The Amazon cover for the book features the green classic monster, not as described in the book.
Fall is spooky season and one of the main Halloween monsters is of course Frankenstein's monster, sometimes called Adam. Since it is a foundational text to scifi--the very first scifi, in fact--I decided to read the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Rather than review it, I decided to write about what I learned about writing irom this classic novel (or really a novella, it was about 110 pages).
1) Don't be afraid of a unique story structure
Frankenstein is actually a letter written by a sea captain to his sister about meeting Dr. Frankenstein and that man's story. So the meat of the book is "story within a story" since you know in the end things will circle back to that boat captain. At one point, the story becomes the monster's story being told to Dr. Frankenstein being told to the captain. Like Russian nesting dolls. However, this complicated structure was made very clear and even acted as foreshadowing of excitement when the start of Dr. Frankenstein's tale got a little dry.
2) Don't overdo the backstory
While it may have been the style of the time, modern readers now don't need Dr. Frankenstein's life story to begin with his parents meeting. When I saw that was how the story began, I was dreading the rest. It didn't get interesting until Dr. Frankenstein left for college. So while it's good to read classics, keep in mind how very different the market is today, and don't accidentally pick up on very out of date style choices.
3) Build sympathy by showing what your characters wants most
We were all a little afraid of Frankenstein's monster after his first kill, naturally, because he's not on the page much to defend himself. However, he makes it clear exactly what he wants: a lover. He is so intensely lonely and in need of contact that after he explains it, you can't avoid sympathy. There is even some sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein when he just wants to protect others. Get your readers to choose sides by showing a deep want and explaining why--and why they can't have it (yet).
4) Keep up with the latest innovations
Mary Shelley was inspired by Galvanism and advances with electricity. If she'd only stayed aware of what was going on in the literary world, she wouldn't have run into the concepts that allowed her to conceive of Frankenstein. When looking for inspiration, look at innovations in fields that excite you: space, medicine, engineering, environmental science, oceanography, etc. Even keeping up with new historical finds in archaeology or anthropology, if you're more of a history/fantasy writer. You never know when you'll run into something that will inspire, so get out of your typical bubble.
Those are my big takeaways from Frankenstein for writers. I will admit I was very surprised that a lot of classic Frankenstein tropes weren't in the original book--no castle, no Igor, no villagers with pitchforks and torches. He literally made his monster in his dorm room. (Try explaining that mess to your R.A.) I think he was even described as yellow, not green. So the Hollywood-ization of Frankenstein has clearly overshadowed the original for my entire experience. Kind of wild!
Have you read Frankenstein? What were your writing (or reading) takeaways? What are some of your spooky season favorites? Let's discuss in the comments!
If you're friends with any writers, there may come a time when you're asked to beta read their book. Maybe you're a writer yourself, maybe not, but either way beta reading is different from reading a typical book. If you've never beta read before and don't know how, this post is for you! Here are five steps for how to beta read.
Step 1: Upfront Questions
Before you agree to beta read, ask the writer some key questions. Your goal is to determine if you're the right audience for this book. Ask for: genre, age group, word count, brief pitch.
Step 2: Set Expectations
After you agree to beta read, ask the writer what their expectations are.
Step 3: The Read
Now you're ready to read.
Step 4: Summary
After your finish reading, you may have some overall thoughts to put together in a summary.
Step 5: Letting Go
Ready to go beta read? Have more advice for beta readers out there? Let's discuss in the comments!
I couldn't get the pencil to sit behind Wilbur's ear, but otherwise, it's a pretty close re-creation! Photo by Kate Ota 2023.
Story Genius: How to us Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron is one of those writing books that I constantly hear about. After my lackluster experience with the similarly lauded Bird by Bird, I worried this would also be a stinker. However, I had an hour to kill at a Barnes and Noble, and when I spotted Story Genius, my curiosity outweighed my hesitance.
Story Genius breaks its advice into a couple sections, but in general it gives instructions on how to plot from idea through first draft. The main focus is to create a story that has a cohesive character arc and an external plot that specifically drives that arc. It also includes how this approach appeals to the brain so well. There are templates and spots where the book instructs the reader to stop and do an exercise that builds toward having a draft.
I highlighted so much of this book. From the advice on point of view to the tips and tricks for each stage of brainstorming and outlining. This book really appealed to how I usually plot anyway, but added ideas to make that even better. I can't wait to try this method, not just with a fresh story but use it on my current WIP to make sure my external and internal plots mesh well.
