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Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Four Act Structure: The Answer to My Story’s Abrupt Departure

“You can’t just stop like that. Give the reader a sense of what happened after.”

I thought I had the ending right. According to my critique partner, who knows me too well, I had once again typed the climax and made a quick exit from my story.

Whenever I write fiction, I consistently wrap things up much too fast. But I think I’ve finally found a cure in the Four Act Structure. You can find a great info-graphic on it here. The Four Act Structure is similar to the 3 Act Structure with a few notable differences.

Act 1 is the same in both 3 and 4 Act Structures and comprises ¼ of the manuscript. Readers get to know the characters and the story world. Our heroine receives the call to adventure. The Act ends with the inciting incident that launches her toward adventure. In Hunger Games, this occurs when Prim’s name is selected as tribute and Katniss takes her place.

Act 2 and Act 3 from the Four Act Structure correspond with Act 2 in the 3 Act Structure. I’m only going to discuss the 4 Act Structure here.

Act 2 once again comprises ¼ of the manuscript. Our heroine gathers her resources for the big fight. This Act ends midway through the story at a momentous point that changes how the heroine thinks about everything that has happened. I think of it as The Big Reveal. In The Hunger Games, Katniss trains throughout Act 2 and enters the arena. The twist occurs when Peeta saves her life and she realizes his love for her isn’t just an act.

In Act 3, another ¼ of the manuscript, the true struggle begins. This Act contains the moment where all is lost and then something brings the heroine a glimmer of hope. In The Hunger Games, all is lost when Rue is killed. Author Suzanne Collins breaks the rules, something you can do when it works, by not providing us with that glimmer of hope. Instead, Katniss moves towards the final battle.

Act 4, the final ¼, is the same in both structures. It begins with the climax. Afterwards, the heroine reflects on what she has learned about herself. Characters return to the normal world although it may be a new version of normal. The climax of The Hunger Games sets up the rest of the series. Katniss would rather die than kill Peeta, but the story doesn’t end when they are both allowed to live. They are warned about President Snow. We realize her family and society are in danger. We see the head game maker sent to his death.

The 4 Act Structure works better for me, because it emphasizes that each act contains equal weight. That means that if Act 3 is 20 scenes, Act 4 should be about the same length.

It sounds ridiculous but I need that. Otherwise I can tell myself that the last act is only half the length of the preceding act. It’s supposed to be short. Get off my back.

In this version, I don’t have that excuse. If the climax only takes 4 or 5 scenes, I need to take serious some time exploring the resulting world and the changes that have come to it because of my character. No more excuses.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on March 21, 2016.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Interview with Sandra Havriluk: Runner Up in the 2015 Summer Flash Fiction Contest

In addition to teaching online literature classes, Sandra Havriluk is a full time writer and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators with sales to Highlights for Children magazine.  You can see her story, “The Sign of the Cat,” in Highlights’s November 2014 issue; her other pieces have not yet been published. 

When Sandra went to an event organized by the Romance Writers of America, she saw the opportunities available in YA/new adult fiction and got to work.  Her YA romantic suspense novel, Hide the False Heart, placed as a finalist in both the 2015 Daphne du Maurier and the Young Adult RWA Rosemary Contests. Her YA historical romance novel, Treacherous Hearts, won 1st place in the YA category of the 2014 Wisconsin Romance FAB 5 Contest. Need an example of her dedication to craft? Pop over and read “Five Words,” her entry in the Summer Flash Fiction contest.

WOW: As someone with a track record in novel writing, what inspired you to write flash fiction?

Sandra: I like doing short pieces for the same reason I like writing for Highlights for Children magazine. The magazine has bought a couple of my stories and one has made it into the magazine so far.  The magazine’s quality expectations are unbelievable.  I worked with the editor on one story of 750 words for 9 months back and forth. 

I love writing short.  It enhances your craft all the way around.  Conflict, characterization, senses and setting. It’s so exhilarating if you can include all of that in flash fiction and have it be a satisfying read. In writing short stories, honing the word count and getting everything I mentioned in there is like a craft exercise.  It leaks into your longer work and really shapes your writing.

