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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dressing at conferences

Angie Breidenbach over at F.A.I.T.H. blog posted a great article on dressing professionally at conferences. She's talking specifically about the ACFW conference coming up in September, but her advice is great for any writing conference with the exception of the more casual ones like Mount Hermon and Oregon Christian Writers Conference, which are on campgrounds in the woods. Many other conferences, like ACFW and RWA, are set in hotels, and Angie's article is exactly the advice you need for how to dress.

ACFW Conference Wear

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Scene transitions – switching POVs

Switch character point of views at scene changes, not within a scene.

While it’s not technically wrong to do one POV switch in a scene, it is very jarring to the modern-day reader. Readers ten years ago probably wouldn’t care as much, but the trend these days in publishing is one POV per scene.

As a reader yourself, notice if there’s a POV change in the middle of a scene. Does it jar you, even just a little? You absolutely don’t want to pull the reader out of the story world even a little.

Eat and leave. That’s all she had to do.

If Grandma didn’t kill her first for being late.

Lex Sakai raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and was immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. She tripped over the threshold and almost turned her ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, she hated wearing heels.

Her cousin Chester sat behind a small table next to the open doorway.

“Hey Chester.”

“Oooh, you’re late.” As usual, but Chester wasn’t about to actually say that to his cousin. She might bop him in the nose. “Grandma isn’t going to be happy. Sign over here.” He gestured to the ridiculous guestbook his sister had decorated. Pink lace glued to the edges almost drowned the ugly thing.

Go through your manuscript to see if you switch POVs in a scene. It might be harder to keep the scene in one POV the entire way through, but try it and see if you can rewrite it. Stretch yourself as a writer to convey the same information, but from another character’s POV.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Scene transitions – follow Scene with Sequel

I’m a big proponent of Dwight Swain’s Scene and Sequel concept because I’m a psychology major, and I’ve read a few books that explained why Scene and Sequel works so well psychologically in readers. It all makes sense to me that our brains are geared a certain way, and Scene and Sequel resonate with most people psychologically, which is why they’re so effective.

However, when you transition to a Sequel, make sure you keep up some type of conflict or tension in the scene. This is something Swain doesn’t mention, but Donald Maass recommends constant tension and conflict in order to keep the reader reading, and that applies to the more reflective Sequels in your novel.

The conflict or tension doesn’t have to be something major, but just something minor as a thread throughout the scene. It can even help form that rise at the end of the Sequel.

For example, in chapter three of Sushi for One, Lex has a Scene where she finally is able to ask this guy out on a date. In the following Sequel in chapter four, her cousin Trish is questioning her choice in men, and at the end of the Sequel, Lex makes a decision about how to make the date the best ever.

The tension in the scene comes from the fact that Lex starts off the Sequel calling a local businessman to ask him to sponsor her junior high school girls’ volleyball team. She’s trying to talk to the businessman while Trish is trying to get her to talk about the date she’s made.

The main focus of the Sequel is Lex deciding what to do about her date. The tension from the phone conversation and Trish trying to talk to her at the same time is a minor thing, but it makes the Sequel more interesting than if Lex had just been eating ice cream with Trish and discussing the date.

Go through your manuscript, and if you haven’t structured it with Scenes and Sequels, well, do that now. Yes, it will take a lot of work, but it’s worth it. When you revise your Sequels, find some sort of tension or conflict to add to the scene.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Scene transitions – ending hooks

End each scene/chapter with a hook sentence or paragraph, just like your opening. This is sometimes referred to as a “rise.”

If you are using good scene structure (which you should be doing like a good writer), you’ll be following Dwight Swain’s Scene and Sequel pattern, which naturally gives you a rise at the end of every scene or sequel.

This keeps the reader reading, because it presents something surprising or curious at the end of the scene, and they want to find out what happens next! “Just a few more pages …” Aaaah, music to a writer’s ears.

”It’s gonna be okay, Mom.”

She wrapped her arms around her son. As far as she was concerned, things couldn’t get much worse.

Then a beam of light sliced through the darkness as someone pushed the front door open.

Nowhere to Hide by Debby Giusti

Back out on the porch, she lifted the shotgun and said, “Come any closer and I’ll shoot you.”

Buried Secrets by Margaret Daley

I glanced out the [plane] window a final time. Saginaw, Michigan—and Mom, Pop, and Nelda—was eons away. My entire existence had been marching toward this moment in time. Would I measure up?

