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Monday, December 21, 2009

A good post for those who write humorous fiction

I love the Edittorrent blog, and Alicia Rasley posted this one that I thought was a really good post for those of us who incorporate humor in our fiction:

I was reading Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich, and I realized that one reason she's so popular with her readers is that she knows what's fun and spins it out to an enjoyable length. She doesn't just allude to it-- she exploits it.

Click here to read the rest of the post

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Conflict In Every Line

I'm at Seekerville talking about adding conflict in every line.

Camy here! I wanted to talk about conflict today, because we all could use more conflict in our lives, right? Especially now that it’s December and Christmas is around the corner?

(Breathe ... breathe ... I’m just kidding! I mean, I’m kidding about us needing more conflict in our lives, not about Christmas being around the corner. And if you’ve still got your head stuck in the sand of denial about Christmas—you have only nine days left, sugar. Get cracking.)

Anyway, one of the best things I picked up from a Donald Maass seminar was his injunction to add tension to every sentence on the page.

Chime in and add your own before and after writing!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Troubleshooting a Weak Climax

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Troubleshooting a Weak Climax

Ideas For Fixing a Disatisfying End to the Story

If the climax of a novel seems off, here are a few common weaknesses that can be fixed.

Sometimes a writer’s critique partners or first readers will comment that they didn’t like the ending of a story, or that the novel didn’t resolve well. While critique is always good, a vague “I didn’t like the ending” isn’t helpful for fixing it. However, there are a few mistakes often made but easily fixed to create a stronger climax.

The Character Isn’t Boxed In

Make sure you have taken away all other options for the character. If the character reaches the climax but still has several ways out, or a reason to not keep fighting toward the climax, it makes the character look silly or stupid.

Work on your character motivations and increase conflict so that the character is forced into the bottleneck of the climax. A good way to box the character in is to also make the stakes higher. Make the consequences of his decision impact more than just the character, but also his loved ones.

Tie Up Loopholes and Loose Ends

Related to the above about boxing the character in, also make sure the logical threads are tied up before the climax. Otherwise, your reader will wonder things like, “Why doesn’t the hero try XYZ? Why does he need to do ABC at this point in the story?”

Things that should trigger red flags for the writer are:

Miscommunication or ommision of information
Logical realizations the character doesn’t have
Common sense actions the character doesn’t do
Foolish things the character says or does

The Decision at the Climax Doesn’t Involve Character Principle

Ideally, the decision at the climax requires the character to act on personal principles or break them, to do the right thing or the wrong thing. This serves to heighten emotional and psychological tension for the reader.

If the decision at the climax doesn’t involve any emotional stakes for the character, it diffuses the tension of the scene and makes for a rather anticlimactic climax.

The decision at the climax should test the character. In making a self-sacrificing decision or a decision that adheres to personal principle, it proves to the reader that he deserves a possible happy ending. In making a selfish or hypocritical decision, it proves to the reader that he deserves whatever punishment he gets, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.

The External Goal Isn’t Strong Enough

Sometimes, the character’s External Goal isn’t important enough or meaningful enough to the character, which makes for a weak climax.

The External Goal that fuels the climax needs to be important enough to force the character into this decision. Don’t give the character a reason to back off or give up. Make the External Goal vital to the character’s livelihood or happiness.

The Peak of the Climax Isn’t As High As Other Peaks

Remember that the climax should be the peak in the story with the most conflict and tension (physical and/or emotional). If another scene has more conflict or tension, then try reworking both the other scene and the climax. Perhaps take elements from the other scene and save them for the climax, or add more elements to the climax to give it more punch.

The climax is the focal point of your story, so expend time and energy to make it the best it can be.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Creating an Emotionally Resonant Climax

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101

Creating an Emotionally Resonant Climax

How to Bring a Story to an End

There are four steps that can heighten tension and reader interest in the climax of a story.

The Beginning of the End is often used to refer to the climax of the story, or roughly the last 25% of the novel (in terms of word count or page count). After building the tension and conflict of the middle of your novel, now you want a strong ending that will grip the reader, then provide resolution and release of tension.

Give the Character a Certain Personal Principle

It heightens the emotional effect of the climax to bring the character’s principle into the mix. Tying principle with external situations gives life meaning for the character, which can help heighten emotional and psychological resonance between the reader and the character. This is one way a writer can manipulate the reader’s feelings through fiction.

Have the Character Keep His Principles Or Break Them

Give the character a choice between two courses of action. In building toward the climax, box the character in and take away his choices until he’s left with these two. This decision can become the focal point of all the conflict in the story, triggering release of emotional tension.

One good type of decision for the climax is to give the character an easy way to attain his External Goal if he sacrifices his personal principles, or to have the character stick to his personal principles and sacrifice his External Goal.

This decision at the climax clearly shows the reader the core values of this character—what he decides at this moment shows who he really, truly is. It is a test of character. The decisions and actions of the character at this moment of high stress shows what his true feelings are.

It can be a way to prove to the reader that he’s worthy of a happy ending, even if that happy ending doesn’t seem likely at this point.

Give the Character the Consequences of the Decision

Follow the principles of Cause and Effect—and if it fits with the story, make things as bad as possible for the character. Conflict can add personal interest for the reader because she has just read about the character’s crucial choice.

Sometimes this is called the Black Moment, where All Is Lost. Many times, this is where the protagonist has utterly failed in his External Goal.

Give the Character a Resolution

Reward him for self-sacrifice or punish him for selfishness (or the opposite, depending on the character and story). Give fulfillment and satisfaction or punishment for the character, whatever is appropriate for the story and the character arc.

This can be a place for the protagonist to be “rescued” from an outside force of help. The character would have already proven to the reader that he “deserves” a happy ending by his heroic choice (see above), so this type of rescue provides satisfaction to the reader.

Also, it can be a good idea to make sure that at the end you leave the character changed somehow from the beginning of the story. Otherwise, you might leave your reader with a sense of frustration that they read an entire novel and nothing changed for this character.

If you follow—somewhat—these four key points for your climax, this ensures a strong structure for the ending of the book that will not only keep your reader interested, but also provide a sense of satisfaction when the book ends.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Excerpt - A NOVEL IDEA by ChiLibris

Camy here: I'm especially pleased to post this excerpt because I'm in this book, too! I have a piece on finding and developing your writer's voice, that elusive "something" in your writing that makes the piece uniquely yours. I hope you guys enjoy this excerpt enough that you'll buy the book! All proceeds from this book go to charity.

A Novel Idea

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (November 1, 2009)


Various Best-Selling Authors
(contributions from best-selling authors including Jerry B. Jenkins, Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, Randy Alcorn, Terri Blackstock, Robin Jones Gunn, Angela Hunt and more)


Best-selling Christian fiction writers have teamed together to contribute articles on the craft of writing. A Novel Idea contains tips on brainstorming ideas and crafting and marketing a novel. It explains what makes a Christian novel “Christian” and offers tips on how to approach tough topics. Contributors include Jerry B. Jenkins, Karen Kingsbury, Francine Rivers, Angela Hunt, and many other beloved authors. All proceeds will benefit MAI, an organization that teaches writing internationally to help provide literature that is culturally relevant.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (November 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414329946
ISBN-13: 978-1414329949


Chapter 1: Plot

The Plot Skeleton

Angela Hunt

Imagine, if you will, that you and I are sitting in a room with one hundred other authors. If you were to ask each person present to describe their plotting process, you’d probably get a hundred different answers. Writers’ methods vary according to their personalities, and we are all different. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically.

If, however, those one hundred novelists were to pass behind an X-ray machine, you’d discover that we all possess remarkably similar skeletons. Beneath our disguising skin, hair, and clothing, our skeletons are pretty much identical.

In the same way, though writers vary in their methods, good stories are composed of remarkably comparable skeletons. Stories with “good bones” can be found in picture books and novels, plays and films.

Many fine writers tend to carefully outline their plots before they begin the first chapter. On the other hand, some novelists describe themselves as “seat-of-the-pants” writers. But when the story is finished, a seat-of-the-pants novel will (or should!) contain the same elements as a carefully plotted book. Why? Because whether you plan it from the beginning or find it at the end, novels need structure beneath the story.