Is It Worth It?
I bought a paperback for $14.99, but if e-book is your thing it can be yours for $9.99.
Honestly, this book is precisely for the type of writer that I am. I wish I'd bought it sooner, because I think I'll incorporate its method into every project from now on. I think this book is 100% worth the price!
Have you read Story Genius? Have you used the method? What did you think? Let's discuss in the comments.
Recently while querying, I've noticed more agents asking for optional things like links to mood boards, playlists, or Pinterest boards. There's even a whole pitch event on Twitter around mood boards. I thought I'd take some time to help anyone struggling to figure out what mood boards are in relation to writing projects and a couple (free!) resources to make them.
What is a mood board?
A mood board is a collage of images, which can include minimal punchy text, which conveys the mood (or as the youths say the vibes) of your story. This includes setting, tone, a sense of character(s), genre, and important visual elements/motifs. If including a quote, it should be short and encapsulate the theme of the novel. A mood board can be a Pinterest page, or you can arrange images into a collage that's a single JPEG using free sites like Canva.
Why make a mood board?
A mood board is good for more than just pitching on Twitter or sending to the rare agent who asks for it in their Query Manager form. The mood board can help you as the author get back into your story between writing sessions. The process of creating one also forces you to think about the important elements, characters, and places in your story. If you've never thought about tone or theme, it may even bring one out of your subconscious.
Where do images come from?
If you're making a mood board for just you, and never plan to use it for marketing (or perhaps even pitching) then don't worry too much about copy written images you find on google. Go ham. If you plan to use it for any type of marketing (or pitching) it's safer for you to stick to royalty free images. I like using Unspalsh, but there are other options as well.
If building your board in Pinterest, obviously you're only able to use that. The board then stays on Pinterest, which can be fine if using it only for yourself, but tough if your goal is to build one for a pitching event.
You can layer text over an image in an editing site like Canva to create a background to match your chosen quote.
It may be a struggle to find exactly what you're using for, so change up search terms and feel free to get creative in finding the right matches for your project. Collect more images than you plan to use, then select your final choices later.
How do I make them a collage?
If building a collage, you can use a free site like Canva. Choose a template that puts 5-9 images of various sizes together. Choose your template wisely, since it may dictate portrait vs landscape oriented images.
If you're not a fan of online graphic design options, there's always good old fashioned Microsoft Paint.
What are some tips and tricks?
One major trick to a mood board is keeping your eye on color. You don't want a ton of competition, and you want it to look cohesive, suggesting your story is cohesive. Choose no more then 3 main colors to include. Ideally, you'll have some muted tones and one that pops. The exception is if color is a huge part of your story, for example if it takes place during Holi, or if color is associated with specific nations (like Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
Another tip is to focus one the main character(s) or setting, don't try to include every subplot, side character, or place. You want someone to walk away from your board with a general impression of your story with minimal words. Confusion is killer.
Don't focus on finding perfect matches in the photos. You'll never find just the right stock model or angle or city for your fictional characters/world. Instead, go for the emotional impact of the image.
Have fun with it! Even if using it for a pitch event or in case an agent asks for one, the mood board's main audience is you.
Example Mood Board
Let's do an example for something everyone is familiar with: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (aka the original). I searched for images as if Star Wars doesn't already exist, so no cheating by searching for droids, stormtroopers, etc. Let's pretend this is a whole new concept and none of those are options so that you SFFH writers know how to get the concept of your vivid fictional creations across without having to do visual effects yourself. (Or you can commission an artist.)
Some stock images I searched for were: space, desert, red laser, hair buns, moon, explosion, black hallway, robotics, fighter plane. Many more terms generated nothing useful including glowstick, duel, robe, telekinesis, epic, hope, and hero.
Here's what I collected:
You can see there's a lot of red, blue, black, and white. Since the blues are pretty soft, I can get away with using all four colors if red is the one that pops. I wanted to make sure it's clear Star Wars is SciFi, so I kept the robot and stars, and lost the fighter plane. I kept the explosion to show action, and the guy looking up at the moon to show Luke's desire to go on an adventure--that's a mood right there. Either the hallway or the moon would be good to put a quote over, but I felt the moon a little more. I cut Leia's hair buns, because while accurate to the story, they didn't fit the adventure vibes of the other images. The red Star sign glows like a lightsaber, but it didn't get across the idea of a lightsaber, and the word star might be too on the nose. So it didn't make my final cut either.
