Posted On July 4, 2011 by Print This Post

Writing A HolyCowAwesome Story, Part 1 C.J. Redwine

Welcome C.J. Redwine as she tells us how to write HolyCowAwesome – a new term that will soon be taking over the world!

I’m a busy woman. At the moment, I work a day job, have writing deadlines to meet, do my best to keep up with my toddler, and ride herd on three boys intent on destroying a chunk of middle Tennessee with the cunning use of bottle rockets, toothpaste, and lack of personal hygiene. I don’t have a lot of spare time.

Which means I don’t get to read nearly as many books as I used to. (Please note that my lack of reading time has IN NO WAY diminished how many books I purchase. My TBR pile is ridiculous because I cannot resist the Ooh, Shiny! feeling I get when I see a cover or read a blurb that attracts my attention. Please also note that you should not feel obligated to share that fact with my husband.)

When I do get a chance to read a book, I want it to be HolyCowAwesome. I want to be totally captivated by the characters, immersed in the world, and unable to put it down because I simply have to know what happens next. If I start reading a book, and it doesn’t deliver what it promised with its Ooh, Shiny! cover and premise, I simply stop reading. I don’t have the time to soldier forward in hopes that it will somehow get better.

I know a lot of other readers who do the same. So, how do you, the writer, make sure your reader gets infected with One More Chapteritus? I’m going to take cover this topic in segments since it’s multi-layered, and since nailing THIS means grabbing a reader/agent/editor and holding them until the very last word.

In the next couple of months, I’ll dive into specific things you can do to make your story HolyCowAwesome. This month, I’ll cover a few of the things that make most readers set your book aside and move on to the next Ooh, Shiny! story in their TBR (or slush!) pile. Ready to take a hard look at your story? Here are the top ten reasons why I would set your book aside.

1. You barely skimmed the surface of your main characters. I love to sink beneath the skin of your characters and live in their heads for the duration of the book. If your heroine has the emotional capacity of block of wood, don’t expect me to care if she gets put in mortal peril in chapter twenty. At that point, chances are good I’m rooting for her to bite the big one and put us all out of our misery.

2. Every character in your book is stunningly beautiful and perfect. I have a confession to make. Stunningly beautiful/perfect characters bore me to death. If you have an entire cast of them, I’ll wonder if some cruel trick of fate has landed me in the middle of an episode of America’s Top Model. I was about to say the only thing worse than reading an episode of ATM would be doing a workout with Richard Simmons, but at least he makes me laugh.

And he’s not afraid of sequins.

3. Events happen that go against what a character would authentically do/choose simply so you can have the plot twist where you want it to twist. This a) is lazy writing and b) assumes I’m too stupid to realize you’ve hijacked your characters for the sake of sticking with your outline.

4. Your main character is never in any real danger. I don’t necessarily mean physical danger, though most of what I choose to read includes that component. Emotional danger works too. At some point, I need to worry the hero/heroine won’t get what he/she needs. I need to be afraid he/she won’t live, won’t succeed, or will be broken beyond repair. If you can’t deliver stakes like those, what’s the point of reading the story?

5. You repeat things I already know. It’s one thing to revisit an important fact/idea occasionally throughout the book. It’s another thing to SHOW me a character laughing and then fill up the next two paragraphs TELLING me the character found something funny. Give me the action and trust me to understand its implications. If more explanation is needed, do it in a way that doesn’t assume I’m too stupid to have figured it out on my own.

6. You rhapsodize endlessly about a certain feature on your hero or heroine. I love a sexy hero as much as the next girl. I don’t love endlessly reading gooey descriptions of the hero’s lips. Eyes. Jaw. Pecs. Whatever. Now, this one is certainly a matter of personal taste. I’m sure there are readers out there who enjoy having the hero’s adorable cleft chin referenced on every other page. I’m not one of them. I’m much more interested in what’s going on within the hero’s heart and mind. And I like to think the heroine is the kind of woman who’s intelligent enough to get past her initial OOOH! Cleft chin! reaction and start looking for signs of heroism beneath the external.

7. Your villain doesn’t scare me. Voldemort scared me. The killer from PSYCHOPATH (Keith Ablow) scared me. A villain who has the opportunity to cause pain and uses it instead to endlessly explain his every little move (All the better to give the hero a chance to arrive, my dear!) does not. I think it’s fantastic when a villain offers some sort of insight into the way his mind works. I just need it to be done in a way that increases how threatened I feel by him. If I’m not afraid of the villain, I don’t care about the story.

8. If I can see a convenient way out of the danger/situation, if all the hero/heroine has to do is do x instead of y and x doesn’t cost him/her anything, I’m done reading. I love to be on the edge of my seat, unable to see how the hero/heroine could either a) get out of the situation unscathed or b) pay the cost of the decision they’ll have to make. You do that, and I’m hooked for life.

