January 18th, 2017

Rules for a Successful Writing Life from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, inspiration

Photo credit: Emily’s Quotes – http://bit.ly/2e6jcwF

Today I’m thinking about the people who inspired me on this writing journey.

There are the usual suspects… My mother, who encouraged my constant scribbling. The 6th grade teacher who put my essay up on the wall with a shiny gold star. Countless friends and teachers, in my home writing chapter and online. The founders and contributors here at WITS.

There are the great writers who have already passed: Pat Conroy, Blake Snyder, Zig Ziglar, Harper Lee. And Maya Angelou, who deserves a post all to herself. Angelou is who I’m thanking today, as she’s my get-up-and-go girl when I’m down about this writing life. Her quotes are in blue.

A mentor helps a person to interpret the world.

I can hear Angelou’s strong voice in my mind, that well-modulated tone that filled hundreds of auditoriums and thousands of hearts. She said, “In order to be an effective mentor, a mentor has to care.” It’s her special talent that, although we’ve never met, I still feel her care. I know I’m not alone…she has mentored millions with her words. 

Her Lessons for a Successful Life

1. Do right – it will satisfy your soul.

“Try to be the best you can be. People will know you and they will add their prayers to your life and be happy for you.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of kindness. It doesn’t cost you anything to help lift others up. It doesn’t push you down. In fact, it will probably give you a mental lift for the next task you face. It might be a door you open, a review you write or a tweet that you share, but paying kind deeds forward will satisfy you. I promise.

Pick up the battle – this is your life. This is your world. Make it a better one where you are. It is up to us to make the world better.

2. Be courageous.

Courage is the most important of all the virtues – you can’t be kind or fair or humane or generous until you find your courage. Courage is required to defend all the other virtues, and to be a whole person.

3. Self-love is very important.

Never trust anyone who says they love you if they don’t first love themselves. Angelou mentions an old African proverb in the video below: Be careful of a naked man who offers you a shirt.

If you’re having trouble with the self-love today – and we all have those days – she recommends “gathering everyone who has loved you – bring them along with you when you have to do anything.”

Think of your granny who stroked your hair as you fell asleep at night, or the relative who taught you an important skill. Think of your best friend who thinks you hang the moon and stars in the sky. If you’re a believer, think of God. 

Just because your loved ones aren’t always with you anymore, doesn’t mean their love doesn’t still live inside you. Pass their love along to yourself.

4. If you don’t laugh, you will die.

The sense of humor is self-defense against life’s difficulties, but it’s also good for us. Stress is the current slow-killer in our society, paving the way for illness and depression.

This article from Laughter Online University gives several health benefits of laughter:

  • Laughter triggers the release of a cocktail of happy chemicals that boosts the immune responses, particularly components related to anti-viral and anti-tumor defenses.
  • Laughter boosts secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of key immune responses.
  • Laughing leads to the release of endorphins, a natural opiate that has been scientifically shown to carry messages of attachment and bonding (the scientific terms for love), and to stimulate feelings of caring and forgiveness in addition to acting as a natural painkiller.
  • Laughter stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
  • Laughter can help you learn. This theory is held by many learning experts and leaders.

I’m quite certain that the younger Maya didn’t know the science of it all, but she learned that laughter helps you find a way forward when you feel like there is no way.

5. Be a blessing to someone.

Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. We may not speak the same language or dance the same dance, but be a blessing to someone.

After a childhood rape, Maya Angelou stopped speaking for five years. When she stopped speaking, she started reading and the stories kept her afloat.

She knew what we all know: stories are important. They are our friends when we’re lonely, assurance when we’re scared, inspiration when we’re down. Stories are a gift and many of us write to pay that gift forward.

Angelou quotes that speak to me as a writer:

“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.”

“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound.”

“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

She exhorted all of us to “turn struggles into triumphs,” know you are talented, do your best and, most of all, “keep rising.”

From her poem, Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.



