Planning Your Novel With Janice Hardy

I’m excited to share a post today from guest blogger Janice Hardy, author of the teen fantasy fiction trilogy, The Healing Wars. She’s also the founder of Fiction University, a writing instructor and a popular speaker at conferences and workshops. Janice, thanks so much for sharing this excerpt from your new book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Author Janice Hardy

Is Your Novel Character-Driven or Plot-Driven? 

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writers (and novels) typically fall into one of two camps: character driven or plot driven, If you’re the kind of writer who comes up with characters first and figures out the plot as you write, then you might find it frustrating to try to work out a plot first. Just like a plot-driven writer might find it difficult to develop the characters first. Knowing which you are makes going forward much easier.

If your idea (or writing style) leans more toward one side than the other, don’t worry. Writing is a process, not a fill-in-the-blanks, one-size-fits-all template.

Are You Character-Driven?

Character driven means the focus is more on the character and her internal journey than the external issues of the plot. This doesn’t mean plot isn’t important, but the issues the character deals with are personal and often affect only that person or the people closest to her.

The main point of the novel is to show character growth and have the protagonist learn a valuable lesson about herself that allows her to be a better person (or points out a fatal flaw that causes her doom in a darker tale. Not every novel has to have a happy ending.)

Character-driven ideas typically manifest as a character with a problem first. This person has an issue that is central to the story and the journey to understand that issue is at the heart of the conflict. What that character is going to do isn’t always clear at first, because the journey and the emotional story arc is what matters more.

For example:

  • A woman with a fear of commitment must learn to let others in.
  • A selfish boy must learn to think about others.
  • A workaholic must learn to take time for family.


How this works with a plot: These problems are all internal, even though they likely have external problems due to these issues. A fear of commitment might translate to being alone and unhappy, selfishness could lead to having no friends, and working all the time often ends in divorce.

But the end goal isn’t as simple as “find someone to marry” or “make a friend” or “quit a job.” Those goals won’t solve the underlying problem until the character goes through her emotional journey. There will be goals and problems that allow the protagonist to grow and learn what she needs to learn to achieve a specific goal, and that’s where the focus lies.


Key Elements of a Character-Driven Novel

  • The protagonist is responsible for what happens to her and acts to make the novel happen.
  • Internal forces affect the protagonist.
  • Personal growth and emotional change of the protagonist are major parts of the resolution of the novel.


Are You Plot-Driven?

Plot-driven means the focus is more on the external elements forcing the characters to act than on the personal journey. The stakes are frequently higher and matter more on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean the characters are unimportant, but solving the problem is more important than character growth or lessons learned, though characters can grow and learn even in plot-driven novels.

Plot-driven ideas typically manifest as a situation or problem first. An interesting situation has occurred and someone is going to have to deal with it. Who that someone is might not matter at first, because resolving the problem is what matters more.

For example:

  • Terrorists are planning to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge
  • A plane goes down in the wilderness and a survivor has to make it to safety
  • A protest at a factory turns into a riot


How this works with characters: These problems are all external, even though each will focus around a character who will likely have personal issues to deal with as she resolves her problem. Stopping terrorists entails personal risk, survival in the wilderness draws on untapped strength or knowledge, dealing with a riot requires commitment and diplomacy.

But the end goal isn’t “face your fears to stop a terrorist” or “find your inner strength” or “redeem yourself for a terrible mistake.” The novel won’t be about the growth or lessons learned, even though the protagonist will likely change a little over the course of the novel as she resolves the external problem.


Key Elements of a Plot-Driven Novel

External forces trigger the plot and cause the protagonist to act by reacting to that event.

Resolving the external problem matters more than a personal change in the character.


Are You Both?

It is possible to have both—a strong protagonist with a compelling emotional journey who is put into an interesting situation that needs to be resolved. Through resolving the plot problem, the emotional journey of the protagonist is experienced and achieved.

