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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Increasing your climactic conflict

When I took a seminar taught by New York agent Donald Maass, the one thing I took away was that most of the manuscripts he sees don’t have enough Conflict with a capital C.

There are lots of ways to increase conflict, but the biggest is to make it the climax of your story.

It’s easy to do—ask yourself, what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to my character?

Then have it happen and ruin your character’s life right at the climactic moment near the end.

I can see you cringing, but it must be done. Grow a backbone. Sock it to your character.

If your heroine is afraid of death, have it stare her in the face in the climax. If your hero wants to save his ranch, have a tornado destroy it. If your heroine needs a heart transplant, have her donated organ arrive unviable. If your hero is trying to catch the serial killer, have him realize he’s been after the wrong suspect the entire time.

Be brutal! Be ruthless! Be evil!

You’ll discover how absolutely GREAT your book’s climax can be if you do.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Learning to get into the writing zone

Before, I talked about left and right brain roles for writing. Left brain is more analytical, right brain is more creative. For some people, it's very difficult to switch between the two completely. Usually when I switch from analytical to creative, I'm not 100% into my creative mode--there are vestiges of analytical thinking going on.

That's why for some writers it's difficult to be as creative when you switch between editing and writing, editing and writing. The analytical side--editing--doesn't fully relinquish brain energy to the creative side for writing.

However, switching quickly--and more importantly, more completely--between sides can be trained, to an extent. This is especially important for busy writers who juggle different duties and tasks.

Set an alarm clock (your watch alarm, phone alarm, PDA alarm) at odd hours during the day. When that alarm goes off, drop everything and write for 8 minutes. Grab whatever's handy--pen and paper, computer, word processor. Immerse yourself in some scene in your current WIP.

It will be really hard, at first. If you have to write nonsense or the same words over and over, then just do it. But eventually you'll shift into right-brain creativity. And the more often you do it, the faster you'll be able to automatically switch.

Something to note: Some writers switch very easily between left and right brain modes. These are typically writers who edit as they write, and going completely into right brain mode sometimes will not enable them to write any faster or better than if they edit as they go. As a writer, you need to figure out what method works best for you.

Separate right and left brain activities

Ooooh, that’s a nice description. Oh no no no, that’s a terrible way to put it. Oops, you wrote a passive verb. Hey, you just laid down three adverbs in a row! The right word just isn’t coming to me . . .

Sound familiar?

That pesky internal editor. Most writers say to lay down a bad first draft and edit later. There’s actually scientific reasoning behind it.

Right brain is creative stuff like writing prose and brainstorming. Left brain is editing your prose and sifting through which brainstorm ideas you should keep or chuck. When you use both at once--like brainstorming and editing at the same time--the brain can't keep up with the switching back and forth. Your creativity can stall or your analysis can be way off.

This is why many writers recommend turning off your "internal editor" when writing the first draft. Don't correct, don't second-guess that word, don't fiddle with that phrase, don't decide that action is too bland, don't stop and do research--just make a note and move on. That editing is left-brain work, which would short-circuit your creative right-brain work if you stopped to indulge in it.

So for some writers, it's best to only do creative stuff for one chunk of time--force yourself to be in that zen mode of writing or free association. Then switch to analysis of what you did. The times can be as short as five minutes each, but just make sure the activity times are clearly separated. This will improve efficiency when writing and developing a story.

One trick to try is closing your eyes. The senses of blind people sharpen to make up for loss of sight--your creativity might enhance when you remove your sense of sight. It can also remove the discouraging picture of the blank page. Block out distracting thoughts like work, housework, kids. If you can, type or write with your eyes closed, forget about misspelled words or the pen writing on the desk--oops, well, I guess you kind of have to watch out for that.

Another trick is to try writing as fast as you can. This forces you to just go with your gut and stall your analytical side. Plus this is often a necessity for busy writers with only fifteen minutes to write.

Also see my article Learning to get into the writing zone.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dialogue—subtexting

Sometimes called “off the nose” dialogue, subtexting is a character saying what he wants to say without actually saying it.

It’s when characters talk about one thing, but they’re really talking about something beneath the surface—sometimes fencing with their words, or avoiding the subject while yet hitting it dead on.