Of course, since this man-made contraption would never get off the ground, I wasn’t sure it mattered whether I did or not.

Sniffing the faint scent of wieners in the air, I settled back to await my death.

Monday Morning Faith by Lori Copeland

My cheeks flushed as a couple of kids around me let out low whistles. I sank back into the chair. All I had wanted to do was have a normal end to my senior year. So much for normal.

The Encore by Sarah Anne Sumpolec

Grandma straightened with a frighteningly excited look on her face. “I know what I’ll do.”

God, now would be a good time for a waiter to brain her with a serving platter.

Grandmother gave a gleeful smile and clapped her hands. “Yes, it’s perfect. I’ll pay for breast implants for you!”

Sushi for One? by Yours Truly

Go through your manuscript and look at the ending to every scene. How can you revise it so that you can add a rise or an ending hook sentence?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Scene transitions - opening hooks

Start each scene/chapter with a hook sentence. You can also have a hook paragraph if the paragraph isn’t too long.

This is not just for the opening sentence of a book—use this technique for the opening of every scene.

Something mysterious, curious, dangerous, ominous. Grab the reader’s attention from the get-go.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Saints above, girl. What are you doing here?” the shackled man hissed. A Bride Most Begrudging by Deeanne Gist

It was not the rock—it was never the rock; it was the air. In High Places by Tom Morrisey

A dead man spoke to her from the shadows. The Dead Whisper On by T.L. Hines

It was raining the night he found me. Demon: a Memoir by Tosca Lee

“Move and you’re dead.” Buried Secrets by Margaret Daley

Rule for Women Ministers No. 1: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain on church premises—especially on the Monday morning after Easter. Earth to Betsy by Beth Pattillo

Eat and leave. That’s all she had to do. If Grandma didn’t kill her first for being late. Sushi for One? by Yours Truly

Sometimes, this technique will also help you to add more tension and conflict in your scene. More tension and conflict is ALWAYS GOOD.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Character description – emotional reaction

Instead of just describing a person, you might want to think about integrating the description with the point of view character’s emotions in reaction.

For example, rather than:

The tall blonde walked into the room, a scarlet dress swirling around her long legs. A man near the bar turned to look at her. Charlene sat at her table and stared at the strange woman.

You can instead write:

Charlene started and sat up at her table as the tall woman swept into the room. The stranger tossed her blonde hair in a flirtatious gesture, calculated to make the men at the bar look at her. Hussy. She’d probably chosen that red dress because the side had a slit up to her hip, revealing more leg than was decent.


Charlene looked up as the tall woman swept into the room. She had gorgeous blonde hair—Charlene would have killed for that long and heavy mass down her back. Her scarlet dress swirled around her body, giving tantalizing glimpses at long, slim legs that Charlene could never have no matter how many hours she spent on the ellipsis machine. The man at the bar glanced at the woman, whereas he hadn’t even bothered to lift his eyes from his beer when Charlene had bumped into him earlier. Charlene sighed. She’d never command a room the way this woman did.

Go through your own manuscript, looking specifically for several sentences of character description. Rewrite them, integrating the viewpoint character’s emotions in response to the description.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Hey guys,
I lost power here on Friday night and I'm posting this from the library. We're not getting power back until Tuesday, and I'm traveling on Wednesday, so I'll resume my Story Sensei posts on Friday.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I've written a novel and I have no clue what to do next!

Congratulations! Typing “The End” is one of the best achievements of a writer’s career!

No first draft is perfect (except God’s first draft), so now’s the time for the revision process.

If you haven’t yet read my first article, “I want to write a book and I have no clue what to do,” go back and skim through the resources listed there. There might be a few books, articles, or resources you haven’t seen yet, and they might be useful to you for tightening structure or deepening characterization.

The following resources are for the revision and submission process.

Do a little large-scale revision.

Often, even the best manuscript needs some larger scale revision—shifting scenes, changing character goals, rewriting the climax. The one thing I notice the most in manuscripts that I do for freelance editing is a need for more conflict in the story.

Most people avoid conflict in real life, but in fiction, conflict is what keeps a reader reading. The best books I read for figuring out ways to add more conflict and tension is Writing the Breakout Novelicon and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbookicon by Donald Maass. These two books really helped me ratchet up the tension and conflict in my novel, making it a better, more compelling story.

Do some detailed self-editing.

