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Friday, December 23, 2005

Endorsements

What clients are saying about the Story Sensei critique service


Camy and I worked together on a series of synopses and I found her ability to pinpoint the heart of the story incredibly helpful. Once I had that, plot holes were easy to fill in and my characters' journeys became more fulfilling--both to write and to read. Thank you, Camy!

--Shelley Bates, author of RITA Award winner Grounds to Believe (Steeple Hill 2005), and Over Her Head (FaithWords 2007)


In today's writing industry, grabbing an agent's or editor's immediate interest is a must--it can mean the difference between a request for a full manuscript and a form rejection letter. As agents and editors have limited time, a winning synopsis can make them dive into your sample chapters with interest. Camy Tang is a master synopsis sensei--highlighting where to pull out the vital information and showing you where to tighten and enhance your structural plot in order to make your synopsis sing. I highly recommend the Story Sensei to anyone who wants their synopsis to best display their story, writing style, and garner an agent's or editor's attention. I wouldn't submit a synopsis without Camy's insight and critique!

--Robin Caroll, author of Bayou Justice (Steeple Hill, 2007)


Camy's critique of my query letter was so excellent and thorough that she was able to identify potential problems in my story. She went on to offer solutions, examples, and resources that would benefit my writing beyond the query letter. I'm glad I didn't send it out without Camy's feedback!

--Georgiana Daniels, author of Table for One (The Wild Rose Press, 2008)


As a novelist, freelance editor, and contest judge, I have particularly high standards for critiques and useful feedback. Camy is one of the few critiquers that I know I can rely on to provide balanced, constructive comments on my work. She is especially good at the high-level, structural analysis required to refine synopses, which results in a tighter, better focused story structure. Any writer will benefit from her insightful comments.

--Meredith Efken, author of SAHM I Am (Steeple Hill, 2005)


Camy Tang has a true gift for pinpointing the essence of a story and then examining the strengths and weaknesses in its structure. She understands what the story lacks and offers workable solutions that preserve that essence. With her insight, warmth, professionalism, and reasonable rates, I highly recommend Camy and the Story Sensei.

--Marilyn Hilton, author of The Christian Girl's Guide to Your Mom (Legacy Press, 2004) and It's All About Dad and Me (Pleasant Word, 2005)


I value Camy's critiques, because she has a gift at honing in on big-picture issues to improve. She has an instinct for tone, and radar for any areas weak in conflict or tension.

--Sharon Hinck, author of The Secret Life of Becky Miller (Bethany House, 2006) and The Restorer (Marcher Lord Press, 2011)


I have taken Camy's synopsis workshop and her self-editing workshop. I am very pleased with both of them. I sometimes wonder if I would ever have been published without them.

--Jean Kinsey, author of The Lightkeeper's Daughter (Desert Breeze, 2012)


For a reasonable price, Camy Tang provides a backstage pass to the Christian publishing industry. I credit Camy with helping me get that first contract. With two books sold, I still count on Camy to tweak proposals and those crucial first chapters. I believe Camy’s tutelage helped take years off the learning/waiting process on my road to publication.

--Patti Lacy, author of The Irishwoman: A Novel (Kregel, 2008) and Reclaiming Lily (Bethany House, 2011)


Camy Tang performed a line edit of the first chapter of a new manuscript. I sent it to her expecting the writing and idea to be torn apart. Instead, it was a great blend of encouragement with concrete tips and ways to knock my writing up a notch. So if you've been thinking about submitting to the Story Sensei, I encourage you to do so. I know I will.

--Cara Putman, author of Canteen Dreams (Heartsong Presents, 2007)


I highly recommend Camy's critiquing service to anyone who really needs help with a floundering manuscript or perhaps just needs another pair of experienced eyes to look over their writing. As a member of a small San Jose author's group, I've had the privilege of meeting Camy personally and have had several of my chapters critiqued by her. She has a rare talent for picking out flaws in logic, plot flow, conflict, tension, characterization, goals, and scene structure. I have not only found her critiques extremely valuable, but she's a really great person to work with!

--MaryLu Tyndall, author of The Redemption (Barbour Publishing, 2006) and The Restitution (Barbour Publishing, 2007)


Camy Tang is the best structural editor I've ever met. She has an incredible ability to help authors hone not only their story, but their synopses, their story blurbs, etc. Camy helped me with my pitch for a writer's conference which garnered an editor request which eventually led to my first sale. Story Sensei is affordable and well worth the money. Even as a soon-to-be published author, I won't send anything to my editor without having Camy's hawk eyes peruse it first. She has an incredibly accurate radar for plot holes, and judging if a story has sufficient character issues as far as their Goals, Motivation, Conflict that will not only sustain a plot, but make for a salable manuscript in today's competitive market. Editors really DO look for these things in a story, and I'm SO glad I ran my stuff through Camy before submitting. It marked the end of my rejection season for sure. I believe Story Sensei is an excellent investment for both pubbed and unpubbed authors. What you learn from Camy will improve your stories from now on.

--Cheryl Wyatt, author of A Soldier's Promise (Steeple Hill, 2008)


Camy Tang offers keen insight into cutting the fluff, adding emotion, layering characters and polishing a manuscript until it sings. As a new writer, it's so encouraging to see your work come together after someone as experienced as Camy has touched it. And, her advice, suggestions and corrections are always offered with such a caring spirit! Thanks, Camy, for the sweet “a-ha” moment that follows your editing!

--Angie Arndt, ACFW member


Dear Camy,
I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your insight and assistance. The questions you asked me helped improve the motivation for my characters and the entire project begin to meld. You are uplifting and fun to work with as well as full of writing wisdom. Also, you're so quick! Thank you again for being my Story Sensei.

--Angie Breidenbach, ACFW member


Camy is one of the best critiquers I've ever worked with and offered great insight into my writing. I highly recommend her Story Sensei service to new and experienced writers alike.

--Linda Fulkerson, author of The Prodigal Daughter: Hope for Runaway Christians and Those Who Await Their Return


Camy has a rare gift of being able to see the logical parts of a story and tell if those elements are working in your WIP or not. She is the best at structure and plot. If you truly want to see what is wrong with your story and want to get editors interested, send your synopsis to her. She helped me get my plot in order and eliminated a sagging middle by helping me make sure the conflict was enough to carry the story through to the end. I simply can't praise her enough.

--Pamela James, 2005 ACFW Noble Theme contest Finalist


Camy did a great critique for me a couple weeks back. Very quick response, very detailed comments and suggestions and she basically hit all the things that my little voice was hinting at beforehand. Camy, thanks for clearly pointing out my story's weaknesses with sound advice. I've charged through, took what I previously felt was good stuff, and hit it with a jackhammer. I can see the improvements though demolition was not enjoyable. The smoke is clearing!

--Debra E. Marvin, ACFW member


Taking those first three chapters from good to great is vital. Camy looked at the first three of my WIP and suggested I rearrange some of the scenes to truly bring out the suspense elements. Now I have three chapters I feel confident about thanks to her insightful input.

--Dineen A. Miller, 2005 ACFW Noble Theme contest Finalist


I took Camy Tang’s Self-Editing class not knowing what to expect. What I received was a comprehensive, challenging course with personalized input how I could improve my manuscripts. I thoroughly enjoyed this class and would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to become more adept at editing their work. I felt both encouraged and prodded to refine and sharpen my manuscripts.

Camy teaches with a fun, informative style, using many examples and listing an abundance of resources. It’s clear she roots for everyone in the class to improve their writing. I’m indebted to her for providing key and applicable lessons that benefit me as I work to strengthen my editing skills.

--Wendy Miller


Camy Tang has a rare talent—she is both successful writer and inspiring teacher. When I first asked Camy to read over my manuscript, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I have read a lot of books from various authors and studied books on writing. When I received my critique from Camy, I was floored. It almost felt like the little girl peeking behind the curtain at the wizard. Camy opened my eyes to so many principles of writing I have never been exposed to, and she makes it look so easy. She takes the mystery out of putting together a marketable story, and she shows you with articles, advice and encouragement how you can make your manuscript even better. I will be forever grateful to Camy for what she has taught me. It's one thing to be a successful writer and enjoy all the rewards. It's quite another thing to teach a handful of dreamers how to achieve that same success.

