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Friday, June 29, 2007

Common problems in first person POV, part two

In first person POV, especially, writers have a great deal of narrative and internal thoughts. While that narrative tends to have some conflict in it, too much narrative means less movement in the scene. And you can’t really substitute true conflict (action and dialogue) with the conflict in a long paragraph of internal thought—the scene drags and meanders.

I look at the call waiting. It’s my mother.

Mom has this annoying habit of calling right when I’m about to watch CSI. Even though I’ve told her again and again that she can’t call on this particular night at this particular time, she blithely ignores me. I might as well be talking to the cat. And at least the cat answers with a polite meow. Mother barely acknowledges I’ve spoken, much less what I’ve said.

All this narrative is more “telling” than “showing.” Instead of all this internal thought, why not show the information in action and dialogue?

I look at the call waiting. It’s my mother. I stab the TALK button.

“Mom, it’s CSI night!” I turn on the TV. Nope, not yet. Hopefully I can get her off quickly.

She pauses. “No ‘hello’ for your mother? How rude.”

I ignore her petulant tone. “I have told you a billion times not to call on this particular night, and this particular time.”

“I don’t remember you saying anything about it.”

“I told you last week.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“And the week before that.”

“Are you sure? I don’t recall.”

“I even wrote it on a Post-It note next to the phone.”

I hear crumpling paper. “No, I don’t see a note.”

In the back ground, I hear my father yell, “Martha, I told you not to call her. It’s CSI night.”

She huffs. “I’m sure I would have remembered if you’d told me.”

“Mom, I might was well talk to the cat.”

“Well, really!”

“And at least the cat answers with a polite meow.”

You want the scene to move along with action and dialogue, not with a lot of internal thoughts or narrative.

Go through your manuscript—anywhere there’s a paragraph of narrative or internal thought, see if you can rewrite it as action or dialogue instead.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Common problems in first person POV, part one

In a lot of the chick lit entries I judge in contests, first person POV is not done very well. Since the reader is reading first person, the reader should actually be in the character’s skin and experiencing the scene through them. People like writing first person POV because it’s easy—but it’s actually rather difficult to write with power and vibrancy.

While each writer has different strengths and weakness, in general, the entries I judge lack enough conflict and action. Not much happens, and there isn’t a lot of tension. In first person POV, this is a common problem because it’s so easy to fall into internal thoughts and narrative instead.

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the plate to Amelia. She’s a size two. I wish I was a size two. I eye a couple of the chocolate-laden golden-brown goodies. Just one won’t hurt me.

Amelia glances at the plate, then goes back to sorting through her charm collection. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” Her charms fascinate me. She’s had some for generations in her family. She likes to sort through them, kind of like catharsis. I have to admit they’re hypnotic. Gold and silver, some with jewels. Some attached to a chain, some loose, some in fancy boxes.

I decide to eat a cookie. It’s gooey warmth makes my mouth happy. “Are you sure you don’t want one? These are great.”

Very little tension, very little action.

What writers should aim for is to add some sort of tension and conflict into EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE. The tension can be internal or external, but it should be there in EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

There should be something NOT happy, content, satisfied, pleased, jovial, or enjoyable. In other words, something wrong.

How about this instead:

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the plate to Amelia, trying to look at her instead of the chocolate-studded goodies, but failing miserably. I’m secretly hoping she’ll take one so I won’t feel like such a cow.

Amelia glances at the plate with disdain. It’s not like I’m offering her hemlock, for goodness’ sake. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” The way she says it implies being hungry is like being addicted to drugs.

She’s sorting through her stupid charms again. “Didn’t you clean your charms last week?”

Her mouth pinches. “I’m just looking at them—is that a crime?”

It reminds me of King Midas counting his gold. “I’m just surprised, is all.”

She tosses her head in a good imitation of Scarlett O’Hara. “You wouldn’t understand. They’ve been in my family for generations.”

My eyes narrow. “No, I wouldn’t understand. My family only goes back to the Ming Dynasty.”

The scene above now has more tension. It could be improved even more by a little more movement and action:

I glance at the clock and try to stop myself from screaming. I have only two minutes before my dietician arrives.

Got rid of the bag of potato chips? Check. Hid the soda? Check. My eye falls on the plastic container from last week’s shopping. Aack! They’ve got to disappear, pronto!

