April OWLs

Hoot, hoot, hoot, its the April OWLs (with apologies to ‘Little April Showers).

Once again, we had two fantastic OWLs for the month, one for before you’ve finished your book and one for after, with two fantastic presenters.  Details are below, so check them out!

Please note: our booking system doesn’t allow us to take bookings after the courses start, which, in both cases, is the 3rd of April – so don’t delay!


You’ve written a manuscript – how to get it to the next stage? Self-editing bootcamp for writers will show you how to be objective about your own work. Structure is your friend! Edit your own manuscript: More details and booking here


Spielberg Eat Your Heart Out!
Whether you’re a novice or more seasoned writer (mmm, seasoned), most authors face a major challenge: ‘How to successfully promote hundreds of pages of written text into one effective cover image, blurb, post, tweet…’. The answer is simple: You create a highly shareable, HD Book Trailer of Epic Awesomeness! Join our short course by clicking the link below on creating your very own Book Trailer so you can begin to get your books noticed! …Awesome Book Trailers: more details and booking here

A Writer’s Life: Plotting, with Helen Bianchin

This fabulous (italics mine because I think it’s fabulous – Ed.) article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Hearts Talk, the journal of the Romance Writers of Australia.  For more info on the column, and on RWA membership, see the end of this post!  But for now, over to Helen…


Plotting with Helen Bianchin

I spent the first year of my writing career convinced a book had to be written from page one through to the end. I stalled so many times, eventually threw my hands in the air, muttered something pithy in Italian, then vowed out loud: where does it say there’s a rule a book has to be written consecutively from start to finish?

Remember, in the early 1970s, there were few ‘how-to write’ books around, and the only other M&B authors I knew were Essie Summers and Gloria Bevan. That was until one day Robyn Donald and her husband were in Auckland, discovered there was only one Bianchin in the phonebook and rang me. They visited that very day, and a friendship was forged, which has lasted until the present. Not long after that, Daphne Clair began her Ring o’ Roses newsletter and there was contact!

I tried the pantser route way back when, and ended up with sentences, paragraphs, pages all over the place. Soon I discovered it was a method that didn’t work for me.

What did work was to choose a premise (or it would choose me) and I’d make notes, choose names, setting, get it all handwritten into a notebook, think about it (including procrastination), compose a supposedly perfect scene on the edge of sleep, positive I’d remember it in glorious detail on waking the next morning. Yes, well, we know how that goes…

Through trial and error, I discovered I think in scenes—usually out of sequence. I have to say curling up in a comfy chair with pen and notepad works. The ideas happen and I scribble them down. Then I key them into the computer while the ideas are fresh and there’s hope I can decipher my scribble—or at least get the gist of it, editing as I go along, expanding, enhancing, numbering each draft scene before printing it out. It’s a weird method, and you wouldn’t believe how many times I vow to discard it and write in a professional manner (whatever that is!)

However, I have tried other methods. I know Joy Dingwell used to hand-write on the right side of a lined notebook—mainly all dialogue—then she’d go back and handwrite on the left side of the lined notebook the emotional bits, the scenery, etc. and balloon each bit into where it should fit. When the handwritten notebook was complete, she’d edit, add, then type it all out on an old typewriter in what passed for MS format at that time.

I know of authors who have adapted a similar methodology with handwriting on the right side of a lined notebook (or unlined) and use different-coloured sticky-pad sheets containing handwritten emotion, scenery etc, high and low points, and stick them onto the left side of the notebook. At least with the latter, the sticky-pad sheets can be easily moved and switched around. When the current long-languishing MS is finally finished, I think I’ll give this method a try.

Others use a whiteboard—I think if I tried that, I’d end up erasing something deep and meaningful to be lost forevermore.

Then there’s Scrivener. Some authors swear by it. Others try it and decide it’s not for them. I bought the program with the intention of trialling it when the long-languishing MS finally travels through the ether to London. I even upgraded to the latest version. I’ll let you know how I go (just don’t hold your breath!).

I must admit I witness the published output of varying authors and wonder if they sleep. Writing must occupy every waking minute of their lives…or they have glorious brainpower whereby they key in the right words with the speed of light.

In conclusion, there is no right way. There’s only your way. Even so experimenting with different ways may work really well.

– Helen Bianchin


A long-time bestseller for Harlequin Mills & Boon, Helen Bianchin’s books are sold in 26 languages in more than 109 countries. Helen is much beloved in the romance writing community, and was RWA’s first-ever Hall of Fame author. She’s always been a huge supporter of new writers as well as established authors and still participates on the RWA email loops.

Anne Gracie’s A Writer’s Life is a regular column featured in Romance Writers of Australia’s monthly journal, Hearts Talk. Packed full of articles on craft, the publishing industry and interviews with romance authors, Hearts Talk is a valued and much-loved benefit to your RWA membership. If you’re not already an RWA member, join up here [http://www.romanceaustralia.com/p/99/Join-RWA].


OWL 2 for November. Have you heard about Miss Jones? Understanding character-driven plotting through analysing Bridget Jones’s Diary.


Have You Heard About Miss Jones? Understanding Character Driven Plotting Through Analysing Bridget Jones’ Diary with Samantha Bond.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase: “the plot thickens”. But exactly what is plot and how, as a writer, do you come up with your own original, compelling plots?

Let’s hand over to the amazing Samantha Bond so she can tell us…

Do you love writing but find that you either:

  1. a) have trouble coming up with ideas for stories, or
  2. b) start stories only to run out of steam part-way through?

