Writing Exercise: Blackout Writing

As I sat down to write this post, the power at my apartment complex went out.  I’m talking 100% total blackout.  And being enveloped in total darkness – save for my laptop’s glowing screen – gave me an idea for today’s writing exercise.

One night, turn off all the lights in your room and sit as quietly as possible.  Do this for five to ten minutes.

  • Note in your head what sounds you hear.  
    • Do you know where the sounds are coming from?  
    • What else could be making those noises?  
  • Can you hear people talking?  Can you tell what they’re saying?  Their tone of voice?
  • Do you smell anything?  
  • What images pop into your head as you sit in the darkness?  Do you think you see things in the darkness that aren’t really there?
  • What thoughts pop into your head?  
  • What ideas have arrived as you sit in the dark, still space?
  • Do any noises, voices, smells, or thoughts spark any story ideas?  

Once you turn the lights back on and your eyes adjust to the light, write down what you heard, smelled, and thought.  Be as descriptive as possible.

Write a short story based on your experience.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writer’s Tip of the Week: Beware of Marketing Scams Bearing False Promises – Part Two

In my last post, I talked about my experience with a very persistent caller from a book marketing firm and his sales pitch to me.  Many red flags popped up, but I was curious to see what documentation he would send. We continue now with what happened once I received his email a few hours after the phone call.

The Email

Later that evening, I finally got the email.  It was a note thanking me for the call and two attachments.

The first attachment was about the company and contained pictures of bookstores around New York.  They were nice-looking mom-and-pop independent bookstores.  And they did actually exist (I Googled the addresses under each).  I was also provided with glowing Yelp reviews for one of the bookstores.  

The document included the company’s mission statement and main goal, which were pretty generic.  It also included information about New York’s bookstores, the city’s population, and other basic information.

The second document was far more interesting, and why it’s always good to read the fine print.

This was the Marketing Agreement.  As I said before, if I committed, I would have to buy and then send the company copies of my book to sell in bookstores all around New York.  If you are a self-published author, you know that when someone buys a copy of your book, several people get a cut before you get your percentage (it’s the same with mainstream books as well). 

Then this paragraph appeared in the agreement: “All books sold and its royalties shall be (100%) given to the author after printing cost.  If the book is not published with our affiliate printer and an interested book vendor would order bulk copies of the book author shall do all the necessary legwork including order processing, delivery, shipping etc.  Taxes that come after it shall be taken care by the author and his/her legal tax expert.

Wow.  So, not only do I have to give you $800 to start, but I also have to get the books printed and shipped at my own expense (if I don’t use their printer, which I’m guessing is also at my expense).  So, if they want 100 books, and my book sells for $20, I have to pay $2000, plus taxes, shipping & handling.  Now I’m out $2800+, and I haven’t gotten a book in a store yet. 

Oh, then to recoup some of the costs, the book has to sell, and then I have to pay taxes on the sales!

But, wait.  I’m not done spending my own money yet!

Remember that $800 that was an initial fee to get things rolling?  Well, it’s actually rolling toward another $800 because: “SERVICE AMOUNT = $800 per bookstore

That’s right!  So, if I want my book to be in bookstores all around New York, I have to pay $800 each time it goes into a new bookstore.  There are 13 bookstores they use, so that would be $10,400 to put the book in all those stores.

And don’t forget I would also be paying to print and ship all the copies of the book requested.

Ka-ching.  Ka-ching.  Ka-ching.

My Response

While I know self-publishing is a personal investment that often has little return, I’m also aware of seeing a scam when it tries to pick my pocket.  

I emailed the guy back and said: 

“After giving your company’s offer some thought and reading through the attachments, I have decided that this is not a sound personal financial investment.  I read the contract and noticed that the $800 figure quoted on the phone is now $800 per bookstore, an amount I cannot afford to invest.

I’m still a little unnerved by how your company obtained my phone number, which makes me wary of your company’s proposition.

I appreciate your reaching out to me and your tenacity regarding this opportunity.  I wish you and your company all the best in your future book acquisitions.”

He wrote back, trying to explain away the $800 per bookstore.  He then tried to call me another few times until I blocked the number. 

The End.

Final Thoughts

We all want our work to be presented to the masses, consumed, and enjoyed.  That’s all well and good, but in doing so, you shouldn’t have to max out credit cards or go into bankruptcy to get your work out there.

With no risk on their part and your money to burn, who’s to say that the books end up anywhere?  Sell any copies?  How can you be sure that Netflix is not only interested in your book but willing to shell out $125,000 for the rights?  

The whole situation is fishy.  And when your gut tells you something’s wrong, go with your gut.

So, remember, if you ever get a call from some company offering you all kinds of great things for your book, but you have to send them lots of money and copies of your book…hang up!

