What your Character Doesn’t Know

What your character doesn’t know … can kill him.

A powerful way to pump suspense into your story is to reveal more to your reader than you do to the character.

Mermaid and sailor, courtesy of and art by Elai Thiessen
Mermaid and sailor, courtesy of and art by Elai Thiessen

In the above image, compliments of my superb and incredible friend, Elai Thiessen, the man in the boat (your story’s protagonist) sees only a mesmerizing woman — he doesn’t see the body of bones clasped in the end of her tail. But we do. We know what’s at stake.


Find your agent in the back of a novel …

Want to find the writing agent that got your favorite book published? Read the acknowledgment page at the back of the novel. Why?

Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s often more reliable than a Google search to find the name of a specific author’s agent.

If you’re on the hunt for a writing agent for yourself and trying to decide who to submit to, pick up novels in your genre and flip to the acknowledgements. This is where authors give kudos to their agent, by name — and to their editor, and to who at the publishing house they like best.

Even if it doesn’t lead you to a signed contract, reading the acknowledgement page is a golden way to get a hint at who’s currently hot in the industry, what they’re doing, who they work with or like, and if they could be interested in your genre or style of writing.

Write the names down. Store them up. Google them. Find out if they’re accepting submissions. And if you get chat time with them, let them know you liked their client’s book.

Q & A with JOY COWLEY, Author of ‘The Silk’

In the land of Hobbits, New Zealand, lives Joy Cowley – she’s a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother – and a writer for over six decades. She’s gone from a manual typewriter with carbon copies to the modern computer. I was blessed to meet Joy at the Wellington festival screening of The Silk (adapted for screen by Nathalie Boltt). She welcomed me open-armed, offering a fountain of knowledge.

Joy’s journey began as a child, when she discovered reading as a gateway to stories and thus forgot she “couldn’t read.” By age 11 she was a book addict and by 16, she was editing the children’s page of The Manawatu Daily Times after-school. “Between 1966 and 1978,” says Joy, “I had five adult novels published in America, by Doubleday. My first children’s book, The Duck in the Gun, was published by Doubleday in 1969.” Her work has included articles, spiritual reflection material, and material for schools, with a few stories transitioned into film – including The Silk and Nathalie Boltt’s recent project ‘Holy Day’ – both of which Nathalie called ‘quite easy’ to adapt thanks to Joy being “an amazingly visual writer.”

Writers, take a seat and welcome the wisdom of a master storyteller as Joy Cowley shares her journey, observations and advice.


Based on your own experience of stories helping you learn how to read, what is the timeless importance of storytelling to all ages?

Homo Sapiens [are] a story-making species. We communicate through story, document our lives through story – history, her story – grow into maturity through story. While we think of story as either fact to fiction, it is fiction which is more often the vehicle of truth.

You say that the day you’re no longer in touch with young people is the day you stop writing for them, “because the energy flows from them and goes back to them.” How have readers remained the same as when you started?

The world of the child remains much the same, in spite of cultural and generational differences. The latter mean superficial variation, but young children go through the same stages, have the same hopes and fears, the same needs, the same likes and dislikes.

I recall hearing at the screening that there was a point in your life where The Silk came true in many ways. Can you share that story here?

The Silk was originally a short story written in my early twenties and published in the NZ Listener. I didn’t know where the story came from. It just happened and at the time it seemed to have a lot of energy. The story attracted attention and was published in many anthologies. Twenty years after it was first published, my husband Malcolm and I lived through those events. He was dying. It was winter. Details of his illness and treatment were in the story and he often commented on them. “This happened in The Silk.” My response was that we were different, there was no silk.

Malcolm died at night. I reached across the bed and his hand was cold, and my first thought came directly from The Silk: “He didn’t say goodbye.”

Later that day, I took out the Hardy Amies brocade dressing gown I had bought Malcolm as an engagement present. It was beautiful, shades of blue and so light I thought it was nylon. Malcolm had always thought it too good to be worn but had said he wanted to be buried in it. As I took it out of his wardrobe, I noticed inside, a small tag I hadn’t seen before: 100% silk.

What word of wisdom, motivation or advice would you give to young aspiring writers today?

Do be aware that the road to publication is usually a long one. Many writers become very disappointed if their first efforts are not published. I sent away nearly 50 stories to the NZ Listener before the first one was published. Someone once said that a million words are prerequisite for style. I thought that was gross exaggeration when I read it, but now believe it to hold truth. It’s a bit like any other endeavour: we do not book the concert hall when we have our first piano lesson.

Writing is a form of communication that is done in solitude, and stories usually have an exhibitionist streak. I don’t send a story away, until I’ve fallen OUT of love with it – only then can I edit it objectively.

When I was in the early years of apprenticeship I belonged to a critique group and found that immensely helpful. These days it is easy for a young writer to join an on-line critique group for support and advice. It is also good to be with people who “speak the same language.” For many people, a writer is a foreign entity, sometimes viewed with awe or contempt.

Thank you Joy Cowley.

Joy Cowley

“I sent away nearly 50 stories before the first one was published.”

