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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays!

The Story Sensei blog is taking a break from Christmas to New Year's. Have a great holiday season!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting to know your characters better

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Knowing Your Characters

Some Tips for Getting Into Your Character’s Story

Here are some ways to know your character more deeply, which might solve plot or story problems as you write your novel.

Many times, when a writer has hit a wall when writing their novel, it could be that the writer just doesn’t know the character well enough.

It doesn’t take much to hinder the creative process. Even not knowing a character’s preference for vanilla or chocolate ice cream can cramp the flow of words. Not knowing more major things like the character’s deep core values behind their motivations can be equally deadly to a novel’s progress.

So whether the writer is someone who plots the story before he/she writes or who just goes at it, exercises for getting to know the character can be done either before or during a novel’s creation.

Utilize Character Charts

There are several good character charts available on the internet these days. One of the best ones available is this exhaustive one from Charlotte Dillon.

The busy writer doesn’t need to fill out the chart in its entirety. Some things might simply be irrelevant to the story.

However, making yourself think about these details of your character can often give you deeper insight into things you never knew about them. This insight can jump-start a stalled story or help the writer understand why a scene isn’t working.

Utilize Freewriting

One of the writer’s most powerful tools is freewriting. This free association writing is one of the best ways to unleash creativity at its most unhindered and unfettered.

A freewrite can be anything—a letter from the character, a letter to the character, an interview with the character, train of thought of the writer or the character, etc.

The beginning is always the hardest, but as you dig deeper and write longer, often things come out that will surprise you about the character or the story.

The reason this happens is because the writer is diving more fully into right brain creative mode and more likely to come up with more unique ideas.

One good object of a freewrite can be to understand the character’s core values. Brandilyn Collins discusses this in her book, Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actorsin chapter one.

A character’s core values are the deepest level of truth within a character, what he or she believes about him/herself. This can be obscure or cliché, simple or complex, but core values are the foundations of a character’s motivations and desires.

Doing a freewrite to discover a character’s core values can often give deep, significant insight into the character motivations and might help un-stick a stuck story.

Utilize Pictures

Another great way to get to know a character better can be to troll magazines for pictures that look like the character.

Often a writer will discover new insight into a character that is triggered by a particular photo of someone who looks like the character. There are thousands of subtle facial cues that can be conveyed by a picture, and sometimes a very delicate cue can inspire a writer to new ideas.

Remember the Importance of Character

Characters are the core of a story. Even a plot driven story needs a strong character or the reader won’t be interested.

It’s a writer’s duty to spend time to know and polish a character to make the best possible lead for a novel. So spend time getting to know your character, whether before you write or while you’re writing your novel.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Setting the stage

There are some stories I've read where the author didn't introduce the setting very well, and I felt like I was dropped into a black pit with two people talking in the dark (or, at best, surrounded by fog or fuzzy light). Ever feel like that?

Other times, the author opens with SO MUCH SETTING DETAIL I'm bored silly before the end of page one.

I was at Seekerville yesterday talking about how you can avoid both of those scenarios:

Camy here, talking about opening scenes and settings.

This is especially important for historical and fantasy/speculative fiction writers who need to introduce an entirely new world for the reader within the first few pages without sounding like a travel guide and without confusing the reader.


Click here to read the rest of the article.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Career Novelist by Donald Maass

You can download the ebook FREE from Donald Maass's website:

The Career Novelist

“Packed full of fine analysis, solid advice, and thoughtful reflection on the state of contemporary publishing. It’s further distinguished by more common sense than any book of its type that I have ever read. A treasure.” — Dean Koontz, author of Intensity

“...an indispensable volume for all libraries, and for anyone interested in learning about the world of publishing...” — Ed Gorman, Mystery Scene

Monday, December 15, 2008

Effective Brainstorming

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction, but I'm very careful to make sure my brainstorming time isn't just time wasted daydreaming. This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Effective Brainstorming

How to Make the Most of Collecting Ideas

Brainstorming all aspects of a story can be made more effective and efficient with these simple tips.

Brainstorming is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. A writer can brainstorm all aspects of a novel, from large scale to small scale.

A writer can brainstorm high level element like theme and premise.

A writer can also brainstorm mid level story elements like character personality, external goals, backstory, career. Also story setting, possible villains, etc.

A lesser known but equally powerful use for brainstorming is for very small scale elements like a character’s goal for a particular scene, possible character decisions in a scene, variety of conflict or obstacles in a scene, etc.

It is possible to utilize brainstorming time efficiently.

Don’t Criticize Ideas

When a writer is in the flurry of coming up with a variety of ideas, that creative process utilizes the right side of the brain.

Criticism and analysis utilizes the left side of the brain.

When a writer is fully in right brain mode, the ideas tend to come faster and be more creative. However, most people have problems getting themselves completely in that right brain mode.

One way to do that is to try to shut down left brain activities as much as possible. This includes analyzing any ideas you come up with.

If a writer can only keep spitting out ideas, without pausing to analyze any of them, the brainstorming time will be more creative, colorful, and effective. The writer will come up with more unique ideas, more interesting plot points, more unusual characters.

After the brainstorming session is over is when it’s best to switch to left brain mode and start analyzing and culling those ideas just generated.

Have a Specific Goal

Sometimes it helps when the writer has a goal being targeted. For example, the writer may start the brainstorming with the firm goal of only brainstorming ideas for the character’s career.

When the brain is targeted this way, the brainstorming time can be much more efficient. A specific aspect of the story is being investigated and ideas are being generated for that story element. Once enough ideas are down, the writer can move on to some other element.

Utilize Tools That Work for You

Each writer is different, so experiment to figure out which tools work best for you.

Some writers simply type ideas or write them on a sheet of paper.

Others use Post-It notes or index cards and write one idea per note/card. The advantage of this is for visual writers who like seeing the ideas arranged spatially—Post Its can be stuck on a wall or a door, and index cards can be arranged on the floor or a table.

No way is the “right” way or the “only” way, so determine your way and go for it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Building a blog, part 7

Read part 6 here

Blog Content, continued

Focus on your blog readers.

Your blog might be about you, but to build a blog readership, you have to think about what you can give to your blog readers.

People visit a blog because of what they get out of it. What do people get out of your blog?

Hopefully you’re entertaining. Get some feedback.

Figure out which are your most popular posts—and why they’re popular. Can you write more like them?

What are your more unpopular posts? Why were they unpopular?

Are your blog posts all about you, or do you have things that might be interesting or informative to your readers? Remember to post things that your readers would want to read.

Are your blog posts mostly information with very little about yourself? Add some personality to your blog posts.

Building a blog readership will take time.

Don’t be discouraged and don’t have expectations too high for your blog traffic. All blogs take time to build.

Just keep blogging consistently, and also do a few things to help yourself get noticed:

(a) Participate in Blog Carnivals and Memes (you can do a Google search to find some)
(b) Comment on other blogs.
(c) Comment on email loops and forum boards with your blog in the signature line
(d) Comment in groups and forums with people who might enjoy your blog themes

However, DON’T BE AN AD FOR YOUR BLOG. It’s discourteous and slimy.

Here’s examples of what NOT to do:

“That’s interesting you mentioned putting down your dog, Lois. By the way, I talk about the pink bow I put on my dog the other day on my blog: http://myboringblog.com/.”

“That sounds like a great online writing class. By the way, I talk about my latest poem, which I wrote during my last poetry writing online class, on my blog: http://myboringblog.com/.”

Post on blogs, email loops, and forum boards as yourself and people will find your blog because they like you.

Go forth and blog!

Just do it. Don’t wait for the planets to be aligned or for your web designer to free up or for your family to finally leave you alone. Just blog.

You’ll make mistakes—who cares? The world isn’t going to end if your blog isn’t perfect.

Just do it—and enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Building a blog, part 6

Read part 5 here

Blog Content, continued

Blog about personal themes.

Think about any personal themes you might have. They can be deep or shallow—but everyone has personal themes.

So blog about them.

