Top Seven Things I Learned At Debra Dixon’s Book In A Day Workshop

Hello, my lovely Scribelings! Suze here. First off, a bit of news. My cozy mystery, FETA ATTRACTION, will release from Berkley Prime Crime on January 6, 2015! I’ve had a sneak peak at the cover and, just like all the Berkley artwork, mine is just gorgeous. I’ll show it to you as soon as I can. FETA ATTRACTION is the first book in the GEORGIE’S KITCHEN MYSTERIES and I hope you’ll love the village of Bonaparte Bay and its residents as much as I do. When it’s available for preorder, I’ll let you know.

So you’d think, with a traditional contract and two books in the series written and the third one about to be started–as well as a few partial manuscripts living under the bed with some unsatisfied dust bunnies who may or may not ever find out what happens at the end of those stories–I’d know everything there is to know about writing a genre fiction novel. After all, I’m also a freelance editor (www.crazydiamondediting.com), so I work with other authors on their manuscripts too.

GMC[1]HA! SNORT! (Hang on a sec while I get myself under control) OK, I’m back, still giggling. The answer is Not by a long shot. Producing these two manuscripts drove home the fact that I have a lot to learn.

So to help me become a better writer, I signed up for Debra Dixon’s Book in a Day Workshop, presented by the New Hampshire Chapter of Romance Writers of America. Along with some of my best writing buddies, I spent the weekend in New Hampshire with Writing Goddess Debra Dixon, whose book Goal, Motivation and Conflict (available in ebook and hard cover) has become standard material for anyone seriously pursuing a writing career, no matter what kind of stories you write.

So here are the Top Seven Things I took away from the workshop:

1. You can do anything you want, as long as you do it well. This means that you can break the “rules” as long as it’s  beautifully executed. However, and this is just my personal, more conservative opinion, if you’re trying to break into genre fiction, start out following the rules so later on, when you’re more experienced, you know what rules you can and can’t break.

2. Force your character make choices–and make those choices Sucky and Suckier. Most of us have probably heard the basics of story structure broken down like this: Put your character in a tree. Throw rocks at the tree. Get you character out of the tree. So what Ms. Dixon means is that in the rock-throwing phase, put your character in a situation where she cannot win and force her to make a choice: should she save the child, or save the man she loves? Whichever choice she makes, she is changed forever. Powerful stuff!

3. Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) can be summed up in five words: Who, What, Why, Why Not? Who is your character? What is the situation the character finds herself in? Why does the character behave as she does and want what she wants (this is often a function of backstory, and most of that backstory will not make it onto the page)? Why Not–Why can’t the character have what she wants? There should be both external reasons (the bad guys are throwing rocks at her while she sits in a tree, so she can’t physically get to the child who needs her or the man she loves) and internal reasons (she has a paralyzing fear of heights because she saw her father fall off a cliff to his death, and she couldn’t save him). She can’t see any way to get out of the tree without jumping, whether or not the bad guys are there.

4. What is fun for you, the author, is not necessarily fun for the reader. While you might gleefully kill off your main character, your readers might see that as not playing fair. Related:  Give the reader the candy you promised them. Don’t withhold critical information and spring it on the reader at the end. They’ll feel cheated, like they’ve been sold a bill of goods, and might not read more of your work. You must play fair with the reader. This is especially true in a traditional cozy mystery where the clues should be planted early on, and it’s only later that the sleuth figures out what they mean.

5. Every character in the book must have GMC. A minor character’s GMC does not necessarily need to be spelled out on the page, but there has to be a reason for the presence of every character.

6. We root for the underdog. Cowards make great heroes/heroines. The reader can relate to underdogs and cowards. It isn’t satisfying to have a character already be at the top of his game unless you bring him down and change his goal. And your character must have fears and insecurities that make it difficult or nearly impossible for him to make the choices necessary to move ahead.

7. Every scene must have at least three reasons to be present in the story, and at least one must be Goal, Motivation, or Conflict. Goal: The scene illustrates your character’s progress toward the goal. Motivation: The scene provides your character with an experience that strengthens or changes his motivation. Conflict: The scene brings the character into conflict with opposing forces. The best, pivotal scenes will encompass all three elements.

These seven items were my big takeaways from the workshop (which also encompassed the Hero’s Journey model for story structure). I would highly recommend that anyone who has not done so take this course. As I sat through the workshop, I thought about my own characters in different ways–and I already feel like a stronger writer.

My only regret? My third book did not actually get written in a day. Sigh. Well, BICFOK–no, that’s not a dirty word. It means Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard. This book ain’t gonna write itself (although, how awesome would that be?).

Have you seen Debra Dixon speak? Have you read Goal, Motivation and Conflict? Are you conscious of the concepts as you write?

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2 thoughts on “Top Seven Things I Learned At Debra Dixon’s Book In A Day Workshop”

  1. I love Deb’s straight forward approach. I’m sorry I missed the workshop, but you summed it up fabulously. I’m printing this page! It’s a lot to think about and process into our writing, but it looks like putting it all together would make all the difference in creating a compelling story with multi-dimensional characters. Thanks for sharing Suze!

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