Do you have a Maya Angelou quote that particularly speaks to you? Or a quote from a different writing mentor. Who has been a rainbow in your cloud?

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.

January 16th, 2017

7 Things Authors Must Do Differently in 2017

Penny C. Sansevieri

laptop-coffeeIf you’ve ever thought that the publishing industry is tough to figure out, you’re not alone. In fact, I once had an author tell me that getting into publishing is sort of like building a house without any plans. There’s a lot of information out there, but it can be overwhelming or even confusing, and certainly ever-changing. It may seem simplest to jump right in with both feet, just to start somewhere. This often comes with a price. The good news is that although the challenges are real, they’re relatively easy to overcome. So in order to make the most of your efforts in book marketing, here are some things you must start doing differently this year!

1. Do Proper Market Research

First things first – it’s time to decide if there’s a market for your book. And, you need to be honest with yourself. If you’re writing a romance novel, then the answer is probably yes, but if you are writing something vastly different – let’s say a self-help book for guys, you may want to reconsider. Why? Because 93% of self-help is written for women.

And, you should go with your skillset. You may have dreamed of writing the next great American novel, but if you have a knack for writing sexy erotica – go with it! Next, be honest with yourself about who will really buy your book so you can start figuring out the best places and avenues to reach them. Don’t be afraid to narrow your audience to a core group. It’s tempting to want to reach everyone, but it’s not realistic.

2. Build Your Tribe

We hear this a lot: build your mailing list, grow your fans on social media! But what does that really mean? This big statement and action can seem a bit daunting, so let me break this down for you. What this really comes down to is you need to own your fans, by this I mean get to know them and engage with them. We’re getting to the point where any consumer has thousands upon thousands of choices on Amazon and while it’s great to optimize that page, that alone won’t make the sale. So do whatever you have to build your mailing list. I’ve talked before about having a letter in the back of your book, and finding ways to get fans from your book, into your inbox. Another way is to start an exclusive group on Facebook where you offer exclusive content, prizes, etc. Building your fan-tribe will be enormously important as you continue to market your book.

3. Consider Joint Promotions

More and more I’m seeing authors collaborate on promotional efforts. First it was via bundled book sets, now I’m seeing this in other campaigns. We’re actually in the process of developing a number of collaborative campaigns – so several authors of the same genre are bundled in one, powerful campaign. This is a way of helping consumers “find their next favorite author” but there’s also power in numbers. So several authors together, marketing collectively and then to their core audience is a great way to gain more steam than going it alone.

4. Use A Professional Cover Designer and Copy Editor

Two of the biggest book killers for books are bad covers and bad book descriptions. The solution to this is easy – hire a professional! There are lots of great referrals out there, so a little research will go a long way.

If you’re looking at your book cover and aren’t sure if it’s good, take a look at some of the top books in your genre. The similarities will give you insight as to what appeals to your market. Cover design is very psychological, and it’s far more important than honoring a friend’s artwork. Don’t make me give the lecture on using Word to do your design, or having someone hand-draw your cover art.

When you’re ready to tackle your book description, keep in mind that just because you can write an amazing story does not mean you can write good sales copy. It’s really apples and oranges, so don’t take it personally. You also have to realize we’re often too close to our work to write compelling copy, so enlisting the help of a professional comes with the added bonus of an unbiased view of your work and what you have to offer potential readers.

As you prepare to start looking for someone to help you write copy, it’s important to find someone who has specifically worked with books and book copy. Yes, you might know someone in marketing that’s a great copy writer, but someone who works in publishing knows the importance of using key words in your genre and should also be on top of what’s working for bestselling books, what readers respond to. Again, be sure to ask about fees, how many edits you get, etc.

Be prepared to provide your copy person with some key information: Who is your buyer? What makes your story or approach to topic unique? What do you want people to take away from the book? Don’t expect the person writing your book description to read your book cover to cover – they will depend on you for the Cliff’s Notes.

