Round Two Writing Tips

These small tips are my Season’s Greetings to you all!! And maybe I’m making a small statement about 2020?

I hope you enjoy!

Conflict and Tension

Every story benefits by having high tension and strong conflict. First drafts are generally not high tension drafts – it isn’t until revision that I add as much tension as I can. Not only is tension crucial to keeping reader engagement at the broadest level of a story – micro-tension is made by certain word choices and sentence structures and must be deliberately added.

I turned to a random sentence in The Artifact Hunters and found this: “The door blew open and Kat raced into the room.” Both of those verbs, “blew” and “raced”, ratchet up the tension in the scene.

But, great conflict isn’t about constant confrontation or physical danger. Internal conflict is even more important, even when not fully understood by the character until near the end of the book.

Ask, what is going on inside the character? What does the character really want, need, desire? That longing – for love, security, approval, etc. – underlies every action that the character takes, for good or ill. In Faithful, my main character Maggie desperately wants to find her mother. This longing drives everything she does, even to the point of making poor choices that endanger those she cares about the most.

For much more on tension check out any of Donald Maass’s books, especially The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

My Round Two Writing Tips Are…

  1. Add tension at both the macro and micro levels. Be sure to select strong action verbs and solid nouns over adverbs and adjectives to describe tension.
  2. Internal conflict is just as, if not more important than, external conflict.
  3. Check out Donald Maass’s books for more on conflict and tension, and also James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense.

Hot (Writing) Tips For Cold Nights

The more I write, the more writing tips I collect. These little tips distill much larger thoughts on the writing craft down to understandable ideas, and I’m going to share a few with you over the next weeks. And if you are on Pinterest, check out my story boards on writing tips (thanks to Deb Gonzales!)

Before You Write A Word

Spend time thinking about your story before you begin your first draft. Distill your idea – the kernel of the idea that sparks your interest – into a couple of sentences and then let things simmer. Why?

Because your subconscious mind will chew on the idea, and you’ll be surprised by how many things float into view. As an example, when I began writing The Artifact Hunters, I knew that it would be a sequel to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle; I knew that my main character would be a boy; I knew that clocks had to be involved in some fashion, because I wanted to play with time travel; and I knew it would be set a couple of years later than Charmed Children.

The creepy inspiration for The Artifact Hunters – a “death’s head” watch.

As I let the idea simmer, without warning or searching on my part, I stumbled upon the death’s head watch. I hadn’t known these watches existed, never mind how they looked. The watch became the centerpiece of the story, and as a magical artifact, inspired the notion of the Vault of Magical Artifacts and then the entire story unspooled before I began to write.

As another example, I thought about my forthcoming novel Carry Me Home for almost five years before I knew how to write it, and that time allowed me to write the novel in a month.

When You Begin To Write

Remember that whoever your main character is, he or she has had a life before your story. This is what we mean when we say that a story begins in medias res – in the middle of things. Your character has a past, and the start of your story propels them into a new situation. That “newness” and the unbalancing of your character should start on page one of the story, in order to draw your reader right in. (For more on hooking the reader, see my Medium post on this subject.)

In other words, don’t start with throat-clearing, i.e., description, long narrative explanations, etc. Start with a problem, presented to a character who is fully formed by her past experiences.

So, my three hot writing tips for this week:

  1. Think before you write.
  2. Hook the reader on page 1, with a problem.
  3. Present that problem to a fully formed character.

Let me know what you think!

Need Books? Try Bookshop!

If you are lucky enough to live in a town with an independent bookseller (and they deliver or provide other pandemic-related services), I hope you support them. But if you don’t, I hope you’ll consider Bookshop as your online retailer for your book purchases.

Bookshop supports indie booksellers by giving back a percentage of sales, and it supports authors by allowing us to set up affiliate links to our in-print books – wherein authors also receive a percentage of sales. You can find curated lists of great reads. Right now they offer gift wrapping and free shipping, and they always offer books at a discount comparable to other retailers, including the one we all know and love to hate. They are constantly updating and improving their services, and I love the whole idea.

My Spooky Middle Grade group has a “bookstore”, and I’m also an affiliate, so if you’re looking for spooky books or my books you’ll find them there.

As always, if you would like to purchase my books and have them signed and personalized, I do have a wonderful indie bookstore right here in Bozeman, Montana, Country Bookshelf, and they’ll be happy to let me know of your wishes.

Rather than purchasing your book gifts this season from the Big Behemoth, if you don’t have an indie bookstore or can’t get out to buy books, won’t you consider Bookshop?

New! For Teachers and Librarians – Virtual Author Visits!

It’s tough to be an author and even tougher to be a teacher in these “remote learning” times. How can we visit schools, when schools might not even be in session?