After mulling several plot designs and boiling them down to their basic elements, I developed what I call the “plot skeleton.” It combines the spontaneity of seat-of-the-pants writing with the discipline of an outline. It requires a writer to know where he’s going, but it leaves room for lots of discovery on the journey.

When I sit down to plan a new book, the first thing I do is sketch my smiling little skeleton.

To illustrate the plot skeleton in this article, I’m going to refer frequently to The Wizard of Oz and a lovely foreign film you may never have seen, Mostly Martha.

The Skull: A Central Character
The skull represents the main character, the protagonist. A lot of beginning novelists have a hard time deciding who the main character is, so settle that question right away. Even in an ensemble cast, one character should be featured more than the others. Your readers want to place themselves into your story world, and it’s helpful if you can give them a sympathetic character to whom they can relate. Ask yourself, “Whose story is this?” That is your protagonist.

This main character should have two needs or problems—one obvious, one hidden—which I represent by two yawning eye sockets.

Here’s a tip: Hidden needs, which usually involve basic human emotions, are often solved or met by the end of the story. They are at the center of the protagonist’s “inner journey,” or character change, while the “outer journey” is concerned with the main events of the plot. Hidden needs often arise from wounds in a character’s past.

Consider The Wizard of Oz. At the beginning of the film, Dorothy needs to save her dog from Miss Gulch, who has arrived to take Toto because he bit her scrawny leg—a very straightforward and obvious problem. Dorothy’s hidden need is depicted but not directly emphasized when she stands by the pigpen and sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Do children live with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em if all is fine with Mom and Dad? No. Though we are not told what happened to Dorothy’s parents, it’s clear that something has splintered her family and Dorothy’s unhappy. Her hidden need, the object of her inner journey, is to find a place to call home.

Mostly Martha opens with the title character lying on her therapist’s couch and talking about all that is required to cook the perfect pigeon. Since she’s in a therapist’s office, we assume she has a problem, and the therapist addresses this directly: “Martha, why are you here?”

“Because,” she answers, “my boss will fire me if I don’t go to therapy.” Ah—obvious problem at work with the boss. Immediately we also know that Martha is high-strung. She is precise and politely controlling in her kitchen. This woman lives for food, but though she assures us in a voice-over that all a cook needs for a perfectly lovely dinner is “fish and sauce,” we see her venture downstairs to ask her new neighbor if he’d like to join her for dinner. He can’t, but we become aware that Martha needs company. She needs love in her life.

Connect the Skull to the Body: Inciting Action
Usually the first few chapters of a novel are involved with the business of establishing the protagonist in a specific time and place, his world, his needs, and his personality. The story doesn’t kick into gear, though, until you move from the skull to the spine, a connection known as the inciting incident.

Writers are often told to begin the story in medias res, or in the middle of the action. This is not the same as the Big Incident. Save the big event for a few chapters in, after you’ve given us some time to know and understand your character’s needs. Begin your story with an obvious problem—some action that shows how your character copes. In the first fifth of the story we learn that Dorothy loves Toto passionately and that Martha is a perfectionist chef. Yes, start in the middle of something active, but hold off on the big event for a while. Let us get to know your character first . . . because we won’t gasp about their dilemma until we know them.

In a picture book, the inciting incident is often signaled by two words: One day . . . Those two words are a natural way to move from setting the stage to the action. As you plot your novel, ask yourself, “One day, what happens to move my main character into the action of the story?” Your answer will be your inciting incident, the key that turns your story engine.

After Dorothy ran away, if she’d made it home to Uncle Henry and Aunt Em without incident, there would have been no story. The inciting incident? When the tornado picks Dorothy up and drops her, with her house, in the land of Oz.

The inciting incident in Mostly Martha is signaled by a ringing telephone. When Martha takes the call, she learns that her sister, who was a single mother to an eight-year-old girl, has been killed in an auto accident.

Think of your favorite stories—how many feature a hero who’s reluctant to enter the special world? Often—but not always—your protagonist doesn’t want to go where the inciting incident is pushing him or her. Obviously, Martha doesn’t want to hear that her sister is dead, and she certainly doesn’t want to be a mother. She takes Lina, her niece, and offers to cook for her (her way of showing love), but Lina wants her mother, not gourmet food.

Even if your protagonist has actively pursued a change, he or she may have moments of doubt as the entrance to the special world looms ahead. When your character retreats or doubts or refuses to leave the ordinary world, another character should step in to provide encouragement, advice, information, or a special tool. This will help your main character overcome those last-minute doubts and establish the next part of the skeleton: the goal.

The End of the Spine: The Goal
At some point after the inciting incident, your character will establish and state a goal. Shortly after stepping out of her transplanted house, Dorothy looks around Oz and wails, “I want to go back to Kansas!” She’s been transported over the rainbow, but she prefers the tried and true to the unfamiliar and strange. In order to go home, she’ll have to visit the wizard in the Emerald City. As she tries to meet an ever-shifting set of subordinate goals (follow the yellow brick road; overcome the poppies; get in to see the wizard; bring back a broomstick), her main goal keeps viewers glued to the screen.

This overriding concern—will she or won’t she make it home?—is known as the dramatic question. The dramatic question in every murder mystery is, Who committed the crime? The dramatic question in nearly every thriller is, Who will win the inevitable showdown between the hero and the villain? Along the way readers will worry about the subgoals (Will the villain kill his hostage? Will the hero figure out the clues?), but the dramatic question keeps them reading until the last page.

Tip: To keep the reader involved, the dramatic question should be directly related to the character’s ultimate goal. Martha finds herself trying to care for a grieving eight-year-old who doesn’t want another mother. So Martha promises to track down the girl’s father, who lives in Italy. She knows only that his name is Giuseppe, but she’s determined to find him.

The Rib Cage: Complications
Even my youngest students understand that a protagonist who accomplishes everything he or she attempts is a colorless character. As another friend of mine is fond of pointing out, as we tackle the mountain of life, it’s the bumps we climb on! If you’re diagramming, sketch at least three curving ribs over your spine. These represent the complications that must arise to prevent your protagonist from reaching his goal.

Why at least three ribs? Because even in the shortest of stories—in a picture book, for instance—three complications work better than two or four. I don’t know why three gives us such a feeling of completion, but it does. Maybe it’s because God is a Trinity and we’re hardwired to appreciate that number.

While a short story will have only three complications, a movie or novel may have hundreds. Complications can range from the mundane—John can’t find a pencil to write down Sarah’s number—to life-shattering. As you write down possible complications that could stand between your character and his ultimate goal, place the more serious problems at the bottom of the list.

The stakes—what your protagonist is risking—should increase in significance as the story progresses. In Mostly Martha, the complications center on this uptight woman’s ability to care for a child. Lina hates her babysitter, so Martha has to take Lina to work with her. But the late hours take their toll, and Lina is often late for school. Furthermore, Lina keeps refusing to eat anything Martha cooks for her.

I asked you to make the ribs curve because any character that runs into complication after complication without any breathing space is going to be a weary character . . . and you’ll weary your reader with this frenetic pace. One of the keys to good pacing is to alternate your plot complications with rewards. Like a pendulum that swings on an arc, let your character relax, if only briefly, between disasters.

Along the spiraling yellow brick road, Dorothy soon reaches an intersection (a complication). Fortunately, a friendly scarecrow is willing to help (a reward). They haven’t gone far before Dorothy becomes hungry (a complication). The scarecrow spots an apple orchard ahead (a reward). These apple trees, however, resent being picked (a complication), but the clever scarecrow taunts them until they begin to throw fruit at the hungry travelers (a reward).

See how it works? Every problem is followed by a reward that matches the seriousness of the complication. Let’s fast-forward to the scene where the balloon takes off without Dorothy. This is a severe complication—so severe it deserves a title of its own: the bleakest moment. This is the final rib in the rib cage, the moment when all hope is lost for your protagonist.

The Thighbone: Send in the Cavalry
At the bleakest moment, your character needs help, but be careful how you deliver it. The ancient Greek playwrights had actors representing the Greek gods literally descend from the structure above to bring their complicated plot knots to a satisfying conclusion. This sort of resolution is frowned upon in modern literature. Called deus ex machina (literally “god from the machine”), this device employs some unexpected and improbable incident to bring victory or success. If you find yourself whipping up a coincidence or a miracle after the bleakest moment, chances are you’ve employed deus ex machina. Back up and try again, please.