5. Take Advantage of Every Opportunity

Occasionally I work with authors who turn down an interview opportunity, guest blog post or podcast interview. The reason? They aren’t sure that the site is big enough to make them famous. This always baffles me. Do you know how Chicken Soup for the Soul got to be such a huge, household name? By doing every single interview, regardless of size or hour (sometimes a radio interview at 3am). You are not too good for anything. Period. As a rule, the most successful authors take advantage of every opportunity for exposure that they come across. That means every guest blog post, every review request, every interview. Mail the book. Write the article. Do the interview. And, big media won’t take chances on things that won’t improve their ratings or viewer/listener/readership. So first, take advantage of the smaller opportunities, because they’ll build on one another to create a buzz, and that is what will help garner big attention.

When you’re pitching media, don’t consider it one and done. Do the follow up. When something comes up in the news or popular culture that you can tie into your book, re-pitch them using the new angle. Even smaller regional media is inundated with offers, so this is not an area to skimp on time.

Be sure you’re offering something unique. What makes your book special? Why is it different than the other 10 books they already own in your genre or topic? Whoa, that’s sobering, right? If you want to secure an interview, give them topic/discussion ideas. The less work you make them do to say ‘yes’ the better your chances.

6. Consistently Run eBook Promotions

People love sales year round. While it’s normal to question discount promotions after spending your time and hard-earned money to get the book to market, you can’t beat the exposure you’ll get from running a limited time discounted promotion. It’s a proven strategy that works time and again to get your book in front of people who might not otherwise consider it. And remember a discount doesn’t have to mean free. You can discount your book to $.99 or $1.99 and still get a ton of people to download it, especially if you ask your current fan base and author friends to help spread the word 

In terms of the “how,” there are lots of eBook promotion sites out there. Some are paid, some are free, all have rules. Take the time to develop a list of go-to sites you can use that fit your needs and flexibility with pricing requirements, and create a calendar for yourself that ensures you’re doing these at least a few times a year.

7.  Start Writing Your Next Book

So you just published a book? Great! It’s time to get started on your next book. First, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Although it’s not impossible to retire off your first book, it also isn’t likely. Plus, this goes back to building your tribe. If readers know you’re a sure thing, and they see that you’re working on the next book, they’ll probably become long-term fans.

And, since you’re also going to be spending time marketing your new book, be sure to schedule in writing time. Write every day or at least every week, no excuses. If this is important to you, and you’re serious about your success as an author, you will make it a priority like your health, or your best friend, or time with your kids. It’s that important.

Also, your next release doesn’t have to be a full-length book – novellas or shorter books (50-75) pages are doing really well as eBooks. So definitely consider adding shorter books as in-between titles to keep building your shelf.

Bonus Tip: Engage in Your Own Success

I have a special skill: I can walk into a room of300+ authors and pick out the ones who are going to be successful. How can I tell? I see the authors who carry business cards or bookmarks with them to every event. They want to learn, they engage other authors, and ask questions to find out what’s working and what isn’t. And, they spend any spare time to do something to further their success, even if it’s really small. They also know that they can’t buy their way into a bestseller. Spending tons of money on a publicity firm will have very lackluster results if you have zero interest in playing a leading role in your own success. You can pay people to do the heavy lifting, but no one will have the passion for your book that you do, so plan to do your part even when you hire someone. And play to your strengths – if you’re social, share your book with people everywhere you go. If you’re good online, pitch bloggers for reviews and guest posts. Get creative, and find something you can do every day, no matter how small.

The ultimate take away here, is that indie authors have a huge role in their own success. And while you can jump into the deep end of the ocean and start swimming, it’s my goal to empower you to spend minimal time just treading water. If you’ve made some mistakes with your first book (or books), then you can learn from them moving forward. Being an author comes with a lot of time and effort without a lot of guarantees. But, we never know where that one breakthrough opportunity will present itself, and it will never happen by sitting around and waiting for success to find you. You were inspired to create something, don’t let that fire die out!  Let’s make 2017 into your year.

