT rules!) is EXACTLY what they mean! They want to see a story that shows a firm foundation and grasp of the basics, with enough expertise using the tools to express your own unique perspective.

The wonderful thing about thinking of writing tools (NOT rules!) is that it at once frees you and gives you guidelines. It allows you to experiment, make mistakes, and turns you into an artist and craftsperson, rather than a paint-by-numbers person who puts out Elvis-on-velvet paintings, or a poseur who doesn’t know what the heck she is doing and complains that nobody understands her.

That’s the curious thing about romance writing—for all that we’ll insist that it’s not formulaic, so many of us also insist on having a paint-by-numbers mind set, as if all we need to do is learn the rules, and voila! A perfect romance novel, instantly publishable. That is formulaic in the extreme.

It just doesn’t happen that way. The fact is, creative writing is an art. Art has theory, technique, guidelines, and logic for its foundation, but it’s up to us to build from there. Art without foundation crumbles to rubbish; art without flexibility breaks with the first strong wind. It takes no discipline or expertise to memorize rules or to discard them altogether. It takes much discipline, risk, and commitment to your art to learn how to use writing tools and use them well enough to free the rebellious, wildly creative teen within to grow to be its own unique and wonderful self.

Does that scare you? I hope it does. Going through the teen years is hair-raising, whether it’s your own, your child’s, or your muse’s. Think about what you want to accomplish, then learn how to use the tools to get it. Let your inner teen know you’re not imposing rules, but giving her the tools to do what she wants to do.

TOOLS, NOT RULES. It’ll get you through to the end of your story, and your teenager will love you for it.

Karen Harbaugh's Index Card Method of Writing Synopses

Anyone like writing synopses?

You do? Getouttahere! Nobody likes writing synopses except Deb Stover, but I will forgive her because she is one of the people who prevented me from doing a Very Stupid Thing in my writing career.

However, if you aren't Deb Stover and still like writing synopses, you probably don't need this method, you probably clean the top of you refrigerator every week, and I bet you have a subscription to Martha Stewart magazine, too.

But for those poor souls like myself who find writing synopses a chore, I am willing to share a method that has worked for me. I developed it back in 1995 after thinking deeply about story structure, and seeing how my critique group member and fantastic Regency author Teresa DesJardien (and I would link to her web page, but she doesn't have one, the naughty creature) plotted and arranged her scenes--by using index cards. She'll jot down scenes on these cards in the way she thinks they should go, and if she gets stuck or loses her way, she'll look at these cards and re-arrange them if need be.

I have to say that Teresa is one of the most conscientious authors regarding technique that I know. She once wrote a whole book in a single point of view, just so that she could master that technique. In fact, she'll take a particular technique she wants to learn, and apply it throughout a book she is writing, just to learn it. Her discipline and dedication to improving her art struck me like a two-by-four upside the head, I kid you not, and I saw the light (the kind of sparkly light you get when you are whacked over the head--never mind. I've gone too far with that simile). I've tried to do the same ever since about practicing technique.

So a large part of the credit goes to her, plus various writing workshop leaders from whom I've learned, but alas cannot remember their names.

Anyway, this is how you do it:

Get seven 3x5 or larger lined index cards (depending on how large you write longhand). What you write on the cards must be concise and brief, and you are not allowed to write on more than one side of the card when going through steps 1 through 7 below.

  1. The first card has the character description of the heroine.
  2. The second card has the character description of the hero.
  3. The third card describes the opening scene, the set-up for the book.
  4. The fourth one describes the most important scene before the midpoint of the book.
  5. The fifth describes the crisis/climax/transition of the book--the midpoint.
  6. The sixth describes the most important scene between the midpoint and the ending--usually the "dark moment."
  7. The seventh describes the ending scene.

After you've done that, look over the cards. Have you omitted any crucial point? If so, add it to the back of the card. Do this for each of the cards if you need to.

Now, put them in order. This is where you actually start writing your synopsis.

Take the 3rd card (the one with the opening scene) and flesh it out a little, TELLING the scene instead of showing it. When you first mention the characters, describe them briefly (using the 1st and 2nd cards).

After you are done, get the fourth card (the most important scene before midpoint). Write only one paragraph (at most, two) to connect those scenes.

IMPORTANT NOTE: These "connecting" paragraphs should tell what the motivations and emotions are that make the scene in the next card necessary.

Take out the fifth card (midpoint) and do the same--one or two paragraphs to connect the scenes.

Do the rest of the cards in the same way until you finish with the 7th card.

About Secondary Characters: Do not describe secondary characters or mention them unless they are crucial to the plot. For instance, if you have a heroine who is escaping a stalker and that stalker is her cousin, mention him, since he is the villain and is crucial to the plot. However, if she has a cousin with whom she stays for a month while she looks for an apartment, and this cousin doesn't do anything but allow her to stay with her or makes some commentary on her life, don't bother to describe this cousin. It's enough to say that she's staying at her cousin's house while she's looking for her own apartment.