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the container to Amelia, trying to look at her instead of the chocolate-studded goodies, but failing miserably. While I need to get rid of them, I’m also secretly hoping she’ll take one so I won’t feel like such a cow.

Amelia glances at the plate with disdain. It’s not like I’m offering her hemlock, for goodness’ sake. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” The way she says it implies being hungry is like being addicted to drugs.

I grab a cookie and shove it in my mouth, chewing frantically. I can eat three and brush my teeth in two minutes, right?

Amelia’s sorting through her stupid charms again. “Didn’t you clean your charms last week?”

Her mouth pinches. “I’m just looking at them—is that a crime?”

Her snippy tone makes me start, and a cookie goes down the wrong way. I cough and hack, but rather than being concerned about my welfare, she unfeelingly goes on sorting charms. It reminds me of King Midas counting his gold. “I’m just surprised, is all,” I gasp out when I can talk again.

She tosses her head in a good imitation of Scarlett O’Hara. “You wouldn’t understand. They’ve been in my family for generations.”

My eyes narrow. “No, I wouldn’t understand. My family line only goes back to the Ming Dynasty.”

There—both conflict and movement in the scene. It’s not even vital action—just the heroine trying to clear her room of goodies before the dietician arrives. But just that small scene goal creates action and movement that pushes the scene along even faster than before.

So go through your manuscript—do you have enough conflict in the scene?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Interview on branding at the Advanced Fiction Writing blog

Randy Ingermanson interviewed me for his Advanced Fiction Writing blog.

Randy has done a wonderful service to all writers with his blog. His Advanced Fiction Writing ezine was already a terrific resource, but his blog is even better because he welcomes and answers questions from writers. He is a true writing mentor, in every sense of the word.

His questions had mostly to do with branding, so if you’re a writer wondering about branding yourself, check it out!

Friday, June 22, 2007

More on being your own cliché police

Clichés are not just in phrases (“he ran his fingers through is hair,” “her heart pounded”). Clichés can be larger scale—your characters, your setting, your plot premise.

The problem is that often, these larger scale clichés are not so easily realized.

For example, there are a LOT of pastor heroes in Inspirational romance. Editors were commenting that they’d like to see less stories with pastor heroes.

However, as a writer, unless you heard the editor say this at a conference, you wouldn’t know. So how can you find these things out?

You should be reading extensively in the genre in which you’re writing. Why? So you can discover what’s already been done in your genre, so you don’t repeat it.

If you haven’t read many Inspirational romances, but you’re targeting Steeple Hill, you wouldn’t know that there have been a lot of pastor heroes in the past few years. However, if you’ve been reading Steeple Hill novels, you would know that.

You don’t have to read every single title that comes out, but an hour or two of browsing the book blurbs on or will enable you to see clearly that there are lots of pastor heroes in previous titles.

It’s not just character occupations that can be cliché. Plot premises or settings can be overdone in fiction and become cliché, also.

For example, unless you’ve read extensively in chick lit—both non-Christian and Christian—you wouldn’t know that the plot premise of single-girl-in-New-York, or single-girl-working-at-magazine/publishing-house, or single-girl-working-as-wedding-planner have all been done to DEATH.

READ BOOKS. BROWSE BOOK BLURBS ONLINE. Check to make sure that your characters, their occupation, their storylines, your plot premise, haven’t already been done by several other books in your genre.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Be your own cliché police

Does your hero run his fingers through his hair? Does your heroine bite her bottom lip? Or maybe your hero squeezes his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose when he’s frustrated. Maybe your heroine’s gut clenches or she swallows hard when hearing bad news.

Perhaps your hero clenches his jaw, or sees red. Perhaps your heroine feels ice water in her veins when she’s shocked, or a fluttering in her chest when she’s excited.

Cliches—DON’T. Don’t use the same gestures or descriptions for your characters that you’ve read in dozens of other novels. BE ORIGINAL.

The heroine’s heart doesn’t pound—it does a combination triple-axel double-lutz worthy of Michelle Kwan. The hero doesn’t feel his stomach drop—he’s a hanging victim with the clunk of the trapdoor ringing in his ears, waiting for his feet to register that he’s dangling in mid-air.

A great resource for original descriptions is literary fiction (if you can read it). But don’t copy them—use it as a jumping off point for your own unique descriptions and gestures for your characters.

