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What would you risk in order to get the one thing you truly desire?

dsc 0028

Susan at Ross Lake. Looking for a metaphor.

Seriously, what would you risk?

When I was an emerging writer in my 20s, trying to sell my first book, I risked a lot. I had a great life–wonderful teaching career, adorable baby, cute dogs, a house in the ‘burbs, good family and friends. Why would I take on the stress and struggle and uncertainty of a career as a novelist? It was a massive risk on many levels.

In practical terms, I was subjecting my daughter and myself to financial risk, because writing is about as stable as betting on horses. I also gave up social time with friends. I had to forego my book-a-day reading habit, entire series on TV (okay, not a huge sacrifice there) and forget sleep. There was at least one night when I stayed up all night working on my novel. I looked out to see the sun coming up, so I combed my hair, put on my lipstick, took the baby to pre-school and staggered off to work that day. (You can do stuff like this when you’re in your 20s.)

There’s something more than financial solvency at risk when you decide to publish a novel. The emotional risk is huge in writing. Even in a made-up story, you’re showing people your hidden self. Will readers think I’m Faith, the struggling single mom in Starlight on Willow Lake? The cheated-on wife in Just Breathe? Will they get a glimpse of me in the brash, emotionally distant Tess, or the the so-shy-you-want-to-slap-her Isabel? Or am I Annie Rush, the passionate, ambitious wronged woman whose world comes crashing down on her?

I’m a fan and friend of acclaimed writing coach, Michael Hauge, who is fond of issuing this challenge to writers. Brace yourself. It might be the toughest statement you’ll ever make in your writing career:


“I’ll do whatever it takes to be a

successful writer;

but don’t ask me to ___________________,

because that’s just not me.” 

Common responses to “…just don’t ask me to…” might be:

  • -quit my day job

    -walk away from a bad deal from a publisher

  • -tell my family to give me space
  • -follow somebody’s writing formula
  • -abandon somebody’s writing formula
  • -take a writing class
  • -reveal my innermost thoughts on paper
  • -write about deeply personal matters
  • -write about people who might recognize themselves in my book
  • -subject myself to criticism and rejection
  • -set a work schedule and stick to it
  • -learn to type

Your answer will reveal what you’re avoiding in order to protect yourself.

Some of you might be thinking, “Oh, it’s easy for you, an established author, to deal with these fears. You’ve already cleared the hurdles.” All right, you be the judge. Here are a few steps I had to take on my writer’s journey, and believe me, they were not easy. One year, I had to hock my beloved Juzek cello for money to live on. Another time, I failed to enter my book for the RITA Award because I used the entry fee for groceries. I had so many rejection letters from agents and publishers that I quit counting after 100, and actually papered the walls of a bathroom with the rejection slips. I endured skepticism, sleepless nights, people wondering why I was wasting my time writing stories instead of ________________. <–insert what your judgmental friends and associates would add here. You have to care more about your writing dream than you do about people’s opinions. Do you? Can you?

I dare you. Go!



It’s not just my favorite line from Rocky Horror. It’s my best advice to writers. Here’s a chance to do exactly that–THIS WEEK. Do NOT miss this seminar! Info below:

In this issue:

  • for writers – a workshop that will change your life
  • for readers – cookies and a day at the spa
  • for Canadians or people who want to go there – a day-long writing seminar

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for taking Lakeshore Christmas into your heart, and for making it a bestseller. Your notes to me are so lovely. I wish I could express how much the mean to me! Just…thank you! Readers are like best friends you’ve never met.

That said…I would love to meet you! I have three major book events coming up this month, for writers and readers. PLEASE mark your calendar. It would be an honor to meet you.

Sunday, November 8, 2009 – Bellevue, WA

NOTE: This day is part of a multi-day writing extravaganza with master teacher and literary agent, Donald Maass. The full course is Nov. 5-8, but you can also take a partial class. Full info here.