For example, my personal themes are:

(a) Asiana because I grew up with a lot of things that are new and different to my blog readers
(b) humor because I’m naturally rather irreverent and like funny stuff
(c) Christian fiction because I’m an avid reader
(d) knitting because I’ve gone gaga over my new hobby
(e) my dog because I don’t have children

Cheryl Wyatt has themes of both military related things and also funny embarrassing moments for herself (her “Blush and Cringe” posts are hilarious!). Sharon Hinck has a theme of encouragement, so she blogs short encouraging devotionals rather frequently. ChristianFictionQueen blogs not only about Christian fiction but also on BBC movies and miniseries, and also on musicals and other CDs.

Look at your own personal themes and build on them. Go with them. Develop them.

Discover your personal themes.

Look at the kinds of blog posts you like to read on other people’s blogs—and write them.

Devotionals, funny stories, recipes, patterns, pictures, travel, poetry, etc. The sky’s the limit.

Visit lots of blogs and pay attention to the types of things people blog about. Pay attention to the blog posts you especially enjoy. What kinds of blog posts are they? Could you do something similar with your own spin to it?

Be observant. And then be creative.

Ask your friends and/or blog readers.

Often other people will notice trends and themes in your blogging that you might not even realize. So go ahead and ask people who regularly read your blog.

Feedback is always a good resource for someone trying to become more professional and more unique as a blogger. Feedback will help you refine your blog and make it more interesting and targeted.

Next: Building a blog readership.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Comfort reading

My friend forwarded me this really inspiring post on Murderati, which is both encouraging and energizing for writers:

Comfort reading by Toni McGee Causey

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Building a blog, part 5

Read part 4 here

Blog Content, continued

Post about your hobbies.

Most of us pursue hobbies that lots of other people around the world pursue also. So post about it on your blog.

This is a great way to add some personal touches to your blog posts, and it also draws people to your blog who have the same interests as you do.

Pull in all the things you’re interested in. Anything can make a blog post—your current knitting project, your garden’s first tomato, your spin class’s new instructor, etc.

This adds points of interest to your blog and also helps create a community between yourself and your blog readers.

Post about current events.

Blogs that post about talked-about items tend to get lots of traffic from people Googling those items. If you have something to say about some news or popular item, then blog about it.

It doesn’t have to be current news events—it can be anything people are talking about. World events or fashion, politics or cooking. Anything.

For example, when the seventh Harry Potter book was about to hit the shelves, people who blogged about it got a jump in hits because everyone wanted to read up on the new book.

Be aware that blogging about popular topics can also attract trolls—people who like to leave argumentative, denigrating, and/or downright nasty comments on blogs just for the fun of hurting someone or riling someone up.

However, blogging about popular topics can also boost your blog stats and might gain you some readers you otherwise wouldn’t have had.

And if you’re not comfortable blogging about certain events or news, don’t feel pressured to do so. Blog about what you’re comfortable blogging about.

Next: blogging to your own personality.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Building a blog, part 4

Read part 3 here

Blog Content

If your blog logistics are all correct (see previous posts), it’s the content on your blog that keeps people coming back.

Return visitors are very good.

Here are some tips for creating great content for your blog.

Be personal.

Blog readers like to hear about personal stuff about you. Anything you’re comfortable sharing.

A blog that’s purely theme or product related can be boring. Successful blogs have both information and some personal touches.

For example, in Stephanie Quilao’s Back in Skinny Jeans blog, she blogs mostly about health issues, body image encouragement, and comments on health and fashion related news on the web.

However, Steph also blogs about her own personal struggles with weight loss and body image, making her posts personal as well as informative. Her writing style is also funny and entertaining.

Be safe.

The flip side of including personal information on your blog is to also be very careful about what you post. Do not post things that are too personal, and always be aware that there are some weird/dangerous people out there.

Don’t post personal financial information, obviously. Also don’t post your home address or anything that would enable a stalker to come visit you.

Some bloggers don’t post their children or spouse’s name, either. I think this is wise.

Some bloggers don’t post their children or spouse’s picture. I think you could go either way with this—whatever makes you most comfortable. I don’t post my husband’s name, but I do post his picture on my blog. It’s up to you what you decide to do.

So while it’s good to include some personal things about yourself in your blog posts, also be smart and safe. Don’t post information that you wouldn’t want a perfect stranger to have about you.

Next: More on what you can blog about.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Utilizing Subtexting in Dialogue

One of my favorite writing books is Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actorsby Brandilyn Collins. The chapter on subtexting is one of the best I've ever read.

Subtexting is a powerful writing tool that isn't used enough by beginning writers. Think about all the times you've said one thing but meant another--that kind of dialogue in your novel can convey layers upon layers of powerful emotional meaning.

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

How to Utilize Subtexting in Dialogue

Take Dialogue to a Deeper Level

Add subtlety and richness in meaning by incorporating the tricks of cross-talk in dialogue.

Subtexting, or cross-talk, is when characters say one thing but mean another.

Dialogue doesn’t always need subtexting, but it adds weighty significance to certain dialogues within the story that you might want to emphasize. It can bring emotions to light with even more power than if they were stated.

Here is a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to illustrate.

Maria is engaged to Mr. Rushworth, the master of Sotherton, but she is falling for Mr. Crawford. They are at Sotherton, standing at a locked gate, and Rushworth has gone back to get the key. Maria and Mr. Crawford are not alone—Fanny is nearby. But the flirting commences, thanks to subtexting.

Crawford speaking: 

“And to tell you the truth,” speaking rather lower, “I do not think that I shall ever see Sotherton again with so much pleasure as I do now. Another summer will hardly improve it to me.”

Incomplete Thoughts

Here, Crawford doesn’t complete his chain of logic—he won’t like Sotherton because in another year, Maria will marry Rushworth and be mistress of Sotherton. He doesn’t want her to marry Rushworth—but he only talks about Sotherton, leaving her to make the connection. He implies she should marry himself even though he isn’t as rich as Rushworth.

When your characters don’t complete the line of thought and leave the other character to fill in the blanks, you convey information without actually saying it.

Maria speaking;
“You are too much a man of the world not to see with the eyes of the world. (It’s acceptable for a woman to marry for money rather than for love.) If other people think Sotherton improved, I have no doubt that you will.” (But are you giving me a more emotional reason to not do as the world expects?)

Highlighted Words

Maria uses words “the world” to refer to what other people would say, in order to ask what Crawford feels. Her words are pointedly used—she is marrying Rushworth for “worldly” reasons, namely money. “Worldly circles” accept this reason. Crawford better have a reason to be objecting—that is her principle meaning.

Be judicious in the words you use to convey deeper meaning.

Maria speaking:
“You seemed to enjoy your drive here very much this morning. I was glad to see you so well entertained. (I was not.) You and Julia were laughing the whole way.” (Aren’t you after my sister Julia instead?)

Other Contexts

Maria mentions his drive with Julia, not to talk about the drive but to introduce Julia’s name into the conversation. She speaks of the drive—an innocent topic—to convey a unspoken barb about his flirting with Julia.

If the conversation you write has already been pointed, introducing a supposedly “innocent” topic creates contrast and lets the character know that there is a deeper current. While the context is innocent, the words have a different meaning.

Maria speaking:
”But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.”

Metaphors and Double Meanings

Earlier, Maria uses “Sotherton” when in reality, she means herself. Here, she talks about “getting out” which could mean through the locked gate—but she means out of the engagement.

Have characters speak of things metaphorically, call things by other names, and utilize double meanings and double entendres to convey different meaning than what they actually say.

Practice

Utilize a writing prompt and write dialogue that talks about one thing on the surface, but is talking about something else underneath. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at subtexting.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Interview on Missy Frye's blog

Missy Frye asked me about writing and the writing life on her blog:

What is your writing routine?

I start off doing emails and marketing in the morning, and move to writing in the later part of the day, with a few email breaks in between. I try to be disciplined but that doesn't always happen. :)


Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Building a blog, part 3

Read part 2 here

Blogging Logistics, continued:

Give your blog a unique design.

Make your blog design uniquely “you.” It will serve as a visual cue to readers to know they are entering your happy place and can expect a fun read.

A cheap way to alter your blog template is to ask a computer savvy teen or twentysomething to help you “pimp” your blog. Many teens know html b/c of their experience personalizing their myspace pages.

An expensive way is to hire a blog designer. Check out several of your favorite blog designs and figure out who the designer was. Then email them to ask for prices.

Keep the visual distractions to a minimum.

A blog with too many little ads or too many widgets on both sidebars can be distracting to a reader.