I had both of those issues once too.

In fact, the main thing that scared the bejesus out of me when I started my first novel was knowing just what to write. I had the kernel of an idea and a few characters, but how was I going to spin this into 300-400 pages of novel? “Outline it”, I was told. Plot it out so you don’t have to face the terror of the blank page.

Great advice, if you know how to do it.

At that point in my writing career, I didn’t know how to plot or outline, so I invested many hours in learning how plot works. I read and I did courses and I hassled people far more learned than me, and I discovered that there’s so much information on plot that it can be overwhelming and therefore not very useful. But the good news for any of you considering doing my Bridget Jones inspired OWL on plotting, is that I’ve filtered through lots of that information for you. The result is what I believe to be a simple and workable model for understanding and using plot.

Because she’s awesome, I’ve drawn inspiration from iconic chic lit character, Bridget Jones, to demonstrate ideas and explain the concept of character-led plotting. And to demonstrate that character-led plotting works for just about every type of story, not just Rom Com’s, I’ve also used 80s action hunk, Bruce Willis, and his equally iconic character from Die Hard, John McLane, to show it in, ahem, action in action stories.

If you were lucky enough to see Michael Hauge at the RWA convention in August, then some of the theory in this course will be familiar. That’s because this isn’t new information. Information about plotting and how story works has been around forever. But what is different about my course is its practical application. I’m an action gal — I want to know how to USE information, not just read it. And so the focus for this OWL is on getting you to put character-led plotting theories into action to generate your own original plots. All the theory in the world is great, but if you can’t easily apply it, it’s really not that much good to you. So while I’m certainly not claiming to be any Micheal Hauge, I do think this is a good adjunct to his wonderful workshop because it shows you the nuts and bolts of things and how you can get that theory working for you in a practical sense.

Basically, by the end of this OWL, I want you to have an understanding of what plot is, how it functions in fiction, and how you can generate your own plots in your writing. I want you to never fear the blank page again because, once you’ve done this when someone wisely advises you to “outline it”, you’ll know exactly how.

Hope to see you over at my November OWL, Have you heard about Miss Jones? Understanding character-driven plotting through analysing Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s gonna be a blast with big knickers!


Course Dates: 01/11/2016 – 28/11/2016

Cost: RWA Member – $30. Non-RWA Member – $40.

Register at:  http://www.romanceaustralia.com/owl/26

The trick is to understand the difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’. In this workshop, Samantha will demonstrate how plot works through an analysis of arguably the greatest chick-lit novel of all time, Bridget Jones’ Diary. But more than simply analyse, this workshop will arm participants with tools to create their own plots through an understanding of how characters reacting to challenge results in plot. While this course will examine theory, it is a hands-on practical course designed to get you writing.

Samantha Bond is a reformed corporate lawyer, now writer and public servant. Her creative work has been published in numerous national literary journals, anthologies and magazines. She has an Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing winning the award for Highest Overall Achievement for her graduating class, and now teaches in that course. Samantha also writes reviews for the Indaily and Glam Adelaide and between these two publications, has had over 200 reviews published. Samantha does freelance corporate writing work as well as creative writing mentoring and if you’d like her services, she’s contactable through her website www.samanthastaceybond.com). Finally, Samantha is a busy mum of two littlies, is an unapologetic chocolate addict, believes that Buffy would so slay Edward (which perhaps shows her age) and is a writers’ festival groupie.

November OWL 1. Self-Publishing for Beginners with Cathleen Ross

Ever wondered if self-publishing is for you but haven’t quite been able to navigate your way through to make the decision? Cathleen Ross has the answers in one of our two November OWLs

Course Dates: 01/11/2016 – 28/11/2016

Cost: RWA Member – $30. Non-RWA Member – $40.

Register at:  http://www.romanceaustralia.com/owl/25


Self Publishing Made Easy, coming in November 2016

 My name is Cathleen Ross and I’ve been self publishing since 2011. As a member of RWA for over twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  When I went to RWA in America in 2010, I saw a lot of known and not so well known writers taking their careers into their own hands and self publishing. They wanted to do things their way and self publishing gave them the chance.

I don’t consider myself particularly technical but I can follow instructions if they’re outlined properly. If you feel the same way then this online course is for you because I’ve got it down to 5 easy steps.

Since 2011, I’ve written and formatted twelve different books/novellas/short stories and one boxed set. And guess what! I’m earning seventy percent royalties on my work priced 2.99 and over on Amazon, which beats anything a publisher can offer. Bear in mind, that once you self publish you become the publisher which means you are responsible for buying a cover, the blurb, marketing and uploading your story. It is doable and fun.

As a pioneer in this country of self publishing, and a trainer with 30 years experience, I’m on a mission to make it possible for you because I think every writer shouldhave this skill. I will answer all your questions and encourage a friendly online classroom where students also chip in and help others. When I’ve run this course in the past, I’ve found some of my students are smarter with covers and writing blurbs than I am but I’m not fussed. The more you jump in there and participate, the more encouragement you’ll get from me so you get the best product possible.

I am what as known as a hybrid author, published with traditional publishers while also self-publishing my own titles.

The advent of commercially viable self-publishing has meant unprecedented  opportunities for authors to get their stories out to the reading public all over the world.

I’m going to show you how to prepare your manuscripts for self-publication and how to use three platforms Smashwords, Draft to Digital and Amazon so you can choose where and when you would like to self publish.