Be aware of what are clichés. Read widely in your genre and other genres. Note if you see a description or gesture more than once by different authors, and vow not to use it.

Repeat after me: NO CLICHES.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Add tension to every single sentence

One of the best things I got out of the seminar taught by New York agent Donald Maass is to add tension to absolutely every single sentence in your manuscript.

I can see some of you gaping. Close your mouth. It’s true.

He had us pick a random page in our manuscripts and then pick a random paragraph. We had to add some sort of tension to every sentence in the paragraph—whether internal or external.

It changed the energy of the writing immediately. I could see that just from that one paragraph. I changed the tension in every sentence on the page, and the difference astounded me. The scene was so much more charged, crackling with energy and vitality.

Basically, it increases the level of conflict in the scene, and conflict is what keeps a reader reading. Conflict keeps a reader’s interest. While we like to avoid conflict in real life, in fiction, it’s gold.

You don’t have to remember to add tension to every sentence in your rough draft—just lay the words down. Don’t think too much or analyze too much, because that will shift you out of right brain mode.

But in your rewrite, go back and add tension and conflict to every single sentence. You’ll be amazed at how much more vibrant the writing will become.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Plot – inciting incidents

Your plot should have a definite inciting incident that signals when the story begins.

In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the inciting incident is when Mr. Bingley moves into the neighborhood.

In Violet Dawn by Brandilyn Collins, the inciting incident is when the heroine discovers a dead body in her outdoor hot tub.

In The Restorer by Sharon Hinck, the inciting incident is when the heroine is suddenly transported into an alternate fantasy world.

In Over Her Head by Shelley Bates, the inciting incident is when the heroine discovers the body of a drowned young girl the same age as her own daughter.

In Split Ends by Kristin Billerbeck, the inciting incident is when the heroine moves to Los Angeles to become a successful hairdresser.

In The Reliance by M.L. Tyndall, the inciting incident is when the church is blown up and the hero believes his wife was killed, when in reality she’s been kidnapped by pirates.

In each of the above examples, something has happened to change the protagonist’s normal world, and that’s where the story begins. The inciting incidents all occur in the first chapter or two.

What is your story’s inciting incident? Does it occur early in the story, or do you have several chapters showing the protagonist’s normal world?

Cut the backstory and get to the inciting incident quickly. Keeping the backstory a mystery will also keep the reader’s interest, because they’ll keep reading to figure out what’s going on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Plot – obstacles should work against external goals

Some synopses I read have a lot of conflict against the character, but not necessarily many obstacles against the character’s external goal.

There’s a significant difference. The primary conflict and tension in a story should be things that work directly against the heroine’s external goal. They shouldn’t be just annoyances here and there. The conflict should be focused against what the heroine wants to accomplish in the story.

For example, Sarah is a pop music singer whose external goal is to get her picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Her mother’s getting married for the fourth time, and Sarah really doesn’t want to be involved in all the planning for something that will probably only last a year or two. Their strained relationship erupts in arguments every few weeks.

Sarah’s dog is sick, and she has to go to the vet all the time. The bills are adding up.

This new guy in town is cute, but Sarah’s interested in her career and not a relationship.

In the above conflicts, none of them work against Sarah’s goal of getting her picture on Rolling Stone. They’re all just annoyances in her life.


Sarah’s mother’s wedding is the same day as a huge gala where Sarah hopes to talk to some bigwigs at Rolling Stone. Sarah’s relationship with her mother is strained already, but now her mother’s asking her to give up the biggest schmoozing party of the year for her fourth marriage, which probably won’t last more than a year or two.

Sarah’s dog is sick, and one day while she’s walking him, she meets one of the editors of Rolling Stone in the park. Her sick pooch proceeds to get sicker and sicker when Sarah wants to talk to the editor and make a good impression. Then her dog upchucks all over the editor’s Nikes.

There’s a new guy in town who’s cute, and he’s a photographer for Rolling Stone. Sarah immediately latches on to him to try to get him to talk to editors at Rolling Stone. However, the guy is used to women using him in order to get to his colleagues at the magazine, and he won’t give Sarah the time of day because he sees through her. The problem is, they start to like each other for themselves, but Sarah can’t prove to him she’s honestly in love with him and not trying to use him, and he can’t trust her or know if she’s telling the truth.