Have any of you had similar experiences?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Writer’s Tip of the Week: Beware of Marketing Scams Bearing False Promises – Part One

As you’ve probably already guessed since you’re reading this on my website, I’m the author of two self-published YA novels, The Field and Midnight House.   

I had an interesting experience involving one of my novels recently. I’d like to tell you what happened so you can be informed ahead of time if something similar happens to you. 

The Calls

I randomly received a phone call from an unlisted number based in New York. Like most of us do when we get a phone call – whether we know the person or not – I let the call go to voice mail. A 90-second voicemail was left, so I listened.

A man from a book marketing company was very interested in talking to me about my book, Midnight House. He said his company wanted to help me get the book out to more people and that I should call him back as soon as possible.

I didn’t, at first.

I didn’t answer because I could not find any information online or on social media about the company. Needless to say, this was a definite red flag from the start.

But the calls kept coming. Every day for two weeks. Yes, even the weekend. It was the same guy, from the same number, with the same message.

When I attempted to call the number back, I received a recording that the number was out of service. Not a big confidence booster.

Probably around the fifth message, I listened closely to the background noise, and what do you think I heard? Other people were using the same script this guy was using on me. It’s funny that we don’t think about telemarketing scammers targeting niche groups of people like self-published authors. Still, I guess they hook enough people to be lucrative.

Anyway, I finally decided to stop these calls. So, the next time the guy called, I answered.

The Pitch

This man was so excited that I answered. In fact, he was overjoyed and congratulated me for publishing my book and that he had a fantastic opportunity for me.  

I said okay, and let him read his script.  

His company targeted a select few self-published authors with an excellent opportunity to get the word out about our books. My book, Midnight House, would be placed in bookstores all over New York City, with the potential of up to 13 stores carrying my novel.  

They had a close relationship with Netflix, and my book would be made into a film, and I would get $125,000 for the rights (minus their finder’s fee, of course)!  

He told me that my book was well-written and had a nice cover. When I asked him what he liked about the book, he paused and repeated the line about my book being well-written and having a nice cover.

I asked him about the first book, The Field, which is the first in the series. He said if the second one was successful, they would plan to market the first one.  

And all of this could be mine for an initial start-up fee of $800.  

That’s right. I send the company my account information, and they start marketing my book.

But where do they get copies of my book?

From me. Yes. I would have to send the company two copies to put in the marketing package they send out; then, if things went well, I would send them another 100 copies. All at my expense.

Persistent in getting me to jump aboard the marketing train, he wanted my account info right then and there. I told him I needed to see a contract and further info before committing to anything (I had already decided no after the first voice mail).  

I gave him an email address. I then asked something I was curious about from the start of this adventure:  How did the company get my personal cell phone number? It’s not on my website or on any of my social media. My publisher and the marketing firm I used to publish my book wouldn’t give out that information without asking me first.  

He said they have a great team of researchers who find people’s phone numbers for them to call. 


We ended the call, and I awaited his email.

Check back for Part Two this Monday!

Writing Exercise: Exploring Themes

Last time, we looked at themes and how they can be incorporated into your writing.  Themes help enhance the story and its characters and can add layers of meaning to your story.

Exploring Themes

Take some time to watch your favorite movie or a TV episode and write down all the possible themes that pop out at you.

•          What themes are obvious?

•          What themes are subtler?

•          What themes are in opposition to one another?

•          How do the story’s themes enhance the story or characters?

•          Are these themes you have seen many times before in other films and TV shows?

Do this with as many films or shows as you wish.  You may find thematic patterns in genres as you explore.

Recycling Themes

Using those themes, think about how you could reuse some or all of them in a short story.  

•          Can they be presented differently?  

•          Are there ways to use those themes that give them more impact and meaning?  

•          What if you made an obvious theme subtle and a subtle theme obvious?

Write a 500-word story that uses these themes to enhance what’s happening.

Your Work

Are you working on a manuscript, a screenplay, or a play?  Read through what you have and find the themes within your own work.  

•          Are they obvious or subtle?

•          Do the themes provide greater meaning to the characters or story?

•          Do you have opposing themes that enhance conflict?

•          Are there ways to refine and fine-tune the themes for greater impact?

The theme is an essential element in your story.  Take the time to develop and enhance your themes and take your story to the next level.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Let’s Talk About Theme (The Basics)

What’s the theme of your story? Does your story have more than one theme? What exactly is a theme, anyway? From theme weeks to theme parks to theme songs, the word is all around us, and yet what does it mean when it comes to a story?

Theme Defined

Regarding creative writing, a “theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work.1” The theme is interwoven throughout the story. It is presented in various subtle and subtextual ways that give the story deeper resonance.

Theme or Topic?