--Merry Muhsman


Camy Tang operates as an effective manuscript doctor, not an author's executioner. While she possesses a laser-like ability to diagnose any diseases in the bones of a synopsis or manuscript, Camy's chief concern is to recommend remedies that will result in a healthy, vital book. A fun, relaxed personality, she helped make our 2005 ACFW Fiction Clinic more like a writing club than a treatment center. If your chapters are ailing, call Dr. Tang!

--Rachael Phillips, winner of the 2004 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Award, ACFW member


Camy Tang's blend of crisp insight and creamy understanding makes her structural critiques not only a delight to devour, but literarily nutritious, too. She has a chef's gift for sensing when to add more seasonings and when to cut back; when to stir and when to shake; how long a scene can simmer before it forms an unsightly skin; and how to ensure that our writing doesn't hit the plate raw or overcooked. My compliments to the chef!

She dipped her critiquing spoon into my sample pages and noted that it was weak in external conflict for the hero of my story. The taste of tension was muted, not well defined and distinct. Although she approved of the pacing, she pointed out several spots where simple changes in sentence structure made it more palatable. Camy's heightened senses in regard to structural elements like story arc, character uniqueness and believability, hooks, point of view, rhythm, goals, and conflicts make me want to seek her out frequently to say, "Here. Would you taste this? What's it missing?"

--Cynthia Ruchti, writer/producer of The Heartbeat of the Home radio ministry


Camy Tang's critique of my manuscript was right on the money. I chose her critique services because her pathway to publication and education fit with the steps I was taking. Her insightful comments are in line with today's commercial writing techniques, and I found her suggestions to be practical, straightforward, and exactly what I needed to hear. Would I use Camy's services again? You bet. Would I recommend them to others? If a person is serious about improving her craft, then by all means, yes.

--Lynn Squire, writer/editor of Faith , Fiction, Fun, and Fanciful Newsletter


I for one wouldn't dare send anything to an agent or editor without first sending it to Camy Tang. She has a special talent for being able to look logically at a synopsis and know what's wrong with it. I know when I send something to her; she is going to be tough and thorough and I'll be able to send in a proposal that will create interest.

--Heather Diane Tipton, writer and Virtual Assistant, ACFW member


After I finished my first book last May, I rushed to send out query letters without having anyone besides my family look them over. Every letter came back with a big fat REJECTION. So, I wrote another book. I had Camy look over my synopsis twice and she also read my first twenty five pages. I have no doubt that it made all the difference. I've already had two agents express interest in my manuscript. Camy's the best.

--Rachel Trautmiller, ACFW member

Friday, November 25, 2005

Internet marketing - blog tours

This article originally appeared as a series of blog posts.

Because of the nature of the web, blog tours have become an effective marketing tool. However, like most marketing strategies, it’s hard to quantify how effective it is in terms of sales.

Regardless, blog tours are low cost and get the word out (buzz) about you and your book, and that’s never a bad thing.

Also, if you’ve got a website contest going on, a blog tour is a great way to get the word out about it, because you can mention the contest at each blog on the tour.

Please use the following guidelines to help you schedule the time you’ll need for the blog tour. You’ll need time the month before the tour in setting it up (contacting people, writing guest blog posts or answering interview questions), and you’ll also need time during the tour to email reminders, to post the daily stops on the tour, to comment on each blog on the tour, and to correct any mis-posts.

Setting up a blog tour:

You can hire a publicity company to do this for you, or you can hire a virtual assistant privately to set it up for you. Most of the time, with these two options, they will send out an e-blast to a bunch of bloggers, and some will agree to host your blog tour on their blog. They usually post the book blurb and your bio, but not much else.

You can also go the cheap route and set it up yourself, especially if you know a lot of people who have blogs. This also gives you more control over the content in the blog tour.

In setting it up yourself, you simply email your friends who have blogs and ask them if they’d be willing to be part of your blog tour. Give dates—typically a good blog tour lasts anywhere from 2 weeks to a month, sometimes longer. Some blog tours are shorter—3 days—so it’s up to you how long you want your tour. A longer tour typically means softer internet buzz about you over a longer period of time, while a shorter tour means a strong internet buzz about you over those few days.

I will usually email friends at least a month before the tour starts, ideally 6 weeks so that I can send books to each blogger in plenty of time (see the next post about sending books) and have lots of time to answer interview questions and write up guest blog posts.

Each person who agrees to be part of your blog tour then picks a date that they will post about your book. An alternative is to ask each person to commit to posting during a certain week of the tour, and then in your Blog Tour Schedule, list the bloggers by week.

Important etiquette: Generally, if someone agrees to be part of your blog tour, you are required to send them a free copy of your book to read.

If they want to give a copy away on their blog, then you provide another copy for them to give away. Another method is to have them email you the mailing address of the winner, and you can send the winner their copy directly.

Pictures: Make sure you send everyone .jpg files of your book cover and you so they can post it on their blog.

Central website: Mary DeMuth recently had a blog tour where she had a central website page that included everything for the tour. This is an excellent tool and I intend to use this next time. Her centralized website included:

--links to pictures that people could use
--book blurb and links to buy her book
--link to excerpt
--the Blog Tour Schedule
--canned interviews people could use
--links to examples of reviews and interviews
--detailed instructions and HTML code for those so inclined

I probably wouldn’t include canned interviews because then people all post the same content (I’ll be talking more about content in the next post).

I also would link to my centralized website from my blog and/or website so it’s easy to find—I lost the email with the address and had to search for it to get the information on Mary’s tour. I might even make it a post on my blog so that it’s easier to find.

However, this idea of a centralized website was fabulous and I intend to cannibalize it in future blog tours.

Content:

The best blog tours have completely original content on each and every blog.

You can have a blog tour where each person posts the same pre-written interview or just the blurb of the book and your bio, and those are still good blog tours because the large number of blogs that post about you and your book is still generating some internet buzz.

However, you ideally want an interesting, interactive blog tour, one where people will visit every single blog on the tour. For that to happen, you must have original content at each “stop.”

This requires pre-planning on your part. When you email your friends to ask them to be part of your blog tour, give them three options: to post a review, to post an interview with you (where they email you about 5 questions to answer), or to post a guest blog post written by you about whatever topic they prefer.

If you do your blog tour in conjunction with another group like the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, try to encourage people to email you to get original content for their stops on the blog tour. I had several people in the CFBA who were stops on my blog tour (and got a link on my Blog Tour Schedule) because they posted original content.

Try to return your interview answers or the guest blog post in good time. I try to request the questions and return them before the blog tour even starts. You must make sure you give the blogger enough time to format the post before posting it. Some bloggers will post at midnight the day they’re supposed to post, so you must get them the content at least two days before, but that’s pushing it, in my opinion.

Reviews: This means the blogger commits to reading your book and writing the review before it’s their date to post.

Now, you also have to realize that your blogger friend has the right to give you only a so-so review, because it’s their blog and their review. You still have to link to them because they’re part of your blog tour.

However, most of the time, your friend will give you a pretty good review. Just be prepared in case you don’t get lots of gushing.

Interviews: The blogger emails you about 5 questions to answer. This enables the blogger to ask questions that tie in to their blog’s theme if they choose. For example, my blog is light, funny, and quirky, so I’ll ask quirky questions when I send interview questions.

Make sure that even if people ask the same questions, that you don’t just copy and paste answers. Make each answer original writing. If you can, give a different spin on the answers for each blog.

For example, I was often asked how I came up with the idea for the Sushi series. My answers from three different blogs is below:

From Robin Caroll's blog: What was your inspiration for Sushi for One?

I promise it wasn't my family! My grandma (and my parents, and my other relatives) are nothing like Grandma Sakai. GS was a conglomeration of stories I heard from friends about their parents/aunties/siblings/grandparents. Of course, once I had Grandma Sakai, what better than to pit her against Christian single women in her family with as much backbone as she has?