I went to Canva and searched for collage templates. I chose one that had 7 images, uploaded my images, and arranged them. I decided to place my two red images in opposite corners, for balance. I also searched for iconic quotes from Episode IV, and chose "That's no moon..." because it had an ominous, dangerous, and clearly SciFi feel. The other images ended up where they did purely based on orientation that the template dictated, and I'm okay with that. Last, I changed the background to black, because it looked better to me. Your mood board is all about your taste, so follow your gut.
Here's my example mood board:
Does it convey Star Wars: A New Hope perfectly? No. It's missing a ton of characters, events, and technology. Does it capture the idea of a SciFi story about a guy wanting and then having an adventure, which includes some twists? I think so.
Obviously, this isn't something I was deeply invested in making perfect, so when I make one for my own stories, they tend to have a little more nuance/insight to them. However, I hope you found this mood board tutorial helpful or inspirational and maybe you're tempted to go make one for your own project.
Have you made a mood board for your writing? Was it helpful, or was it a major challenge? Do you have more resources for other writers making their own boards? Let's discuss in the comments!
Have you ever read a book that depicts someone with your job, or at least in your field, and the author gets it totally and completely wrong? That happened to me recently. I work in biotech, specifically we make proteins (for example antibodies) to treat disease. I picked up a book about a scientist who was studying a protein to treat a disease and I was excited. With a pub date this year, the book led me to expect the science would be up to date.
It wasn't even close.
The science in this scifi was more than a decade out of date. I was so thrown off because the other tech was clearly modern (with kids having iPads, hashtags and social media, etc.). The plot was entirely based on the scientist having to do their work the very very old fashioned way. Needless to say, I struggled to enjoy the book.
When I got to the end, I thought perhaps the author had never spoken to anyone about the science. However, the acknowledgement section was full of names--mostly doctors. I don't expect MDs to know HOW antibodies are produced industrially, but I do expect them to know that antibodies CAN be produced industrially. In the end, I suspect the author never spoke to anyone who actually works in biotech today. Or if she did, maybe she didn't want to change her entire plot.
But wait, you say, why didn't an editor intervene? This book was self-published and likely didn't employ the kind of editor who would take it upon themselves to fact check the science. Especially given the author talked to doctors, any line or copy editor wouldn't even think about changing that sort of thing.
So, what did I learn from this reading experience that I can apply to writing? If you're writing outside your familiarity zone, be it a job or another aspect of a person, be sure to speak with people who have the most direct experience with that thing. At the very least, Google recent headlines in that space. Technology, especially biotech, computer/software, and AI, have all exploded forward in the last decade. Even if you're familiar with something, reach out to an expert. Especially before pinning your entire plot on that thing!
Have you ever seen your job or a similar career in a book? Did the author nail it, or totally miss the mark? Let's discuss in the comments!
Wilbur mimicking the cover of The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Photo by Kate Ota 2022
I bought The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass because it’s one of those craft books you see recommended all over the place. That and the feedback I get is pretty consistent: I nail action and dialogue, but I need to add more emotions.
The book was $17.99 from Barnes and Noble. It covers the character’s emotional journey as well as the reader’s emotional journey, which is not necessarily the same. There were action points after each major topic (about 30 total) explaining where in your book to focus, what questions to ask, and therefore how to draw out that emotion.
I read this book in 5 days, which is about my normal pace. It’s 200 pages, and the pages are very thin (I saw the words on the other side of the paper), so it’s a thin book, but at what cost. I did a lot of highlighting, which says a lot about how useful I thought the information was, and I plan to go back when I have time and use those activity suggestions (called Emotional Mastery) to test the concepts in my current WIP. Generally, the suggestions really got my ideas flowing, so I think the inclusion of these in the book was very good.
One downside, despite the many examples for his points, a few went by at lightspeed without examples. The biggest I noted was the claim that words of Anglo-Saxon origin are considered stronger than those of Latin origin. Now, I’m big into etymology, I think the evolution of language is fascinating and I’m constantly googling word origins. However, without some examples, it’s hard to see if this claim holds any water. I found two examples myself: excite (Latin) and amaze (old English, which I guess is Anglo-Saxon) and you know what? They’re pretty similar word choices, arguably synonyms in many cases. Is amaze more specific? Yes. Excite could be interpreted in a few ways. Would I say amaze is stronger? Meh.