Aim for clean lines and good visual cohesiveness. Incorporate lots of white space.

Overall, make sure your nice unique blog design isn’t overshadowed by ads or widgets or flashing bling.

Turn off the music.

Blogs with music playing tend to be distracting. Turn the music off.

This will keep the reader focused on your blog post, not the music.

Also, any readers on dialup will have a hard time visiting your blog if it has music streaming. You want to make sure your blog is easily accessible to all readers.

Save time—blog for the entire week at once.

This is the “secret to my success,” in a sense. I take one day a week and write all the blog posts for the coming week all at once.

It usually takes only a couple hours at most, because each blog post is only 250-400 words. If your post is going long, break it up into two days’ posts.

This is much more time efficient than taking 20-30 minutes each day to blog. Take it from someone who writes for a living.

Don’t waste precious time you could spend on other things. Be efficient with your blogging time.

Next: Blog content

Monday, November 24, 2008

Building a blog, part 2

Read part 1 here

Blogging Logistics, continued:

Keep your blog posts short.

Blog readers tend to skim when the blog posts are very long.

The ideal length for a blog post is 250-400 words.

Yes, you read that right.

The longest a blog post should be is 750 words, although if a blog post is a short fiction story, they can be as long as 1000 words.

Short blog posts also enable you to blog more—a long blog post can instead be broken up into several parts, making two or three days’ posts out of one long post.

Utilize boldface to draw the readers’ eyes down the page.

This is a technique from business writers who want to make sure the reader hits the pertinent points. Boldface also helps the reader keep track of the main points as they read the blog post.

However, italics are harder to read than boldface or regular font, so use italics lightly.

Choose eye-friendly colors.

In general, white typeface on a black background is hard for a person to read on a computer screen. It messes with the eye and blog readers will not often return to a blog with this inverted color scheme.

Go for simple: black text on white background.

Also, make sure the colors you choose for links or other text on your blog are pleasant, easy to read colors. No pastels that can be difficult to pick up from a white background. Other than being easy to read, any color is fine.

As for the design of the rest of your blog, feel free to choose your favorite colors.

Make any pictures low resolution.

Pictures or clip art are good since blogs are very visual, but make sure they’re low resolution pictures.

Any readers still on dialup will be able to read your blog easily if you have low resolution pictures, and the blog will load faster for those of us on high speed internet connections.

If you don’t know how to make a picture low resolution, ask a teen or twenty-something you know who is computer savvy.

An easy way for me is to use the free Kodak Easyshare software. It lets you save a copy of your picture as “web” quality, which is lower resolution.

Once you save a picture copy in lower resolution, upload that copy to your blog. People will be able to view your page faster and easier.

Next: a few last words on Blogging Logistics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bumping your dialogue up to the next level

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Riveting Dialogue

Tips For Taking Dialogue to the Next Level

Here are a few key elements needed to make dialogue sparkle.

Before, I wrote about how to make dialogue sound more natural, but what if you want to bump your dialogue up to the next level? What if you want to make your dialogue really pop?

Dialogue Is War

In the words of Randy Ingermanson, “Dialogue is war.”

Dialogue should have some form of conflict or tension. The characters don’t have to be shouting at each other, but there should be some sort of tension that keeps the dialogue from being a nice, easy conversation between two nice, easy-going people.

Nice, easy-going dialogue is boring.

In good dialogue, a character should be fighting for something: fighting to retain information, or fighting to extract information, or fighting to convey information.

Don’t make it easy on your characters—make the conversation a battle for at least one of them.

Read Award-Winning Plays

Tony Award-winning plays are excellent resources for writers wanting to improve their dialogue writing skills.

Plays are mostly dialogue, and award-winning plays are filled with award-winning dialogue.

The more a writer reads successful or lauded plays, the better the writer gets at seeing the different aspects of truly good dialogue.

Research Dramatic Timing

Learn the rhythm and cadence of the dialogue as it relates to dramatic timing.

This is best seen in movies or on stage. Watch a few Academy Award-winning movies, or (a cheap alternative) catch clips of key scenes on YouTube.

Pay attention to the timing, the rhythm of the words, the cadence of the sentences, the pauses, the flow of the conversation.

Even though dialogue is read, there is an auditory aspect of it. Most readers “hear” the dialogue in their heads.

This part of learning to write great dialogue is experiential—a writer must listen and observe different examples in order to understand timing. It’s a more organic process than other aspects of learning fiction writing techniques.

If you can learn the rhythm of dramatic timing, your dialogue will be that much more vibrant.

Make Strong Word Choices

Even the individual words you use for dialogue can make a conversation insipid or enthralling.

Use strong “power words,” as Margie Lawson calls them in her Deep EDITS online course. Be careful and deliberate with your word choices—make them vivid, emotional words that evoke vivid, emotional responses in a reader.

“You’re a jerk,” she said. (boring)

Versus

“You’re a Bourbon-soaked turd in that toilet of a house.”

Or

“You aren’t worthy to lick the gum off my stilettos.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

As with any skill, strong dialogue requires practice.

Take a writing prompt and write a dialogue-only scene. Then revise, working in “power words” and tweaking the sentences’ rhythm and cadence.

Any extra time you spend on practicing your dialogue-writing skills will be rewarded with rich, vibrant dialogue in your fiction.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Building a blog, part 1

These days, blogging is a great way to express yourself and/or to market a product you might have. Blogging is cheap, easy, and can be a lot of fun.

But while anyone can blog, how do you create an effective blog? Here are a few tips, broken down into Blogging Logistics and Blog Content.

(Before I begin, I also want to mention that blogging isn’t for everyone. Not everyone likes to blog, and that’s perfectly fine. I think that no one should feel forced to blog—if you don’t like blogging, then don’t blog. But if you do enjoy blogging, this is a series of articles to help you make a better blog.)

Blogging Logistics:

Blog consistently.

Good blogs have bloggers who post consistently and often. Most of these bloggers post five days a week, taking Saturday and Sunday off since blogs usually have lower traffic on weekends.

Ideally, a blogger who wants to improve their blog traffic and effectiveness should post five days a week.

If that gives you a heart attack, try to commit to posting three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), and you can build to five days a week in a few months.

Some statistics show that bloggers who post two or more posts a day collect more traffic than bloggers who only post once a day, but don’t panic—once a day is fine, too.

If it helps, set an alarm on your computer to remind you to blog. But there’s also a trick for blogging that I’ll talk about later.

Utilize lots of white space.

Studies have shown that because words on a computer screen are harder to read than words on a printed page, people tend to skim when they read blogs.

Also, because it’s harder to read a computer screen, people tend to skim even more when a paragraph is long.

Therefore, keep your paragraphs short. No more than two or three sentences. Ideally, the paragraph shouldn’t be longer than an inch or an inch and a quarter long on your computer screen.

Also, make sure you separate your paragraphs with a double carriage return (enter key). Blogs that don’t have that extra blank line between paragraphs don’t have enough white space and are harder to read.

Also, try to have a blog template (or alter your blog template) to have the paragraphs be narrow rather than long. This enables your reader to read your posts more easily than with paragraphs running the length of their entire browser screen.

Next: more on Blogging Logistics.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing more natural-sounding dialogue

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Natural Dialogue

Tips For Making Dialogue Smoother and More Realistic

Here are tips for making dialogue flow and sound more natural when a writer has been told the dialogue is stilted.

Sometimes a writer will get feedback that sounds something like: “Your dialogue is stilted” or “Your dialogue doesn’t sound natural” or “Your dialogue doesn’t sound realistic.”

How to make dialogue sound more natural?

Beware the Info Dump

“Info dumps” are lines of dialogue that are there solely to inform the reader.

For example:

“As you know, Jane, our sister Lydia ran off with your ex-lover George and robbed a bank with him last month.”

Jane already knows this, and her sister wouldn’t repeat the information to her—instead, she’d speak knowing what Jane already knows.

“Doesn’t it pain you?”
“Lydia and George? No, don’t worry about me. My relationship with him was over long ago. But the public shame of Lydia’s behavior hurts more than I expected it to.”

Break Up Long Paragraphs

Dialogue tends to be more back and forth—one character says something, the other responds, sometimes interrupting in order to respond. If you have a long section of dialogue, break it up.