From Amber Miller's blog: What gave you the inspiration for this book?

I actually thought up all the cousins' personalities at the same time, so I "knew" all of them before I even wrote Sushi for One. I made Lex as good at volleyball as I wished I was. :) Then I went into her family situation and her personality and thought, "What would be the best and worst things that could happen to her?"

Then I applied Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK and asked, "How can I make things worse?" I'm so evil. :)

From Erica Vetsch's blog: Can you tell us a little about how the story went from idea to published novel?

People have asked me if Grandma Sakai is based on my own grandma. No, she’s not. However—unfortunately—she’s a conglomeration of my friends’ aunties, mothers, and grandmothers.

I think lots of people can relate to at least one relative who’s always pestering the single people in their family about getting married and having kids. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it’s downright annoying.

I wondered what would happen if the Buddhist matriarch of a family fell down hard and heavy on a close-knit group of cousins who all happened to be Christian.

I also wanted the cousins to be not-your-average chick lit heroines—I wanted them to be characters that readers would relate to and yet find intriguing. So I made one a jock, one a flirt, one a cactus, and one a doormat. The Sushi Series was born.

Camy here: You can see how I had a slightly different spin on each question, to make each blog on the tour unique despite the fact they asked similar questions.

I also tailored my answers to the particular blog: Robin is a strong personality who writes strong heroines, so I brought out Grandma Sakai’s strong personality in my answer. Amber’s interview was geared toward writers, so my answer was focused more toward writers. And I tailored Erica’s answer more toward the entire series rather than just book one.

Guest blog posts: The blogger will ask you to write a short blog post, often on a topic of their choosing. Usually the topic is in line with the blog’s theme or the blogger’s interests.

Sometimes they’ll say to just blog about whatever you feel like. Even when given carte blanche like this, try to aim the blog post toward the blogger’s theme.

For example, when blogging for Sharon Hinck, I wrote about superheroes in my life since her theme is “The Superhero in all of us.” When blogging for Mary DeMuth, I wrote about authenticity since Mary’s blog is very authentic. I also managed to sneak in info on my writing and my books, since the blog tour is essentially to get the word out about you.

Try to keep your guest blog posts SHORT. I try to aim for 250 – 500 words. Do NOT run on for more than 750 words maximum, and only do that if the blogger has asked you to address several things in your blog post.

Scheduling:

Some blog tours schedule one person per day. Others let the bloggers choose whichever day they like, and there will be a few gaps.

Still others do a combination of both—bloggers can choose dates, but if someone asks you for a date, you try to schedule at least one person for each day on the tour. For my blog tour, I ended up with at least one person for each day, and some days had several people because they chose that particular date.

Some people will ask for several dates—that’s fine! Sometimes they will send lots of interview questions and break the interview up over two days. Sometimes they will post both a review and an interview, or a guest blog post and an interview, or a combination of the three options you’ve given them.

In general, Monday through Friday are the best days to post, with lower traffic over the weekends. If someone chooses to post over the weekend, you can request that they keep the post up over Monday so that you get maximum exposure. However, if they choose not to, don’t get upset. Remember, it’s their blog and they’re doing you a favor.

Logistics:

Make sure you’ve scheduled everything on either a spreadsheet or a calender.

For each day of the tour, make sure you have written down which blogger, their blog address, and whether they’re doing a review, interview, or guest blog post, or a combination of all three.

Also write down if you’ve received the interview questions yet. If you haven’t, email them to remind them to send them to you so you have time to get the answers back to them in good time.

Also write down if you’ve written their guest blog post yet. Try to get that done before the blog tour even starts.

Pictures: Make sure you’ve emailed everyone .jpg files of yourself and your book cover so they can post them with the review, interview, or guest blog post.

The Blog Tour Schedule: If you have a blog, prepare a draft of a post that will include all the stops on your blog tour. Link each stop to the blogger’s blog address so your blog readers can click on it to get to the blog.

If you don’t have a blog, you can also email your Blog Tour Schedule to any email loops you belong to which allow you to post about those sorts of things. Be sure to adhere to the guidelines for each of your email loops. In your email, do the same thing as above and link to each blog address on the tour.

In addition to listing the dates and the blogs, I also try to write a short sentence to entice the reader to come to that particular blog. Since I have original content on each blog, I can say something different for each stop on the tour.

Here’s my blog tour post as an example (you have to scroll down to the end because I added the interview excerpts after the tour was over). To a few email loops I belong to, I sent both the schedule list AND the link to the updated schedule on my blog.

If you have a blog, prepare a post for each day that will highlight that day’s blog stops. You can pre-date the posts so that they’re ready to just post when the day arrives.

Here’s an example of day thirteen on my blog tour. I pre-wrote each day’s post (day thirteen, day fourteen, etc.) so that as each day came, I just posted and didn’t have to worry about writing anything. Essentially, I just copied the short sentence from my blog tour schedule.

Email reminders: Ahead of time, write an email for each person on the blog tour to remind them that they’re posting “tomorrow, [Month, date].” Save these emails as drafts so that you can just click and send the day before the blogger is scheduled to post for your tour.

In these emails, resend your Interview questions or Guest Blog post, and also resend .jpgs of you and your book cover.

Giving away books: This is an option you can offer to your bloggers. They can give away books however they like—most will say to post a comment on the post about you and they’ll draw a name out of a hat on a certain date.

If you give your bloggers this option, be prepared to either mail them an extra copy of your book or have them email you the mailing address of the winner so you can mail the winner their copy directly.

During the blog tour:

Permalinks: During the blog tour, post on your blog each day and link to the blog hosting you for that day. When the blogger has put up your post, change the link on your daily blog post and your Blog Tour Schedule to the permalink for that particular post.

For example, before the tour started, I had:

Alison Strobel Morrow interviews my chick-litty self, and I give the original blurb for Sushi for One that I used for my proposal.

The link to Alison’s blog was just her main blog page, http://alisonstrobel.blogspot.com/.

However, after she posted the interview with me, I changed the link to http://alisonstrobel.blogspot.com/2007/09/sushi-for-one_14.html, which is the permalink on her blog for that particular post.

Alison Strobel Morrow interviews my chick-litty self, and I give the original blurb for Sushi for One that I used for my proposal.

That way, when people click on the link to Alison’s blog, it will take them directly to the post with the interview.

I changed the links on both my post for day fifteen of my blog tour, and also the main post of the full Blog Tour Schedule.

Visit your blogs: For each day, visit the blogs on your tour and leave a comment, thanking them for posting. You can also answer any questions commenters may have posed.

Correct for any mis-posts: Things will always crop up. Just keep your cool and remember that it’s not a big deal.

Sometimes someone will forget to post. Just email them and ask them if they’re going to post that day, or if they’d like to post a different day. Then change the dates on your Blog Tour Schedule, and your daily blog tour posts.

Sometimes a blogger will not be able to post on their scheduled day. Just ask them if they would post on a different day, and then change the dates on your Blog Tour Schedule, and your daily blog tour posts.

Sometimes people will post on the wrong date. Just change the dates on your Blog Tour Schedule and your daily blog tour posts.

Some people will drop out of the tour, never answer your emails, and never post when they’re supposed to. Just erase their link from the Blog Tour Schedule and your daily blog tour posts.

After the blog tour:

Take a breath and rejoice—it’s done!

Take time to thank everyone who participated. If anyone did a book giveaway, remind them to draw the name and give you the mailing address (if you’ll be mailing the books to the winners).

Now look at see what could have been done better.

Did it take way too much of your time? Consider hiring someone to do the emailing and blog posting for you next time. You’ll still need to do the interview questions and write guest blog posts, however, so schedule time in for that. Or maybe you don’t care about original content and would be happy with just the book blurb and your bio on a bunch of blogs during a few days. Decide what you want and how much time you’re willing to spend on it.