Themes exist more implicitly, while a topic is more explicit. For example, suppose you are writing a story about poverty in America. In that case, the topic of the story is poverty. At the same time, you may present subtler themes of greed, oppression, or class throughout the narrative.  

Warring Themes

One of the classic themes is good versus evil, and it’s been used for millennia in morality tales, comedies, tragedies, literature, TV, and film. Pitting two themes against each other also allows you to showcase elements of character in your protagonist and antagonist in a way that shows their motivations and opposition toward the other thematic element. 

Emerging Themes 

As a writer, you know what story you wish to tell, but maybe you are unsure exactly what themes are being presented in your work from the start. Fear not. As you write and develop the story and characters, various themes will pop out to you. Sometimes they will emerge in your writing subconsciously. Once you have discovered them, you can fine-tune and polish those themes to heighten their importance.

Sledgehammer Subtle

Don’t beat the reader over the head with your themes. Weave them in throughout the work and allow the reader to discover and interpret the meaning they want. If you try too hard, your story may become preachy and read more like a morality tale. Again, take the time – whether you have planned out your themes in the early stages or not –to work them in without directly shining a spotlight onto them.

Final Thoughts

This is a basic overview of a theme as it relates to fiction. If you want to explore further, I highly recommend the article where I found the initial definition. Click the LINK for more.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!


MasterClass Article on Literary Theme

Writing Exercise: Using the Story Formula

Last time, we looked at the template needed to create a basic story formula:


For this exercise, use this template and brainstorm five to ten original ideas that utilize this framework.

  • What types of HEROES can you create that are unique and interesting?
  • What variety of GOALS can you come up with that would motivate a hero to actively pursue them?
  • What types of OPPOSITION would throw the hero off-balance and cause them to lose sight of their goal?
  • Do any of your ideas stand out as potential concepts for a larger story?

Maybe they all work, perhaps only a couple, but this is a great way to flesh out in its most basic form how a story and its conflict might work on a larger scale.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: A Simple Story Formula

What are the essential elements that make up a story?  How do we combine those elements in a simple formula that can be expanded upon?  It all comes down to a simple story formula that is also that basic of a story’s logline:


These three factors are fundamental to keeping your main character active and motivated throughout the story.  

Let’s talk about each one.

The Hero

This is your main character, your protagonist.  We will follow the person from the story’s beginning to its end.  They will go through the most CHANGE as the story progresses, following an arc that will change their perspective, change their outlook, and change them as a person by the time they get to the finish line.

We are rooting for this character to achieve what they need to accomplish, which is…

The Goal

What do they want?  Why do they want it?  What happens if they don’t get it?  

The Hero’s goal takes them on a new journey that they weren’t expecting to be on, but it is one they have no choice but to take on and hopefully complete.

The goal should cause the Hero to be ACTIVE to achieve it.  Do they need to start something?  Stop something?  Prevent something?  Run for something?  Save something or someone?  Fix something?  Destroy something?  These are all active states and goals for the Hero to move toward and accomplish.

It doesn’t mean that obstacles won’t pop up and attempt to thwart their progress as they work toward their goal.  They also have to deal with…

The Opposition

From a supervillain to a judgmental parent, the Opposition or antagonistic force exists to cause CONFLICT for the Hero throughout their journey.  The Opposition exists to do all it can to prevent the Hero from achieving what they’ve set out to do.

Most of the time, thanks to our overabundance of superhero movies, we think of Thanos, The Joker, or The Riddler as examples of clear opposition for the Hero.  But know that it doesn’t have to be a world-ending conflict that the Hero is dealing with.  It can be anyone in the main character’s life that exists to give them problems or issues that affect their journey.

Adding It Up

As stated before:


Using these elements, think about how you can plug the factors in your story into these spaces.  Do you have an active hero who is out to achieve a goal but is prevented from completing it due to opposition causing conflict for the hero?

If yes, you have the basic parameters to develop a good story.  But this is only the beginning of your story’s evolution from a basic story idea to a larger project.

Final Thoughts

This week, take some time to break down your favorite movies or novels into this formula.  You’ll find that all mainstream films and books follow this template.  

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Organizing Your Books

If you’re like me, you probably have a sizeable collection of books on a bookshelf or in your closet.  Some you’ve read, some you plan to read, and some are brand new that will be read before the ones you already have on the shelf.

Often, we can forget what books we have, what we can donate, and what we can toss when it comes to our book collections.  So, let’s talk about ways to clean and organize that book collection.

First Things First

It’s time to pull all your books off the shelf, out of the closet, and out of boxes and see what you have.  More than likely, you have books you don’t remember buying; books about subjects you once had an interest in but don’t anymore; or books from school that you never plan to open again.

Go through the books and make three separate piles: Keep, Donate, and Toss.