In each of the conflicts above, they directly impact Sarah’s external goal of getting onto the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Look at your own character’s external goals, and the conflicts in your story. Do the conflicts work directly against the external goal? If they don’t, how can you tweak them so that they do?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Plot – sketchy outline

Even if you’re a seat of the pants writer, try doing a sketchy outline.

Many of my friends sell books on proposal, which means they write three chapters and an outline of the book, not the entire manuscript. When their publisher okays the proposal, they write the book based on the outline.

Sometimes the book changes from the outline, but just having the outline can help a writer focus their story better.

A sketchy outline can be as simple as four sentences—

One sentence for the character’s beginning world, and the inciting incident that starts them on their external goal.

One sentence for the middle, and the kinds of things that will directly obstruct the character’s external goal.

One sentence for the climax and the black moment.

One sentence to explain how things wrap up at the end.

See? Very sketchy, and very simple. Yet sometimes even a sketchy outline will help a writer in amazing ways as they write their book.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Plot – sacrificial climax

One of the key elements of a good climax is some sort of sacrifice.

The main character sacrifices something precious for the greater good. Whether she sacrifices her external goal, or her life, or something equally important, the climax should see her giving up something that matters to herself.

Sometimes it’s to do the right thing—she gives up her external goal or her life in order to do something infinitely more noble. Sometimes it’s because she has no choice—the villain is going to kill someone else or take away someone else’s livelihood if she doesn’t comply.

Sometimes it’s more emotional—the hero faces a deep-set fear in order to do something for someone else. Or perhaps the hero takes a risk in order to accomplish something for someone else.

Whatever you decide, your character should give up something extremely precious and important at that climax.

Why is this important? Because in sacrificing something, the hero has reached the Black Moment, where All Hope Is Gone. And in sacrificing something in order to reach that disastrous point, the hero has proved the reader that she deserves whatever happy ending—whatever miraculous turning of the tide—happens in the story after that Black Moment.

The reader will always want a hero who is worthy of their time spent reading. And what better way to prove worth than with personal sacrifice?

The hero acts in a noble manner that resonates psychologically with readers, thus ensuring pure satisfaction when the hero has a happy ending. If the hero hasn’t done something to prove her worth, then a happy ending for her will fizzle in a reader’s mind.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Plot – changing external goals

Your hero or heroine’s external goal should NOT change during the course of the story.

Say at the beginning of your story, Sally decides to unmask a smuggling ring. If she accomplishes it by chapter fifteen and then decides to discover who her real father is, that is a changed external goal.

Your character’s external goal should remain the same for the entire story. If things suddenly change at a particular point and the character moves into a different direction for the rest of the book, maybe that particular point is where your story ought to start, and the events beforehand are just backstory.

Also beware of more subtly changed external goals. Say Sally decides to unmask a drug smuggling ring. She finds out who’s behind it by chapter fifteen, and then starts investigating someone else who’s using drugs to capture children from the middle school as addicts and additional sellers. Her goal has subtly changed from investigating the ring to investigating drug use in the middle school. It’s still a changed external goal.

Solving something like that is easy—change her original external goal.

Have her discover drug use in the middle school and determine to uncover the people responsible for introducing the drugs to the children. She uncovers the mafia men bringing the drugs in, and she uncovers the one seller who’s selling it to the middle school kids.

Look at your story. Does your character’s goal change?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Exercise for the lazy writer

Camy Tang

I am a lazy butt. I freely admit it. I hate going outside and I dislike sweating. (I also tend to sweat a lot, but that’s probably TMI.)

Therefore, I’ve been trying to find ways to “sneak” exercise into my day so I’m not just sitting on fat lazy butt (mentioned above) all day.

Not all these tips will work for you, but any change in your routine will help.

Stand at your computer.

I originally started doing this because I read about it in Levenger catalog. Levenger sells wonderfully cool (and kind of expensive) risers to elevate your computer and your workspace on your desk so that you can stand a little, then sit a little all day.

Sit to Stand Desk
Laptop Lifter

They say that standing and sitting while working is very beneficial health-wise—it enables blood to circulate in your legs more than if you just sit all day. I’ve also read about people standing at their desks all the time. One person even had a slow moving treadmill especially built so he could walk slowly while working at his desk. That’s a bit extreme for me.