Did you get people their interview questions or guest blog posts in time? If not, then try to schedule more time for yourself next time before the blog tour starts. Also, what I do is do the interview the day I receive it (or the next day if it’s late in the evening when I get it) so that I can get it out of the way and sent off as soon as possible. If someone asks for a guest blog post, I also try to write it that day or the next so it’s done quickly. That way, I only had one or two things to write each day rather than 10 interviews to complete the night before the blog tour started.

Did you write your daily blog posts ahead of time? If you didn’t, consider doing that for next time.

Were you prompt on emailing people? Maybe you need a daily reminder on your computer.

Were there several people who mis-posted or didn’t post at all? Remember who they were so that you know who you can count on for your next blog tour.

Now gear up for your next tour!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Basic Point of View

This article originally appeared as a 12-part blog post series.

Many beginning writers are confused about the concept of point of view. I’m hoping this series of blog posts will help you out. After I finish the series, I’ll condense it into one blog post article.

What is point of view?

It’s the type of narration of a story. For the purposes of a writer, it’s easiest to think of it as the eyes through which your reader sees the scene.

There is third person, second person, and first person point of view.

First person is told from the character as the narrator. I’ll be covering that later.

Second person is not used often. It’s the type of narration where the character is referred to using personal pronouns, which serves to make the reader into the character. I remember this type of narration in the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Third person is most often used. In third person, the characters are distinct from the storyteller, who is essentially the author. Most readers are familiar with third person, since most fiction is written in third person past tense.

Third person often works because while it’s told by a narrator, the reader is sucked into the story and usually doesn’t notice the narrator—they are engrossed by the characters and the plot.

For example:

Any man going on this mission wasn’t coming back.

Cluttered kitchen, cluttered head. Kent Wicksell could hardly think straight. It wasn’t supposed to start like this.

----From Amber Morn by Brandilyn Collins

The reader doesn’t even notice the third person narrator. Instead, the reader is caught up in Kent’s dilemma.



Within third person point of view, there are three types:

Omniscient third person point of view was used widely several years ago and is still used sometimes in more literary fiction. It’s what it sounds like—an omniscient writer telling the reader what’s going on from their expanded, omniscient viewpoint. The omniscient writer knows what every person is thinking, what every person is doing.

For example, in omniscient point of view, the reader would find out Karen is being bored to death at the bar by a computer software engineer while Cissy is near the water fountain, fluttering her eyes at Hanson, who hasn’t told her he’s getting married next week to the party’s hostess.

Omniscient point of view has several problems. One, it’s not used these days in commercial fiction, so using it will often mark you as an amateur. Two, it distances the reader from the characters and dampens the emotional impact of the story.

You want to show an editor that you’re up to speed on current publishing trends, and emotion is what spurs the reader to engage in your story. So my advice is to not use omniscient unless you have a darn good reason for using it.

Limited third person point of view means the reader sees the entire scene through only one person’s eyes.

For example, Karen walks into a party. If we’re in Karen’s point of view, we’ll see how she views the party—the people she meets, the things she thinks about them, the terrible time she’s having. Karen doesn’t know that Cissy is on the other side of the room having a blast flirting with a hot blond model, so you wouldn’t write about Cissy—you’re in Karen’s point of view.

Deep third person takes limited third person a step further and draws the reader right into the character’s skin. It’s as immediate as first person point of view and is most commonly used in the publishing industry today. I wrote an entire series on deep point of view that I encourage you to check out.




To help the reader understand multiple characters, you can switch the point of view character throughout the book, using one for each scene.

For example, chapter one is in Karen’s point of view at the party. In the next chapter or scene, we switch to Cissy, the day after the party, hoping Hanson will call her. In the third chapter or scene, we move to Elena, picking up her phone and finding her fiancé Hanson on the line, flirting with some other woman. In the fourth chapter or scene, Karen is woken up with a pounding headache by her cell phone—it is her best friend Elena, who is crying that she thinks her fiancé Hanson is having an affair.

Be judicious in how many point of view characters you use. Too many point of view characters is often confusing for a reader.

For example, in Debbie Macomber’s Blossom Street series, her novels always only have four point of view characters. This helps the reader keep track of who is who, because the reader is dropped into the heads of only four characters out of the larger cast of minor characters.

Typically, a romance will only show two points of view—the hero and heroine. If you choose to use a third point of view character, make sure you have scenes from that character’s point of view throughout the novel, not just a scene or two. It disrupts the flow of the story to make the reader switch to a new point of view character for only a few scenes. Be creative and write the scene from the hero or heroine’s point of view instead.




First person point of view is from only one person’s point of view, and it’s as if the reader is really inside the person’s head. You can use past tense or present tense.

Past tense:
Eat and leave. That’s all I had to do. If Grandma didn’t kill me first for being late. I raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and was immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. I tripped over the threshold and almost turned my ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, I hated wearing heels.

Present tense:
Eat and leave. That’s all I have to do. If Grandma doesn’t kill me first for being late. I race through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and am immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. I trip over the threshold and almost turn my ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, I hate wearing heels.

Many writers like using first person point of view because it feels more immediate, but it’s actually more difficult than it seems.

Writers need to master deep point of view when they use first person. Often, I see first person manuscripts that seem very distant from the reader, when it should be very intimate because the point of view is first person.

The manuscript also can’t simply be a long monologue of what the character is thinking—that’s boring. Too often, writers fall into the habit of too much narrative when they write first person and not enough dialogue and action.

Sometimes first person is also a bit limiting because the reader is never privy to any other character’s thoughts or feelings. A manuscript in first person has to be really well done to make the reader feel the other characters’ emotions without ever being in their points of view.




The most important thing to remember about point of view is:

You are the character.

This involves several things. First:

Your character would only see what you would see.

You don’t see your face unless you’re looking in a mirror. You don’t see the color of your eyes. You don’t see when a flush creeps up your cheeks (although you might feel the heat). You don’t see how charming you look when you’re angry. You don’t see the flash or glitter or tears in your eyes.

Your character wouldn’t see any of that, either. So when you’re writing a scene from a certain character’s point of view, only write what the character herself would see.

Susie wouldn’t see the dimples in her cheeks, so don’t write about how Susie’s dimples peeked out at Jim.

Frank wouldn’t see his hair, so don’t write about how his ebony hair shone in the sunlight.

Audrey wouldn’t see her own eyes, so don’t write about how the candlelight made her eyes turn golden.



So if your viewpoint character can’t see herself, how do you describe your character to the reader?

Through other character’s eyes in other sections of the story.

You really don’t need to give a full description of every character, all in the first chapter. I’m totally serious, here.

If you start out chapter one in Amelia’s point of view, you don’t need to make sure the reader knows Amelia is petite, dark-haired, and sexy.

You can save that for chapter two when Gaston finds himself attracted to his new neighbor, who is petite, dark-haired and sexy.

Also, remember that your character won’t notice things that are commonplace, so she won’t toss back her long, ebony tresses as she walks to her car. She probably wouldn’t even notice what she’s doing.

Instead, have the next scene start from Gaston’s point of view as his attention is initially caught by the sunlight glinting off of hair so glossy, it’s as if it’s made of strands of onyx.

Using a mirror to describe your character is extremely cliché. It’s also sometimes seen as lazy writing because the writer can’t come up with a more creative, unique way to let the reader know what the character looks like.

Some writers use a mirror to show how the character views herself, but there are other, more creative ways to do that—with dialogue, action, or snippets of thought in response to specific things that happen to her. Be original!



Your character would only think what you would think.

You don’t hear anyone else’s thoughts when you’re talking to someone, right? (Most people don’t anyway.) You can guess what someone else is thinking from their expression, body language, words or tone. Many times, you can guess pretty accurately just from these visual and audible cues.

But you can’t really hear your friend thinking his thoughts. Neither should your character.

Judy thinks Alvin is pompous and full of himself. She can’t hear his thoughts, so she wouldn’t know Alvin thinks Judy is irresponsible and flighty.