Avoid using deus ex machina by sending two types of help: external and internal. Your character obviously needs help from outside; if he could solve the problem alone, he would have done it long before the bleakest moment. Having him conveniently remember something or stumble across a hidden resource smacks of coincidence and will leave your reader feeling resentful and cheated.

So send in the cavalry, but remember that they can’t solve the protagonist’s problem. They can give the protagonist a push in the right direction; they can nudge; they can remind; they can inspire. But they shouldn’t wave a magic wand and make everything all right.

For Dorothy, help comes in the form of Glenda the Good Witch, who reveals a secret: The ruby slippers have the power to carry her back to Kansas. All Dorothy has to do is say, “There’s no place like home”—with feeling, mind you—and she’ll be back on the farm with Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Dorothy’s problem isn’t resolved, however, until she applies this information internally. At the beginning of the story, she wanted to be anywhere but on the farm. Now she has to affirm that the farm is where she wants to be. Her hidden need—to find a place to call home—has been met.

In Mostly Martha, the bleakest moment arrives with Lina’s father, Giuseppe. He is a good man, and Lina seems to accept him. But after waving good-bye, Martha goes home to an empty apartment and realizes that she is not happy with her controlled, childless life. She goes to Marlo, the Italian chef she has also begun to love, and asks for his help.

The Kneecap and Lower Leg: Make a Decision, Learn a Lesson
Martha realizes that her old life was empty—she needs Lina in her life, and she needs Marlo. So she and Marlo drive from Germany to Italy to fetch Lina and bring her home.

You may be hard-pressed to cite the lesson you learned from the last novel you read, but your protagonist needs to learn something. This lesson is the epiphany, a sudden insight that speaks volumes to your character and brings them to the conclusion of their inner journey.

James Joyce popularized the word epiphany, literally the manifestation of a divine being. (Churches celebrate the festival of Epiphany on January 6 to commemorate the meeting of the Magi and the Christ child.) After receiving help from an outside source, your character should see something—a person, a situation, or an object—in a new light.

When the scarecrow asks why Glinda waited to explain the ruby slippers, the good witch smiles and says, “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.” The scarecrow then asks, “What’d you learn, Dorothy?” Without hesitation, Dorothy announces that she’s learned a lesson: “The next time I go looking for my heart’s desire, I won’t look any farther than my own backyard.” She has learned to appreciate her home, so even though she is surrounded by loving friends and an emerald city, Dorothy chooses to return to colorless Kansas. She hugs her friends once more, then grips Toto and clicks her heels.

The Foot: The Resolution
Every story needs the fairy-tale equivalent of “and they lived happily ever after.” Not every story ends happily, of course, though happy endings are undoubtedly popular. Some protagonists are sadder and wiser after the course of their adventure. But a novel should at least leave the reader with hope.

The resolution to Mostly Martha is portrayed during the closing of the film. As the credits roll, we see Marlo and Martha meeting Lina in Italy; we see Martha in a wedding gown (with her hair down!) and Marlo in a tuxedo; we see a wedding feast with Giuseppe, his family, and Martha’s German friends; we see Martha and Marlo and Lina exploring an abandoned restaurant—clearly, they are going to settle in Italy so Lina can be a part of both families. In the delightful final scene, we see Martha with her therapist again, but this time he has cooked for her and she is advising him.

Many movies end with a simple visual image—we see a couple walking away hand in hand, a mother cradling her long-lost son. That’s all we need to realize that our main character has struggled, learned, and come away a better (or wiser) person. As a writer, you’ll have to use words, but you can paint the same sort of reassuring picture without resorting to “and they lived happily ever after.”

Your story should end with a changed protagonist—he or she has gone through a profound experience and is different for it, hopefully for the better. Your protagonist has completed an outer journey (experienced the major plot events) and an inner journey that address some hurt from the past and result in a changed character.

What Next?
Now that we’ve reached the foot of our story skeleton, we’re finished outlining the basic structure. Take those major points and write them up in paragraph form. Once you’ve outlined your plot and written your synopsis, you’re ready to begin writing scenes. Take a deep breath, glance over your skeleton, and jump in.

Taken from A Novel Idea by ChiLibras. Copyright ©2009 by ChiLibras. Used with permission from Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Heighten the Climax By Resolving Subplots

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101

Heighten the Climax By Resolving Subplots

Tie Up Threads Before the Last Section of the Novel

Simplifying the plot by tying up subplot threads can make the climax more emotionally heightened.

Subplots are wonderful things. They can help the reader better understand the characters by showing them in various situations and how they react. Subplots can also complicate a plot and help it take its meandering way to the climax.

But there is also one trick many novelists use to make the climax of the novel more emotionally intense, and that is to tie up subplot threads beforehand.

Complicate, Then Simplify

Take advantage of subplots that enhance and complicate the plot. It makes for more interesting reading and your reader won’t be able to put the book down.

However, as you build toward the climax of the book, strip away the subplots so that only the climax problem remains or any minor subplot threads that directly relate to the climax or resolution.

By simplifying the plot in this way, it allows the reader to devote more attention and emotional energy to the events of the climax and the issues involved in the climax.

If a reader is devoting a fraction of brain power to wondering about an unresolved subplot thread or story question, the reader is not fully engaged in the story’s ending. After you have devoted considerable hours and energy toward building the novel to the climax, you naturally want the reader to give it his undivided attention.

Structure and Word Count

Snipping subplot threads before the climax can also help simplify the story structure before the climax. It helps to psychologically create cleaner lines for the story in the reader’s mind, which again allows the reader to focus more energy and attention on the climax.

Also, if subplots are allowed to continue through the climax to be resolved at the end, the subplots might resolve in a sickly way with “telling” rather than “showing,” or the word count for the ending will be a tad long.

Typically, the climax and ending take up the last 25% of the book (the climax is at about the 75% or 85% mark), but if resolution of subplots takes up too many pages, it could shift the climax to the 60% mark of the book rather than the 85% mark, which is a bit awkward in terms of story flow.

Now, these numbers are just generalities, not rules. They’re simply observations and statistics of how a typical novel will play out.

Use Your Best Judgment

Every story is different, and sometimes a subplot thread is more emotionally powerful if it’s left until after the climax. Go for it—it’s your novel and you know best what kind of pacing and flow you are aiming for.

But if you can simplify by tying up other subplot threads before the climax, try to do so. It will focus the reader’s attention on the climax events. Then after the climax, the reader will be free to turn his attention to the resolution and any subplot threads you have yet to resolve.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Eliminate Repetitive Scenes

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Eliminate Repetive Scenes

Rehashing Information May Cause a Sagging Middle in Your Novel

Utilize a scene index to look at your novel’s story structure and identify possible repetitious scenes to beef up the pacing.

Many times, writers will be able to see that their middle “sags,” or the pacing slows in the middle portion of the novel.

There are several ways to avoid the sagging middle, but often the problem can be some repetition of information. Identifying it, however, can be difficult when faced with searching a 100,000 word manuscript.

Utilize a Scene Index

For each scene, skim the scene and jot down key elements:

Pertinent information to the plot that is revealed
Key character emotions that are uncovered or hinted at
Changes to the character that results in different decisions
New developments or plot twists
New characters introduced
Character backstory that is confessed or discovered

Many times, writing these elements on index cards, Post-It notes, or small pieces of paper are best. Another option is using cells in a spreadsheet program like Excel. Use one card/paper/cell for each scene.

Number the cards so you know the order of the scenes. Also, you might want to list a phrase or title at the top of each card that summarizes the scene.

Lay all the cards out on a table, the floor, or posted on a wall or board. That way, all the scenes are visually in front of you. This is your Scene Index.

Make Any Repetition Count

Even as you are creating the cards, you might start to notice repetition. For example, Joan expresses unexplained anger at Edward in scene 12, and then she does it again in scene 24.

Sometimes repetition is necessary, but ideally, if something is repeated, there should also be some new development to accompany it so that it’s not the same. For example, Joan again expresses anger at Edward in scene 24 but she also hints that he’s to blame for her mother’s death.

