Writing a Crispy Plot

Sharon Ashwood
March 25, 2012  •  2 Comments

Here’s a method I came up with for remembering the key elements to good plotting:
CONFLICT – gotta have it.
What is conflict? The collision of opposing goals. The more central and personal to the characters, the better. It’s what puts the romance in the romance novel, the thrill in the thriller. How successful a book is depends on how invested the reader becomes in the resolution of that conflict.
External conflict is the easily visible action of the book: the murder mystery, the runaway train, the farmer and the cattleman fighting over the same plot of land. The higher the stakes, the more exciting the conflict. This is why so many thrillers seem to involve mass destruction.
Internal conflict is equally if not more important. What do the protagonists have to overcome within themselves in order to resolve the external conflict? This is the EMOTIONAL driver of the story. This is what makes us care about the characters and want to see them win. Do the farmer and the cattleman have to come to terms with their feelings surrounding the death of their father before they can stop fighting over the family acres? Does the heroine have to come to grips with her feelings of inadequacy before accepting the love of the hero? Does the detective have to forgive himself before he can seek justice for someone else?
Ever read a book that should have been good but you just didn’t care? Internal conflict was probably missing.

RESPONSE – Make sure your characters respond appropriately. Snarky and flippant can be funny, but have them in the right places. Make sure responses are emotional, described in a visceral way. It’s far more interesting to say: “Tears ached behind her eyes” than “she thought she might cry.”

INITIATIVE – Make sure your characters drive the action rather than just react to it. You can really see this in the way female roles have changed in popular fiction over the years– we look for a Buffy, not a girl who will stand on the sidelines and let the hero save the day. She’ll want to work together to kill the zombies.
A character’s decisions are an important part of the plotline and tell us a lot about their strengths and weaknesses. For example, Frodo accepts the challenge to take the ring to Mordor, even though no one really expects him to. His decision directs the next steps in the story and, just as important, makes the reader want to cheer him on.

STAKES – Keep rising throughout the book. Make the protagonist and the villain have to commit more and more in order to achieve his/her goal. The police detective may start out with a routine crime scene, where the stakes are significant but fairly localized. By the end, his soulmate is tied to a bomb about to blow up all of Manhattan and the villain is poised to release bubonic plague in a worldwide shipment of baby formula. Each chapter of the book ratchets up the consequences of failure.

PLOT – A big topic, but the basics include a beginning, middle and end. If we have conflict, response, initiatives, and high stakes, the rest will write itself with a little tweaking.

YIKES! – hooks to keep the page turning. Every chapter ending and beginning should have a question or teaser that propels the reader forward.
In summation:


If you look at the first letter of each word, you get CRISPY. And that’s what we all want, right? A fresh, tasty plot!

Friday cuteness

Sharon Ashwood
March 23, 2012  •  No Comments

Demon Lord of Kitty Badness hides in the upholstered jungle waiting for an unsuspecting posterior.


Cold Vengeance & (hopefully) hot photo

Sharon Ashwood
March 22, 2012  •  No Comments

My weekend highlight was finishing the latest Pendergast novel Cold Vengeance by Lincoln Child & Douglas Preston. I still enjoy this series, although I’m still waiting for one to match my enjoyment of Cabinet of Curiosities, Brimstone and Still Life with Crows. Those were exceptional. I don’t reread books as a rule, but I’m hanging onto those for a repeat after enough time has passed.

Otherwise, my time was spent in less inspired ways. I ended up doing a lot of housecleaning, laundry, and paperwork (Taxes! Ugh!). My living space now looks slightly less like a student dorm during mid-terms. On the other hand, not a great weekend for book production, although I did get out for a photo shoot on Saturday (thank you, weather gods, for the sun!). Finding a good author pic always seems to take an inordinate amount of time for me. Perhaps a new head is in order. Maybe two heads, so I can multi-task more effectively.

I also got dug in on the second Nocturne, which felt good. I have to write this one fast, so feeling settled into it is a big plus.