Mary thinks, Charles just doesn’t understand me. She wouldn’t know Charles is thinking, I think I’m finally starting to understand her. So your reader shouldn’t be told this, either.

However, your character can speculate on what the other character is thinking.

Judy can tell by Alvin’s expression that he thinks she’s a dumb blonde.

Mary can tell Charles thinks he’s starting to make headway, but he doesn’t know he’s completely missing the point.

When you’re writing the scene from your character’s point of view, stay in that character’s head—don’t go wandering into someone else’s thoughts!




Your character would only notice what you would notice.

Do you notice the color of your hair on an average day? Do you tell yourself in your head that Lisa is your sister? Is it possible to consciously notice when you’re unconsciously looking at a cloud? Would you know at one moment that the next five minutes will bring you a promotion?

Your character, going about his average day, wouldn’t notice certain things that are commonplace or actions that are unconsciously done. Don’t write what your character wouldn’t consciously notice to himself.

Jennifer wouldn’t notice her own hair because she sees it everyday, so don’t write how Jennifer tossed her long, silky blonde tresses out of her face. (She probably wouldn’t even consciously realize she was doing it—do you consciously note every time you brush the hair out of your eyes? Do you consciously note the color of your hair every time you brush it out of your eyes?)

Dave wouldn’t tell himself, “That’s my sister Milly crossing the street toward me.” He’d think, “That’s Milly crossing the street. I wonder what’s up?”

Amy wouldn’t even be aware what she was staring at if her mind is wandering, focused on something else, so don’t write about her gazing unseeing at a shop window.

Sara would only think she was on a nice early morning run, she wouldn’t see anything unusual, so don’t write that she didn’t see the glowing eyes watching her from the darkness under a bush. Of course she didn’t see it—so don’t write what she doesn’t see.

Be careful about narrative and description—remember that you’re in the character’s head.




Decide whose point of view the scene needs to be in.

Try to chose the character with the most to lose. This will ensure the scene is at its maximum emotional potential.

For example:

Sally is going to tell Billy that her four year old son is his, a secret she’s kept since he walked out on her five years ago. Whose point of view do you write the scene in?

Sally has known this information for years, so her anguish is in finally revealing it to Billy and feeling his shock and anger.

Billy, however, is about to be laid a bombshell. The emotional strain will be higher from his point of view, so write the scene from Billy’s viewpoint.

Sometimes people will write a scene from a third party’s point of view for literary reasons. It has a tendency to mute the emotional reactions of the primary characters involved, and sometimes a writer will deliberately want to distance the reader from the emotional scene. This choice of literary device is up to you.

However, for most popular fiction, stronger emotion is usually a better force to drive a scene. This is why it’s best to get into the head of the person who will have the most emotional upheaval in their lives.




Let the reader know whose point of view they’re in.

You should clue the reader in about which character’s point of view the scene will be in as soon as you can. Preferably within the first three sentences.

For example:

“Move and you’re dead.” Maggie Somers lifted the .22 higher, trying desperately to keep her hands from shaking.

--From Buried Secrets by Margaret Daley

This was not the smartest way to die.

USAF Pararescue Jumper Manny Péna grunted, tensed his muscles and tried again to flare the canopy on his parachute.

--From A Soldier’s Family by Cheryl Wyatt

Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm. But there was more. There was something coming—something more than rain.

--From Petticoat Ranch by Mary Connealy

In each of the examples, you know exactly who is the viewpoint character right at the start of the chapter.

(You’ll notice that the first two examples show the characters’ full names, which they wouldn’t think to themselves if we’re in their point of view. However, when starting a story, most editors will allow for this kind of “introduction” to the reader of a character’s full name, as long as the rest of the manuscript is deeper in point of view.)




Do not switch points of view during the scene.

This is called “head hopping” and it marks you as an amateur. Yes, other multi-published, bestselling authors head hop in their own books, but you are a new writer trying to break into publishing, and you shouldn’t do it. In the current publishing business, head hopping in your manuscript will decrease your chances of being published, plain and simple.

If you switch point of view, insert a scene break to indicate the change in character viewpoint.

Some writers will write part of the scene in one person’s point of view, insert a section break, then continue the scene in the other character’s point of view. Then they’ll insert another section break, and continue the scene back in the first person’s point of view.

While this isn’t “wrong,” I personally dislike this. It smacks of lazy writing, in my opinion. I think that a good writer should be able to write a complete scene in one person’s point of view without absolutely needing to switch to the other person’s point of view right in the middle of the scene for a short section. I think that a good writer will be able to show the other character’s emotions through the viewpoint character’s eyes, or defer describing the other person’s emotional reaction to another scene.




Read other resources.

My favorite point of view books are Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley, and Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

There are also several online articles available. If you Google “point of view” and “writing” you’ll come up with a bunch. Here are a few to get you started:

http://www.gailmartin.com/tips.htm#Seeing (short and to the point)
http://www.sff.net/people/nankress/about.htm
http://www.bethanderson-hotclue.com/workshops/whose-point-of-view-is-that/
http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp41.Point.of.View.html
http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artnarrow.htm
http://www.pammc.com/pov.htm

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Writing Styles: Confessions of a Plotter Who Used to Be a Pantser

What in the world are "pantsers" and "plotters"?

There seems to be lots of discussion on the web about the two different writing styles, "pantsers" and "plotters."

There are "pantsers" who write off the seat of their pants--they have the important aspects of the plot in their minds, and they write to see how the story unfolds. They are also known as “fly into the mist” writers.

Then there are "plotters" (sometimes affectionately termed “plodders”) who outline everything beforehand so they know what they need to accomplish in their chapters as they write.

Some people are a little bit of both. Ultimately, whichever writing style you choose is based on your personality and preference.

When I first started writing, I was a "pantser". But as I wrote more, I experimented with "plotting" and discovered that style enabled me to write my personal best. Plotting became a painful but necessary process for me.

Having experience in both styles, I can identify with the pros and cons of each.

"Pantsers":

Most fiction writers are "pantsers". For many people, this allows them to achieve maximum creative expression. If the writer doesn't know where the plot is going, then the reader won't know either--resulting in a surprising, exciting work of fiction. This style can also be much more interesting for the writer as he/she writes, enabling an easier trudge through the dreaded "middle" of the book.

The downside of "pantsing" is the revisions. Sometimes, logic flaws and inconsistencies are noticed after the writer has already written a majority of the novel. Going back to correct can sometimes be a complex, tedious, problematic process, because one change often snowballs into numerous other details that must be revised. "Pantsing" also sometimes results in uneven, jerky pacing and rising action. These can be difficult to correct if the slower scenes that hamper the pace are integral to the plot, or if action scenes placed too close together can't be interjected with slower scenes to build suspense.

Many “pantsers” are wizards at revisions. They keep plotlines in order with ease inside their heads, and switches or rewrites are done effortlessly.

"Plotters":

Because "plotters" write outlines before fleshing out their scenes, they often can catch and correct inconsistencies and logic flaws before they start writing. It is less labor-intensive to make changes to an outline rather than an entire manuscript. Some "plotters" also use the outline to plan and control pacing, rising action, and suspense--scenes can be switched or added to mold the intensity of the action and the suspense of the sequel. Also, an early outlining step is writing the story synopsis, which is one less headache when submitting for publication.

However, for many people plotting the outline before writing the scenes can drastically hamper creative expression and enjoyment in writing. The dreaded "middle" of the novel becomes a nightmare of dwindling motivation and a shortened attention span. Also, some people's personalities and organizational styles find it difficult to plan so many words in advance. It can be daunting on a psychological level, or confining to be chained to a set sequence of planned events.

What's best for you?

Ultimately, writers should experiment with both styles before deciding if the pros outweigh the cons for each method. One exercise to try would be to take two short story ideas, then "plot" one story and "pants" the other. You'll be able to determine fairly quickly which suits you, but the key is to try each style at least once.

I did not think I would be a very good "plotter". But I discovered that for me personally, outlining did not cramp my creativity. Although I have a skeleton outline of the chapters, the actual writing always brought out new nuances and fresh ideas, requiring lots of creative juice. I also spent less time revising, which I dislike. Some authors are extremely gifted in revising, so "pantsing" enables their talent to shine.