Make Each Scene Build Off the One Before

Some repetition occurs because the scenes have become episodic, not moving the story question forward or pursuing the story purpose.

As you look at your Scene Index, make sure that each scene is a result of a scene before, building off of the new information or the change that has occurred in a previous scene. You do not want your Scene Index to show several scenes that are too alike.

For example, the character does a specific action in scene B because of new information he discovered in scene A. Or the character makes a decision in scene D because of an argument in scene C. Or the character has a discussion with a certain suspect in scene F because of a clue discovered in scene E.

Eliminate Repetition With Change

Insert something different into every scene, and that will help to eliminate unnecessary repetition.

If your story is constantly changing because of new information, new developments, new characters, new discoveries, then you naturally keep repetition to a minimum.

Trust Your Reader

Some writers want to make sure the reader gets a certain point or understands something about the character, but repetition is not the way to do it.

Instead, show the character in various situations as the story goes along. Or reveal information in small bits and pieces so that the reader has to uncover the mystery. Or to show routine, give clues from what other characters say or do.

Be creative in how you can reveal information through different ways that also forward the plot, rather than falling back on repeating yourself.

Your reader will pick up on things the first time—trust your reader.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing Interesting Valleys in Between Peaks

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Interesting Valleys in Between Peaks

Keep the Reader Intrigued Even If Conflict Has Ebbed

In lulls in the novel, narrow the scene’s focus or change things up to keep the reading pace strong.

Stories are a series of peaks and valleys, high tension scenes and low tension scenes, also known as Scenes and Sequels. You must have those lulls in order to give the reader a chance to catch his breath, and also to set up the next scene.

However, while you must have these low tension scenes, make sure they don’t put your reader to sleep.

Use Words and Phrases to Pace the Sequel

In general, higher tension scenes have shorter sentences and a choppier reading flow to encourage a faster reading pace, so for lower tension scenes, use longer sentences and more flowing grammatical structure.

Obviously, don’t go to extremes. Use your own better judgment in this. However, this can be a valuable tool to clearly indicate to the reader that the tension has ebbed and there’s a breathing space here.

Focus On the Character’s Decision For the Next Scene

Let the character go through all the steps she needs to in order to make a decision about what to do next. Draw the reader into this searching process to give her a stake in what’s happening.

This is also a great way to show off the uniqueness your character, if you have her react in an original way to the conflict of the previous scene. It can give your reader insight and sympathy into who this character is, the demons she has to face.

End the scene with the character’s decision for the next scene, which provides a good segueway and keeps the story moving.

Feel Free to Telescope Time

This is a good place to allow longer periods of time to pass. You don’t want the Sequel itself to take too long or else you’ll bore your reader, but this is a good place to allow a few days, weeks, or even months to pass by, skipping the boring stuff but giving the reader a glimpse into the character’s actions, feelings, and thoughts during that time.

Bring Up Subplots

A lower tension scene is also a great place to introduce new information or minor plotlines to the story. You can use these subplots and the character’s reaction to them to reveal personality and morals.

This will enable your reader to delve deeper into the life of your character without a boring narrative treatise on their favorite color, favorite ice cream flavor, and the details of their childhood.

Use a Sequel to Change Viewpoints

Changing viewpoints automatically reduces tension, so you can keep the story moving quickly and still create a valley for the reader to catch his breath.

When you change viewpoint, the reader has to adjust to a new character and situation, which takes time and space. The reading flow slows. Tension drops.

The great thing is that the story itself doesn’t have to slow, but the tension will automatically decrease. For high octane stories, this is a good way to give the reader a breather without slowing down the action itself.

Use Your Own Judgment

Do you need a valley for every peak? No. Do you need a short valley versus a long one? No.

It’s your story. Use your own judgment and gut instinct about it.

The general guideline is to have a valley for every peak, but if you don’t want to do it, then don’t. You have the prerogative because you’re the author.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The first page, part 11 - Query letters and critique partners

This is the last post of my series on things to look for in your first page.
Click here for part ten.

Use that first page with a query letter

Now, many people advise not to put anything into an envelope with a query letter except for the query letter. This is good, safe, and proper.

But if you are a trifle daring, why not include your first page?

After all, if you’ve spent all this time working on it and revising it and making every word count. It ought to be so fantastic that an editor skimming that page will shout, “I must read the rest of this novel!”

If you plan to include the first page with your query letter, that should also spur you to put more time and effort into that first page to make it worthy of that brief glance. After all, you’ll only get that one chance.

Utilize your critique partners

Every piece of writing could use another set of eyes to catch errors, or tell you if something you thought was clear as a bell is actually a bit muddled.

Take advantage of friends to go over that first page, to give feedback, to help you make it as sparkling as it can be. Use both writing friends and also non-writing friends.

Encourage brutal honesty, too—a comment that everything you write is brilliant isn’t going to be as helpful as a comment that a sentence is a tad awkward, or your heroine isn’t very likable because she does XYZ.

And by the way, critique partners typically love chocolate. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

80% discount on Snowflake Pro

From Camy: I just saw this program being used today by a friend of mine, and I can tell you it's fantastic. Very easy to use and intuitive. If you have problems:

--writing a synopsis
--structuring your novel
--pacing your plot or character arc

then this program will help you with that.

From Randy Ingermanson:

Final Reminder: 80% discount on "Snowflake Pro" ends soon

To Readers of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine:

Just a quick reminder that my 80 percent discount on
"Snowflake Pro" ends soon.

As I write this, about 24 hours remain before I'll end
this special. (It ends on Friday night at midnight,
California time.)

Snowflake Pro is software to make my Snowflake method
faster, easier, and more fun. In the last few days, a
very large number of you, my loyal e-zine readers, have
taken advantage of this one-time special offer to get
Snowflake Pro.

Thanks to all of you who've already e-mailed me to tell
me how much you like it.

This note is just a reminder to those of you who haven't
yet grabbed your copy.

Snowflake Pro is an electronic download which takes
less than 30 seconds to download on most cable modems
or DSL lines. It runs on Macs, Windows, and Linux.

I won't belabor this. If you want Snowflake Pro, you
probably already know it. You can read all the details

PS: One final point. When you buy Snowflake Pro, you
get free upgrades for life. I'm already making a list
of the features I want to add to the next release to
make Snowflake Pro even more powerful and easy to use.

Randy Ingermanson

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Control Story Flow With Sequels

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Control Story Flow With Sequels

The Classic Sequel as Described By Dwight Swain

Dwight Swain’s Sequel can be broken down into easy segments to enable the writer to write a strong story segment that develops character and transitions to the next Scene.

One of the most famous writing books is Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, where he breaks down fiction writing into modules. One of his most popular techniques is Scene and Sequel (described in this article).

Swain describes a Sequel as “a unit of transition that links two scenes,” but Sequels tend to encompass a broader range of purposes than just transition.


The Sequel following a Scene allows the writer to slow the pacing and give the reader some breather space. This can be easily accomplished by enabling the character to react to what just happened in the previous Scene.

This controls the story’s tempo and flow by giving the character space to react emotionally. All of us need time to process information.

Reaction could be emotions or actions or both. You can also show other characters’ reactions, and how that impacts the point of view character.

This doesn’t mean you need to show every detail. You can summarize about time passing, or the character doing things.


Create a true dilemma for your character—what to do next? What are his options? Narrow them down.

Try not to give a choice between two happy alternatives or an easy decision. A difficult decision injects a bit more conflict into the story—and into the Sequel, which is typically a slow portion of the story—and keeps the reader interested. The reader suffers with the character and becomes emotionally invested in the character’s decision.

This process of dilemma also shows the reader the character’s inner values, backstory, motivations. The reasons why the character chooses what he does reveals who he is and explains further why he’s after his larger External Goal for the story, which helps the reader understand him better. This gives an understandable motivation to the conflict in the following Scene.

This is a good place for the writer to introduce new information or sometimes new characters. Give the character all the resources he needs to decide what to do next.

This is also a good place to telescope time because it usually takes some time to come to a decision. This contrasts a Scene, which is typically in real time.


After weighing all the options, the character decides what to do next, which becomes the Goal for the next Scene. This enables Scene to follow Sequel to follow Scene, a smooth transition of peaks and valleys.