Using this method, I found I was able to keep my synopsis short, generally under 10 pages (although 15 is not unreasonable). I have even shaved them down to 5 pages on occasion. If you're writing a longer book, however, it's fine to write longer synopses than that--you'll want to if you're writing a long book. I've heard the general rule is 1 page of synopsis to 20-25 pages of book.

Of course, the question is, will this synopsis method sell your book?

No, of course not. Only a danged fine story and good writing can do that. However, it might help. I had the very nice experience of having a complete stranger look at my name badge at a conference one time, gasp, and say, "YOU'RE Karen Harbaugh?" When I said yes (hoping that her apparent joy was because my books were her favorites), she immediately enveloped me in an enthusiastic hug and told me that she had never been able to get an editor to ask for her manuscript, but after using this method, an editor immediately requested her previously rejected proposal. Of course, it had to have taken a marvelous story to attract an editor's eye, but hey, it's gratifying to think something I wrote might have helped someone follow her bliss.

Anyway, I hope you have as much success with this method as this woman did. If it helps, e-mail me and let me know. Good luck!

Finding Voice

The Discovery

"Fresh new voice!" "A unique voice!" "A compelling voice!" Voice, voice, voice. All the editors want it. Writers search for it. Readers are carried away by it.

So where is it? Is there any place in your manuscript that you can point to and say, "there it is. That's where my voice is." It's soooo elusive, everyone says.

Not really elusive. I can, if I want, point exactly in my books where my voice is most noticeable. So can you, if you've developed your voice well enough. For that, I have to thank a poet named Lynn from Quilcene, WA who taught a most wonderful workshop in an RWA conference up in Port Townsend. Oh, what people miss, when they assume poetry has nothing to say to them when it comes to prose. I and Carol, a friend and fellow writer, took this workshop, and oh dear heaven, we will be forever grateful. We talked about it, over and over again on the drive back home. We shook inwardly with the knowledge. I don't think that's too strong a phrase.

There has always been something I'd been aware of in stories--those pieces of narrative that gather energy with each sentence, and end with that thing I'd always called "the hit." It could be description, it could be a flow of a character's thoughts. But there would always be this last line or two in which all the energy of the prior sentences pulled together for that "hit" of emotion, of sound, of color. But I'd know it was important. All the important concepts and realizations and turning points came this way. So when I'd write, I'd listen and watch for that build of energy, and try to write so that it ended in that hit. It had to sound right, look right. But I didn't know what it was called.

Lynn put us through our paces. She had us go through pages of examples in poetry, and mark the meters, highlight the metaphors and similes, isolate the concrete and abstract imagery. Carol and I dutifully did as instructed. Then, she handed us examples of prose. "Look at the concrete imagery," she said. "Listen to the meter. See what he did in these beginning sentences?" We nodded--we heard, we saw. "That's the author's voice," she said. "Now, look at this last sentence. Listen to it." An odd, trembling recognition started in my gut. "That," she said, "is true voice."

It was the "hit." That build-up was voice, and the "hit" was true voice. I looked at Carol. Carol looked at me. "Oh, my God," we said. "Oh, my God."

That elusive thing, that thing we'd been told, either you have it or you don't, that it's as ephemeral as mist to grasp...there it was, and we were looking at it.

In that moment, everything I had thought and pondered and wrestled about the craft and technique of writing, of story structure, of pacing and narrative drive--it all coalesced in one bright flash. I could see the connection between all the elements, the brilliant threads flowing from structure to voice to narrative and plot. An amazing, wild order.

And I knew right then, where my voice appeared in my books. The very pages and paragraphs I could point to and say, "there is my voice." I wonder now if Lynn-the-poet thought I was nuts (but then, she's a poet, maybe she's used to crazy writers) for jumping up and saying hurriedly, crazily, "wait, wait--I have to get something--you have to tell me if my voice is in there, if I'm right." I ran up to my hotel room, grabbed one of my books, found the spot and ran down again to the workshop room.

"Look--there--that's my voice, right?" I said, panting from both exertion and excitement and pointing in the book to a paragraph I'd written.

Lynn smiled. "Yes, that's your voice, and yes, that's your true voice. And can you tell me where I can get a copy?"

I sat in the chair with a thump. My voice. I'd been there all along, and I knew it was something important, but I just didn't have a name for it. I pushed the book toward her. "Here," I said. "It's yours. And thank you. Thank you so much."