How do I find out more about "pantsing" and "plotting"?

The best "plotting" advice I know came from Randy Ingermanson and his "Snowflake" method:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

For "pantsing", I have some advice from a "pantser-turned-plotter". You should have a few foundational elements done before you begin:

1) Characters--Hero, heroine, villain, minor characters. However, "pantsers" don't need to know everything about them before they start writing.

Related to Characters is Motivation--why they do what they do, the force that drives them against each other or against the villain. It should be real, believable, absolute, and seemingly unconquerable.

Related to Motivation is Goal: some concrete thing the characters want because of their underlying motivation.

2) Theme--Come up with a general theme of your book that will enable you to keep on track with your story. I've heard some romance writers talk about who they will often connect the theme of their book with a character's greatest fear or inner struggle. It's the central point around which your story will revolve.

3) Situation--a general idea of setting, and the situation the characters are in.

4) Conflict--what problems will your characters face, to prevent them from reaching their goals?

For more basic information on writing technique, characterization and plot, I would suggest:
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

What next?

Determining your writing style can help you to write more efficiently and effectively. New writers want to write well but are unsure what to follow--some articles stress the pre-novel legwork like outlining and character charts, while others urge the writer to simply write and see where they end up. Once you know what suits your personality, you won't waste time in a style that doesn't allow you to write your best.

Then just START. Non-activity is the writer's worst enemy. Jot down outline notes, or start writing Chapter One.

Because no matter what style you prefer, ultimately you are a writer. Get your words out there for someone else to read.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Writing Fight Scenes

I love martial arts movies and action flicks. So naturally I'd write action scenes.

I discovered that it takes a slightly different writing style. These are some of the things I learned, although this list isn't exhaustive by any means.

Action-Reaction

A fight scene is always Action-Reaction. He punches, she staggers back. She kicks, he blocks and swings a fist at her. Watch out for putting your reaction before your action:

She staggered back when he slammed his fist into her shoulder.

The rule of thumb is to have each action-reaction have its own paragraph, although that’s not always possible. Sometimes the sentences are too short for their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to the writer how to format it:

He swung a roundhouse punch.

She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

versus:

He swung a roundhouse punch. She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

Short sentences = fast reading flow

Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace. In a fight scene, you want your reader to be skimming the page, rolling with the punches, swinging with the kicks. Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase or a sentence for each move, at most two short sentences. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action gallop along:

He paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to his left. He turned, lashed out blindly, felt his fist connect with muscled flesh, heard a soft “Oomph.”

Vary sentence length

Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other:

He punched. She ducked. He kicked. She twisted.

Or

He turned at the sound of running feet. A body ran into him as he stood there. He hit the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:

Running feet. He turned. A body ran into him, throwing him into the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Be creative, be efficient

Be creative with your sparse prose. Since you only have a sentence or so for each move, you need to be innovative with how you describe it. Use imaginative verbs to convey more than just the action. “He crunched his fist into her face” paints a vivid picture of both the blow and the pain it causes.

Most readers can extrapolate from what you’ve written so that you don’t have to describe every nuance of motion. Even a simple phrase like “a flying roundhouse kick” will convey powerful images of a graceful martial arts student in mid-flight. You don’t have to describe the arc of motion, the angle of the foot, the twisting of the torso. Give your readers credit and let their imaginations fill in for you.

Momentum and moves

Martial arts fighting is usually about momentum. The next move flows from where the last one ended. If your heroine swings a roundhouse kick, where is her weight when she lands, on which foot? Is she straight up or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.

I am not ashamed to admit I’ll often try to act out fight sequences (not very well) in order to figure out momentum and balance (just make sure no one can see you :-). I will mimic a kick and observe how my weight shifts, or what area of my body is exposed.

Use variation. Lots of punches will look the same after a while. Vary hand blows with kicks. However, make sure each movement will naturally follow the previous one in terms of momentum and body balance. If she steps into a right handed punch, it will be difficult for her to follow with a right front kick because her weight will be on that foot, but a left front kick would follow easily.

Watch lots of fight scenes on TV and in movies. Granted, they are all choreographed, but it allows you to observe the flow of momentum and get ideas for moves. Be wary of the more unusual moves--they’re sometimes a bit too unrealistic or too difficult to describe. Remember, each move should only take up a sentence, and phrases need to be short. If a really cool move is so complex that you can’t describe it in a sentence, maybe it needs to be simplified or cut out of the scene.

There’s also several reality fighting shows on TV these days that give you a better idea of the rhythm and flow of a true spar. It’s definitely not as pretty as a choreographed fight scene. The writer can choose to mimic the nature of a real fight or to suspend reality and describe a smoother flowing fight. Most readers will follow either method.

If you have any other tips and tricks, please e-mail me! I can always use more ideas and I'd love to add to this list.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The First Chapter: Hook, Description, and Backstory

This article came out of the contests I've judged. These are some of the common things I see in most entries when it comes to hooks, description and backstory.

Starting with description--pros and cons.

There are two camps about starting a scene with description:

1) Most historical writers and some sci-fi/fantasy writers like the whole idea of the novel like a movie camera, panning into the scene and describing the setting in detail to place the reader there before anything starts to happen.

2) Most suspense/mystery writers tend to start with action, and to give details of the surroundings and what's happening through subtle hints in the dialogue or narrative.

Each method can be done poorly. If you spend too much time setting the scene or if you don't do it well enough, an editor won't get past the first page because it's too boring--nothing going on.

On the other hand, if you land the reader in the middle of action but don't do a good enough job orienting the reader in space and time, they can feel disjointed and out of touch with the character and what's going on.

My stance is #2, for several reasons. One, if I "under describe," that's a lot easier for me to fix than over describing--it depends on the writer.

Two, starting in the action is more of a hook to the reader to get them reading past the first paragraph, past the first page, and that is key. I've read wonderful poetic description in a book, but if the description isn't about something interesting to pique my interest, the skill of the writer doesn't keep me reading past the first page.

I write suspense and Chick-Lit, so I land the reader in the middle of action. You don't have to be as extreme as I am.

Hook 'em with the first line.

Start the novel with a catchy first line. Cute, clever, mysterious, dangerous, puzzling, ominous...you get the picture. Basically, something unusual is happening or going to happen.

As she jogged off the path, Nora saw a pair of glowing eyes from the trees.
or
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon until Grandma drove the car into the side of the house.

You can also start a novel with dialogue, because that's inherently in the middle of some action. Here's the opening line of my current wip (I'm too lazy to look up another example and type it in. :)

"If you can snag a date for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, I'll go with the family to church." Her brother Satoro folded his arms and gave Risa a superior smile.

See? Something out of the ordinary is happening to Risa, and I started the story in dialogue. You don't have to do both necessarily. Just make sure something interesting is happening:

Do a generic description.

It's hard for a reader to jump into a story without at least a rudimentary understanding of where they are. In Louisiana? On the moon? In a bar called Louisiana on a moon base?

Description doesn't need to be pages or even a paragraph. A good trick to give the reader a general feel for the setting is to mention a cliché, with a twist:
"The party had the attitude of a drunk, ditzy blonde."

Another trick is to mention something significant, detailed, which embodies the setting:
"He stared at the scarred, sagging wooden doors before swinging them open and stalking into the bar."
The mention of the swinging wooden doors conjures up images of a spaghetti western.

After that sentence to "sum up" your setting, you can pepper details in throughout the scene in your characters' action beats (see Sneak and pepper).

Sneak and pepper:

Here's my next move: I sneak in hints throughout the dialogue and narrative to describe the setting and give backstory. I pepper snippets of information here and there rather than all at once.

Again, I'm going to use my wip.

