If you have something to say, the world needs to hear it. And you need to say it. A book gives you authority and lets the world know where to find you. Getting published makes you stand out in your field and your writing might make a substantial contribution to a cause or profession you care about.
-Nori J. Muster
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On this page: Fiction Writing | Choose a Point of View | Find a Publisher | Break Writer's Block | Instructor's Bio
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Fiction Writing
by Nori J. Muster, 1990

I. Ideas for the story

A. Give a capsule description of the story you want to write. What emotions do you feel about the subject? Would others have an emotional response? Why? How will the story create reader identification? Write about an emotional period of your own life. Was it a turning point? Write a brief description of that event and time. Describe how you felt then and how you feel now about what happened. Try to recapture the emotion.

B. Describe briefly the important characters in the story: the hero or heroine (protagonist), the main opposition character (antagonist), and any other character who is a supporting player for the main character. Where does the story take place? In what time period (past, present, or future)? What is the major problem facing the main character?

C. Where would the story fit? Mainstream? Category?

D. What aspects of the story would give it universal appeal? A fresh approach?

E. Why do you want to write this particular story? Why do you think this idea would make a good book you could write?





II. Background

A. Background, or back story are the events that happened before the beginning of the story you want to tell. Write a summary of the story's background. Give more details on the place in which the story occurs; more about the time in which it set; any major historical events or present-day events that would affect the characters and actions in the story. Explain why you chose this particular place and time as background for the story. Tell why you'll be able to write about this with credibility. Is it because of a personal experience or the experience of a person close to you? Is the background inspired by an absorbing interest in the place, time, and events? Why is this particular background relevant to this story ideal?

B. Write a five-page sample of how you will weave background into the telling of the story.





III. Characters and Their Motivations

A. Make a character analysis for each major character, including the following:

1. Surface characteristics: character's name, gender, age, physical appearance (body type, hair, eyes, facial features, dress, posture, movements, mannerisms, speech, first impression). Does any physical characteristic suggest what's going on inside?

2. Background: education, religion, family, early childhood experiences, financial situation, profession, marital status, other relationships, habits, surroundings/ environment, health.

3. The inner person: distinctive traits, self-image, yearnings/ dreams, fears/apprehensions, sense of humor, code of ethics, attitude, outlook on life. Other details: hobbies, favorite foods, colors, books, music, art. Positive traits and negative traits (character flaws). Why do you want this character to have these traits/attitudes as related to the novel idea?

4. Motivation (ie., survival, search for identity; need for love, recognition, spiritual identity, acceptance, affiliation, achievement, growth, etc.). How will this motivation lead to a believable character change during course of the novel? Basic motivations, drives--how will blocking these basic drives cause conflict? Explore your own motivations. Describe any early childhood experience you think influenced your adult thoughts, feelings, and actions (memories of teachers, relatives, friends who left a lasting impression). Many of your own experiences can be used to motivate the fictional character's inner traits.

5. What two opposing character traits would cause conflict in the character? What is the rationale for this particular character in this particular novel?

B. How are you going to tell this story and why did you choose that approach? Will it be in the first person or third person subjective viewpoint? Which character will be the main protagonist--the character who stands to win or lose with the resolution of the story problem?

To learn how to choose a point of view for your story, click here.





IV: Plot Development

A. Answer the following questions:

1. Who are the most important characters in the story? Describe the protagonist and the main antagonists (may be impersonal entity, ie. "the system" or a destructive force within the protagonist).

2. What is the primarily problem facing the protagonist(s)? The problem must seem big enough to last throughout the story. It must cause endless complications as the protagonist struggles to overcome it. The protagonist must be prepared to go to any lengths to solve the problem; only by solving it may the character find peace of mind.

3. Why is the solution to the problem so important to the main character(s)? Consider the character's inner traits, motivations--these are the "why" of human behavior. When you've answered the "why" question, you've come a long, long way in plotting the story.

4. Where does the story take place? Be more specific about the background, setting, as discussed in assignment two. Is the story set primarily in one place or in several locations? How much does setting figure in the conflict, plot?

5. When does the story take place? The story begins on a certain day and ends on a certain day in the life of the characters. Plot steps push the story forward by moving the characters to a different time and a different situation. The place, the "where" might remain the same, or it might change.