She went on to tell us that you don't sustain your voice throughout a story--it rises and falls, and it's necessary to have it that way, or else it'd be too wearing on the reader's ear, and the writer's energy. I nodded. I could see where it would rise and fall in a book, according to its structure, and how it'd help pull the reader from one point to the next. Like I said, the elements all fell together all at once. It was there.

Finding your own voice

So how do you find your voice in the manuscript you've written? First, I'd recommend you re-acquaint yourself with poetry, and read them aloud. Refresh your memory with what such things as simile, metaphor, concrete and abstract imagery are. Then, go to my article about Story Structure and follow the directions to find those structural turning points in your manuscript.

Examine those scenes or chapters in which those turning points occur. As you read through the chapter, notice the rhythm, the descriptions, the length of sentences, etc. Then, as you reach the pivotal scene, watch for a difference in rhythm, in the number of metaphors/similes and the imagery you use. At the very least, notice if there is a change in the length of sentences from, say, the beginning of the scene or chapter. I'm willing to bet that in that crucial scene, you will find either a lengthening of sentences with a strong rhythm, or a change to very short sentences, again giving a strong rhythm.

I'm going to put you through a little exercise.

Let me give you an example from one of the finest voices in romance and women's fiction today, Barbara Samuel (also known as Ruth Wind). She's kindly given me permission to use examples from her book (writing as Ruth Wind), Jezebel's Blues, which is a Silhouette Special Edition, © December 1992, ISBN 0-373-09785-9.

First, I'm going to give you some paragraphs from Barbara's book. I want you to read them aloud. Okay, here's one from a chapter that's not at a turning point in the story. Ignore color-coded words for now. We'll get to them later.

The lack of coffee made the rest of the provisions look utterly unappealing. Peanut butter for breakfast? Nope. Vienna sausages? Forget it. Finally she found what she sought: a box of strawberry toaster pastries with sprinkle frosting. She settled on the bed with the box in one hand, an orange in the other and forced herself to stop dreaming of caffeine.

It's a solid paragraph, fairly deep in the heroine's point of view as she's going through the process of getting a meal. A good, functional paragraph that moves the action of the scene forward. You need these kinds of paragraphs, and in fact most of your book will consist of them.

Now, here are two paragraphs in Barbara's signature voice:

Thick evening fell, turning the sky a purply silver above the cottonwoods and pines as she walked. Hidden just beyond her field of vision, Jezebel sang softly to the gathered birds drinking from her skirts. Aside from the chiming of crickets and the occasional call of a bird, the world along this narrow country road was still.

Celia found herself slowing, feeling every pore in her body open to the warm, cottony air, to the nectar of silence no city could ever hope to reproduce. As it had so many times since she’d finally accomplished her dream of coming here, a swell of joy overtook her. Never before had she felt as if a place embraced her, as if the land itself welcomed her into its bosom. Only in Gideon.

Can you hear the difference? If you can't, (and even if you can) I want you to do the following things:

  1. Count the number of words in each sentence in the first example. Then take an average of the numbers. Write it down.
  2. Do the same with the second example.

I think you'll notice that the average length of the sentences in the second example is longer than in the first example.

Still don't see it? Try this: look at the color-coded words above. Count the number of abstract adjectives and adverbs, metaphors and similes in the first example. Also count the number of concrete images and instances of personification. Do this for the second example.

The second example DEFINITELY has more metaphors, similes, personification, and concrete imagery than the first.

Now here's the kicker, the wonderful thing about how structure and voice work together: Barbara's signature voice comes out in every scene that contains a major plot turning point. Every scene. Strong and sure and vivid. The last example comes from the middle of the book (remember the structure article!), a scene where the heroine is going to the hero's house because she understands that he's highly attracted to her, and wants to apologize for hurting his feelings earlier in the story. It's also the scene where they make love for the first time. I think you can agree this is a significant turning point in a romance novel. It's a significant turning point in any relationship, period.

And this is the way it naturally flows for Barbara. I don't think she plans it before she starts writing. In fact, during the revision phase of writing, I understand she pares down the descriptive passages in her first draft considerably. That's the craftswoman and the artist in her. She knows how to refine her voice so that it sings clear and sure in the right places.

Let's look at that last example again. Notice how the all the sentences are relatively long, except for that last sentence: "Only in Gideon." Why is this?

All the prior sentences are full of vivid imagery that directly tie into the heroine's emotional state. As a result, the reader is pulled through her senses into the heroine's emotions. Listen to the rhythm of the sentences. If you know how to mark meter in poetry, do so with this prose. You'll see--if you can't hear--a decided pattern there. This rhythm, this meter, pulls the reader forward insistently, like the beat of drums in a song.