If you’re a fiction writer, you have to promise you will take this class. No matter where you are in your writing career–from beginner to bestseller–you owe it to yourself to explore “The Fire in Fiction” with Don.

The first time I took a class from him, I was writing The Ocean Between Us, a reader favorite. There are many scenes and moments in that book that I created as a direct result of the class. Here is a blog post I wrote about Donald Maass and his work. Sign up! Do it! Do it now!

Here’s a description of my portion of the class:

ROMANCE MASTER CLASS with literary agent and author Don Maass and bestselling author, Susan Wiggs

In this full day course, Don Maass and Susan Wiggs will teach you how to first foster a deep understanding of the romance genre, and then go beyond the expected to create a truly original breakout work.

You’ll learn how to merge elements of literary and genre fiction, how to assure reader investment in the credibility of your world and characters, how to create a palpable voice on the page, how to create a resonant theme, and much more.

Thursday, November 19, 2009 – Bainbridge Island WA

7:30pm Reading and Cookie Exchange with author Sheila Roberts:

Got cookies? You will after this fabulous holiday events featuring Christmas books, cookies and general merriment. Bring a plate of your best cookies, and you’ll be entered to win a day of luscious pampering at a local spa!


Saturday, November 21, 2009 – Vancouver, BC, Canada

Workshop for Greater Vancouver RWA: This is a full-day event, all about bringing your characters to life and creating a book map for your novel. You won’t believe how much fun this is. Trust me, after 40-whatever novels, I know what works.

So there you have it. MARK YOUR CALENDAR. Come see me!

Happy Holidays,

Susan Wiggs

Cookie Tiiiiime!

Lakeshore Christmas features a collection of cookie recipes from favorite fictional characters. Remember chewy molasses cookies? This is the one. I first discovered it thanks to my friend Cheryl, who got it from the Silver Palate Cookbook. I tweaked it here and there to make it unique for the book–that pinch of cayenne is the secret:

Daisy Bellamy’s “May the Best Man Win” Molasses Cookies


(24 cookies)


3/4 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup molasses

1 egg

1-3/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon baking soda



1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Line cookie sheets with baking parchment.

3. Melt the butter; mix well with sugar and molasses.

4. Beat in the egg, then slowly add the rest of the ingredients, mixing well to create a wet dough.

5. Line a cookie sheet with foil or parchment.

6. Drop the batter by scant teaspoons onto the parchment. Leave plenty of space, because cookies will spread.

7. Bake 8-10 minutes, just until the cookies darken.

8. Remove parchment from cookie sheet, and let cool. These cookies are delicious as is, or you can dress them up with a drizzle of lemon icing.

Song suggestion: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” performed by Nickel Creek

No, not that kind of pub. “Publication Day.” And look what was delivered to my door. A surprise from my best friends in the business:

colors of springtime

colors of springtime

With friends like this, I don’t even need a bestseller. OMG, did I just say that? I must be high. Of course I need a bestseller, like the flowers need the rain. But still, this is a fun time for an author, because the book has been released into the wild, and it’s on its own. Godspeed, little book!

check out the crazy magenta daisies

check out the crazy magenta daisies

I think a little set of vases like this would make a perfect Mother’s Day gift. Which brings me to today’s drawing! You totally want this one, I swear. There’s a WWII backstory in the book I’m working on now, so I’ve been buying a lot of WWII DVD sets. This one was so good (and such a bargain, sorry, has to be said) that I grabbed two. So you get the WWII stuff AND a signed Just Breathe. Post a Mother’s Day gift suggestion in Comments, and you’re automatically entered. 

