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How to write a novel

I’ve researched different writers about the process of writing a novel, and while they tend to give different perspectives, they also show two things in common: (1) the characters must appear to be flesh-and-blood real to the reader, and (2) there must be a reasonable structure to the novel. Since characterization requires a details discussion by and of itself, let me first talk about structure.

It may be obvious to you if I say that a good novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end. What is less obvious is what do we expect to happen in those three major sections? The beginning of the novel has to do some highly important tasks. It must create an interesting beginning where the character is faced with a significant problem. This character has a goal of some sort—perhaps avoiding getting caught, trying to solve a crime, wanting something someone else has, trying to prevent someone from taking what she has, etc. As that character strives to attain that goal, she begins to run into an obstacle. This beginning part of the novel has to do a good job in making the problem real and in making you either want the character to succeed or (if the character is a villain) to be deeply interested in learning how the character will eventually be caught.

The middle part of the novel now gets into the failed attempts of the main character to attain her goal or solve her problem. When she tries one thing, something worse happens. When she tries another, something even more challenging happens. She finally comes to what some authors refer to either a “dark moment” or “climax” when things look their darkest and something has to change. She needs to solve that problem or attain that goal somehow. But she might do this by deciding that she doesn’t want that goal or doesn’t want that problem solved. It’s not an instantaneous revelation where she wakes up and decides this. Circumstances evolve that convince her to make a change in direction.

All the while, the character is changing his perspective. The end of the novel shows how the character has changed and how a new course of action is now possible. I like to think of this as the “resolution” of the novel. While some loose things have to be tidied up, the character doesn’t necessarily have a picture-perfect happy ending. In fact, you, as a novelist, don’t want to give her a picture-perfect ending. But at least give her hope. I’ve done this in my novel All Parts Together where my main character, Jessica, is devastated because she’s lost the true love of her life, her book won’t be published, her hero (Abraham Lincoln) was assassinated, and there doesn’t seem to be much in life that will interest her. But there’s a knock on door. A lady wants to invited her to an important meeting. This will mark a new departure in Jessica’s life, and that departure will be fully revealed in my third novel in the series.

Character development, in my opinion, is as important as plot development. When we think of the great novels of the past that we’ve read, we think of the characters. For instance, anyone who has ever read Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is so familiar with Scarlet O’Hara she has become a real person. You experience her foolish pain in trying to capture Ashley Wilkes’ heart only to find her true love, Rhett Butler, who ultimately leaves her. Creating a character is not simply giving that character a name and adding a few physical descriptions. You need to get into that person’s heart and soul and look through the eyes of that person and experience the things they experience. You need to know this person’s background and ambitions so well that you could predict how they would react in particular situations. This happened with Susan Stratford, a character is my novel, An Innocent Murdered. Susan  is a former nun but lately she’s been bothered by the fact she’s never had a sexual experience in her 46 years of existence and tells her friend Detective Matt Gunnison of her predicament:


"I hope God forgives me for saying this, but as I said, I never had a man before. I know the Catholic Church says it’s a grievous sin unless you’re married, but I don’t see how it could be in my circumstance.”

 SometimesI have to myself as being an evil character, such as a President of the U.S. whose sympathies lie with the Russians and whose mission is to become the ruler of the world—as in my futuristic novel, Advent. Here, his Secretary of State, Ben Levin, gives him some disturbing news:

 “Mr. President?” It was Levin. His voice was  harsh, raspy.

“Ben, can you tell me what the hell is going on? Why didn’t you tell me about the change in plans?”

“Frankly, I learned about a new timetable for the arrival of the material. I thought it’d be too risky to contact you about it, but I did alert Broznov about it. I suspect he informed Volkonich who, in turn, should have alerted al-Fassad about the change in plans.”

Hell! If that was the case, why didn’t Volkonich bother to let him know? Why was he kept toally in the dark?”

“Did you pull off your little ruse?” He hoped Levin would interpret this to mean the cleverly planned deception with the gas canisters.