Here’s an example from Single Sashimi:

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings. “Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—her cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell. But in an excess of high spirits, she took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along. So now she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen.”

Versus

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings.

“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.

“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”

“Is she doing okay?”

“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”

“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s domain?”

Trish rubbed her back and winced. “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”

Have People Read Your Dialogue To You

Don’t read your own dialogue—simply listen to people read it out loud.

You’ll be able to hear the rhythm and cadence of the sentences, how easy it is to pronounce the words and syllables, how long each character’s dialogue is.

If you’ve been having problems with stilted or unnatural dialogue, listening to it as an “outside observer” may open your eyes as to why or how it’s not quite realistic enough.

Keep Practicing

The best way to improve dialogue writing skills is to write more dialogue.

If you’re not writing enough dialogue in your novel, pick a writing prompt and write a scene of pure dialogue. Writer’s Digest has fantastic prompts every week.

The more you practice writing it, the more you’ll come to understand cadence, rhythm, timing, and the traits of natural-sounding dialogue.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Interview with Steeple Hill editor Melissa Endlich

There will be a great interview with Melissa Endlich (Senior Editor for Steeple Hill) on Seekerville tomorrow.

PLUS, Melissa will be popping in to answer any questions people post in the comments, so make sure you head to Seekerville to participate in the conversation!

Interview with Cathy Bryant

I'm on Cathy Bryant's blog, talking about my own writing life, some tips and book recommendations:

WordVessel

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interview on blog tours

I'm being interviewed on the He Said She Said blog about blog tours. This will be informative for any of you who are wondering about blog marketing, especially for fiction.

Some of you may not even want to think about marketing right now in your writing journey, but for those of you who are published or agented, this will help you formulate your marketing plan.
1. How did you first learn about blog tours?

I don’t quite remember. At the time, they were still very new, so I know that when I started planning my first blog tour for Sushi for One, it made a hit because a lot of people hadn’t heard of a blog tour before, or they’d only seen small ones, or ones with just book blurbs—not original content.

2. Which of your books have you taken on a blog tour?


Click here for the rest of the interview.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Writer’s Genre

One thing I never got a chance to talk about in my article on finding your brand is when you want to nail down the basic genre you should write in.

I know lots of writers (myself included) who would love to write in several different genres. Before I was published, I had to decide which genre to focus on, which genre I would want to break into publishing in.

It's not an easy decision, but I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, that gives tips on how to pick your genre, as well as the reasoning behind why you need to pick one.

Tips for Novelists Trying to Determine a Genre

For novelists who write a variety of genres, here are a few tips for how they can nail down which one(s) to focus on.

While there are many published authors who write in several genres, for an unpublished author trying to break into the publishing industry, it’s good to find one genre to commit to for at least a few books.

Why Commit to a Genre?

This helps out the editor, who can slot the author into a genre niche within the publishing house’s lineup.

Most houses will not contract two authors whose novels are too similar. For example, a house wouldn’t contract two suspense novels that are too similar in tone and style.

However, houses do like to contract authors with different brands even if their genres are the same. For example, they might contract a suspense author who writes all female protagonists and another suspense author who writes all male protagonists. Or a house might contract one author who writes humorous women’s fiction and another author who writes serious women’s fiction.

However, if they contract an author and slot them into a spot on their lineup, they won’t contract that author’s next novel if it’s too different from the genre slot that author fills in that house.

Say you get contracted on a humorous women’s fiction novel, but then your next novel is a suspense. An editor will want you to produce several novels within the brand and genre of the first contracted manuscript, not to genre hop.

It’s important for you to define your genre and brand to make it easier on the editor who wants to contract you.

Pick a Major Genre.

This will take time and might even involve writing several manuscripts to determine which genre you like writing in. But choose a major genre you wouldn’t mind writing in for several books.

The major genres tend to be:
Contemporary romance
Contemporary fiction
Historical romance
Historical fiction
Paranormal
Fantasy
Science fiction
Suspense
Thriller
Women’s Fiction

Pick a Secondary Genre.

This secondary genre will help a writer further define their brand. For example, humorous women’s fiction versus serious women’s fiction, or legal thrillers versus international espionage thrillers.

Further defining your brand will also help you better describe your writing to an editor, and give that editor an idea of where you could be slotted in a publisher’s lineup.

Again, this might take time, but determine what secondary genre you wouldn’t mind writing for several books, because if you sell that first novel in that genre, your publisher will want more books in the same vein.

Give Your Genre a Unique Spin.

Here is where your writer’s brand sets you apart.

If you write humorous women’s fiction, how does your writing stand out from the other humorous women’s fiction novels on the shelves? If you write legal thrillers, how do your books stand out from other best-selling legal thrillers?

This will help an editor understand that you’re not the same as some other women’s fiction author in the publisher’s lineup, or that you’re not a John Grisham copycat. This will allow the editor to see that you have your own unique place to fill on the bookstore shelves, and in the house’s lineup.

And if you have a unique place to fill, you’re not in direct competition with a best-selling author already contracted with that publishing house. You are more likely to be considered than another writer whose manuscripts are too similar to what the house is already publishing.

Take Your Time.

Discovering a genre, sub-genre, and unique spin will take time. Don’t be discouraged. The more thoughtful tweaking you do to your brand—and, consequently, to your manuscripts—will make your writing more likely to be noticed by editors.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Writer's Brand

Under the post on Writing in different genres, we had a lively discussion on brand. I had more to say that would have made too long a comment, so instead I wrote an article on tips for discovering your writer's brand, which originally appeared on Suite101.

Tips for Discovering a Writer’s Unique Niche in the Market

A writer’s own particular brand can be hard to discover, but here are a few tips for helping to brainstorm your own unique writing brand.

These days, publishing houses often want to see how a writer’s “brand” sets them apart from the thousands of other manuscripts they receive.

It’s become more difficult to become published by traditional publishers, and a writer’s unique brand is often what raises them to the top of the slush pile.

But it’s equally difficult for a writer to determine what their brand is. Here are a few tips.

Read Extensively, Not Just in Your Own Genre.

With the lines between genres becoming blurred, it’s important to be well-versed in what’s already being published in the genre(s) you write in as well as in other genres.

If you already know what’s being published, you can determine:

(a) how your brand can be similar to what is already being published

(b) what is not being published so that you can ensure your brand is unique.

This research is crucial for unpublished writers. If a writer doesn’t know the current market, they can’t expect to wow an editor who is very well-versed in what’s on the shelves.

Look at Trends in Your Completed Manuscripts.

Look at genre and other marketable elements.

Do you write with humor across genres? Do you tend to combine certain genre elements (for example, paranormal and crime mystery, or high-octane action and contemporary romance)? Do you write kick-butt heroines? Do you write military heroes? Do you write in a particular exotic setting or career?

Remember to look at concrete elements. More abstract things like “issues” tend to be poor brand determiners.

Things like “adoption issues” or “grief issues” or “redemption” are not good brand determiners. They are not concrete.

But “suspense novels always involving young children” or “compelling women’s fiction novels always involving extremely dysfunctional families” can be good brand elements.

Notice the differences. “Young children” and “dysfunctional families” are character trends, which are more concrete brand elements than “issues.”

Brainstorm About What You’d Be Happy Writing.

If you can’t find obvious trends in the manuscripts already written, then look at your ideas for future manuscripts.

Are there genres you’d like to dabble in? Plot or character elements you’d like to explore?

Brainstorm and list the books you’d like to write.

Then prioritize them into the top novels that resonate most strongly with you.

Then look at the character, plot, and genre trends of those novels. What do you tend to like to write about?

Make Your Brand Unique.

This is the hardest part of discovering your brand, but it’s also most important.

Once you figure out what you like to write or tend to write, and once you’ve done research into what’s already being published, how can you tweak your writing so that your brand is unique enough to make an editor sit up and take notice?

Brainstorm ways to present your brand in only a few words—6-8—that will encompass exactly what you write and how it’s different from anything else being published.

Here’s my brand: Contemporary Christian romances with Asian American heroines. It’s specific, and I’ve done my research—there are no other authors writing my brand.

Some authors write historical romances with Asian heroines, although none of them write only Asian heroines. There are also some authors who write contemporary romances with overseas Asian heroines, but not Asian American heroines, and again, none of them write only Asian heroines.