Going places

Sharon Ashwood
March 21, 2012  •  No Comments

I do love it when a cunning plan comes together.

So, even though I don’t like talking much about books in progress, here we go. It’s my second Nocturne. I haven’t left myself a lot of time for this draft, but that’s okay because for once I think I know where I’m going. Better yet, my characters do.

Last fall, a friend and I took a trip down the coast to go to a convention, but decided not to go through Vancouver and down the I-5, but to take the Port Angeles ferry and some of the less highly-travelled roads. This has three advantages: less of a border wait, less traffic, and more scenery. Plus, some of this is the route my characters travel in this story, which is a bit of a chase story.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest (or have seen the Twilight movies), you’ll recognize the landscape. The further south one goes, the more the trees shift from conifers to deciduous trees, which in the fall (when my book is set) provides some splashes of colour. The other brilliant thing is the number of ferries involved with some routes through Washington. Plenty of opportunities for near-misses with bad guys.
Another setting I’ve already scoped out is the ubiquitous fall fair. I’ve always thought there was a slightly creepy element to midways. Because the story involves a mom and her little boy (as well as a dog, a vampire having a crisis of conscience, and some evil scientists) I thought a fair was perfect for this kind of story. Lots of places to lose a child.

What happens next? That would be a spoiler. Plus, it’s all subject to change. But I have my map, a plan, and plenty of photos, so I’m good to go. I’ll let you know more when I get there!

You can sleep when you’re undead

Sharon Ashwood
March 14, 2012  •  No Comments

clara-sleeping I’m behind getting this blog up because I had a stressful day yesterday which morphed into a no-sleep zone. I’ve reached the stage of life where staying up all night is no longer entertaining, even for a first-class freak-out. Today I feel—and probably look—like road kill hopped up on bad coffee.

I’m not sure I should be driving a computer under these conditions. Sleep-deprived blogging may have similar effects to drunk dialling, causing right-minded people to flee in dismay. A cautious approach would be to adhere to the safest of topics. A recipe, say, or favourite television shows. However, there’s a limited fun-factor in being completely safe—although I have to say I love having both the US and UK versions of Being Human on at the same time. They’re both brilliant fun.

Failing food and TV, I could make pithy observations, if I had any. I don’t. No grand insights, nor even a little one. As I lay awake grinding my teeth, I tried creating possible slogans/bumper stickers for the occasion:

· In case of stress, take two C-4 and call me in the morning.
· Darth Maul is my therapist. Annoy me at your own risk.
· Do fast zombies drink Starbucks?

Yep, I’m tired. Definitely not my best work.

So, instead of being my ruthlessly clever self, I got up, bought flowers on the way to work, and got busy. The demons win if they make you stumble, and they don’t lie awake worrying about it.

After I post this, I’ll fall on my face for the night. To misquote George Herbert – sleeping well is the best revenge.


Sharon Ashwood
March 7, 2012  •  No Comments

Are libraries what they used to be?

Opinions abound. I’m not a librarian, but I am a patron and an author so I find myself listening with intense interest. And it’s not just the tax dollars/budget part of the discussion I take note of. It’s the very nature of libraries that’s fascinating to me.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit the New York Public Library and say hello to the famous lions. All the little collections want to grow up to be this marvel. It’s more than a collection of books; it’s a breathtaking monument, a gallery of historical treasures, and a repository of knowledge so vast it’s breathtaking. NYCPL is far more than our typical definition of a place to go borrow books. Like New York itself, it’s a destination.

On the other end of the spectrum were my childhood libraries. Way back then, the Edmonton Public Library children’s section had a little petting zoo with doves, rabbits, and guinea pigs. As a kid without pets, I was there every weekend for my bunny fix. The outing was always as a family, and everyone walked out with a stack of reading material. I think this is one reason why I became a great reader—some households did the mall or the skating rink, we did books and that little collection of furry friends.