Master storyteller Joy Cowley joins me for a Q&A on a career that has spanned over six decades with work covering the gamut of the written word.

The Silk, Clare Burgess, Joy Cowley, Nathalie Boltt (photo courtesy of Nathalie Boltt)
The Silk, Clare Burgess, Joy Cowley, Nathalie Boltt (photo courtesy of Nathalie Boltt)

Read our interview here and find out why Joy doesn’t submit a story for publication until she’s “fallen out of love with it.”


DR. JEFFREY M. SCHWARTZ: 4 Step Solution to Beating Procrastination Part 2

In Part 1 I introduced leading expert in neuroplasticity, Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, and the first step in his 4-Step Solution designed to help Obsessive Compulsive Disorder patients. In this 2-part series we’re using the 4-Step method to overcome procrastination.

Read Part 1 of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz – 4 Step Solution to Beating Procrastination

A refresher: Step 1 is Relabeling – identify unhealthy thoughts and label them for what they are: unhealthy thoughts.

Step 2: Reframe, or “reattribute” as it is sometimes called for OCD patients. “OCD [patients] get very intrusive feelings and thoughts that they know don’t make sense. The ‘reattribute’ step is ‘see it for what it is.’” And what is it? “It’s not you, it’s your brain.” Jeffrey’s voice amped at this point in our phone conversation, “This is where the whole concept came from; realizing that there’s brain wiring that accounts for why [OCD patients] get the intrusive upsets that don’t make sense.”

For those of us that are not OCD, we may not have a ‘diagnosable pathology’ as to why we procrastinate but we can still reframe and ‘change our perception of the importance of our unhealthy thoughts.’ We can stop our self-bullying and separate ourselves from the thoughts that are holding us back by saying “It’s not me, it’s my brain.”

“Mindfulness practice [is] intentional control that leads directly to the next step which is ‘Refocus.’ Now you focus your attention on something adaptive,” says Jeffrey.

For me, this meant changing my thought from: if I write the end of my book I’ll mess it up to if I mess it up I can fix it, but I must write it to have it. Refocusing is shifting your attention to something positive, healthy and beneficial to you.

The first three steps correlate. “You ‘Relabel,’ you ‘Reframe’ and then you ‘Refocus,’” says Jeffrey. “When you do that regularly, [the fourth step], Revaluing, happens.” Revaluing is a conditioned understanding that your unhealthy brain messages are not helping your goals and have little to no value to you in life. “Revaluing means you are now able to change your [attention] to something adaptive more automatically.”

Reminds me of that old adage, Practice makes perfect.

How about it? What unhealthy thoughts are holding you back? What healthy thoughts can you replace them with?

Thank you to Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz for contributing his time and expertise. Learn more about his book You are Not Your Brain and about Jeffrey himself.

Photo: courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz

Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz

Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz: He’s a leading expert in neuroplasticity, a research psychiatrist at the University of California, he consulted Leonardo DiCaprio for the role of Howard Hughes on The Aviator.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, photo courtesy of jeffreymschwartz.com
Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, photo courtesy of jeffreymschwartz.com

And he’s talking with us about the 4-Step Solution in his book You are Not Your Brain and how we can use it to beat procrastination.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of that discussion.

DR. JEFFREY M. SCHWARTZ – 4 Step Solution to Beating Procrastination

You never know who you’ll run into on a bus. Fireworks crackled in the night sky, splashing our bus in red and blue halos on a crisp November evening in Sydney, Oz. My Scotsman friend and I bantered with the American beside us. When asked what brought him to the land downunder he noted: speaking engagements.

Introducing Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, author of You are Not Your Brain.

For the scientists amongst you, Jeffrey needs no introduction. He’s a leading expert in neuroplasticity and a research psychiatrist at the University of California, School of Medicine. For film buffs, he’s best known as Leonardo DiCaprio’s consultant for the role of Howard Hughes on The Aviator.

Jeffrey’s breakthrough work with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder patients made him the ideal consultant for the Howard Hughes role, the real life Howard Hughes being assumed to have suffered from OCD. With OCD, patients are relentlessly hounded with the same thoughts or images, causing immense anxiety in the sufferer. 

Home sweet home in Canada, months after my initial introduction to Jeffrey, I caught up with him over the phone to talk about the 4-Step Solution he developed for OCD patients. I wanted to know how it could help high-aspiring individuals like myself overcome the inhibitors that hold me back from my goals.

The four steps are Relabel, Reframe, Refocus, and Revalue.

Since procrastination is something I struggle with and I know many other writers do also, I offered it to Jeffrey as our case scenario.

“Procrastination is a very common thing and I certainly have a lot of it,” remarks Jeffrey. “For people with OCD, [it] has a lot to do with always feeling like you [need] to do things perfectly. [And that] becomes an excuse [for] putting things off.”

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, photo courtesy of jeffreymschwartz.com
Jeffrey M. Schwartz, photo courtesy of jeffreymschwartz.com

I’m not OCD, but perfectionism is definitely a major motivator for my procrastination. As mentioned in an earlier post I put off writing the end of my novel for years, because if I never wrote it I could never get it wrong.