6. How does it all turn out? If the protagonist doesn't get what he or she wanted, then how does he or she come to terms with the loss?

B. Conflict comes in many different forms: person against person; person against him or herself; person against nature, technology, evil leaders, the system, etc. Which of the conflicts will predominate in the story? Will there be a second conflict? If so, what will it be? What is the first conflict situation to occur in the story? When and where does it take place? Why does the character feel so strongly about the situation? What action does he or she take? What decision does he or she make? What is the crisis point, or the biggest complication of all? What is the climax point? What character traits allow the protagonist to win out over the antagonist? Or, what traits cause the protagonist to fail?

C. Make a list of all obstacles that could possibly arise:





V: Subplot and Theme

A. Subplot. Relationships between major characters and secondary characters can be used as subplots. Historical events may figure into the plot. Subplots must be resolved before the primary problem. An emotional involvement between protagonists and secondary characters binds the primary plot and the subplots together.

B. How do the subordinate events and situations contribute to the protagonist's character change? How do they complicate the resolution of the primary plot by creating added obstacles for the protagonist? How do they contribute additional events and problems, thereby adding texture and substance to the story?

C. Choose a secondary character in the story. What is this character's problem? Is the problem related to a personal situation? To a political/economic event? To a historical event? How does this event involve the protagonist(s)? How will the problem in the subplot relate to the primary problem? In what way will the protagonist be affected by what happens in the subplot?

D. What are some of the other subplots in the story? Make a list of possible subplots.

E. Theme--What do you want the story to say to the reader about life as dramatized by the characters in the book? What does the story say about human nature? About life? Where will you present the theme? In one final scene? In many scenes throughout the story? How will you express this scene? In character thoughts? In character dialogue? What are you trying to say through the characters and through the plot? Why are you writing this story? What are your own conclusions about human nature and the mysteries of life?

F. Type in simple narrative format, a three to four page synopsis of the story's primary plot and one or two subplots. Explain the sequence of what will happen to the main character as you have expanded or revised the original story idea.

G. State the theme as simply as possible.





VI: Writing the Scenes

A. In writing each scene of the story, consider: what is the overall emotional tone of the scene? How will the characters change because of the confrontation within the dramatic scene? How does the situation change by the end of the scene? What is the place; time; conflict (external or internal)? The purpose or logical reason for the scene? What is the final thought or action that concludes the scene and leads to the next scene? Consider whether a particular scene is written to be an opening, a flashback, a plot step, a crisis point, or a major crisis point.

B. Write two non-dramatic scenes that might occur in the story. First, a one-character scene, using the character's thoughts to show how they feel about the problem facing them. Second, show the feelings and thoughts of the main character through dialogue with another character.

C. Write the first ten pages of the story. Establish clear identification of the central character.





How to Choose a Point of View for Your Story

There are several techniques you can use. Most beginning fiction writers prefer the "close third," which means that you tell the story from the point of view of your main character. It's easy because you always stick with the main character. Your reader only sees what the main character sees. You readers can only see inside one character's head to hear their thoughts. For example, "Sandy walked inside the building and was bewildered by the sights and sounds. She thought to herself, this isn't what I expected." etc., etc.

close third is the easiest for a new writer, but it certainly isn't the most flexible. For example, if something vital to your story happens on the other side of town, your character must find out about it for the reader to know.

The "close third" can easily be converted to first person. For example, "I walked inside the building and felt bewildered by the sights and sounds. It wasn't what I expected." etc., etc.

Sometimes the close third is best for an autobiographical story. I wrote my first book from the viewpoint of my main character "Lori," but later changed it to first person. It was just easier to imagine the events happening to someone else.

Most beginning writers use either close third or first person.

More complex points of view are the omnicient, where the story line moves from person to person, or just an overview, as though the narration can cover anything that's happening at any location in the world. Although it allows more flexibility, and is useful for more complex plots, it's much harder to carry off in a convincing way.