About Penny

Author MarkketingPenny C. Sansevieri, CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., is a best-selling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert and an Adjunct Professor with NYU. Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most cutting-edge book marketing campaigns. She is the author of fourteen books, including How to Sell Books by the Truckload. AME is the first marketing and publicity firm to use Internet promotion to its full impact through online promotion and their signature program called: The Virtual Author Tour™

To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, you can visit her web site at http://www.amarketingexpert.com. To subscribe to her free newsletter, send a blank email to: mailto:subscribe@amarketingexpert.com

Top photo credit: JaneB13 – Pixabay

January 13th, 2017

Negotiating Options in Publishing Deals

Susan Spann

Susan Spann“Option clauses” or “options,” are a provision in a publishing deal that gives the publishing house a “right of first refusal” on the author’s next work. While this initially sounds like a great idea – most authors want to continue being published – traditional option clauses often contain some traps that authors should avoid.

Here’s an overview of what authors should look for – and negotiate – in the option clause of a publishing deal:

1. “Right to Publish” vs. “Right to Negotiate.” The option clause should give the publisher the exclusive right to negotiate contract terms for publication of the optioned work – not the right “to publish,” and especially not the right to publish the optioned work on the same terms as the original contract. If the publisher wants the automatic right to publish author’s next book on the same contractual terms, the publisher should be offering the author a two-book deal from the start.

2. Option Limited to Author’s Next Book in the Same Series (or Genre). Many option clauses give the publisher an option on the author’s “next work” (without any limitations) or, worse, an option on all of the author’s future works. Options should be limited to the author’s next book-length work in the same series only (or in the same, specified, genre, for standalone books). Note: Limiting the option to “book-length” works prevents the option from including novellas and short stories.

3. No Limitations After the Publisher’s Refusal. Some option clauses try to limit or restrict the author’s ability to sell the optioned work, even if negotiations with the publisher fail to produce a contract. Some of these limitations state that, even if the option fails or the publisher rejects the optioned work, the author can sell the work only to a publisher that subsequently offers “better terms” for the work. Other option language gives the original publisher a right of first refusal to match any subsequent offers the author receives for the optioned work (even after the original publisher rejects it or if option negotiations fail). This is not fair to the author. Option clauses should not contain any language that limits the author’s right to sell the work, or to publish it elsewhere, if the publisher fails to negotiate an acceptable contract for publication of the optioned work during the original option period.

4. Time Limits On Option Period. The publisher’s option should be limited to a specific amount of time – normally 45-90 days, total, for review of the optioned work and contract negotiation. The clause should state that the publisher’s failure to make a decision, or reach acceptable contract terms, within that time will constitute refusal of the option work (which terminates the option). Otherwise, the author could end up waiting indefinitely for the publisher to make a decision, or stuck in contract negotiations that never reach an end.

5. Description of Option Materials. The option clause should specify whether the author has to provide the entire manuscript of the optioned work or merely sample chapters and a synopsis. The Author’s Guild recommends that options be based upon sample chapters, rather than full manuscripts, especially for established authors. While not all publishers will negotiate this requirement, it’s worth asking the publisher to consider sample chapters rather than a completed manuscript, especially for series fiction.

6. Timing of Delivery for Option Works. Some option clauses limit how quickly an author can deliver the option work for consideration. In many cases, the author cannot deliver an option work until after the publisher has accepted the work that’s governed by the contract (in the case of multi-book contracts, options normally aren’t considered until after acceptance of the contract’s final manuscript). Negotiate to ensure that any such limitations are reasonable and in line with your writing speed and career plans.

The good news is that many publishers will negotiate the option clause, as long as authors or their representatives ask for changes. However, authors should beware of publishers that refuse to negotiate harsh option language – especially options that give the publisher rights to “claw back” optioned works even after an initial rejection.