You don’t need to be a graphic designer. You do not have to know any HTML. You do need to invest time and energy in getting your book as good as it can possibly be.

Remember readers love buying ebooks. They don’t care who the publisher is so long as they are good, professionally produced books they love.

Come and learn an essential skill for your future.


Cathleen Ross


Subjects to be covered in this four-week OWL

Information on selling platforms: Smashwords, Amazon, itunes etc; Steps involved in uploading a story; Editing; Covers; Formatting; Blurbs – what makes a good blurb, what to put in, what to leave out etc; Marketing / Advertising/ The latest sites/results and numbers; Business Practices, setting up bank accounts, issues with US payments etc; ITIN numbers; Accounting Issues either as individuals / setting up as a group publisher; Links  / info on where to find following services – covers, editing, etc; What makes a good BIO.


Cathleen Ross thinks self-publishing is akin to the invention of the printing press. Ahead of the wave, she started self-publishing in 2011 and has watched her income from writing grow. She believes this medium should be available to all writers. Cathleen is also published with Harlequin, Escape publishing and Random House.  Four of her titles, both indie and conventionally published, have hit the Amazon best-seller lists this year. Cathleen has the Smashwords document down to five easy steps that go to Premium status. She is a qualified teacher (BA Dip.Ed and Grad. Dip Communications Management) and a published author/editor. She has taught for RWA (Australia), The Society of Women Authors, RWA (USA) and run a number of online workshops. Please see www.cathleenross.com for a list her of publications.



Hoot, Hoot! We have two OWLs in November 2016

Self-Publishing for Beginners with Cathleen Ross  and Plotting(character driven) with Samantha Bond

Two vital OWLs by two amazing women – not to be missed.

More information to follow.



A Writer’s Life: Ditching Perfection

Today we are starting a new feature on the RWA blog, where we interview our members about their writing lives.   Today’s guest is Anna Hackett.  This column first appeared in this month’s Hearts Talk, the RWA newsletter.  So if you are a member, don’t forget to read it.  And if you aren’t, you might want to join, now that you’ve seen what you’re missing out on!

Anna-Hackett2-208x300When I started writing this article, I tried to think about the things I’d like to go back and tell my younger writer self. Little pearls of wisdom I wish I’d known when I first started writing. The list got a little long…and many of those things I think I just needed to experience and grow through as part of my journey as a writer.

But one thing stood out.

There is one thing that made a big difference in my writing career and it is the one thing I wish I could have realized sooner.

That thing: ditching the pursuit of perfection.

Now, many of us are conditioned to think we need to achieve perfection in our lives (especially women!) We think we need the perfect house, kept in the perfect condition, with our perfectly behaved kids, our loving, perfect marriage, our perfect, successful career and we have to look perfect while we’re doing all of that! We feel the need to be superwoman and have it all.

There’s a quote by Salvador Dali — Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it. He’s right. Deep down, we all know it.

As writers, we can fall into the trap of needing our writing to be “perfect.” It’s easy to do. When that story idea bursts inside our head, it seems flawless. It’s exciting, thrilling, gut-wrenching. It’s the best story idea ever! Then once we start putting the words to the blank page…well, the story never seems to come out as perfectly as what we had in our head. That’s when the pursuit of perfection becomes harmful. The doubts, the dreaded inner editor, all start whispering (or shouting) at us and suddenly we’re avoiding doing the writing, we’re agonizing over it, we’re procrastinating.

If we do manage to get the draft done, then that pursuit of perfection can have us endlessly editing and polishing—over and over—and we’re never quite finished. But it doesn’t stop there. The elusive pursuit of perfect can mean we never let our story out into the world. We worry it isn’t good enough, that we’ll receive criticism, rejections from agents and publishers, bad reviews from readers and reviewers, no sales. It can paralyze us from doing that thing we’re supposed to do—tell and share the stories inside us.

I don’t remember when I finally decided to give perfection a boot to the face, but it was the best thing I ever did. Suddenly, I was focused on just getting words out—any words, they didn’t have to be perfect or even good ones. Then I focused on editing until the story was done (not perfect!) Then I sent those stories out there as they were, for better or worse.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep learning, honing our craft, and improving. We should also always listen to trusted, constructive criticism that helps us become better writers. But if you keep waiting for your stories to be perfect, you’re letting good, great, wonderful, and pretty darn awesome stories get away.

If you’re waiting until your story is so amazing, so perfect that everyone will love it, no one will criticize it, and it’ll never get a bad comment…you’ll never begin, let alone finish.

So, don’t let your good, great and amazing pass you by.

Ditch perfection and begin.

– Anna Hackett [http://annahackettbooks.com]

Western Australian writer Anna Hackett is a mining engineer, a mother of two young sons, and a USA Today bestseller. She writes fast-paced action/adventure/sci-fi/romance. She’s published with Harlequin and Carina Press and now she’s self-publishing and writing up a storm.


Anne Gracie’s A Writer’s Life is a regular column featured in Romance Writers of Australia’s monthly journal, Hearts Talk. Packed full of articles on craft, the publishing industry and interviews with romance authors, Hearts Talk is a valued and much-loved benefit to your RWA membership. If you’re not already an RWA member, join up here [http://www.romanceaustralia.com/p/99/Join-RWA].

Have Fun Researching Your Novel – OWL this July!

Our online courses (OWLs) keep getting better and better.  We have such a depth of skills in our membership and the OWLs let you access their expertise at a fantastic price.  Our July OWL is with Carla Caruso, so without further ado, here she is to tell you about it.