In that novel, I show the duplicity of the President being amiable to the outside world yet deceitful in his heart. To create him successfully, I had to BE that president as I wrote my novel to make him totally credible. This is a challenge, but it’s worth it, believe me!

Filed under Adven All Parts Together An Innocent Murdered Tom Mach characters novel plot writers writing a novel how to write a novel

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How do you write a sexy scene without being “over the top”?


There are times when your novel dictates that you must have a sexy scene in it but you don’t want to sound like you’re writing porn. I found this to be extremely challenging for me. Many Christian writers use the “closed door” approach, That is, a man and woman are kissing each other passionately and then they retire to the bedroom, usually closing the door behind them, leaving what happens next entirely to your imagination. On the other hand, there are novelists who give you a detailed description of exactly what happens in the bedroom, including naming every vital part of the anatomy several times. To me, this latter kind of novel is a definite turn-off. I am not building a house where I need step-by-step details.The former way of writing such a scene wherein the bedroom door closes shuts off any romance that takes place while they are “doing it.”  There surely must be a middle ground where the reader uses some of her imagination but also has enough description so she can get emotionally involved with the characters in that scene.

In all of my adult novels I do have scenes where some sort of physical intimacy is going on. However, being a devout Christian, I don’t want to write with such detailed description that I cause someone to sin, so this is a very difficult area for me personally. My only objective in creating a sexy scene is to make it realistic enough for the reader and to show the raw emotions which stem from such an experience.

I struggled, for instance, on how to describe a scene in my novel An Innocent Murdered, where a 46-year-old former nun named Susan has not only ever had intercourse but she’s never even seen a naked man. After all these years, she yearns for that experience and she asks Matt, a good friend, if he could help satisfy her curiosity.

After he turned to face her, she moved her hands to the front of his legs and gazed at his penis. “It’s quite small, isn’t it?”

He gave a nervous laugh. “Henry shrinks after I take a bath.”


“That’s what I call my pecker. Henry, please meet Susan. Susan, meet Henry.”

“Glad to meet you, Henry,” she said, still crouching as she used her thumb and forefinger to move his flaccid penis up and down like a handshake greeting. She examined the opening to his penis and giggled like a schoolgirl. “It looks like a small mouth.”

“I suppose it does. If I had a marking pen, I could entertain ex-nuns with it by drawing a nose and a couple of eyes and using it as a puppet.”

Her face turned crimson as she stroked his penis while touching his testicles. “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m probably embarrassing you by doing this.”

“No, not all.”

She looked up at him. “From what I’ve read, these testicles create the sperm while the penis ejaculates it into a woman’s vagina to create life. It’s wonderful the way God designed man for procreation. Isn’t it?”

“I can’t argue with that.”

She noticed his penis beginning to grow as she fondled it. “I mean, God produces human life from life. We’re all participants in the act of creation.”

“If feels as if I’m in a religion class right now.”

“Sorry. I can’t help but see God in everything. It’s a shame my parents never talked to me about sex.”

Susan can’t help but let her religion interfere with her desire for sexual intimacy. The scene closes with Susan having doubts as to whether or not she wants to go through with it. (I could have expanded this scene to show Matt entering her and how she moaned until she finally experiences her first orgasm, but I thought it would be better to make the reader guess what happened after she had her doubts.)

In another part of An Innocent Murdered, Matt has a romantic relationship with a woman who gives him a shocking revelation: she’s a lesbian who still likes men….

After they both undressed, she put on a CD that played something by Mozart. “You told me you enjoy classical music. This is his violin concerto.”

“I like it. When I first met Susan I tried to get more familiar with country and western.”

She climbed into bed. “Do you still see her?”

“Off and on,” he said, joining her. “She’s a pleasant woman.”

“When a man says a girl is pleasant it either means she’s not particularly attractive or he hasn’t yet scored with her.”

“I’d certainly like to score with you.”