Do you have option clauses in your publishing contracts? How do you feel about options in publishing deals? 

About Susan

Ninjas-Daughter1Susan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business, and is also the author of the Hiro Hattori (Shinobi) mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, released from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan was the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (/SusanSpannBooks).

January 11th, 2017

Knowing Your Limits as a Writer

woman-1889812_1920Someone I know is going through a personal tragedy that has rocked my insides to the point I can’t think about it without bursting into tears. The idea of dealing with something like this paralyzes me.

I was talking to a writer friend about it and her response was typically writerish – “Oh my god, you have to incorporate that into your book. You have to go there.”

It’s great advice. Use that raw emotion and make your reader feel every last gut wrenching sob. And I’m sure all of us have, at some point or another, used personal fears, heartbreak, experiences to push a scene to the next level.

I do it all the time. A character in my WIP is dealing with a situation similar to one I went through and there have been plenty of times that I’ve squirmed having to relive some of those emotions. It would be easier to stop, change the scenario, give my character a break, but then I’d have a far less satisfying book.

But with this situation, I won’t go there. Not can’t … WON’T.

Here’s the thing … I don’t believe that if you wish for something hard enough it will happen or if you talk about a dream or fear it will come true. But I also have a teeny, tiny little part that doesn’t fully not not believe it.

There are topics that I’m not willing to explore as an author because, to be quite honest, I’m afraid to know what it feels like to deal with it. I don’t want to ever have to know what it feels like, not even through research.

I admire authors who will take those gut-wrenching topics and break your heart at the same time they make you have to keep turning pages.

That’s not me. That’s not why I write.

I write because it helps me sort through my thoughts and feelings. I write so that I can release those thoughts and feelings. I write because I enjoy writing. So why release thoughts and feelings I don’t want to sort through? Why write about topics that scare the crap out of me?

“Because it’ll make you a stronger writer.”
“Because it’ll make your stories richer.”

Maybe this makes me a lesser writer or a weaker person, but no. Just no.

As a reader, I choose what books I want to spend what free time I have with. And I’ll put down books that deal with issues I don’t want to read about. That’s not a reflection on the author. I’ve stopped reading some amazing books because I couldn’t go there. There are best-selling authors I steer clear of. Is it a negative reflection on me? Some people would say yes. I disagree.

There’s enough to be scared or unhappy about in this world and we all have our thresholds of where we’re willing to go emotionally.

As a writer, there are topics I keep closed in my heart. I’m afraid to let them out, not because of the complexity of writing those emotions – I can do that – but because of feeling those emotions – I won’t do that.

I will however, syphon the very last drop of emotion I can from the topics I choose to write about. I’ll write about overcoming betrayal and losing your self-identity. I’ll explore the heartbreak of a lost friendship and the turmoil over a decision that will turn your life upside down.

As a writer, I don’t owe my readers to go places I’m not comfortable going. There are plenty of other authors willing to go there instead. I owe my readers the best story I can tell. Those are the emotions I’m going to focus on.

Now I want to hear from you … are there topics you avoid or do you push yourself to write about those hard to stomach issues?

About Orly

Orly-Ivy.jpgOrly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy Writersdistance-homeShe is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Distance Home, will be released by Forge on May 2, 2017.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonig, on Facebook at OrlyKonigAuthor, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.


January 9th, 2017

Crafting a Powerful Set-Up

Becca Puglisi


As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.

Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:

“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)

Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.

Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.

Character Empathy

Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.