Carla Caruso, author pic, HarperCollins

by Carla Caruso

Many writers have done extreme things in the name of research.

Bestselling Canadian-Australian author – and former model – Tara Moss has spent time in morgues and courtrooms, been set on fire and choked unconscious, earned a certificate as a private investigator, shot firearms, flown with the RAAF, and toured the FBI and LAPD headquarters.

Britain’s George Orwell lived in the slums to learn what it was like to be poor and unwashed, and American journo Hunter. S Thompson hung out with the Hells Angels for his non-fiction tale.

Bill Broyles, who wrote the Tom Hanks movie, Cast Away, also stranded himself on an isolated island for R.E.A.L. This experience inspired many of the film’s iconic scenes, such as Hanks’ character licking water droplets from leaves, making a spear out of a rock, and chowing down on raw fish. Even Wilson the Volleyball was inspired by a real ball that washed ashore! Unlike Hanks’ character, though, Broyles only lasted 10 days as a castaway before diarrhoea got the better of him…

Know of other writers and artists who have really hurled themselves into their research?

Of course, novel research doesn’t have to be this extreme. You’re free to take it as far as you want. But doing some research is essential if you want to add ‘layers’ of authenticity to a story and stretch yourself creatively.

Which brings me to the OWL– or online course – I’m teaching this July for the Romance Writers of Australia. It’s called ‘Have Fun Researching Your Novel’ and I’ll be using my background as a print journalist (and romance author with Penguin and HarperCollins) to get you out amongst it to add colour and depth to your work-in-progress.

Topics will include:

  • Interviewing techniques
  • Historical research
  • Travel research
  • Online research, and more.

Hope to see you over on Moodle!

You can do some more research on the OWL here 😉 http://www.romanceaustralia.com/owl/22

Hearts Talk – Kicking off the New Year

Kim Hudson – A Virgin’s Promise

Michelle Diener talks to Kim Hudson about her seminal work on the heroine’s journey.  Kim will be a guest speaker at Riding the Waves.

Group Grants are Back

Applications open February 1st.  See Hearts Talk for further information about how to apply and a detailed case study on how the Erotic Romance Authors Loop used their grant.

The Write Craft

It’s not only infamous Pirate Captains who need a good hook.  Helen Lacey discusses the use of chapter end hooks to build tension in a story and keep readers enticed and turning the page.

Flashback to 1992

A look at the very first issue of Heart’s Talk.

The New Kid on the Digital Block

Random House launches its new digital line Random Romance on February 1st with launch novels from:  Jaye Ford writing as Janette Paul with Just Breathe which was a finalist isn’t the 2009 First Kiss.  Loretta Hill with One Little White Lie, Melissa Smith writing as Alissa Callen, with Beneath Outback Skies and Kate Belle with Breaking the Rules and Bloom.

They expect to release about ten books each year and are looking for well-told love stories that captivate the reader.

A Writer’s Life

Sarah Mayberry’s last column for Hearts Talk discusses why she writes.

Dear Joan

Dear Joan delves into the deep dark dangers of the writer’s plague – sitting for too long, and how to respond to troll attacks.

The Writing Journey

Sarah Hantz talks to Louise Reynolds (Her Italian Aristocrat), about changing her focus from category writing single title.

And our regular features:

  • From Nikki’s desk
  • Market Watch
  • Member News
  • In-person events
  • New Releases

For full articles and regular columns, go to our website.


  • Not a member? Please view our sample issue from January 2011.
  • To receive our wonderful monthly newsletter, we invite you to Join RWA for all the details.

Keep Writing – by Anne Gracie

Today we have a guest blogger, the lovely Anne Gracie, with a post on getting yourself going – just in time for 50k in 30 days!
If you like this, and want more Anne, she is involved in a Winter Writing Workshop this June in Melbourne.  Details at the bottom of this post.

Hi all, Anne Gracie here. I’ve spoken in a few places about the importance of writing regularly — I firmly believe that writing is like a muscle, and the more you do the better you get. The trouble is, it’s sometimes hard to find the time to write.

Or is it?

How much time do you really need to write?

I take quite a lot of writing classes, and in almost all of them I ask participants to do at least one writing exercise. To start with, we talk about some idea, toss around a few possibilities to get the mind spinning, and then I say, “Write.” (Oh, the power <g>)

And for 10—15 minutes, people write. Sometimes it takes them a few minutes to get going, sometimes there’s a false start or two, but usually after a few minutes everyone is writing. And by the time I say “Stop.” most people aren’t ready to stop — they could go on for quite a bit longer. But in that 10—15 minutes most people write around a page — some do more, others less, but for most people, it’s around 250 words.

If you wrote 250 words a day every day for a year, you’d have a novel.

Or, to put it another way, if you wrote for 15 minutes a day, every day for a year, you’d have a novel.

Ok, you’d probably need to put in some longer stints, and do some rewriting, but the hardest thing about starting writing is . . . starting.

I know. I’m a champion procrastinator. I tend to put off starting, knowing I’m going to be chained to the computer for the rest of the day — or thinking it. It’s not actually true. But even if I’m seated at my computer, all ready to work, I still come up with all sorts of reasons why I’m not going to start writing just yet — I need to check my email and see if my editor or agent has written, I should just pop into facebook or twitter for a moment, after all, social networking is important, etc. — the excuses could go on for hours.

So for me, the way to start is to do a writing exercise of some kind. Just for fifteen minutes.

