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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What I Learned by Admitting I'm a Dummy

I learned a lot this week by reading my Writing for Dummies book. Maybe the most important thing that I learned is that writing a novel is very formulaic. The rules are strict, but talented writers bend, break and ignore them all the time, but if you're fairly new at the game, or if you have more than 100 rejection slips papering the walls of your writing area, maybe you need to understand the rules and formulas.

If you don't write, or read, but watch drama on TV, here's an interesting bit of insight I can share. Most stories are built around a three act structure.

Act 1 – The first quarter of book or TV show where you set up the background, ends with a major disaster. This is where the main character commits.
Act 2 -  The second and third quarters of the book or TV show, deals with the main character trying to achieve her goal while running into one road block after another, with each quarter ending with an even worse disaster
 Act 3 –The last quarter ties up all the  lost ends and includes the climax  (resolution). Did the main character win or lose, or maybe neither?

The novel I'm working on right now is in the women's fiction genre and is titled Layla Bunch. The other skill a writer must master is the art of boiling a complex story down into a single sentence of 25 words or less. At first that seems impossible. But I managed a 17 word description of Layla Bunch. What do you think?

An ailing widow takes in a homeless woman who suffers from memory loss due to a traumatic past.

Does it make you want to read the book?



  1. Good morning Sharon,

    I am not a writer, haven't studied literature and I have not read your Dummies book but I do like to read and I know what I like so I guess I can have an opinion on your topic. My daughter has studied literature, is a writer and is now an official English teacher and we have had many discussions on what makes a good story and what doesn't. I have concluded the best stories are ones where the author through their exposition makes us care about the main character(s). Doesn't matter how they make you do it but it is crucial. If you don't care about them (even the evil ones) you don't care about the book and may even put it down before you are done (horrors!). But even that is not a slam dunk. I just finished reading a book where the author did pull me in enough to make me care about the core characters but she didn't make what was happening to them interesting or clever enough to get me to buy any further books in the series. About a third of the way into the story I felt I knew where she was going and I knew how it would end and when I was right I was disappointed. It was too formulaic and for that reason if I were you I would shy away from any such formulas. It might be useful as a guideline and a way to build structure but do not rely on it to the detriment of the story in your head. If you have interesting people living in your head and they have fascinating adventures your readers will love it. Take us on a journey with characters you have introduced us to and made us care about and you have a winning book.

    As for your 17 word description, I do want to read the book but must confess I am a little put off by the words "traumatic past". Not sure why... just a gut reaction.


  2. I like the description, yes it does make my interest peek. I myself have been writing as well, just recently more poetry, lyrics & "rants" if you will. Loving every minute of it, & I go to the blog here daily : ) Keep up the good work!

  3. Janet,
    I agree that character is most important. The book you read that let you down may not have followed some of the formula required to make the story live and entice. The formula is just a tried and true structure that you use as a base to weave a creative, compelling read. Most authors are not experienced, skilled, or talented enough to blaze a new path.

    I'm going to rethink traumatic past. It's really just a single tragedy.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Maybe you'll guest blog one of these days.


  4. Hi Sarah,
    Send me a rant, or a poem. Maybe we can post them on an appropriate day.