This is a powerful combination and it’s not a bad thing to aim for with every novel. But don’t worry if your idea leans more to one side than the other at this stage. You’ll have plenty of time to develop both sides—character and plot—if you want to do both.

For example:

  • An FBI agent faces his own seditious past while trying to prevent a terrorist attack.
  • A timid girl discovers her own inner strengths when her plane crashes in the wilderness.
  • A workaholic realizes the value of family when a protest at work turns into a riot.


How this works with both: These all have external problems that are made more difficult by internal issues. Stopping a terrorist exposes a dark secret, survival in the wilderness triggers a realization of personal strength, a protest turns deadly and reveals what matters most. The external end goal is the catalyst that forces the protagonist to change internally. The novel is about the growth and lessons learned as the protagonist resolves the external problem. The two sides work in tandem to craft a plot arc and a character arc that depend on each other.


Key Elements of a Plot- and Character-Driven Novel

  • External forces trigger the plot and affect the protagonist in a personal way that forces her to act.
  • The protagonist can’t avoid the external problem because it would have serious repercussions on an internal issue.
  • Resolving the external problem is what will allow the protagonist to resolve her internal issue.


Books don’t have to be fully plot driven or fully character driven. These are just terms for common writing styles that can help you figure out how to approach writing a novel. Don’t feel you have to be one or the other or your novel won’t work, but if you do know you think a certain way (plots first or characters first), that can be an asset in the planning process.

*Excerpted from my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure

Where do you fall on the character vs. plot scale?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

Famous Writers’ Homes: The Hemingway House

Writers, maybe more than other kinds of tourists, seem to be fascinated with authors’ homes, and this one, where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in Key West, Florida, is both famous and beautiful. I wrote about it recently for Roam, The Travel Channel Blog; you can see more here.

Hemingway, of course, was known for his economy of words, and his novels are considered American classics (although more than one high school student, forced to read The Old Man and the Sea, has disagreed).

We visited the house one summer, and I wondered how anyone could endure the tropical heat–until the guide pointed out how the windows and doors could stand open to the island breezes. When the wind blows and the palms rustle, it’s pretty magical. And of course, there are the legendary six-toed cats, like Hairy Truman, seen below.

If you visit, be sure to look for the penny embedded in the cement around Hemingway’s outdoor pool. Built in the 1930s, it was an incredible extravagance, costing over $20,000 dollars. Hemingway remarked that the penny was his last cent!

Book Review: In Wilderness

In Wilderness

I don’t like to post reviews for books that I’m not crazy about, especially when the book was a free copy from the publisher.

That’s the case with In Wilderness, a novel I received from a LibraryThing giveaway. While author Diane Thomas’ book is extremely well-written, suspenseful, and even lyrical, with finely-drawn, heartfelt characters–I must confess, the subject matter is just not for me.

Set in 1966, In Wilderness is the story of Katherine, a successful, 30-something businesswoman who loses both her baby and her health after she’s exposed to an environmental poison. Soon her husband abandons her, and when her doctors tell her she’ll die within months, she leaves work and home behind, and retreats to an isolated cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, where she intends to live out her remaining days alone.

But fate has a different plan. She encounters Danny, a twenty-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s living off the land and suffering from PTSD. While I don’t want to spoil the story, as it unfolds, we realize that these two terribly damaged people are helping each other while surrounded by the healing powers of nature.

But if that description makes this sound like a lighthearted read–well, it isn’t. I shouldn’t even use the word “healing,” because this is no fairy tale, dark woods notwithstanding, and neither character experiences anything like true redemption.

I found this book disturbing, primarily because Katherine takes so much abusive treatment from Danny (although he’s kind and attentive at times, he’s also violent, dangerous and unpredictable). At one point, I couldn’t understand why Katherine didn’t head back to civilization for help (by then, she has a compelling reason to get away from him).