One of my favorite writing routines is what I call “doing Dorothea.” It’s explained more fully here ( http://www.annegracie.com/writing/DorotheaBrande.html ) but basically it involves doing two planned stints of writing every day. The first is first thing in the morning, and the second is when you make an appointment to write — you look at your schedule for the day and work out a time when you’ll have 15 minutes free to write. And then you keep that appointment religiously.

Once you start doing that for a week or so — the morning writing and the appointment to write — you’ll find that your resistance to starting is slowly disappearing. And your writing muscle is getting stronger.

So most mornings, whether I’m doing Dorothea or not, I’ll sit down at the table, set the alarm for 15 minutes, and write. I’m not a great typist — I’m fast but the typos fly —and for me, handwriting is the easiest because the typos invite in the internal editor, and for this exercise, I don’t want that internal editor anywhere near me. But there’s no right way to do it — go with whatever suits you best.

And by the time the timer goes off, I’m well into the writing zone.

There’s also a secret to making your fifteen minutes really productive.

Remember when I said that in my writing classes, we talk about the scene we’re going to write, and toss around some ideas before we start. It really helps if you can think a bit about your scene before you try to write it. Once you get into the habit of this, you’ll find you can plot while you’re going all sorts of other things, and then, when you come to write, the scene will just flow out of you.

Start by writing a list of “what-ifs” — brainstorming possibilities for the scene.

If you find yourself unable to decide whose point of view, or whether to have the scene on a bus or in the bedroom, or make them fight or make love, just toss a coin and go with the flow. You can always rewrite, and it’ll be stronger for the rewriting.

And if you don’t have a scene in mind, try the “classic” kind of writing exercises:

* mood pieces inspired by scents or sounds or places:

eg the smell of a bakery early in the morning

eg sound of rain on the roof at night, a feeling of safety, a time to dream…

* write an ‘in-the-moment’ piece from your character’s point of view.

Where are they? What are they seeing, smelling , hearing, touching, etc.

* recreate an important memory from your character’s childhood:

– have them tell someone.

* write a conversation between two characters where one of them is trying to conceal something

* a piece of sexy flirting – just hurl the dialogue down. It might sound stiff at first, but soon it’ll flow.

* your character comes into a room unexpectedly and finds. . .

* think about a situation a character would hate and put them into it. Then write the scene.

Start a file of possible exercises. I have a box of little cards with idea and writing exercises on them. There are times when I just want to write something different, and so I pull one out at random and write in response.

It doesn’t matter if you never use any of these scenes — it’s only 15 minutes of your day, and you’ve strengthened your writing muscles anyway and added to your toolbox of writing techniques. But I bet you’ll find that you use a lot.

So start exercising those writing muscles and get into a routine of writing. There’s only one way to write a novel — word by word, page by page, fifteen minutes by fifteen minutes.

Winter Writing Workshop

Anne Gracie is taking writing workshops in Melbourne on the weekend of June 15th—17th, along with Crime writer Shane Maloney and Kate Forsyth.

It sounds like a wonderful weekend of workshops and Melbourne Uni is a lovely venue (Ed.)

More information here:


First published by Harlequin, Anne Gracie is now with Berkley USA/Penguin Australia. She’s a three-time RITA finalist, has twice won the Romantic Book of the Year (Australia) and the National Reader’s Choice Award in the USA, and was listed in Library Journal (USA) best books of the year. Five of her books have received DIK (Desert Island Keepers) status on All About Romance, and she’s been translated into sixteen different languages. Anne is proud to be a Lifetime Member of Romance Writers of Australia.


Special Guest Interview: Michael Hauge

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Hauge via Skype recently, and today I am thrilled to share this interview with you on the RWA blog. Michael will be visiting Australia in March when he presents his Advanced Story Mastery seminar, which is sure to be a valuable day for all writers wanting to give their stories the structure, emotion, and authenticity needed to be successful.

MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Morgan Freeman, and is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID.

Michael is the best selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler, are available on DVD and CD at bookstores worldwide, and through his web site below. For information on his consultation services, products or lecture schedule, go to www.StoryMastery.com.


1. Welcome Michael! Can you tell us why your six stage plot structure is so important in creating a great story, and how does the process differ for novels and screenplays?

Structure is essential. All structure really means is ‘what’s the sequence of events?’. A writer’s goal has to be to create an emotional experience for the reader, and that applies whether you’re a romance writer, a general fiction writer, or a screenwriter.

Certain structural patterns have proven to be effective and consistently present in successful stories, certainly from the beginning of the twentieth century, and even further back than that, probably all the way to Aristotle. My six stage structure  is just my way of approaching that. It’s a way that I figured out by looking at lots of movies and novels, and working out how to maximise the emotional experience. Other people have other structural approaches, and what I have found is all of the different approaches are fairly consistent. We don’t really contradict each other, we just have different ways of looking at it, and mine is developed in a way that I hope will be simple enough that it’s really easy to master, but still valuable enough that it gives new insights and people can really use it. It’s more than a three act structure, there’s a lot more to it than that, but it should still be simple and straightforward, and I have found in the reactions from people who’ve heard me lecture, or clients I’ve had, that it has proven really helpful to them.

Now the second part of your question, how does it apply to novel writing… the basic six stages I talk about are going to be present in any kind of story, so long as it’s a story where there’s a protagonist pursuing a clear goal with a clearly defined end point.