In this passage, I want to introduce Risa's sister Emi, and show that Emi is fashionable and much skinnier than Risa, who is self-conscious about her weight. I also want to show it's set in the living room of their parents' house. I want to show some of the interaction between Emi and Risa as sisters, and Emi and Satoro as brother/sister. I also want to deliberately create a MYSTERY with Emi's reaction to a question Risa asks (this will pique reader interest and keep them reading). Lastly, I want to hint that they're gathered for a weekly family dinner (which I explain in more detail later).

"I should have figured you two would argue before dinner's even on the table." Their sister Emi slammed the front door and sauntered into the living room, running a manicured hand through freshly-highlighted hair.

Risa wasn't sure it looked good with Emi's manufactured tan. "When did you get that done?"

"Today at Janet's salon." Emi set her Fendi baguette handbag on their parents' hardwood end table.

"Mom's going to have a fit."

A flash of something passed over Emi's eyes, but then she shot Risa an unconcerned glance. Risa didn't turn away immediately—it had almost looked like guilt.

Emi draped her size-two figure over Papa's ratty recliner and took in Risa's brown corduroy pants. "You look like you lost weight."

Satoro loosed a braying guffaw. "Yeah, maybe from her mouth."

Emi's pointed-toe shoe, idly swinging over the arm of the recliner, suddenly connected with her brother's skinny behind. "Satz, you're such a jerk." Her gaze paused over Risa's fitted white shirt. "New?"

"Not since last week's family dinner." Risa tugged the cotton lower over her barrel-shaped midsection.

I dole out information on the setting and backstory in snippets. That's deliberate for two reasons:
1) It keeps an air of mystery if the reader has to figure out what's going on, and it keeps them reading.
2) It doesn't slow down the reader's reading pace with a long descriptive paragraph, I can keep the action moving and paint the surroundings at the same time.

Describe by response.

Rather than describing the setting around the two characters, I try to show how the characters RESPOND to the setting. Any description is paired with some emotional reaction. That way you're not spending precious page time describing flowery wallpaper—instead, you're both describing the wallpaper AND showing something about the character at the same time:

He eyed the overblown roses on the peeling wallpaper, resentful that he and not his uncle would be the one tearing it down and replacing it eventually.

See what I mean? Describe setting by REACTION. In my passage, I show both the room and Emi's comfort with the house by her walking into the living room and sitting sideways on Papa's chair. Setting is a great way to give insight into your characters--and backstory, too!--without a descriptive paragraph.

Less is more.

Readers can infer a great deal if you just mention a few vivid, specific key words.

Like Risa's brown corduroy pants--I don't have to describe the fit, the cut, the brand, but you as the reader have an idea of a pair of brown corduroy pants you've seen or worn. I don't need to describe it more because I leave the rest up to the reader's imagination.

The same with Emi's description--I just mention the highlighted hair, manicured nails, Fendi baguette, and fake tan. The reader has a picture in their mind of Emi without a single word about her facial structure or her eyes. You're probably assuming she's got makeup on and a slim, trendy outfit.

Just think of a few specially-chosen words and you can describe anything in very little page space.

Dealing with backstory.

Don’t open with it. Period. Save it for later in the scene or chapter, preferably in chapter two.

Any knowledge you give to the reader has to cause the reader to ask more questions.

What that means for you as the writer is that any narrative or backstory has to be very carefully chosen and given. Any narrative or backstory has to have a very specific purpose for the story, and that narrative or backstory should work to make the reader ask more questions about the character or storyline.

You want to foster that sense of “What’s going on?” for the reader that will make the reader keep reading in order to find out.

Don't use a convenient fiction device to tell the reader. For example:
"Father, is your sister Agatha, who divorced your best friend Harry and moved to Oklahoma, coming into town soon?"

Create an aura of mystery to make your reader want to know the past. Give as little information as possible in small snippets. Here's an example from another WIP of mine:

A stabbing bolt shot through her pelvis. Erika couldn’t breathe for a second, then it faded away. Her skin felt clammy. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the rough towel. She blew air in and out, but there wasn’t a reoccurrence, only dull pulsing.

Erika met Larry’s eyes, deep-set and shadowed, piercing her with concern. He’d been the one to run her to the ER that night, to call her OB/GYN, to hold her hand when the general anesthesia wore off.

“I’m fine now.” She elbowed him aside a bit rougher than he deserved, but she wanted to get away from that look on his face.

The next mention of her pain is the next chapter, but this small mention makes the reader wonder what's going on.

You can also motivate another character to need the information. Make sure it's not just another fiction device, like the maid asking the master what happened to the missus. The character who wants the information has to have a good reason to need it, and has to fight to learn what he needs to know. Tie the information to action.

Study more craft.

There's always newer, more creative ways to write hooks, setting and backstory. Innovative articles pop up online all the time. A few books I've found useful are:

TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman
PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell (excellent discussion of how to start your novel strong)
WRITE GREAT FICTION: DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Motivation to write when you feel like a slug

As a writer, I admit I'm not raring to go at that keyboard 24/7. These are things I do when I don't have the motivation to write for whatever reason--laziness, stress, antsy-ness, boredom.

In no particular order:

Small chunks—Tell yourself, I’ll just write for fifteen minutes. It might be an excruciating fifteen minutes, but it’ll be fifteen minutes more than you had before. Then take a break, get distracted, go crazy.

Sit and Pray—Sit in front of that computer and quiet yourself. Remember your desire to serve God with your writing. Ask God for help to motivate yourself to start typing.

Snacks—Since we’re all careful about our health, go easy on this one, but sometimes your brain can speed up while you sit and munch on snacks, or sip your favorite tea or coffee.

Comfort—Take a moment to notice your comfort level at your writing station. Back or neck pains? Room temperature too hot or too cold? Too noisy or too quiet? Bad smells? Too dark or too bright? Adjust accordingly. It might be something unconsciously making your writing station unpleasant.

Time yourself—Write down your start time and display it near your workstation and your clock. Sometimes a small bit of self-accountability will increase productivity. After a while, you may find you’ve written for longer than you thought you could.

Read about writing—Dust off a writing book, magazine, or online article you’ve been meaning to read and dig in. It might provide inspiration, an answer to a tough question, or a renewed urge to get back into your wip.

Listen to conference workshop tapes—Informative and inspirational.

Put in some mood music—Pick out CDs that relax you or stimulate you, whatever you need to get back into that creative groove.

Let aromatherapy take you away—Aromatherapy scents like citrus can stimulate the mind, or lavender can melt the stress away. Some exotic scents or combinations can create a certain “atmosphere” that might play on your creative senses, or perhaps trigger a mood or a feeling that thrusts your imagination into the world of your characters.

Critique someone else’s work—Since you can’t feel motivation to work on your own stuff, utilize the time to help someone else, either a critique buddy or one of the online writing communities like Writing.com. Sometimes working on someone else’s work can motivate you to work on your own.

Change the scenery—Go someplace else, even if it’s a different chair in the same room. Go to another room in the house, or leave the house. Even the backyard is better than your usual writing spot. Go to a park, or a coffeehouse, or the library. If you don’t have a laptop computer, take an Alphasmart or a pad and pen.

Change format—Switch to pen and paper rather than your computer, or switch to an Alphasmart. Use post-it notes or pin notepaper on the wall. Tape up a huge piece of butcher paper or several sheets of paper on the wall and use a marker or a crayon. Write plot or character points on index cards and line them up on the floor, or toss them in the air and see how they fall.

Stretch and exercise—Much as I hate it, sometimes all I need is about 15-20 minutes of stretching or cycling on the exercise bike to get my creative juices flowing. I think it must be due to increased circulation through my muscles and into my brain. If you don’t have home exercise equipment, go for a short bike ride or a walk. Toss a ball with someone or play a little one-on-one. Even shooting hoops solo will get your energy level up and might help you think clearer, be inspired to write.

Hit the tub—If I’m aware I’m stressed, sometimes I’ll indulge in a bath or hot shower. The relaxation and soothing temperature of the water often inspires creativity as it leeches the stress out of my body.

Read a really good book or a really bad book—One will inspire you to write words like that, the other will motivate you to write better words than that.