Find a way to present your own brand that shows you’re unique from anyone else being published, and an editor will not only know that you’ve done your homework, but will see that you’re different from any other manuscript.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Episodic writing

I recently got a few questions on what episodic writing is. Earlier, I posted the link to an article on episodic writing, but I also wanted to address it myself. In this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, I talk about how to recognize it, and some things to get rid of it.

Make the Character Proactive Rather Than Reactive

Eliminate episodic scenes by giving the character an External Goal, Obstacles against that goal, and Forward Movement in the story.

A story is more than just good writing. A story plot must have forward motion and a sense of movement that pulls the reader along.

Sometimes writers will get feedback that their story “lacks purpose” or is “episodic.” What exactly does that mean?

Episodic Writing is Reactive Writing in Vignettes.

A character needs more than just to fall into an alternate world and face Scary Monsters. He needs to have a purpose and doggedly pursue that purpose. If he simply goes from one Bad Thing to another, the story lacks direction.

When a character simply reacts to the Bad Things that happen to him, he is being reactive rather than proactive, and that can be boring to a reader.

It’s also boring to read a novel where the characters have coffee and discuss the heroine’s dead-end job, then have dinner discussing the hero’s wayward sister, then go out to breakfast the next morning and discuss the mystery of the missing diamond necklace, etc. A novel like that simply moves from one vignette to the next without a sense or urgency or movement that pulls the reader along.

Instead, give your novel focus and purpose.

Make Sure the Character Has an External Goal

Editors like to see a character who has a strong External Goal that carries him forward in the story. It provides something for the reader to follow, and it provides direction for the storyline.

In The Wizard of Oz, sure, Dorothy gets swept into another world. But her goal all the time is to find a way home. She follows the Yellow Brick Road, tries to see the wizard, gets the witch’s broomstick because the wizard told her she needs it to get home. All the things she does is for the sole purpose of finding a way home. She is not simply moving from one strange event to the next. She has purpose and focus.

Make Obstacles Against the External Goal.

Once the character’s goal is established, make the conflict targeted toward that goal.

If the heroine’s goal is to buy a particular house on Blossom Street, make every obstacle directly against that goal: maybe the bank won’t give her a loan, or her old house won’t sell and she can’t raise the down payment, or some other family is in competition for the same Blossom Street home she’s trying to get.

Don’t just have “conflict” against the character—make the obstacles work directly against whatever her goal is. Then, the story will be targeted rather than episodic because each obstacle is trying to thwart the character’s external goal.

Make Each Scene Have Several Purposes

Monday, November 03, 2008

Writing in different genres

Many of you already know that I've sold a romantic suspense story to Steeple Hill's Love Inspired Suspense line when I'm already published in romantic chick lit.

Genre-hopping for writers is a hotly debated topic. And actually, before selling my romantic suspense, I would have advised writers to stick to one genre until they're better established.

What I didn't take into account was the publishing market's tightening of their belts in the past year.

Things to consider:

Some genres don't sell as well after a while.

For example, chick lit is no longer a "hot" seller because the market was glutted with it. There are still lots of readers who enjoy romantic, funny women's fiction (which is what chick lit is), but they've read too many single-girl-wants-a-man-and-can't-have-him-for-some-reason stories, and they want variety.

If your genre is on the downturn, it might be time to jump to another genre.

However, my suggestion is not to stray too far from your brand, even though you're switching genres.

My brand is Asian American romance. I wrote Asian American chick lit, and now I’m writing Asian American romantic suspense.

The genre is different, but the brand still carries over.

If your genre is doing well in the market, such as historical romances right now, then my suggestion is to stick with your genre for obvious reasons.

Don't just follow the trends.

If you decide you'd like to jump into historical romance simply because it's hot now, chances are that when you finish your new historical romance manuscript, the market will have changed.

Don't follow behind the trends. Instead, you want to try to swim ahead and catch the wave when it catches up to you.

For example, do you love writing speculative fiction? Then write it. The market could catch up to you eventually (how long it will take is another matter and another entire debate in the publishing industry).

Another example: When historical romances weren't selling well a few years ago, historical romance writers still continued to write them, and now that they're selling like hotcakes, those writers are prepared to ride the wave.

A better question to ask yourself is this: Can you tweak your (completed) manuscripts to be both visionary of the trends and yet one foot in the current trend? That's a more effective solution.

For example, make your speculative fiction manuscript more of a thriller with speculative elements.

Another example: make your chick lit more of a slightly comical, heartwarming women's fiction (with both married and single women, and deviating from the typical chick lit formula) and ride the women's fiction upswing right about now.

A last thought: write what you want to write. Don't write a genre just because it's trendy. Write what you enjoy writing, what you enjoy reading.

If you write something you're not really into, an editor/agent can really tell in your manuscript.

Try to stick with your brand.

I know, I know, I mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating.

Your brand is what makes you stand out from other writers writing in your genre.

I stood out from other chick lit writers because I wrote Asian characters. I still stand out in my new genre, romantic suspense, because I write Asian characters.

So refine your brand—spend lots of mental and emotional energy on it. It will carry you through genre changes and industry trends better than you realize. It's worth the time to figure out how you stand out from the crowd.

That will sell you to a publisher more than anything else, especially in the current market where it's so much harder for an unpublished writer to break in.

The simple fact is that there are more writers these days competing for a limited number of publishing slots, and you have to write better than ever—or stand out more—in order to get picked up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pounding out a manuscript (NaNoWriMo)

Tina asks me about my writing day and NaNoWriMo (just around the corner!)

Monday, October 27, 2008

The publishing industry in a disastrous economy

Agent Terry Burns gave a talk at the Glorietta writers conference on The publishing industry in a disastrous economy and it's really worth a read.

It's a bit sobering, but it's also got some solid advice:

I guess what I think it says is that we’re going to see a more cautious approach to acquisitions over the next months and see it taking longer to get decisions. The advice at the beginning of this talk to stay calm and have patience is appropriate. That gives us time to make that submission as good as possible, because the competition is going to be stronger than ever. Books that are simply “finished” won’t get it done, because the market is looking for books that are excellent. Should we quit writing and quit submitting? Of course not! Just keep doing business as usual . . . with a little more patience.


Thanks to agent Terry Whalin for the link to the article.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Setting the Stage in the First Page

In this article, originally published on Suite101, I'm giving tips on how to plunk your reader into your story world on page one without confusing them or making them feel like they've been drop-kicked into an alien culture. This is important because you want to introduce the setting and make the reader feel at home, and often you only have the first page to do that. It's not impossible!

Immersing the Reader in the Novel Story World

Skillfully drop the reader into the setting of the story by intriguing them without confusing them.

The hardest place to set your reader down into your story world is the first page. But the reality is that readers in a bookstore and editors paging through thousands of manuscripts will usually only give you one page to catch their interest.

One page.

That first page must hook the reader and orient them in the novel story world without confusing them. It’s a tall order, which is why it’s best for novelists to spend the most time revising your first chapter, and your first page.

Highlight Something Significant To the Story World.

Use nuances of language and careful word choices to convey what’s unique and significant about your story world.

In Pride and Prejudice, the setting is about propriety and marriage. Jane Austen sets up those issues of significance within the first page.

In the first page of Twilight, Stephanie Meyer plunges the reader into a story world of a girl’s imminent death and a hunter. It’s suspenseful but it also makes it clear this is not the ordinary world.

In Miss Fortune, the language and description in the first chapter immediately brings to mind Sam Spade, which is what author Sara Mills was aiming for in her novel about a female P.I. set in the forties.

Take Advantage of the Familiar to Orient the Reader.

This is one of the only places a cliché is vital to the story. Use them to immediately orient your reader into the story world.

A “greasy diner” gives an immediate picture in the reader’s mind of a tired cook, a few loungers hanging about, the heavy smell of bacon grease in the air. However, a “diner smelling like homemade apple pie” brings an entirely different setting to mind of grandmotherly waitresses and lots of good comfort food.

Be deliberate about the words you use, and pick strong words that will trigger automatic reactions in the reader’s mind.

Show Current Action, Not Past Action.

Dwight Swain says it best:

One of the hardest things a writer has to learn is that “What’s going on?” means precisely that—“What’s happening right now?”—Not, “What has gone on?” or “What’s the background and/or past history of the present action?”