Another viewpoint technique is to have a narrator. The classic example is "One flew over the Coo-coo's nest," where the story is narrated by an asylum patient who observes the main charcter. This works in detective novels, where the detective describes the twists and turns of his case and tells you what's going on. If you use this technique, keep in mind that it's more difficult and there are a few rules you must observe. First, the narrator has to tell you things you need to know. The narrator cannot come out at the end and say, "Oh yes, and I actually had the mystery solve by page 95 but I didn't want to spoil it for you." Also, the narrator has to be honest. You can't have a surprise at the end where the narrator says, "By the way, I fibbed about Doc being at the lake last night, because he actually was at the crime scene but I didn't want to tell you." Also - and this is most important - the narrator cannot turn out to be the murderer. For example, "And it was me. I killed the judge, but led you on a wild goose chase for the last 200 pages." If you use the character-narrator technique, your narrator must be honest, interesting, and frank throughout the whole story. Also, the reader can only find out what the narrator finds out. So you can't have any omnicient narration, like: "He didn't know it, but across town the Mafia was getting ready for their next big job." The whole story must come from the lips of the narrator.

Experiment with the various styles and find the one that you find comfortable using. Choose one and stick with it throughout your story.





How do I find a Publisher?

The first step is to buy a current Writer's Market directory. This book comes out every year and lists all the agents and publishers. You can look in the index for your category and then find the people who are most likely to be looking for your material.

Take a look at the book here, at Amazon.com: 2012 Writer's Market

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Or, sign up for Writers Market Online (click here). This is a great site for locating agents, publishers, contests, magazine markets, etc. It's $30 to join for a year, but well worth it. Highly recommended.

Query Your letter of inquiry, or "query" letter, should be no longer than one page. The letter should introduce the publisher to your book and spark interest. Writing the inquiry letter is a good exercise because it makes you focus on the essence of your book. This is your "pitch" to the publisher.

The SASE The most important enclosure is an SASE, a self-addressed, stamped envelope. An agent or publisher will only reply to you if there's an SASE. This is the universal absolute rule of inquiries. Include enough postage and a big enough envelope for everything you send. Don't make the publisher have to decide what to return and what to throw away.

Rejection letters often the publisher will write a brief comment on your letter such as "not interested" or "not for me." That's called a "rejection letter." Prepare to start a large collection. I have hundreds of them.

How many inquiries to send at a time You can send your inquiry and SASE to as many publishers as you want. They do not expect to have exclusive rights to your book based on an inquiry letter. If a publisher writes back and requests the manuscript, you must hold it for them. They might take up to three months to evaluate a manuscript, but you must wait for their word before showing it to someone else.

Don't send out your inquiry to one hundred publishers, fifty publishers, or even twenty-five publishers at a time. Just try three or four at a time, because you will find that you improve your inquiry letter with practice and so you don't want to "use up" every possibility in the Writer's Market.

How soon to call them Never call a publisher to see if they got your inquiry package. If you get antsy, work on your letter some more and send it to two or three new possibilities. Also continue to refine your manuscript. If your manuscript is ready to go, then start writing your next book while you continue selling the first one. If you call a publisher to inquire about an inquiry letter they will think you have too much time on your hands.

Other enclosures For some projects a query letter and SASE are enough. When I was selling my story about my years as a Hare Krishna, most publishers only needed a one-page letter to know if that story was right for them. Sometimes publishers do not have to look through a lot of paperwork to know if they want to read the manuscript. However, you can enclose any of the following if your project calls for it:
Table of contents or outline - make your headings descriptive.
Synopsis - a summary of your book in one paragraph.
Detailed Synopsis - a longer summary that goes into more detail.
Author's Bio, resume - include something about yourself, for example: what brings you to write this book, other things you've written, education, etc.
Literature review, description of intended audience - a description of your market research. Tell the publisher about your intended audience; give examples of other successful books in this field. Explain what your book adds to the field, why it's unique, how it makes a contribution, why there's a need for your book.

Get organized Always keep a copy of what you send out, either hard copy or on a computer disk. Keep a record of what's "out" and if it comes back with a rejection letter, have a new place to send it. Keep on trying. Remember, looking for your publisher is like looking for a needle in a haystack. You only need to find one interested party. That means you can get 1,000 rejection letters and the 1,001th letter could be your publisher.

Question: What about an agent?

Answer Some publishers will only accept an inquiry from an agent. Usually these are the really big publishers. If you think your book is right for a really big publisher, then skip the small presses and just send your inquiry to agents. Or send your inquiry to agents and publishers.

The really big agents will only accept work from "known" authors, meaning someone who has a TV show or newspaper column. There are examples of big agents taking on unknown new writers and leading them to best-seller-dom. However, more often an agent will take your book and sit on it for a year while you could be out selling it yourself. You can usually do a more effective job for yourself just using the Writer's Market. You are the most motivated salesperson for your own book, so it's usually more fruitful to go directly to the publishers yourself.