Congrats to the winner of the book and gourmet popcorn! Barbara–Pam’s mom–was selected by 

In the Michael Hauge lecture, he touched on two key types of secondary characters and several types of stories. My further notes:

Other characters in your story:

  1. The nemesis. This is the character who most stands in the way of the hero as he sets out to achieve his outer goal. The nemesis is at cross purposes with the hero, yet he embodies the hero’s inner conflict. The hero might discover how unlike the nemesis he is, or he might realize he needs to become more like the nemesis. (Maureen’s inner journey is to learn what a real leap of faith is, not just give lip service to it.) The nemesis stands up for the essence of the hero’s character.
  2. The reflection. This is the sidekick character. Don Quixote’s Sancho. Donkey in Shrek. He is defined by the hero’s outer motivation. He is there to help and encourage the hero to achieve his goal. He tries to get the hero to go after his goal. He reveals the hero’s inner conflict: “What are you doing? Why? This is not who you are…” He holds the hero’s feet to the fire.

Types of love stories:

  • 1. Romance is defined by pursuit. The hero can’t get the girl unless he reaches his goal, or abandons or changes his goal (a la Rain Man).
  • In a romance, there needs to be a clear, logical reason for the characters to be together. They can’t just be in love because they’re in the same story together.
  • The romantic interest character is the one who sees beneath the hero’s identity and connects at the level of essence. There is a deep connection; the love interest sees her naked (intimacy) and makes her risk being vulnerable and exposed even if it feels dangerous. The love interest must embody the hero’s essence. [Core conflict for Maureen & Eddie–she is too afraid/repressed to leave her family. He is afraid of showing how truly good he is at music because it exposes his vulnerability. She has what he secretly yearns for–a close family, a home. He has what she yearns for–a rambling footloose life of adventure. ]
  • If there’s a love story without a character arc, that’s probably porn. 🙂
  • 2. A romantic comedy almost always involves deception. Deception is a powerful way of creating conflict. The character might practice a deception in order to achieve a visible goal. Maybe she pretends to be someone she’s not (Working Girl. Aladdin). During the pretense, she meets someone who believes she’s not who she’s pretending to be. The love interest falls in love with the pretend-person.
  • If revealed, the deception could destroy the romance.
  • Deception symbolizes the deeper deception of the heros struggle between false identity and true essence.
  • A romantic comedy demands a happy ending.

General comments

  • Show the love interests meeting on the page, not in the past. FALLING in love is the whole reason for the story’s existence. The reader wants to see this and experience it moment by moment.
  • Show the reader the new life the hero achieves. Let the reader absorb the peak emotion of the climax.
  • It’s possible to write a story of an outer journey only, but you can create more emotion if you combine an inner and outer journey.
  • Everything has been done before. Great stories are consistent in their basic foundation, but unique in the particulars. Don’t worry about being original, just don’t copy the particulars of a story. Work harder to make your story seem unique and new. Find a new way to use the principles of a classic story.
  • Montage and flashback are the lazy way out, in general. They can be hackneyed. More effective in real time. Try dialogue.
  • Ayn Rand heros don’t have arcs. Adrenalin-powered thrillers might not have an arc.

A few of the films cited in the lecture:

  • Wedding Crashers
  • Shrek
  • Titanic
  • Good Will Hunting
  • I am Legend
  • Rain Man
  • Stand by Me
  • Titanic
  • Tootsie
  • Pretty Woman

Treat yourself to a movie tonight! And tomorrow, look for the conclusion and the most important statement a writer needs to make for herself.

a glimpse inside

a glimpse inside

Note: The Michael Hauge workshop notes begin here and continue here and here. This is the 4th installment. Happy plotting!

The INNER JOURNEY is the story told on another level. Stories that are told only on the outer surface, sticking strictly to the visible facts, tend to lack depth, drama and meaning. (Note from SW–this is why the daily news so often fails to satisfy.) Here are some questions to help you discover the key aspects of your character.

1. What is her longing? What is her deeply held desire? This is something she probably pays lip service to, but lacks the courage to pursue. She is enslaved by her own fears and inhibitions.

Some characters are so emotionally shut down that they can’t even express what it is they long for. (Rose in Titanic) It’s a need they don’t know they have–yet, maybe ever.

Show the hole in her soul. A need. A missing piece.