For instance, in a romance novel, the goal of the hero or heroine (I don’t really distinguish between those two terms), is to win the love of another character. So once you have that goal defined (because we know what that would look like at the end of the story), it’s like having a destination to your hero’s journey, and now you can break that down into the steps it takes to get there, and the key turning points that they have to encounter on that journey.

The key difference between novel structure and screenplay structure is that in a screenplay, the turning points always occur at exactly the same place, the same percentage of time into the story. What happens twenty-five percent of the way into Avatar is the same thing that’s going to happen twenty-five percent of the way into Rango. But those percentages are much more fluid when it comes to novel writing, so novelists need only learn the six stages and have the awareness that they can be a bit more flexible about where those turning points might occur. Although usually, they’re not far off. When I’m teaching a class and I talk about what the mid-point is, which I call ‘the point of no return’, I’ll often ask if anybody has a novel with them, and somebody always does, so I’ll turn to the very middle page and read it, and almost always we see that it’s directly related to what should happen at the mid-point of the story.

2. Is there any difference in the process between writing a novel to writing a screenplay?

No, not that I can think of. The outcome or the product will be different, but the way you get there is the same. As my father-in-law who was a screenwriter for fifty years used to say, “The key to success is the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. You’re either sitting down writing, developing characters, a plot, dialogue, action, and description, or you’re not! I’ve never got a feeling when I’ve coached novelists that they approach it in any significantly different way than a screenwriter does. It’s just all about getting in there and doing it.

3. Can you name two or three main elements that every successful novel must have?

I can name three elements that every story must have. Stories to me are built on character, desire, and conflict. Every well told story has to have a protagonist, or a hero – someone that we’re emotionally connected to, that we empathise with – who is going to be our vehicle for experiencing the events and the emotion. That character has to want something desperately. And they have to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve it. I would challenge anybody to think of a successful novel, movie, play, or opera that lacks any one of those three things.

4. Would you say it is more or less difficult to sell a novel than to sell a screenplay?

Less difficult. And the reason is only because of numbers. In Hollywood, there might be around two hundred movies produced in any given year, compared to the large number of novels published. If you just look at romance novels, the numbers are quite great, because of the method in which a lot of romance fiction is sold, with series titles and the rotating stock…etc, so just the numbers game favours novelists compared to screenwriters.

5. As many screenplays are adapted from novels, how can a writer give their book the best chance of it being optioned for film?

The first thing is to make absolutely sure that the novel has a visible goal for the hero to achieve by the end. It can’t just be about the character’s inner journey. It can’t just be about the transformation of the character. An additional thing I’ve noticed about a key difference between Hollywood love stories or romantic comedies and romance novels, is in romance fiction, the idea of winning the love of the other character seems to consume the bulk of the novel, and the obstacles that stand in the character’s way are primarily inner conflicts. They’ve been burned in the past, they’re reeling from a bad relationship, the person who broke their heart before has come back into their life…etc. Now, I’m not talking about all genres of romantic fiction. If it’s a romantic suspense, then you’re going to have something a bit closer to a movie. In Hollywood love stories and romantic comedies, almost without exception, the protagonist is pursuing another goal, and then they meet the love interest, who is intertwined with that goal. So both goals retain their importance throughout the story.

Take a movie like Working Girl, which is a classic, formulaic romantic comedy. The primary story concept is all about Tess putting together that deal, and although the romance becomes the most important thing in the end, the screenplay never loses sight of what her original objective was, which is to put that deal together and get credit for it so she can be a broker. Whereas, I’ve read a number of romance novels where there might be a visible goal for the hero besides winning the love of the romance character, but that original goal diminishes as the story goes on. That sort of approach makes it much more difficult to have a novel adapted in Hollywood, because movies aren’t just about inner conflict or love affairs. The most successful love story on the screen financially would be Avatar, followed by Titanic, and in both of those movies the goal is clear apart from the love story and it dominates each story.

6. Can you give some examples of good movies that are helpful to analyse for writers of romantic or women’s fiction?

First of all, narrow the search in terms of the genre you’re writing, because in romance fiction there are all these different categories. When I first went to the RWA Nationals Awards Night, I was astonished, because I thought there were just ‘romance novels’ and I didn’t know there were all these different categories, like inspirational, urban, paranormal, and Regency. I didn’t even know what Regency was! So what you want to look for are antecedents, or models that are as close in terms of genre and style, not necessarily the plot itself, to what you write.

Romantic comedies have certain elements that can be very helpful in eliciting emotion even if you’re not writing a romantic comedy. One of the particular elements in Hollywood romantic comedies is the idea of deception. Almost all successful Hollywood romantic comedies, at least of recent vintage, involve somebody either keeping a big secret, or lying to somebody about something. For instance in Working Girl, she’s pretending to be a broker and she’s really a secretary, so if the truth comes out the repercussions will be huge. And that’s true in Tootsie, and in The Nutty Professor, and even in a movie like Sleepless in Seattle which is a more serious kind of approach with more dramatic elements, but Annie Reed is still keeping a secret from her fiancé, that she’s searching for this other guy she heard on the radio.

If you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction, you also want to look for Hollywood movies that have been successful with female heroes pursuing goals. For example, look at Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or The Blind Side, or Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. You need to ask yourself what the key elements of your novel are and then search out successful movies that have that element, and look at how they created conflict and how they dealt with the plot issues that they were facing.