A Sequel Doesn’t Mean Low Tension

Many times, writers will eliminate all tension from a Sequel since the majority of it is reactive and contemplative. However, if the tension is too low, the reader will put the book down.

Opt instead for some slight, relatively unimportant tension—but tension nevertheless—that carries through the Sequel. The character still has a Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision, but there’s a nagging tension in the background that keeps the scene from being too boring.

For example, Harriet could be Reacting to the previous Scene and deciding what to do next while sitting in her living room (yawn). Or, she could be thinking these things while on the job as a kindergarten teacher, dealing with screaming children.

The process of Scene and Sequel might seem awkward or contrived at first, but once the writer blends the principles of this technique into his own writing style, it’s easy to see how this scene format accomplishes several things: regulate pacing, integrate conflict, develop character, and forward the story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Live brainstorming session and Critique Contest

Live Brainstorming Session with The Shredder aka Danica Favorite, Moi, & Cheryl Wyatt, plus a CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY by Cheryl, all over at Seekerville today:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Q&A: Deepening Character

Camille Cannon Eide asked:

Hi Camy - I'm working on a substantive edit and I'm looking for ways to deepen a character, give her more dimension. What are some ways to bring out more of a character's strengths and weaknesses, give the reader more of a reason to root for her?

Camy here: You’re actually talking about two slightly different things—character richness and character sympathy.

Character richness:

A three-dimensional character with flaws and strengths actually doesn’t just jump out of a writer’s head. Typically, authors spend a great deal of time embellishing and digging deeper into a character, whether before the book is written or as they’re editing.

Three-dimensional characterization is a deliberate, concentrated effort.

One of the best books I’ve found for doing this is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins, chapters 1 and 2. She uses dramatic techniques to enable writers to create a richer character, just the way a good actor will create a richer character to act out.

Basically, you want to know not just character backstory, but how that backstory has shaped the character’s morals and viewpoint on life. And not just the viewpoint he’ll tell someone else—but the deeper, inner viewpoint he himself might not even realize he has, but which influences every decision he makes.

Once you start with this “inner value,” as Brandilyn describes it, then that inner value impacts various other aspects of the character’s life, and, more importantly, the decisions the character makes in your story.

Unfortunately, this might require a bit of rewrite if you discover an inner value that dictates a different decision than the one the character made in your story. But if that original decision didn’t seem quite right to you as you wrote it, maybe it’s because it clashed with your character’s inner value, and so you really do need to change it—and possibly change your storyline a bit.

Character sympathy:

One thing I’ve really taken to heart since being contracted is that the opening page (yes, that’s singular—page one of your story) has to show something that makes the reader sympathize or at least empathize with the viewpoint character.

I know that seems like a tall order, but my editors have asked this of me time and again, and I see this often in commercial genre fiction (but it doesn’t necessarily apply to literary fiction).

So ... how to make the character sympathetic in one page?

My secret weapon is the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, chapter 5. He has a quick and dirty list of various things that typically create reader sympathy.

The list is actually interesting to me as a psychology major, because the things all tend to resonate psychologically with the majority of people (naturally, there will always be exceptions). That’s probably why they work most of the time, and why you typically see these techniques in movies.

So, there’s my two-fold answer to your question, which might require this two-fold revision process for your manuscript.

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing Conflict-Filled Scenes

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Writing Conflict-Filled Scenes

The Classic Scene as Described By Dwight Swain

Dwight Swain’s Scene can be broken down into easy segments to enable the writer to write a high tension, interesting story segment.

One of the most famous writing books is Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, where he breaks down fiction writing into modules. One of his most popular techniques is Scene (described in this article) and Sequel.

Swain describes a Scene as “a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.” The key word here is Conflict.


The Scene moves the story forward by changing your character’s situation. To do that, the character has to want something different than what he already has: the Scene Goal. Basically, what the character is striving for in the Scene. He doesn’t necessarily achieve it, but he has to at least have an idea of what he wants at the beginning of the Scene.

There are three general classifications for Scene Goals:

Possession of something
Relief from something
Revenge for something

The character enters the Scene intending to accomplish his goal by the end of it.

The key is to make the Scene Goal a concrete action, something specific rather than something vague.

The character also should have to need to accomplish the goal right at that moment, creating an immediate need for it. Otherwise, the character has the option of just walking away and trying again later.


The majority of the Scene is filled with conflict or obstacles that try to hinder the character’s Scene Goal. They can’t be just “bad things that happen” to the character—they have to work directly against that specific Goal.

Conflict is what keeps the reader reading. While we don’t like conflict in real life, it’s what creates page turners in fiction. So the more conflict, the higher the tension ramps in the scene.

So be creative and be a bit malicious in the opposition you create for your character. Swain writes: “It’s irresistible force meeting immovable object.”

Your opposition doesn’t need to be another person, but there should be strong obstacles. Don’t make it easy for your character.


End the scene on a hook, which keeps the reader reading. Throw something unexpected at the character that sinks his battleship—a new turn of events or new information.

The character doesn’t need to accomplish his Scene Goal—in fact, often he doesn’t. Many times, the Disaster ensures that.

But this Disaster will end the Scene with a bang and make the reader wonder what the character will do next—which is shown in the Sequel following the Scene.

An option to the Disaster is a False Positive—the character accomplishes his Goal, and then triumphantly assumes nothing bad will ever happen to him again. This is a sort of “Disaster” because the reader is already waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Follow This Principle But Use Your Judgment

Swain himself insists that these are just guidelines for Scenes and Sequels, not Law. Take this format and bend it to your own will, your own creativity. This general structure helps the story flow, but your novel doesn’t need to rigidly follow this. Insert your own subtlety and variation on the theme.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Author-Speak Cheat Sheet

Hey guys,
Sorry I've been MIA for a few weeks. I've been fighting off some kind of sicky that's left me really tired and headachey (and NO, I'm not pregnant! :)

Anyway, I'll kick off the week with this great "cheat sheet" by Janet Dean that basically summarizes all the major fiction writing terms that a writer might encounter from a contest judge. These are terms thrown around pretty often in the writing community because they refer to common principles which, if mastered, help a writer improve.

Author-Speak Cheat Sheet

Upon occasion, I play golf. Perhaps I should say golf plays me. Either way, there’s a language to this game. Terms that make me grunt, “Huh?” Like: “Pick the ball clean.” “Get down on the ball.” “Play your drives off your left heel.” I can’t blame my game on these baffling words of advice, but they’re not helpful if I can’t decipher their meaning.

Writing has its own language too. I call it author speak.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Marks of an Amateur - the Query Letter

Really great post on edittorent:

Marks of an Amateur - the Query Letter

Are you committing any of these query faux pas?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Daily writing prompts

Writing even a little every day is a really good way to keep your creativity flowing and to keep your productivity up. I have always liked writing prompts because they can be just a short short story or they can turn into an entire novel! has a new Twitter account that tweets a writing prompt every day! Click the link below to follow their Twitter:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Getting away with it--

I just read this great post on Alicia Rasley's blog. She has a very candid style which I appreciate and like. I agree with what she's saying in this about writers who want to "buck the system"--not that it's wrong, but you have to make concessions if you do:

I have noticed a sort of interesting attitude in some submitters. It's that the trick is "getting away with it". You know, say I point out that a four-page long prologue all in italics (because, I guess, it takes place in the villain's head) might be kind of annoying. (I'm making this particular issue up, as the attitude is the important thing.) And the submitter comes back with (rule #1-- don't argue when you're being rejected... it doesn't help), "But (insert bestselling author's name) got away with it!"

Click here for the rest of the article

Monday, September 14, 2009

The first page, part 10 - Proofread

This is the last post of my series on things to look for in your first page.
Click here for part nine.

Proofread that page with a fine tooth comb

After you’ve worked on that first page to set up the story, showcase your writer’s voice, and wow the editor reading it, give it to your most detail-oriented critique partners or a freelance editor (like moi—sorry, I couldn’t resist some blatant self-promotion) to correct any typos, grammar errors, or punctuation errors.

You do NOT want your first page to have an error on it. Nothing spells “unprofessional” like an error on the very first page.