How do you thus communication present action?

You show what happens.

You show it as it happens, moment by moment, in strict chronological order.

--Techniques of the Selling Writer

Make your reader aware of something happening right now. This present action will pull the reader in automatically. Something that happened in the past and mentioned on the first page is simply not dynamic enough to hook attention.

Compare:
He hadn’t slept with his wife in over a week, but then she whispered in his ear that night.

versus

Patrick O’Connor stirred from a deep sleep at the feather touch of his wife’s breath, warm against his neck.

“Patrick, I need you …”

Her words tingled through him and he slowly turned, gathering her into his arms with a sleepy smile. He ran his hand up the side of her body, all sense effectively roused.

“No, Patrick,” she whispered, shooing his hand from her waist, “I need you to go downstairs—now! There’s someone in the kitchen.”

--A Passion Redeemed by Julie Lessman

Be Deliberate With Words on That First Page.

Utilize language to both orient the reader and introduce the current action. By taking extra care over the clichés you use or the words you choose, you can both immerse readers into the story world and not confuse them.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Crafting a Riveting Opening Hook

In this article, originally published on Suite101, I'm breaking down a good opening hook into four types of hooks. Does your opening hook fall into one of the four categories?

Grabbing the Reader’s Attention From the First Paragraph

A novel needs to start with something so captivating that the reader is compelled to move on. This is called the Opening Hook.

These days, the Opening Hook is important not just to hook readers, but to hook editors. In an informal survey of more than 50 editors and agents, author Cheryl Wyatt reports that 99% of them admit to only reading the first page of a submitted manuscript. If the story does not intrigue them in that first page, they won’t read on.

That puts a great deal of pressure on unpublished writers to have an astounding first page. If the editor, who reads thousands of manuscripts a year, is not hooked, then that manuscript will only garner a form rejection letter.

Work Hard on a Killer First Line.

Lots of writers pooh-pooh having a killer first line, but really, it’s the perfect place to hook the editor or reader. If the editor likes that first line, they’ll definitely read the second one.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“The most important sentence in an article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead.’”

--William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

William Zinsser is referring to nonfiction articles, but it applies just as well to novel first lines.

Angle Toward the Unique, Unanticipated, Different.

A first line that highlights something unusual is what will pique the editor’s attention.

(a) Introduce something unique happening in the story world.

Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) writes: “To call attention to uniqueness is to make your reader wonder what you’re leading up to.” That “wonder”—that curiosity, mystery—is what hooks the reader to keep reading.

Highlight a unique person, place, situation, object.

Rafe Noble, two-time world champion bull rider and current king of the gold buckle, had never met a bull that he feared. –Taming Rafe by Susan May Warren

(b) Reveal Something Unanticipated

Contrast normal with abnormal. The reader will be intrigued and read on.

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. –Silent In the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

(c) Show a Deviation From the Norm or From Routine

Anything that indicates that “today is something different” will pique the reader’s curiosity and wonder what’s happening.

I couldn’t imagine more shocking news. –A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin

(d) Indicate Something Is About to Change

As in (c), readers will respond to something indicating something is going to happen.

Any man going on this mission wasn’t coming back. –Amber Morn by Brandilyn Collins

Be Aware That the Standard is Different For Unpublished Writers

Yes, it’s not fair, but you can complain after you’ve written fifty best-sellers.

Unpublished writers are competing with thousands of other unpublished writers for every book slot. The odds are not very good because there aren’t many book slots for new authors. Most publishers want the guaranteed money of best-selling authors’ books in as many slots as possible.

So the smartest thing is to step up to the plate and work hard on that first line, first paragraph, first page. It’ll be worth the hard work to improve the odds of an editor reading past that first page, requesting the full manuscript, taking that manuscript to pub board.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Making character voices distinct

I’m guest blogging at Love Inspired author Missy Tippens’ blog about how I make my character voices so distinct.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Inciting Incident - Getting a Story Underway

This article I wrote, which originally was published on Suite101, is for any of you who might be wondering about some of the key elements to keep in mind as you start your novel. It can also be a checklist for your novel's opening.

Getting a Story Under Way

In popular fiction, every story should start with some sort of Change to indicate to the reader that the story problem is beginning.

Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) says, “The function of your story’s beginning is to let your reader know there’s going to be a fight ... and that it’s the kind of fight that will interest him.”

Swain doesn’t mean a literal fight, but something the character is fighting for. The Inciting Incident is the Change that propels the hero to fight for his External Goal.

Most people, whether we like change or not, understand that when something changes, we can expect a new era or time of life to begin. The same principle applies to a reader—when he sees change in the story, he knows the character is going to embark on a new journey.

How to Start the Story

A story opening is usually comprised of:
(a) the main character
(b) the character’s ordinary world
(c) a sudden event that Changes the character’s world
(d) some sort of consequence of that Change.

Some openings will remove one or two of those and add them in later. For example, if you open in the villain’s point of view as he’s killing a victim, you only see the event that Changes the character’s world. The next chapter will introduce the main character, his ordinary world, and how the Change affects his world.

When to Start the Story

“Start on a day that’s different.”
“Start with an arrival.”
“Enter as late as possible.”
“Start with trouble.”

All these things add up to some event that signals Change for the hero. Change from his normal world, change that indicates trouble.

A writer will want to start the story as close to that Change as possible. Don’t spend too much time meandering over the hero’s normal world. Start with the event of Change, and make it apparent to the reader that it’s a deviation from the hero’s ordinary circumstances.

A book can start before the Change event, but the author must make sure he doesn’t start too far before the Change, or the opening will bore the reader.

A book can start right in the middle of the Change, but the author must make sure the reader is able to understand what’s going on and not be confused by being dumped into the middle of a situation.

A book can start after the Change, but the author must make sure the explanations that follow aren’t too long and extensive.

Explain later

Contrary to what many writers think, a reader doesn’t need an explanation for why things are happening right at the opening.

If a writer opens with a striking, mostly self-explanatory scene, the reader will just go along for the ride and wait for explanations later.

Also, an aura of mystery is another way to hook the reader—they’ll keep reading to figure out why what happened just happened.

Make Sure the Character Faces Consequences

When the Change happens in the story, if the character has no consequences to the Change, there really isn’t a story.

The Change has to cause a chain reaction of other decisions the character makes, other consequences for those decisions. This is what propels the story.

The Change itself can be an external event, but everything that happens after that should be the character making decisions, finding unexpected consequences, making more decisions, finding more consequences.

Inciting Incident, existing situation, affected character, desire danger decision, where to open, existing state of affairs

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Five Basic Story Elements

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Key Elements Needed Before the Novel is Written

In order to craft a more cohesive story, writers should make sure they have these five elements in mind before they start or very soon after they begin writing.

There are many different ways to write a story, and no one way is the “only way.” Some writers write as the story comes to them. Some plot out each step before they start writing. Some do a combination of both.

But there are five main elements of a commercial story that are crucial for ensuring a strong storyline. Writers should try to nail these elements down before they get too far into the novel. If they don’t, they might end up writing themselves into a hole, or the story might end up being very aimless and episodic.

1. Introduce the Main Character

Make sure there is a focal character or hero.

Even if there are two main characters, there is always one who is more important to the story, or whose journey is slightly more important or urgent than the other.

2. Establish the Situation of Danger

There should be an element of trouble or danger that the character is working in.

If there isn’t any trouble, then there isn’t anything forcing the hero to act.

The trouble and the action doesn’t need to be something like Dr. Doom blowing up the world. It can be something as gentle as a mother’s erratic behavior and her years-old secret impacting her daughter’s plans for college.

3. Define the Character’s External Goal

Here is where the writer clearly establishes what the character is going to be working toward for the entire novel. This is the prize or purpose the character is pursuing as he journeys into the unknown (The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersby Christopher Vogler).

Here is where what the character wants (External Goal) and why he wants it (Motivation) is defined in order to round out the character’s personality (GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflictby Debra Dixon).

4. Introduce the Opponent

This is not necessarily a villain. This could be a natural disaster or a group or anything actively working against the character.

A good antagonist is usually better defined rather than something more vague. A natural disaster or villain is defined. But a “town who doesn’t really like the hero” isn’t a defined antagonist.