My Spooky Middle Grade clan of authors, led by the wonderful Kim Ventrella, is putting together a series of virtual author visits that you can watch at any time.  In this video I talk about The Artifact Hunters and The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle:

We introduce ourselves and then answer some of the most interesting “frequently asked questions”. Questions like, “How do you make your fantasy spooky?” and “How long did it take you to become an author?” and “How many revisions do you have to write?” If your students are interested in writing – maybe they dream (like I did) of one day becoming an author – we hope that these videos will inspire.

And we also have a new Bookshop page, which supports indie booksellers, yet allows you to order all our spooky books online.


News, And Fun

Last week Mr. Schu of Watch. Connect. Read. featured the release of the cover of my next book, Carry Me Home. The novel launches August 24, 2021 from Simon & Schuster.

I love this cover and am thrilled to be able to bring it to you now:




Carry Me Home is the story of Lulu and her little sister, and the disappearance of their dad, when they are in a difficult situation. This book is very close to my heart.

And here’s a little interview I did with Kim Ventrella, of my Spooky Middle Grade authors group!


Thrill in Yellowstone National Park

As you all know, I’m the author of Volcano Dreams: A Story of Yellowstone, which mainly focusses on the geologic aspects of this super volcano.

This past weekend, I had the thrill of a lifetime. We took a short trip into the Park (mask-wearing and distancing, of course), and just by chance arrived at Norris Geyser Basin, when the unexpected happened. Steamboat Geyser, the largest in height in the world, erupted, a major eruption. We estimate that at its height it topped about 250 feet, smaller than some but still enormous. And what a lot of water!!

The video here is about 20 minutes into the eruption, which was still going strong when we left. The sound is amazing, so be sure your sound is turned up. We could feel the vibrations under our feet.

I’ve been coming to this geyser basin for over 20 years, hoping to catch an eruption of Steamboat, so this was a complete thrill.

We also managed to watch two bull elks sparring with horns locked, heard elk bugling in the hills (what an eerie sound!), and experience the beauty of yellow aspen, snow on the mountains, and crisp fall weather.

If you can’t get to Yellowstone any time soon – or if you are a teacher or librarian and want materials to support studying the geology of a super volcano – check out my resources on Yellowstone, including videos and teacher guides.

Authoring Around

Lately I’ve been bouncing around the internet (cause bouncing around in person is not happening right now, sigh). I’ve been having lots of fun with these interviews and such. If you are into a bunch of authors spending some time talking about books, you may be interested.

Here is a Youtube video from the Books in Common discussion that I had recently with author Rosanne Parry. It was lots of fun – she was discussing her book A Whale of the Wild, and I was talking about The Artifact Hunters – but the nerdy book stuff was wide ranging. Rosanne and I were debut authors together. If you’re a book nerd too, you might find it interesting.


And here’s a discussion that four Spooky Middle Grade Authors had featuring the 10 Most FAQs from readers. Lots of laughs in this one!

And Kim Ventrella interviewed me on Facebook Live talking all things “spooky”:

And just in case you are more into audio than visual, I was interviewed reently by author Susanne Dunlap on her “It’s Just Historical” podcast.


Stay the Course

Writing is hard. It’s hard even when life is going smoothly, when your kids are in school and happy, when your finances are secure, when you have a support system/beta readers/great computer. When you’re not being chased by a pandemic or a fraught political and social climate.


So, if you are struggling right now, please don’t beat yourself up.

A puppy pic. Cause who doesn’t need a puppy pic?

I’ve been watching as my writing friends admit that they haven’t written in weeks (or months). Watching as sometimes they have a breakthrough (yay!) only to fall into despair days later when no more words will come. Watching (and, yes, experiencing myself) as their books march out into the Covid world to be met with a resounding echo of silence, because there are few opportunities to promote, and no one is really interested in paying for anything.

If there ever was a time that a writer might contemplate quitting, this is it.

But, please don’t quit. Kids need us, now more than ever. They need our hope, our tales, our worlds to escape to. Librarians and teachers need us. They need to have a place to send kids to that is safe and fun – and even if it might be scary, it’s still safe and fun. Parents need us, because reading provides a haven, and a book that is enticing may draw in even the reluctant reader.

Take time for self-help. Watch a rom-com. Take a long hike. Take a nap. Read a book just for fun. Exercise. Breathe. Be easy with yourself, especially if the words won’t come.

Write one sentence. Any sentence, about anything. Don’t push too hard, don’t make yourself stare at a blank page.

These are hard times, and yes, writing is hard enough in good times. Go easy on yourself, go easy on your writing. This too shall pass, and when it does, you’ll be ready to write again.

Please share your thoughts.