writers tips

Writer’s Tip #96: 11 of Them From Bob Mayer

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

I have a huge bookshelf of self-help books for writing. If I get stuck, I roll my chair around to face my floor-to-ceiling shelves and explore tips from Noah Lukeman, Bill Bryson, Donald Maass, Bob Mayer, Strunk and White, and James Frey on whatever my problem-du-jour is (thanks to my weekend writer conference, now it’s ‘genre’–do I really understand my genre?). These books are a wealth of information and take a long time to digest. I thought I’d take one of my favorites and distill its highlights.

Bob Mayer is the NY Times Best-Selling author of 23 books and an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School. If you dabble in the military milieu as I do, it doesn’t hurt that Mayer is a West Point Graduate and Green Beret. Here are some of my favorite ideas from his seminal book, Novel Writer’s Toolkit: A guide to writing great fiction and getting it published (Writer’s Digest Books 2003):

  • As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That is your mind working even when you consciously aren’t.
  • Diagrams, like maps, will help to keep you oriented as you write (Mayer means pictures of your character’s house, town, bedroom–wherever he spends time.)
  • …translate your idea into story via an outline. I estimate I spend 25 percent of the time it takes me to complete a novel before I even write word one. Every day spent outlining and preparing saves me at least five days of actually writing.
  • I constantly find …[these general] problems in manuscripts… 1) hooking the reader, 2) dialogue tags, 3) repetition, 4) time sense or the ‘remote control effect’, 5) setting the scene, 6) characters talking to themselves, 7) misuse of pronouns, 8) the difference between a memory and a flashback, and 9) slipping into second-person point of view
  • The inciting incident constitutes the hook. It’s a dynamic event and should be seen as such by the reader.
  • By the end of your second chapter, you should have 1) introduced the core problem that will be resolved in the climax, and 2) introduced your protagonist
  • How long should a manuscript be? …as long as the quality of writing can support AND long enough to tell the story well.
  • …once your characters come alive, they, not you, direct where the story will go through the choices they make.
  • Motivation is the most important factor to consider when having your character make choices.
  • Symbolism is one way writers show things to the reader, rather than tell them.
  • Read… a lot… Read to study style and also for story ideas.

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More writers tips:

21 Tips from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”

Proofing Your Manuscript–Ten Tips

Use Photos to Develop Your Novel

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

34 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #96: 11 of Them From Bob Mayer

    • Ah. That’s interesting. When that happens to me, I may or may not add it to the outline. Certainly, at an early point, I’ve set the outline aside and consider those sorts of changes ‘edits’. I agree with you: You can’t always predict where a character is headed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Your suggestions on writing, I think, are helping me discover one of the reasons why I have not attempted a full novel. I think the reason is that I have not devoted any attention to the planning process. Hopefully, one day…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Every day spent outlining and preparing saves me at least five days of actually writing.”
    I tend to have a very rough outline and change as I go along. I like your idea, Jacqui,of the “enlightened” version of an outline. I also think that for genre fiction, especially thrillers and mysteries, it’s a good idea to know the ending. I also recently read from a writer (can’t remember who said it – there is so much information coming into my little brain just from the bloggers on WordPress) that he/she can’t write the beginning before knowing the ending. Contrary to this, sometimes I have found that learning more about my character and plot helps to maintain motivation.
    I have one novel that was completed (roughly) but sits in my drawer because I’ve lost interest now that I know how it ends!
    Writing is a funny business, full of writers’ quirks.
    This was a great post.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Though I have great respect for Mayer and his experience, I don’t agree with all his points. I create my characters. They are not real people and all choices are ones I write into the story. I understand the need to make a character function true to his personality, but that’s still something that I develop within the context of the story. I think anything a writer does to help keep track of essential details (birth date, physical appearance, unique habits, etc.) is useful, but I refuse to get carried away with imagining that the characters and story I create are anything more than figments of my imagination. I doubt that Shakespeare did any of this when he was writing. Don’t mean to sound arrogant, just need to state an alternate view.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Now you’ve mentioned something that may be the reason I don’t feel the need to build a clone background for my characters. Very few incidents I write are autobiographical. In fact, were I to claim that something was, people who know the “real me” would say I was stating a complete lie. However, many incidents and characters are fabricated on people and events I witnessed or heard about first hand. In every case, I’ve made significant changes so that no one can claim, “Hey, that’s me.” Not just name changes, but changes so that only the essence of real person or event remains in my story. Maybe it’s my familiarity with the model that precludes me needing to create a paper history – something true already exists for me sufficient that I can draw on it.
        Thank you for the sweet compliment, Jacqui. Even where incidents are outrageous or personalities over the top, I work at writing something believable. Maybe I’m getting close.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. These are fantastic tips, Jacqui.

    I like the idea of Diagrams. When I’m setting up stories and my characters are in houses I go to the real estate guide online and find a place that would suit them. The realty pages have pictures and diagrams of layout and garden etc – it saves my mind a load of work trying to get it all together😉
    “How long should a manuscript be?” that’s a question I am asked a lot and my response is the same (as long as it needs to be).
    “once your characters come alive, they, not you, direct where the story will go through the choices they make” amen to that – I find it’s the characters who drive my stories and that’s why I’m not a ‘planner’ because (like real life) things can happen unexpectedly and throw us temporarily off track😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great info as always. I’m a big fan of outlining so I always enjoy hearing about other writers who take that road too. Like Mayer, a good portion of my novel is finished before I start the first draft. Just easier for me that way, but I know it’s not for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You can use an ‘enlightened’ view of outlining–like a first draft. Bare bones, but written from start to end. And then keep filling in the holes. Then, too, I think it depends a lot on the genre. Thrillers require more of an outline where literary fiction (I think–don’t write that), less.

      Liked by 2 people

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