Make a specific, defined opponent to the hero.

5. Build to a Specific Climax

Before the story is written, it’s always best to know what the climax will be. This enables the writer to build toward it. It gives the story a mountain top to reach for. It provides a focus point for the story.

The climax should be a Disaster in every sense of the word. Something absolutely terrible that boxes the character in until there is no where left to go. This creates more emotional tension in the reader, and also enables the writer to build tension toward that climax.

Put the Five Elements Together

Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) suggests putting the elements into two sentences. This is good because it forces the writer to be succinct and targeted in their story elements.

(Character) is in (Situation) and must accomplish (External Goal).
But can (Character) defeat (Opponent) when (Climax happens)?

The first sentence defines the story premise.
The yes-no question simplifies the story for the writer and reader toward that emotional crux.

Your turn

While this is mainly a story writing device, writers can also use this to write their 10-second elevator pitch, which can come in handy at writer’s conferences.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Characterization and archetypes

I talked about characterization and archetypes on MaryLu Tyndall's blog

Friday, October 10, 2008

Blog Marketing

I wrote an article on Blog Marketing at Christian Fiction Online Magazine:

Blog Marketing

I don't know how long the article will be up for, so read it quick! LOL

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Time Management

I wrote about time management on Christa Allan's blog.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Character arc

This article originally was published on Suite101.

How to Plan a Character’s Journey

In popular fiction, every protagonist goes on a journey, whether physical or emotional.

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain wrote, “Anything endangering survival or happiness creates fear.” And the point of creating fear is to introduce tension.

Tension is what hooks readers.

A protagonist’s character arc should progress from happiness to fear to tension (for most of the book) and back to happiness. It’s cyclical.

Create a Short Setup

This establishes who the character is before the events of the story. A writer should show what the character desires, what constitutes happiness for the protagonist.

Keep this section short, or incorporate the information within the action of the first chapter or two. Most editors prefer a quick start to the story.

Hit the Protagonist With the Inciting Incident

Also called the Catalyst, this is an external event that propels the character into the story.

It is some form of change that endangers what the protagonist desires or what makes the protagonist happy.

A writer can set up the protagonist’s emotional state and give a hint of how he will change emotionally in the story.

The Inciting Incident usually results in the protagonist making a choice to pursue his external goal.

The protagonist’s behavior or choice causes the rest of the action, the rest of the story.

Obstacles Should Hinder the Protagonist’s External Goal

There are often three major turning points in the story, made up of three major disasters—events which hinder the protagonist from reaching his external goal.

These events cannot simply be bad things that happen. They have to be things which specifically work against the protagonist’s external goal.

Each disaster should make things worse and worse for the protagonist, hemming him in, taking away his choices. This will build tension and keep the reader reading.

The Climax Should Bring Everything to a Point

The climax of the story will bring the protagonist to a point physically and emotionally

Physically, the disasters have boxed him in so that he must fight from a corner.

Emotionally, the protagonist has finally realized what about himself needs to change in order for him to become a stronger, better person. This emotional crux is often called the Epiphany.

Usually, the protagonist is made to choose between either two good choices or two bad choices. In popular fiction, the hero usually chooses for the greater good, making a personal sacrifice of some sort. The Epiphany and self-realization come into play here, making the hero act on the principle he has recently learned.

The Resolution Delivers a Satisfying Ending

Often in popular fiction, once the protagonist has made this awful choice and everything has gone south, rescue comes from without. The cavalry arrives, an enemy turns friend, a friend rises from the grave.

The ending is satisfying to the reader because the protagonist has already proven himself to be worthy of his Happily Ever After—when he made the right choice in the Climax.

The ending may or may not give the protagonist his external goal. Sometimes the hero finds satisfaction in not attaining his goal—because he has learned something emotionally/spiritually that has made him a better person.

Analyze Your Character’s Arc

While these are a general guidelines to character arc, every story is different. While in one instance, tweaking a story to fit these points might make it a stronger story, in another instance, a story might be good enough on its own. It’s up to the writer to make the choice.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Quote - Writing is a business

“Never be: Afraid. Aggressive. Arrogant. Unhappy. Difficult. Depressed. Make an editor roll her eyes. Too much artist, not enough business.” --Brenda Schetnan (writing as Molly Evans) in her article, “After the Call--The First Year”

Remember, writing is a business. Much as art is a part of your writing, you also have to put on a business hat and think logically. Think market. Think audience. Think improvement.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How many manuscripts should you have in your "inventory"?

This question came up on one of my writing loops, so I'm shamelessly stealing it for this blog post.

How many completed manuscripts should you have under your belt before you query? 2? 5? 20?

How polished should those manuscripts be?

And what about series ideas and sequels and prequels?

Camy here:

The more I talk to agents and editors, the more I realize that they want to hear lots of IDEAS. Polish of the manuscript can come later, but if they don't like your first pitched idea, it doesn't matter that the book finaled in contests and is polished to a high pitch. You better have another idea to pitch to them if they say no to the first pitched idea.

This is what happened with my Sushi series. The pub board hated the first book idea (an old version of Trish's story), but they wanted to see the second book idea/manuscript (Lex's story in Sushi for One).

I have several writer friends who have between 5 and 10 finished manuscripts. Don't freak out, many of them have been writing for years.

When I sold my first novel, it was actually my FIFTH completed manuscript. Most writers say the same thing—they completed several manuscripts before selling one of their latest ones.

The point is that most of those manuscripts in their inventory are not polished, but those manuscripts each have a unique story idea.

If an editor/agent doesn't like one idea, the writer has another idea/manuscript to pitch.

Those ideas don't include sequels. Most of those 5-10 finished manuscripts are either stand alone or the first book in a series, with the 2nd and 3rd books roughly outlined but not completed.

Because there's always the chance that the editor/agent won't like the entire series idea/premise. If all your completed manuscripts are in the same series, you're up a creek when an editor/agent asks you if you have any other story ideas!

I'm not saying you shouldn't pitch to or query editors/agents when you only have one or two completed manuscripts. You never know!

I'm also not saying you shouldn't polish your completed manuscripts. Definitely polish them—but don't spend ALL YOUR TIME polishing the same manuscript or two. Go on and write other manuscripts! If the first ones aren't absolutely perfect, don't sweat it. As long as they're readable, they're fine.

What's more important is that you have new and different story ideas in your inventory.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Episodic writing

One of the Steeple Hill editors forwarded this link to an article on Episodic Writing that is simply fabulous:

Plotting Problems - Episodic Writing

Friday, September 26, 2008

Synopsis worksheet endorsements

I recently put together a Synopsis Worksheet that will guide you through the process of writing a synopsis.

The best part is that you don't need a full completed manuscript to use the worksheet--just a general idea of your characters and storyline.

The worksheet is available as a .pdf file download for only $5.

In case you were wavering about whether to buy it or not, here are a few endorsements from happy clients who used the worksheet in my recent Synopsis writing class:


Camy Tang has a unique gift for guiding you through the process of putting together a synopsis. Her great insight helps you wrap up the main ideas step by step. I love the way she ensures you have a strong spiritual or internal arc in your synopsis. I can’t say enough good about her Synopsis Worksheet. You can’t go wrong with it.

Debbie Lynne Costello

Camy's Synopsis Worksheet was just the tool I needed! I dreaded writing my most recent synopsis— summarizing a 95,000 word novel into a few short pages? Aah! But Camy's worksheet gave me a good format to follow, and now I have a synopsis that actually makes sense! If you're thinking about getting Camy's Synopsis Worksheet, stop thinking. Just get it.

Marcie Gribbin

I was in the process of writing a synopsis for my manuscript when Camy announced she was teaching a workshop using her Synopsis Worksheet. Each assignment taught me how to revise and rewrite my two page synopsis. I now cringe with embarrassment when I read the wordy three pages I almost sent to a publisher. Thank you, Camy.

Jean Kinsey

Story Sensei's Synopsis Writing Worksheet swept away any intimidation I had about writing a synopsis. The worksheet went far and beyond the inexpensive cost, providing excellent jumpstarters and a valuable writing resource. I'm looking forward to future worksheets.