What to Keep

New books, books you plan to read again, and books that still interest you should all be put in this pile.  Then, once you’re ready, you can get creative and organize them in the suggested ways below:

•          Organize your books alphabetically by AUTHOR

•          Organize your books alphabetically by TITLE

•          Organize your books by SIZE

•          Organize your books by COLOR

•          Organize your books by GENRE

You can also create a shelf of books you plan to read ASAP.  That way, they are ready and accessible when looking for them.

Now you have a refreshed bookshelf that’s cleaned up and organized, and ready for you to tackle.

What to Donate

Anything you don’t plan to keep should be donated to your local library, Goodwill, The Salvation Army, or another place where they take book donations.  

What to Toss

If you have outdated market guides, old textbooks, or magazines that you have no use for and aren’t worth donating, toss them.  Also, any books with damaged covers or missing pages should be thrown away or recycled.  

Keep what you throw away to a minimum.  Plenty of people enjoy old textbooks and manuals, so those could be worth donating, too.

Happy Organizing and Reading, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Challenge: Creating a Character

People.  We see them every day in some form.  Whether it’s in person, on TV, in a movie, or in a photograph, each person is unique and has their own unique look, traits, and personality.

Either through observation out in the real world or via your TV, computer screen, a new story, etc., find a photo of a person (they can be anyone), and write a detailed description of them.  If they are a celebrity or politician, give them a new name and profession.  

  • Describe what they look like.  
  • What do they do? 
  • What are they doing that day?  
  • Who are they with?  
  • How do they interact with others?  
  • What thoughts do they have?  
  • What do they think others think about them?  

In this exercise, details matter, so take your time to create a three-dimensional look at this individual.  Don’t be afraid to get silly, or dark, or outlandish, this is your opportunity to flex your creative muscles and create a whole new life for an existing person.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week:  Keeping Your Reader Wanting More

Keeping the pages turning.  That’s any author’s goal when it comes to enticing their reader to keep reading into the wee hours of the night.  As writers, our job is to hook the reader in, then keep them glued to the page until the final sentence of the store has been read.

So, what are some ways to keep the reader engaged?  Let’s talk about it!

Unanswered Questions

At the story’s start, you want to serve up some enticing tidbits and information that intrigues the reader.  This leaves them curious about events, people, or things that initially have no clear-cut explanation.

This is a great tool used in mysteries or crime stories.  We’re given possibilities and open-ended questions with multiple answers.  Still, we’re never entirely given enough to piece the whole story together.  

When constructing your story, consider setting up various aspects initially, but don’t start paying them off until it’s vital.  You can even give readers hints along the way, but complete answers are usually left for the final act.

Cutting Them Off, The Classic Cliffhanger

The main character is chased by the villain, his army of goons, and their snarling, barking dogs hot on their tail.  The hero trips on the tree root and flies into the brush, the wind knocked out of them.  They can hear the villain and his men approaching.

NEXT CHAPTER about something else related to the story, but not what happens to the main character.

Another great way to keep the reader invested is to stop in the middle of the action and move over to something else for a chapter before returning to what was happening with the main character.  

Now, the reader – who probably told themselves One more chapter, and I’m going to bed – is now bug-eyed and on the edge of their seat, wanting to know what happens next.  So, they’ll plow through the next chapter to get to where the main character is awaiting their fate to get some relief before closing the book for the night.

TV shows and movies do this as well.  Watch any drama series with high stakes.  A commercial break will inevitably pop up right when something big is about to happen or is revealed, which leads us to…

New Information

Keeping the reader informed is important, but, as I stated before, you don’t want to deliver all the info at once.  Doling out new information as the story unfolds keeps them interested and guessing about what’s really going on and how it all comes together in the end.

How the characters come across new information should be more active than passive.  Have the working things out, processing old information, and coming up with new theories or ideas.  This will also have the reader doing the same as the story moves along. 

You can have the characters be given information, but they have to interpret and act on it themselves. 

Each chapter should deliver new information to the characters and to the reader.  A chapter should be cut if a chapter doesn’t provide information that drives the story forward.

What a Twist!

New information is a great way to present twists to the reader, but don’t go overboard with them.  Too many twists in a story can be confusing.  You risk losing the reader’s trust if you start throwing too many monkey wrenches into what’s already been established.

If you can, save a big plot twist for the story’s final act, but ensure you have given the reader enough information during the story, so the twist has plausibility.

We’ve all seen movies or TV shows where a twist happens, and it makes us upset because it makes zero sense and causes us to feel cheated by the storytellers.  I’m all for story twists, but just make sure they are impactful and keep the reader in the story.

Final Thoughts

I LOVE books that keep me reading late into the night, even if I need to go to bed.  By applying these tools to your story, you can keep the reader engaged in suspense and help keep them turning those pages chapter after chapter.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!