20 things I learned from… Shirley Jump

20 Things I Learned From…

Shirley Jump


Romance Writers of New Zealand

“A Capital Affair” Conference

23rd to 25th August 2013


NOTE: These are my own take on topics covered during Shirley’s keynote workshops on Friday 23rd August. Any incorrect assumptions, interpretations or slants are mine, and mine alone.

1. Never waste the reader’s time; make every word and character count!

2. The Rule of 6: You know that technique of asking “why” so so you can get inside your characters’ heads and truly know their inner goals, motivations and conflicts? Ask that question not once or twice, but SIX times.

You’ll probably be able to reel off 5 reasons why your hero thinks this/acts like this/wants this, with no problems. But that 6th “why?” is the hard one, and that 6th reason you come up with invariably cuts to the heart of everything. It will drill down deep into his psyche , and you’ll be surprised what you learn about him and how much more layered and nuanced his actions and reactions become.

I’ve done a couple of NLP courses, so I know most people can remember 3 to 5 things easily. After that, it’s more difficult. And the same applies to your character’s motivations etc. Coming up with that 6th reason is hard… but oh-so worth the effort. Why didn’t I think of this before? Duh!

3. Give your characters quirks — 3 is a good number. You may not use them all but they will add layers and complexity to your characters.

e.g. a heroine who loves bonsai could highlight that she prefers to be in control, and likes precision and order in her life.

4. Know your main characters’ skills, strengths and weaknesses.

Their weaknesses will get them into trouble time and time again. Their skills and strengths will save them in the end.

3rd Sept: Please note correction to above as per Shirley’s suggestion — thank you so much for checking this over, Shirley!

“Weaknesses get the characters into trouble, over and over, and their strengths save the day at the end.”

Start with their weaknesses because they can also end up being strengths. And if you’re having trouble, analyze an episode from your favorite sit-com: How did the characters fail? How did their weaknesses save the day?

5. What is your character’s worst nightmare?

Now make it become the trouble that kicks off your book. Your characters’ resistance to facing their worst fear provides conflict.

6. Let your characters try and FAIL… multiple times. Let them make the same mistakes over and over until finally (!) they learn from their failures.

7. To be effective and necessary in a story, secondary characters should be foils, or opposites, to your main characters. Then they can teach your hero or heroine important lessons, e.g. “don’t turn out like me!”

What makes your book different?

8. Every scene needs to have a goal; needs to feed into the overarching goal for the POV character: what’s her motivation? Why does she want it?

9. At the end of every scene or chapter, ask yourself: Did things get worse for my characters?

10. Trust the process!

Did you turn off your computer last night because you’d written yourself into a corner? Trust that when you re-read what you’ve written so far, there will be little half-buried clues that will give you the tools to write yourself out of that corner.

11. If a scene isn’t working, it’s likely because you’ve lost sight of your characters’ goals.

12. You can make any action the characters take plausible with the right motivation.

13. The first page of your book is your promise to the reader!

14. Trust your heart and your gut; write what makes you happy!

NOTE: These next points relate to marketing:

15. Who are you? 

What do you want people to know about you? About your book?

What makes your book different?

What makes you different to other people out there? What makes you similar?

16. Your marketing/brand should establish your promise to the reader.

17. To help figure out your promise to the reader, find three words that define you and make you happy.

(Shirley’s are: Food. Family. Love. This is who she is as a writer.)

18. Your tag line should be a phrase of 5 words or less. This becomes your “compass” when you write; Is this story me? Is writing it going to make me happy?

19. Your presence on social media should feed back into your brand. So should your giveaways, the colors you chose for marketing yourself, the way you dress in public, etc.

20. Protect your brand; publish the best book you can write.




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9 Responses to “20 things I learned from… Shirley Jump”

  1. Karina Bliss says:

    Wonderful posts, Maree, thanks for sharing with those who didn’t make it to conference.

  2. Hayson Manning says:

    Awesome post, Maree, thanks. I like making your character have a quirk. Thanks for posting.

    • edgtb says:

      You’re welcome, Hayson. But it sure wasn’t my wisdom — it was Shirley’s all the way! I’m just the fangirly note-taker *g*

  3. Shirley Jump says:

    Thank you so much! I’m thrilled that I even had 20 good things to teach! :-)

    Only one thing I’d gently correct–weaknesses get the characters into trouble, over and over, and their strengths save the day at the end. Otherwise, awesome notes! Heck, this is a handout in and of itself :-)

    • Thanks so much for checking out this post, Shirley — I’ll make that correction straight away!

      I hope you realize how much we all got from your workshop and comprehensive notes and your talks. I had so many “Aha!” moments and little revelations to treasure. It was brilliant! And we can’t thank you enough for traveling such a distance to attend our conference.


      • Shirley Jump says:

        I’m so thrilled to hear you learned so much! I’m really happy–and honestly, truly blessed to have had the opportunity to see such an amazing country!

  4. Shannon says:

    Thanks so much for this very well written post, and thanks to Shirley for sending the link out to the group.
    I’m going to go back through your other posts!

  5. Chris Bailey says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your notes, Maree! And thanks, Shirley, for fine tuning. I’m sure you had a wonderful trip. NZ is on my bucket list!