One of the most recent and more memorable instances of subtexting was a scene from near the end of the movie Serenity. (Don’t worry, I’ll try not to spoil anything, but if you haven’t seen Firefly and Serenity, go rent it now! Great instances of characterization and innovative dialogue.)

Mal is talking to his first mate Zoe, and the actual dialogue is discussing the ship and how she’s taken a few knocks, but she’ll run true. In actuality, they’re discussing the hard knocks the crew has gone through in the movie, but that they’ll still fly true.

Subtexting adds depth to your dialogue. Is there a scene where the characters are just explaining things to each other? Or maybe just a long passage of exposition?

Why not transform it into subtexting? Be creative! Be clever! Make your reader think a little!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Too many action beats

The writing book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (second edition), suggests eliminating dialogue tags in favor of action beats. For example, instead of he asked, she said, he demanded, replace the dialogue tags with action beats whenever possible.

I've mentioned this before, but I thought I'd use a few more examples. Sometimes we writers go overboard on the action beats. For example:

“How have you been?” He tucked in his tie.

“Fine. How are you?” She fidgeted with her necklace.

He sipped some water. “Work’s been busy.”

“How’s the new manager doing?” She wet her lips and glanced around at the other diners in the restaurant.

He looked up. His eyes pinned her to her seat, while his smile reminded her of Hannibal Lector. “He’s doing fine, just fine.”


Only keep in the action beats that do something for the scene. If an action beat indicates emotion, or if you’re trying to convey a character’s personality in the beginning of the manuscript, then leave it in. Otherwise, cut, rearrange, slice-and-dice!

If you show the same emotion with two beats, eliminate one. If a beat doesn’t say anything about the dialogue or the character, eliminate it.

“How have you been?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Work’s been busy.”

“How’s the new manager doing?” She fidgeted with her necklace and glanced around at the other diners in the restaurant.

His eyes pinned her to her seat, while his smile reminded her of Hannibal Lector. “He’s doing fine, just fine.”


Go through your manuscript and look only for action beats, to see if you can eliminate or rearrange some.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Interview on writer's voice

Kaye Dacus interviewed me about writer’s voice. The interview is below. You can also go to her blog for more answers on writer’s voice by Gail Martin and Shelley Bates.

Kaye: How did you find your unique writing voice? Did you struggle to find it or did it come easily to you?

Camy: Both, actually. When I first started writing, my voice was very muted because I didn't understand what a writer's voice was.

Then I started to realize that each writer needs to let her natural "voice" come out in order to distinguish herself from every other writer out there.

If you pick up an Amy Tan book, you can tell the writer's voice is very different from Helen Fielding's (Bridget Jones). You'd never mistake one for the other.

I wanted my voice to be distinctive like that. Once I figured that out, I let go of all inhibitions and wrote exactly how I wanted to write, regardless of rules, etc. I fixed things up in revisions, but my voice was there on the page, uninhibited and uncensored.

Now, I make sure I always write with my voice, whether in fiction, or articles, or my blog (practice makes perfect, after all). I firmly believe it's a very important part of being a good writer--to have a unique voice that will appeal to an editor, and your readers.

Kaye: How would you describe your unique writing voice? What is it that you do to make sure your writing "sounds like" you?

Camy: My voice is a bit breezy, rather irreverent, and I try to always keep it honest and open. In the course of writing all my manuscripts that DIDN'T sell, I figured out what my voice "sounds" like. It really was a matter of just trial and error, and lots of practice.

Writing with my voice is a very conscious effort. It doesn't just come out whenever I write. I have to make sure I keep it in mind when I'm writing, or else it'll be muted.

I think a lot of writers assume it just "flows" out, but that's not the case with me. I have to deliberately write in my voice. It's something I work to do for every chapter I write. It's not difficult or a struggle, but it's definitely something I have to constantly keep in my mind.

Kaye: What advice would you give to beginning/intermediate writers to help them find and develop their unique writing voice?

Camy: One really good book is Finding Your Writer's Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. Not all the exercises resonated with me, but the majority of them are great for helping a writer to discover their writing voice.

It'll also help a writer develop their voice and bring it out with much less writing than I did to develop my voice (I mean, it took me 3 or 4 entire manuscripts!), because the exercises are so targeted.

And like I said before, practice makes perfect. Strive to develop your voice with everything you write.
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