Is It Worth It?
For the specific, actionable activities that are listed after each major point is made, I’d say yes. Those will probably be very helpful in drawing out more emotion from me as a writer. Is every word of advice golden? Arguably not. I say, it’s worth buying it used (if you find a copy not highlighted by someone like me) and maybe new, if you receive consistent feedback that you need more emotion in your writing (like I do). If you’re buying it just for the sake of upping something you already feel confident about, I’d say used or ebook versions to save some cash. Overall though, I see why it’s so frequently recommended among writers, and am happy I have it in my stockpile of craft books.
Have you read The Emotional Craft of Fiction? What was your favorite piece of advice? Is there another book on improving emotions in your writing? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Above: The main screen for WriterDuet, the online screenwriting website. I've been very happy with the free version.
Below: Several versions of The Screenwriter's Bible.
Readers of the blog may recall my short story The Undoing of Maggie Jinkowski, which won first place in the short story category at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in 2019 and was recently included in the Kitsap Writers Group Anthology. I was recently asked if I'd be interested in adapting it into a screenplay format. Not a formal offer to produce it or anything, just gauging interest and seeing how it goes. I decided to give it a shot.
One of the resources recommended to me was WriterDuet, a website which already knows the right formatting for a screenplay and will help guide you in writing it. It made the basics super easy and you can use it for FREE. You can also export your project from the website to Word or a PDF. Highly recommend if you're looking to get your feet wet in screenwriting but worry about getting bogged down in formatting.
Another resource I tried out was the Screenwriter's Bible. It's a big book and has resources for almost any stage of screenwriting you're in. From format to best practices to story telling. It was very helpful in explaining to me how to do some of the more complex strategies I wanted to use, like flashbacks and voice over. There are many editions of this book out there, so don't feel pressure to buy the latest, an older edition will get you started just fine.
Between the site and the book, I have a pretty nice draft of my story that should work in a visual format. The hardest part was translating Maggie's thoughts to something an audience could see or hear. It helped a lot that I'd read some screenplays before, so I was familiar with what the final product needed to look like. Next step: sending the draft to my friend who showed interest and seeing what he has to say!
Wish me luck!
Have you ever adapted a story for the screen? Have you ever written an original screenplay? What resources helped you the most? Let's discuss in the comments!
Clue is wrapped up in a blanket because December is cold! But also because this is a wrap up and I like puns. Photo by Kate Ota 2021.
After hitting my 30k goal during November, I decided to reflect on how well my prep in October helped with my writing process.
My project was an idea I’d had percolating on a back burner of my brain for a while. I kept little notes about it in a Word doc so I could keep track of what I’d thought about already. At the beginning of October, that Word doc was a mere two pages. I knew I needed to expand my idea into an outline, but was dissatisfied with 2020’s NaNo outline, which I had made using Save the Cat. That one had left me floating in Fun and Games (the bulk of Act 2 prior to the midpoint) and Bad Guys Close In (the bulk of Act 2 after the midpoint) with barely any idea of what was supposed to happen. I didn’t have time for that chaos this year, seeing as I was trying to do over half of the word count in under half the time.
So, in 2021, I used another approach. I started with Save the Cat as a basic structure. Then I used The Story Equation to nail down character arcs because that tends to be my weak spot. That helped fill out the outline a little more. Then I used The Anatomy of Story to get into the rest of that outline’s details. This bulked up my plan significantly, especially in those pesky catch-all categories from Save the Cat (Fun and Games and Bad Guys Close In.) I ended October with thirty specific scenes in my outline. I knew this was not going to be the whole story, but it left enough wiggle room in between scenes that I could pants a little here and there. Gotta leave room for organic story growth and new ideas.
As predicted, I ended up adding scene ideas as I went. Moments of “oh, he needs to be somewhere else, so let’s do a scene of where he went” and “gosh, I can’t believe I almost forgot this fun thing” got to be included while I also didn’t feel pressure to come up with something new on the spot each day. By the time I hit 30k (and ran out of time for NaNo) I hadn’t even gotten to the midpoint scenes!
