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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.

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


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.
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