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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

Friday, August 14, 2009

Q&A: Planning a series

From Sarah Forgrave:

- I've got a series idea that would follow a family with three daughters and a basic storyline for each. I'm a plotter and planner, so I'm wondering if you recommend planning out all three or four stories at once so they're intertwined? Do you have any other tips on how to approach a series?

Camy here: It depends on the storylines you're thinking of.

If you'd like each story to stand on its own (which most of my editors have wanted, but may not necessarily be true for your editors), then my suggestion is to spend time really developing each character so that you know their fears, desires, wounds, etc.

The characters' actual storylines for their novels might end up changing as you write each story, also, so this is a safe route to go--you have a good handle on the characters, but you're leaving yourself some wiggle room in terms of their stories.

If you're thinking that you'd like the stories to be strongly intertwined, then you not only have to do the character planning above, but you should also plot out each story in the series.

Figure out each characters' external goals for their stories. That way each character will have a sense of purpose for their story versus just be reactive to events.

Use a large board to plot how elements in one story intertwine with elements in another story. Map it all out so that you won't write yourself into a corner or unintentionally leave threads dangling.

This second method is considerably more work. You also run the risk that if an editor doesn't like the series premise or one of the characters, your entire series is rejected, not just one book. In this case, perseverance needs to be your best friend.

If you have a series where each book stands alone, you have a better chance because an editor may ask for revisions to the proposal before giving a definitive yes or no on the project.

For my current book, Deadly Intent, I did extensive planning of each of the three sisters' personalities before I wrote the first book. I did this so that I could know how each sister would respond and react to each other, to show the family dynamics. Those of you who have read the book will know I did some foreshadowing in terms of Monica's relationship with her father.

I also did some light planning in terms of the "crime" for each of the books, since they'll all be romantic suspenses. I deliberately chose Sonoma, California and a posh spa environment because there are three elements that are conducive to murder and mayhem:

1) Sonoma is a tourist city, so there is a lot of traffic in and out. The large number of people flowing in and out makes for a believable storyline where someone would come in and murder someone or be murdered.

2) The spa caters to the wealthy, making it a hotbed of people who might have a reason for someone to want to kill them. Also, the spa's services are in high demand, making the spa itself a possible target for competitors.

3) The Grant family is wealthy themselves, which makes the family a target for enemies who are jealous or hoards of potential suitors who want to marry into that wealth.

When you do your own series, think large-scale, solidifying motivations and conflicts. The planning stage is not the place for detailed thinking. Be visionary and look at your series as a whole.

(As a shameless plug, one thing I do in my phone consultations is help people to better visualize their series ideas so that they can plan effectively. Some people have a hard time seeing large-scale, so I can listen to their series ideas and character ideas and help them organize and plot.)

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 12, 2009

More Tips for How to Present Backstory

This article originally appeared on Suite101.

Additional Tricks to Make a Character’s Past History Compelling

Here are some more subtle ways to present exposition without obviously telling the reader.

The previous article on backstory mentioned this:

The key to presenting backstory in a way that is interesting to a reader boils down to one piece of advice: Make the reader want to know the information.

Aside from the points in that article, there are also some other more subtle ways to accomplish this.

Connect Information to Action

This is a case of using both "showing" and "telling" in order to present backstory.

The writer can first "show," in action, a character's personality, trait, or proclivity. For example, show Joe's strange aversion to the barn in a few short paragraphs of action and dialogue.

This action will trigger an emotional reaction in the reader. Make the reader feel Joe's fear and dread as he stares into the dark barn doorway.

This emotional reaction will, in turn, stimulate to reader to want to know more about the character. He will wonder why Joe, a farmer's son, wants to avoid the barn.

At that point, the reader will be dying to know a bit about the character's backstory, which can be "told" in narrative or dialogue.

However, don't dump all the info at once. It's usually more effective to dole the backstory out in bits and pieces to keep the reader wanting more.

Make the Character Notice Details

If the character notices certain details or events that a normal person would not notice, this enables the reader to notice the same highlighted details and events.

This form of "showing" points out things that will nudge the reader to understand hints of backstory.

For example, Sally notices a Joe flinching when he looks at the barn. Sally noticing Joe's reaction makes the reader notice Joe's reaction. It creates curiosity—what's up with the barn? The reader is enticed to understand more. Sally might ask Patricia about Joe and the barn, which would enable the reader to find out, too.

Utilize Point of View to Increase Emotion

If a scene is written from a point of view character who responds emotionally and viscerally to a stimulus, it increases the emotional intensity of the scene. The reader becomes more emotionally involved with the character.