My school library was no less important. The school was an open plan, the library at the centre. Any assemblies—whether for singing carols or holding parades or (for some reason I can’t recall) rolling giant string balls around—happened in and around the shelves of books. It was at the middle of everything. Okay, so these childhood libraries weren’t New York, but they were every bit as significant in their own way. They reflected and formed a huge part of my school years.

The thing is, libraries aren’t just books, or ebooks, or DVDs, or whatever else we decide to loan. Done right, they’re an expression of the community they serve. Some will be an expression of civic pride. Some will be a place for kids to play. Others, like the one across the street from my workplace, will be a place where office workers like me can catch a breath on their noon hour. Everything moves faster in that branch, like the whole building is caught up in the downtown bustle. And let’s not forget the collections springing up on-line. Where we go, so too go our libraries.

So I wonder when folks say these institutions aren’t what they used to be. Of course they aren’t, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We change. They change to mirror us. It’s up to us, as a community, what we see. Our responsibility is to ensure they reflect our values.

Chasing the end

Sharon Ashwood
February 25, 2012  •  2 Comments

photo I’m running for the end of a rainbow! Every so often there’s one of those moments when the writing gets do-or-die. This weekend is one–I MUST finish this draft/reach the destination/find the pot of gold for this particular adventure, so I can hop off and write a different book, turn it in, then get back to this one and edit it. What I don’t want to do is to leave threads dangling, characters sitting around waiting to get the girl/finish off the villain/solve the mystery. They get all cranky:

“Is this in our contract, Fred?”
“No, it’s a violation of Schedule Two, Part 4, Clause C. The cliffhanger clause.”
“I thought that was the suspension of disbelief rider.”
“No, that’s Appendix IV.”
“What’s this one say?”
“The right to timely denouement. Breaking it means WE get to end the book OUR way.”

Stories can go stale. An ending–any ending–is necessary for successful storage. I can change it all later, but I never have that “did I leave a tap running?” feeling. Plus, the characters stay put and don’t run around turning my romance into a Stephen King special. Don’t laugh–I’ve had it happen. Unfinished business will develop a life of its own. So wish me luck–wish my characters luck–we’ve got our athletic shoes on and we’re running for the finish line!

Apocalypse maybe

Sharon Ashwood
February 22, 2012  •  No Comments

Okay, so if 2012 is the last year of the Mayan calendar, does it necessarily mean the end of the world? Or just that it was time for whomever did the stationery order to jot a reminder note to get the next year’s pre-Columbian Daytimer?

Society at large seems invested in doomsday scenarios, from young adult readers to the homeless guy on the corner who says We’d Better Be Good Or Else in an assortment of badly garbled Biblical quotations. Whether it’s zombies, Divine Wrath, or a socio-economic meltdown, we’re perversely fascinated. At times, I’d almost say eager to end it all. Why?

My own personal theory is that most of us work better with a due date. We need consequences. The notion of responsible living for its own sake pales beside the idea that we need to buy organic or the world will end. We must live peacefully with our neighbours or we’ll blow up the world. If we don’t cut greenhouse gasses, we’ll all drown in the rising ocean. It seems to take the threat of a catastrophe to get us moving in the right direction.

And then there are those who, for whatever reason, simply want to depress us. Books and movies remind us that we are bad, bad people who will go all Lord of the Flies at the slightest provocation. Just head out to the Boxing Day sales if you want proof. This Fun With Nihilism mindset seems to be big with teens, and (in my experience) the end of the world is the ultimate expression of the hopelessness attendant on approximately 87% of a teen’s waking life. Most of us get over it. As one gets older, the struggle for survival loses its romantic patina bigtime.

And then there are the devotees of big explosions. End of the world movies usually involve something going bang. I put this down to the frustrated psyche of male directors, who turn these moments into glowing, perhaps radioactive, examples of pseudo-erotic cinematography.
I think the end of the world is what we make of it. Or, perhaps a better phrase is the end of the world is what we need it to be. Motivation? A macrocosm to our microcosm? Relief? Maybe just an end to the story?