The editor or agent will see that one little error and it will negatively tinge his/her impression of the entire manuscript and of your writing. You don’t want even a slightly negative thought to enter the editor’s mind as he reads. You don’t want even a question of your professionalism to niggle at the agent’s brain as she scans that first page.

Now, I’m not saying that an error means an automatic rejection. But because the industry right now is so tough, you don’t want to give any bad impressions on that editor or agent whatsoever. If you can get rid of those little errors, do it. It might be the deciding factor between your manuscript and another one with lots of typos.

Wouldn’t you want the editor to request your manuscript because it’s both professional and captivating? If it’s captivating but full of typos and the editor has only limited time to read full manuscripts, she might not request your story because the typos put her off.

So spend even MORE time checking your pages for errors. If you’re not confident about your sense of grammar and punctuation, then ask for help—either critique partners whose grammar/punctuation sense you completely trust, or a freelance editor who can look at the first chapter.

To be continued.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Increase the Tension of a Scene

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Increase the Tension of a Scene

Building Peaks in the Story

Build the story toward the climax by ramping up conflict in scenes.

Novels are a series of peaks and valleys, the ebb and flow of tension. If the story were all tension, it would tire the reader out. If the story were all tension-less, it would be boring.

A novelist should build the tension of the story in each peak and balance that with a valley.

But each peak should build to a higher point of tension than the one before.

Combine Conflicts Into a Single Scene

Sometimes, a story will have several separate scenes, but each scene’s tension level is the same.

Consider combining scenes.

The addition of obstacles will make the scene worse and worse, ramping up the tension rather than having separate scenes of the same tension level.

For example, a detective is searching for a lost child. In one scene, he confronts a drug dealer. In a second scene, he asks a prostitute. In the third scene, the pimp tells him he’s in over his head.

All three scenes have about the same amount of tension.

But what if you have the detective talking to the drug dealer, and the prostitute arrives to buy drugs. The dealer tells the detective the prostitute knows something. The prostitute argues with the drug dealer. The fight attracts her pimp, who yells at the prostitute to keep her mouth shut about the child. The pimp’s threat that the detective is in over his head ends the scene.

Combining characters in one scene ramps up the tension more than three separate scenes.

Make the Situation Dangerous

The more dangerous the scene is to your character, the more it forces him to action, which invites obstacles.

“Action” does not necessarily mean explosions and flying bullets. Go with the flow of your genre.

But make a situation where your character has to do something, whether it’s an office worker quitting her job or a spy infiltrating a research lab. Create an obstacle to that action. And that will ramp up the conflict.

Add a Ticking Clock

Nothing increases tension like a time limit. In addition to the obstacles in the character’s path, the knowledge that time is running out will increase stress in the character and the reader.

Create a good reason for urgency—make your character have to act now versus tomorrow or next week.

Foreshadow When Possible

A writer doesn’t want to overdo this or go to melodramatic lengths, but when you can subtly foreshadow events or issues that will appear in the climax, it will tighten the thread of the story.

Build up the sense of impending disaster with key words and phrases. Utilize your antagonist, if you have one, and increase his strength or successes. Box in your protagonist more and more to focus the conflict toward the climax.

Prioritize Your Conflict

It might help to summarize each scene on an index card and lay them out in front of you. Rank the conflict levels for each scene from 1-10, and see if the levels increase as the story increases.

If a scene has a low conflict level but is closer to the climax, while a higher conflict scene is near the beginning of the novel, consider switching them.

Pace Your Conflict With Emotional Language

The style of writing itself can increase tension in a story. As the story progresses, stronger words and more urgent writing can convey rising conflict as well as the events themselves.

Overall, control the conflict and tension levels in your story so that each peak is higher than the one before.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Q&A: When to break the rules

Kathleen L. asked:

Hi, Camy,
thanks for this opportunity. You are one of my favorite writing teachers. Your last article on showing versus telling raised a question for me. When is it okay to break the rules? Not just for telling, but for say, using an unusual tag in dialogue. "Come here," he said. versus "Come here," he demanded. (I realize beats are the most effective. ie He stomped his foot and clapped his hands at the dog. "Come here!")Anyway, can we sometimes use an unusual tag?
Thanks in advance.

Camy here: You can break the rules whenever you want to! Seriously. It’s YOUR story.

The “rules” are there to guide you so that you don’t go overboard. They’re not there to constrain you and box in your creativity. At the end of the day, creativity wins over “rules.”

I usually suggest to writers to stick with the “rules” as much as they can, but if a particular sentence or piece of writing just “feels” better with the rules broken, then try it!

I fully believe in the power of gut instinct in writing. Many times, writers know when there’s something wrong with a scene or a piece of writing—they can just sense it. Sometimes when you’ve suffered a few hours (or days! Oy!) of writer’s block, it’s your “Spidey sense” telling you that something’s wrong with the scene you’re writing.

Same thing with breaking the rules. I always tell people to try writing it by the rules as well as breaking the rules, and then decide which feels better. Don’t just arbitrarily assume that breaking the rules is always better—test it and see. You might be surprised.

Also, realize that if you break the rules too often, it might make your writing look amateurish or unprofessional to an editor or agent who has seen literally thousands of manuscripts—several of them by writers who largely follow the rules.

Bottom line: if you break the rules, make sure you have a good reason to do it. Your Spidey sense better be smokin’! Or you can break the rules for effect sometimes, too. It’s ultimately your decision, but make sure you’re breaking rules for the right reasons—that it makes your manuscript tons better!

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Value of the Unanticipated

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Value of the Unanticipated

Sprucing Up a Blah Scene

A writer can inject unexpected disaster into an uninspiring scene to take it from boring to brilliant.

Many times, writers themselves know when a scene is lacking. They may have structured it well, conveyed just the right amount of information, and revealed wonderful characterization via clever dialogue.

Yet they'll read the scene they've written and know something is off. While the solution isn't always lack of conflict, many times adding a specific type of conflict can lift a drab scene to one with sparkle.

Add the Unanticipated

A well-structured scene can still be boring if there's not enough conflict, or if the conflict is too predictable.

Dwight Swain is the first writing teacher to publish about Scene and Sequel. In a Scene, the character has a scene goal and obstacles against that goal.

Are your obstacles unique? Or are they predictable?

This is the time to dig deep into your creativity to surprise the reader with conflict that takes them unawares.

A good method is making a list of 20 things that could go wrong in the scene. The first five to seven things in the list will be more cliché ideas, but as you rack your brain to get to number twenty, the ideas will become more unusual and unique.

The more unexpected the conflict, the better.

Make It a Disaster

Don't just make the conflict unanticipated, but also make it cause massive problems for the character.

The end of Swain's Scene usually ends in some sort of "Disaster" that is a literary sucker punch to the scene point of view character.

Is your scene "Disaster" absolutely horrendous? Or does the scene end on only a slight upswing in tension?

People talk melodramatically about "the worst thing that could happen" to them. What's the worst thing(s) that could happen to your character in this scene?

Make them happen to the character.

Do not be a compassionate writer. Make your characters hurt. The pain and conflict and emotion will draw your readers in like a black hole they can't escape from, until the very last page.

Adapt According to the Genre

Obviously, a writer who writes suspense is going to have different types of disasters than a writer who writes women's fiction. You need to adapt the principles in this article to your genre and writing style.

However, within your genre and style, make sure you add conflict that is as unexpected and disastrous as you can make it. Do not be satisfied with anything "moderately bad." Go for your characters' vulnerable spots. Be ruthless.

While people in general like to avoid conflict, it's what makes fiction enthralling for readers. So add conflict and keep your reader riveted to the page.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Building Toward the Climax

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Building Toward the Climax

Increasing Pressure On the Protagonist of a Novel

Make the middle of the novel ramp up the tension and conflict and set the reader up for the exciting climax.

Many times, a sagging middle could be because the tension is not increasing, but remaining the same. There are several things to keep in mind to help the middle build tension and drag the reader along for the ride.

Make Things Worse

As you introduce more change and complications to the character, make sure that it all works to thwart the character from his external goal.

Each obstacle should make it harder and harder for him to reach his goal, making his situation worse and worse. This increase in trouble will increase the tension of the story, and increase reader interest.

Strive for the unexpected and unanticipated when you add conflict to the story. Drop surprising disasters on your character. This doesn't necessarily mean explosions or dead bodies, but strive for creativity in the events that will twist the story in ways your reader never expected.

