Category Archives: Writing Tools

A discussion of the various software that authors employ to write, plot, backup, and ultimately use to write a novel.

School Visits – A Captive Audience?

For authors who write middle grad or YA books, it seems like a no-brainer to include school visits in our plan to build our fan bases, right?


Like a lot of things, it depends on your personality, your books, and how you approach those visits. I personally love visiting schools, even though I haven’t sold lots of books as a direct result of most of those visits. Still, I consider visiting schools, teaching kids about writing, talking about stories, and mentoring young writers well worth my time.

Through the process, I’ve learned a few things.

  1. When you first approach schools, don’t be surprised if they’re wary. These days a lot of indie authors try to get school visits, but few seem interested in helping busy teachers, administrators, and librarians accomplish their curriculum objectives. And they don’t have time to babysit an author coming only to pitch their book.
  2. When you do get school visits, many schools are happy to set you up in the library. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have tons of visitors, unless you schedule with teachers in advance.
  3. Get to know the librarians. Promise them a free book. They love free books, and I always give them one every time I visit. Ask them to put you in touch with English teachers or other teachers who might be interested in meeting with you.
  4. Contact those teachers and ask them what they need, or how you can support and assist their current plans.
  5. Note – don’t be surprised if quite a few teachers scoff at the idea of some indie hack coming into their classrooms and teaching their students anything they couldn’t teach themselves. Some teachers are very open and friendly, but some are quite snobby, even though they usually have no idea how to actually write a publishable story. I’ve had to work through that in initial visits where I prove I know what I’m talking about, students enjoy interacting with me, and I bring value. They’re often much more eager to invite me back a second time.
  6. Be friendly and smile a lot.
  7. Offer to teach students about writing. I’ve spent entire days at local schools teaching students about writing and holding writing workshops with them. Students love it best when only a little formal instruction is given, followed by a hands-on exercise. I really enjoy building a story with students, and they usually love the opportunity to help create stories together.
  8. Prepare a message or presentation that appeals to a wide audience beyond just your books. I’m working on a couple different presentations suitable for larger audiences that should make administrators a lot more eager to invite me to come speak to their schools.
  9. Although it is possible to set up a big book signing event at the school, the more I learn, the more I think there are better ways. One well known author I know warned me that sometimes holding a big book signing can actually generate hostility from the school.

He pointed out that at least one teacher or administrator at almost every school fancies themselves an author, and they often feel resentment when they seen tons of students lining up to buy books.

So for a really big book signing, a great suggestion they gave me is to line up multiple school visits for the same area over a couple of days, and send all the kids home with a notice that you’ll be holding a big book signing at a local bookstore or venue close to the schools. Then the kids and their parents can come on Saturday and buy your books.

I plan to test this approach soon, and I’m eager to see how it goes.

10. Finally, know your objectives. Make sure you’re helping the school and bringing value to them. You’ll get exposure, if not tons of sales at first, but over time, it really pays off.

I’ve been cultivating relationships with local schools for the past few years, and I have a strong local fan base, partially because of those efforts. Plus I’ve helped a lot of budding authors learn some things I wish I’d known at their age.


Plotting a Series

A guest post by Gama Martinez

How do you approach a series? How do you make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for difficulties because the rules you established for your world in book 1 make the ending of book 6 not work? One way, naturally, is to outline the whole series, but that can be an equally daunting task. Like outlining a book, outlining a series is not for everyone. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s not for most people, and you won’t really know if it’s for you unless you try it. Here’s the method I use.

A number of years ago, I was talking to Brandon Sanderson, and I told him that the second book in the Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance, felt like the end of act 1, and I asked him if that was deliberate. He said that it really was. Books 1 and 2 are act 1. Books 3 and 4 are act 2, and book 5 is act 3. That completely opened my eyes to plotting a series.

The traditional three act structure has a number of parts. What I realized in my conversation with Brandon was that many of these could be applied to a series. It’s not as detailed as can be applied to a novel, but the major parts still apply. The first act is a setup. The second, which can be longer than the others, is the protagonist taking a more active role in their journey. Generally, halfway through, there is a shift. We learn that the world is not what it appeared to be. This act ends when things are pretty much as bad as they can possibly get. The third act is recovering and clawing your way toward victory. Fair warning. I am about to be giving a lot of Harry Potter spoilers, because that series illustrates this beautifully, but given that that series ended ten years ago, I’m going to assume that if you want to read it, you have. If that’s not the case, just skip over the next paragraph.

For Harry Potter, books 1-2 are act 1. Books 3-6 are act 2, and book 7 is act 3. Books 1 and 2 are basically “Harry goes to Hogwarts and something happens.” We’re introduced to the characters, and they start to come into their own. Sure, a couple of important plot details happen, namely, the destruction of the first horocrux, but it’s mainly getting to know the setting and people. In book 3, there is an immediate change. Harry starts off with a specific goal. He wants to kill Sirius Black. From then on, Harry is a more active protagonist. The shift in tone happens at the end of book 4, with the death of Cedric. Someone has died. They weren’t a monster. They were a friend. This is no longer a story for children. The low point, obviously, is the death of Dumbledore. Hogwarts has always been a safe place. Sure, dangerous things happened, but it was home. Harry was always happy to get there and sad to leave. Now, “father” is dead. Home belongs to the bad guys, and Harry cannot return.

I applied many of the same concepts to my Pharim War series. I changed how long each “act” was, but having these points in mind allowed me to outline the entire series fairly early on. I knew what had to happen in book 3. I knew that in book 4, there had to be a shift. I knew where to put the catastrophe. I never follow my outlines exactly, so book 2 didn’t end where I planned. As a result, I had to make minor adjustments to the outline of book 3 before I started, but I knew where the story was going, and that let me jump fairly easily from one book to the next. The ultimate result was a seven book series released entirely in the space of just under a year and a half. Try it out. See if it works for you.


Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. One of his greatest accomplishments is getting Brandon Sanderson to give him a cover quote for his book, Shadowguard. He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky little things like reality stand in the way of dreams.

Flash Fiction-It’s Not About Barry Allen

I’ve always admired people who can write short stories. Packing everything needed for a good narrative into less than 10k words is a skill that I struggle with. Besides some success I’ve had with horror short stories, short fiction is not my forte. Plus, I always want to put a silly surprise at the end, which a lot of editors don’t love.

Last year I went to a conference and heard a couple of people talk about Flash Fiction.

Flash Fiction is a story in 1,000 words or less.

Yes, you read that correctly, 1,000 words or less.

During a session at the conference, the presenter gave us some randomly generated story parts (character, setting, genre) and then gave us twenty or so minutes to write a flash fiction story about it.

Can I just say that I loved it? It was liberating staring at a blank page, typing my “parts” at the top, and then trying to put them into a cohesive story that would only last 1,000 words.

I don’t usually struggle with commitment, but I tell you what, these little things are commitment free, and highly addictive. I was hooked after one, wrote a horror flash fiction for an anthology the next day, and then decided I would adopt the platform of Flash Fiction on my website.

Now I kind of stole the randomly-ish generated theme, genre, character…idea from the presenter. I came up with my own five categories, and filled them up. I then dig into my husband’s D&D dice bag and I see what fate has in store for me this week.

Voila, Flash Fiction Friday!

The great thing about it, is things have to connect, but not everything has to be explained. You don’t have time to go into a great deal of background, so to say the character is an angry mobster bent on revenge is enough. And the narrative is so short that it almost has to be a snap shot—a moment where something changes. Or when something should change, but it doesn’t. Get in, tell the story and get out all in less than two pages, single spaced in Word.

If you’re interested in writing, try it. If you’re having trouble with writer’s block, try it. If you’re looking for something new, try it. It’s like a cookie verses an entire cake. Take a bite and walk away.

Everything I Needed To Learn About Blocking I Learned From Theater

Blocking. To actors that word mean three hours of standing around, listening to the director say “move a little downstage, now take a small step stage left…good…now cheat out…perfect!” and you have to remember it perfectly for the duration of the show’s run. But for writers it’s completely different. I mean, we can’t tell the characters to cheat out. The page doesn’t work that way. But in many ways, we are like the director and there are a lot of stage blocking techniques that do work well on the page.

Some of you are probably asking what exactly is blocking. The simplest definition is that blocking is the placement and movement of actors and props on stage. You can’t have everyone stand in a line for the entire play. It doesn’t look good and it’s pretty boring. The actors need to fill the space and move about it in a way that is interesting, purposeful, and appropriate to the scene. It’s the director’s responsibility to pretty much choreograph all of this (in addition to everything else they’re responsible for).

Whether there’s three characters in the scene or ten, everyone needs to be visible. It’s impossible for an actor to effectively deliver a line if multiple people are blocking them from view. How else are the audience going to know who is speaking?

How does that work for fiction when the reader can’t physically see the characters? Well, they can see them through the viewpoint character. When crafting a scene it’s our duty to be the director, to make sure that every character in that scene is visible to the POV character. If the POV character can’t see them then we can’t show the reader the supporting character’s expressions, movements, and gestures that can add necessary depth to the scene. The one benefit that writers have that theater directors don’t is that the audience can move with the viewpoint character and we don’t have to wait for scenery changes. If there’s something that needs to start in one room and finish in another, that’s easily done in a few sentences.

So if we have more flexibility than the stage, how can their tricks help us? Again, it’s all about visuals. Whether we’re aware of it or not, certain arrangements are more pleasing to the eye than others. The boring straight line I mentioned earlier? Unless you have a witness looking at a line up, I can’t think of another instance where it works. Why? Because it’s subconsciously awkward and/or dull. For a lot of people it brings back memories of waiting to be picked for a team, and for those that it doesn’t it has the feeling of waiting in line at the DMV. Heck, even in a line up scene it feels awkward but at least in that context it works. Also, lets be honest, in many situations not everyone is going to be standing in an orderly fashion. There’s going to be someone standing a little apart from the group, or someone sitting. There’s going to be some sort of variety and staggering and that’s enough to keep the body placement from putting your audience to sleep.

Another thing you can use blocking for is to facilitate and even highlight the climactic moment in a scene. This scene from Clue is a good example. (Yes, I know. It’s a film, not a play but it’s one of the best examples I know of.)

Obviously the big climactic moment in this is the falling chandelier. But how to make that happen without it looking intentional, and only endangering Col. Mustard? That’s where the blocking comes in. As soon as Wadsworth prepares to ram the door two characters get out of the way. They’re still near enough to be part of the scene and interject with a comment or two, but they also won’t impede anything — which is important given the amount of physical comedy that follows. Wadsworth’s writhing on the ground in pain, causing Yvette to trip over him and accidentally fire the gun is the clever solution to how to bring down the chandelier (without a Phantom). It also provides everyone in the line of fire something to react to — dramatically — and the physical comedy ensues. It’s funny, it builds tension, it solves minor plot problems, and sets up the release at the end that punctuates the joke, that is Col. Mustard’s line “I can’t take any more scares.” The dialogue isn’t much. It’s all pretty plain and standard for the most part. It’s pretty much the blocking that facilitates every part of the scene.

Blocking isn’t that scary. If you take the time to take a long, hard look at your scenes, can be another useful tool in your artistic arsenal. Taking the time to study its finer points and mastering how to use it will make a big difference in the efficacy of your writing.