Clean your house/work area—Sometimes I discover that the reason I can’t write is because I’m distracted by the mess either around my writing area, or the rest of the house. Twenty minutes spent cleaning will not only clear my workspace, it’ll clear my mind, too.

Read the newspaper or blogs for story ideas—But be careful not to use it as a procrastination technique.

If you have any other ideas, please e-mail me. I'll add them to the list. I can always use new ideas to motivate myself.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Articles from Swain

Dwight Swain's classic book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER was one of the best writing craft books I read when I first started learning how to write. It was written in 1982, so the language is a bit dated, but the techniques he gives are still excellent and applicable today.

Several of my friends mentioned how hard it is to read his prose (which is rather rambling, I'll be the first to admit) so I wrote a series of articles based on his book. These articles were originally published in RubyZine, a Christian e-zine for teen girls.

I hope these techniques from Swain will help other beginning writers form a solid foundation for their skills to build on.

1-Emotions and the Writer

2-Choosing Understandable Words

3-Choose Vibrant Words


4-The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story


5-The Smallest Picture: MRUs

6-Scene and Sequel: Scene

7-Scene and Sequel: Sequel

8-General Story Structure and Strategy For Your Novel


9-Your 50-Word Elevator Pitch

10-Beginning Your Novel, part 1


11-Beginning Your Novel, part 2


12-How to Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep

13-The Sagging Middle


14-The Sagging Middle, part 2: How To Make Things Worse


15-Bring It To an End

16-A Brief Overview of Characterization

17-The Nuts and Bolts of Actually Writing


18-Get Into the Mindset of Writing

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Emotions and the Writer

Feeling and emotion is the basis for every good story.

Think about it. The stories you remember are not the intellectually-stimulating ones, but the ones that made your heart race or your eyes tear up.

Your job as a writer is to make your reader feel emotion. But it's very hard to make your readers care if you don't feel for you write about. You will write your best pieces when you care about the topic or the characters.

Now, don't go overboard and start preaching. Readers are turned off by writers on their soapboxes.

But do write about what interests you. Find a topic, theme, character or plot that makes you excited. Do certain song lyrics make you cry? Was there an intriguing event in yesterday's news? Do you have a character talking in your head?

Technical skills:

A good writer writes with emotion, but EDITS with solid technical skills.

You don't want to be misunderstood or to turn out a piece that doesn't accurately reflect what you're feeling. Writing with emotions surging through you will get the words on paper, but it's not guaranteed to be communicated clearly to someone reading it.

Knowledge of writing technique will point out flaws or errors. Then, your writing will be both emotional and clear in communicating that emotion.

Future articles will focus on writing technique. Remember that the "rules" are guidelines, not the Ten Commandments. But most of the time, the guidelines make your piece stronger, so that it packs more whallop to your reader.

Each writer writes in a different way--slow, fast, organized, organic. Adapt the techniques to your own way of writing.

Practice makes perfect.

The ONLY way to learn and master these techniques is by writing. Be willing to make mistakes on your first try. Be willing to learn and improve, and you will.

Learning writing techniques is like learning to drive a car. There are lots of different steps: turn on the ignition, step on the brake, shift into gear, etc. But after you drive a lot, the steps become second nature and you don't have to think about them.

When you first start writing, you might try to remember all the different techniques and rules. But as you write more, the rules will become second nature. After a while, you'll write without consciously thinking about action verbs, passive voice, point of view, etc. (more on those in future articles).

Exercise:

Find something you're emotional about. Write an article, poem, short story, or devotional. Don’t worry about technique--just get the words on paper. Practice writing emotionally.

Next: Choosing Understandable Words

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

Monday, August 15, 2005

Choosing Understandable Words

Once you find a topic to write about—something that inspires you, something that you feel strongly about—how do you convey it? Let's get down to the nuts and bolts: WORDS.

YOU NEED TO CHOOSE WORDS THAT ARE BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND VIBRANT.

Understanding:

You're a writer, the choice of words is yours. Start with the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Be specific. Not "a sad girl," but "a suicidal 14-year-old soccer player." Not "a sunny neighborhood," but "a tree-less suburb of monotonous cookie-cutter development homes."

Arrange your words with care. "Meet," "kiss," "argue," "make up" conveys a typical boy-meets-girl love story. But "kiss," "make up," "argue," "meet," conveys a couple who breaks up, and one of them meets someone new. Words and phrases should be ordered Action--Reaction, Action--Reaction.

Words have specific cultural connotations. A car's "boot" in Great Britain is a car "trunk" in the US. Also, be careful about the *feelings* certain words convey, not just their literal meanings.

Good grammar skills are a must. No exception. You can't write clear text if your grammar is so atrocious, inconsistent, or sloppy that the reader isn't sure what you're saying. One great resource is Daily Grammar. Each lesson is extremely easy to understand and very short, made for grade-school or junior high school level. Even if your grammar is good, it's always wise to brush up on terms and nuances you might have forgotten. Another option is to dig out your old junior high school grammar text and skim through.

Don't repeat yourself unless you have a good reason. The human brain is very quick to note repetition, and your readers will assume that anything repeated must be important to the plot. Mystery author Agatha Christie never repeated key phrases or observations, because she knew that the reader will pick up on anything mentioned twice, and if it's the key to the murder, then where's the surprise?

Isn't it annoying to read a scene where the author uses a certain word or phrase constantly? "She was a spectacular actress...His spectacular fried shrimp...The girl's spectacular dress...The butler's spectacular staff..." You get the picture. Microsoft Word has a Find feature so you can see how often you use certain words, and change them.

I'll discuss VIBRANT writing in the next article.

Exercise:

Edit something you've written. Use the following checklist:

1) Did you include the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?
2) Does the sequence of words and phrases convey what you want it to? Action--Reaction?
3) Check that your words convey the right feeling and meaning.
4) Check your grammar.
5) Go through every single word and see how often it's repeated. Some words (like pronouns) you don't have a choice, but how about certain nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives?

Next: Choosing Vibrant Words

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Choosing Vibrant Words

YOU NEED TO CHOOSE WORDS THAT ARE BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND VIBRANT.

Vibrant:

Your description should include all five senses--sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. This will bring your reader into the story, help them to experience what the character is experiencing. This will create the atmosphere, this will make the reader forget the real world for the fictional one.

Use specific nouns and adjectives. Not "a sad girl," but "a suicidal 14-year-old soccer player." Not "a sunny neighborhood," but "a tree-less suburb of monotonous cookie-cutter development homes."

Use active verbs. A few rules of thumb for verbs:

1) "To be" verbs are weak. "She was on the stage" versus "she quaked on the stage," or "she sparkled on the stage."

2) "Had" is jarring to the reader.

Joy remembered the time she had gone to the grocery store and had picked up a few sodas, but then Johnny had driven up in his motorcycle and had asked her if she wanted a lift. She had coyly refused with her mouth but her heart had screamed yes. Oh, if only she hadn't been so stupid.

If you're describing a past event being recalled, use one "had" in the beginning, and then maybe one "had" at the end, and then continue with the present narrative:

Joy remembered the time she had gone to the grocery store and picked up a few sodas, but then Johnny drove up in his motorcycle and asked her if she wanted a lift. She coyly refused with her mouth but her heart screamed yes. Oh, if only she hadn't been so stupid.

3) Adverbs should be minimized. The current writing trend is to eliminate them as ruthlessly (haha) as possible, but in general, they're just tedious after a while. Replace adverbs with more specific verbs. "She angrily walked to the front door and quickly opened it," versus "She flounced to the front door and yanked it open."

If you do need to use an adverb, put it at the beginning or the end of the sentence for the most vivid effect: "Efficiently, she cleared the desk." "He whined monotonously."

Exercise:

Edit something you've written. Use the following checklist:

1) Did you use all five senses?
2) Did you use specific nouns? Active verbs?
3) Do a Find for "to be" verbs (was, is, etc.) and "had.".
4) Do a Find for "ly." You may be surprised how many you find.

Next: The Larger Picture of Character, Setting, and Story

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain
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