A longing is something the character can express. A need is unexpressed but there can be metaphors to show it–the “Keep Out” sign and fence in Shrek. (Maureen has a tattoo that expresses her unrepressed self, but she keeps it hidden and nobody knows she has it.) What is your character’s metaphorical fence?

2. What is her wound? What is the unhealed source of her continuing pain? What happened to her in the past that is unhealed but suppressed? This is something in the background, leaking through. (Maureen had a disastrous love affair while studying abroad, and came scurrying home to the safety of her family and home town.)

3. What belief has the character formed, based on her experience of the wound above? (Maureen believes passion is dangerous and fraught with deception, destined to fail and leave her hurting.)

[Note to self: This is something that really resonates with me. We all know people whose entire lives are built around avoiding pain. My recent arm mishap is a graphic reminder. In the ambulance, I was trying to make myself pass out just to escape the pain. The thing is now every color of the rainbow and I will do anything to keep from hurting it again. I’m fairly athletic, yet with this arm, I find myself tiptoeing around, afraid to bump into something. The doc said the risk of dislocating it again is high, which makes me horribly cautious. So that’s my story of avoiding physical pain. A person who has been hurt emotionally will show this kind of caution in her relationships, right?]

4. What is her emotional fear? (That the wound will happen again.) This is a belief that is logical, based on her experience, but inaccurate. <–note this; it’s important

5. THE KEY QUESTION: What is the character’s identity? Her ID is the false self she presents to the world–her emotional armor. It what she puts in front of her essence in order to protect her true self from that which she fears most deeply.

6. What is the character’s essence? If you strip away everything the character is attached to, what is left? Peel away the layers of her identity. Who does she have the potential to become? In a love story like the one in Good Will Hunting, he would rather break up with the love of his life than show who he truly is, because in the past, his father beat him and the belief he formed is that those we love and trust the most hurt us. In LC, Maureen would rather let go of Eddie than risk letting him hurt her.

So the character’s emotional arc is her transformation from her identity to her essence. In her essence, she is still fearful and vulnerable, but she is true.
Tomorrow I’ll post more about this, because it’s the key to everything in character development. For now, try to explore the contrasts between your character’s identity and his essence.

A plot can be divided into 3 acts, and narrowed down to 6 story stages.

Stage 1

is the setup, the first 10% of a story (in a screenplay, the percentages are fairly rigid, less so in a novel). We introduce the hero in her everyday life. It’s the starting point. The “before” picture.

ready for the outer journey

ready for the outer journey

Here, you want to create empathy for that character, establishing an emotional connection between the reader and the character. Some ways to create empathy:

Generate sympathy. Make her the victim of an undeserved misfortune. A poster child. 

Put her in jeopardy. She is in danger of losing something important–her life, fortune, job, etc.

Make her likeable. Make her kind, good-hearted, loving. Show her as well-liked by others. Movie example–this is Tom Hanks’s trademark, even in Road to Perdition in which he plays a ruthless assassin. We first meet him coming home to his loving family.

Make her funny. People like being with those who make them laugh. Also, funny people say things that are politically correct, the sort of thing “proper” people would never say aloud.

Make her powerful. Good at what she does, like an action hero or crack lawyer.


In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen generates sympathy by being the geeky librarian girl forced to work with the hot guy on the Christmas program.

Stage 2

is the initial glimpse of the hero’s desire. It occurs at the 10% point. Character is forced or tempted into some new situation. There might be a change of geography–she goes somewhere. The goal is to get acclimated.

At the 25% mark, something happens in the new situation that forces her to declare a clear, visible goal. Turning Point #2. It might mean a change of plans: “Now I have to achieve this goal.” It needs to be very specific. (Maureen: Now I have to save the library by making nice with the owner of the land on which the library sits, so he won’t sell out to a developer.)

Here, the outer motivation is established. It’s the most important turning point in the story. If this goal is revealed too soon, the story could fizzle. Or if it’s established too late, we’re past caring.