Other critics have said this book testifies to the healing powers of nature, too. But in the end, I think “therapeutic” might be a better word to use. That’s because while the natural world comforts these characters, it doesn’t or can’t restore them, either to the people they used to be, or to society at large. While these two broken, sorrow-filled people find some balm in the wilderness, I was left feeling sad and disturbed.

This isn’t to say this isn’t a worthy book. Most critics have given it high praise, calling it “gripping,” “powerful,” “haunting” and “harsh and beautiful.” It’s just too dark for me.

Book Review: The Girl in the Well is Me

51gubUXsmpL._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_Ever been in a “tight spot”? Eleven-year-old Kammie Summers is literally in a tight spot when she falls into an abandoned well. As daylight fades, Kammie, her arms pinned against her body, can’t even wipe away her tears. Meanwhile, her three new “friends,” popular girls who got her into this jam as as part of a club initiation, take off. But they’ll be back to get her out.

Won’t they?

Kammie desperately hopes so, and I did, too, as I read The Girl in the Well is Me, the new middle grade novel by Canadian author Karen Rivers. I was mesmerized as Kammie, trapped and alone, revisits both the good and bad things that have happened in her life: her father’s imprisonment for embezzling funds from a charity; an elderly neighbor’s friendship; her mother’s struggles to earn a living; and her own efforts, after the family moves, to fit into a new town and different school. But help is on the way.

Isn’t it?

As her oxygen supply dwindles, Kammie hallucinates about spiders and zombies in the well, while a silvery, French-speaking coyote shows up to keep her company. But rescue is coming.


Rivers’ book reminds me of a one-act stage play. The scenery barely changes, yet the plight and voice and heart of the main character keeps the reader spellbound.

Getting out of the well is Kammie’s biggest problem, of course, but it isn’t her only one. If she survives, she’s got to find a way to go on, not with the life she wishes she had, but the one she’s been given. And no matter what happens with the popular girls and her father or anything else, she’s got to stay true to herself.

I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Kammie, and you won’t be able to, either. Her dilemma is one we all face, at some point in our lives. Once you finally climb out of the darkness, how do you live in the light?

I highly recommend The Girl in the Well is Me, which has been named a Top 10 Spring 2016 Kids’ Indie Next Pick. It’s also earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

Thanks to Algonquin Young Readers for sending me a copy of this book. My opinions are my own.


Snow Cats and Other Thoughts

snow cats

No, these cats don’t have dandruff. They’re covered – make that, sprinkled – with snow, and I’m posting their picture to show how much of the white stuff fell here a couple of weeks ago. While the rest of the country hunkered down against blizzards, ice storms and every other kind of weather hazard, here in the metro Atlanta area, I took a deep breath, blew the snowflakes off the porch railing, and went about my day.

I’d love to see some snow. I’d like to see fluffy little snow-caps on the rose hips, icicles decorating the bird bath, and a soft blanket of sparkling crystals on the lawn. But the last time I admitted to this romantic-minded foolishness on social media, I got blasted by people who hoped I’d get stuck in my car for a day and a night, with nothing but a half-can of flat Coca Cola and a package of spearmint gum to live on until I was rescued, or the sun came out. They wished me the joy of shoveling to get to the mailbox, only to find that the mail never came, and tunneling through streets piled high with mounds of dirty, freezing slush.

Not what I meant, but never mind. I get it.

Since it’s February, and once again, a few flakes are falling to the north, but not here, I’m turning my thoughts to other things. I’m excited about writing for the Travel Channel blog, which re-launches in March. I’ve covered gardening for years, and I’ll always have dirt under my nails (so to speak), but I’m looking forward to blogging about new topics, like where to find the best oysters or schools that teach you to hang glide. I’ll give tips about where to go on spring break and how travelers can learn to sculpt or play the banjo while on vacation.