Levenger’s risers were a bit expensive for me, but I have tons of cardboard boxes all around the place. I found ones that were the right height (and I cut and reshaped a few to become the right height). I filled them with those Styrofoam packing peanuts really tight, and taped them shut.

I put one box on its end to hold my computer monitor at the proper eye height. I have another one to hold my keyboard, and a third to hold my mouse. They are all ergonomically correct, and I stand at my computer typing for most of the day.

The great thing is that I can also do small leg exercises while I’m standing. I watch Denise Austin’s Daily Workout program on TV, and she always has small exercises she uses for aerobics that are simple to do while at my computer surfing the web.

I do things like:
Stand on one leg and lift the other leg behind me, or to the side, or in front across my body
Kick my heels back toward my butt, alternating legs
Knee raises, alternating legs
Balance on one leg (really works the muscles around my knee, which is good for me since I had knee surgery)

I don’t stand the entire day, I usually alternate between sitting when my feet hurt. I also wear sneakers solely used indoors to protect my feet.

To sit, it’s very easy to lift my monitor onto the desk (I have a lighter flatscreen) and get rid of the box holding it up, and to do the same for my keyboard and mouse. That’s the nice thing about using lightweight cardboard boxes.

Standing and sitting has been extremely beneficial to my lower back problems (an old work-related injury). If I sit too long, my back hurts, but if I alternate sitting and standing, my back doesn’t hurt at all during the day.

Plus, I burn more calories if I stand and sit. A plus for a lazy bum like me.

Walking or cycling

I sometimes will walk or bike outdoors, and usually with an MP3 player. It’s been great for me to listen to writing workshops while I exercise.

Other days, I’m too lazy or the weather is inclement.

Denise Austin has a great walk indoors video that’s basically walking back and forth with some extra exercises thrown in. So sometimes, I’ll do that down my hallway.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a writing workshop on MP3, but other times I won’t listen to anything and I’ll use the time to brainstorm. It’s great because I can stop at any time and write down a particularly good idea.

For indoor cycling, we bought an exercise bike for super cheap at Goodwill, and I’ll do the same thing—either listen to an MP3, or brainstorm. I also can read a book while I’m cycling (it’s a bit harder for me to read while I’m walking).

Do some housework

Did you know you can burn an easy 100 calories vacuuming? How cool is that? And you burn calories while cleaning the bathroom, too!

And if you have an MP3 player, you can listen to writing workshops while doing it!

Be active.

Even if you only have time to do five minutes of walking around, do it during the course of the day. Exercise spread out through the day is just as beneficial as 30 minutes straight.

Also, doing it during the course of the day enables your limbs to move instead of staying stationary at your desk. This will improve circulation in your legs, back, and the rest of your body.

Drink lots of water.

This isn’t really exercise related, but it is health related. Keep a few bottles of water near your writing desk so that you can see them and therefore remember to drink them during the course of the day.


It is possible to get some exercise in, even if you’re super lazy like me.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Another word on emotions and thoughts

Thoughts can be a fabulous way to not only convey information, but to convey intense emotions. The key is to take advantage of point of view.

Setup: Laura is in a new church, and she’d filled out a Visitor’s card when she first entered the doors. Now, at the end of the service, the worship leader has been given her card.

“Laura Duke? Are you here? Please stand up so we can greet you!” He smiled as if conveying a Publisher’s Clearing House check to her.

Oh, how embarrassing. Laura slowly rose with a small smile.

The church members turned to look at her, then sat back in their seats. No warm smiles—okay, maybe one from that lady in the corner with the Coke-bottle lenses. Nothing more than a few disinterested glances.

She sat down again as fast as possible. That was horrible.

Instead of telling her emotion, you can show it with the nature of her thoughts—with her tone, with the language and words.

“Laura Duke? Are you here? Please stand up so we can greet you!” He smiled as if conveying a Publisher’s Clearing House check to her.

No way. Aw, man, this was not happening. Who thought up this kind of pain and torture? Did they not want her to return ever again?

Laura slowly rose with a small smile.

The church members turned to look at her, then sat back in their seats. No warm smiles—okay, maybe one from that lady in the corner with the Coke-bottle lenses. Nothing more than a few disinterested glances.

She sat down again as fast as possible. God, if the Second Coming came right now, I’d be pretty happy.
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