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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).


or

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

Now that was strange. (thought)


Or

"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!
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