In the example above with Joe, you can write it so that the reader really feels and experiences Joe's fear and dread, maybe reads snatches of panicked thought. It emotionally involves the reader in Joe's backstory, making the reader need to know about the barn.

Make Characters Reticent

Don't have a character talk about something already known to the other character, or which the character wouldn't normally talk about. This is "telling" the reader information in the guise of stilted dialogue.

Joe would not walk past the barn and mention to Sally, "I think my father killed my mother in the barn, and I've been so afraid of it that I haven't been able to walk inside ever since." Dialogue like this can be too obvious, and loose-lipped characters are not always likable.

Joe would also not tell his brother, "As you know, our mother disappeared years ago and I have told you before that I always thought our father killed her in the barn." Again, too obvious and rather silly-sounding.

People are naturally a bit reticent—so make your characters that way, too. As a writer, be stingy in how you dole out information. It will create mystery for the story and curiosity in your reader, who will keep reading to find out more.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Q&A: Market research

From Sarah Forgrave:

- Do you have any market research tips (i.e., What are some of the ways you check to see if your story has been done before or what books might be similar to your idea)?

Camy here: Great question! Before I do every proposal, I check to make sure my story hasn't been done before. Often, I check this even before I write the story.

First I make a list about my story:
(1) Genre
(2) Character careers
(3) Villain career/type
(4) Overall theme/plot premise
(5) Setting
(6) Targeted publisher/line

Then I go online to Amazon or (since I write Christian fiction, is a smaller, easier database to search) and search for books similar to mine.

I will usually start with the publisher or line I'm targeting and search within that parameter for all the other things. For example, for my Steeple Hill novel, I searched within all the Love Inspired Suspense books on Amazon for any novels recently published in my chosen setting, Sonoma, California.

Since none of us has a money tree growing in the backyard, be thoughtful and pick several books to read from that publisher or line. I won't usually read all the books from that publisher. I just can't afford it. But I will choose books that sound like they might be similar to mine and I'll read them.

An exception is for the Steeple Hill books. They're very inexpensive and I got a bunch of them on ebay for a dollar a book. I also wanted to read all the books most recently published because I needed to get a feel for the line and the style of writing.

When you do market research for a proposal, you're not only looking at the obvious factors like not publishing characters too similar or a plot premise too close to what's already been released.

You're also looking to see if your writing style AND your plot premise/genre fits within that publisher's lineup.

You want to make sure your writing style fits with books already published. For example, if you write angsty contemporary romances that dabble in women's fiction, you don't want to submit to Steeple Hill because their romances are all light and positive. They do it that way on purpose to appeal to their reader demographic, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

You also don't want to propose a plot premise or genre that is too far out from what the publisher normally publishes. For example, you don't want to propose a chick lit to Steeple Hill because if you read the line, you'll see that they haven't published any chick lit in over a year.

So what if you discover your targeted publisher isn't a good fit? Then you research OTHER publishers to find a good fit for your story! Another option is to tweak your story to fit within your targeted publisher's lineup.

Either way, your time spent researching is just as valuable as writing that 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.

Friday, August 07, 2009

My Five Best Plotting Tips for Novelists

I guest blogged about plotting on the blog of my friend Pamela James:

My Five Best Plotting Tips for Novelists

Thanks to Pammer for letting me guest blog today!

Now, just to warn you, not all of these will resonate with you because every writer is different and works differently in how he/she crafts the story. For me, sometimes every story writes itself differently! Oy! But hopefully these tips will help you if you get stuck.

Click here for the rest of the article

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"Is it easier to write suspense because of the built-in conflict of a villain?"

I was over at Life with Missy:

I’m so excited to be on Missy’s blog today! Missy asked me to answer the question, "Is it easier to write suspense because of the built-in conflict of a villain?"

Actually, the presence of a villain in romantic suspense makes it a bit harder to write. Suspense villains tend to have very strong motivations for the evil and mayhem they’re causing, but that also means I have to make sure that their every action and decision is logical and works toward their ultimate desire.

Click here for the rest of the article

Monday, August 03, 2009

Crossing Over

I'm over at Seekerville today talking about crossover!

A few people have asked me about when I first switched genres. I learned a few things along the way, and there's also something very important I realized—whether you're a Christian fiction writer who wants to cross over to mainstream or a contemporary romance writer wanting to cross over into romantic suspense, there are a few things a writer should do to give you a better chance of success.

Click here for the rest of the post and to chime in to the conversation!
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