I think my outline hit just the right note between structure and freedom. A bit like a playground that has some abstract climbing equipment, allowing my imagination to frolic while giving it a jumping off point so it didn’t get exhausted. A more stringent outline might have forced me into doing one thing, and the slightest inspiration toward a new scene would have thrown off the whole plan, forcing me to choose the plan (and save myself a lot of trouble the rest of the month) or leap down the new rabbit hole of creativity (which could have led to a better story, or could have led nowhere.)
Here are my tips for making your next NaNo (or drafting in any other month) more successful:
How did NaNo go for you? Did your prep help or hinder your final results? Let's discuss in the comments!
Clue did not think this book was thick enough to make a good pillow during his nap. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
Marcy Kennedy’s A Busy Writer’s Guide series has been on my radar for a while, though I wasn’t sure which one to read first. After getting some helpful feedback on my rejected Pitch Wars manuscript, I decided to read Deep Point of View.
All the Busy Writer’s Guides are short, and Deep Point of View (POV) is no exception, with the paperback clocking in at 150 pages. The book explains what deep POV is in a large sense, then chapters break down various specifics within the deep POV umbrella. The last section includes a step-by-step guide to check if your own writing is deep enough, including lists of words to search your document for that may indicate a shallower POV. The book also gives you access to a printable copy of the guide you can use again and again.
The book was a quick read. The downside is that I had already known most of it. There were a few sections where I highlighted some new info, but after going back through I see I only highlighted on five of the 100 pages prior to the step-by-step guide. Not great odds. Honestly, my writing groups talk about most of this stuff already. And yet, I’ve been told my POVs aren’t deep enough, so clearly, I needed the reminders.
Is It Worth It?
I think it is.
My paperback was $9.99 plus shipping, which seemed to be a consistent price across online indies and Amazon. There’s also an e-book option ($4.99) for those who don’t plan to highlight it or don’t want to wait for supply chain problems to resolve. I haven’t seen it in a physical bookstore anywhere (yet).
I think it contains good info, especially if you’re a writer who is new to deep POV, struggles with deep POV, or doesn’t have a writing group who can check your POV. The checklist at the end is a great resource as well, which stands out among other books who tell you what to do in theory and then just have you go try it solo.
It was an easy, quick read for—wait for it—busy writers. And there wasn’t a whole lot of fluff or padding, even in the examples. I appreciated that. I’ll probably check out other books in this Busy Writers series as well.
Have you read any of the Busy Writer’s Guides? Did you find them worth the price? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Wilbur loved The Anatomy of Story so much, he kept rubbing his face against the cover. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
I picked up a copy of The Anatomy of Story by John Truby months ago and let it languish on my shelf. I thought I’d read once I was done editing my current project or maybe when I started querying. However, as I started prepping for NaNoWriMo (during which beta readers will have my current project) I realized I should take a look to see if this book would influence my Preptober.
This approximately 400-page book is $18.99 for the paperback.
It’s like going from Save The Cat and The Story Equation and taking the next step in writing mastery. It includes character creation, setting, theme, and twenty-two story beats. There are numerous examples throughout as well as worksheets.
The story beats are a bit save-the-cat-ish, but those were hardly the best part of the book. I appreciated the analysis of character creation and scene setting that’s explained before plot gets brought up. The way different elements are discussed on a symbolic and thematic level was mind blowing. I even found I’d used some of the techniques on accident (probably from reading so much—hence why you need to read a lot!) and with some tweaking I could make it look very purposeful and deep.
I hadn’t seen many of the major examples (Tootsie, Casablanca, and The Godfather were most referred to, and I hadn’t seen The Verdict either) but they were clearly explained. I had seen some others (It’s a Wonderful Life) so it was helpful that most concepts were explained using multiple examples.
It’s a dense book. I tried to read it on my morning commute and fell asleep a couple times. You really need to be awake and committed to reading it. However, it’s dense with knowledge and supremely helpful.
Is It Worth It?
The price was great for the amount of information and length of the book, in my opinion. If you’re a person who likes to highlight and flag craft books, then the paperback is for you. If you aren’t a highlighting type of person, then go with the e-book version to save some money.
I recommend this book if you’re looking to up your plotting skills. If you aren’t a plotter, I recommend a little more clear-cut plotting book first (like Save The Cat). It’s also not about basic sentence mechanics (for that I recommend It Was The Best of Sentences, It Was The Worst of Sentences) and while it covers character, I think you need a baseline of character building first (such as understanding want vs need; I recommend The Story Equation).