Stage 3

is the plan in motion to achieve this new specific goal, and the plan seems to be working. (Maureen knows if she casts the benefactor’s grandson in the lead role of the pageant, the owner will reconsider selling the land to a developer.)

At the midpoint of the story, we reach Turning Point #3. The hero passes the Point of No Return. She is fully committed, bridges burned, there can be no retreat. She can never go back to the person she was in Stage 1. In Shrek, the bridge literally burns behind Shrek and Donkey. There might be a verbal declaration. (Maureen hears Jabez sing and takes a leap of faith, casting him in the lead even if it means burning the bridge with the land owner.)

Stage 4

introducing increasingly difficult complications. The stakes get higher. It’s becoming more difficult to achieve the goal. The outside world is closing in, and failure will cause her to lose her destiny.

At the 3/4 point, we have Turning Point #4, a major setback. Something happens, a crisis that makes it feels as though all is lost. The plan is out the window, there’s a symbolic (or literal) death and they’ve given up. (Maureen learns the plan to save the library has failed because the funds aren’t there; now the library is doomed to close forever on the last day of the year.)



Stage 5

is the final push. The hero tries to get back to the ordinary world. But it doesn’t work, because she burned her bridges. Here, she makes a decision or is forced into it–she must make one last attempt. Every ounce of strength is poured into this attempt, it’s the resurrection stage. Turning Point #5

is the climax–the moment which must resolve what we’re rooting for. The reader needs to see success or failure with no ambiguity. We need to know once and for all what the outcome is. (On Christmas Day, everyone in town contributes to save the library.)

Stage 6

is the Aftermath–a glimpse of the new life ahead. This can and should be brief. Riding off into the sunset, final kiss, etc. I use a lot of symbolism here. In Just Breathe it was actually a comic strip. 🙂

Tomorrow, I’ll post the notes about the Inner Journey. This was my favorite part of the workshop.

I’ve decided to post my notes from the Michael Hauge workshop. They are rough, undigested notes on the day, but I thought they might be of interest to the writers out there. Michael is one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard. If you ever get a chance to see him in action, run don’t walk! My notes include asides about Lakeshore Christmas, my work-in-progress. Doing this always makes the story sound so pedestrian! But it’s a good exercise. It’s lengthy so I’ll post it in parts over the next few days. Here goes:

first draft - not a pretty sight

first draft - not a pretty sight

The hero is the story’s protagonist. It’s a generic term so the gender pronoun doesn’t matter. Briefly, the hero is the one whose goal drives the story. His goal is the finish line the reader wants to see the hero reach.

The ultimate goal of a story (fiction, narrative nonfiction or memoir, film, drama) is to elicit emotion. This is achieved by creating a character who has a powerful desire, facing a conflict that keeps her from fulfilling that desire.

A story’s first audience–agent, editor, first reader, etc.–wants to know how this story is going to sell. Who are we rooting for? The most consistent problem with stories is that they are overcomplicated. The solution? Make it simpler. How? By understanding plot structure.

A story exists on two levels, the outer (visible) journey and the inner (emotional) journey or arc of growth (or deterioration/failure).

In the outer journey, the desire is visible. It’s a journey of achievement or accomplishment. What tangible thing does the hero want? It should be something the reader can see. (In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen wants to save the library.) There is a visible finish line, and the hero’s outer motivation is also visible.

The conflict must also be visible. (Again in LC, the library lacks the funds to stay open and the facility is going to be sold to a developer.)

There are 4 general types of goal/conflict setups in most commercial stories (including novels, narrative nonfiction and films).

1. To win – a sports contest (Rocky), the love of another character (most romances)

2. To stop something from happening –most thrillers seek to keep a disaster at bay

3. To escape–character must get out of a bad situation (The Count of Monte Cristo, anything with “escape” in the title)

4. To retreat–quest stories in which the character must go and get something and return with it.


Michael calls these the 4 basic Hollywood goals.