“I hope you like the woman on top position. I enjoy taking the lead when it comes to sex.”

He grinned. “I like a woman with initiative.”

After fifteen delicious minutes flew by, they climaxed almost at the same time. Matt lay next to her in bed, stroking her hair and feeling her breast.

Heather turned toward him and giggled.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

 “I hope Cassandra’s not going to be upset when I tell her about we’ve just done.”

 “Cassie? What’s she got to do with us?”

“I suppose I should have told you sooner. She and I have been sleeping together for the past five years.”

“What!” he exclaimed, jerking up to a sitting position.

“Relax. Remember my telling you that sometimes a lesbian will make love to a man? This is one of those times.”

Again, I leave it up to the reader to determine what might happen next.

I experience a different sort of challenge in a scene I wrote for my Civil War historical novel, Sissy! In this particular scene, Lazarus, a 15-year-old former black slave who is now a Yankee soldier visits a prostitute named Rose. Lazarus knows people in Nashville hate him because he’s a Yankee and a Negro, and he has second thoughts about being here. When Rose discovers he’s a virgin and is extremely nervous about the situation, she calms him down….

“This your first time?” she asked, stroking his neck.

“Yes, ma’am.” How did she know?

She moved to the edge of the bed and sighed. “There’s always a first time for everything.” Her eyes focused on him with an intensity that made him uneasy. “How old are you, Lazarus?”

He didn’t care to lie anymore. “Fifteen.”

“Fifteen? That’s about the age I was when I lost my virginity. C’mon, sit next to me and relax,” she said, patting the mattress.

He lowered himself next to her, feeling her soft thigh pressing against his. “Why did the other ladies walk away from me, ma’am?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Because I’m colored?”

“Of course, honey. They probably figure you got some kind of disease or you’re a runaway slave or something. They only like to fool around with white men.”

Lazarus’s blood boiled. When will people stop treatin’ him different?

 “Know why I didn’t walk away?” she asked, drawing her face close to his.

He wondered about that himself. “Why?”

Just then, Emmett’s voice roared through the closed door. “Listen woman, no nigger Yankees here. Understand?” It sounded as if he were shouting at his wife.

Lazarus felt his pulse thumping inside his arms. Gots to leave. White man angry.

“Get outa here!” Lillian screamed. Then footsteps banging down the steps. An object hitting a downstairs wall.

“I’ll be back, woman!” Emmett shouted just before the outside door slammed like a thunderbolt.

Lazarus’s heart raced. He looked at Rose. She don’ look scared. Maybe it’ll be fine.

Rose, with a smile that seemed forced, ran her fingers over his body. “Good. He’s gone. That Emmett’s a little crazy at times.”

Lazarus took a deep breath. It be quiet now. “Ma’am, you were sayin’ about why you didn’t walk away—”

“Because I know what it’s like when people hate you,” Rose said. “People call me Miss Scarface because that’s the first thing they notice about me.”

Lazarus looked away for a moment. He didn’t want her to think he was staring at her. He knew what it was like for people to judge you by your skin.

“But,” she continued, “I’m still a human being, and I have feelings. It’s too bad people find me disgusting because they don’t like my face.”

Lazarus put his arm around her waist. “I don’t find yah disgustin’, ma’am.”

“Thank you for sayin’ that. Means a lot to me. Sometimes I think for a lady like me to look like I do is probably worse than being colored.”

Lazarus was about to disagree with her when she asked him to lie on his back. “I think you’re ready, Lazarus.” She knelt over him, cupping her breasts with her hands. “These are swollen with milk and they’re tender. So before we start foolin’ around, I want you to promise to be gentle.”

The slave woman he had seen six years ago flashed into his mind.

“I don’ want yah to die, child,” she had said, opening the top of her dress.

No, Lazarus thought, I now fifteen, I be a man now. Need to make love to woman. I be a man.

“It be milk for mah own child, but mah child gone now, so you drink from me.”