One of the key questions I always ask somebody when I’m working with them is, what are the antecedents for this story? In other words what can you point to and say, well that made money, so mine will make money. The reason I ask writers to think in those terms is because publishers and producers think that way. Publishers and producers may not have a great story sense, so when they don’t, or even if they do, what they want to do is replicate success. It’s not for nothing that The Hunger Games got published and was a big success on the heels of the Twilight series, which came along on the heels of Harry Potter. The other reason I ask what the antecedents are, is that in my coaching it allows us to look at movies or novels that the writer is familiar with, and I can say, look how they dealt with this situation, or, the thing this movie does that you’re not doing is___, whatever that might be. And then we can see if that example would offer a helpful change to make in my client’s novel or screenplay.

7. Movies show us the action as it unfolds, whereas novels have to conjure an image in the reader’s mind. How can writers get that vivid movie-like imagery in their stories so the reader feels they’re watching it as it happens?

This may be simplistic, but I think you answered your own question because you called it imagery. The number one thing is, think about what we would be seeing if this were a movie.

There isn’t as big a difference as you might think between movies and novels, because screenwriters are not writing for an audience, they’re writing for readers. It’s just that their readers are the people who can say ‘yes’ to the screenplay, and then somebody else makes it into a movie. So, a helpful tip for novelists is to actually read screenplays. Because a screenwriter has to be able to succinctly create images that show what’s going to be on the screen, and they have to do this within length constraints and without talking about the interior thoughts of a character. And if you read a good action passage in a novel, that’s going to do the same thing.

It’s one of the reasons by the way that a lot of novels have been adapted into bad movies, because the novel is very good at creating imagery in the mind of the reader, and the reader feels like she’s just seen a movie projected inside her head, so she assumes it would make a great movie, but that’s not always the case. That’s not all that goes into creating a great movie.

What you’re doing is looking for settings, objects, and visible character details (like clothing or body language) that are not only vivid but are going to be reflective of the psychological make-up of the character that occupies that setting, or wears those clothes.

In the romance fiction that I’ve read, this hasn’t been an issue. I’ve rarely read something that hasn’t allowed me to picture what’s going on, so maybe that’s encouraging! Don’t dwell on what the characters (or you) are feeling about what you’re writing, don’t get caught up in words to describe that. Think of what we would see if we were in that situation, and what would convey the feeling, or create the emotion that you want to create.

8. As writers we know how important conflict is in a story, but you also mention the benefits of having a reflection character; someone who helps the main character achieve their goal. Is this something every story should have, and why is it important?

A reflection character isn’t something every story should have, it’s just a tool you can use. In the same way that every story doesn’t need a love story, or a villain. But the first argument for using a reflection character is that often it will add credibility to a story. Remember, the obstacles the character faces have to seem insurmountable, but they have to figure out a way to overcome them anyway, and if they have help, then that can make your story more believable. Take a movie like The Karate Kid – if he didn’t have Mr. Miyagi (or Mr. Han in the more recent movie), then he’s never going to be able to stop that bully and win that tournament.

The second advantage to having a reflection character is that it gives the hero someone to talk to. Because at times, we want to know what the hero is planning, what they’re struggling with, and how they feel about things. There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on in a love story that the hero is not going to want to share with the person they’re attracted to, so with a reflection character they can have somebody else to talk things through with. It gives you a way to provide exposition or get inside the character without resorting to omniscient author narration.

The third reason is that a good reflection character must hold your hero’s feet to the fire. To point out when the protagonist is reverting to what I call, her identity – when she’s retreating into the safe existence that she was stuck in at the beginning of the story. Her emotional armour is preventing her from going after what will bring real fulfilment (such as the love of the romance character). You’ll see examples of this again and again in movies. My favourite reflection character is Donkey in Shrek. He’s repeatedly encouraging Shrek to peel back all those ‘layers’ and go after Princess Fiona.

In Good Will Hunting, the reflection character is Sean, the Robin Williams character. Why is he there? It’s primarily to keep encouraging Will Hunting to stop chickening out, to stop pretending he’s not who he is, and to stop retreating from his feelings for this woman, and getting him to finally find the courage to open up and let people see him for who he truly is.

The thing I want to point out is, you predicated the question by saying we all know there’s a need for conflict, but I talk about the value of a reflection character, as if the reflection provides the hero with some kind of trouble free support. But a good reflection character is a source of great conflict for the hero. Just because the reflection character is supporting the hero, does not mean they’re not in conflict because a good reflection character is going to keep pushing the hero towards fulfilling his destiny, and towards being authentic, rather than living inside the emotional armour that is protecting him at the start of the story. I can’t think of any good love story that doesn’t have an arc for the hero/heroine. And that arc is about finding the courage to move out of that protected state and moving into a state of really being yourself and standing up for who you truly are. It’s the reflection character who’s going to push the hero toward that, and the hero does not want that. We want our friends to be there for us but we don’t want them to try and change us. But if they’re really good friends, they’re going to be pointing out to us when we need to stop what we’re doing and do what’s going to ultimately bring us the greatest fulfilment or happiness.

So if your hero has a sidekick or best friend that she gets along with wonderfully throughout your novel, then that reflection isn’t doing her job.

9. You have seminars coming up in Sydney and Melbourne in March, can you tell us the benefits a novelist will get out of these events, and for those who have been to your previous seminars, will you be presenting any new information?

The number one thing, for novelists as well as screenwriters, is that you’ll be hearing my particular approach to story, and I talk in terms of story principles that are applicable to novels as well as film. Another thing is, I think it can be very helpful to hear the principles of story presented from a different point of view than a frame of reference that has always been from romance fiction, because I’m taking a Hollywood point of view. I’ll be showing movie clips, and when you see these principles in action in something from another context, and see how directly applicable it is to romance fiction, I think that can be fun, different, and helpful, and help shift your point of view to look at what you’re doing in a new way.