Avoid General Conflict

Try to avoid simply "bad things that happen" to the character that have nothing to do with the external goal, or complications that only delay the trouble, not make them worse than before. Make sure all conflict works directly against what the character wants to accomplish.

Strive for constant change in the story. The hero is continually thwarted and must continually adjust his plans to attain his goal. If you have an antagonist, also make the antagonist continue to adjust his decisions in reaction to the protagonist's actions.

Give the Character a Strong Crucible

Make sure your character has a rock-solid motivation for continuing with the story rather than just quitting. There has to be a Crucible that makes her stick with it, that doesn't even give her the option of turning back—the "doorway of no return."

Make the Opponents Well-Matched

If the fight between protagonist and antagonist is balanced well, it makes the conflict more interesting to the reader. Give your hero an "equalizer"—something that gives him an edge so that the fight isn't entirely one-sided. Think David's sling and his unwavering faith in God that equalized his fight against Goliath's size.

Make the Stakes High

Make the character have something irreplaceable that he could lose. It will increase the pressure on him to win, which will increase the tension and reader interest.

Don't limit this to the protagonist—give the antagonist equally high stakes. Any character who contributes to the conflict should also have something precious to lose, which will solidify character motivations.

Steadily Increase Intensity

Make each complication have greater intensity and more at stake than the last complication. Create rising tension and doubt in the reader about if the hero will achieve his goal.

Map out the story's major disasters and make sure they're in rising order of intensity and disastrous effects. If your middle disasters are worse than your later disasters, consider switching them or finding a way to make the later disasters even worse.

Box the Character In

This is the most important of all these tips. As the story progresses, take away the character's choices. Restrict his actions and the decisions he can make. Slowly take them away until he's left with few choices at the climax. A good visual is to picture forcing your character into a bottleneck or a funnel.

All these things will help you build the tension in the middle portion of your novel.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Q&A: Emotional reactions

Debra E Marvin asked:

Hi Camy, here's my question:

Somewhere in a judges' comment or a 'how to' book I grasped an idea that I thought would improve my work.

reaction, emotion, dialogue

meaning to me that when something happens or someone speaks, our character has a reaction that prompts an emotion and then they speak. (This done with the idea that these 'things' are part of the conflict).

Problem is, that by doing this, I now have been told that I'm burying my dialogue, because some have been at the end of a sentence or two of 'reaction and emotion'.

However, popping that dialogue to the front of the paragraph doesn't seem to make sense.

I feel like I latch on to these rules, thinking I'm doing the right thing and then . . .

Camy here:

Let me suggest a slight tweaking of that "reaction, emotion, dialogue" tool.

One of my favorite tools for writing emotion is Motivation Reaction Units, which Dwight Swain writes about in Techniques of the Selling Writer.

(Click here to read my article on Motivation Reaction Units)

Basically, you have a motivation or stimulus, then the character reacts to it.

Reactions can be many things—a visceral/physical reaction, thought, dialogue, action. A visceral reaction is like a physical knee-jerk reaction. Thoughts are, well, thoughts. Same for dialogue and action.

The difference is that depending on what the motivation/stimulus is, a person's reaction is going to be different. They aren't always going to think or feel before saying something. They may have a strong visceral reaction first before doing anything. They may act without thinking for a few seconds before their thoughts are in order.

In general, reactions go in order of least effort: visceral, thought, dialogue, action. You will probably have a gut reaction or a thought first before you say or do something. This is because it takes more synapses firing to say or do something than it takes to think or have a knee-jerk reaction.

Here are a few examples:

"Your mother is dead," he said flatly.

Sara's stomach flipped (visceral reaction). Mama dead? Could it be? (thoughts) "How do you know?" (dialogue) She clenched her fist. (action) He must be lying. (thoughts)

In the example, I used all four reactions. But the stimulus was pretty emotional. What if the stimulus is something minor? You can use one or two reactions instead of all four.

"Your mother's asleep," he said.

"Let her sleep," she said over her shoulder (dialogue) as she walked out of the room (action).


"Your mother's in the garden," he said.

Now that was strange. (thought)


"Your mother's at work," he said.

Her tightly clenched stomach released (visceral). Good. She had time to search her room. (thoughts)

The one thing to remember is to make sure the reactions are in order: first visceral, second thought, third dialogue, fourth action. You can switch them once in a while, but if you do it regularly, it creates a psychological dissonance and it distances the reader from the character's emotions.

"Your mother is dead," he said flatly.

She clenched her fist. (action) Mama dead? Could it be? (thoughts) Sara's stomach flipped (visceral reaction). "How do you know?" (dialogue) He must be lying. (thoughts)

If you compare the above with the original, you can see that Sara's reaction is a bit disjointed because the reactions are not in the proper order.

I answered your question in a slightly roundabout way, but hopefully in a way that makes a bit more sense. Let me know if you still have questions!

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!

Monday, August 31, 2009

When a Scene Isn't Working

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

When a Scene Isn't Working

Tips For Overcoming Writer's Block

Here are three questions to ask when a particular scene seems stalled.

Whether you believe in "writer's block" or not, there are always times when a writer gets stuck on a particular scene. It can almost feel like hitting your head against a brick wall.

Many times, the writer's unconscious instinctively recognizes when there's something wrong with the scene. While not all scenes have the same problems, there are three questions a writer can ask himself that might help jump-start the writing flow.

What Is the Character's Scene Goal?

The character should walk into the scene hoping to accomplish something by the end of the scene. This is his Scene Goal. He may or may not achieve it—in fact, more often than not, he doesn't succeed—but he has this purpose in mind at the start.

Also, the character should pursue this goal for the majority of the scene. Once the goal is finished, the scene loses its tension—and the reader's interest. And possibly the writer's interest, too, which may be why you can't move forward in writing the rest of the scene.

Having a Scene Goal helps focus the character for the scene so that he—and the scene—are not aimless or meandering.

A writer experiencing writer's block should look at the scene and make sure the character has a strong Scene Goal. If he has a Scene Goal, does he pursue it for the entire scene, or is the goal finished by the middle? Make sure the character has a strong Scene Goal he pursues for the entire scene.

What Can Be Changed?

Can something in the scene be changed or switched around to make the scene more dynamic or dramatic? Maybe you're hung up on the scene because something intuitive is telling you that something needs altering.

Can you change the setting or time? From indoors to outdoors, from night to day?
Can you alter the cast of characters in the scene? Remove or add people?
Can you change the character's Scene Goal?
Can you change or add information presented to the character? Maybe eliminate or add more clues to the mystery?
Can you alter the nature of the conflict or obstacles against the character? Maybe there isn't enough conflict against the character's Scene Goal.
Can you change the ending of the scene or perhaps the ending of the scene before this one?

One handy piece of advice is to see what you can do to make things worse for your character. It will not only perk up reader interest, it might suggest to you new directions for the story.

What's the Character's Reaction to Conflict and Change?

Going a step further from just adding conflict and change to the story, show the character's emotional and physical reactions to that conflict and change.

Emotional reactions draw the reader deeper into the character's personality and also make the reader more invested in the character. Also, the character's reaction may take the story in a new, unexpected direction.

While these three questions to ask may not solve all cases of writer's block, it might spark new directions for your story or your character that may get you over that hump. Keep writing—perseverance always wins over writer's block.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Avoid the Sagging Middle

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Avoid the Sagging Middle

Tips to Write a Dynamic Center Segment of a Novel

Here are a few principles to help a writer avoid a stagnant or slow-paced middle section of a novel.

The focus of the middle of the novel is to push your character to the climax. If writers can keep that point in mind, it will help them craft the events of the middle section to be more driven and purposeful. Here are a few principles to write by.

Strive For Constant Change

Obstacles force the character to adjust his plans toward his external goal.

Faced with each obstacle, the character has to decide what to do next. He makes adjustments, still with that external goal in sight.

Then, another obstacle. More adjustment, more decisions. More striving toward his external goal, but via a different path.

Then another obstacle.

This is the ideal pattern for the middle portion of the book. It provides constant change for the character, which also keeps the reader reading.

Give the Character More Information In Small Pieces

With each obstacle, impart more information to the character. This keeps the reader reading because he wants to know more, he wants to find out what's happening along with the character.