Lazarus’s mind darted from thought to thought. Did he want to make love to a woman? Or did he want the love of a woman?

He wanted the love, he reckoned, like the love he got six years ago. If he could only relive that moment in the barn with that woman—a complete stranger, escaping from her master.

“I loves you and wants you to live. Drink, lil’ boy. I gives you love’n food.”

Lazarus closed his eyes, trying to recapture that memory. Forget bein’ a man fer now. Be a boy again. Remember how sick you was? She gave you life. All comin’ back now. The hunger. The cold. Her smile. Her breast. Her words. The warmth of her milk on his lips.

Lazarus looked at Rose. “Ma’am, would it be proper for me to—?”

She frowned. “To what?” A smile formed on her face, and she shook her head in disbelief. “Well, I’ll be! Is that what you want?”

He nodded, embarrassed. This was a stupid request. He shouldn’t have made it. After all, he wasn’t a little baby, and women only nursed babies, didn’t they?

“Well,” she said, the look of surprise still in her eyes, “I guess there’s no harm in it, even though it is a little peculiar.”

“I understand, ma’am. Sorry I asked.”

“Wait. You’d be doin’ me a favor—but promise me you’ll be gentle.”

“I promise, ma’am.”

Rose patted his head as he drew in the warm, white fluid. It was like being nine years old again. In a cold barn, hungry, and the slave woman offering him her breast so he could survive. Her words came back….

“Your momma done get taken back. I wish I could be your momma, honey child.”

Rose pressed him closer to her. “You’re too young to be shootin’ with the men, aren’t you, Lazarus?”

He looked up at her. “I just play the drums, ma’am. But I really wants to fight. If I’m gonna die, I’d like to do it fightin’ rather than drummin’.”

“Truth be told, honey, I’m a Yankee at heart,” she whispered. “I don’t want slaves, cause I’m one myself, in a way. But you’re lucky, Lazarus.”

He looked up at her. “What yah mean by that?”

“Lazarus, you already got some of the Yankees fightin’ for your freedom. I ain’t got nobody fightin’ for mine.”

The fact that Lazarus wants the prostitute to feed him with her breast milk should not be taken out of context. As a child, Lazarus was saved from starvation when a pregnant woman offered him her milk-filled breast so he could live. I  had to bring out the details of this in the above scene so the reader could fully comprehend the tragedy of this situation.

I urge you to buy a copy of An Innocent Murdered,to discover ways I had to treat some delicate issues—like the molestation of a child or how the true murderer of the priest tried to seduce a detective by offering him her body.

Sex is one of the most powerful natural forces we know. It can be a beautiful thing, it can reveal our own struggles, and it can show how our emotions can overwhelm us when we participate in the act. It can also make us transform the real beauty of the naked form it into something dirty.  As a writer, I don’t mind showing how some misuse the power of their sex to dominate others, but I really would love to show readers the true beauty of a nude human being and the sexual pleasures that God Himself meant for us to enjoy in conjunction with His plan.

Filed under An Innocent Murdered Sissy breasts lesbian pornographic pornography sex sexy scene writers writing writing fiction penis nude nun novelist novels novel writing story sexual intercourse intercourse Christian

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Writing about compassion in fiction and poetry

Compassion is a difficult emotion to convey in fiction and poetry unless we give specific examples in fiction and the right metaphors in poetry. Dickens had a way of showing compassion by creating scenes that showed a LACK of compassion. We all remember Scrooge in his “Christmas Carol” where Ebeneezer tells the men seeking contributions for the poor and destitute that there are prisons and workhouses and that it’s okay if they die anyway because that will decrease the surplus population. By showing a total lack of concern for the less fortunate Dickens flags readers to the need for compassion far better than if he had talked about it in the abstract.