WOW: There is so much that has to go into a story.  When you write flash fiction, like “Five Words,” are you a plotter or a pantser?

Sandra: I’m a pantser but I’m trying to be a plotter.  I’m an interesting combination.

When people say “that character came to me,” my answer is no. The story idea came to me and then I attach the character to it.  I sit down and I know where the story is heading, I know the ultimate conflict.  I create the character that would be in that story and then I just write.

Even when I write flash fiction, I don’t think about the word count.  I just write.  Most of my flash fiction starts out in the 2000 to 3000 word range and then I get it down to 1200 words and start sharpening it even more.  Eventually, I get it down to 600 words and then have room to add more sensory perceptions and more emotion.

When I start writing, I don’t think about the word count.  I just have to get everything out.  Then I cut things that don’t work with the theme. When I write long, it’s like I served this huge meal and only one little dish is superb. 

I can’t write in a restrained manner from the get go. When I was working on my MFA, one of my advisors said, “You have two things here.  You have a writer’s draft and you need to get it all out.  It’s what you are thinking about and feeling and where things might go.”  And that’s good for me as a writer, but then I need to think as a reader.  What does the reader need to see, what would make it a satisfying read? That’s the second thing.

WOW: I think that we all have a lot of honing and shaping to do when we rewrite. Since you don’t plot everything out before you write, was there anything that surprised you as you were writing this particular story? 

Sandra: The story had some personal reference points for me.  I was one of four, one of whom suffered with alcoholism.  Because of this, I know that it is difficult when you are interacting with an addict. You want to be supportive and helpful but it is still difficult. 

Dealing with an addicted family member is a struggle.  I thought my story would end with the brother being successful, but when I wrote it, it didn’t turn out that way. 

I felt like it needed to go the way it did for her to accept that her brother had done wonderful things for her, but she couldn’t save him.  I really liked the way it ended but that’s not how it ended the first time.  The first time I was trying to force it. 

I don’t like stories with pat endings.  I want to leave it a little open for the reader and I feel like I did that.  She wants to reconcile with her husband but will it work? 

WOW: As a reader, I hate endings that are too wide open, but your ending felt natural. It really worked for me.  What advice would you give to a writer who has never written flash fiction before?

Sandra: First of all, you need to read successful flash fiction. You need to get the feel for how it appears on the page, how the story arc works in a shorter fashion. Dissect it.  Take notes.  Think of a short story without the flash fiction word limitations and how the short story evolves.  All of those things have to be in flash fiction too. If you can succeed at it, great but I don’t think every writer can do it. 

There are pieces out there that are just genius.  Google “flash fiction contest winners.” There are a lot of literary magazines that run flash fiction contests.  I’ve done that search frequently.  Literary magazines are one of the most competitive areas to try to get into so if a piece wins a contest it is top notch.

WOW: It sounds like writing flash fiction is every bit as much work as writing a longer piece of fiction.  What have you taken away from this that will impact your novel writing?

Sandra: Writing flash fiction just helps the craft especially if you have a chapter or scene that somehow isn’t working.  I’ve been known to hone it down as if I’m crafting flash fiction.  When I do this, it takes away the unnecessary parts and then I see what is left when it works.  It’s like you have to get to the bones of the writing.

To find out more about Sandra, visit her website or follow her on Twitter (@SandraHavriluk).

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Monday, February 08, 2016


Making the Most of 25 Words

Last week, I had to turn in a 25-word bio for a conference I was attending, so I sent my standard, no-frills bio. It was a little...

Okay, it was a lot boring. The volunteer organizing the insert for the program took me to task.

“Cathy,” she said. “This is the same bio you sent last year. You’re one of the funniest people I know. Don’t you want to do something different? Something humorous?”

Um…well. I did after that comment!

She knew I would rewrite it. And she was right to set me straight. There I was, sitting on a golden opportunity to get my name and brand out there among conference attendees, agents, editors, and publishers, and I was settling for blah.

And I began to ponder as I started to revise my words. How often have I squandered golden opportunities like a 25-word bio? How many times have I dropped the promotional ball, so to speak, and wasted a chance to put a little personality out there?