I personally like to think of the Creator-as-potter scenario. The universe will get squished back into a blob of potential and thrown back on the wheel to be crafted into something new and beautiful. The big mystery is what sort of vessel it will turn out to be.

Rose Coloured Glasses

Sharon Ashwood
February 15, 2012  •  1 Comment

As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’m sure the set dressers have been at work. Outside my window, the sky is blue with white fluffy fleecies and the harbour is as still as glass. The goody table here at work is piled with sugary treats. The only thing lacking is stock characters from a romantic comedy doing a swooning grapple over the copy machine. (Just as well. The stupid thing breaks down often enough as it is.)

Being a writer is all about looking at the world through a lens of possibility. Adventure, mystery, and romance can happen at any moment. It’s our joy and curse to see it hovering within the veil of possibilities.

· What if the courier delivers the wrong package—the one meant for the exotic zoo?
· What if the deli down the street is the info drop for foreign spies?
· What if the ugly cactus in the boardroom has a hidden camera?
· What if the photocopier goes for a whole week without breaking down? Nah, fiction only goes so far.


But looking at the world in terms of potential has applications far beyond novel-writing. It applies directly to our own lives. Daydreaming is one of the best ways to figure out what we want. Ever given yourself permission to imagine driving a race car? Running a Fortune 500 company? People who write those self-help books (you know the ones) say that creative visualization is half the journey toward success.

In utterly practical ways, seeing the possible forms the basis of every successful compromise. In business and legal terms, how do you mediate an agreement without a little imagination? What about invention? Product development? Thinking outside the box is all about potential. It got us things like cooking fires and indoor plumbing. And, occasionally, someone worth turning into our Valentine. It takes imagination to see those hidden qualities.

So when you’re looking at the world through a creative lens, it’s not just possible novels you’re uncovering, it’s the basis for every advance (and quite a few gaffes) our civilization has made. For those looking for meaning beyond overpriced roses and impractical lingerie, consider Valentine’s Day a celebration of the possible. Those rose-coloured glasses might cloud our vision, but they also make us look toward the horizon.

Or into the chocolate box. Sometimes the best possibilities are right in front of us.

Let There Be Light!

Sharon Ashwood
February 8, 2012  •  No Comments

There are early signs of spring in the air. The TV schedules are a mess, the renewed sunlight allows me to see how badly my place needs cleaning, and everyone but me is heading off for Mexico or Hawaii. Plus, there are (simultaneously) Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s and Easter paraphernalia in the stores. Perhaps they should amalgamate and introduce a beer-swilling Irish rabbit delivering chocolate hearts. It would save time.

Anyway, spring and deadlines are coming apace. I’m in the throes of a final push through to the end of a first draft, which tends to make me ignore the real world. Entire months disappear. It messes with my internal calendar, so this time I’m making an effort to notice what’s going on outside. I don’t want to look up from the computer to realize it’s Halloween again.

Last Friday, I saw the first snowdrops in the front yard:


The only reason I saw them is that it’s now light enough to come and go from the office in daylight. That makes a huge difference for me; when it’s dark at the end of the day I find it hard to get anything accomplished in the evening. Give me sunshine, and I can go for hours more.
Another sign of the season – the first announcements for the summer music festivals. Right now lying on a sunny lawn listening to a good band sounds pretty appealing.


This will be purple hellebore someday soon. It makes me think of the spring clothes I’ve seen coming into the stores—pastels seem to be big, especially a deep lavender shade. Pretty in moderation.

And, of course, there are birds. The birch tree outside my kitchen window was covered in little grey finches (?) yesterday. I’m not a birder, so I don’t know exactly what they were, but they were looking for a bug lunch on their way through. It’s migration season, and that always makes me restless, too.
The best thing about early spring is the forward sense of optimism it brings. It’s impossible not to feel a twinge of new energy, and that’s vital when one is working on long-haul projects. I might even make it to the end of my draft on time!