Popular fiction published these days is a little different from your high school and college English classes. Some things that are grammatically correct like dialogue tags and exclamation points are cut for more streamlining in the industry. One of the best books to understand these new "rules" is Self-Editing for Fiction Writersicon (2nd edition) by Renni Browne and Dave King. This will sharpen your prose to a more professional caliber.

The First Five Pagesicon by Noah Lukeman talks about many of the common mistakes seen within the first five pages of a manuscript that automatically send it to the rejection pile. It’s true—there are some types of writing foibles within the first few pages that make a manuscript seem less professional.

Know your grammar.

I didn’t include this in my previous article because sometimes, thinking too much about grammar can cramp a writer’s creativity. However, correct grammar is a must these days. Publishing house editors are not there to correct all your grammatical errors. Editors are often so swamped with submissions, that any indication the writer doesn't know the craft is a reason for the editor to send a polite rejection letter.

If grammar is a sore spot for you, take a class at the community college or dig up an old high school or middle school grammar textbook. As a writer, you should have an excellent grasp of the English language.

Elements of Styleicon by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This is a classic grammar book for writers. The best part about it is that the original edition is available FREE online (

GRAMMARCHECK. This website not only has searchable archives, they also send out a free monthly e-mail newsletter detailing aspects of grammar. They are open to subscriber questions and will often answer them in each newsletter.

DAILY GRAMMAR delivers a FREE short grammar lesson into your email Inbox five days a week. I liked this because the lessons were quick, easy to understand, and in nice small chunks.

A Dash of Styleicon by Noah Lukeman is a good book for understanding punctuation. As Lukeman writes, “Punctuation reveals the writer: haphazard periods, for example, reveal haphazard thinking. Semicolons might indicate affectation; colons might denote melodrama; dashes might point to scattered thought.” Correct punctuation will mark you as a professional writer.

Join a critique group.

This can be scary, but in my opinion, it’s a must for any writer whether beginning or multi-published. Other people can often see things in your writing that you don’t see yourself. My critique partners catch all kinds of dumb mistakes in my manuscripts, even after I’ve done several rounds of revision on them.

In my previous article, I listed a bunch of writer’s organizations. Many of them offer critique groups, mostly online.

Critique groups are like dating—you have to make sure you have the right combination of people, because personalities and writing styles can either compliment or clash.

Don’t be afraid to try out a critique group for a few months to test how you like it. Many times, the group will help you grow in your writing more than you expected. If you’re having problems, don’t be afraid to switch to another group. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right group for you.

Sometimes you will find that you click with one or two people in a group, and you can often email them privately to see if they’d be interested in becoming critique partners with you outside of the critique group. Make sure you match on various levels—speed of writing (some writers can crank out a chapter day, others a chapter a month), critique style, general level of writing.

Make sure you have proper manuscript format.

There are certain things that you can do to make your manuscript look as professional as possible. For novelists targeting the Christian publishing market, I have an article, “Novel Manuscript Format for CBA Publishers.”

For writers targeting mainstream publishers, Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscripticon is an excellent, comprehensive manual.

Read up on the submission process.

Before submitting your novel for publication, it’s a good idea to figure out how to do it correctly. However, THAT’S an entire other article. I’ll work on one.

Monday, August 06, 2007

I want to write a novel and I have no clue what to do!

Congratulations! You’ve decided to take that wonderful, scary step and write that novel burning inside you.

Writing is an art, just like music. A musician wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano or take up a violin and immediately crank out a perfect rendition of Mozart. Good music requires learning and practice. Good writing is the same way, requiring learning and practice.

Thanks to the internet, free and inexpensive resources are readily available to anyone who wants to write their first novel. This article lists some tips, books, articles, and websites that I found most useful when I started writing.

Join a writing community.

The best money I spent was in joining an online writing organization. Writing groups have informative discussion loops, workshop archives, and sometimes critique groups. Often, published authors are on the email loop to give advice that you can’t read in a book.

I joined American Christian Fiction Writers, which is a large organization that has a lively writing craft discussion loop, extensive workshop archives on all kinds of writing topics, a prayer loop, ongoing online courses, a website discussion forum board, critique groups, smaller regional/face-to-face groups, and an annual conference. There’s a huge wealth of information available to ACFW members.

There are other groups for various other genres, such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

If you don't quite want to risk spending the money just yet, there is also, which is a free writing website. This is an excellent site for writers who desire feedback on their writing. On this huge site, writers can read stories, poems and articles, post their own pieces, and connect with other writers from practically any genre. There are several tiers of membership, from the basic Free membership to a full Business membership. The site policies, the innovative Gift Points system and the examples of generous community members work to maintain an honest and encouraging critiquing environment. Because the membership is so large, writers get a wide variety of critiques from people who are truly interested in the genre of their piece, and all writers are encouraged to review others in kind. It’s a secular site, so pay attention to the ratings for each piece before reading.