Plus, agents will take 15 to 20 percent of anything you make. Since they are expensive, I recommend going directly to the publishers who will accept un-agented material.

Question: What is the format for sending a manuscript?

Answer If a publisher or agent asks to see your manuscript, print it out on 8-1/2 x 11 white paper. Use 1-inch margins, double spaced 10-pt. courier type. Put page numbers in the header at the top right. Don't staple the pages, don't bind the pages, don't put your bookin a folder or notebook. Authors used to put the manuscript in a box, but nowadays most just put it in an envelope. Add a cover letter addressed to the person who requested it, stating that you are sending the manuscript in response to his or her request. On the outside of the envelope mark it "Requested material." Make sure your grammar and punctuation are as good as you can make it. Only send the manuscript when you are absolutely sure its the best you can do. You may not get another chance. Time moves slower in the publishing world. Usually publishers and agents are not in a hurry for your manuscript. They would rather wait a few more days or weeks if it means you will get it right before you send it.

Question: How long should I wait before contacting the publisher to see if they got my manuscript?

Answer Do not contact a publisher to see if they received your manuscript. In fact, just cool your heels until they contact you. If you want confirmation of receipt, you can ask the post office to add a confirmation of delivery receipt to your package for an extra fee. Authors used to enclose a self-addressed post card for the publisher to drop in the mail, but better to go with the post office confirmation and just trust that the publisher has received, and is considering, your book.

Question: Anything else?

Answer Yes. Be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope large enough, with enough postage to cover the return of the manuscript.





How Can I Overcome Writer's Block?

All writers block falls into three categories:

1) You don't know what to write. A novel? An article? A poem? What's next? This kind of writers block may happen after you finish a big project. You may feel wrung out or clouded about where to go next.

2) Sometimes you have something to say but other obligations keep getting in the way. For example kids, work, errands, paperwork, emergencies, etc. Life keeps happening - making it difficult for you to find the time to write. You're not alone! Many writers feel like they have part-time jobs as a nanny, maid, or secretary to a writer.

3) Another type of writers block is avoidance. You may have a good idea and plenty of time to write, but you look for diversions. For example, "Gee, these closets sure could use a spring cleaning." This type of writers block happens when you have too much time on your hands. If your life is a daily blank slate with nothing else on the agenda, it can become overwhelming and cause writers block.

The best way to overcome all three forms of writers block is to set realistic goals according to the lifestyle you have. Next, sit down and put your hands on the keyboard or pen. This will get you started, especially if you have a routine. An example of a routine would be to wake up and go to the computer for the first five hours of the day. Writing first thing in the morning is good because your mind is clear.

Once you're sitting at your writing table, dive into your main project or warm up by answering email or journaling. Most of all, be tolerant and patient. You can't beat the words out of yourself. If you're stalled on a project, maybe you need to process the material in your mind for a while before you're able to write it out.





Your Instructor: Nori Muster

Writing Experience

I have been writing for publication since 1981, including years as a staff writer, associate editor, editorial writer, and freelance reporter. I have articles in academic journals, a book by the University of Illinois Press, a historic fiction novel, short stories, poems, personal essays, and several psychology self-help books. To read some of my writing posted on line, click here: NoriMuster.com. To read reviews of my first book, click here.


Education

Bachelor's Degree in Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1978
Master's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Oregon University, 1991
Writer's Program, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988-1994


I Can Address Your Questions About Writing and the Writing Life

Where do I get ideas? * How do I organize a book? * When should I get a manuscript evaluation, critique? * Is my book idea sellable? * How much money can I expect to make compared to the time I must put into a book? * How much writing experience do I need to publish a book? * How do I revive a stalled project? * What if friends or family discouraged me? * How do I support myself while I'm writing?

I Can Address Your Questions About How You Can Publish Your Book

When do I need an agent and how do I find one? * Is self-publishing a good option? * What about publishing on the Internet? * Is it harder for first-time authors? * How do I find a publisher? * Do I have to finish the book before I try to sell it? * What goes into a book proposal? * When can I call the publisher to see if they received my proposal? * Can I find an agent or publisher through the Internet? * How do I promote my book?