This variety reminds me of an aptitude test I took in college. My results said I’d make a great nurse, missionary or librarian (clearly, I had a strong do-gooder streak, as well as an instinct to keep books neatly shelved). But I didn’t skew strongly in any one area. My test also said I’d do well as a scientist (apparently it didn’t measure math skills), teacher, farmer, dancer (seriously? the desire to do a thing does not equal the ability to do it), vet, decorator, designer and artist (if only I could paint).

At first, this Jill-of-all-trades assessment worried me, until I realized that it simply meant that I was curious about a lot of things. That turned out to be a useful quality for a writer.

When you get to explore many different subjects, your work is never boring. I’ve partnered with the captain of a nuclear sub while canning spiced peaches at a cooking school; snorkeled with manatees; and gotten caught in a volcanic eruption (Alaska’s Mount Spurr, years ago, and it was cold ash, not lava, or I wouldn’t be here now). I learned to fly-fish in Montana, on the same river as the one in Robert Redford’s film, A River Runs Through It (sadly, he was long gone).

I’ve backpacked with llamas in Taos, traded heirloom seeds with gardeners from around the South, and climbed into the wheelhouse of a riverboat to watch the dark waters of the Mississippi roll by as the moon rose. Of course, not all assignments are  exciting or fun. I’ve also written about the differences between fluorescent and metal halide lights, the advantages of fertilizing with pellets packed with micronutrients, and more.

I’m grateful, though, for these experiences, because I’ve learned from them. Well, except a few, like the one for a medical client who hired me to write about DRGs (diagnosis related groups, a statistical classification system that–but you don’t care, and I don’t blame you.)

Now I plan to blog more regularly. I want to share info from the travel blog, once the posts go live, and since I’m learning to quilt and sew, I’ll also write about some of my projects. I’ll probably ask for help from folks who know what they’re doing, because I’m teaching myself, and I need it.

And there are books, of course….books I’ll read and review, and a book for middle grade kids that I’m writing. I’ll share my progress–or lack thereof–as time goes on.

Kind of a mixed bag, isn’t it? Travel, quilts, books, and my rescue pups, who wind up in my posts and stories from time to time. That’s okay. Sometimes you start with snow cats, and go on to other thoughts.







Free Workshop for Children’s Writers

Come join us! The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) is sponsoring our FREE program in the Atlanta area. We’ll talk about writing, answer your questions, and share tips and ideas. Refreshments will be served.

WHAT: The Ups and Downs of Writing Children’s Books: 
A Workshop For Children’s Authors (And Everyone Else)

WHEN: Dec. 12, 2015, 1 to 3 p.m.

WHERE: Stonecrest Library, 3123 Klondike Rd, Lithonia, GA 30038 
Phone: (770) 482-3828

WORKSHOP SPEAKERS: Connie Fleming, Nancy Craddock, Lynn Coulter and TK Read

SPEAKER/TOPIC: Connie Fleming: Walking on the Edge: Conflict in Children’s Writing

 A former UCR Crime Analyst with Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Connie now spends her days and nights writing, illustrating, and speaking at schools, libraries and churches. Into every life must come some conflict, and no story is complete without it. Learn how to insert the right amount of tension to move your story forward.

As a very health-conscious senior adult she also writes about wiping out obesity, with a healthy dose of her own brand of humor and Christian wisdom.
Her website is Connie Fleming and her weight-loss blog can be found at The Acceptable Sin.

SPEAKER/TOPIC: Nancy Craddock: Warnings from a Self-Pubbed Author
 If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can save yourself a lot of angst (and money) from someone who did it all wrong!

Feeling as if she’s always been peering over the top of an open book, Nancy is a keen observer of life. Each chapter of her own life has been centered around books, schools and libraries. As a child, Nancy’s happiest days were either playing “school” or “library” with a neighborhood friend. As an adult, she’s diligently worked to foster a life-long love of books in elementary students from Baton Rouge, LA and Houston, TX, to Atlanta, GA.