You can see other writing and critiquing sites on my Writers Groups page.

Learn the Basics.

There are tons of good writing books and articles out there. Here are some of my personal recommendations. These are the books that helped me the most out of all the books I've read:

One thing I see often in the contest entries I judge and the synopses I critique is that the storyline doesn't have a strong structure. It might have all the vital elements, but not in an order that will generate maximum emotional appeal for a reader. As a result, the story seems "off" or the middle sags and ending fizzles.

Techniques of the Selling Writericon by Dwight V. Swain gave me a rock-solid foundation in the structure of a good novel. This will provide a framework for your creativity to build your story on. It gives patterns and suggestions as powerful tools for a creative writer to use to craft their own original, vibrant storyline.

This was published years ago and has become a classic. However, it's also a bit hard to read for the modern audience. I wrote a series of articles based on his book to highlight his principles, called Articles from Swain. I highly recommend these articles to get a good idea of the basics of writing fiction.

Plot and Structureicon by James Scott Bell. Bell breaks down many of the same elements as Swain, in clearer language, with different metaphors and examples. He also goes into some other tools for fiction writers that I found very useful. The key here is simplicity and clarity. Bell's book helps writers understand the basics in order to build their novel with a solid understanding of the craft.

Randy Ingermanson is a phenomenal fiction teacher. His Advanced Fiction Writing website has several articles for beginning writers including “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” and “The Snowflake,” a structured method for writing a novel.

Many writers learn better by hearing a workshop than reading a book. For those types of auditory learners, I recommend Randy’s Fiction 101 series for teaching the basic elements of craft. Randy’s method is very logical, straightforward, and analytical.

Another great audio workshop series for beginning writers is “Bringing Fiction to Life” by freelance editor and author Donna Fleisher. Donna has a more conversational style than Randy, so which course to buy depends on what type of personality you are, and which type of teaching style you prefer.

Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actorsicon by Brandilyn Collins teaches the most unique, comprehensive methods for developing rich, three-dimensional characters. She deals with the basics of characterization like Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and she also explains nuances of prose and dialogue to bring those characters to life.

GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT by Debra Dixon is a classic characterization book. Many of the character weaknesses I see in contest entries include lack external or internal goals, believable motivation, and/or sufficient conflict to carry the story. This book is not available via Amazon, but you can order it directly from the publishers, Gryphon Books for Writers.

45 Master Charactersicon by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is one of the most-used books in my writing library. It has both character archetypes and also the classic Hero’s Journey, as well as the Heroine’s Journey. Archetypes and the Journeys are tools writers can use to jump-start their own stories.

Writing Tips email group (previously known as FirstDraft): This GoogleGroup is not a discussion email list. Instead, it sends out emails five days a week with links to various writing articles. I learned so much through this email loop when I first started writing. Reading a little bit about the writing craft every day really helped to improve my writing skills quickly.


Good writing is not just learning, it’s practice. Write!

Sometimes writers will write short stories to start. Short stories have the same structure as a novel, just on a smaller scale and shorter time frame. I did a lot of short story writing in various genres to figure out which genre I liked writing. I used short stories as a way for me to explore and experiment in my writing.

But don’t put off your novel, either. There’s a saying, “Most people don’t want to write, they want to have written.” Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to write but not being able to push yourself to do it.

Writing is hard work, and all writers will say the same thing, especially after they’ve completed a few novels. Don’t beat yourself up about having a hard time writing, because all writers will relate.

Force yourself to sit down and start writing. Force yourself to sit down the next day and keep writing. Force yourself to find time to write even a few words each day.

Take it a day at a time, a paragraph at a time. Novel writing is a long, hard journey, but a very rewarding one when you finally write “The End.”

Note: There are LOTS of books on writing that many people have used and swear by. The list above is simply what I found most useful out of all the books I read (and trust me, I’ve read a bunch). If you’d like to know what other books other writers liked, a quick search on Amazon will turn up a huge list, and I’ve spent money on most of those titles. The ones I’ve listed in this article are the ones I thought gave me the most bang for my buck.

I also have another article, “I’ve written a book and I have no clue what to do next,” which lists other books and resources for the revision and submission process.
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