Know what I realized? Those opportunities come along pretty much every day. Sometimes, every hour. Because whenever I write anything—ANYTHING—I’m putting Cathy C. Hall out there.

It doesn’t have to be an essay I’ve spent hours refining. I’m making an impression even if I’m just leaving a comment on a blog. And with the internet, my words have global reach! I never know who might read my words or where they might lead.

It was a sobering thought, let me tell you. I mean, it was darn near a miracle that I managed to write my bio. (Have you ever tried to be funny in 25 words or less? It is NOT easy. And after thirty minutes—yes, thirty minutes—I knew why I’d sent that standard bio.) But eventually, I managed to come up with something...

I'm not going to lie. It’s a challenge to make every word count, even or maybe especially, if there are so few words available. But I—and you, too—are worth the effort. So mind those words—and take advantage of any opportunity to let the world know who you really are!

~Cathy C. Hall

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Saturday, February 06, 2016


What Kind of Blog Post Inspires You the Most

I swear my word of the year is organization and not introspection; but I think as writers, we are all a bit introspective. At least we should be--it's how we get in touch with the human emotions we all write about and how we make our characters come to life for our readers. We spend a lot of time thinking about what books we like, our favorite characters, and maybe even poetry with strong imagery. But do we spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good, inspiring, feel-like-I-want-to-comment blog post? Well, maybe some of you do, but I haven't thought much about this topic before.

So I decided why not write a blog post about inspiring blog posts? And then I thought why not ask readers to share what they think makes a good blog post--then I could have topics for at least two posts if not more! (Sometimes, my own inspiration scares me!) 

I've been noticing this lately, and I have a theory. I think writers really look forward to posts that help them with their craft--how-to _____________________(insert some helpful topic here like "write romance heroes everyone loves"). But writers are most likely to leave comments on a post that is more personal about the struggle of being a writer or getting published or anything that only other writers seem to understand.

But is my theory correct? That's where you come in. If you have a few minutes, leave us a comment (okay me--leave me a comment, please--I'm really not begging). Here are some questions to consider when leaving your comment:

1. Do you ever leave comments on writers' blog posts, and if so, why? Is it only to enter to win a contest or are there certain posts that inspire you to leave comments?

2. What types of posts do you like to read? How-to? Writers' experience? Personal stories? Funny? Serious? All of the above? None of the above?

3. Are there any subjects we haven't covered on The Muffin that you are interested in reading about? Sometimes when you blog a lot about "writing" and for many years like some of us have, we get stuck--what should we write about? (Okay, to my fellow bloggers, if I am the only one like this, please don't tell me.)

4. If you have your own blog, have you noticed any trends for popularity of your posts? What kind of posts are the best for you to write?

If you have a few minutes this weekend, let us know what you think--and if you have a blog, let us know what the URL is, so we can check it out!

Margo L. Dill is a children's writer and WOW! Women on Writing instructor and blogger. Find out more at

lightbulb photo above by thomasbrightbill (

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Friday, February 05, 2016


Friday Speak Out!: The Delight of Dreams that Don’t Come True

by Carol Coven Grannick

Songs mark and move the times of my life. They may comfort and calm, evoke memories, bridge transitions from one place in my life to another, capture the joy of the moment, and more.

One such song for me is When You Wish Upon a Star – the original and old-fashioned, nasal and crooning version sung by Cliff Edwards in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and subsequently on all the Sunday night Walt Disney hours I watched as a child. If you don’t know the song, brace yourself for the nineteen fifties and find it here:

I grew up hoping that magic would transform my dreams into reality, and found – of course – that it didn’t. I did not know how to handle the disappointments, and lost many writing years. Not until I happened upon the research and work of Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists did I teach myself, and then others, the skills for developing a more resilient self. Only then could I pursue learning about what it meant to be a writer, from business to craft and back again.

Now, the journey of discovering, writing, re-writing, and even re-visioning a story is my dream come true.

Many of the children’s stories I love (and write) tell about dreams that come true quite differently than characters imagine. They evolve in the process of a character’s struggle with an initial longing that integrates learning, awareness, different information and more. We change, and so do our dreams. And often the new reality is more deeply pleasurable than the once-dreamed-of goal or hope because of the character’s growth and change.