Whether her students were a diverse group in a inner-city school, wealthy children of cattle barons or the sons and daughters of hard-working middle class parents in the suburbs, Nancy learned that shared laughter is always a unifying factor in any classroom and a humorous children’s book was never far from her reach.
Writing contests, magazine articles and hand-written notes, emails and long distant phone calls from editors will always be a thrill but Nancy is quick to say that she gauges her success by timid youngsters who’s whose eyes barely meet hers when they say “I like your book” at various book events. That is all the proof she needs to know her life has been, and continues to be, the most fabulous fairy tale she could ever imagine. Her website is Nancy Craddock.

SPEAKER/TOPIC: Lynn Coulter: Make Money By Writing Nonfiction

Even if your goal is to publish a novel, you can earn money writing nonfiction books and articles while you work on it. The Web, for example, consumes enormous amounts of information, and someone has to write that content. Why shouldn’t it be you? Learn how to break into print and digital publications for children and adults with freelancer and author Lynn Coulter.

Lynn Coulter writes for She’s also a freelancer with a B.A. in Journalism and the author of 3 books: Gardening with Heirloom Seeds; Mustard Seeds (Publisher’s Weekly starred review); and Little Mercies. Lynn has served as a contributing editor for Delta Sky and U.S. Airways Magazines, and she’s written for Ranger Rick, Southern Living, Jack and Jill, Delta’s Sky 4 Kids, Pockets, The Home Depot Garden Club, Southern Living, AAA Traveler and other publications. Currently she’s writing a novel for middle-grade readers with the help of her loyal office assistants/rescue dogs, Miss Paws and Molly. This is her website.

SPEAKER/TOPIC: TK Read: Light Fires Beneath Your Book Sales

Whether you’re self-pubbed, indie-pubbed, or traditionally pubbed, you need to market your book to make sure your sales soar! Learn promotion tips and tricks, and the best place to put your marketing efforts and dollars from TK. We’ll go over promotion ideas for small, medium, and large budgets!

 TK is an attorney by day and a writer in the wee hours of the morning. She downs coffee and chocolate, and pens young adult thrillers and middle grade fantasies. A life-long student, she also signs up for every class she can fit in her schedule – that way when her teens are going on-and-on about their tough courses, she can match them moan-for-moan. TK co-authored the book, 100 Small Fires to Make Your Book Sales Blaze! with her marketing whiz sister, Kathleen Vrona. Visit TK at TKRead.

Dogtology: A Bone-A-Fide Book Review


Dogtology: Live, Bark, Believe, by J. Lazarus, is simply terrific. I loved this laugh out-loud look at canines and our obsession with them.

The author really has us pet-parents nailed. We are smitten with our fur-babies, and see them as our perfect companions because they’re non-judgmental, loving, playful, and accepting of all our human failings.

I like to say my rescue dogs rescued me, and they did. They pulled me out of my empty-nest slump and licked me into shape again (literally licked me, with their long, wet tongues). Four enthusiastic paws up for this book! I’ll recommend it to anyone, especially cat-lovers.

I received my copy of this book from Netgalley, but my opinions are bone-a-fide, so to speak.

Image courtesy of Greenleaf Book Group


Making Quilts, Writing Books


Now I see why so many people get hooked on quilting. It’s all those fantastic fabrics, with their beautiful colors and designs.

Right now, I’m working on a picnic blanket quilt that uses the Bugapalooza fabrics designed by Jennifer Jangles. I may back it with a waterproof material, since this will be used on the ground, or maybe a heavy twill or canvas, as Jennifer (whose real name is Jennier Heynen) suggests. You can find her instructions for making your own picnic blanket here.

After putting words together all day for the middle grade novel I’m writing, Whistling for Elephants, piecing a few cloth squares is a welcome break. My eyes are hungry for colors beyond the black and white of the printed page, and for patterns that aren’t just blocks of text on a computer screen.

But even while I’m quilting, my brain is churning with plot ideas, and I’m trying to think up new descriptions and snappy dialogue to make my characters come alive.