The other thing, and one of the reasons I’m comfortable saying this, is the reason I first went to the RWA Nationals about five or six years ago in the US, the first time I’d ever spoken to a romance writers group, I’d been giving lectures on love stories and romantic comedies for screenwriters, and the principles seemed like they would apply, so I thought it would be worth a try. The reception was really positive, and since then I’ve been to numerous chapter conferences and other RWA national conferences, and I consistently hear how helpful these principles have been to novelists. So I can say with confidence that romance writers are going to learn stuff that they will be able to apply to their own fiction. And what most people, especially romance writers, seem to like is the way I approach the inner journey of the character and how it intertwines with the outer journey. In other words, the character arc or transformation and how that is intertwined with this visible journey of pursuing a visible goal, and then how that is essential to creating powerful love stories.

One of the things I discuss is what I consider to be the biggest weakness in most love stories, and how if you understand how a character arc works, you can solve that problem and avoid that weakness, and really create two people who belong together, rather than just two people who fall for each other because they’re sexy and because you want them to. Because it’s never about sex. Sex can be the spark that starts it, but it’s always about intimacy. Another way to look at it is that it’s never about getting naked, it’s about getting really naked; exposing the truth of who you are and finding the courage to reveal that to your partner. And I think people have found that extremely helpful.

For people who have been to any of my previous seminars, I wanted this workshop to be valuable for them, so I added new elements to it. I’m still presenting the core aspects of my approach which is the six stage structure, the intertwining inner journey and outer journey, character arc, and the idea of this tug-of-war between the identity of the protective self and the essence or truth that the characters are hiding. But I’m presenting the information in a different way, and adding elements to talk about scene writing, choosing concepts, what makes a high concept story, and pitching. One of my books is called ‘Selling Your Story in Sixty Seconds, and I’m going to include a segment on those principles, about how to get somebody to read your manuscript when you’ve only got about sixty seconds or so to persuade them. And how to take advantage of that opportunity in such a way that will guarantee that the person wants to read your manuscript.

One of things I’ll say is that if you’ve got say five minutes to pitch, one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to take five minutes! That’s not what you should do with that time, so I talk about how you need to be able to pitch it in under two minutes, and what to do after that two minutes is over, and why it needs to be that brief. The other thing I’ll be adding, and this may not be as big a deal to romance writers as to screenwriters, but I’m going to use clips from an Australian movie, Red Dog, which was the most successful Australian movie at last year’s box office. I will also discuss an Australian television series as an example of creating ongoing characters and writing episodic scripts.

10. You also do one on one coaching for writers. What can a writer expect to receive from your coaching packages, and how might this differ from working with a freelance editor?

Although I always give a lot of style suggestions on manuscripts or screenplays, I’m not an editor, so when I work with novelists, what they usually want and what I feel is most valuable for them to get from me is dealing with their story. Not so much their style in presenting it, because there are editors who can really help them with things like wordiness, or typos and punctuation, or dialogue. What I’m doing is coaching novelists on the concept of the story at an early stage in the process. They’ve come up with an idea and they want to know if it’s going to work. Or, I’ll take their story concept and work with them to improve the structure of the story and the arc for the protagonist. Those are the things I feel are my strong points.

Often what I’ll tell a novelist that if they have a completed manuscript, instead of paying me for all the time it takes to read the whole manuscript, let me read two chapters and a brief outline, because that’s enough for me to get the tone of it and some sense of the style and how you want it to read, and enough so we can get down to the core issues of structure and character development.

What I’ll often recommend initially, instead of getting one of the coaching packages that you see on my website (www.storymastery.com), is to book an hour of my time first. Give me a one page outline of the story, and we’ll talk for an hour. We can accomplish so much in this time. I very rarely advise someone not to follow through with their story, but we can find the weaknesses in the concept if they’re there, and figure out if the story you want to do has commercial potential. In an hour I can usually get to the point where I can identify the five key turning points, and then if you know what that basic overall six stage structure is, and you know the concept is solid, and you know the kind of arc you’re taking the character through, then you’ve got a lot to work with and a lot more confidence going into the first draft of the manuscript. Then, after you get further into the story, you can get a package, send me some chapters and a full outline and we can go into more detail with it. Starting out with a one hour session allows writers to put their foot in the water and see if the process is helpful, and can save a lot of time by making sure the story is worth pursuing before putting all that time and energy into it.


Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to speak with us, I’ve learned a lot personally so I know the other members of RWA will find the information and tips you’ve given us very valuable.

This was fun! And you came up with some of the best questions I’ve heard. You never asked me how I got my start, or what I think the state of Hollywood movies is. I find all those things so boring. But you asked about story, and things that can actually help writers, and I think that’s really cool.


Michael Hauge will be presenting his one-day seminar, Advanced Story Mastery: Creating Stories that Sell, in Sydney and Melbourne in March. It has been designed for both screenwriters and novelists, and is very relevant to writers of romance fiction. For the Melbourne event, RWA members are entitled to a discount (please see the RWA forum for details).

Sydney: March 17th 9am-6pm at AFTRS http://www.open.aftrs.edu.au/course/mh02

Melbourne: March 24th 9am-6pm at RMIT http://www.epiphany.com.au/

Michael’s website: www.storymastery.com

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