The best part is that each piece of information itself causes change within the character—maybe altering perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs. This constant internal change in the character as the story goes along also helps the middle section flow smoothly, with a good reading pace.

Focus on the Character's External Goal

Everything you include in the novel should relate to the character's external goal. It might be better to leave out anything that doesn't affect her goal. You may think of intriguing tangential paths to lead the characters down, but if those paths don't lead back to the main story and external goal, consider leaving them out and putting them in a different novel.

This isn't a hard and fast rule, but one thing you definitely want to avoid is any scene where the only purpose of the scene is to show character development. Combine character development with other things that have to do with the plot of the story, so that the scene accomplishes several things at once.

There also may be scenes you don't want to write, but if the events have a major impact on the characters, don't have them happen offstage—bring your reader along for the emotional ride.

Don't Be Repetitious

Each scene should add something different and new to the story. The same two characters rehashing the same old argument is boring.

Include new information. New elements. The unexpected. New twists.

The purpose your middle is to build toward the climax. Don't let your characters hike around and around the mountain. Make them climb. Make them work hard. Build the tension and conflict toward that climactic moment.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Beginnings To Avoid

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Beginnings To Avoid

Three Things That Weaken a Story Opening

There are three aspects of a character's actions and decisions that can weaken the first chapters of an otherwise good story.

There are many ways to start a story, and no "right" or "wrong" way. However, there are a few principles to follow that can help strengthen a novel's beginning. Here are three character traits that a writer should avoid in the first chapters.

The Character Doesn't Decide to Fight.

The phrase, coined by Dwight Swain, means that the character doesn't make that Decision which starts the story.

If a character doesn't commit himself to his external goal:

1) the character seems passive, which makes him unsympathetic to the reader.

2) the beginning seems to drag, which might lose reader interest.

3) the reader has no reason commit to the story if the character isn't committed himself.

Starting With a Subplot Unrelated to the Main Plot

Sometimes, writers will start the story with a subplot scene that is more intriguing than a main plot scene. Dozens of James Bond movies start this way, with a chase scene.

However, if the subplot scene has no relation to the main plot, it will frustrate the reader. A writer needs to establish the relationship between the subplot scene and the main plot as early as possible.

For example, in The World is Not Enough, a man is assassinated and the movie opens with James Bond chasing the assassin (subplot scene). Afterward, he discovers that the assassin was hired by Renard, who is after the daughter of the dead man. Bond commits to protecting her and killing Renard (main plot). The movie establishes early on that even though the chase scene was a peripheral—but very exciting—event, it tied into the main plot of finding Renard.

If the opening subplot scene is not tied into the main plot quickly, the reader might feel betrayed that one or more characters who open the story are not important. For example, if the man killed at the start of the chase scene had absolutely nothing to do with Bond's assignment of protecting Elektra King, it would make for a more dissonant movie for the audience, who had become emotionally involved in the assassin and why she killed the man.

The Character Doesn't Care

If the character's external goal changes later, it looks as if the character doesn't care about what's happening, resulting in a confused, diffuse story that is unsatisfying to the reader.

Make the character's Decision happen in relation to the main plot quickly so the reader knows what the character cares about for the book.

If the character doesn't care, the reader won't. If the character takes too long to make that Decision and show what he cares about, the reader may not make it to that page and will have closed the book long before then.

If the subplot is more trivial, it's harder for the character—and the reader—to care about it, which is why you want to show the character committing to a Decision about the main plot quickly. Transient or mutable desires, goals that change, or inconsequential desires that open a story make for a weaker character if he is sidetracked by these things rather than committing to a main plot goal.

In general, a character with a strong desire and motivation for his goal and actions makes for a more psychologically resonant character for the reader. And that will result in a book the reader won't be able to put down.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Q&A: Fictional settings

From Teri D. Smith:

How much liberty are we allowed in creating a new place in our settings? I have a 3rd book of a series set in a town in California. My opening scene takes place in a park, but I can't find a park in the town that's like the one in my head. Can I make one up entirely or can I use an existing park and "plant" some trees or a place for an outdoor concert?

Camy here: It's fiction. The sky's the limit! Create new places with impunity!

Now, since you're using a real town, don't call your fictional park the same name as a real park in the town. Make up a name so your readers—if they're familiar with the real California town the book is set in—won't get jarred out of the "fictional dream" of the novel to say, "Hey, that's not in XYZ park. This person didn't do her research!"

If your setting—whether a house, park, building, or entire city—is fictional, make it obvious to your readers that it's fictional. Don't name it something too similar to what really exists.

If your setting is a real place, be meticulous with your research. There are people who live or have visited that real place, and if they spot inconsistencies or errors, they'll be knocked out of the story. And you want to keep them reading, not make them wonder if the town square really has a statue of General Jackson or if it's really President Lincoln.

This is especially true if you're writing a historical novel. If your town/place is fictional, make it obvious it's made up. If it's real, be exact on details. Historical readers, especially, pick up on that kind of stuff.

Also, don't forget that your setting should be a character in the book, not just a backdrop. When you integrate the setting into the storyline—so much so that the story couldn't take place anywhere else in the world—it makes for more vibrant reading.

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Decision That Starts the Story

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Decision That Starts the Story

Knowing How and Where to Begin Your Novel

Start your story in such a way that the reader has to buy the book to keep reading.

The beginning of a book is where the writer hooks the reader and reels him in. The opening page makes the reader keep reading, and then the end of the chapter is what gets him to buy the book.

While that opening page is key, so is the end of that chapter.

Avoid Long, Dragging Beginnings

A long beginning will sometimes deter a reader browsing in the bookstore because the beginning may be indicative of the entire book. The reader wants to know what the book will be about, what it will be like, and they don't have hours in front of the bookshelf. They will want to know quickly.

Therefore, as a writer, start as you mean to go on.

Create the same climate in the beginning as you do for the entire book. Most importantly, don't make the beginning drag on for too long. Keep your reader's attention. If it picks up later in the novel, don't make the reader sift through a long opening to get to the good stuff. Trim that opening and put that good stuff up front.

End the Beginning With a Character Decision

One of the most effective ways to lock in the reader's interest is with a strong character decision at the end of the beginning.

This might be the end of the first chapter, but if it isn't, then make sure that first chapter ends on an exciting hook to keep the reader reading to the decision moment.

This Decision signals the character committing himself to the rest of the story. It signals to the reader the "start of the journey." The character is moving forward rather than retreating or avoiding or stalling, and the reader is pulled along with that character for the rest of the book.

According to Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer:

The thing that hooks your reader, in the opening, is curiosity.

The thing that holds him the rest of the way, straight through to the final paragraph, is suspense.

The opening pages create that curiosity. The reader—like the character—is not yet committed to the book.

But that Decision creates suspense. The Decision signals where the story will be leading—according to Swain, "a fight"—which grabs the reader and commits him to buy the book so he can keep reading.

Indicate the Threat

The Decision has the most emotional impact on the reader if you also hint at the threat to the character's journey.

It's usually best to establish that threat before the character makes the decision, so that he chooses to commit to the story goal in the face of opposition. This not only creates reader sympathy for a resolute, brave character, but this also heightens suspense.

Will the character succeed or not? How will he battle the opposition?

This threat does not need to be guns and explosions. In a women's fiction, it could be family friction or a devastating secret. In a comedy, it could be a conniving coworker or a whining friend.

Regardless, the threat—or at least the hint of a threat—makes for riveting reading. That browser in the bookstore will reach the Decision, realize he has read the entire chapter, and go up front to buy your book.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Promotion Routines for Writers

I'm over at Routines for Writers today talking about Promotion! And before you click away, I want to stress that it's never too early to think about promotion!

Hi there! My name is Camy Tang, and I'm thrilled to be guest blogging today!

Now, before you look at the title and think it doesn't apply to you, let me tell you—I firmly believe that it's never too early to start promotion, especially if you are a serious writer, seriously pursuing publication.

Your book contract might come next week or next year or in a few years, but if you already have your promotion and marketing set up, you're a leg ahead of all the other writers submitting to agents and editors. Yes, they look to see what you already have set up in terms of marketing!

Click here for the rest of the article
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