For OCD patients, and very much true for non-OCD individuals, Jeffrey explains, “There’s always an overriding feeling that it’s not good enough and then it becomes overwhelming.” He gives the example of how people with bad OCD often end up living in a mess because any type of cleaning becomes obsessive and out of control, so they don’t clean at all. “People who feel satisfied by small degrees of progress don’t have nearly as much [of] a problem with procrastination as people who feel like it [has to] be right and feel an inner pressure when it’s not right. Then they just don’t do anything.”

So how do we make use of the 4-Steps? “The four steps are [an] applied form of mindfulness,” says Jeffrey. Mindfulness being “A third person perspective on first person experiencing … it’s being aware of what you’re experiencing.” One of the things Jeffrey says you become aware of through mindfulness is that your mind is not entirely in your control – allowing it to become distracted and unproductive, and must be followed by practice to gain more control.

Relabeling is the first step. It’s identifying the unhealthy thoughts when they happen – e.g. if I write the end of my book I’ll mess it up – and label them for what they are: unhealthy thoughts. “Any target goal that you have,” says Jeffrey, “can be helped just by [the] awareness that comes from knowing whether you’re going toward that goal or away from that goal.”

Previously, I was going away from my goal of finishing my novel because of my unhealthy thought. I had to identify this inhibiting idea in order to move to step two: Reframe.

Read Part 2 of this post.

Visit Jeffrey M. Schwartz website.

Albert Einstein was on to something…

Albert Einstein was on to something when he made the following remarks, and while I wouldn’t say I see eye-to-eye with Einstein on all issues that he’s been quoted addressing, the following struck me as poignant for anyone cycling the pedals toward their ambitions.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

So true! As a writer I get myself into a routine, and on a roll putting down a thousand plus words a day. Then life interrupts or I “reward” myself with one day of procrastination. Suddenly I’m falling over and can’t get the wheels turning and the story moving again.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

This reminds me of the first fantasy I ever attempted to write. I got stuck trying to decide how I wanted chapter 1 to be, so I kept rewriting the first few scenes over and over waiting for the right opening to magically “click.” I ended up with 50+ ways to start the story that led to 100 different ways for the story to unfold. There was no magic “one” because any number of them could have worked. Writing new openings just because the last one didn’t “wow” me wasn’t getting me closer to success but closer to the strait jacket.

With a more recent fantasy novel (that happens to be book two in the series I’m working on now), I also got stuck at the beginning — until I quit with insanity, worked out where the source of my roadblock was, threw in a new character and voila! (The opening of that book has me psyched!)

Want a different result? Don’t do the same thing you did last time.

Last but not least from Einstein:

“As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

Please tell me I’m not the only one that finds the more answers you come by, the more questions arise.

…But now that I think about it, what a great way to up the suspense for your book/screenplay’s protagonist. What could be worse than finding the answer you’ve been bleeding yourself to find, comes with the baggage of twenty more questions?

Your turn. What quotes reverberate with your inner artist on this journey of perseverance? Or how do the above quotes resonate with you?






What Makes a Villain Powerful?


A powerful villain is the one you hope will survive.

Part way through “Snow White and the Huntsman” we discover the back-story of the evil Queen and why she is the way she is.

Watching it, my brother scoffed, “Great, now they’re going to make us feel sorry for her.”

Which got me thinking…

Why should we feel empathy for the villain? Shouldn’t villains be dark, ultra-evil beings, incapable of being loved? Shouldn’t they be the epitome of everything we hate? Wouldn’t that be more formidable for us and our characters than a sympathetic villain?

But think about it. Why do we root for our hero? Why do we want him to win?

We love the hero because he’s sympathetic. We follow him because he faces great trials.

So what happens when your villain is sympathetic?

Suddenly it’s harder for your hero to do the morally right thing and defeat them. Suddenly both you and your hero are, so to speak, torn.

The most compelling stories are the ones with high costs. What if your hero doesn’t really want to destroy the villain but knows he must in order to save the world?

Does a sympathetic villain draw attention away from your hero?

I suppose, if not handled carefully, you could turn your antagonist into the star of the show, but if done right they become a more formidable enemy to your hero. The hero sees part of him/herself in the villain. Your hero sees what they could become and it terrifies them but it also makes them want to believe there is hope for the villain because they need to believe there would be hope for themselves in the same situation. (A compelling example is Frodo and Gollum’s relationship in The Lord of the Rings).

Your hero’s moral compass is his strongest weapon.

Make him question his own morals in defeating the villain, and your villain will have immense power over him.

Innately we know the villain must go. But because a little bit of our heart wants them to survive, the cost will be high.

Do you want to make your villain unbearably hard to defeat? Make a small part of us root for him.

Guest Post on Go Teen Writers; Interviews

Check out my guest post on Go Teen Writers today. This is the second post I have written for GTW, a wonderful site training the next generation of great writers.

Go Teen Writers: Can a Teenager be Taken Seriously Conducting Interviews?

I began writing articles and conducting interviews as a teenager, so what could be more logical than writing to teens about how to be taken seriously as an interviewer.