Then there is that short last sentence. This is the "hit," the true voice, where all the emotions, imagery, and sounds of the prior sentences are gathered up and hurled into that one small spot-- Boom! The sentence's short length, bare of any description, is in stark contrast to the rest of the two paragraphs in this example. It makes the word "Gideon" suddenly powerful, a word that now contains a world of meaning. You know, instinctively, that when that town of Gideon is affected, the heroine is affected. When it's hurt, she's hurt. And you know from elsewhere in the story, there is the river Jezebel in the background, waiting to hurt what the heroine loves.

This is how you find your voice. Go to those points in your manuscript and look for where the prose, the sentences, start to shift in length and rhythm. If you normally write long sentences, look for where it shortens. Dialogue may not count, unless you have a long riff of short, snappy, back-and-forth dialogue with very few tags during a turning point scene. If you normally write short, look for where it shifts into long. Look for an increase in the number of vivid imagery, of simile and metaphor. When you find those spots, read those passages aloud. Hear what they sound like.

I should mention that in those books where the shift goes from longer to short sentences, look for an almost impressionistic feel to the scene. I've noticed that this often occurs during pivotal action scenes, during an intense battle scene or chase scene, for instance.

I also want to say that trying to make your paragraphs sound like Barbara's or any other author's voice is the wrong way to go. I've given you some tools here to find your own voice. Publishers aren't looking for Barbara's voice--she's already writing for them. They aren't looking for Stephen King's voice or Nora Roberts's voice--they've found it. They're looking for your unique voice. Find it. Enrich it. Refine it. Use it.

One of the reasons I chose Jezebel's Blues as an example was because when I first read it, I was not only carried away by the story, but I was carried away by the sound. It sounded like a blues song. After that workshop in Port Townsend, I understood that this was part of Barbara's voice, tuned and paced to the type of book it was, to the thematic riffs and setting of the story.

Storytelling has been for millennia an oral tradition--told aloud, read aloud--and we still have the rhythms of ancient storytellers singing in our auditory genes. Think of who told you stories when you were young. Think of the stories you've heard and read as you went through life. Think of the voices that told you those stories. It's so important to listen for those rhythms and those sounds.

That, really, is where the search for voice starts: with your ears wide open.

Story Structure and Middle of the Book Blues

It's been called "the sagging middle," the "story petered out," and just plain stuck. In looking at various manuscripts and contest entries, it seems to me that the problem is more a lack of structure than a lack of inspiration.

The middle of a book is concerned about a major decision point. If you've fed in your backstory (your characters' background and history) at the beginning of your book, then your reader will understand what this decision point is all about as well as the emotion and motivation behind it.

The reason I say this is that there is a structure to your story--anyone's story, for that matter, from Shakespeare to Anne Rice--that needs certain things to happen at certain places.

Try this:

  1. Count the number of pages you have, or "projected" pages you should have if you aren't finished with the book. That is, if you are writing a series contemporary, or any other type of romance, they have a certain word count. Regencies, for instance, have a general word count of 70,000 words, which works out to be around 280 manuscript pages (70,000 divided by 250 words per double spaced page).
  2. Divide that page number by four. (In the case of a 280 page book, that's 70).
  3. Mark off your pages by that number into three parts. In other words, in a 280 page book, mark pages 70, 140, and 210.
  4. Those chapters in which you have those pages marked should have a turning point for one or both of your characters. One or both must make some kind of decision, or come to some kind of conclusion, and in the rest of the chapter or the chapter after that, one or both must then take some action because of that decision or conclusion.

The natural story structure usually impels you to write your book so that one or both of your characters makes a decision or comes to a conclusion at those points. That decision/conclusion in turn makes the character(s) act in a way that pushes them in the direction of the next decision/conclusion at the next point.

If you're stuck, then it often means you don't know or haven't decided what that crucial decision or conclusion your character has made or will make in that scene.

Look at your scene again. Ask yourself, what decision does the hero and/or heroine have to make here? How will that decision/conclusion make the hero and/or heroine act? And how will that action move one or both of them to the next major decision point?

At the midpoint of your book, ask yourself, in what way will this decision get them in trouble by the "dark moment"…which, not coincidentally, occurs just after that third mathematical point.

By the middle of the book, you should have fed in enough backstory (background and history) to give your reader a good idea why your character(s) have to make their decision. Do relate the fear/anxiety/other emotion your protagonists have while trying to come to a decision.

You might give this a try, either with a published book you've read or with your own manuscripts. You'll see that the chapters that occur at the points I mention will have a major decision point for the hero/heroine that spur them on to the next point.

It's something that naturally happens, whether or not you plan it. When you get stuck, or if the pacing falls off, one reason is because those decisions have been shifted away too far from those points, or those decisions aren't clear.

Sometimes an uneven structure is minimized by the author's voice or style of writing. Sometimes it's not. I don't plot out my books in advance, but I do have enough of a sense of structure so that I know when I'm not hitting the right points, and can check it out by this method.

Good Luck! --KEH