Tyora Moody

Camy's synopsis worksheet is easy and fun to follow. It made me think about where my book is headed and how to best translate that on paper. Camy uses examples from her own book, which is an incredible help. Her worksheet showed me how to construct an efficient and interesting synopsis without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

Jessica Nelson

Dear Camy, I wanted to let you know what a blessing your synopsis worksheet has been. I loved writing my story, even enjoyed the rewrites as I saw it improve, but I hated writing the synopsis. I read everything I could about the subject, but nothing really helped until I did your worksheet step by step. What a relief! It should be called Help for the Synopsis Impaired! I've used it for both of my books now.

I've recommended it to my critique group and will continue to do so for others.

Thank you so much,

Teri Smith

I would recommend Camy's Synopsis Worksheet to anyone preparing to submit to an editor or agent, or to anyone trying to pitch at a conference. I was unsure about whether I needed the worksheet or not, but for such a great price, I decided to sign up. What a brilliant decision! As a direct result of Camy's easy to follow writing exercises in the worksheet, and implementing the lessons therein, I received three requests for my manuscript at the 2008 ACFW Annual Conference.

I wholeheartedly recommend Camy's Synopsis Worksheet.

Denice Stewart

Even as a multi-published author, I struggle with writing a clear, concise synopsis. I recently used Camy Tang's Synopsis Worksheet and found it to be the most helpful resource for synopsis writing. I highly recommend this worksheet for authors at any stage of the game, whether aspiring or multi-published.

Cheryl Wyatt

Monday, September 22, 2008

When should you hire a freelance editor? Part six

Click here for part five

If your answers to the previous questions were “yes,” then it’s time to hire a freelance editor.

If you’ve gotten feedback, entered contests, studied the craft of writing, finished a book, and done your market research, you have most likely moved from a beginning writer to an intermediate or advanced one.

At that point, a freelance editor can use her experience to figure out how to push you to the next level of writing craft.

You might have submitted your manuscript to a few agents or editors and gotten some rejections. Sometimes the rejections are form letters, sometimes they’re a little more personal (although it’s still a “no, thank you,” which can be frustrating).

Often, your manuscript will get many rejections and while your critique partners are sympathetic, no one can pinpoint why your manuscript keeps getting rejected.

Maybe you’re finalling and winning various writing contests (consistently finalling and winning), but you’re still getting rejections from agents/editors. The rejections might be more personal, but they’re not giving you the kind of feedback you want to make the story publishable.

This is a good indication that you need a more experienced eye than your critique partners.

Many times, freelance editors have a better eye for pinpointing things that your critique partners don’t see. For example, one of the reasons I started my Story Sensei critique service is because experienced authors noticed that I had a good eye for seeing large-scale structural problems in manuscripts.

There aren’t many editors who can do that, and they suggested I market my ability by offering that service to other writers (this is what I do when I do in a Synopsis critique—I look at your story’s overall structure and character arcs, and I can see if there are structural flaws which might be why an editor rejects the manuscript).

Not all freelance editors are the same. You want to try a freelance editor first to see if you like his/her editing style. I tend to be very cut and dry (not a lot of pink fuzzies and cheerleading), while another editor might be more encouraging. Or you might simply prefer an editor’s way of explaining things because your communication styles mesh.

Most editors will allow you to hire them for a short section of your manuscript. For example, I will do the first 3,000 words of your manuscript for only $40 in my Screening critique. Meredith Efken also has a Screening Critique of 5,000 words for $55.

Spending a little bit of money to “test” a freelance editor is often a good idea if you don’t know much about the editor or if you’ll like their style of editing.

However, be aware that some freelance editors do not offer this “test” critique and will only take full manuscripts. Do your research before contacting a freelance editor.

Be aware that hiring a freelance editor does NOT guarantee publication. No one can do that. But getting a professional critique will often move you to a higher tier in your publishing journey and help you on your way to publication.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Blogging for promotion

I blogged at Seekerville yesterday on Blogging for promotion, even if you're not yet published.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How to write a query letter

I blogged at LaShaunda's blog yesterday on the five main parts of a query letter and give an example of one:

How to write a query letter

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Story Crucible

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Factor That Keeps the Character in Trouble

Every story needs a firm reason the character can’t just walk away from the story trouble. This is called the story crucible.

If a character is able to walk away from the story problem at any time, readers will feel dissatisfied with the story premise. The character needs a solid reason why he struggles on and doesn’t just take the option of giving up.

The Crucible Has to be Something Vital at Stake.

The character cannot continue with his external goal simply because he’s too stubborn to give it up. There has to be more at stake for him.

Someone’s life has to be in danger, whether figuratively or in actuality. It could be the character’s life or it could be someone the character cares for. There’s something vital on the line that can’t be ignored or sacrificed.

For example:

In the movie and series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is the Slayer, the chosen girl who has powers to fight the forces of evil. She can’t just walk away from her responsibilities because then eventually, the entire human race would become run over by vampires and it would be all her fault.

Her crucible is the protection of the entire human race.

Another example:

Bob is trying to get a certain promotion at work.

What’s his crucible? Why does he need this promotion? If it’s simply for ambition, that’s not good enough. He needs a more vital reason for pursuing this promotion.

Say he needs the money because his wife is undergoing chemotherapy. The crucible is his wife’s life.

Or perhaps the new job title will finally confirm to him that he’s as good as—or even better than—his critical father. He believes it will validate him and give him the self-esteem he’s always been lacking. (While this might be a false assumption, the key fact is that Bob believes it to be true.) The crucible is Bob’s identity.

Or perhaps he has already arranged with the company’s competitors to get the new job title—and the new security clearance—so that he can steal information and sell it to the competitors for a huge wad of cash. He intends to disappear to Jamaica and live in style for the rest of his life. The crucible is his new life.

The Crucible Keeps the Character Entrenched For the Entire Novel.

If circumstances change in the middle of the story and suddenly the character has the option of walking away, that’s not a good crucible.

As the story progresses, the problems should get worse and worse. The character should be boxed in, tighter and tighter. The crucible should be getting stronger, up until the climax.

Here’s an example:

In Isle of Shadowsby T.L. Higley, the heroine is a courtesan-slave who longs for her freedom. When her master is accidentally killed, she needs to keep his death a secret for a week until he is scheduled to leave Rhoades with her. This is her crucible.

However, a rival starts stirring up political trouble, which requires her master to make appearances at the public council.

Then the council wonders if her master is too ill to take the scheduled trip, and if someone else should be sent in his stead.

Then a council member discovers that her master is dead, and he wants to use her and the secret for his own ends.

Each event draws the net tighter around the heroine, boxing her in, making things more difficult. The crucible has become not just her freedom, but also her life as she faces a charge of murder.

Find a Strong Crucible.

In writing your own novel, make sure your character’s crucible is a strong net that keeps the character struggling on.

Friday, September 12, 2008

When should you hire a freelance editor? Part five

Click here for part four

Do you read extensively in the market you’re targeting?

For example, if you’re targeting Christian fiction, do you read a lot of Christian fiction? If you’re targeting mass market romance, do you read a lot of mass market romances? If you’re targeting fantasy, do you read a lot of fantasy?

If the answer is no, you are definitely not ready to hire a freelance editor.

You may not realize it, but freelance editors can really tell when you haven’t read extensively in the market you’re targeting.

Whether it’s a particular genre or a particular publishing house you’re targeting, if you haven’t done your research by reading those books, it’s obvious in your writing.

For example, I have read manuscripts targeting, say, a Harlequin category romance line, who don’t have the hero and heroine meeting in the first chapter. If the writers read those romance books, they’d know a requirement of the line is for the hero and heroine to meet in the first chapter.

I have also read manuscripts targeting mainstream fiction, but the stories read like an academic paper. If the writer actually read current mainstream fiction (not fiction from ten or twenty years ago), they’d pick up the patterns of how modern novelists craft a story, how a novel is structured, how a novel is paced.

They’d see that modern fiction has a deeper point of view than older fiction, that modern fiction relies heavily on dialogue and conflict, that modern fiction creates an experience for the reader that a writer should strive to emulate in their own store.

Reading books in the genre or line of your target market can be as valuable as reading writing craft books, going to classes and workshops, or going to conferences. Writers pick up subtle things about writing that sometimes cannot be articulated, but which are there and real. And those things make your writing stronger.

Click here for part six
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