Writing for children isn’t easy. You’ve got to remember what it’s like to play and forget the distractions of being a grown-up. This week, my distractions have included paying for a new car transmission, learning to cook for someone on a very restricted diet, cleaning the house, walking the dogs (who shed so much in the summertime heat, they double my housework), and–well, you get the idea.

A few weeks ago, my agent asked me to write a new outline for my book, to help me double its length and dive deeper into the story, and I’ve just finished it. Now I’m waiting for his comments before I start writing again. This agent has a strong editorial background, and I’m grateful for his guidance.

To be honest, I wish the writing work was done, but there’s more ahead before my manuscript is ready to submit to publishers.

Sometimes I get discouraged, because I’ve worked on this book for so long. In some ways, writing is like making a quilt. You make a block for your quilt; you scribble a paragraph for your book. Next you join the blocks into rows, and the paragraphs into chapters. Eventually, you stand back and look at what you’ve got and decide whether you need to add more here or take away something there.

When you finally see the pattern you’re aiming for, and it pleases your eye and heart, you know your work is finished.

Book Review: The Methods of Breaking Bad


Were you a fan of Breaking Bad? Here’s a review I just posted on about a collection of essays on that groundbreaking show:

Breaking Bad, a television show that ran from 2008 to 2013, was popular, well-written and executed, and thought-provoking. This collection of essays about the program, edited by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood, is an interesting and in-depth look at its characters and their motivations and morals.

However, The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, is written in an academic style. At times, I felt some of the chapters were a bit dry, and they probably won’t appeal to readers who lack the inclination or energy to focus on the serious and complex issues the book addresses, such as health care, politics and scientific ethics.

I also wonder if this book will find a lot of readers now that no new episodes are being made. As a writer, I was interested in the ways it studied character development in fiction.

If you were a fan of the show, or you’re looking for insights on creating fascinating characters and plots, I recommend this book. Readers looking for lightweight or beach-type books may want to pass.

I received a free copy of this book from, but my opinions are my own.

Front cover images © 2015 iStock/Thinkstock; Used by permission of McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers.

Book review: If You’re Lucky

Courtesy Algonquin Books for Young Readers
Plan on staying up late if you choose IF YOU’RE LUCKY, by Yvonne Prinz, for a bedtime read. This young adult novel, which goes on-sale in October 2015, is a quick read and a gripping thriller.

It’s the story of 17-year-old Georgia, “George” to her friends, and the aftermath of her brother’s drowning while surfing in Australia. Losing a sibling would be tragedy enough, and her brother’s nickname, Lucky, belies his fate. But George also suffers from mental illness, and her meds leave her feeling isolated and alone. (And isn’t adolescent a time for those kinds of feelings?)


Then handsome, enigmatic Fin shows up, saying he was a close friend of Lucky’s, although George had never heard of him. Fin charms his way into her family’s life, even earning the devotion of their dog, and begins to romance Lucky’s girlfriend.


She starts to question whether he might have murdered Lucky, just to take his place. I won’t give away the specific nature of George’s mental illness, which isn’t revealed until the tension starts to build. The reader is left to ask: Is George right about Fin? Or is she delusional and paranoid?


In many ways, this feels like a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Prinz has written her story in an easy-to-read style, with brief chapters and short, simple sentences, that most young adults will breeze through. (I wouldn’t have minded if the writing had been a bit more complex or challenging, but that’s just my preference.)


My only real criticism–and this isn’t much–is the use of the name “Lucky,” and how it played into the title and resolution. It felt slightly gimmicky, to me. But I did think that George’s objections to taking her meds–and sometimes, her outright refusal to take them–rang true, from what I know about mental illness. She’s a realistic and believable character, and you find yourself rooting for her.  I received this book as an advance reading copy from the publisher, but that has not influenced the opinions I’ve expressed here.


Image courtesy of Algonquin Books for Young Readers