This is the outer plot. There is also a second level underneath the visible plot–the inner journey. A journey of fulfillment and/or transformation.

The love story is a great tool for developing a character arc.

Who is your character and what does he desire? What sort of plot will your story follow?

(In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen Davenport is the town librarian who wants to keep the library solvent. She’s also in charge of the annual Christmas pageant, and she has to work with bad-boy Eddie Haven, who has been court-ordered to help her as community service.)

Michael created a chart showing a 6-stage plot structure in 3 acts. There are 5 key turning points in a story. Tomorrow, I’ll post his general structure for the OUTER journey.

If you are ANYWHERE CLOSE to Bainbridge Island, Washington tomorrow, you totally have to come to the Michael Hauge workshop. No excuses–they will take your money (cash or check) at the door. He’s the kind of speaker who will bring out the storyteller in you, even if you don’t think you’re a writer. If you ARE a writer, he will inspire you to push your stories to a new level. I’m not kidding. I’ve written like 30something books, and I plan to eagerly attend, busted arm and all.

October 11 (Saturday)

Special Event. “Uniting Story Structure and Character Arc” with Michael Hauge.
This is a special event for writers of all kinds – authors of fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir – anyone who has a story to tell. In the best novels, movies and short stories, the heroes must achieve two compelling goals: an outer journey of accomplishment; and a deeper, inner journey of transformation and fulfillment. In this special, all day seminar, Hollywood script and story consultant Michael Hauge, best-selling author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, presents his unique approach to mastering these two essential components of your story. Topics include: the primary goal of all stories; the single key to creating character arc and theme; creating believable and fulfilling love stories; the essential conflict all characters must face; and turning plot structure into a simple, powerful tool you can apply to every story.

MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers on their novels, movies, screenplays, and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network. More than 40,000 writers and filmmakers have attended his writing seminars and lectures throughout the world.
View Larger Map
Bainbridge Pavilion Cinemas, 403 N. Madison, Bainbridge Island
10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Lunch break from 12:00 noon to 1:30 p.m.

Two local restaurants have offered us the use of their parking lots should the cinema lot be full. These are Four Swallows, directly to the north of the cinema lot, and San Carlos to the south. Please honor their generosity by being sure your car is moved by the evening hours when these restaurants open for business.

Fee: $75 – September 1 – October 9
Groups of 5 or more registering together: $60
Cancellations: Registrations are refundable up to and including September 12, 2008. After this date, refunds will only be made if the event is sold out and your place can be filled from a waiting list. All refunds are subject to a $10 administration charge.

While pre-registration is preferable, you can register at the door on the day of the event. Please note we can accept cash (exact amount will help) or checks only.


I can’t wait to meet you! Here are my two events in the area–a signing at Costco, and an event sponsored by the Sacramento RWA:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cal Expo
6:00 p.m.
Costco #471
1600 Expo Parkway
Sacramento, CA 95815
Phone: (916) 830-1078
Contact: Carl Golston



Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sacramento, CA
Open to the public starting at 1:30pm
Holiday Inn Sacramento North East
5321 Date Avenue



Sacramento, CA 95841-2597

The deadline to sign up is September 15. The signing, at 1:30, is free and open to the public. Come see me!

The event will be at the Holiday Inn Sacramento, 5312 Date Ave. Check-in for paid attendees is at 9:30 a.m., followed by Wiggs’ presentation at 10:30 a.m., lunch at 11:45 a.m. and a booksigning at 12:30 p.m. The non-paying public is welcome at 1:30 p.m.  Full info here:

Between the Lines: Make a date with romance

Submitted: 2 days ago – In the super-competitive, overcrowded world of the romance genre, few authors have been as successful as the award-winning, multimillion-seller Susan Wiggs. Her latest is “Just Breathe” (Mira, $24.95, 400 pages), an emotional roller coaster centered on a cartoonist whose husband betrays her. Undaunted, she leaves him and returns to her California hometown, where new love blossoms.

» Full Story on The Sacramento Bee

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