Phrases like “If you can imagine it, you can do it” or “If you persist, the success will come” [“success” meaning publication] and above all, “If you believe in yourself, success will happen eventually” annoy me. Too magical. And besides, how insulting are those phrases for hardworking, skilled and even talented writers who are not getting published? They’re not imagining enough? They’re not persistent? They don’t believe in themselves?

I still love to listen to, and to sing, When You Wish Upon a Star. It triggers a powerful longing. But now the longing is not for a dream of the future, but for the real moments of time I will sit and write what I need to say. It’s luscious. Real. It pumps my heart up, sends excitement pulsing through muscles. The best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer is to set the longing for publication on a back burner. The journey of discovering, writing, re-writing, and even re-visioning a story is the dream come true.

As I write this, I’m mid-revision for an agent who is helping me create the book I’ve dreamed of creating. Who knows what will happen? But I’m working hard and loving my writing life. After all, even in the Disney version, the song belies the real story that the Blue Fairy only makes magic after Pinocchio does the work.

And however the future evolves, you’ll probably find me singing.
* * *
Carol Coven Grannick is a poet and children’s author, and her work has appeared in nCricket, Highlights for Children, and Ladybug, as well as numerous other literary and trade print and online magazines.

Grannick’s middle grade novel in verse, REENI’S TURN, was awarded Finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize, and excerpts appeared in the Spring/Summer HUNGER MOUNTAIN. She is currently revising the book for her agent.

As a clinical social worker, Grannick also consults and presents workshops on developing and maintaining skills for a resilient life. She can be contacted at

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016


My Three Favorite Picture Books and Why They Work

By Lynne Garner

I'm always encouraging my students to read, read, and read some more. Reading is a great way to improve your writing. It demonstrates what works and what doesn’t. To show you what I mean, I've decided to share my three favorite picture books and explain you why I think they work.

1. The Picture Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak

This picture book doesn’t contain a single picture. So how can a picture book without pictures work? Well, it cleverly plays on the premise that an adult reading this book must read exactly what is on the page. Even if these words are nonsense such as "blork," "bluurf," or "my head is made of blueberry pizza!" Kids love this book. If you don’t believe me then watch the video below of the author sharing his work. Pure magic!

2. Tadpoles Promise written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross

I was looking for a book that would prove an author could weave fact and fiction successfully in a picture book. As I read, I could see the author had achieved this, but what I didn't expect was the twist in the tale. The story follows tadpole and caterpillar who are deeply in love. Caterpillar forgives tadpole three times for breaking the promise that he’d never change (he turns into a froglet). Upset caterpillar climbs the branches and soon emerges as a butterfly. She decides to forgive her love and returns to the pond. Unfortunately, she is eaten by a frog who is waiting for his true love, the caterpillar.

Why does it work? It explains in simple terms the wonder of metamorphosis. It tells the story with humor, and children understand the joke that tadpole eats caterpillar. To listen to this book being read check out the video below.

3. The Big Bad Mole's Coming written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello

You don’t have to have hundreds of words to tell a story. What you need are the right words. In The Big Bad Mole’s Coming, the story follows a boy who warns the farm animals that the big bad mole’s coming. At first they don’t take him seriously, but after repeating the warning the animals begin to panic. The story is told in a grand total of 91 words and the entire book only contains 23 different words. Meaning, the author uses repetition successfully to tell the story.

What have I learned from reading the above picture books?

  • It's possible to successfully mix fact with fiction
  • Kids understand and respond to humor, even when it's sophisticated
  • Choosing the right words is essential to good storytelling
  • Don't use ten words when one will do
  • When used correctly, repetition can create a memorable story
So, I'll say it again. If you want to improve your writing, read, read, and read some more.