9. Your ending is heavy on the exposition, light on the action. This is an easy mistake to make. You’ve got loose ends to tie up. Questions to answer. A foundation for the next book to lay. I get that. But I’ve been reading feverishly for the last two hundred odd pages to get to this point and I don’t want to sit back and read the equivalent of Driving Miss Daisy. I want action. Danger. Life-threatening/emotionally-scarring stuff. I want to be unable to put the book down because I’m so afraid the characters I know and love won’t come through.

10. Your stakes suck. For a story to really pull me in, the stakes have to matter. Really matter. I have to care deeply about the characters and the outcome of their struggle. I have to want them to make it. I have to see that the cost of them not making it is painfully high. It doesn’t actually matter if the stakes involve physical danger, saving the world, or finally making a romantic commitment to their soul mate–the stakes have to really matter to me. For the stakes to matter, you have to push the characters to their limit. You have to make me frantically turn page after page because I have this terrible fear that somehow the characters won’t pull it off.

Tune in next month to learn how to raise the stakes and make the conflict matter to the reader. Until then, I’ll be busy wrangling my four kids, writing my own HolyCowAwesome story, and searching the bookstores for the next Ooh, Shiny! to add to my TBR pile.


So tell us readers, what makes you turn the next page, what keeps you reading when you SHOULD be in bed?

Join us on Wednesday for James Scott Bell and his special lecutre on writing The End of the Story


Bio: C.J. Redwine writes YA fantasy and is repped by the fabulous Holly Root. Her debut novel, THE COURIER’S DAUGHTER, will be published in Fall 2012 by Balzer & Bray. To learn more about C.J., visit her blog at

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20 Responses to “Writing A HolyCowAwesome Story, Part 1 C.J. Redwine”

  1. Hi C.J.,

    I’m really looking forward to your HolyCowAwesome segment!

    Like you, I’m less inclined now to read a book that doesn’t grab my attention right away. How does an author grab my attention? I have no idea. LOL I suspect it’s a combination of voice, action, dialogue, turn of phrase, etc.

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | July 4, 2011, 6:59 am
  2. HI CJ! Wonderful post and perfectly described a list I always try to check as a writer, but when I read it’s more of an organic process. I know when I love a story, and I know when I don’t. Follow the list and I will probably love it. Thanks so much for the reminder!

    Posted by Jennifer Probst | July 4, 2011, 7:17 am
  3. Morning CJ and Happy Fourth of July!

    Well, I can see I’m adding another RU post to my “have to read this again and again” pile! =) Great post!

    I just finished a book last night, Lisa Gardner with The Survivor’s Club. Next thing I knew it was 1:45am and I’m still reading. Only the threat of the alarm going off at 7:15 pried the book out of my hands. Non stop action, wondering what could possibly happen next, and who really done it!? kept me going ….

    definitely a holycowawesome book. =)

    thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 4, 2011, 7:19 am
  4. HolyCowAwesome – I love that! (total phrase envy going on over here)

    Your list was right on the money. I know that at the most basic level my “HolyCowAwesome” reaction is visceral – I just love a book. it’s almost a a physical thing but the way you broke it down encompassed all of the factors that lead to that reaction for me.

    A great reference for me as I keep writing and reading!


    Posted by Robin Covington | July 4, 2011, 8:07 am
  5. Hi CJ,

    I like to be surprised. All the characters are introduced and then one leaves or dies. Now no one is safe. Anything can happen to them. I like the villian to start out as a friend then turn. Characters with layers are good too. Look forward to your future posts.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | July 4, 2011, 9:14 am
  6. CJ –

    Fabulous post today! I’ve been thinking about this “HCA” quite a bit lately because I so often put aside books these days. For me, it’s definitely about the emotional pull, rather than the strictly physical action. I couple of weeks ago, I re-read an old Erin McCarthy Book Houston, We Have a Problem and it totally sucked me in even though: 1. I’d read it before and 2. It was a straight contemporary romance.

    I’d love to see us compile a list of HCA books for our readers!

    Happy 4th!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | July 4, 2011, 9:30 am
  7. CJ – I love “holycowawesome!” Thanks so much for these fabulous tips. I’m nearly finished with my WIP – I’ll use this post to double-check it. Thank you!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | July 4, 2011, 11:09 am
  8. Hi CJ,

    Love, Love Love, “HolyCowAwesome”.

    For me, it’s voice, a way with words a la Harlan Coben. Team these with GMC and well-drawn characters – Coben and Scottoline excel here – and you’ve got me.

    Thanks for a great post.


    Posted by Cia | July 4, 2011, 12:25 pm
  9. LOL CJ, I could have written the opening to your post, but probably not as cleverly. I will cop to having over 400 books in my TBR pile and I read maybe one book a month IF I’m lucky and it’s holycowawesome. I am dismayed by the number of books I have to put aside because they are not HCA, even ones by my formerly-autobuy authors. You can bet I’m taking a hard look at your list, esp #5. I think you must have read one of my manuscripts to come up with that one! 🙂 Thanks for a holycowawesome list.

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | July 4, 2011, 12:44 pm
  10. Ooh, this is perfect timing for me. I’m in crappy first draft mode and now I’ll have a handy checklist!

    Thanks, CJ.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | July 4, 2011, 1:57 pm

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