  • Universal Needs. Readers like characters they can relate to in some way. One way to bond your audience of unique individuals to the protagonist is to remove one of her basic human needs, such as belonging or surviving. Because everyone understands these needs, taking one of them away from your hero can endear readers to her. This is one reason Katniss Everdeen was such a successful protagonist. Most readers couldn’t relate to her circumstances of having to kill others to survive, but they could understand needing to protect a vulnerable loved one or providing for one’s family. If you want to increase your reader’s empathy for the hero, try taking away a universal need, and the reader will stay tuned to see if she can get it back.
  • Admirability. People are drawn to those they admire, so it’s a good idea to give your hero some qualities that readers will appreciate or aspire to themselves. Intelligence, a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, honor—these are attributes people long for. Seeing them personified in the hero opens us up to them, making us want them to do well. Notice that I didn’t say a protagonist must be likable (though that works, too). As a selfish and manipulative character, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t exactly a glowing role model, but people relate to her because of her shrewdness, tenacity, and confidence. It’s her admirable qualities that win readers over.
  • Uniqueness. Readers, along with editors, agents, and publishers, are tired of seeing new versions of the same old characters. We want someone who surprises us with something new. A janitor who anonymously and effortlessly solves impossible math theorems at M.I.T. (Good Will Hunting). An art student in Prague who collects teeth for the demons who raised her (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). When you’re creating your protagonist, see what you can do to make him or her stand out from the crowd and be remembered.
  • Remarkability. Few people truly excel in any area, but most would like to. Characters who are remarkable in some way speak to our need for esteem and recognition, whether it’s because they’re intelligent, incredibly talented, or have an unusual ability. Make your character extraordinary and readers will often respond.


Well-written conflict inherently elicits emotion—anticipation, yes, as the reader worries about the protagonist’s well being, but it also can generate feelings like nervousness, frustration, or fear. Create a situation many readers have experienced or can imagine going through, and you’ve added relateabilty, too.

This conflict can be overt and obvious, such as a fistfight, terrorist attack, or someone fleeing for his life. But this doesn’t always work in the set-up because the reader hasn’t had enough time to get to know the protagonist and care about what happens to him. Conflict at this stage is often more effective when it’s hinted at or implied. In Stephen King’s Under the Dome, we first see Dale Barbara as he’s leaving town after “taking a pretty good beating at The Mill.” That’s the only reference to his altercation, but it’s enough to tweak the reader’s empathy meter and pique interest. Why’d he get beaten up? Who did it? If he’s innocent, why is he leaving town?

Conflict can also be internal rather than external. A character struggling with an important decision, questioning himself, or denying a wounding event from the past can be just as compelling as a five-care pileup. However it manifests, be sure to include some conflict in your set-up; done well, not only will it tug the reader’s heartstrings but it will keep up the pace, too.

The Need For Change

Most people—readers included—want to improve and grow, to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. They understand that change, though difficult and sometimes painful, is needed in order to achieve growth. This is why, at their most basic level, stories are about necessary change. Sometimes this change is internal, played out through the character’s arc as he works to overcome fears or wounding events and embrace the fullest version of himself. Sometimes it’s external—something within the world itself that needs fixing, such as the existence of the one ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The most compelling stories often contain elements of change that are both internal and external.

The set-up is the perfect place to show what needs to be changed for your character; it allows you to hint at what has to happen for the character to be fulfilled by the story’s end. Sometimes this means showing the character’s biggest flaw, the one she thinks is a strength but is really crippling her. In other cases, it might require showing an inequality or injustice in the character’s world that the character must alter in order to pursue her dreams. What has to change before your character can achieve his or her overall goal? Reference this in your opening pages and you’ll clue readers in to what has to happen for your hero to emerge victorious.

Story set-ups are tricky; we always want to include more information than they need. To stay on the straight and narrow, remember the two-fold purpose of the set-up: introduce the character in his world so it makes sense for readers, and draw readers in by activating their emotions. (The Story Maps tool at One Stop For Writers can help you organize your set-up and other important turning points while keeping them in proper proportion.) Remain focused on these outcomes, and you’re on your way toward drafting a story start that will keep readers engaged well beyond the opening pages.


Do you struggle with the set-up? Do you love the set-up? What tips do you have for creating a reader-grabber set-up? 

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becca1About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequelsHer books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writersa powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.