Lynne Garner has been a freelance writer and author since 1998. Since that time she has written for a large number of magazines both in the UK and the US. She has 24 books published; this includes three picture books, with a fourth to follow shortly. Her first title The Best Jumper was recorded for the CBeeBies children’s radio channel (part of the BBC) whilst A Book For Bramble has been translated into five languages including Korean and Indonesian. To find out more about Lynne, visit her website at

Would you like to learn how to write a picture book? Lynne teaches two picture book courses with WOW! Women On Writing: How to Write Children's Picture Books and Get Published and 5 Picture Books in 5 Weeks (Advanced Course).

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Interview with Rachel Carrington: Runner Up in Summer 2015 Flash Fiction Contest

A multi-published author of romantic suspense, Rachel Carrington has been writing for over thirty years and has recently published her 50th book. She’s an editor, a reader, a graphic designer, a shopaholic, and a social media fanatic. You can find her at, on Twitter at @rcarrington2004, on Facebook at, and on Pinterest @rcarrington2004.

Read Rachel’s moving entry, And She Danced, and then come back here to learn more about Rachel and her many writing and editing projects.

WOW: Rachel, congratulations on such a fantastic story. There's so much great imagery in it. What was the process like when you wrote it and how did you get the inspiration for it?

Rachel: I wanted to tell a story about what some mental illnesses looks like from the inside. People judge and say that person is crazy, but, to that person, it’s their normal. Though someone might be dancing naked in the rain looks weird to us, to that person, it’s a part of their world.

I chose to make the character older because, sometimes, when people see an elderly person acting differently, they assume it’s dementia, but mental illness is prevalent in all age groups.

I wrote the story one night, and the words seemed to leap out at me as I wrote. It was both the easiest and the hardest story I’ve ever written.

WOW: You are a prolific writer, with an impressive list of novels under your name. How do you stay organized when juggling multiple projects?

Rachel: I think being a paralegal for over twenty-five years has helped me a lot. You can’t be in this line of work if you’re not organized…at least, you can’t stay in it very long! So I calendar everything, and I create deadlines for myself even if I don’t have actual deadlines. It keeps me focused and on task.

WOW: You also offer several different author services to writers. Can you tell us about some of those?

Rachel: Over the years, I’ve edited and proofed for several authors, and in 2008, I began creating book videos. I just dabbled around with them really until I decided to get serious about them in 2010. Last year, I was talking with a friend of mine, who is also an author, and she suggested I gather everything I do for authors in one place.

So I took her advice and created An Authors’ Edge, which includes editing, polishing or writing book descriptions, simple book covers (for ebooks only), graphics for book quotes and reviews, and website design. I still have a separate website for the book videos I create, Dramatic Videos.

WOW: I see from your bio that you describe yourself as a shopaholic--what is your biggest weakness?

Rachel: Without a doubt, clothes, more particularly, blouses. My friend and I were just talking about this recently, and she said I had blouses in my closet she has never seen me wear which is true. So I’m actually challenging myself to wear a blouse I’ve never worn before every day this week. If I don’t like how it looks or feels on me, then I’ll donate it. In the meantime, I bought two more blouses this Saturday.

WOW: Ha ha! Believe me, I get it. Shoes happen to be my personal weakness. In the "Fun Facts" section of your website, you list that learn a lot of software programs because you always want to be able to use something you might need. Have you learned any software programs for writers that you'd recommend?

Rachel: Most of the programs I’ve learned have to do with video and audio editing and graphic design, but there are several easy programs or tools I would recommend.

One is called Write or Die. It’s basically an accountability program and helps if a writer procrastinates or the words just aren’t coming. It provides a sense of urgency.

I also like Sporkforge because you can paste in text, and this tool lets you know how many times you’ve used the same words or phrases. It also lets an author know the length of their sentences and the variations. It checks punctuation, too, but I wouldn’t use it as a grammar aid.

For grammar, I would suggest using Ginger Software’s Grammar Aid. It’s really easy to use and helpful when you’re just not sure about a sentence. You can pop it in, and Grammar Aid will correct it for you. Just a side note, though, even programs can be wrong so, occasionally, an editor might disagree with tools like Grammar Aid or Grammarly.

WOW: Very helpful! I will definitely have to check out Sporkforge because I struggle with using repetitive words. Thanks so much for this fun interview and I look forward to reading more of your work.

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