In my blog “The Little Boy Who Had No Shoes” ( I show an example of compassion rather than pointing to a lack of it. I do this again in a short story I wrote entitled A Belt Buckle For Camilla ( in which a single mother with her little girl will not only be having a humble Christmas Eve meal but the mother won’t be able to buy the belt buckle for her daughter that daddy used to wear. But things change when a compassionate stranger invites the both of them for dinner that evening. (You’ll have to read the story to see how it turns out.) My novel An Innocent Murdered shows how a detective named Matt Gunnison demonstrates genuine sympathy for his friend, a 46-year-old former nun, when she admits she knows virtually nothing about sex, but feels shame in asking him to have intercourse with her, and guilt because of her curiosity blended in with her strong religious convictions. Also, Matt’s heart breaks when he uncovers a cold case involving the murder of an 8-year-old girl. [Scroll all the way down after you click on video to watch brief scenes of this novel on YouTube. This video will bring you to a high emotional level which you’ll never forget.]

In poetry, the use of metaphors for depicting compassion can be powerful. Take, for example, Walt Whitman in “O Captain, My Captain!” in writing about Lincoln after the assassination:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; 

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; 

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:      

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red

Where on the deck my Captain lies, 

Fallen cold and dead.

Notice how Whitman effectively uses the metaphor of a ship sailing into port. (ie., the Civil War has come to an end) and the bells one hears (ie, celebration over the end of the war) and the bleeding drops of red (i.e, the assassination event) and the Captain (ie, Abraham Lincoln). This was the most popular poem Whitman had ever written.

I wrote a poem that indirectly alludes to compassion. It’s about a Civil War soldier who, although hardened by the war, still finds room for intense compassion:

Just Another War

by Tom Mach © 2011

The iron of my musket 

is cold and cruel and eager 

as I take aim at a gray uniform. 

Was it just yesterday I fired a cannon 

across that there creek, sending 

a ball sailing through an officer’s tent? 

The explosion was a lightning crack 

reeling me backwards but I pushed up 

and cheered when I heard the death screams. 

Eighth Kansas reporting for duty, sir. 

Well done, lieutenant, carry on. 

Cottonwoods, battered by artillery, 

weep for men strewn like straw on a field.

I thought by now the horror had numbed me.

I don’t want to cry, so I take a swig from my canteen

and wonder how momma is doing with the farm.

Said she’d have to sell it; can’t do the crops alone.

I feel bad about momma,

But then I think about them other mommas,

the ones whose sons got killed,

and for a moment, an eternal moment,

I’m there shielding a flickering candle

as their sobs cascade over stone monuments.

As soon as this soldier reflects on “momma” all of his other heartsick thoughts about all those dead men rise to the surface.

I’m running a series of blogs on compassion, which I think you will find interesting. I’d like to ask you to go to and then to click on the “subscribe” button to get future blogs free of charge. You’ll be glad you did—but be sure you have plenty of Kleenex tissues on hand.

Filed under compassion Lincoln assassination An Innocent Murdered Dickens Christmas Carol Scrooge writing writers fiction poetry

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W. W. Norton: First Lines from New Books Out Today: August 1, 2011


“Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man.”
Busy Monsters: A Novel by William Giraldi

The Sand Speaks
“I’m fluid and omnivorous, the casual
kiss. I’ll knock up your oysters.
I’ll eat your diamonds. I’m a mutt, no


As an aside, I would like to mention that I have six new books out myself and maybe someone from Norton would want to take a look at them. They are Ebooks with the following titles:

Sissy! by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1862-1863)

An Innocent Murdered by Tom Mach (an unusual mystery whodunnit novel

All Parts Together by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1863-1865)

ADVENT by Tom Mach (thriller—with two conflicting scenarios about earth’s final demise

STORIES TO ENJOY by Tom Mach (a collection of 16 short stories with O. Henry-like twists)

HOMER THE ROAMER by Tom Mach (a delightful story about a cat who got an adventure he didn’t want)

Filed under Norton publisher Tom Mach Sissy All Parts Together Homer the Roamer An Innocent Murdered Stories to Enjoy Advent new books books Ebooks